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Julian (novel) Literature

Julian, 17

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

Gallus made a good impression on everyone—somewhat to my surprise, for he was always rather sullen with Bishop George and downright cruel to me and his teachers. But set among the great officers of the state, he was a different person. He laughed; he flattered; he charmed. He was a natural courtier, and one by one he enchanted the members of the Sacred Consistory, as the Emperor’s council is known. Only with Constantius did he make no headway. Our cousin was biding his time.
During the time the court was at Macellum, the junior officers and lesser officials dined in the main hall of the palace, while the Emperor and the magnates dined in the banqueting hall, which was somewhat smaller. In the hour before dinner everyone used to gather in the main hall to gossip. It was our first experience of a court. I found it bewildering, but Gallus took to it like a swan to water.
One evening Gallus allowed me to tag after him as he moved through that splendid company. Gallus was an excellent politician. He made friends not just with the magnates but also with the clerks and notaries who do the actual work of governing. He was shrewd. I of course was perfectly tongue-tied.
In the large hall, Gallus quickly gravitated to the group of officers with whom he had only that day gone hunting. I remember looking at these young men with wonder, for they had actually killed other men in battle in such far-away places as Germany and Mesopotamia. They were unusually self-contained and rather quiet, unlike the clerks and notaries, who were exceedingly talkative, eager to impress one with their knowledge of secret matters.
Gallus seemed particularly to like one tribune, an officer in his thirties named Victor (who is now one of my generals). Victor was—is—an impressive-looking man who speaks good Greek, though he comes from the Black Sea; he is bandy-legged and pale-eyed like so many Russians. “Is this the most noble Julian?” he asked, turning to me.
Gallus introduced me in an offhand way to the company. I blushed and said nothing.
“Will you be serving with us in the household troops?” Victor asked.
Gallus answered for me. “No. He’s going to be a priest.”
Before I could deny this, Victor said quite seriously, “I can think of no life worthier than one in the service of God.” I was struck by the simplicity with which he said this. No irony was intended.
Gallus was somewhat taken aback. “Not for me,” he said finally.
“Nor for me, unfortunately.” Victor gave me a sympathetic smile. “You must pray for us,” he said.
Gallus changed the subject. While he talked hunting with Victor, I stood by silently, beginning to feel already like one of those Galilean monks or “solitaries” as they are called, which is rather a misnomer since no monk is ever solitary. They are the most gregarious set of men in the world, for ever eating, guzzling and gossiping with one another. Most of them retire from the world in order to have a continuous party.
“Are you really going to become a priest?” The voice was low. I turned and saw a young man standing behind me. He had obviously been there for some time. I shook my head. “No,” I said.
“Good.” He smiled. He had sharp grey eyes beneath brows which met, giving him the look of one continually concentrating on some distant object. He wore civilian clothes, which was odd since at his age anyone of good family wears uniform at court.
“Who are you?” I asked.
“Oribasius of Pergamon, physician to the divine Augustus, who doesn’t need me. Your cousin is the healthiest man I’ve ever met.”
“I am happy to hear that!” I blazed sincerity. One’s neck depended on this sort of response.
“It’s a matter of diet,” said Oribasius matter-of-factly. “He’s a perfect example of the moderate life. He drinks almost no wine. He never overeats. He’ll live forever.”
“I pray that he does,” I said, my heart sinking. What would my life be like, lived in the shadow of a never-dying, always suspicious Constantius?
“But why does your brother say you’re going to be a priest?”
“Because I read books. He finds that strange.”
“And he associates strangeness with the priesthood?”
I tried not to smile. “Something like that. But I should like to be a philosopher or a rhetorician. Apparently I have no gift for soldiering. At least Gallus says I haven’t. But then, everything depends on the will of the divine Augustus.”
“Yes,” said Oribasius. He looked at me curiously. I recognized the look. I had seen it all my life. It meant: Are they going to kill this boy? And if they do, how interesting it all is! From birth I had been treated like a character in a tragic play.
“Do you like Macellum?”
“Would you, if you were me?” I had not meant to say this. But his look had irritated me and I suddenly rebelled at being treated like a mere thing, a victim, the dumb sacrifice in a bloody legend.
“No,” said Oribasius evenly. “I would not.”
“Well, then, you know how it is.” But frightened now that I had said too much, I began to babble about the goodness of my cousin, the kindness of Bishop George, the beauty of Cappadocia. For all I knew, Oribasius was a secret agent. Luckily, one of the chamberlains came to announce the approach of the Emperor, and I hurriedly left the main hall and took my place at table.
I have recorded this meeting with Oribasius, since he was to become my closest friend. But I did not see him again at Macellum or, if I did, I don’t remember him. He has told me since, “I’ve never seen anyone look so frightened as you.”
When I told him that my memory of myself in those days was one of serene self-control, Oribasius laughed. “I was positive you were on the verge of madness. I even diagnosed you—incorrectly—as an epileptic.”
“And what did you think of Gallus?”
“He was the one who appeared serene. I was quite impressed.”
“And of course Gallus went mad.”
“I don’t claim to be infallible.”
People never make the impression they think they make. But Oribasius was quite right in one thing: I was terrified.