Julian was born in Constantinople in the year 331, being the son of Julius Constantius and a nephew of Emperor Constantine the Great. On the death in May 337 of Constantine, who had begun to convert the Empire to Christianity, his sons, Julian’s cousins, divided the Empire between them, although the youngest, Constans, was still a minor.
The reign of Constantius
The real power was wielded by Constantius, the second son of Constantine, whose first move was to arrest and execute all his cousins, with the sole exceptions of Julian and his older half-brother Gallus. The boys were confined to virtual house arrest in Diocletian’s former palace at Nicomedia.
Constantius began by ruling the eastern half of the empire but in 350 found himself challenged in the west when his surviving brother Constans was killed and a usurper, Magnentius, declared himself Emperor. Constantius had plenty of problems of his own to sort out, and he needed a figurehead to fly the dynastic flag in the west, this being somebody who would make it clear that the western empire had not been abandoned to Magnentius but who, at the same time, would not do anything rash to put Constantius’s realm at risk.
Having only two cousins left, Constantius had little choice but to appoint Gallus to this role, at the same time releasing Julian from his house arrest, so that the studious young man could resume his education.
Julian’s unexpected rise to power
Julian chose to travel to the eastern Mediterranean where he was influenced by Greek philosophers and teachers who had not been converted to Christianity. One such teacher was Maximus of Ephesus, a Neoplatonic thinker who kept in his house a statue of the pagan goddess Hecate which appeared to speak and produce bursts of flame. Julian seems to have been greatly impressed by Maximus and his statue, and he developed a belief in “theurgy” which taught that, by dint of intense study, magical ritual and animal sacrifices, humans could influence the actions of the gods.
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(Julian and his wife Helena)
As his reign advanced, Constantius became ever more dangerous to those around him, ruling by sowing fear and suspicion among his senior officials. Among those to suffer was Gallus, who had forgotten that his role was a purely nominal one and tried to exercise a modicum of power in Gaul. Constantius had him executed for treason and appointed Julian to take his place.
Julian may have been eccentric in his beliefs but he was no fool. He knew that, as the last survivor of his generation apart from his cousin the Emperor, he would be in constant danger. His best chance of staying alive was to go along with everything that Constantius demanded and not excite his wrath or envy. He also decided that, by doing as little as possible, he could not be held to blame for anything that went wrong.
His plan worked quite well in 356, when a campaign against the Alamanni (a Germanic tribe) was led by generals Ursicinus and Marcellus with Julian acting solely as figurehead. When Julian found himself cut off by Frankish raiders he was able to lay the blame entirely on the two generals and take the credit for his own escape.
In the following year a similar operation was conducted under a new general, Barbatio, with Julian again doing as little as possible while hoping that this campaign would also run into trouble so that he could be relieved of his duties and go back to the life of a scholar that he much preferred.
However, this time things did not go quite as Julian expected, because he found himself faced with an army of Alamanni near Strasbourg which he was able to defeat through his own efforts as a commander, thus revealing talents that even he did not know he possessed. Julian now found himself in Constantius’s good books and entrusted with real authority.
Julian decided to follow the course adopted by Constantius and stay at arm’s length from the day-to-day administration of his province. By only trusting a small circle of close acquaintances he was able to build an atmosphere of fear among the officials who really ran things. This was designed to keep everyone in line in that nobody really knew the wishes of the top man, or who was watching whom.
But, just like his half-brother Gallus, Julian began to get ideas about seizing more power than his cousin was prepared to yield. In Julian’s case, not surprisingly, he claimed to have had dreams that foretold that he would overthrow Constantius and he then corresponded with his spiritual gurus in ways that were frankly treasonous. The Emperor, again not surprisingly, became suspicious of Julian’s motives and took steps to place his own men in Julian’s inner circle. However, it would not have been in his best interests to remove Julian at this stage, given that the latter was at least efficient and Constantius had more pressing issues to deal with.
The empire was threatened from the east, with the Persians under Shapur II invading in 359 and besieging the city of Amida (in modern southeast Turkey),which eventually fell with huge losses of life. The Persians withdrew, having been delayed by the long siege, but would clearly return during the next campaigning season. Constantius knew that he had no chance of defending his borders without help from the west, and for that he needed the co-operation of Julian.
Julian now grabbed his opportunity to rebel against his cousin, occasioned by the troops in Gaul refusing to move east and declaring their loyalty to Julian instead. In 360 Julian allowed himself to be declared Augustus and offered to divide the empire with Constantius. The emperor had little choice but to accept.
As Julian moved east with his army to meet any challenge from Constantius he heard confirmation that his faith in the old gods was justified, because Constantius died from a fever in southern Turkey on 3rd November 361, leaving Julian as the undisputed Emperor.
(Continued in Part 2)