The Last Pagan: Julian as General in Iraq

This extract from Adrian Murdoch's Last Pagan deals with Julian the Apostate as general. I love the quote about his death - when even the ancient sources had problems working out what on earth was going on at the death of someone so important, I very much doubt the validity of accounts of lesser martial episodes.


A mystique developed around the emperor because of the mythic nature of his demise, something that continues to intrigue. Julian has in many ways become a figure of far greater potency in death than he ever was alive. Who was that mysterious cavalryman? The Persian king offered a reward for Julian’s killer, yet it was never claimed. Within a few years various suggestions had been made which range from the plausible to the utterly fanciful. They emerged almost at once and make Julian’s death the classical equivalent of the JFK assassination—the cavalryman became a fourth-century spearman on the grassy knoll. Even contemporaries admitted as much. “One and the same story is not told by all, but different accounts are reported and made up by different people—both of those present at the battle and those not present,” wrote one former friend.

For many pagans, Julian’s death had parallels with that of his spiritual mentor Alexander the Great—indeed he had not wholly discouraged those comparisons during his lifetime—at its most basic level with the war in Asia Minor itself. One historian writing only fifty years or so after the emperor’s death, suggested that Julian believed that he was possessed of Alexander’s soul.

But Julian never did comprehensively defeat the Persian king and he never did conquer Asia, and this is a complementary part of the attraction. Julian failed, quite magnificently and irredeemably. The romantic failure has always been attractive in Western thought and not only did few of Julian’s innovations survive his death, many were starting to unravel even before he died. Just as when reading Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Goethe’s Sorrows of Young Werther, or Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin, the reader of any biography of the emperor knows that Julian is doomed from the beginning. He stops being an emperor and starts being a tragic hero.

The Last Pagan: Julian the Apostate and the Death of the Ancient World - Amazon.com
The Last Pagan - Amazon.co.uk

No comments:

Post a Comment

I do not moderate comments, but I remove spam, overt self-promotion ("read [link] my much better post on this") and what I consider hate speech (racism, homophobia etc).

Note: only a member of this blog may post a comment.