Julian, 40

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

 
Julian Augustus

At the beginning of February we arrived at Como, a town on a lake about thirty miles north of Milan. Here I remained a prisoner for six months. I was allowed to see no one except the servants who had come with me. Letters from Oribasius and Maximus were not delivered. I might as well have been dead. I consoled myself with reading the complete works of Pliny the Younger, who had lived at Como. I remember with what loathing I read his famous description of “darling Como”. I hated the place, including the blue-green lake.

During this time I had no idea what was happening in the outside world, which was probably just as well for I was the subject of fierce debate in the Sacred Consistory. According to Eusebius: “He is another Gallus. He must be put to death.” A majority of the Consistory agreed with the Chamberlain. Surprisingly enough, the opposition was led by the Empress Eusebia. Though she was not a member of the Consistory, she was able to make her views known. “Julian has committed no crime. His loyalty has never been seriously questioned. He is the last surviving male member of the imperial house. Until such time as we provide the Emperor with a son, Julian is heir to the principate. But should Julian be executed and should the Emperor then—heaven forbid—die without issue, the house of Constantine is at an end and there will be chaos in the empire.”

Eusebia finally prevailed. But it took her six months of argument, during which time Constantius said not a word. He merely listened and brooded and waited.

At the beginning of June a court chamberlain arrived at Como. “The most noble Julian is to wait upon the divine Empress Eusebia.” I was startled: the Empress, not the Emperor? I tried to question the chamberlain but he would say no more than that I was to be given a private audience; no, he could not tell me if the Emperor would receive me; no, he was not even certain that the Emperor was at Milan; he revelled in being uninformative.

We entered Milan through a door in one of the watchtowers. In complete secrecy, I was hurried through narrow back streets to a side entrance of the palace. Once inside the palace I was met by chamberlains who took me straight to the apartment of the Empress.

Eusebia was handsomer than her portraits. The eyes and mouth, which appeared so severe when rendered in marble, in life were not severe at all, merely sad. A flame-coloured robe set off her pale face and black hair. She was not much older than I.

“We are pleased to receive our cousin, the most noble Julian,” she murmured formally. She motioned to one of her ladies-in-waiting, who came forward with a folding stool and placed it beside the Empress’s silver chair.

“We hope our cousin enjoyed his stay at Lake Como.”

“The lake is very beautiful, Augusta.” At a gesture from her, I sat on the stool.

“Yes. The Emperor and I enjoy the lake.”

For what seemed an eternity, we discussed that wretched lake. All the while she was studying me carefully. And I must say I was studying her. Eusebia was Constantius’s second wife. His first wife had been Galla, the half-sister of Gallus. Galla had the same mother as Gallus, who had the same father as I, but I never knew her, and I don’t think Gallus ever met his sister more than once or twice. When Galla died, Constantius promptly married Eusebia. It was said that he had always been in love with her. She came from an excellent consular family. She was a popular figure at court, and on more than one occasion she had saved innocent men from Constantius’s eunuchs.

“We have been told that you are planning to become a priest.”

“I was at a monastery, when I was… told to come to Milan.” I started to stammer as I often do when I am nervous. The letter “m” gives me particular trouble.

“But do you seriously want to be a priest?”

“I don’t know. I prefer philosophy, I think. I would like to live at Athens.”

“You have no interest in politics?” She smiled as she said this, knowing what my answer must necessarily be.

“No! None, Augusta.”

“Yet you have certain responsibilities to the state. You are imperial.”

“The Augustus needs no help from me.”

“That is not quite true.” She clapped her hands and the two ladies-in-waiting withdrew, closing cedar doors softly behind them.

“Nothing is secret in a palace,” she said. “One is never alone.”

“Aren’t we alone now?”

Eusebia clapped her hands again. Two eunuchs appeared from behind pillars at the opposite end of the room. She waved them away.

“They can hear but they cannot speak. A precaution. But then there are others listening whom one knows nothing about.”

“The secret agents?”

She nodded. “Everything we say to one another in this room they can hear.”

“But where…?”

She smiled at my bewilderment. “Who knows where? But one knows they are always present.”

“They even spy on you?”

“Especially on the Empress.” She was serene. “It has always been like this in palaces. So remember to speak… carefully.”

“Or not at all!”

She laughed. I found myself relaxing somewhat. I almost trusted her. She became serious. “The Emperor has given me permission to talk to you. He was reluctant. I don’t need to tell you that since the Gallus affair he has felt himself entirely surrounded by traitors. He trusts no one.”

“But I…”

“He trusts you least of all.” This was blunt. But I was grateful for her candour. “Against his own good judgment, he raised your brother up. Within months, Gallus and Constantia were plotting to usurp the throne.”

“Are you so certain?”

“We have proof.”

“I am told that secret agents often invent ‘proof’.”

She shrugged. “In this case it was not necessary. Constantia was indiscreet. I never trusted her. But that is over with. You are now the potential threat.”

“Easily solved,” I said with more bitterness than I intended. “Execute me.”

“There are those who advise this.” She was as much to the point as I. “But I am not one. As you know, as the whole world knows, Constantius cannot have a child.” Her face set bleakly. “I have been assured by my confessor that this is heaven’s judgment upon my husband for having caused the deaths of so many members of his own family. Not that he wasn’t justified,” she added loyally. “But justified or not, there is a curse on those who kill their own kind, That curse is on Constantius. He has no heir and I am certain that he will never have one, if he puts you to death.”

There it was at last. My sense of relief was enormous, and perfectly visible in my face.

“Yes. You are safe. For the time being. But there still remains the problem of what to do with you. We had hoped you would take holy orders.”

“If it is required, I shall.” Yes, I said that. I am giving as honest an account as I can of my life. At that moment, I would have worshipped the ears of a mule to save my life.

But Eusebia was not insistent. “Your love of learning also seems genuine.” She smiled. “Oh, we know whom you see, what books you read. There is very little that has escaped the attention of the Chamberlain’s office.”

“Then they know that it is my wish to be a philosopher.”

“Yes. And I believe that the Emperor will grant you your wish.”

“I shall be eternally grateful, and loyal. He has nothing to fear from me, ever…” I babbled on enthusiastically.

Eusebia watched me, amused. Then when I ran out of breath, she said: “Gallus made him much the same speech.”

On that dampening note she rose, ending the interview. “I shall try to arrange an interview for you with the Emperor. It won’t be easy. He is shy.” At the time I found this hard to believe, but of course Eusebia was right. Constantius feared all human encounters. One of the reasons he was so fond of eunuchs was that, by and large, they are not quite human.