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Tom Chaney: The Flickering Twilight of Gods and Empire

Of Writers And Their Books: The Flickering Twilight of Gods and Empire. Tom reviews Julian, Gore Vidal's story of the Fourth Century Roman emperor who took up arms against a sea of troubles and was washed out to sea. This column first appeared 1 February 2009.
The next earlier Tom Chaney column: The Tattered Billboard

By Tom Chaney

The Flickering Twilight of Gods and Empire

I became first aware of the work of Gore Vidal about the time he swum into the nation's ken as a part of the family of the new, glamorous first lady, Jackie Kennedy.

Finding his novels opened an entire new world to me -- a way of seeing elements of life at once shocking and enlightening -- from The City and the Pillar to Myra Breckenridge to Lincoln.

None of his books was more of a revelation than Julian, published in 1964.

Although I am no historian, I am told that this book dealing with the Fourth Century Roman emperor who took up arms against the sea of troubles from the early Christian church and was washed out to sea with the tide is both massive and accurate.

Totally untrained as either soldier or administrator, Vidal's Julian thrives as 'Caesar' north of the Alps. He unites Gaul and succeeds in keeping the Goths in check. He does this by lower taxes, frugal administration, and shrewd, if amateur generalship.

The philosopher/theologian in Julian aims to restore the ancient rites and worship of the Hellenic gods. Incidentally, Julian does not so much object to the truths of Christianity as to the assumption of the Galileans that they hold all truth. The various Hellenic gods he sees as all being manifestations of the same god. The Hellenic gods celebrate life, Julian argues. Not death as does the god of the Galilean.

The emperor in Julian is convinced by the magician Maximus that he is a latter day Alexander. Julian leads the Roman armies in the attempted conquest of Mesopotamia.

Julian's delusions of Alexandrian grandeur, in addition to Christian spies within his court, assure Julian's death in 363 and the consequent failure of what becomes the last chance for religious pluralism in the empire. It is the death knell of the old world. The results of that demise are with us today.

When Julian assumed the throne the once sacred temples and groves had either fallen into disuse or had been usurped by the new religion.

The emperor Constantine, Julian's uncle, had reversed proscriptions against Christianity in 313, putting the icing on the cake of establishment by his death-bed insistence upon baptism. Julian's uncle Constantius II extended the establishment of the church giving both religious and civic preferment to the clergy.

Constantius had put Julian's brother to death and banished Julian to Gaul where he expected him to languish. Julian had trained as a philosopher and student of the ancient mysteries into many of which he had been initiated.

On February 4, 362, Julian as emperor issued the Tolerance Edict which guaranteed freedom of religion. By that edict he attempted to make all religions equal before the law, with none imposed by the state. This restored the ancient worship which Christians had begun to call 'paganism.' In the interest of diversity, the edict also encouraged the return of exiled Christians whose theology was not orthodox.

Vidal chooses to tell the story of Julian's futile attempt to stem this tide of the religious worship of the 'death god' of the fledgling 'Galileans' as he calls the followers of Christ.

Vidal's story, based on copious writings of Julian himself and early historians, begins with an exchange twenty years after the death of Julian between Libanius of Antioch, a noted rhetorician and Priscus the Athenian philosopher. Libanius wishes to publish Julian's memoirs with a commentary which will be counter to the rising Christian flood.

When the armies of the east under Sapor threaten Constantius in 360, he orders the army of Gaul under Julian to come to his relief. The armies of Gaul threaten mutiny and proclaim Julian as Augustus. Under that banner they march to confront Constantius. Meanwhile Constantius dies and Julian is proclaimed as Augustus of the entire empire in 361.

The sixteen-month reign of Julian is devoted to two goals: religious diversity and restoration of the empire of Alexander.

His death presages the ultimate failure of both.

While his armies made great advances in Mesopotamia, Julian ultimately fared no better than President George W. Bush did in the same arena some seventeen centuries later.

Julian was slain in battle during a retreat. It was thought that he died at the hands of an enemy. But it was just as likely that one of the Galilean advisors in his entourage wielded the Roman sword that pierced his liver.

And the final payment for the subsequent resumption of intolerance is yet to be remitted.

Tom Chaney can be found telling stories, planning his next meal, and occasionally selling books at
Box 73 / 111 Water Street
Horse Cave, Kentucky 42749
Email: Tom Chaney

This story was posted on 2014-02-02 04:20:17
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