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Review of Adrian Murdoch's The Last Pagan

The Last Pagan: Julian the Apostate and the Death of the Ancient World

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The Last Pagan: Julian the Apostate and the Death of the Ancient World

The Last Pagan: Julian the Apostate and the Death of the Ancient World

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In The Last Pagan: Julian the Apostate and the Death of the Ancient World, historian and journalist Adrian Murdoch explores the other late Roman emperor everyone should know, Flavius Claudius Julianus (332-363). The number one emperor, Julian's uncle Constantine the Great, is familiar for legalizing Christianity in the Roman Empire, establishing Constantinople as an imperial capital city, and his aloof, superhuman portraiture. Julian is almost as famous for failing to reverse the religious tide. So much most people know, but Murdoch shows Julian's philosopher-scholar, reformer, and military leader dimensions, as well.

With over 700 pages of letters, speeches, philosophy, and a satire, as well as his laws recorded in the fifth century by Theodosius II, we have more material from Julian himself than from any other Roman ruler, Murdoch says. This and the mystery surrounding his death make him a perennially popular subject.

Julian has been a popular topic in writing and the arts ever since his successor, Emperor Jovian, wrote an epitaph tying Julian to Agamemnon and Alexander the Great:

Here lies Julian who fell by the strong-flowing Tigris.
He was a good king and a mighty warrior.
Once Christianity took irreversible hold, Julian became a symbol of what happens to its opponents. Julian's evil image only began to give way in the 16th century, but then he became a symbolic pawn in the Reformation clash between Roman Catholics and Protestants. Voltaire and Gibbon rehabbed the emperor and in the 20th century, Gore Vidal presented a very sympathetic "Christian mythic gone wrong" Julian. Murdoch outlines the ever-changing picture of Julian in his epilogue and concludes with what The Last Pagan capably demonstrates, that Julian was a real person.

After putting Julian in context in his introductory chapters, Murdoch explores Julian's life. At first, too young to be much of a worry in the bloodbath that followed the death of Constantine, Julian studied -- mostly philosophy. Eventually all other obvious threats to Constantine's son Constantius were eliminated and Julian was needed in a subordinate military role. Julian's European troops elevated him to emperor. Before Constantius had a chance to deal with his usurping cousin, the rightful emperor fortuitously died -- but not before he took a page out of his father's religious book and had himself baptized on his deathbed. With Constantius gone, Julian was free to act as emperor and dropped the pretense of being Christian.

Next, Murdoch describes Julian's job as emperor. Julian, who was the first emperor to have been born in Constantinople, entered the city of his birth and set straight the mess his usurpation and cousin's death had created. Julian, who is well-known for his asceticism, tried to streamline the palace. He also worked on defense and pay issues. He improved the imperial courier service. When he claimed to be as subject to the law as the next person, his subjects scoffed.

Julian then set out to visit earthquake-stricken Nicomedia and then on to Antioch. Antioch, where the term "Catholic Church" was first used, was already decidedly Christian and hostile to Julian. An amateur assassination plot was uncovered. Julian mismanaged a food crisis, which made his stay even more difficult. In was in Antioch that Julian vented his spleen by writing his satire.

The next stage in Julian's short reign got him out of Antioch. He continued Constantius' frontier policy by invading the Persian Empire. A map at the front of the book allows the reader to follow along with the details of the progress and fighting. Julian's invasion had had mixed success, but Julian's death without a named successor forced the Romans to retreat and lose Julian's gains.

Julian's death is a mystery, but Murdoch analyzes the clues and arrives at what seems a very plausible interpretation. There are certain known facts. Julian was not wearing a breastplate. There were no guards beside him. He was on a horse. He was killed by a two-sided spear or lance that ultimately lodged in his abdomen. Beyond these facts lies speculation. Neither Romans nor Persians knew who the mysterious spearman was. The Roman army was distraught at the loss of their popular leader whose death was too banal -- the result of peritonitis, according to Murdoch -- and unable to speak those famed words about the victory of the Galilean (Christ). Julian needed a more glorious end, and so the rumors started.

Julian's staying alive long enough to become emperor has been well-described before. Especially revealing of the philosophy-loving ascetic Julian is the fictional account by Gore Vidal (1964). Murdoch's biography is, of course, non-fiction, but the picture is similar, the sources are the same, and Murdoch even draws in his historically trained insights to areas where the details are in short supply. A 21st century work, The Last Pagan makes allusions to more modern history and contemporary culture, without padding the tale. Occasionally Murdoch teaches trivia and makes you think:

Ctesiphon sits on the east bank of the Tigris, faced by Coche, much in the same way that Buda and Pest face each other across the Danube. (Who knew?)
Murdoch falls firmly within the group of pleasing-to-read, information-packing writers about complex subjects.
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