Monday, June 30, 2014

Anthropomancy and other slanders against Julian the Apostate

A history resource article by  © 2014

In Terry Deary's book "Dangerous Days in the Roman Empire" he apparently supports claims that the ancient Romans regularly engaged in anthropomancy, the foretelling of the future by the examination of the entrails of human sacrifices.  Deary gained notoriety for his "Horrible Histories" series for children. The books were later the basis for a BBC television series.

Julian the Apostate presiding at a conference of sectarians, by Edward Armitage, 1875

19th century agnostic and orator
Robert Green Ingersoll.
So where did these charges originate?  The 19th-century agnostic Robert Green Ingresoll references such reports and attributes them to two of Julian's enemies (and so-called Fathers of the Church), Gregory and Theodoret.  But Ingresoll wisely takes into context the political and theologically-charged environment of the empire at the time and professes his belief in their lack of credibility:

"They say that the Emperor Julian [AD 331-363] was an "apostate"; that he was once a Christian; that he fell from grace, and that in his last moments, throwing some of his own blood into the air, he cried out to Jesus Christ, "Galilean, thou hast conquered!" 
"...The story that the dying emperor acknowledged that he was conquered by the Galilean was originated by some of the so-called Fathers of the Church, probably by Gregory or Theodoret. They are the same wretches who said that Julian sacrificed a woman to the moon, tearing out her entrails with his own hands. We are also informed by these hypocrites that he endeavored to rebuild the temple of Jerusalem, and that fire came out of the earth and consumed the laborers employed in the sacrilegious undertaking."  — Robert Green Ingersoll, Julian the Apostate

Ingersoll's sources describe the death of Julian much differently.

'Brought back to his tent, and feeling that he had but a short time to live, he [Julian] spent his last hours in discoursing with his friends on the immortality of the soul. He reviewed his reign and declared that he was satisfied with his conduct, and had neither penitence nor remorse to express for anything that he had done.' His last words were: 'I submit willingly to the eternal decrees of heaven, convinced that he who is captivated with life, when his last hour has arrived is more weak and pusillanimous than he who would rush to voluntary death when it is his duty still to live.'"  — Robert Green Ingersoll, Julian the Apostate

Some early Christians attribute Julian's death to Saint
Mercurius, a converted Roman soldier executed by the
Roman emperor Decius during one of his religious persecutions.

Image courtesy of Wikipedia.
"All these stories rest upon the same foundation, the mendacity of [Christian] priests. Julian changed the religion of the Empire, and diverted the revenues of the church. Whoever steps between a priest and his salary, will find that he has committed every crime. No matter how often the slanders may be refuted, they will be repeated until the last priest has lost his body and found his wings. These falsehoods about Julian were invented some fifteen hundred years ago, and they are repeated to-day by just as honest and just as respectable people as these who told them at first. Whenever the church cannot answer the arguments of an opponent, she attacks his character. She resorts to falsehood, and in the domain of calumny she has stood for fifteen hundred years without a rival." — Robert Green Ingersoll, Julian the Apostate

St. Gregory Nazianzen.
Image courtesy of
If one of the ancient sources was, in fact, Gregory Nazianzen, how credible would such a defaming report be by someone who stridently and publicly describes Julian as the public and private enemy of all in common?

"HEAR me all ye nations, give ear unto me all ye dwellers upon earth, for I am calling on you all, as it were, from a conspicuous and lofty watch-tower, with a cry both high and loud. Hear ye nations, tribes, tongues, every kind of men, and every age, as many as now are, and as many as shall be; and in order that my proclamation may be greater, every Power of heaven, all ye Angels, whose deed was the putting down of the tyrant, who have overthrown not Sihon, king of the Amorites, nor Og, king of Bashan -- insignificant princes, and injuring but a small part the land of Israel -- but the Dragon, the Apostate, the Great Mind, the Assyrian, the public and private enemy of all in common, him that has madly raged and threatened much upon earth, and that has spoken and meditated much unrighteousness against Heaven! " - Gregory Nazianzen, Oration 4: First Invective Against Julian

So how did the cousin of Constantius II, the emperor who actively promoted Christianity at the expense of paganism and decreed the closing of pagan temples, the banning of animal sacrifices, and introduced the death penalty for those who performed such sacrifices, end up the target of such Christian invectives?

"Constantius' cousin Julian, who was overseeing the Western Empire as Caesar, saw such actions as undermining the Empire, " explains Dr. Eugenia Russell, Lecturer in History at St Mary's University, Twickenham, UK. "He was already a successful general who had been proclaimed Augustus (in 360 CE) by his troops in Paris, and a decisive conflict between the two was only averted by the death-bed recognition by Constantius of Julian as his successor, leaving the latter in sole control in AD 361...With an empire riven by internal conflict and beset by external forces, he attempted to promote peace and tolerance through the reaffirmation of what he saw as Roman virtues, becoming the last emperor to worship the pagan deities and uphold the customs of the ancient world." — Eugenia Russell, "The Last Non-Christian Roman Emperor, Julian the Apostate"

Julian was actually raised in a Christian household, even serving as a Church reader (Anagnostes) at one point. But, after studying philosophy and the classics at the Academy at Athens, he became an admirer of the academy's founder, Plato, and of the Homeric deities in traditional Graeco-Roman religion.

In addition to Julian's own embrace of more traditional Roman religious views, it is estimated Christians composed only about 10 percent of the Roman population at the beginning of the 4th century.  Christians were also engaged in fighting between themselves over the "nature" of Christ. Those referred to as Arians considered Christ to be begotten of God but distinctly separate from him and subordinate. The Monophysites believed Christ was of a single essence with God the Father. The single essence concept was officially adopted at the Council of Nicaea in 325 CE and Arians were declared heretical and, for all intents and purposes, considered no longer doctrinal Christians, splitting a very small minority even further. Mithraism was also still strongly represented in the military.

"Julian adhered to the syncretic form of Graeco-Roman religion popular in the Late Empire that absorbed a wide variety of beliefs and practices. Although an initiate in at least three of the 'mystery religions' (including Mithraism), he abhorred the exclusivity that made Christianity incompatible with his view of toleration, referring to it as a disease." —  Eugenia Russell, "The Last Non-Christian Roman Emperor, Julian the Apostate"

Unlike previous emperors like Diocletian, however, Julian still protected Christianity's followers, making it unlawful to force a Christian to offer a sacrifice, even if this was expected of someone in a public office. Julian did, however, give preference to pagan citizens for public duty, revoke exemptions previously granted to Christian clergy, return property that had been confiscated for the building of churches, and ban the teaching of classical texts by Christians.

As for Theodoret of Cyrus, the fifth-century Eusebian scholar was probably merely repeating stories promulgated by Gregory and, perhaps, Theodoret's knowledge that Julian was an initiate of the Eleusinian Mysteries (associated with mysterious nighttime rituals). Theodoret may have been further motivated by Gregory's possible association of Julian with the Assyrian Church of the East (at least one possible interpretation - note the reference to "the Assyrian" in Gregory's tirade above, although this could have been merely an ethnic slur as Julian was born in Constantinople - ancient Assyria, known for its martial brutality - but let's run with my alternate theory.)

The Assyrian Church of the East originally developed during the 1st century CE in the Mesopotamian Eastern Aramaic speaking regions of Assyria, Babylonia, and northwestern Persia (today's Iraq, southeast Turkey, northeast Syria and northwestern Iran.  It is considered an apostolic church founded by the apostles St. Thomas (Mar Toma), St. Thaddeus (Mar Addai), and St. Bartholomew (Mar Bar Tulmay). Scholars of the church advanced the doctrine that Christ embodied two natures, one human and the other divine.  But this viewpoint (later referred to as Nestorianism) was later declared heretical and was one of many rejected by Theodoret and other followers of Eusebius of Caesarea who promoted Arian-like interpretations of the nature of Christ.  Ironically, though, Julian actually spent his early childhood with Eusebius of Nicomedia, also a strong supporter of Arianism.

Of course, I must admit I realize a reference associating Julian with a Christian theology in the first place would be considered highly improbable, since Julian "The Apostate" is painted by history as the last "pagan" emperor.  Other scholars, though, have also found Julian's actual beliefs to be puzzling since he often appeared to be merely attempting to return the Empire to its former religiously tolerant state rather than promoting one religion over another.  Furthermore, Julian spent quite a bit of time in Mesopotamia and another scenario could have been that he at one point actively studied cultural beliefs of the region in anticipation of its conquest and this apparent interest was misinterpreted. Sadly, our contemporary source material for the 4th and 5th centuries is woefully fragmented, so all we can do is speculate.

Anyway, I hope I have made my point about the folly of quoting sources (even ancient ones) without investigating the political context in which they were made and the relationship of the source with the target, especially if the information is defamatory in nature.  At least Ingersoll approached these sources with a scholar's healthy skepticism (although he obviously had his own axes to grind) rather than blindly repeating them as a sensational "fact" as Deary does in a book touted as "nonfiction".

Post a Comment