Julian, 28

Julian presiding at a conference of Sectarians
(Edward Armitage, 1875)

We were at Ephesus some days before I was able to see Maximus. He was in retreat, communing with the gods. But we received daily bulletins from his wife. Finally, on the eighth day, at about the second hour, a slave arrived to say that Maximus would be honoured to receive me that afternoon. I prevailed on Ecebolius to allow me to make the visit alone. After much argument he gave in, but only on condition that I later write out for him a full account of everything that was said.
Maximus lived in a modest house on the slopes of Mount Pion, not far from the theatre which is carved out of its side. My guards left me at the door. A servant then showed me into an inner room where I was greeted by a thin, nervous woman.
“I am Placidia, wife of Maximus.” She let go my robe whose hem she had kissed. “We are so sorry my husband could not see you earlier, but he has been beneath the earth, with the goddess Cybele.” She motioned to a slave who handed her a lighted torch which she gave me. “My husband is still in darkness. He asks for you to join him there.”
I took the torch and followed Placidia to a room of the house whose fourth wall was covered by a curtain which, when she pulled it back, revealed the mountainside and an opening in the rock. “You must go to him alone, most noble prince.”
I entered the mountain. For what seemed hours (but must have been only minutes), I stumbled towards a far-off gleam of light which marked the end of the passageway. At last I arrived at what looked to be a well-lit chamber cut in the rock, and filled with smoke. Eagerly, I stepped forward and came up hard against a solid wall, stubbing my toes. I thought I had gone mad. In front of me was a room. But I could not enter it. Then I heard the beautiful deep voice of Maximus: “See? The life of this world is all illusion and only the gods are real.”
I turned to my left and saw the chamber I thought I had seen in front of me. The smoke was now gone. The room appeared to be empty. Yet the voice sounded as if the speaker were close beside me. “You tried to step into a mirror. In the same way, the ignorant try to enter the land of the blessed, only to be turned away by their own reflection. Without surrendering yourself, you may not thread the labyrinth at whose end exists the One.”
My right foot hurt. I was cold. I was both impressed and irritated by the situation. “I am Julian,” I said, “of the house of Constantine.”
“I am Maximus, of the house of all the gods.” Then he appeared suddenly at my elbow. He seemed to emerge from the rock. Maximus is tall and well proportioned, with a beard like a grey waterfall and the glowing eyes of a cat. He wore a green robe with curious markings. He took my hand. “Come in,” he said. “There are wonders here.”
The room was actually a natural grotto with stalactites hanging from the ceiling and, at its centre, a natural pool of still dark water. Beside the pool was a bronze statue of Cybele, showing the goddess seated and holding in one hand the holy drum. Two stools were the only furnishings in the cave. He invited me to sit down.
“You will go on many journeys,” said Maximus. My heart sank. He sounded like any soothsayer in the agora. “And I shall accompany you to the end.”
“I could hope for no better teacher,” I said formally, somewhat taken aback. He was presumptuous.
“Do not be alarmed, Julian…” He knew exactly what I was thinking. “I am not forcing myself upon you. Quite the contrary. I am being forced. Just as you are. By something neither of us can control. Nor will it be easy, what we must do together. There is great danger for both of us. Especially for me. I dread being your teacher.”
“But I had hoped…”
“I am your teacher,” he concluded. “What is it that you would most like to know?”
“The truth.”
“The truth of what?”
“Where do we come from and where do we go to, and what is the meaning of the journey?”
“You are Christian.” He said this carefully, making neither a statement nor a question of it. Had there been a witness to this scene, I must have allowed a door in my mind to shut. As it was, I paused. I thought of Bishop George, interminably explaining “similar” as opposed to “same”. I heard the deacon chanting the songs of Arius. I heard myself reading the lesson in the chapel at Macellum. Then suddenly I saw before me the leather-bound testament Bishop George had given me: “Thou shalt not revile the gods.”
“No,” said Maximus gravely. “For that way lies eternal darkness.”
I was startled. “I said nothing.”
“You quoted from the book of the Jews, from Exodus. ‘Thou shalt not revile the gods.'”
“But I said nothing.”
“You thought it.”
“You can see into my thoughts?”
“When the gods give me the power, yes.”
“Then look now, carefully, and tell me: am I Christian?”
“I cannot speak for you, nor tell you what I see.”
“I believe there does exist a first maker, an absolute power…”
“Was it the same god who spoke to Moses ‘mouth to mouth’?”
“So I have been taught.”
“Yet that god was not absolute. He made the earth and heaven, men and beasts. But according to Moses, he did not make darkness or even matter, since the earth was already there before him, invisible and without form. He was merely the shaper of what already existed. Does one not prefer Plato’s god, who caused this universe to come ‘into being as a living creature, possessing soul and intelligence in very truth, both by the providence of god’?”
“From the Timaeus,” I said automatically. “And then there is the confusion between the book of the Jews and the book of the Nazarene. The god of the first is supposed to be the god of the second. Yet in the second he is father of the Nazarene…”
“By grace. They are of similar substance, but not the same.” Maximus laughed. “Well learned, my young Arian.”
“I am Arian because I find it impossible to believe that God was briefly a man executed for treason. Jesus was a prophet—a son of God in some mysterious way—yes, but not the One God.”
“Nor even his deputy, despite the efforts of the extraordinary Paul of Tarsus, who tried to prove that the tribal god of the Jews was the universal One God, even though every word Paul says is contradicted by the Jewish holy book. In letters to the Romans and to the Galatians, Paul declared that the god of Moses is the god not only of Jews but also of Gentiles. Yet the Jewish book denies this in a hundred places. As their god said to Moses: ‘Israel is my son, my first-born.’ Now if this god of the Jews were indeed, as Paul claimed, the One God, why then did he reserve for a single unimportant race the anointing, the prophets and the law? Why did he allow the rest of mankind to exist thousands of years in darkness, worshipping falsely? Of course the Jews admit that he is a ‘jealous god’. But what an extraordinary thing for the absolute to be! Jealous of what? And cruel, too, for he avenged the sins of the fathers on guiltless children. Is not the creator described by Homer and Plato more likely? that there is one being who encompasses all life—is all life—and from this essential source emanate gods, demons, men? Or to quote the famous Orphic oracle which the Galileans are beginning to appropriate for their own use, ‘Zeus, Hades, Helios, three gods in one Godhead’.”
“From the One many…” I began, but with Maximus one never needs to finish sentences. He anticipates the trend of one’s thought.
“How can the many be denied? Are all emotions alike? or does each have characteristics peculiarly its own? And if each race has its own qualities, are not those god-given? And, if not god-given, would not these characteristics then be properly symbolized by a specific national god? In the case of the Jews a jealous bad-tempered patriarch. In the case of the effeminate, clever Syrians, a god like Apollo. Or take the Germans and the Celts—who are warlike and fierce—is it accident that they worship Ares, the war god? Or is it inevitable? The early Romans were absorbed by lawmaking and governing—their god? the king of gods, Zeus. And each god has many aspects and many names, for there is as much variety in heaven as there is among men. Some have asked: did we create these gods or did they create us? That is an old debate. Are we a dream in the mind of deity, or is each of us a separate dreamer, evoking his own reality? Though one may not know for certain, all our senses tell us that a single creation does exist and we are contained by it for ever. Now the Christians would impose one final rigid myth on what we know to be various and strange. No, not even myth, for the Nazarene existed as flesh while the gods we worship were never men; rather they are qualities and powers become poetry for our instruction. With the worship of the dead Jew, the poetry ceased. The Christians wish to replace our beautiful legends with the police record of a reforming 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 ‘saviour’ and ‘healer’. Why? Because one of the most beloved of our gods is Asklepios, whom we call ‘saviour’ and ‘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 worshipped 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 not know salvation.’ That was spoken six centuries before the birth of the Nazarene.”
I was stunned. “Zarathustra was a man…?”
“A prophet. He was struck 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 borrowing. I don’t envy them.”
“I have read Porphyry…” I began.
“Then you are aware of how the Galileans contradict themselves.”
“But what of the contradictions in Hellenism?”
“Old legends are bound to conflict. But then, we never think of them as literally true. They are merely cryptic messages from the gods, who in turn are aspects of the One. We know that we must interpret them. Sometimes we succeed. Sometimes we fail. But the Christians hold to the literal truth of the book which was written about the Nazarene long after his death. Yet even that book so embarrasses them that they must continually alter its meaning. For instance, nowhere does it say that Jesus was God…”
“Except in John.” I quoted: “‘And the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us.'” I had not been five years a church reader for nothing.
“That is open to interpretation. What precisely was meant by ‘Word’? Is it really, as they now pretend, the holy spirit who is also God who is also Jesus?—which brings us again to that triple impiety they call ‘truth’, which in turn reminds us that the most noble Julian also wishes to know the truth.”
“It is what I wish.” I felt strange. The smoke from the torches was thick in the room. All things now appeared indistinct and unreal. Had the walls opened suddenly and the sun blazed down upon us, I should not have been surprised. But Maximus practised no magic that day. He was matter-of-fact.
“No one can tell another man what is true. Truth is all around us. But each must find it in his own way. Plato is part of the truth. So is Homer. So is the story of the Jewish god if one ignores its arrogant claims. Truth is wherever man has glimpsed divinity. Theurgy can achieve this awakening. Poetry can. Or the gods themselves of their own volition can suddenly open our eyes.”
“My eyes are shut.”
“But I know what it is I want to find.”
“But there is a wall in front of you, like the mirror you tried to walk into.”
I looked at him very hard. “Maximus, show me a door, and not a mirror.”
He was silent a long time. When he finally spoke, he did not look at me. Instead he studied the face of Cybele. “You are Christian.”
“I am nothing.”
“But you must be Christian, for that is the religion of your family.”
“I must appear to be Christian. Nothing more.”
“You do not fear being a hypocrite?”
“I fear not knowing the truth even more.”
“Are you prepared to be admitted to the secret rites of Mithras?”
“Is that the way?”
“It is a way. If you are willing to make the attempt, I can lead you to the door. But you must cross through alone. I cannot help you past the gate.”
“And after I pass through?”
“You will know what it is to die and to be born again.”
“Then you shall be my teacher, Maximus. And my guide.”
“Of course I shall be.” He smiled. “It is our fate. Remember what I said? We have no choice, either of us. Fate has intervened. Together we shall proceed to the end of the tragedy.”
“Human life is tragic: it ends in pain and death.”
“But after the pain? after the death?”
“When you cross the threshold of Mithras, you will know what it is like to be beyond tragedy, to be beyond what is human, to be one with God.”

5 Replies on “Julian, 28

  1. This has it backwards. Plato’s god in Timaeus is the Gnostic Demiurge who formed things out of pre-existant matter.
    In Genesis, God creates the heavens and the earth ex nihilo (‘out of nothing’).

  2. Seeing as this post concerns emperor Julian and I’ve not been able to find an answer to this question anywhere else, I’ll ask here:
    Is it true that Julian once dreamt of the imperial eagle flying to the east and perching on the mountains for many years, and then returning?
    If you can point me in the right direction on this, it’d be appreciated.

    1. I don’t have the source. Sounds like a beautiful legend but I really don’t know.
      If we had millionaire sponsors, we could gather a collection for the scholars of the 14 words including the Loeb Classical Library, and learn some Latin and Greek…