Failure of Julian’s Pagan Revival Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

The failure of Julian’s pagan revival represented an attempt to replace Christianity with a government-sponsored pagan renaissance.

Summary of Event

Julian, known as Julian the Apostate for his renunciation of Christianity, was a descendent of Constantine the Great, the emperor who first adopted the Christian faith as the state religion. Educated in the classical traditions of rhetoric and philosophy, Julian found Christianity intellectually and morally lacking; once he became emperor of the Roman Empire in 361 c.e., he pursued two goals: the rejection of Christianity in favor of classical paganism and the renewal of the empire through a vigorous campaign against the Persians in the east. He failed at both endeavors. Julian the Apostate

His attempts, however, began well. In 355 c.e., Constantius II, Julian’s cousin and the ruling emperor, summoned Julian from his studies in Milan to serve as caesar, or junior emperor. At the same time, Julian was married to Constantius’s daughter Helena and sent to Gaul. There, Julian defeated an invading force of the Alemanni, then conducted two years of vigorous and successful campaigning against the Germans. In 360, the troops of Julian declared him emperor against Constantius. The two rivals were marching toward one another when Constantius died suddenly, naming Julian as his successor.

Julian the Apostate, as his soldiers declare him emperor.

(F. R. Niglutsch)

Julian, once dutiful in his outward obedience to Christianity, now revealed his allegiance to paganism. He had studied the Neoplatonic philosophy of the noted scholars Iamblichus (c. 250-c. 330 c.e.) and Maximus (d. 370 c.e.) and had developed an advanced, mystical paganism. A monotheist, he regarded paganism as a unified system of worship that needed its moral dimension expanded and strengthened to combat the Christian faith. Julian believed in one, abstract deity of whom the individual gods and goddesses represented various aspects or qualities. The combined influence of Iamblichus’s Neoplatonism and Maximus’s eastern mystery religions are clearly seen in Julian’s own thoughts and writings.

When he became emperor, Julian was able openly to champion paganism against Christianity, which he sincerely regarded as a corrupting influence in society. While carefully avoiding the persecution of Christians, he used legal and political measures to destroy the Church. He removed the privileges extended to the Christian institution by Constantine the Great, granting toleration for all in the late Roman Empire—Jews, Christians, and heretics alike. The clergy were no longer exempt from such civil duties as the office of curiale, or member of a municipal council, a position that was often incompatible with their pastoral responsibilities. Pagan temples were reopened, temple lands were restored, and public cults of the gods were reestablished.

The step that caused the greatest reaction was Julian’s edict forbidding Christians to teach literature in the schools. By this measure, the emperor planned, astutely enough, to cut off Christians from a chief source of influence and ultimately to destroy their social position. The rationale behind his edict assumed that those who did not subscribe to the pagan system of values as expressed in classical letters had no right to teach literature because they could not do so with integrity. Julian maintained that Christians who insisted on their own form of worship in their own churches should likewise maintain their own schools. He knew that upper-class Christians would not sacrifice their children’s chances for an education that would prepare them for high positions in society by exposing them to makeshift training. It is impossible to know how Julian’s strategy would have worked because he died within two years and his plans never materialized. Attempts of two Christian professors to translate the Scriptures into classical verse forms and Platonic dialogues proved a waste of time in the face of standard pagan educational fare.

Julian brought other pressure to bear against the Christians. Pagans were preferred in the emperor’s service, and cities that cooperated with the restoration of pagan worship were favored. Although Julian never implemented a vicious imperial policy of open persecution, there were petty attacks in some provinces. A punitive action was taken on at least one loyally Christian city, and private acts of vindictiveness were perpetrated by both Christians and pagans.

At the same time, paganism was actively promoted in many ways. Pagan rites were made part of civic celebrations and military ceremonies. Official sacrifices celebrated for the army included lavish and attractive feasts of sacrificial meat. Julian also attempted to provide the pagan revival with a trained elite corps of pagan clergy. He appointed a priest for each city and a high priest of each province; he wrote personally to several of his high ecclesiastics, outlining for them the courses they were to follow. Several of these extant letters show the high ideal and the elevated ethical code that Julian proposed for his revival. His instructions were remarkably parallel to the teachings of Christian morality in that he encouraged his pagan bishops to lead holy and austere lives, to avoid the theater and races, and to organize works of social welfare for the poor and unfortunate. The social welfare program was supplemented by state grants. On one occasion, Julian instructed his pagan high priest of Galatia to spend at least a fifth of a government subsidy on the poor who served the priests and to distribute the rest to strangers and beggars. “For it is a disgrace,” wrote Julian, “that no Jew is a beggar, and the impious Galileans feed our people in addition to their own, whereas ours manifestly lack assistance from us.” The emperor insisted that pagans must be taught to subscribe to such services and benefits to humanity.

Julian was deeply interested in classical learning and literature. His own writings include orations, letters, satires, and pagan hymns. Only fragments of his most famous piece, the satire Against the Galileans (English translation, 1913), have survived, and the work is known primarily from the refutation written by Cyril, bishop of Alexandria.


It is possible that Julian’s campaign against Persia was motivated partly by his desire to find a location outside the Christian Roman orbit where his pagan renaissance might have a better chance of success. At any rate, when Julian met his death on his Persian campaign in 363 c.e., his pagan revival ended with him. It is possible that Julian may have been mortally wounded by one of his own soldiers, for many of them deeply resented his paganism. Although sincere, Julian apparently did not understand the hold of Christianity on the popular mind and imagination. His own religion was largely negative, a revulsion against what he saw as a barbarism and the loss of classical values; his pagan revival was chiefly an attempt to retain the Hellenistic cultural heritage. His efforts were further hampered by the fact that his personal religion was esoteric and appeared bizarre to his contemporaries. If Julian’s attempt proved anything, it showed that the day of paganism as a formative cultural influence was past, although pockets of paganism remained in both the East and West for centuries.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Athanassiadi-Fowden, Polymnia. Julian: An Intellectual Biography. 1981. Reprint. New York: Routledge, 1992. An examination of Julian’s thought as it was influenced by the Greek experience and how he wished to extend that heritage throughout the empire.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Head, Constance. The Emperor Julian. Boston: Twayne, 1976. A good, basic introduction to the man and his times.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Ricciotti, Guiseppe. Julian the Apostate. Translated by M. Joseph Costelloe. Milwaukee: Bruce Publishing, 1959. Using contemporary sources, this study provides a good examination of how Julian was perceived during his own times and the impact, or lack of impact, of his pagan revival.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Smith, Roland. Julian’s Gods: Religion and Philosophy in the Thought and Action of Julian the Apostate. New York: Routledge, 1995. An ambitious review of Julian’s career in terms of his religious and philosophical influences.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Vidal, Gore. Julian. New York: Ballantine, 1986. First published in 1964, this novel remains the finest re-creation of Julian and his times. Deeply and at times passionately informed on the religious and philosophical debates of the age.
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