Julian presiding at a conference of Sectarians
(Edward Armitage, 1875)
Priscus to Libanius
Athens, March 380
Yes, the edict is well known here, but the general feeling at the University is that despite its severe tone we are not apt to be persecuted. The schools are flourishing. The little Christians flock to us to be civilized, and I find them much like their Hellenist brothers. But then all young people seem to me more and more alike. They ask the same questions and they give you the same answers to the questions they ask you. I despair of teaching anyone anything, least of all myself. I have not had a new idea since I was twenty-seven.
That is why I don’t publish my lectures. Also, too many of us publish out of vanity or to attract students. At seventy-five (I am nine, not a dozen, years older than you) I am an empty flagon. Tap me and you will hear an awful hollow sound. My head is a tomb quite as empty as the one Jesus is supposed to have walked away from. I incline now to Crates and the early Cynics, less to Plato and the rest.
I am not in the least convinced that there is a Divine Oneness at the centre of the universe, nor am I susceptible to magic, unlike Julian, who was hopelessly gullible. I often thought Maximus exploited his good-heartedness. But then I never could endure Maximus. How he used to waste Julian’s time with his séances and arcane gibberish! I teased the Emperor about him once, but Julian only laughed and said, “Who knows through what door wisdom will walk?”
As to your publishing project, I am not at all certain that a sympathetic biography of Julian would have the slightest effect at this time. Theodosius is a military politician, impressed by bishops. He might of course sanction a biography of his predecessor simply because Julian is much admired to this day, though not for his philosophy. Julian is admired because he was young and handsome and the most successful general of our century. The people have a touching admiration for generals who win battles, which is why there are no heroes today.
But if Theodosius did permit a biography, it would have to avoid the religious issue. The bishops would see to that. And for ferocity there is nothing on earth to equal a Christian bishop hunting “heresy”, as they call any opinion contrary to their own. Especially confident are they on that subject where they are as ignorant as the rest of mankind.
Anyway, I don’t want to fight them, because I am one and they are many. And though I am, as you so comfortingly suggest, old and near the end of my life, I enjoy amazingly good health. I am told that I look no different than I did at forty, and I am still capable of the sexual act at almost any time. This vitality repels Hippia, who has aged noticeably in the last few years, but it seems to please various young women in a certain quarter of Athens which you doubtless have heard of—in novels of the Milesian school!
Do I make myself clear? I have no wish to be burned alive or stoned or tacked up to the door of a Christian church, or “charnel house” as Julian used to call them. You may be as brave as you like and I will applaud you in my heart. But I have no intention of writing a single sentence about Julian, fond as I was of him and alarmed as I am at the strange course our world has taken since the adventurer Constantine sold us to the bishops.
Julian’s memoir was written during the last four months of his life. It was begun in March 363, at Hierapolis. Nearly every night during our invasion of Persia he would dictate recollections of his early life. The result is a bit helter-skelter, for both as a writer and as a man he was swift and impulsive. He once told me that he would like to compose an autobiography of the order of Marcus Aurelius to Himself, but he lacked that writer’s discipline.
Julian was also influenced by Xenophon’s The March Upcountry, since Xenophon took much the same route we did seven centuries later. Julian’s interest in history was always lively, and he was a great sightseer. The resulting memoir is something of a hybrid; even so, Julian was often an engaging writer, and if he was not better it is because it is hard to be emperor, philosopher and general all at once. He was also indiscreet about everyone.
I hope you forgive him. I have done so. He suspected that he had very little time and he wanted to get everything said. As for his mysterious death, I have a theory as to what happened, which I will explain to you in due course.
I have never quite known what to do with this work. When Julian died, I took all his personal papers, suspecting that his Christian successors would destroy them. I had no right to these papers, of course, but I don’t regret my theft. I told no one about the memoir until I was back safe in Antioch, where I must have mentioned it to you the day you read us your famous eulogy. I was so moved by your eloquence that I betrayed my own confidence.
I am now having a fair copy made of the manuscript. You are misinformed if you think copying is cheaper here than at Antioch. Quite the contrary. The estimated cost will run to eighty gold solidi, which I suggest you send by return post. On receipt of the full amount, I will send you the book to use as you see fit. Only do not mention to anyone that I had any connection with the matter. I have not the slightest desire to endure martyrdom at this time, or ever.
I thought I had written you about your collection of letters. I did get the book and it was very thoughtful of you to send it to me. We are all in your debt for those letters, especially yours to Julian. They are wise. I know of no other philosopher so sensible of posterity as to keep copies of every letter he writes, realizing that even his most trivial effusion has, in the context of the large body of his work, an eternal value.
Hippia joins me in wishing you good health.