I love reading books. That’s why this site features entries from my video book club, essay-based book club, as well as reviews of individual books. Sometimes, though, I can’t get around to a full fledged review, or the book requires only a few paragraphs of commentary. In those cases, I used to publish mini-reviews on Amazon. But since I’ve started boycotting the company (because of their awful labor practices, destructive near-monopoly, and willful avoidance of taxes), I decided to move this practice to my blog. So here we go with the latest entry.
Julian, by Gore Vidal, is a wonderfully engaging historical novel about the last pagan Roman emperor, known to posterity – because of Christian hostility – as “the Apostate.” Julian was the nephew of Constantine I, the emperor that decided both to yield to Christianity and make it the state’s religion, and to move the capital from Rome to Byzantium, which he of course renamed Constantinople. Julian attempted to stem the rising tide of Christianity, not by banning it or by persecuting Christians, but rather by encouraging the ancient pagan rites and by stripping Christian authorities of their special privileges (as well as of a lot of temples they had been appropriated for their purposes).
Julian was also one of the few examples of philosopher-kings, and indeed consciously styled himself, in part, after Marcus Aurelius. While the latter embraced Stoicism, Julian was attracted to Neoplatonism. He was particularly influenced by the Syrian Neoplatonist Iamblichus, as well as by the mystic Maximus of Ephesus.
Julian rose to power rather unexpectedly, after having won surprising battles against the Germanic tribes in Gaul, and when his rival (and cousin) Constantius II suddenly died of fever. Julian immediately set out to implement a wide range of anti-corruption reforms throughout the empire, but his work was cut short by his death in battle during an expedition in Persia. He was possibly killed in action by one of his own, a Christian, though there is no hard evidence of that being the case.
Vidal’s novel spectacularly succeeds in giving the reader a glimpse of both the man and his time, achieving an excellent balancing act of being sympathetic to Julian while at the same time not indulging in hero worship. Vidal also uses the novel as a vehicle – through Julian – for a harsh criticism of Christianity, its origins, its doctrines, and its modus operandi. A real pleasure to read.