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363 Death of Julian the Apostate

Flavius Claudius Julianus was born into the Roman imperial family in 331. The emperor Constantine and the sons of the dynasty that he founded were prone to fits of political paranoia that would regularly lead to some unfortunate relative or colleague being murdered. In this way Julian lost his father, half-brother, and a number of cousins but perhaps it was his youth that spared him in the purges.

Julian had been raised as a Christian but at the age of 20 he abandoned that faith and turned back to a variety of Neoplatonic paganism. Though he was closely watched by court officials for any possible treachery he was permitted to continue his philosophical enquiries. 

In 355 Emperor Constantius, the last of Constantine’s sons, decided that he needed a loyal Caesar (junior emperor) in the West and sent Julian to Gaul. There he distinguished himself as an honest administrator and successful military leader, winning battles against Germanic invaders along the Rhine. When Constantius, who was having trouble dealing with the Persians on the eastern border, ordered half of Julian’s troops to march to his aid in Mesopotamia, the legions rebelled. They had no interest in leaving their homes in Gaul and so proclaimed Julian their Augustus (chief emperor). The empire was spared a civil when Constantius died in 358 leaving Julian the sole emperor.

As a ruler Julian was an active reformer, trying to lessen the burden of the imperial administration while giving more power to the local civic officials. He laid restrictions on Christianity but attempted no bloody persecution and tried to revive the pagan sacrifices and oracles. The empire’s population was still largely non-Christian but Julian’s reign was too short to check the growing influence of Christianity. He was killed in 363, dying from a wound taken in battle against the Persians.

There was speculation at the time of his death that he had been murdered by one of his own troops but a much more interesting legend developed in Christian circles over the years. In this story, Julian was killed by the apparition of the martyr St Mercurius summoned to the deed by the prayers of St Basil. As the ghostly spear pierced the side of Julian, the emperor is reputed to have said, “Vicisti, o  Galilaee” –- “Thou has conquered, O Galilean!”

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