Julian, 48

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

Priscus: You will be aware of a number of ironies in what you have just read. The unspeakable Gregory is due to preside over the new Ecumenical Council. They say he will be the next bishop of Constantinople. How satisfying to glimpse this noble bishop in his ragged youth! Basil, who wanted only the contemplative life, now governs the church in Asia as bishop of Caesarea. I liked Basil during the brief period I knew him in Athens. He had a certain fire, and a good mind. He might have been a first-rate historian had he not decided to be a power in the church. But how can these young men resist the chance to rise? Philosophy offers them nothing; the church everything.

Julian was more wary of Gregory than I’d thought. But this could be hindsight. When Julian was writing his memoir, he asked me what I thought of Gregory and I assured him that if ever he had an enemy it was that jackal. Julian disagreed. But what I said apparently had some effect. As I have told you before, I want nothing to do with the publication of this memoir. Even so, if it is published, I shall delight in the effect it will have on the new bishop of Constantinople. He will not enjoy public reminder of his pseudo-Cynic youth.

It is also amusing to compare Gregory’s actual behaviour in Athens with his own account of those days which he has given us in the Invective he wrote shortly after Julian died. I have this work in front of me as I write. At almost no point is it honest. For instance, Gregory describes Julian’s appearance in this way: “His neck was unsteady, his shoulders always in motion, shrugging up and down like a pair of scales, his eyes rolling and glancing from side to side with an almost insane expression, his feet unsteady and stumbling, his nostrils breathing insolence and disdain, the expression of his face ridiculous, his bursts of laughter unrestrained and coming in noisy gusts, his nods of assent and dissent quite inappropriate, his speech stopping short and interrupted by his taking a breath, his questions without sense or order, his answers not a whit better than his questions…” This is not even good caricature. Of course Julian did talk too much; he was enormously eager to learn and to teach; he could often be silly. But he was hardly the spastic creature Gregory describes.

The malice of a true Christian attempting to destroy an opponent is something unique in the world. No other religion ever considered it necessary to destroy others because they did not share the same beliefs. At worst, another man’s belief might inspire amusement or contempt—the Egyptians and their animal gods, for instance. Yet those who worshipped the Bull did not try to murder those who worshipped the Snake, or to convert them by force from Snake to Bull. No evil ever entered the world quite so vividly or on such a vast scale as Christianity did. I don’t need to tell you that my remarks are for your eyes alone and not for publication. I put them down now in this uncharacteristic way because I find myself more moved than I thought I would be as I recall that season in Athens, not only through the eyes of my own memory but through those of Julian.

Gregory also maintains that he knew even then that Julian was a Hellenist, secretly conspiring against Christianity. This is not true. Gregory might have guessed the first (though I doubt it); he certainly could not have known that Julian was conspiring against the state religion, since at that time Julian was hardly conspiring against anything. He was under constant surveillance. He wanted only to survive. Yet Gregory writes, “I used these very words about him: ‘What an evil the Roman State is nourishing,’ though I prefaced them by a wish that I might wove a false prophet.” If Gregory had said this to anyone, it would have been the talk of Athens. It would also have been treason, since Julian was the heir of Constantius. If Gregory ever made such a prophecy, it must have been whispered in Basil’s ear when they were in bed together.

I find Julian’s reference to Macrina amusing and disingenuous. In the proper place I shall tell you the true story, which you may or may not use, as you see fit. Julian’s version is true only up to a point. I suppose he wanted to protect her reputation, not to mention his own. I see Macrina occasionally. She was always plain. She is now hideous. But so am I. So is all the world, old. But in her day Macrina was the most interesting girl in Athens.