Julian, 49

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

 
Julian Augustus

Even today, Prohaeresius is a man I greatly admire. I say “even today” because he is a Galilean and has opposed my edict forbidding Galileans to teach the classics. Though I went out of my way to exempt him from this ban, he has gone into retirement. When I met him, he had been for forty years the city’s most famous teacher of rhetoric. His house is a large one near the Ilissos River. At all hours it is—or was—crowded with students asking questions, answering questions.

At first I stood at the back of the crowded dim room and watched Prohaeresius as he sat comfortably in a large wooden chair. He was then eighty years of age: tall, vigorous, with a powerful chest, extraordinary black eyes, not unlike those of his niece Macrina. His hair was white and thick and curled richly upon his brow, like seafoam on a beach. He was in every way a handsome man, with a voice to match. In fact, he was such a master of eloquence that when my cousin Constans sent him on a mission to Rome, the Romans not only admitted that he was the most eloquent speaker they had ever heard, they set up a bronze statue to him in the forum with the inscription: “From Rome, the Queen of Cities, to Prohaeresius, the King of Eloquence.” I mention this to emphasize his gifts, for the people of the city of Rome are the most jaded and bored in the world. Or so everyone tells me. I have yet to see my capital city.

Prohaeresius was consoling a student who complained of poverty. “I make no case for poverty. But it is at least bearable in youth. Salt to the day. When I first came from Armenia to Athens, I lived with a friend in an attic, just off the Street of the Slaughter-houses. Between us we had one cloak and one blanket. In winter we broke the day in watches. When he went out, wearing the cloak, I would huddle under the blanket. When he came back, I would take the cloak while he kept warm in bed. You have no idea how good this is for one’s style. I would prepare speeches of such eloquence that I brought tears to my own eyes as I declaimed them into that old blanket, teeth chattering from the cold.” There was an amused murmur. I had the sense that this was a favourite story, often told.

Then Gregory spoke to him in a low voice. Prohaeresius nodded and got to his feet. I was startled to see that he was nearer seven than six feet tall.

“We have a visitor,” he said to the others. All eyes were turned to me and I looked nervously to the floor. “A scholar of some renown.” Despite the irony of this, he said it amiably. “The cousin of a young friend of mine, now dead. Fellow scholars, the most noble Julian, heir to all the material world, as we are heirs to things spiritual, or try to be.”

There was a moment of confusion. The students were uncertain whether to behave towards me as a member of the imperial family or as a student. Many of those who were seated rose; some bowed; others simply stared curiously. Macrina whispered in my ear, “Go on, you dummy! Speak to him!”

I pulled myself together and made a speech, very brief and to the point, or so I thought. Macrina told me later that it was interminable and pretentious. Fortunately, now that I am Emperor all my speeches are considered graceful and to the point. How one’s style improves with greatness!

Prohaeresius then took me round among the students, introducing me to this one and that one. They were shy, even though I had carefully made the point that I intended to come and go at the University like any other student. Prohaeresius continued his discourse a little while longer. Then he dismissed the students and led me into the atrium of his house. The sun slanted now from the west. From upstairs I could hear the laughter and scuffling of the students who boarded there. Occasionally they would come out on the gallery to get a glimpse of me. But when they caught me looking at them, they pretended they had business in someone else’s room.

I would have given a good deal to have lived anonymously in one of those bare rooms.