Book Review

by Gore Vidal

Publisher:  Ballantine
ISBN:  0345329082

Reminiscent of Robert Grave's Claudius books, Gore Vidal's imperial memoirs, Julian, is a well-researched, informative, and engaging piece of historical fiction about the nephew of the Emperor Constantine, best known for converting Rome to Christianity. Julian, more familiar with his epithet, the Apostate, tried to stem the tide of monotheism once he came to power, but his term in office was too short to effect any lasting change.

Before he came to power, the pose of an intellectual would-be cleric probably saved him from political assassination. Julian's early life was that of a prince with all that entails; including close supervision, limited access to people besides his brother, and strict regulation of behavior. In addition to these, the ordinary shackles of royalty, the policies of Julian's cousin, the reigning emperor, Constantius, included judicious murder of anyone who threatened his supremacy. Having first witnessed his father's murder and then his brother's, Julian had reason to be wary of his cousin. Seeking the life of a bearded philosopher, Julian hoped to escape his cousin's notice. But Constantius needed him to act as puppet head of Gaul and so Julian was dragged away from his dialogues and books, given Constantius' sister to wed, and sent away from the intellectual centers of the empire.

Julian quickly rejected the role of puppet, and since he had a military knack he soon had the command and respect of the local forces. When Constantius ordered them elsewhere, they revolted, proclaiming Julian emperor. Luck was with him when the sudden death of Constantius precluded an otherwise inevitable civil war.

Just as he took well to the position of imperial underling in Gaul, so he quickly learned to rule, before turning his attention to reviving Paganism and subduing the Christians, whom he dismissively calls Gallileans. War with Persia continued giving him an opportunity to shine by flexing his military muscle, until he was felled by a weapon that, according to Gore Vidal, belonged to one of his own men.

Interjected into the memoirs are the notes of two contemporaries who show other sides of the story and interspersed in Julian's narrative are humorous bits of social commentary only superficially about the times:

"In every city there is a special class whose only apparent function is to gather in public places and look at famous men.... An elephant would have pleased them most, but since there was no elephant, the mysterious Prince Julian would have to do."
Putting himself into the narrator's persona for a moment, Vidal writes:
"One of the faults of most historians is that they take too much for granted. They assume that the reader must know; therefore, they tell only the uncommon can see the author hovering on the verge of explaining some important fact and then shying away out of fear of dullness."
Obviously Vidal took great care here -- an excellent bibliography is given in an appendix. While enlightening, this biography of Julian is anything but dull.

N.S. Gill, your Guide for Ancient/Classical History