Julian’s Religious Approach and Resemblance to pre-Constantinian Pagan Practices

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A bronze coin from Antioch depicting the emper...
A bronze coin from Antioch depicting the emperor Julian. Note the pointed beard.

The paganism of the Emperor Julian both resembled and differed from pre-Constantinian pagan religious practices and organisation.  Julian’s paganism to a great extent differed from pre-Constantinian pagan religious practices in relation to organisation. Like Maximin II, Julian attempted to ‘foster’ the virtues he admired and envied in the new faith into his own reformed paganism.  Julian grew up in an environment based on the teachings of Christianity, and his wish to found an essentially ‘pagan church’[1] suggests that this environment and his education influenced his religious reformation.[2]  This influence on Julian’s youth included that of his strictly Galilean mother and her and his tutor Mardonius.  Even though Mardonius is said to have loved Hellenism and taught Julian Homer and Hesiod, he taught Julian in light of the Galilean faith.  Browning asserts that Julian broke completely away from Christianity[3] but Ammianus disagrees with this, suggesting that though Julian had an inclination towards paganism, his Christian background greatly influenced his later interpretations of Pagan beliefs.[4]  Julian kept up the pretence of a Christian until the time of his rise to Augustus and it is unreasonable to think that his Christian conditioning did not influence his later views of religion in some way or another.

Frend assesses that Julian attempted to imitate the ways of the Christian church in terms of structure and organisation.[5] Julian wished to establish a pagan priesthood of high moral standing which was properly organised under regional high priests with authority over lesser priests who all were under himself as pontifex maximus.  Even with the introduction of common ideas such as the grafting of Christian virtues on a pagan base, there was no common religious allegiance which could have held the pagan cults united under Julian.[6]

Many of Julian’s reforms were praised by the Pagan population but they also saw fault in his religious approach and design. The reorganisation of the Pagan priesthood may have been an effective means of establishing a priesthood which rivalled that of the Christian faith but it did not cultivate well in the “old soil”[7] of the Pagan faith. The Emperor Julian was not just content to revive the Pagan faith and cults as they had been before the establishment of Christianity under Constantine.[8]  Downey explains that the pre-Constantinian Pagan priesthood greatly contrasted to the Christian one in terms of its casual nature.  This suggests that the grafting of hierarchy and structure that Julian tries to force on the Pagans would not have sat well as it took over from a traditional and fundamental part of the Pagan format.  This new structure and Christian influence is also a point of contrast between pre-Constantinian Paganism and Julian’s paganism.

The Emperor Julian’s religious approach was rather extreme in the eyes of many of the Pagans of the period.  People regarded Julian’s continual sacrificing as wasteful and ridiculous earning him the titles of ‘bull-burner’ and ‘slaughter’.[9]  Libanius states that on one occasion in Daphne, for instance, Julian sacrificed one thousand white birds, one hundred bulls and four hundred cows to Cybele.[10]  This over the top attitude of Julian in his keenness for animal slaughter was seen, even in the eyes of the pagans, to be in poor taste and creating a blacker reputation of the pagan faith.

Mosaics in the Hagia Sophia, section: Maria as...
Mosaics in the Hagia Sophia, section: Maria as patron saint of Istanbul, detail: Emperor Constantine I with a model of the city.

Ammianus criticizes that the victims whose blood Julian drenched the altars with were too numerous.[11] The point that even devoutly pagan scholars saw his behaviour as unreasonable indicates that this posed as a problem to them in relation to Julian’s religious reforms and approach.  Cameron assesses that, though Ammianus fails to admit it, Julian’s extremist behaviour essentially alienated his own side when they failed to share in his enthusiasm.[12]  This would have created ill feelings within the pagan population on top of their inhibitions concerning Julian’s approach to sacrifice.

The accounts of scholars such as Libanius, Ammianus and Priscus illustrate that though Julian may have overdone many aspects of pagan worship, his paganism did, to a large extent, resemble pre-Constantinian pagan religious practices in relation to cult worship and sacrifice.  With the introduction and establishment of Christianity, many of the pagan ways were diminished: sacrifice was seen as barbaric, pagan mysteries and rituals were seen as heresy and persecution reigned free. But, as Frend explains, Julian not only restored the lands of the pagans, but also reopened and restored many temples and in doing so the practices and cults that they were associated with.[13]  For instance, Julian revived practices such as the consultation of oracles and the examination of entrails.[14]

Another problem that many, especially educated, pagans had with Julian’s approach to the reestablishment of Paganism was his banning of Christians from teaching Classics.  Julian regarded this edict, created in 362, as the most important edict of his reign.  Pagan scholars such as Priscus disagreed with this approach to enforcing paganism, criticising that a line should not be drawn between the old gods and the Christian god or else all would be absorbed by the general atheism of the period.[15] Cameron asserts that through this approach, Julian annoyed not only the Christians but also the educated Pagans who recognised that at least half the good teachers at the universities were Christians and were vital to the continuation of the Classical teaching on which much of the Pagan ideology was based.[16] It appears that Julian was blind to the overlap between traditional ideas and Christian teachings in relation to the ethical insights that are brought across in the Classics.[17] It made sense in the eyes of Julian that it would have been a disgrace for a Christian to teach and instruct a tradition that they rejected, but Julian fails to see the importance of these traditional ideas throughout both religious ideologies.  Educated pagans may well have had a problem with this part of Julian’s religious approach as it demonstrates his ignorance in relation to the survival of pagan traditional ideologies.

The issues with the structure that Julian planned for paganism also coincided with problems that the pagan population had concerning Julian’s high expectations and desire of control.  This approach to paganism caused issues such as those seen with population of Antioch. Maxwell describes how Julian was disappointed by the Antiochenes lack of enthusiasm for the traditional rituals, complaining that their enthusiasm was not directed at the Gods.[18] An assessment of Julian’s attitude and his reactions indicates that he alienated his own side which caused problems between the pagans and Julian. This alienation is seen in Julian’s constant lecturing of the pagans causing considerable annoyance as his expectations were unrealistic.  Cameron asserts that this problem that the pagans had with Julian’s religious approach was the result of many separate situations that exemplify Julian’s expectations.[19]  One such example of this occurred when Julian was incensed at the lack of preparation by the city when he worshipped at Daphne’s shrine of Apollo and the local pagans demonstrated unwillingness to share in his enthusiasm.

Julian revived many cult rituals and practices from pre-Constantinian times, but Julian’s paganism also publicised many rituals and mysteries that in the pre-Constantinian periods had been primarily private.  Julian’s unrestricted show of previously private rituals indicates that his views of Paganism to an extent differed from previously accepted views.  Bradbury states that the contemporary pagans felt uneasy with Julian’s attempt to “make the gods live again in the public consciousness.”[20]  One such example of this difference is that Julian made the private rituals of Cybele more public.  Ammianus explains that with the vast increase of ceremonial rites, Julian allowed anyone who professed knowledge of divination “whether qualified or not” to attend and consult oracles.[21]  This open attitude of Julian to rituals and mysteries is further criticised by Ammianus, stating that this lack of restriction was without any observance to the prescribed rules.[22]  The uneasiness that was felt by the pagans because of this change in traditional rules and ways created further issues between the pagan population and the emperor Julian.

Julian’s paganism may have differed to pre-Constantinian religious practices but there were also similarities between Julian’s revival of Paganism and pre-Constantine. Julian was not content to just revive pagan cults as they were previously but this did not mean that all aspects of the pre-Constantinian paganism were disregarded in his new design.  Frend assesses that, power was handed back to the “traditional representation of the cities and their gods.”[23] This demonstrates a return to polytheism and the idea of polis heroes and gods that were a major part of pre-Constantinian pagan practices and rituals. Julian desired to return to the Homeric ideals and the mutual obligation between man and the gods, while creating paganism that catered to his religious approach and beliefs.  McKechnie also expresses the idea that, though the changes of Constantine’s conversion were never completely reversed, Julian tried to bring back the polytheistic believes and practices but due to his short reign made limited progress.[24]

Julian also orchestrated a revival of pagan cults, as with his thought to reopen the prophetic springs of the Castalian Fount,[25] in an attempt to preserve the pagan philosophy and practices, as well as to cater for Julian’s personal purposes in relation to the advancing war with Persia.[26] Even though Julian wished to reorganise paganism, he also included similarities to pre-Constantinian paganism including its revival of cult worship.  This meant that traditional local cults flourished, such as the cult of Mithras, the sun god, of which Browning explains Julian himself was an initiate.[27] With the revival of public sacrifices and cults, a feeling of confidence was felt among many pagan intellectuals.  This indicates that to more than a fair extent Julian’s paganism resembled pre-Constantinian paganism in relation to the reestablishment of the pagan cult practices.

Julian appears to show a desire in many ways to promote religious tolerance but it seems that Julian’s religious approach resembled pre-Constantinian practice in the persecution of Christians.  Ammianus tells that Julian preferred to make an example by the punishment of the few to show the many,[28] but analysis of several of the events in his reign suggest that he was not always as tolerance of religious difference as he is often made out to be.  For instance, Julian made a point of blaming the Christians for the burning of the temple of Apollo at Daphne.  Even though it was told that the fire had been caused by a fellow pagan individual accidentally, Julian believed strongly that the fire was set by the Christians as an act of spite.[29]  Julian also replaced a significant amount of Christian high officials with his own fellow pagans, blatantly disregarding the idea of using the best men for the jobs.[30]  This intolerance for the Christian faith indicates that this is one such similarity between pre-Constantinian paganism and Julian’s paganism, even if he desired for it to be thought otherwise.

Polytheism was a major attribute of pre-Constantinian pagan worship.  The pagans worshipped many gods for many separate purposes and occasions.  As previously discussed, Julian did bring about a revival of polytheism, but in comparison to pre-Constantinian ideologies, polytheism took a back seat in Julian’s understanding of the pagan gods.  Julian’s understanding of paganism included a sense of monotheism in relation to the traditional Hellenic background.  Mattingly asserts that while both classical and Julian’s paganism answered the question of the “one and the many,” the classical/pre-Constantinian ideas stressed ‘the many’ while Julian stressed the idea of ‘the one.’[31] Julian from an early time appears to accept Helios as the one god.  It is from Julian’s stressing of Helios as an aspect of the one god that we see that Julian’s paganism was more monotheistic than Classical paganism as it took focus away from the traditional ideologies.  

The points of similarity between the two pagan ideologies appear to be fewer in number than the differences, but an assessment of these points suggests that the points of similarity were of greater importance.  The extent to which the paganism of Julian resembled pre-Constantinian paganism can also be seen in the relation of pagan worship to tradition and economic factors.  Mattingly asserts that pre-Constantinian pagan worship did not solely rest on tradition, but also on economic and personal factors.[32]  These factors continue in Julian’s paganism to an extent as with the revival of sacrificial worship, the old ways of using the meat for economic purposes to stock the meat market. The revival of paganism also triggered an increased interest in household deities and gods of daily life.  Julian may have triggered these factors, but personally he appears to care little for the economic side of paganism and focused on his own obsessive worship and understandings.

To a great extent Julian’s paganism did resemble pre-Constantinian paganism in terms of the foundations of the faith being resurrected.  These included the revival of polytheistic attitudes, cult worship and sacrifices, economic and personal links to paganism and the continuation of religious intolerance.  Julian’s paganism, however, also differed to a significant extent as Julian’s interpretation of aspects of pagan practices and his plans to adapt them revealed contrasts to Classical undertakings and interpretations.  These differences caused uneasiness within much of the pagan population and several criticisms of Julian himself.  Differences consisted of Julian’s plans to create a ‘PaganChurch’, his ban on Christians from teaching Classics, publicisation of private practices, excessive sacrificing and unrealistic expectations on the pagans, and a move towards monotheism.  Problems arose from these factors concerning alienation, reputation, expectations and a concern for the traditional ideologies and their survival.  From these points we see that pagans had some issues with Julian’s paganism as praise of him was mixed with blame, but to the majority, Julian was still their hero.  As Ammianus tells Julian was to be reckoned as a man of “heroic stature, conspicuous for his glorious deeds and his innate majesty.”[33]


Armstrong, A.H., The Way and the Ways: Religious Tolerance and Intolerance in the Fourth Century AD, in Vigiliae Christianae, Vol.38, No.1 (March, 1984), pp.1-17

Bradbury, S., Julian’s Pagan Revival and the Decline of Blood Sacrifice in Phoenix, Vol.49, No.4 (Winter, 1995), pp.331-356

Browning, The Emperor Julian (Los Angeles, 1978), pp.109-176

Cameron, A., The Later Roman Empire: AD 284-430 (London, 1993), pp.14-92

Downey, G., Education in the Christian Roman Empire: Christian and Pagan Theories under Constantine and His Successors, in Speculum, Vol.32, No.1 (Jan, 1957), pp.48-61

Downey, G., Julian and Justinian and the Unity of Faith and Culture, in Church History, Vol.28, No.4 (Dec.1959), pp.339-349

Downey, G., Julian the Apostate as Antioch, in Church History, Vol.8, No.4 (Dec., 1939), pp.303-315

Frend, W.H.C. Religion Popular and Unpopular in the Early Christian Centuries (London, 1976)

Frend, W.H.C., The Rise Of Christianity (Philadelphia, 1984), pp.600-610

Gilliard, F.D., Notes on the Coinage of Julian the Apostate, in The Journal of Roman Studies, Vol.54, Parts 1 and 2, (1964), pp.135-141

Grant, M., The Ancient Historians (London, 1970)

Hazlett, I., Early Christianity: Origins and Evolution to A.D.600 (London, 1991), pp.9-10, 240-264

Kaegi, W.E., Byzantium and the Decline of Rome (New Jersey, 1968)

Lieu, S.N.C., The Emperor Julia: Panegyric and Ploemic (Second Edition) (Liverpool, 1982)

Mattingly, H., The Later Paganism, in The Harvard Theological Review, Vol.35, No.3, (July, 1942), pp.171-179

Maxwell, J.L., Christianization and Communication in Late Antiquity (Cambridge, 2006), pp.29-59

McKechnie, P., The First Christian Centuries (Leicester, 2001), pp.238-240

Moore, C.H., The Pagan Reaction in the Late Fourth Century, in Transactions and Proceedings of the American Philological Association, Vol.50 (1919), pp.122-134

Taylor, T., Against the Christians: The Arguments of the Emperor Julian Against the Christians as Preserved in the Fragments of the Lost Emperor Translated from the Greek (Chicago, 1930)

Ammianus Macellinus, Res Gestae, 25.3-7, 21.16 (Ammianus Marcellinus, The Later Roman Empire, Penguin Translation

Ephrem Syrus, Hymni Contra Julianum II. 15-22, 27, III.1-17 (Dodgeon, M.H. & Lieu, S.N.C., The Roman Eastern Frontier and the Persian Wars (London, 1994), pp.240-5

Gregory Zazianzenus, Oratio V, Second Invective Against Julian

Libanius, Oration XVII, The Lament over Julian (Libanius, Selected Works Vol 1, Loeb Classical Library (Cambridge, Mass., 1987), pp.253-75

[1] Downey, G., Julian and Justinian and the Unity of Faith and Culture, in Church History, Vol.28, No.4 (Dec.1959), p.342

[2] Influence of youth based on Julian’s Galilean mother and the tutor Mardonius creates a Christian influence on his later ideology, even though Mardonius is said to have loved Hellenism and taught Homer and Hesiod, he was a ‘Galilean’ and taught Julian’s strictly Galilean mother and Julian the Christian faith.

[3] Browning, p.109

[4] Ammianus Macellinus, Res Gestae, 25.3-7, 21.16 (Ammianus Marcellinus, The Later Roman Empire, Penguin Translation, p.238 – tells that Julian had an inclination towards pagan practices and gods from a young age but kept up the pretence that he was a Christian for survivals sake.  Julian did not publicly express his paganism until he was emperor, before this he kept the fact within a small circle of pagan friends including Orbanius.

[5] Frend, W.H.C., The Rise Of Christianity (Philadelphia, 1984), p.601 – Frend makes a good comparison as he compares surviving paganism in the 360s to a number of sand castles – some big, some small – but all facing erosion and destruction by the advancing tide

[6] Ibid., p.601

[7] Hazlett, I., Early Christianity: Origins and Evolution to A.D.600 (London, 1991), p.178

[8] Julian instead wanted to merge the structure of the Christian faith with the old cults and establish a professional priesthood and hierarchical system with a chief priest in each province.

[9] Frend, op.cit., p.606

[10] Libanius. Libanius taught rhetoric in his native city and was by the 360s recognised as one of the most distinguished men of letters in the Greek world

[11] Ammianus, op.cit., p.248 – Julian’s extensive sacrifice made even the pagans uneasy, Ammianus’ criticism as a pagan scholar illustrates this uneasiness

[12] Cameron, A., The Later Roman Empire: AD 284-430 (London, 1993), p.93

The image to the right of the page suggests that Julian’s reputation concerning his excessive sacrificing was remembered well and depicted after his reign, as the manuscript is dated to the ninth century, two hundred years after Julian’s reign.

[13] Frend, op.cit., p.603

[14] Ammianus, op.cit., 249 – Ammianus praises these aspects of revival, but with these praises is an air of criticism as Julian took his paganism to a new level based on his own interpretations

[15] Priscus

[16] Cameron, A., op.cit., p.92

[17] It made sense in the eyes of Julian that it would have been a disgrace for Christians to instruct in a tradition which they rejected, – Frend, op.cit., p.604

[18] Maxwell, J.L., Christianization and Communication in Late Antiquity (Cambridge, 2006), p.49

[19] Cameron, op.cit., p.92

[20] Bradbury, S., Julian’s Pagan Revival and the Decline of Blood Sacrifice in Phoenix, Vol.49, No.4 (Winter, 1995), p.331

[21] Ammianus, op.cit., p.249 –Ammianus does praise Julian but as Grant points out, this praise was mixed with words of blame – Grant, M., The Ancient Historians (London, 1970), p.374

[22] Ibid., p.249

[23] Frend, op.cit., p.602

[24] McKechnie, P., The First Christian Centuries (Leicester, 2001), p.239

[25] Ammianus, op.cit., p.249 – this was not only in relation to reviving old pagan ways but also a preparation by Julian for the war with Persia as a new mode of inquiry about the outcome and campaign.  The springs of the Castalian Fount are said to have been blocked up by Julius Caesar who received the prophecy from them that he would be Emperor and wished for no other to receive the same prophecy.

[26]Downey, op.cit., p.342

[27] Browning, p.138

[28] Ammianus, op.cit, p.297

[29] Ibid., p.249

[30] This act of Julian can be understood though through the idea that the Christians were Constantius men and that their loyalty may remain to the Christian emperor even after his demise

[31] Mattingly, H., The Later Paganism, in The Harvard Theological Review, Vol.35, No.3, (July, 1942), p.172

[32] Ibid., p.178

[33] Ammianus, op.cit, p.295


3 thoughts on “Julian’s Religious Approach and Resemblance to pre-Constantinian Pagan Practices

    praisethelorne said:
    November 17, 2013 at 9:54 pm

    Really enjoyed reading your piece. Especially interested to discover Julian’s affinity for Helios. I read recently that in the Cairo Genizah, there is a manucript called Sefer HaRazim (The Book of Secrets) which dates to the late 3rd/early 4th century which includes a prayer to Helios, written with Hebrew characters but in Greek.

    Since I moved to Israel a year and a half ago, I have visited 5 of 7 known snagogues from the 4th to 6th centuries where each has a Zodiac wheel in its mosaic floor with Helios depicted in the center! All of this at a time where the books of the Talmud were being written. The best depiction is at the synagogue floor in Hammat Tiberias.

      GraecoMuse said:
      November 17, 2013 at 10:00 pm

      You read that quick 🙂 I only posted that 5 minutes ago. I love that people actually read my random interest pieces. You should post some of the pictures of the depictions on facebook page.

        praisethelorne said:
        November 17, 2013 at 10:03 pm

        I enjoyed reading about Julian. I only know of him from the perspective of how he repealed the Flavian Tax that the Jews had been paying from the 1st century and had authorized the rebuilding of the Third Temple in Jerusalem. All of this less than 10 years after the unsuccessful revolt against Gallus!

        I’ll post the photos of the mystery of the Zodiac mosaics.

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