The Last Pagan by Adrian Murdoch

Book Review by Ursus

Adrian Murdoch offers a fresh and largely sympathetic treatment of Flavius Claudius Julianus.

Let not the title fool you: the book is much more than a stale rehashing of Julian’s religious polemics against the rising Christian tide. Quite the contrary, the author explores Julian’s many sides: philosopher, writer, soldier, ruler – and member of a murderous imperial family. There are many strands woven deftly together to illuminate a three-dimensional drawing of a complex character from childhood to death. The author can describe the campaigns of the Western front in vivid detail, and then shift quite naturally to an exploration of Julian’s tax reforms. Moreover, he does so in a prose that is intelligent yet free of academic pretentiousness, fast paced and yet still sufficiently thorough.

This is what every biography should be: a penetrating but lively study written for the general reader. A book’s strength rests ultimately on its appeal to a wide audience. All kinds of Romanophiles – from the military buff to the student of humanities, from pagan sympathizers to Roman Catholics – will find something worthy of study in this remarkable but flawed emperor. And while a general knowledge of late Roman history and politics is useful as background, the work is still lucid enough to be enjoyed by those without extensive exposure to the subject.

Julian was the antithesis of the stereotypical Roman Emperor. Intellectual, ascetic, low-key. Yet this philosopher was no slouch on the battlefield. Nor was he locked hopelessly away in some ivory tower, for he manifested a pragmatic and at times humane grip on the mechanics of administration. Had he lived longer and seen some of his reforms become concrete, he might have been regarded (by history at least, if probably not by the Church) as one of the greatest emperors ever.

Tragically, he was on the losing side of history in more ways than one. His prohibition of Christians teaching the classics would have eventually consigned the Gallilean cult to oblivion. But what would have filled the void? Julian’s recast paganism was to have a central theology heavily influenced by Hellenic philosophy, a strict and hierarchical clergy, and a new emphasis on almsgiving and social activism. In other words, Julian answer to competition with Christianity was to have paganism closely mirror Christianity. Even if this new version of paganism were to endure after his death, what would have been the point in berating Christianity only to mimic it? It is nonetheless interesting to ponder what would have happened if the crossroads of history has experienced a different turn.

The final chapters of Murdoch’s book hauntingly recount Julian’s bid for supremacy in Persia. A lucky shot from an enemy lancer ended the whole enterprise. After the Emperor’s corpse had been buried, there was little of his legacy to endure. Murdoch concludes that only the man’s humanity is left to us, but even this must be sifted through centuries of legend and propaganda.

Informative and well-written, "The Last Pagan” will surely be the definitive book on Julian for some time to come. It is a biography worthy to grace any Romanophile’s study.

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