Julian presiding at a conference of Sectarians
(Edward Armitage, 1875)
In the summer I used to go to my maternal grandmother’s estate in Bithynia. It was a small farm two miles from the sea. Just back of the house was a low hill from whose top there was a fine view of the sea of Marmora, while on the horizon’s farthest curve to the north rose the towers of Constantinople. Here I spent many hours, reading and dreaming.
One afternoon, lulled by the murmuring of bees, the scent of thyme, the warm salt-laden air, I fell asleep and dreamed that I was having some sort of quarrel with Gallus. I wanted to escape him. So I began to run. As I ran, I took longer and longer steps until I began to bound like a deer. With each leap, I remained higher in the air until at last I was gliding over the countryside while the people below stared with wonder as I sailed over their heads, completely free. There is no dream quite so satisfying as the one of flying.
Suddenly in my pleasant voyage, I was aware that someone was calling my name. I looked about me but there was no one in sight, only pale clouds, blue sky, dark sea. I was gliding over the Marmora, towards Constantinople, when the voice sounded again.
“Who wants me?” I asked.
Then—I don’t know how—but I realized that it was the sun who had spoken. Huge and gold above the city, the sun reached out fiery arms to me. And with an astonishingly poignant sense of coming home, I plunged straight into the blazing light. And awakened to find that the setting sun was indeed shining in my face. Dazzled, I got to my feet. I had been overwhelmed by light. I was also bewildered. Something important had happened. But what?
I told no one about this vision. However, some months later when Mardonius and I were alone together in the palace gardens overlooking the Bosphorus, I questioned him about the old religion. I began slyly: was everything Homer wrote true?
“Of course! Every word!”
“Then Zeus and Apollo and all the other gods must exist, because he says they do. And if they are real, then what became of them? Did Jesus destroy them?”
Poor Mardonius! He was a devoted classicist. He was also a Galilean. Like so many in those days, he was hopelessly divided. But he had his answer ready. “You must remember that Christ was not born when Homer lived. Wise as Homer was, there was no way for him to know the ultimate truth that we know. So he was forced to deal with the gods the people had always believed in…”
“False gods, according to Jesus, so if they’re false then what Homer writes about them can’t be true.”
“Yet like all things, those gods are manifestations of the true.” Mardonius shifted his ground. “Homer believed much as we believe. He worshipped the One God, the single principle of the universe. And I suspect he was aware that the One God can take many forms, and that the gods of Olympus are among them. After all, to this day God has many names because we have many languages and traditions, yet he is always the same.”
“What are some of the old names?”
“Zeus, Helios the sun, Serapis…”
“The sun.” My deity. “Apollo…” I began.
“Apollo also had many names, Helios, Companion of Mithras…”
“Apollo, Helios, Mithras,” I repeated softly. From where we sat in the shady grove on the slope beneath the Daphne Palace, I could just catch a glimpse of my deity, impaled on the dark green bough of a cypress.
“Mithraism was most devilish of all the cults. In fact, there are still some active Mithraists, soldiers mostly, ignorant folk, though a few philosophers (or would-be philosophers) are drawn to Mithras, like Iamblichos… I met him once, a remarkably ugly man, a Syrian, from Chalcis, I think, he died a few years ago, much admired by a small circle, but I’ve always thought his prose unreasonably obscure. He pretended to be a disciple of Plato. And of course he maintained that Jesus was a false prophet and our trinity absurd. Then—utter madness—he invented a trinity of his own, based on Plato.”
Carried away by his passion to explain, Mardonius was now hardly conscious of his rapt listener who understood perhaps every other word he spoke. Yet the general sense of what was being said was perfectly clear: Helios was an aspect of the One God, and there were those, like this mysterious Iamblichos, who still worshipped him.
“According to Iamblichos, there are three worlds, three realms of being, each presided over by the One God whose visible aspect is the sun. Now the first of these worlds is the intelligible world, which can be comprehended only by reason. You’ll find all this in Plato, when we get to him, if you get to him at your present rate. The second world is an intermediary one (this is Iamblichos’s invention); a world endowed with intelligence and governed by Helios-Mithras, with a number of assistants who turn out to be the old gods in various disguises, particularly Serapis to whom our souls return after death, Dionysus the fair, Hermes the intelligence of the universe, and Asklepios who actually lived, we think, and was a famous physician, worshipped by our ancestors as a saviour and healer.”
“Like Jesus?” “Somewhat similar, yes. Finally, the third world is our world, the world of sense and perception. Between the three worlds, the sun mediates. Light is good; darkness evil; and Mithras is the bridge, the link, between man and deity, light and dark. As you can see or as you will see—only part of this comes from Plato. Most of it is Persian in origin, based on a Persian hero named Mithras who lived, if he lived, a thousand years ago. Fortunately, with the birth of Jesus and the mystery of the trinity all this nonsense ended.”
“But the sun still exists.”
“To be absolutely precise, at this moment the sun does not exist.” Mardonius rose. “It’s set and we’re late for supper.”
That is how I became aware of the One God. In a dream Helios-Mithras had called out to me and I had beheld, literally, the light. From that day on, I was no longer alone. The sun was my protector.
I must say that during those years I needed all the solace I could get for I was continually haunted by my predicament. Would I be put to death like my father? One of my recurrent daydreams was that Constantius and I would meet, quite by chance, on my grandmother’s hill. In the dream the Emperor was always alone. He was stern but kind. We spoke of literature. He was delighted at my vast knowledge (I liked being praised for my reading). Then we became close friends, and the dream would end with him granting me my freedom to live out the rest of my life on my grandmothers farm, for one look into my eyes had convinced him that I was not worldly, that I wanted neither his throne nor revenge upon him for my father’s death. Time and again in my imagination I would convince him with brilliant argument and he would invariably grant my wish, tears in his eyes at my sincerity and lack of guile.
How curious men are! I was indeed sincere at that time. I was exactly as I have described myself. I did not want power, or so I thought. I truly believed that I wanted to live obscurely. And then? I broke Constantius. I took the throne. Knowing this now, were I Constantius and he that dreamy boy on a Bithynian hill, I would have had that young philosopher’s life on the spot. But then neither of us realized who I was, or what I would become.