Thursday, July 04, 2024

Julian Barnes introduces us to his ill-remembered namesake

I have been reading Julian Barnes' 2022 novel Elizabeth Finch. And, while it is a good read, like all of Barnes' books, it is a strange animal, and not at all what I was expecting.

This is largely because a sizeable proportion of it is given over to an extended account of one of the Roman Empire's less-talked-about emperors, Julian the Apostate. I can only think that Mr. Barnes went down a rabbit hole concerning his namesake, and decided to lead us down there too. It's a strange detour in a novel that is ostensibly about a student's long-term unrequited love for an eccentric but brilliant teacher, but in fact it also makes an interesting novelette in itself (and yes, there is a kind of connection to the main story, it's not completely random).

Julian the Apostate (Flavius Claudius Julianus) was Caesar of the declining Roman empire for five short years, from 355 to 360 AD. He inherited the position from his uncle Constantine the Great, the first Christian Emperor and the founder of the great city of Constantinople.

Julian, though, was a maverick. He was, by all accounts, oafish, hairy unkempt, and poorly-presented in an age when the patrician classes prided themselves on their clean-cut, well-coiffed image. Julian was oblivious to such worldly concerns, and devoted himself to philosophical ruminations, becoming remarkably well-read for a late-Empire emperor. He made some attempts (none too successful) to weed out the corruption and foppery that had taken over the higher echelons of Roman society in his day.

His studies led him to an intellectual rejection of Christianity, preferring the divinity-rich paganism of old and the philosophy of Neoplatonism. He spent much of his time and money on elaborate auguries, animal sacrifices, etc.  However, he did not purge Christianity in a violent manner (in traditional Roman fashion), but preferred to use words and arguments, showing a policy of "ingenious clemency" or blanda persecutio ("persecution by gentleness").

He was reviled by most in his own time, partly for his appearance and methods, and partly for his anti-Christian rhetoric at a time when Christianity had taken strong hold among the general public and particularly among the gentry. He enjoyed a short period of endorsement and validation among the intelligentsia of the French Enlightenment in the 18th century, but in general he has been treated shoddily by history.

Julian was killed trying to extend Roman occupation into the deserts of Persia, which he undertook based on his own positive auguries and in spite of the dire warnings of his advisors. Go figure.

It is, though, an interesting academic exercise to imagine how history might have been changed had Julian lived, and had he succeeded in steering the civilized world away from Christianity. What if? If the great scholarly libraries of ancient times had never been destroyed or lost, there would perhaps have been no need for a European Renaissance or an Enlightenment. Might Christians, Jews, Muslims, pagans and tree-huggers have lived side by side in peace, with no need for the religious wars that racked Europe for centuries, no need for over-zealous missionaries scouring the world for souls to save, decimating their populations in the process? Imagine science progressing unhindered by religious persecution and shortsightedness. People living for the joy to be had in life, rather than cowering before the threats of the priesthood in the forlorn hope of some imaginary life after death.

Probably not. But it's nice to speculate.

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