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Julian (novel)

Julian, 66



At Turin, as I received city officials in the law court, a messenger arrived from Florentius, the praetorian prefect of Gaul. The prefect thought that the Caesar should know that some weeks ago Cologne had fallen to the Germans, and the Rhine was theirs. The military situation was, Florentius wrote with what almost seemed satisfaction, grave. The German King Chnodomar had sworn to drive every Roman from Gaul within the year. This was the bad news Constantius had not told me.

While the reception continued, Oribasius and I withdrew to the prefect’s office to study the report. For some inexplicable reason the only bust to adorn the room was that of the Emperor Vitellius, a fat porker who reigned several months in the year of Nero’s death. Why Vitellius? Was the official a descendant? Did he admire the fat neck, the huge jowls of the man who was known as the greatest glutton of his day? To such irrelevances does the mind tend to fly in moments of panic. And I was panicky.

“Constantius sent me here to die. That’s why I was given no army.”

“But surely he doesn’t want to lose Gaul.”

“What does he care for Gaul? As long as he can have his court, his eunuchs, his bishops, what more does he need?” This was not accurate; in his way, Constantius was a patriot. But in my bitterness there was no stopping me. I denounced Constantius recklessly and furiously. I committed treason with every breath. When I had finished, Oribasius said, “The Emperor must have a plan. It can’t be that simple. What are those instructions he gave you?”

I had forgotten all about the packet I had been given on the road to Turin. It was still in my wallet. Eagerly, I undid the fastenings. I read quickly, with growing astonishment. “Etiquette!” I shouted finally, throwing the document across the room. “How to receive an ambassador. How to give a dinner party. There are even recipes!” Oribasius burst out laughing, but I was too far gone to find any humour in the situation.

“We’ll escape!” I said at last.

“Escape?” Oribasius looked at me as if I had gone mad.

“Yes, escape.” Curious… I never thought I would be able to write any of this. “We can desert together, you and I. It will be easy. Nothing but a piece of cloth to throw away.” I tugged at the purple that I wore. “Then we let our beards grow, and back to Athens. Philosophy for me, medicine for you.”

“No.” He said it flatly.

“Why not? Constantius will be glad to see the end of me.”

“But he won’t know it’s the end of you. He’ll think you have gone to plot against him, raise an army, become usurper.”

“But he won’t find me.”

Oribasius laughed. “How can you hide in Athens? Even with a new beard and student’s clothes, you are the same Julian everyone met a few months ago with Prohaeresius.”

“Then it won’t be Athens. I’ll find a city where I’m not known. Antioch. I can hide in Antioch. I’ll study with Libanius.”

“And do you think Libanius could hold his tongue? His vanity would betray you in a day.”


I shall say here that I never found Oribasius particularly sympathetic. Apparently, he felt the same about me. He is of course very famous nowadays (if he is still alive); but medical friends tell me that his seventy-volume encyclopedia of medicine is nothing but a vast plagiarism from Galen. After Julian’s death, he was exiled and went to the court of Persia, where I am told he is worshipped by the Persians as a god; he must have enjoyed this, for he was always vain. Also avaricious: he once charged me five gold solidi for a single treatment for gout. I could not walk for a month after.

Julian Augustus

“Then I shall find a city where no one has ever seen me or heard of me.”

“Farthest Thule. Wherever you go, officials will know who you are.”

Complete disguise? A new name?”

“You forget the secret agents. Besides, how will you live?”

“I can teach, become a tutor…”

“A slave.”

“If necessary, why not? In a proper household, a slave can be happy. I could teach the young men. I would have time to write, to lecture…”

“From the purple to a slave?” He said it with slow cold wonder.

“What do you think I am now?” I exploded. I raged. I lamented. When I finally stopped for lack of breath, Oribasius said, “You will continue into Gaul, Caesar. You will put down the German tribes, or die in the attempt.”


“Then be a slave, Julian.” It was the first time he had called me by my name since I had been raised to Caesar. Then he left me alone in the office, where I sat like a fool, mouth aiar, the hog-like face of Vitellius peering at me from above the doorway… even after three centuries in stone, he looked hungry.

I folded the letter into many squares, each smaller than the other. I thought hard. I prayed to Hermes. I went to the latticed windows and looked for the sun, my peculiar deity. I searched for a sign. At last it came. From the setting sun, light suddenly shone in my face. Yes, out of the west where Gaul was, Helios blazed darkgold in my eyes. I was to follow my god, and if death was what he required of me, then that would be my offering. If victory, then that would be our glory. Also, it was perfectly plain that I could not escape even if I wanted to. I had indeed been seized by purple death.

I returned to the citizens of Turin as though nothing had happened. As I received their homage, Oribasius looked at me questioningly. I winked. He was relieved.