THE LAST PAGAN EMPEROR

H.C. Teitler

OUP (2017) h/b 271pp £17.99 (ISBN 9780190626501)

The last adjective one would think of deploying in a review on Julian the Apostate and ‘the war against Christianity’ is ‘entertaining’. Yet here T. has pulled off the trick of exculpating Julian of anti-Christian pogroms in a fully evidenced and highly accessible text—a page-turner, in fact. He does not, of course, suggest that there were not attacks on Christians—simply that there was no Julianic programme of religious cleansing. Indeed, we see Julian upbraiding those who would indulge in torture and execution on the grounds that the worst you could do is deny a would-be saint martyrdom.

T. presents a brief biography of Julian, interspersed with the evidence for and against his promotion of religious wars, and draws, or allows us to draw, the appropriate conclusions. There is, of course, plenty of literary evidence: Julian himself, the contemporary Ammianus Marcellinus and Libanius (‘pagans’) and Gregory of Nazianzus and John Chrysostom (also contemporary), followed by Socrates, Sozomen, Theoderet and many others, all Christian and all anti-Julian. The generally later passiones of the saints are also a source for alleged outrages by Julian, and for what has been called ‘julianisation’, or airbrushing hostile details into the life of the emperor, well post mortem.

 

The refutations of Julianic outrages are usually pretty straightforward, so often being a matter of the wrong people, the wrong place, the wrong time and unlikely actions. The entertainment factor, however, usually comes from the passiones: how the son of a certain Anthimus, suffering unbearable pain in the testicles, was cured when St. Artemius (tortured and slain by Julian) tweaked the offending items. It smarted so much that the boy woke up yelling, but the condition was cured. Equally endearing is the story of St. Elophius, who, decapitated by Julian, picked up his head and made for the spot where he wanted to be buried. He seems to have washed his head on the way. There are, apparently, over one hundred cephalophorous saints, including St. Denis in the environs of Paris (note: this seems to have the makings of a sure-fire computer game).

The text is brief at 143 pages, but along with a chronological outline and index, there are 47 pages of notes and 66 of bibliography. The notes are also as entertaining as they are informative: for example, on Anthimus’ son (above), ‘Efthymiadis and Deroche 2011, p. 66 Humour and comic effects are….a hallmark of the collection of miracles of St. Artemius….’; or later on, attempts to make stick charges (on both sides) of sacrifice, cannibalism and infanticide.

The reviewer has no hesitation in recommending this book to all readers, well worth its modest cost.

 Adrian Spooner

 

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