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Earthdate 2003-06-02

8.  Julian's youth and education  by the Rev. T. M. Lindsay, D.D., LL.D.

At the death of Constantine his nephew, Flavius Claudius Julianus, was six years old.  The child escaped, almost by accident, the massacre of his family connived at if not ordered by Constantius.  He lived for more than twenty years in constant peril, in the power of that suspicious cousin who scarcely knew whether he wished to slay or to spare him.  He was kept secluded, now in one or other of the great cities of the East, for long in a palace far from the haunts of men, solacing himself with hard uninterrupted studies.  Then for seven brief years he startled the Roman world by his meteor-like career, and died from wounds received in battle against the Persians at the age of thirty-two.  Two things about him filled the imagination of his contemporaries and have drawn the attention of succeeding generations: that he a recluse, suddenly snatched from his loved studies in poetry and philosophy, proved himself all at once not merely an intrepid soldier but a skilful general, and a born leader of men; and that he, a baptised Christian, who had actually been accustomed to read the lessons at public worship, threw off like a mask the Christianity he had professed and spent the last years of his short life in a feverish attempt to restore the old and expiring paganism.  It is this last fact that made him the object of undying hate and unconquerable love to his contemporaries, and still excites the interest of mankind.

His own writings which have survived make it plain that from his earliest years he looked at Christianity and Christians through the blood-red mist of the massacre of his relations — father, brother, uncles, cousins.  His education did little to remove the impression.  The lonely imaginative, lovable child had never known his mother's care, but he inherited her fondness for Homer, Hesiod, and the masters of Greek poetry.  Mardonius, who had been his mother's tutor, was his also, and the boy went through the same course of study.  The tutor was passionately fond of Greek literature and especially of Homer, and he imbued mother and son with his own tastes.  For the rest he was something of a martinet.  The young Julian had the strictest moral training and never forgot those early lessons.  He was taught to be temperate and self-restrained; to look with dislike on pantomimes, races, and the other more or less licentious amusements of the populace.  His tutor made him read in Plato, Aristotle, Theophrastus and other pagan moralists, and was unwearied in enforcing pure living after these examples of antiquity.  Julian was all his life a puritan pagan, and this puritanism of his was perhaps his greatest obstacle in accomplishing the task to which he subsequently dedicated himself.  He never entered a theatre save when he was commanded to do so by the Emperor, and was seldom on a race-course in his life.  He was naturally a dreamy, sensitive child, full of yearning fancies, which he kept to himself.  He tells us that from early boyhood he felt a strange elevation of soul when he watched the sun and saw it dispensing light and heat; that he worshipped the stars and understood their whispered thoughts.  He was filled with enthusiasm for everything Greek and the very word Hellas sent a thrill through him when he pronounced it.  Seven years were spent under the care of the kindly, stern preceptor, and the impress they made was lasting.

In 344 Constantius suddenly sent Julian into obscurity.  His elder brother, Gallus, who had escaped the massacre of 337 because he was so sickly that he was not expected to live, accompanied him.  They were sent to Macellum, a palace in a remote part of Cappadocia — splendid enough with its baths, its springs and its gardens, but which Julian looked upon as a prison.  There he was supplied with teachers in abundance, Christian clergy who were supposed to teach the faith to the young princes, and from whose instructions Julian doubtless acquired that superficial knowledge of the Scriptures he afterwards shewed that he possessed.  Books were granted him, and he seems to have been permitted to send to Alexandria for what Greek literature he desired.  He mentions specially volumes from the library of Bishop George because, along with many treatises on Christianity for which he did not care, they included the writings of philosophers and rhetoricians.  But he bitterly complained that neither he nor his brother were allowed to see any suitable companions, and he believed that all their attendants were imperial spies.  The boy, reserved before, shrank further into himself.  Outwardly he was a pattern of devotion.  He received Christian instruction; was taught the “evidences of Christianity” and used the knowledge later to expose its weaknesses; was trained to give alms, to observe fasts, to venerate the shrines of saints to the extent of aiding to build them with his own hands; and occasionally to officiate as reader at public worship.  Privately he fed his mind on the lessons of Mardonius and studied such books of philosophy and rhetoric as he could command.  Ammianus Marcellinus, who knew him well, says that from his early years he felt attracted to the worship of the gods.

After six years in the gilded prison of Macellum the brothers were summoned to Constantinople — Gallus to be made Caesar or Vice-Emperor, to misgovern frightfully the province entrusted to his care, and in consequence to meet a not undeserved death, though to his brother it was another crime to be charged against Constantius, a Christian and the murderer of kinsmen; Julian to meet soon the supreme moment of his religious life.  He was set at first to pursue his studies in the capital city and the scholar appointed to take charge of him was Hecebolius, the fourth century Vicar of Bray, whose religion was always that of the reigning Emperor.  But too many admiring eyes followed the princely student, and Constantius ordered him to Nicomedia, the centre of the cultured paganism of the East and the home of its acknowledged leader, the great rhetorician Libanius.  Julian had promised not to attend the lectures of Libanius; he kept his pledge in the letter and broke it in the spirit.  He got notes written out for him and pored over them day and night.  But more important than all lectures was the intercourse with men such as he had never met before.  At Nicomedia, Julian first came in touch with those for whom the old gods were living, who had the gift of “seers,” to whom prophecies and prodigies were matters of fact.  He saw and conversed with men who “had easy access to the ears of the gods,” who could “command winds, waves and earthquakes.”  He knew Aedesius who was said to receive oracles from the deities by night, and whose wife Sosipatra had “lived from girlhood amid prodigies of all kinds.”  He was told of the wonderful séances presided over by Maximus and of the marvels which occurred at them.  This Maximus was one of the most celebrated theurgies or “mediums” of fourth century Neoplatonism.  His favourite occupation, he said, was to live in constant communion with the gods.  He had long white hair, brilliant magnetic eyes, and his disciples boasted that his influence was irresistible over all those with whom he came in contact.  Eusebius of Myndus, also a Neoplatonist, told Julian of his powers.  “He made a number of us descend into the temple of Hecate.  There he saluted the goddess.  Then he said:  ‘Be seated, friends, see what happens, then judge whether I am not superior to most men.’  We all sat down.  He burnt a grain of incense and chanted a whole hymn in a low voice.  The statue began to smile, then to laugh.  We were afraid at the sight.  ‘Do not be alarmed,’ he said, ‘you will see that the lamps which the goddess holds in her hands will light of themselves.’  As he spoke the light streamed from the lamps.”  Julian eagerly begged to be introduced to the man who was so powerful with the gods, and Maximus was even more ready to gain one who stood so near the Imperial throne.  No accounts survive of the spiritualistic séances at which he assisted; but their effect on the nervous, sensitive young man was irresistible.  Maximus converted him heart and soul to the new paganism and was the confidential adviser of Julian from that time onwards.  The young man entered into a new life.  The religion which Homer and Hesiod had sung, which Plato and Aristotle had speculated upon, which he had known as a student from books, became all at once living to him.  His day-dreams of the past vanished, or rather changed into an actual present.  The passion for Greece which had gradually grown to be the ruling force in his character had now the support of every-day experience.  The gods sung by the old Greek poets, and many a passionate Oriental deity unknown to them, could be seen and their presence felt.  He could himself have communion with them through mysterious rites of divination.  They had created the noblest thing on earth, Greek civilisation; they were even now moulding and controlling events; they could give courage and inspiration to their votaries.  From his sojourn at Nicomedia onwards, Julian believed that all his actions were determined by divine voices which he heard and obeyed.  This natural religion was not the crude polytheism his Christian teachers had said.  Hellenism had made it a unity.  A great First Cause, the Father and King of all men, had parcelled out the lands and peoples among the deities, His viceroys.  They were the real rulers of provinces and cities and governed them according to their natural habits and dispositions.  What was Christianity when compared with this ancient and universal worship, supported by the wealth of civilisation which had come down from the past?  It was a cult of barbarian origin, born in an obscure province, ignorant of Hellenic culture, its very Scriptures written in a barbarous Greek offensive to the ears of educated men.  Was Greece to abdicate in favour of Galilee?  Perish the thought!  So Julian believed, and longed to steep himself in Hellenism at its purest source — the Schools at Athens.

He gained his wish through the sisterly kindness of the Empress Eusebia.  At Athens, as at all the schools of higher learning, the majority of the teachers were pagans, and Julian with more than his usual eagerness devoted himself to their lectures and to all the benefits of the place.  “He was continually seen surrounded by crowds of youths, old men, philosophers and rhetoricians.”  Outwardly he was still a Christian, for his life depended on his conformity to the Imperial creed; but inwardly he had consecrated himself heart and soul to paganism, had already become conscious that he had a divine mission, and that he was a favourite of the gods.  The double life he had to live, the knowledge that he was surrounded by spies ready to report anything compromising to his Imperial cousin, must have acted upon his naturally nervous and emotional temperament and betrayed itself in many outward ways.  His portrait drawn by a fellow-student, Gregory of Nazianzus, though the work of an enemy, needs only a little toning down — twitching shoulders, eyes glancing from side to side, something conceited in nostrils and face, feet that were never still, hasty laugh, sentences begun and never finished, irrelevant answers.  Julian had more to do at Athens than study philosophy; he had to penetrate to the centre of Greek religion.  He was secretly initiated into the ancient mysteries of Eleusis; and there are hints of other initiations either there or afterwards — of the worship of Mithras, of the purifying rite of the taurobolium.



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