Julian: A Novel by Gore Vidal

Book Review by Leguleius

Julian 'the Apostate' (or 'the Philosopher', depending on your point of view) effectively ruled the Western Roman Empire from 355 and, following the death of his cousin Constantius II in 361, the East as well until 363. These were momentous times for Rome, with the Gothic tribes of Germania frequently crossing into Gaul, the Persian Empire a constant threat in the East, and Christianity fast becoming established as the new state religion, following Constantine's conversion in 337. The Roman world was changing.

Julian, despite his short reign, was a significant (and interesting) figure because he swam against the tide of history. As Constantius's Caesar in the West he led the legions across the Rhine, to conduct lightning campaigns against the German tribes, with panache reminiscent of Julius Caesar, culminating in a great victory for Roman arms at the battle of Strasbourg in 357. As Augustus of the whole Empire, he defeated the great Persian 'King of Kings' Sapor outside his own capital, Ctesiphon, in 363 - and seemed almost poised to repeat the deeds of Alexander the Great by conquering the whole Persian east, as far as India.

Julian equally recalled the past in his religious policy at home. He was a committed follower of the old gods and despised the Christians, whom, once he became Augustus, he termed 'Galileans', to emphasise their lack of significance in his eyes. Old temples were restored, priests were appointed and Julian made such lavish sacrifices that he was nick-named the 'bull burner' by his soldiers. But there was no persecution of Christians. One of the traits he most disliked in the 'Galileans' was their intolerance of other sects, and Julian refused to imitate them in this - although he borrowed many of their other ideas, such as an organised priesthood and the practice of giving alms to the poor. His passion for learning and philosophy also persuaded him that the Christians could be brought back to the true gods by example and exhortation, not at the point of a sword. Unusually for a future emperor, Julian had completed an education in philosophy at 'university' in Athens before being elevated to the purple.

Gore Vidal, then, has chosen an intriguing subject for a historical novel. Julian's life is reasonably well documented, through the Res Gestae written by Ammianus Marcellinus, and also (fascinatingly) by a few surviving works by Julian himself, such as his Misopogon ('Beard Hater', a satire against himself addressed to the citizens of Antioch who laughed at his philosopher's beard). As a life-long scholar, it seems to have been second nature for Julian to put his thoughts into writing. Vidal draws ably on these sources and bases his novel on the (not implausible) premise that Julian was composing a memoir of his own life, before his early death at the age of 32 on campaign in Persia.

Thus the novel begins with an exchange of correspondence between two of Julian's old teachers, Libanius, based in Antioch, and Priscus, living in Athens, in the year 380. The subject of their correspondence is the publication of Julian's unfinished memoir, the manuscript of which Priscus took from Julian's tent after his death 'for safe keeping'.

After the initial correspondence between the two old philosophers, the main body of the novel is composed of Julian's draft autobiography, with "editorial comments" from both Libanius and Priscus, which range from the highly informative to the down right irrelevant. Often one or the other will shed a different light on Julian's description of events, from the perspective of an interested by-stander, to suggest that all was not quite as their prince perceived it; occasionally however Priscus will complain about his marriage or reminisce about a prostitute he has known!

The majority of the book covers Julian's life in his own words up to his departure on the Persian campaign in 363. After that the successes and failures of that last expedition are summarised by Priscus, drawing on Julian's personal day-book, which he also 'kept safe' after our hero's death in the field. But was the lance which pierced Julian's side wielded by a Persian or by a Christian traitor? The novel ends with Priscus making a journey to Thrace to uncover the truth.

As is to be expected, Vidal's approach is sympathetic to his subject, and his grasp of the period is excellent, evidently the result of many years' meticulous research (the book was written between 1959 - 1964). Gore Vidal does not have a background in academic history, although he was involved in the screenplay for Ben Hur in 1959(!), but his reputation as a writer is well known. I found 'Julian' highly readable: in my opinion it is a tour de force of imaginative writing.

It is usual, however, in a book review to include some negative comment (to show the reviewer has been paying attention, if for no other reason!) and so I would mention that the very brief descriptions of the battles will disappoint those interested in military history. Often, this omission is explained in the text by instructions from Julian to his secretary along the lines of, "Insert the relevant chapter from my Campaigns here," etc. Generally, the fact that the novel was written 40 years ago doesn't show - although I suspect the numerous references to "pseudo-cynics" at the academy in Athens, with their long hair and unwashed clothes may be a knowing reference to the beatnik generation of the early 1960s. More fundamentally, I was a little disappointed with Vidal's treatment of the major turning points in Julian's life, namely his elevation to Caesar, his transformation in Gaul from bookworm to general, and his fatal decision not to make peace with Persia. Vidal never quite convinced me on these points. But then, as Julian might have said himself, perhaps 'a god was in it.'

'Julian' is a well researched, imaginative and highly readable book, which anyone interested in the man or his times should enjoy.

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