Julian, 41

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

Two days later, I was visited by the Grand Chamberlain himself. I found it hard to believe that this enchanting creature with his caressing voice and dimpled smile was daily advising the Consistory to execute me. He quite filled the small apartment where I had been confined.

“Oh, you have grown, most noble Julian! In every way.” Delicately Eusebius touched my face. “And your beard is now most philosophic. How Marcus Aurelius would have envied you!” For an instant one fat finger rested, light as a butterfly, on the tip of my beard. Then we stood face to face, beaming at one another; I with nerves, he with policy.

“I don’t need to tell you how pleased I am to see you at court. We all are. This is where you belong, close to your own kind.” My heart sank: was that to be my fate? a life at court where the eunuchs could keep an eye on me? A swift death was almost preferable. “Now I suggest that when you see the divine Augustus, you will beg him to allow you to stay always at his side. He needs you.”

I seized on the one fact. “The Emperor will see me?”

Eusebius nodded delightedly, as though he had been entirely responsible for my amazing good fortune. “Of course. Didn’t you know? He made the decision at this morning’s Consistory. We were all so pleased. Because we want you here. I have always said that there should be a place for you at the side of the Augustus. A high place.”

“You flatter me,” I murmured.

“I say only the truth. You are, after all, an ornament to the house of Constantine, and what better place has such a pure jewel to shine than in the diadem of the court?”

I swallowed this gravely and replied with equal insincerity, “I shall never forget what you have done for me and for my brother.”

Tears came to Eusebius’s eyes. His voice trembled. “It is my wish to serve you. That is all I ask for.” He leaned forward—with some effort—and kissed my hand. The rhetoric of hate is often most effective when couched in the idiom of love. On a note of mutual admiration, we parted.

I was next instructed by one of the eunuchs in the court’s etiquette, which was nearly as complicated as what one goes through during the Mithraic mysteries. There are a dozen set responses to an emperor’s set questions or commands. There are bows and genuflections; steps to left and steps to right; alternative gestures should I be asked to approach the throne or merely to remain where I was.

The eunuch loved his work. “Our ceremonies are among this world’s marvels! More inspiring, in some ways, than the mass.” I agreed to that. The eunuch spread a diagram for me on a table. “This is the great hall where you will be received.” He pointed. “Here sits the divine Constantius. And here you will enter.” Every move either of us was to make was planned in advance like a dance. When I had finally learned my lesson, the eunuch folded his map with an exalted expression on his face. “We have considerably improved and refined court ceremonial since the divine Diocletian. I am sure that he never dreamed his heirs would be capable of such exquisite style as well as such profound symbolism, for we are now able to beautifully reflect the nature of the universe in a single ceremony lasting scarcely three hours!”

The cutting down of court ceremonies and the removal of the eunuchs was one of the first acts of my reign. It was certainly the most satisfactory.

Shortly after sundown, the Master of the Offices and his many ushers escorted me to the throne room. The Master of the Offices gave me last-minute instructions on how to behave in the sacred presence. But I did not listen. I was too busy preparing the speech I intended to make to Constantius. It was a masterpiece of eloquence. After all, I had been preparing it for ten years. Face to face, I intended to make Constantius my friend.

The Master of the Offices ushered me into a huge basilica which was once Diocletian’s throne room. The Corinthian columns which line it are twice the usual height and the floor is of porphyry and green marble. The effect is most splendid, especially by artificial light. In the apse at the far end of the basilica stands the throne of Diocletian, an elaborate chair of ivory decorated with gold plaques. Needless to say, I remember everything about that room in which my fate was decided. Torches flared between the columns while on either side of the throne bronze lamps illuminated its occupant. Not counting my childhood encounter with Constantine, this was the first time I beheld an emperor in full state. I was not prepared for the theatricality of the scene.

Constantius sat very straight and still, his forearms resting on his knees in imitation of the Egyptian kings. He wore a heavy gold diadem set with huge square jewels. On one side of him stood Eusebius, on the other the praetorian prefect, while around the room the officials of the court were ranged.

I was officially presented to the Emperor. I paid him homage. Only once did I falter in the course of the ritual; when I did, the Master of the Offices was quick to whisper the correct formula in my ear.

If Constantius was curious about me, he did not betray it. His bronze face was empty of all expression as he spoke. “We receive our most noble cousin with pleasure.” But there was no pleasure in that high-pitched voice. I felt myself suddenly blushing. “We give him leave to go to Athens to continue his studies.” I glanced at Eusebius. Though his own grim advice had not prevailed, he gave me a small delighted nod as if to say, “We’ve won!”

“Also…” But then Constantius stopped talking. There is no other way to describe what happened. He simply stopped. There were no more words for me. I stared at him, wondering if I had gone mad. Even the Master of the Offices was taken aback. Everyone had expected a full speech from Constantius as well as a response from me. But the audience was over. Constantius put out his hand for me to kiss. I did so. Then with the aid of the Master of the Offices, I walked backward to the entrance, bowing at regular intervals. Just as I was about to leave the presence, two squeaking bats swooped suddenly out of the shadowy ceiling, and darted straight towards Constantius. He did not move, even though one almost touched his face. As always, his self-control was marvellous. I have never known a man quite so deep or so cold.

I returned to my apartment to find a message from the Grand Chamberlain’s office. I was to proceed at once to the port of Aquileia. My belongings had already been packed. My servants were ready. A military escort was standing by.

Within the hour, I was outside the walls of Milan. As I rode through the warm night, I prayed to Helios that I never see court or Emperor again.