Julian, 50

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

I was placed in the chair of honour beside the fountain, as Prohaeresius presented his wife Amphiclea to me. She is a sad woman who has never got over the deaths of two daughters. She spoke seldom. Obviously philosophy has been no consolation to her. I also met Macrina’s father, Anatolius, a boorish man who looked like an innkeeper, which he was. Macrina was not fond of him.

Basil and Gregory excused themselves. Gregory was most winning. He offered to take me to all the lectures; he would be my guide. Basil was equally pleasant though he said that he might have to excuse himself from most expeditions. “It’s only a few months before I go back. I have a great deal to do, if I’m spared.” And he pressed both hands to his middle, with a look of mock agony. “My liver feels as if Prometheus’s vultures were tearing at it!”

“Stay out of draughts, then,” I found myself saying too quickly, “or you may conceive and lay a vulture’s egg!” Prohaeresius and Macrina both got the allusion and burst out laughing. Basil was not much amused and I regretted the quickness with which I had spoken. I often do this. It is a fault. Gregory shook my hand fondly; then he and Basil left. To this day he is probably afraid that I shall have my revenge on him for what he said about me. But I am not like that, as the world knows.

We drank wine in the garden. Prohaeresius asked me about matters at court. He was most interested in politics; in fact, when my cousin Constans wanted to ennoble him as a sign of admiration, he offered Prohaeresius the honorary title of praetorian prefect. But the old man said that he preferred to be food comptroller for Athens (a significant title Constantius always reserved for himself). Then, exercising the authority that went with his title, he got the corn supply of several islands diverted to Athens. Needless to say, he is a hero to the city.

Prohaeresius was suspicious of me from the beginning. And for all his geniality he seemed by his questions to be trying to get me to confess to some obscure reason for visiting Athens. He spoke of the splendours of Milan and Rome, the vitality of Constantinople, the elegant viciousness of Antioch, the high intellectual tone of Pergamon and Nicomedia; he even praised Caesarea—“the Metropolis of Letters”, as Gregory always refers to it, and not humorously. Any one of these cities, Prohaeresius declared, ought to attract me more than Athens. I told him bluntly that I had come to see him.

“And the beautiful city?” Macrina suddenly interrupted.

“And the beautiful city,” I repeated dutifully.

Prohaeresius rose suddenly. “Let us take a walk by the river,” he said. “Just the two of us.”

At the Ilissos we stopped opposite the Kallirrhoe Fountain, a sort of stone island so hollowed and shaped by nature that it does indeed resemble a fountain; from it is drawn sacred water. We sat on the bank, among long grass brown from August heat. Plane trees sheltered us from the setting sun. The day was golden; the air still. All around us students read or slept. Across the river, above a row of dusty trees, rose Hymettos. I was euphoric.

“My dear boy,” Prohaeresius addressed me now without ceremony as father to son. “You are close to the fire.”

It was a most unexpected beginning. I lay full length on the thick brown turf while he sat cross-legged beside me, very erect, his back to the bole of a plane tree. I looked up at him, noting how rounded and youthful the neck was, how firm the jaw line for one so old.

“Fire? The sun’s? The earth’s?”

Prohaeresius smiled. “Neither. Nor hell’s fire, as the Christians say.”

“As you believe?” I was not certain to what extent he was a Galilean; even now, I don’t know. He has always been evasive. I cannot believe such a fine teacher and Hellenist could be one of them, but anything is possible, as the gods daily demonstrate.

“We are not ready for that dialogue just yet,” he said. He gestured towards the swift shrunken river at our feet. “There, by the way, is where Plato’s Phaidros is set. They had good talk that day, and on this same bank.”

“Shall we equal it?”

“Some day, perhaps.” He paused. I waited, as though for an omen. “You will be emperor one day.” The old man said this evenly, as though stating fact.

“I don’t want to be. I doubt if I shall be. Remember that of all our family, only Constantius and I are left. As the others went, so I shall go. That’s why I’m here. I wanted to see Athens first.”

“Perhaps you mean that. But I… well, I confess to a weakness for oracles.” He paused significantly. That was enough. One word more and he would have committed treason. It is forbidden by law to consult an oracle concerning the emperor—an excellent law, by the way, for who would ever obey a ruler the date of whose death was known and whose successor had been identified? I must say that I was shocked at the old man’s candour. But also pleased that he felt he could trust me.

“Is it predicted?” I was as bold as he. I incriminated myself, hoping to prove to him my own good faith.

He nodded. “Not the day, not the year, merely the fact. But it will be tragedy.”

“For me? Or for the state?”

“No one knows. The oracle was not explicit.” He smiled. “They seldom are. I wonder why we put such faith in them.”

“Because the gods do speak to us in dreams and reveries. That is a fact. Both Homer and Plato…”

“Perhaps they do. Anyway, the habit of believing is an old one… I knew all your family.” Idly he plucked at the brown grass with thick-veined old hands. “Constans was weak. But he had good qualities. He was not the equal of Constantius, of course. You are.”

“Don’t say that.”

“I merely observe.” He turned to me suddenly. “Now it is my guess, Julian, that you mean to restore the worship of the old gods.”

My breath stopped. “You presume too much.” My voice shook despite a hardness of tone which would have done justice to Constantius himself. Sooner or later one learns the Caesarian trick: that abrupt shift in tone which is harsh reminder of the rod and axe we wield over all men.

“I hope that I do,” said the old man, serenely.

“I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have spoken like that. You are the master.”

He shook his head. “No, you are the master, or will be soon. I want only to be useful. To warn you that despite what your teacher Maximus may say, the Christians have won.”

“I don’t believe it!” Fiercely and tactlessly I reminded him that only a small part of the Roman population was actually Galilean.

“Why do you call them Galileans?” he asked, interrupting my harangue.

“Because Galilee was where he came from!”

Prohaeresius saw through me. “You fear the word ‘Christian’,” he said, “for it suggests that those who call themselves that are indeed followers of a king, a great lord.”

“A mere name cannot affect what they are.” I evaded him. But he is right. The name is a danger to us.

I resumed my argument: most of the civilized world is neither Hellenist nor Galilean, but suspended in between. With good reason, a majority of the people hate the Galileans. Too many innocents have been slaughtered in their mindless doctrinal quarrels. I need only mention the murder of Bishop George at Alexandria to recall vividly to those who read this the savagery of that religion not only towards its enemies (whom they term “impious”) but also towards its own followers.

Prohaeresius tried to argue with me, but though he is the world’s most eloquent man, I would not listen to him. Also, he was uncharacteristically artless in his defence of the Galileans, which made me suspect he was not one of them. Like so many, he is in a limbo between Hellenism and the new death cult. Nor do I think he is merely playing it safe. He is truly puzzled. The old gods do seem to have failed us, and I have always accepted the possibility that they have withdrawn from human affairs, terrible as that is to contemplate. But mind has not failed us. Philosophy has not failed us. From Homer to Plato to Iamblichos the true gods continue to be defined in their many aspects and powers: multiplicity contained by the One, all emanating from truth. Or as Plotinus wrote: “Of its nature the soul loves God and longs to be at one with him.” As long as the soul of man exists, there is God. It is all so clear.

I realized that I was making a speech to a master of eloquence, but I could not stop myself. Dozing students sat up and looked at me curiously, convinced I was mad, for I was waving my arms in great arcs as I am prone to do when passionate. Prohaeresius took it all in good part.

“Believe what you must,” he said at last.

“But you believe, too! You believe in what I believe. You must or you could not teach as you do.”

“I see it differently. That is all. But try to be practical. The thing has taken hold. The Christians govern the world through Constantius. They have had almost thirty years of wealth and power. They will not surrender easily. You come too late, Julian. Of course if you were Constantine and this were forty years ago and we were pondering these same problems, then I might say to you: “Strike! Outlaw them! Rebuild the temples!’ But now is not then. You are not Constantine. They have the world. The best one can hope to do is civilize them. That is why I teach. That is why I can never help you.”

I respected him that day. I respect him now. If he is still alive when this campaign is ended, I shall want to talk to him again. How we all long to make conversions!

Like two conspirators, we returned to his house. We now had a bond between us which could not be broken, for each had told the other true and dangerous things. Fear defined our friendship and gave it savour.