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Julian (novel) Literature

Julian, 47

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

“Who is this?” Standing over us was a slender girl, with black intelligent eyes and a mouth that was as quick to sneer as to smile. Gregory introduced us; he said that I was from Cappadocia. She was Macrina, a niece of Prohaeresius.

“I like your beard,” she said, sitting down without invitation. “It comes to a point. Most men’s beards are like Gregory’s, every which way. Yours suggests a plan. Will you study with my uncle?”

I said that I would. I was charmed by her. She wore her own version of a student’s cloak, in faded blue linen. Her bare arms were firm and darkened by the sun; strong fingers tore idly at the scraps of stale bread on the table; on the bench our thighs touched.

“You’ll like my uncle. He’s much the best teacher in this chattering place. But you’ll hate Athens. I do! The splitting of hairs. The talk, talk, talk, and everyone trying to make a point, to pretend that all this talk means something.”

“You are now listening to what is known as ‘Macrina’s Lament’,” said Gregory.

“But it’s true just the same.” She pointed to him like an actress in tragedy. “They are the worst: Gregory and Basil, the Twins of argument…”

Gregory brightened. “You should have heard Basil’s argument yesterday when we were challenged on the virgin birth.” Gregory turned to me. “As I told you, there are many atheists in Athens. And some of them have the devil’s own cleverness. One in particular we despise…”

“One? You despise everybody, Gregory!” Macrina sipped wine from my cup, without invitation. “If ever there were a pair of bishops, it’s these two. You’re not a bishop, are you?” she challenged me agreeably.

I shook my head.

“Not even close,” said Gregory, and I detected something sly in his voice.

“But a Christian?” asked Macrina.

“He must be,” said Gregory smoothly. “He has to be.”

Has to be? Why? It’s not illegal to be a Hellenist, is it? At least not yet.”

I loved her deeply then. We were the same. I looked at her with sudden fondness as the fine if rather grubby fingers lifted and drained my cup.

“I mean he cannot be because…” I frowned at Gregory; he was not to tell her who I was. But he was on a different tack. “… because he is a brilliant student and anyone who truly loves learning loves God, loves Christ, loves the trinity.”

“Well, I don’t.” She set the cup down hard. “I wonder if he does.”

But I evaded. What had been Basil’s defence of the virgin birth?

“He was challenged on the University steps, yesterday, shortly before noon.” Gregory spoke precisely as though he were a historian giving the details of a battle all the world would want to know about. “A Cynic, a true Cynic,” he added for my benefit, “stopped Basil and said, ‘You Christians claim that Christ was born of a virgin.’ Basil said that we do not merely claim it, we proclaim it, for it is true. Our Lord was born without an earthly father. The Cynic then said that this was entirely against nature, that it was not possible for any creature to be born except through the union of male and female. Then Basil said— there was quite a large crowd gathered by now—Basil said, ‘Vultures bring forth without coupling.’ Well, you should have heard the applause and laughter! The Cynic went away and Basil was a hero, even among those students who have no faith.”

“At least they knew Aristotle,” I said mildly. But Macrina was not impressed. “Just because vultures don’t mate…”

“The female vulture is impregnated by the wind.” Gregory is one of those people who must always embellish the other person’s observation. Unfortunately, he is drawn to the obvious. He tells what everyone already knows. But Macrina was relentless.

“Even if vultures don’t mate…”

Even? But they don’t mate. That is a fact.”

“Has anyone ever seen a vulture made fertile by the wind?” Macrina was mischievous.

“I suppose someone must have.” Gregory’s round eyes became even rounder with irritation.

“But how could you tell? The wind is invisible. So how would you know which particular wind—if any—made the bird conceive?”

“She is perverse.” Gregory turned to me, much annoyed. “Besides, if it were not true, Aristotle would not have said it was true and we would not all agree today that it is indeed the truth.”

“I’m not sure of the logic of that,” began Macrina thoughtfully.

“She’ll be condemned for atheism one of these days.” Gregory tried to sound playful; he failed.

Macrina laughed at him, a pleasant, low, unmalicious laugh. “All right. A vulture’s eggs are laid by a virgin bird. Accepted. What has that to do with Christ’s birth? Mary was not a vulture. She was a woman. Women conceive in only one way. I can’t see that Basil’s answer to the Cynic was so crushing. What is true of the vulture is not necessarily true of Mary.”

“Basil’s answer,” said Gregory tightly, “was to the argument used by the Cynic when he said that all things are conceived by male and female. Well, if one thing is not conceived in this fashion—and that was Basil’s argument—then another might not be and…”

“But ‘might not’ is not an argument. I might suddenly grow wings and fly to Rome (I wish I could!) but I can’t, I don’t.”

“There are no cases of human beings having wings, but there is…”

“Icarus and Daedalus,” began the valiant Macrina, but we were saved by Basil’s arrival. Gregory’s face was dark with anger, and the girl was beside herself with amusement.

Basil and I greeted one another warmly. He had changed considerably since we were adolescents. He was now a fine-looking man, tall and somewhat thin; unlike Gregory, he wore his hair close-cropped. I teased him about this. “Short hair means a bishop.”

Basil smiled his amiable smile and said in a soft voice,” ‘May that cup pass from me,'” a quotation from the Nazarene. But unlike the carpenter, Basil was sincere. Today he leads precisely the life that I should like for myself: withdrawn, ascetic, given to books and to prayer. He is a true contemplative and I admire him very much, despite his religion.

Macrina, having heard him call me Julian, suddenly said, “Isn’t the Emperor’s cousin, the one called Julian, supposed to come to Athens?”

Basil looked with surprise at Gregory, who motioned for him to be still. “Do you know the prince?” Macrina turned to me.

I nodded. “I know him. But not well.” Solon’s famous truth. Macrina nodded. “But of course you would. You were all at Pergamon together. The Twins often discuss him.”

I was embarrassed but amused. I have never been an eavesdropper, even in childhood. Not from any sense of virtue but because I really do not want to know what people think of me or, to be precise, what they say of me—often a different matter. I can usually imagine the unpleasant judgments, for we are what others need us to be. That is why our reputations change so often and so drastically, reflecting no particular change in us, merely a change in the mood of those who observe us. When things go well, an emperor is loved; badly, hated. I never need to look in a mirror. I see myself all too clearly in the eyes of those about me.

I was embarrassed not so much for what Macrina might say about me but for what she might reveal about Gregory and Basil. I would not have been surprised if they had a low opinion of me. Intelligent youths of low birth tend to resent the intellectual pretensions of princes. In their place, I would.

Gregory looked downright alarmed. Basil’s face was inscrutable. I tried to change the subject. I asked at what time her uncle would be receiving but she ignored the question. “It’s their chief distinction, knowing Julian. They discuss him by the hour. They speculate on his chances of becoming emperor. Gregory thinks he will be emperor. Basil thinks Constantius will kill him.”

Though Basil knew where the conversation was tending, he was fearless. “Macrina, how can you be so certain this is not one of the Emperor’s secret agents?”

“Because you know him.”

“We know criminals, too. Idolaters. Agents of the devil.”

“Whoever saw a secret agent with that sort of beard? Besides, why should I care? I’m not plotting against the Emperor.” She turned to me, black eyes glowing. “If you are a secret agent, you’ll remember that, won’t you? I worship the Emperor. My sun rises and sets in his divinity. Every time I see that beautiful face in marble, I want to weep, to cry out: Perfection, thou art Constantius!”

Gregory positively hissed, not at all sure how I would take this mockery. I was amused but uncomfortable. I confess it occurred to me that perhaps Gregory or Basil or even Macrina might indeed be a member of the secret police. If so, Macrina had already said quite enough to have us all executed. That would be the saddest fate of all: to die as the result of a joke!

“Don’t be an old woman, Gregory!” Macrina turned to me. “These two dislike Julian. I can’t think why. Jealousy, I suppose. Especially Gregory. He’s very petty. Aren’t you?” Gregory was now grey with terror. “They feel Julian is a dilettante and not serious. They say his love of learning is just affectation. Basil feels that his true calling is that of a general—if he lives, of course. But Gregory thinks he’s far too scatterbrained even for that. Yet Gregory longs for Julian to be emperor. He wants to be friend to an emperor. You’re both terribly worldly, deep down, aren’t you?”

Gregory was speechless. Basil was alarmed but he showed courage. “I would deny only the part about ‘worldly’. I want nothing in the world. In fact, next month I enter a monastery at Caesarea where I shall be as far from the world as I can be, this side of death.”

Gregory rallied. “You do have a bitter tongue, Macrina.” He turned to me, attempting lightness. “She invents everything. She loves to mock us. She is a pagan, of course. A true Athenian.” He could hardly contain his loathing of the girl or his fear of me.

Macrina laughed at him. “Anyway, I’m curious to meet the prince.” She turned to me. “Where will you live? With my uncle?”

I said no, that I would stay with friends. She nodded. “My uncle keeps a good house and never cheats. My father takes some of the overflow and though he’s honest he hates all students deeply, hopelessly.”

I laughed. The Twins laughed too, somewhat hollowly. Basil then proposed that we go to the house of Prohaeresius. I settled our account with the owner of the tavern. We went outside. In the hot dust of the street, Macrina whispered in my ear, “I have known all along that you were the prince.”