Julian the Apostate: Death

The Persians launched a surprise assault on the Romans, including in their own force a detachment of Indian elephants. Julian himself rode into the battle, carrying nothing but a sword and shield, wearing no armor. Sometimes this has been interpreted as overconfidence or contempt for the Persians; more likely Julian was simply caught up in the heat of the moment as he tried to rally his beleaguered troops. There is also a tradition, preserved especially by Gregory of Nazianzus, that Julian was looking for death.

Whatever the explanation, Julian’s refusal to don his armor was a fatal misjudgment. He was stabbed with a spear (apparently a kontos - heavy cavalry lance), the weapon piercing his side and rupturing his intestines. Julian was carried away from the battle, and was examined by his personal physician, Oribasius. Initially it looked as though the Emperor would survive, but late in the evening the wound began to bleed profusely, and Julian died.

Several legends surround the death of Julian. Ammianus tells us that he knew he was dying, but, a philosopher to the end, gave a discourse to his attendants. Another, almost certainly bogus tradition claims that Julian’s last words were ‘you have won, Galilean!’ This was, of course, a reference to Jesus Christ, and his belief that the hopes of Greco-Roman paganism would die with him.

Controversy surrounded the issue of just who killed Julian. Theories abounded almost from the moment the Emperor died - possibly suspects included a Persian horseman, a 'Saracen’ auxiliary in either Roman or Persian service, or a Roman legionary who was disgusted with the retreat from Ctesiphon, or with Julian’s paganism. Ammianus largely avoids the issue, whereas Libanius describes the murderer as a Taienos, a Greco-Syrian word denoting an Arab. The church historian Philostorgius blames a 'Saracen’ lancer in the Persian army, who was vengefully cut down by Julian’s companions immediately after striking the blow.

The question of who killed Julian - and why he fought unarmored in the first place - will remain one of history’s mysteries. What cannot be denied, is that Julian made the last great, and ultimately doomed, effort to redeem pre-Christian classical religion and philosophy.

Some 4th century pagan festivals in Libanius

Some 4th century pagan festivals in Libanius

Reading through the Literary Reminiscences of the ill-fated E.H. Barker, I find a short list of the works of Thomas Taylor, the 18th century translator known as the “English Platonist”.  Snobbery forbade his recognition in England, but his work was rated higher on the continent.  The list begins with some biographical details, for Barker knew him. It is a mighty list, here, but also a useful…

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A list of translations of the Orations of Libanius, at Antiochepedia

A list of translations of the Orations of Libanius, at Antiochepedia

Libanius lived in 4th century Antioch, and he knew everyone who was anyone.  His very voluminous works have not received much attention from translators.  This is probably because his works are rather dull.  Nevertheless they contain valuable data on late antique culture.  But even finding what translations exist can be a challenge. A useful item, this, at the Antiochepedia website: Listing of…

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Saint John Chrysostom
Feast Day: January 27
(Latin Calendar)

“In the matter of piety, poverty serves us better than wealth, and work better than idleness, especially since wealth becomes an obstacle even for those who do not devote themselves to it…”

Saint John Chrysostom (347-407) was born in Antioch of noble parents; his father was a high-ranking military officer. His father died soon after his birth and so he was brought up by his mother Anthusa. He was baptized in 370 and tonsured a reader (one of the minor orders of the Church). He began his education under a pagan teacher named Libanius, but went on to study theology under Diodore of Tarsus (one of the leaders of the later Antiochian School) while practicing extreme asceticism. He was not satisfied and became a hermit (circa 375) and remained so until poor health forced a return to Antioch.

He was then ordained a deacon in 381 by Saint Meletius of Antioch, and was ordained a presbyter in 386 by Bishop Flavian I of Antioch. Over the next twelve years, he gained much popularity for the eloquence of his public speaking. Notable are his insightful expositions of Bible passages and moral teaching. The most valuable of his works are his Homilies on various books of the Bible. He particularly emphasized almsgiving. He was also most concerned with the spiritual and temporal needs of the poor. He spoke out against abuse of wealth and personal property. His straightforward understanding of the Scriptures meant that the themes of his talks were eminently social, explaining the Christian’s conduct in life.

One incident that happened during his service in Antioch perhaps illustrates the influence of his sermons best. Around the time he arrived in Antioch, the bishop had to intervene with the Emperor Saint Theodosius I on behalf of citizens who had gone on a riotous rampage in which statues of the Emperor and his family were mutilated. During the week of Lent in 397, John preached 21 sermons in which he entreated the people to see the error of their ways. These apparently had a lasting impression on the people: many pagans reportedly converted to Christianity as a result of them. In the event, Theodosius’ vengeance was not as severe as it might have been, merely changing the legal standing of the city.

In 398 he was called to be the bishop of Constantinople. He deplored the fact that Imperial court protocol would now assign to him access to privileges greater than the highest state officials. During his time as bishop he adamantly refused to host lavish entertainments. This meant he was popular with the common people, but unpopular with the wealthy and the clergy. In a sermon soon after his arrival he said, “people praise the predecessor to disparage the successor.” His reforms of the clergy were also unpopular with these groups. He told visiting regional preachers to return to the churches they were meant to be serving–without any pay out.

His time there was to be far less at ease than in Antioch. Theophilus, the Pope of Alexandria, wanted to bring Constantinople under his sway and opposed John’s appointment to Constantinople. Being an opponent of Origen’s teachings, he accused John of being too partial to the teachings of that master.

Theophilus had disciplined four Egyptian monks over their support of Origen’s teachings. They fled to and were welcomed by John. He made another enemy in Aelia Eudoxia, the wife of the eastern Emperor Arcadius, who assumed that his denunciations of extravagance in feminine dress was aimed at herself.

An alliance was soon formed against Saint John by Eudoxia, Theophilus and other enemies of his. They held a synod in 403 to charge John with the accusation of Origenism. It resulted in his deposition and banishment but he was immediately recalled by Arcadius when the people of the city became very angry over his departure. Peace was short-lived. A statue of Eudoxia was erected near the cathedral of Hagia Sophia. John denounced the dedication ceremonies and was again banished, this time to Caucasus in Georgia. Pope Innocent I protested the banishment, but to no avail. John continued to write letters which still held great influence in Constantinople. As a result he was exiled to Pityus (on the eastern edge of the Black sea). He never reached this destination, as he died during the journey. His final words were “Glory be to God for all things!”

During a time when city clergy were subject to much criticism for their high lifestyle, John was determined to reform his clergy at Constantinople. He was also noted as an excellent preacher and as a theologian. He continues to be very important in Eastern Christianity. John spoke plainly and applied Bible passages and lessons to everyday life.