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Julian (novel)

Julian, 62

Editor’s note: ‘They thought me a bookish fool who knew nothing of weaponry and preferred talk to war’ said Gore Vidal’s Julian in one of the most important days of his life. This is exactly what the Romans of yore would say of any white nationalist of our century that prefers talk to war:

I was created Caesar 6 November 355, the year when Arbetio and Lollianus were consuls. I will say one thing for Constantius. He had an artist’s gift for ceremony. Though I like to think I surpass him in many ways, I know I shall never be able to create the sense of awful majesty he could whenever he chose. One knew this was the Augustus when he appeared before a crowd. When I appear, the people are not in the least impressed. I believe they have a certain affection for me, but I don’t in the least alarm them. They think I look like a professor of rhetoric. They are quite right. I do.

At the far end of the main square, a high wooden platform had been decorated with the eagles of Rome and the dragons of our house. The square itself was filled with soldiers in full military dress.

As I was led by the generals of the army to the platform, I was conscious that every muscle in my body ached, for I had been practising daily with sword and javelin. I was exhausted, and I’m afraid that my instructors had nothing but contempt for me. They thought me a bookish fool who knew nothing of weaponry and preferred talk to war.

Of course they were courteous to my face, but behind my back I often heard soft mocking laughter. Incidentally, I was surprised to discover how little I can endure mockery. One of the best consolations of philosophy is that it supposedly prepares one for the contempt of others. Some philosophers even revel in the dislike of the vulgar. Not I. Perhaps there is something to the idea of blood and inheritance. After all, I am descended from three emperors. To be thought weak and womanish by hearty young officers was unbearable to me. Grimly, I made up my mind to surpass them in every way. Unfortunately, at this moment my primacy was more wish than fact. I had done too much too fast. As a result, I was even clumsier than usual.

The moment I reached the base of the platform, horns were sounded. Cheering began, A path opened through the legions, and Constantius appeared in his gilded state carriage; he wore a dragonshaped gold helmet and the purple. As he passed me, I caught his eye and got a look as blind as Homer’s! In public, the emperor does not see mere men.

Slowly Constantius climbed the steps to the platform, his short bowed legs slightly diminishing the majesty of his presence. From the platform, he received the cheer of the legions. Then he motioned for me to join him. With a sense of one going to his own execution, I climbed the steep wooden steps and took my place at the side of Constantius… I almost wrote at the side of history, for I was now legend. For better or worse, I had become a part of that long chronicle which began with Julius Caesar and whose end none can foresee.

I looked out over the massed troops. This was my first look at an army, and I confess to revelling in the sight. All thought of philosophy went clear out of my head as the dragon pennants fluttered in the autumn wind, and the eagles below us dipped as the salute was given.

Constantius reached out and took my right hand in his. His grip was firm and callused. I glanced at him out of the corner of my eye, conscious something was not right: he was half a head taller than I. I looked down and saw that he was standing on a footstool. Constantius neglected no detail which might enhance his majesty.

Constantius spoke to the legions. His high-pitched voice carried well. The Latin he used was that of the army, but it was easy to understand. He had memorized his speech. “We stand before you, valiant defenders of our country, to avenge the common cause. How this is to be done, I put to you not as soldiers but as impartial judges. After the death of those rebellious tyrants whom mad fury drove to seize the state, the savages to the north, thinking that this great empire was weak and in confusion, crossed into Gaul. They are there now. Only you and we, in perfect accord, can turn them back. The choice is yours. Here stands before you our cousin Julian, honoured for his modesty, as dear to us for that as for the ties of blood; a young man of conspicuous ability whom I desire to make Caesar if you will confirm him…”

At this point, though in mid-sentence, Constantius was stopped by various voices declaring that it was clearly the will of God, not of man, that I be raised to the rank of Caesar. I quite agreed, though the God they had in mind and the One who did indeed raise me up were not the same. Nevertheless, I admired the skill with which Constantius had staged the scene. The voices rang out as though spontaneous (actually, everything had been carefully rehearsed). Constantius remained very still while they spoke, as though listening to an oracle. My hand in his grew sweaty; but he never relaxed the firm grip. When there was silence again, he nodded gravely to the legions. “Your response is enough. I see that I have your approval.”

He let go my hand. He motioned for two generals to join us on the platform. One carried a wreath; the other a purple robe. They stood behind us.

“This young man’s quiet strength and temperate behaviour” (he emphasized the word “temperate” to reassure them that I was not Gallus) “should be imitated rather than proclaimed; his excellent disposition, trained in all good arts, I concur in by the very fact that I have chosen to elevate him. So now with the immediate favour of the God of heaven, I invest him with this imperial robe.” The cloak was put about my shoulders. Constantius arranged it at the neck. Only once did he look me in the eye as we faced one another, he on his footstool and I with my back to the legions. The look he gave me was curiously furtive and undecided, in sharp contrast to the easy majesty of his movements and the serene power of his voice.

Constantius was a man in terror of his life. I saw it plain in those great eyes. As he put the wreath on my head, he shut his eyes for an instant, like a man who flinches in anticipation of a surgeon’s knife. Then he took my right hand again and turned me around that I might face the legions. But before they could salute me, he raised his arm. He had more to say. Though he spoke as though to me, he looked straight at them. Not certain which way to turn, I looked half at him and half towards the soldiers in the square.

“Brother, dearest to me of all men, you have received in your prime the glorious flower of your origin. Yet I must admit you add to my own glory, for I seem to myself more truly great in bestowing almost equal power” (the “almost” was heavily rendered) “on a noble prince who is my kinsman than through that power itself. Come, then, to share in pain and perils, undertake the defence of Gaul, relieve its afflicted regions with every bounty. And should it be necessary to engage with the enemy, take your place with the standard-bearers. Go forth yourself, a brave man ready to lead men equally brave. You and I will stand by one another with firm and steadfast affection, and together—if God grants our prayers—we shall rule over a pacified world with moderation and conscientiousness. You will be present with me always in my thoughts, and I will not fail you in anything you undertake. Now go, with haste, with the prayers of all of us, to defend with your honour the post assigned you by Rome herself, and God’s appointment! Hail, Caesar!”

This last he said in a loud voice which was immediately echoed by the legions. It was like a burst of thunder. I had sufficient presence of mind to respond: “Hail, Augustus!” The men repeated this, too. I saluted Constantius. Then I turned and saluted the legions. This was against all protocol. Generals do not salute their men. The standards, yes; the legions, no. But my gesture was sincerely tactless. After the first astonishment, the legions roared their approval of me and struck their shields hard against their armoured knees: the highest tribute they may render a man. It is also the loudest. I thought I would be deaf forever as the clatter rang through the square. More terrible, however, is the army’s disapproval, when they roll their spears back and forth against their shields, as prelude to mutiny.

I could feel Constantius stiffen beside me. This was more than he anticipated. I am sure that he was positive that my gesture to the legions had been premeditated. But the deed was done. And I was Caesar.

Abruptly, Constantius left the platform. I followed him. There was a moment of confusion as he got into his carriage. He looked down at me for a long moment. Then he motioned for me to join him. I clambered in beside him and, side by side, we rode through the cheering legions. I felt a sudden affection for them all. We had been united as though in marriage, and like so many arranged marriages, odd though this one was, it proved to be happy.

The carriage moved slowly through the square to the palace. Constantius said nothing to me, and I dared not speak to him, unhappily aware that in this carriage there was no footstool and I was taller than he, a second bad omen. I murmured to myself a line from the Iliad: “By purple death I’m seized, and fate supreme.” Inside the palace courtyard Constantius and I parted without a word. I did not see him again for several days.