Julian presiding at a conference of Sectarians
(Edward Armitage, 1875)
When the dinner was over, Sosipatra presented her sons to us. They were about my age. Two of them grew up to be speculators in grain, and most unsavoury. The third, Anatolius, I heard news of only recently. Some years ago he attached himself to the temple of Serapis at Alexandria. After Bishop George destroyed the temple, Anatolius climbed on to a broken column and now stares continually at the sun. How I envy the purity of such a life! But that night at dinner, the future holy man seemed a very ordinary youth, with a slight stammer.
When the sons had withdrawn, Sosipatra sent for a tripod and incense. “And now you will want to know what the gods advise you to do. Where to go. With whom to study.” She gave me a dazzling smile.
I blurted out, “I want to study here, with you.” But she shook her head, to Ecebolius’ relief. “I know my own future and a prince is no part of it. I wish it were otherwise,” she added softly, and I fell in love with her on the spot, as so many students had done before me.
Sosipatra lit the incense. She shut her eyes. She whispered a prayer. Then in a low voice she implored the Great Goddess to speak to us. Smoke filled the room. All things grew vague and indistinct. My head began to ache. Suddenly in a loud voice not her own, Sosipatra said, “Julian!”
I looked at her closely. Her eyes were half open but only the whites showed: she slept while the spirit possessed her. “You are loved by us beyond any man alive.” That was puzzling. “Us” must mean the gods. But why should they love a Galilean who doubted their existence? Of course I had also begun to question the divinity of the Nazarene, which made me neither Hellenist nor Galilean, neither believer nor atheist. I was suspended somewhere between, waiting for a sign. Could this be it?
“You will rebuild our temples. You will cause the smoke of a thousand sacrifices to rise from a thousand altars. You shall be our servant and all men shall be your servants, as token of our love.”
Ecebolius stirred nervously. “We must not listen to this,” he murmured.
The voice continued serenely. “The way is dangerous. But we shall protect you, as we have protected you from the hour of your birth. Earthly glory shall be yours. And death when it comes in far Phrygia, by enemy steel, will be a hero’s death, without painful lingering. Then you shall be with us for ever, close to the One from whom all light flows, to whom all light returns. Oh, Julian, dear to us… Evil!” The voice changed entirely. It became harsh. “Foul and profane! We bring you defeat. Despair. The Phrygian death is yours. But the tormented soul is ours for ever, far from light!”
Sosipatra screamed. She began to writhe in her chair; her hands clutched at her throat as though to loosen some invisible bond. Words tumbled disjointedly from her mouth. She was a battleground between warring spirits. But at last the good prevailed, and she became tranquil.
“Ephesus,” she said, and her voice was again soft and caressing. “At Ephesus you will find the door to light. Ecebolius, when you were a child you hid three coins in the garden of your uncle’s house at Sirmium. One was a coin of the reign of Septimus Severus. A gardener dug up the coins and spent them. That coin of Severus is now in Pergamon, in a tavern. Oribasius, your father insists you sell the property but hopes you will not make the same mistake you made last year when you leased the lower meadow to your Syrian neighbour, and he would not pay. Julian, beware the fate of Gallus. Remember… Hilarius!” She stopped. She became herself again. “My head aches,” she said in a tired voice.
We were all quite shaken. I most of all for she had practically said that I would become emperor, which was treason, for no one may consult an oracle about the imperial succession, nor even speculate in private on such matters. Ecebolius had been rightly alarmed.
Sosipatra had no memory of what was said. She listened carefully as we told her what the goddess—and the other—had said. She was intrigued. “Obviously a great future for the most noble Julian.”
“Of course,” said Ecebolius nervously. “As a loyal prince of the imperial house…”
“Of course!” Sosipatra laughed. “We must say no more.” Then she frowned. “I have no idea who the dark spirit was. But it is plain that the goddess was Cybele, and she wants you to honour her since she is the mother of all, and your protectress.”
“It also seems indicated that Julian should avoid Phrygia,” said Oribasius mischievously.
But Sosipatra took this quite seriously. “Yes. Julian will die in Phrygia, gloriously, in battle.” She turned to me. “I don’t understand the reference to your brother. Do you?”
I nodded, unable to speak, my head whirling with dangerous thoughts.
“The rest of it seems plain enough. You are to restore the worship of the true gods.”
“It seems rather late in the day for that.” Ecebolius had found his tongue at last. “And even if it were possible, Julian is a Christian. The imperial house is Christian. This makes him a most unlikely candidate for restoring the old ways.”
“Are you unlikely?” Sosipatra fixed me with her great dark eyes.
I shook my head helplessly. “I don’t know. I must wait for a sign.”
“Perhaps this was the sign. Cybele herself spoke to you.”
“So did something else,” said Ecebolius.
“There is always the Other,” said Sosipatra. “But light transcends all things. As Macrobius wrote, ‘The sun is the mind of the universe.’ And nowhere, not even in the darkest pit of hell, is mind entirely absent.”
“What is at Ephesus?” I asked suddenly.
Sosipatra gave me a long look. Then she said, “Maximus is there. He is waiting for you. He has been waiting for you since the day you were born.”
Ecebolius stirred at this. “I am perfectly sure that Maximus would like nothing better than to instruct the prince, but, unfortunately for him, I was appointed by the Grand Chamberlain to supervise Julian’s studies and I am not at all eager for my pupil to become involved with a notorious magician.”
Sosipatra’s voice was icy. “We think of Maximus as being something more than a ‘notorious magician’. It is true that he can make the gods appear to him, but…”
“Actually appear?” I was fascinated.
“Actors, from the theatre,” muttered Oribasius, “carefully rehearsed, tricks of lighting…”
Sosipatra smiled. “Oribasius! That is unworthy of you! What would your father say to that?”
“I have no idea. You see more of him nowadays than I do.” Sosipatra ignored this. She turned to me. “Maximus is no charlatan. If he were, I would have unmasked him years ago. Of course people question his powers. They should. One must not take anything on blind faith. Yet when he speaks to the gods…”
“He speaks to them, but do they really speak to him? That’s more the point,” said Ecebolius.
“They do. I was present once in Ephesus when a group of atheists questioned him, just as you have.”
“Not to believe in Maximus does not make one an atheist.” Ecebolius was growing irritated.
She continued through him. “Maximus asked us to meet him that night in the temple of Hecate. Now the temple has not been used in years. It is a simple building, containing a bronze statue of the goddess and nothing more, so there was no way for Maximus to… prepare a miracle.” She looked sharply at Oribasius. “When we had all arrived, Maximus turned to the statue and said, ‘Great Goddess, show these unbelievers a sign of your power.’ There was a moment of silence. Then the bronze torches she held in her bronze hands burst into flame.”
“Naphtha,” said Oribasius.
“I must go to Ephesus,” I said.
“But that was not all. The statue smiled at us. The bronze face smiled. Then Hecate laughed. I have never heard such a sound! All heaven seemed to mock us, as we fled from that place.”
Sosipatra turned to Ecebolius. “He has no choice, you know. At Ephesus his life begins.”