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Julian (novel) Literature

Julian, 39

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

On 1 January 355 a warrant was issued for my arrest. But by then I had joined a religious order at Nicomedia. I am sure that at first none of the monks knew who I was, for I had come to them with head shaved and I looked like any other novice, Oribasius also protected me. When the imperial messenger arrived at Pergamon to arrest me, Oribasius said that I had gone to Constantinople.

I was a monk for six weeks. I found the life surprisingly pleasant. I enjoyed the austerity and the mild physical labour. The monks themselves were not very inspiring. I suppose some must have had the religious sense but the majority were simply vagrants who had tired of the road and its discomforts. They treated the monastery as though it were some sort of hostel rather than a place to serve the One God. Yet they were easy to get along with, and had it not been for the Galilean rituals I could have been quite happy.

I don’t suppose I shall ever know how I was discovered. Perhaps one of the monks recognized me or perhaps the secret agents in checking the rolls of the various monasteries for new arrivals had grown suspicious. No matter how it was done, it was done swiftly and efficiently. I was in the kitchen of the monastery, helping the baker to fire his oven, when a detachment of household troops came clattering in. Their commander saluted me. “The most noble Julian is to accompany us to Milan, by order of the Augustus.”

I made no protest. The monks stared in silence as I was taken from them and marched through the cold streets of Nicomedia to the imperial palace. Here I was received by the city prefect. He was nervous. Under similar circumstances five years earlier, Gallus had been ordered to Milan and he had been made Caesar of the East. The same fate might befall me. It was hard for an official to know how to behave.

“Naturally, we regret these security precautions.” The prefect indicated the guards. “But you will understand that the Grand Chamberlain’s office was, as always, most specific. No details were omitted.”

I was polite and non-committal. I was also somewhat cheered to learn that my military escort was to be commanded by Victor, the same officer I had met at Macellum.

Victor was apologetic. “I don’t enjoy this duty. I hope you realize that.”

“Neither do I.”

Victor frowned. “I particularly dislike taking a priest from a monastery.”

“I am not exactly a priest.”

“Even so, you were prepared to take orders. No one has the right to keep a man from God, not even the Emperor.” Victor is a devout Galilean; at that time he was convinced that I was also one. I said nothing to disabuse him.

The next day we set out for Constantinople. Though I was treated like a prince, not a prisoner, I took it as a bad omen that we were to follow the same overland route to Italy that Gallus had taken a few months before.

As we were leaving Nicomedia, I noticed a head on a pike. I hardly glanced at it, since there is almost always the head of some felon or other on display at the main gate of every town.

“I am sorry,” said Victor suddenly. “But we were ordered to use this gate.”

“Sorry for what?”

“To lead you past your brother’s head.”

“Gallus?” I turned clear round in my saddle and looked again at the head. The face had been so mutilated that the features were unrecognizable, but there was no mistaking the blond hair, matted though it was with dirt and blood.

“The Emperor has had it displayed in every city in the East.” I shut my eyes, on the verge of nausea.

“Your brother had many good qualities,” said Victor. “It was a pity.” Ever since, I have respected Victor. In those days when secret agents were everywhere and no man was safe, it took courage to say something good of a man executed for treason. Victor was equally outspoken in my defence. It was his view that the two charges made against me by the Grand Chamberlain’s office were not serious (that I had left Macellum without permission; that I had met Gallus in Constantinople when he was already accused of treason). Of the first charge I was innocent. The Grand Chamberlain himself had written Bishop George, giving me permission to go wherever I chose in the East. I had wisely kept a copy of this letter. As for the second charge, I had been summoned to Constantinople by the then reigning Caesar of the East. How could I refuse my lawful lord? “You have nothing to fear,” said Victor. But I was not optimistic.

Since I was travelling as a prince, I was greeted at each city by the local dignitaries. Concerned as I was about my own fate, I was still able to take some pleasure in seeing new things. I was particularly pleased when Victor allowed me to visit Ilios, a modern city near the ruins of ancient Troy.

At Ilios I was taken round by the local bishop. At first my heart sank: a Galilean bishop was the last sort of person who would be interested in showing me the temples of the true gods. But to my surprise, Bishop Pegasius was an ardent Hellenist. In fact, he was the one who was surprised when I asked him if we might visit the temples of Hector and Achilles.

“But of course. Nothing would give me greater pleasure. But I am surprised that you are interested in old monuments.”

“I am a child of Homer.”

“So is every educated man. But we are also Christians. Your piety is well known to us even here.” I could not be sure if he was being ironic or not. My friendship with Maximus was general knowledge and a good many Galileans were suspicious of me. On the other hand, my arrest in a monastery had given rise to a whole new legend: the priest-prince. In this role, I explained to the bishop that it was merely as a student of Homer that I wanted to see the famous temples our ancestors had built to those gods (false gods!) and heroes who had fought in this haunted place.

Pegasius took me first to the small temple which contains the famous bronze statue of Hector, said to be done from life. In the unroofed courtyard which surrounds the temple there also stands a colossal statue of Achilles, facing Hector in effigy as in life. To my astonishment, the altars in the courtyard were smouldering with sacrifice, while the statue of Hector shone from a recent anointing.

I turned to the Bishop. “What do these fires mean? Do the people still worship Hector?”

Pegasius was bland. “Of course they do. After all, it would be unnatural not to worship our brave men in the same way that we worship the martyrs who also lived here.”

“I’m not sure it is the same thing,” I said primly.

“Well, at least we have managed to preserve many beautiful works of art.” Then Pegasius proceeded to show me the temples of Athena and Achilles, both in perfect repair. I noted too, that whenever he passed the image of an old god, he did not hiss and make the sign of the cross the way most Galileans do, fearing contamination.

Pegasius proved to be a marvellous guide to Troy. I was particularly moved when he showed me the sarcophagus of Achilles. “There he lies, the fierce Achilles.” He tapped the ancient marble. “A hero and a giant—actually, a giant. Some years ago we opened the tomb and found the bones of a man seven feet tall, and where his heel had been there was the head of an arrow.”

It was awesome to be so close to the legendary past. Pegasius could see that I was impressed. Despite all efforts to the contrary, I am transparent as water. “Those were great days,” he said softly.

“They will come again,” I blurted out.

“I pray that you are right,” said the bishop of Ilios. Today this same Pegasius is my high priest of Cappadocia. He was never a Galilean though he pretended to be one, thinking that by rising to a position of importance among that depraved sect he would be able to preserve the temples of our ancestors. Now he revels in his freedom.

Priscus: And now he revels in life at the Persian court, where, according to gossip, he is a convert to Persian sun worship. Julian took up with the oddest people.