“Why were you so ungrateful to our gods
as to desert them for the Jews?”
—Julian, addressing the Christians
The Memoir of Julian Augustus
I liked the Armenian eunuch Eutherius as much as I disliked Nicocles. Eutherius taught me court ceremonial three times a week. He was a grave man of natural dignity who did not look or sound like a eunuch. His beard was normal. His voice was low. He had been cut at the age of twenty, so he had known what it was to be a man. He once told me in grisly detail how he had almost died during the operation, “from loss of blood, because the older you are, the more dangerous the operation is. But I have been happy. I have had an interesting life. And there is something to be said for not wasting one’s time in pursuit of sexual pleasure.” But though this was true of Eutherius, it was not true of all eunuchs, especially those at the palace. Despite their incapacity, eunuchs are capable of sexual activity, as I one day witnessed, in a scene I shall describe in its proper place.
Shortly after New Year 349 Eusebius agreed to let me go to Nicomedia on condition that I not attend the lectures of Libanius. As Nicocles put it, “Just as we protect our young from those who suffer from the fever, so we must protect them from dangerous ideas, not to mention poor rhetoric. As stylist, Libanius has a tendency to facetiousness which you would find most boring. As philosopher, he is dangerously committed to the foolish past.” To make sure that I would not cheat, Ecebolius was ordered to accompany me to Nicomedia.
Ecebolius and I arrived at Nicomedia in February 349. In enjoyed myself hugely that winter. I attended lectures. I listened to skilled Sophists debate. I met students of my own age. This was not always an easy matter, for they were terrified of me, while I hardly knew how to behave with them.
Oribasius took delight in showing me his city. He knew my interest in temples (though I was not yet consciously a Hellenist), and we spent several days prowling through the deserted temples on the acropolis and across the Selinos River, which divides the city. Even then, I was stuck by the sadness of once holy buildings now empty save for spiders and scorpions. Only the temple of Asklepion was kept up, and that was because the Asklepion is the center of the intellectual life of the city. It is a large enclave containing theatre, library, gymnasium, porticoes, gardens, and of course the circular temple to the god himself. Most of the buildings date from two centuries ago, when architecture was at its most splendid.
Priscus: From what I gather, Julian in those days was a highly intelligent youth who might have been “captured” for true philosophy. After all, he enjoyed learning. He was good at debate. Properly educated, he might have been another Porphyry or, taking into account his unfortunate birth, another Marcus Aurelius. But Maximus got to him first and exploited his one flaw: the craving for the vague and the incomprehensible which is essentially Asiatic. It is certainly not Greek, even though we Greeks are in a noticeable intellectual decline. Did you know that thanks to the presence of so many foreign students in Athens, our people no longer speak pure Attic but a sort of argot, imprecise and ugly?
Yet despite the barbarism which is slowly extinguishing “the light of the world,” we Athenians still pride ourselves on being able to see things as they are. Show us a stone and we see a stone, not the universe. But like so many others nowadays, poor Julian wanted to believe that man’s life is profoundly more significant than it is. His sickness was the sickness of our age. We want so much not to be extinguished at the end that we will go to any length to make conjurer-tricks for one another simply to obscure the bitter, secret knowledge that it is our fate not to be. If Maximus hadn’t stolen Julian to us, the bishops would have got him. I am sure of that. At heart he was a Christian mystic gone wrong.
“With the worship of the dead Jew, the poetry ceased. The Christians wish to replace our beautiful legends with the police record of a reformed Jewish rabbi. Out of this unlikely material they hope to make a final synthesis of all the religions ever known. They now appropriate our feast days. They transform local deities into saints. They borrow from our mystery rites, particularly those of Mithras. The priests of Mithras are called ‘fathers.’ So the Christians call their priests ‘fathers.’ They even imitate the tonsure, hoping to impress new converts with the familiar trappings of an older cult. Now they have started to call the Nazarene ‘savior’ and ‘healer.’ Why? Because one of the most beloved of our gods is Asklepios, whom we call ‘savior’ or ‘healer.’”
“But there is nothing in Mithras to equal the Christian mystery.” I argued for the devil. “What of the Eucharist, the taking of the bread and wine, when Christ said, ‘He who eats of my body and drinks of my blood shall have eternal life.’”
Maximus smiled. “I betray no secret of Mithras when I tell you that we, too, partake of a symbolic meal, recalling the words of the Persian prophet Zarathustra, who said to those who worshiped the One God—and Mithras, ‘He who eats of my body and drinks of my blood, so that he will be made one with me and I with him, the same shall know salvation.‘ That was spoken six centuries before the birth of the Nazarene.”
I was stunned. “Zarathustra was a man…?”
“A prophet. He was stuck down in a temple by enemies. As he lay dying, he said, ‘May God forgive you even as I do.’ No, there is nothing sacred to us that the Galileans have not stolen. The main task of their innumerable councils is to try to make sense of all their borrowings. I don’t envy them.”
Priscus: Interesting to observe Maximus in action.
There is now no doubt in my mind that at this point in Julian’s life almost any of the mystery cults would have got him free of Christianity. He was eager to make the break. Yet it is hard to say quite why, since his mind tended to magic and superstition in precisely the same way the Christian mindset does. Of course, he claimed that Bishop George’s partisanship disgusted him as a boy, and that Porphyry and Plotinus opened his eyes to the absurdity of the Christian claims.
Well and good. But then why turn to something equally absurd? Granted, no educated man can accept the idea of a Jewish rebel as god. But having rejected that myth, how can one then believe that the Persian hero-god Mithras was born of light striking rock, on December 25th, with shepherds watching his birth? (I am told that the Christians have just added those shepherds to the birth of Jesus.)
Of course I am sympathetic to him. He dealt the Christians some good blows and that delighted me. But I cannot sympathize with his fear of extinction. Why is it so important to continue after death? I am in no hurry to depart. But I look on nothing as just that: no thing. How can one fear no thing?
Libanius: Like Julian, I was admitted to the Mithraic rites during my student days. But I had never been a Christian, so I was not making a dramatic and dangerous break with the world I belonged to. However, for Julian it was a brave thing to do. Had Constantius learned of what he had done, it might have cost him his life. Fortunately, Maximus managed the affair so skillfully that Constantius never knew that at the age of nineteen his cousin ceased to be a Christian, in a cave beneath Mount Pion.