Julian the Apostate presiding at a conference of sectarians, by Edward Armitage, 1875
By Mary Harrsch
I read a review of Terry Deary’s latest book “Dangerous Days in the Roman Empire” and was appalled by his apparent support of claims that the ancient Romans regularly engaged in anthropomancy, the foretelling of the future by the examination of the entrails of human sacrifices. Deary gained notoriety for his “Horrible Histories” series for children. The books were later the basis for a BBC television series. (I tried to watch an episode of the television series once and found it so sensationalistic and lacking in historical accuracy (in my opinion) I couldn’t even bother to finish it – and yes, I’m sorry to say the BBC is not immune from the production of inaccurate documentaries).
Anyway, I was curious as to why Deary would include such misinformation and what sources may have misled him. So I did a search on anthropomancy +Roman and found a reference to the Roman emperor Julian the Apostate and anthropomancy.
The online “Occultopedia” claims Julian engaged in macabre moonlight rituals in which large numbers of children were sacrificed so he could study the movement in their entrails. Of course no ancient sources are provided for this citation. The article goes on to claim just before Julian’s fatal encounter with the Persians at the Battle of Samarra, Julian secreted himself into the Temple of the Moon at Carra. When called unexpectedly back to battle, he locked the temple behind him. Later, after his death, the temple was reopened and a woman with her liver torn out was found hanging by her hair. Again, no ancient sources were provided.
19th century agnostic and orator
Robert Green Ingersoll.
So where did these charges originate? Well, I found a citation by 19th century agnostic Robert Green Ingresoll that references such reports and attributes them to two of Julian’s enemies (and so-called Fathers of the Church), Gregory and Theodoret. But Ingresoll wisely takes into context the political and theologically-charged environment of the empire at the time and professes his belief in their lack of credibility:
“They say that the Emperor Julian [AD 331-363] was an “apostate”; that he was once a Christian; that he fell from grace, and that in his last moments, throwing some of his own blood into the air, he cried out to Jesus Christ, “Galilean, thou hast conquered!”
It must be remembered that the Christians had persecuted and imprisoned this very Julian; that they had exiled him; that they had threatened him with death. Many of his relatives were murdered by the Christians. He became emperor, and Christians conspired to take his life. The conspirators were discovered and they were pardoned. He did what he could to prevent the Christians from destroying each other. He held pomp and pride and luxury in contempt, and led his army on foot, sharing the privations of the meanest soldier.
Upon ascending the throne he published an edict proclaiming universal religious toleration. He was then a Pagan. It is claimed by some that he never did entirely forget his Christian education. In this I am inclined to think there is some truth, because he revoked his edict of toleration, and for a time was nearly as unjust as though he had been a saint. He was emperor one year and seven months. In a battle with the Persians he was mortally wounded. “Brought back to his tent, and feeling that he had but a short time to live, he spent his last hours in discoursing with his friends on the immortality of the soul. He reviewed his reign and declared that he was satisfied with his conduct, and had neither penitence nor remorse to express for anything that he had done.” His last words were: “I submit willingly to the eternal decrees of heaven, convinced that he who is captivated with life, when his last hour has arrived is more weak and pusillanimous than he who would rush to voluntary death when it is his duty still to live.”
Some early Christians attribute Julian’s death to Saint
Mercurius, a converted Roman soldier executed by the
Roman emperor Decius during one of his religious persecutions.
Image courtesy of Wikipedia.
When we remember that a Christian emperor murdered Julian’s father and most of his kindred, and that he narrowly escaped the same fate, we can hardly blame him for having a little prejudice against a church whose members were fierce, ignorant, and bloody — whose priests were hypocrites, and whose bishops were assassins. If Julian had said he was a Christian — no matter what he actually was, he would have satisfied the church.
The story that the dying emperor acknowledged that he was conquered by the Galilean was originated by some of the so-called Fathers of the Church, probably by Gregory or Theodoret. They are the same wretches who said that Julian sacrificed a woman to the moon, tearing out her entrails with his own hands. We are also informed by these hypocrites that he endeavored to rebuild the temple of Jerusalem, and that fire came out of the earth and consumed the laborers employed in the sacrilegious undertaking.
I did not suppose that an intelligent man could be found in the world who believed this childish fable, and yet in the January number for 1880, of the Princeton Review, the Rev. Stuart Robinson (whoever he may be) distinctly certifies to the truth of this story. He says: “Throughout the entire era of the planting of the Christian Church, the gospel preached was assailed not only by the malignant fanaticism of the Jew and the violence of Roman statecraft, but also by the intellectual weapons of philosophers, wits, and poets. Now Celsus denounced the new religion as base imposture. Now Tacitus described it as but another phase of theodium generius humani. Now Julian proposed to bring into contempt the prophetic claims of its founder by the practical test of rebuilding the Temple.” Here then in the year of grace 1880 is a Presbyterian preacher who really believes that Julian tried to rebuild the Temple, and that God caused fire to issue from the earth and consume the innocent workmen.
All these stories rest upon the same foundation, the mendacity of [Christian] priests. Julian changed the religion of the Empire, and diverted the revenues of the church. Whoever steps between a priest and his salary, will find that he has committed every crime. No matter how often the slanders may be refuted, they will be repeated until the last priest has lost his body and found his wings. These falsehoods about Julian were invented some fifteen hundred years ago, and they are repeated to-day by just as honest and just as respectable people as these who told them at first. Whenever the church cannot answer the arguments of an opponent, she attacks his character. She resorts to falsehood, and in the domain of calumny she has stood for fifteen hundred years without a rival.
The great Empire was crumbling to its fall. The literature of the world was being destroyed by priests. The gods and goddesses were driven from the earth and sky. The paintings were torn and defaced. The statues were broken. The walls were left desolate, and the niches empty. Art, like Rachel, wept for her children, and would not be comforted. The streams and forests were deserted by the children of the imagination, and the whole earth was barren, poor and mean.
Christian ignorance, bigotry and hatred, in blind unreasoning zeal, had destroyed the treasures of our race. Art was abhorred, Knowledge was despised, Reason was an outcast. The sun was blotted from the intellectual heaven, every star extinguished, and there fell upon the world that shadow — that midnight, known as “The Dark Ages.” – Julian the Apostate by Robert Green Ingersoll
St. Gregory Nazianzen.
Image courtesy of
If one of the ancient sources was, in fact, Gregory Nazianzen, how credible would such a defaming report be by someone who stridently and publicly describes Julian as the public and private enemy of all in common?
“HEAR me all ye nations, give ear unto me all ye dwellers upon earth,” for I am calling on you all, as it were, from a conspicuous and lofty watch-tower, with a cry both high and loud. Hear ye nations, tribes, tongues, every kind of men, and every age, as many as now are, and as many as shall be; and in order that my proclamation may be greater, every Power of heaven, all ye Angels, whose deed was the putting down of the tyrant, who have overthrown not Sihon, king of the Amorites, nor Og, king of Bashan — insignificant princes, and injuring but a small part the land of Israel — but the Dragon, the Apostate, the Great Mind, the Assyrian, the public and private enemy of all in common, him that has madly raged and threatened much upon earth, and that has spoken and meditated much unrighteousness against Heaven! ” – Gregory Nazianzen, Oration 4: First Invective Against Julian
As for Theodoret of Cyrus, the fifth century Eusebian scholar was probably merely repeating stories promulgated by Gregory and, perhaps, Theodoret’s knowledge that Julian was an initiate of the Eleusinian Mysteries (associated with mysterious nighttime rituals). Theodoret may have been further motivated by Gregory’s possible association of Julian with the Assyrian Church of the East (at least one possible interpretation – note the reference to “the Assyrian” in Gregory’s tirade above, although this could have been merely an ethnic slur as Julian was born in Constantinople – ancient Assyria, known for its martial brutality – but let’s run with my alternate theory.)
The Assyrian Church of the East originally developed during the 1st century CE in the Mesopotamian Eastern Aramaic speaking regions of Assyria, Babylonia, and northwestern Persia (today’s Iraq, southeast Turkey, northeast Syria and north western Iran. It is considered an apostolic church founded by the apostles St. Thomas (Mar Toma), St. Thaddeus (Mar Addai), and St. Bartholomew (Mar Bar Tulmay). Scholars of the church advanced the doctrine that Christ embodied two natures, one human and the other divine. But this viewpoint (later referred to as Nestorianism) was later declared heretical and was one of many rejected by Theodoret and other followers of Eusebius of Caesarea who promoted Arian-like interpretations of the nature of Christ. Ironically, though, Julian actually spent his early childhood with Eusebius of Nicomedia, also a strong supporter of Arianism.
Of course I must admit I realize a reference associating Julian with a Christian theology in the first place would be considered highly improbable, since Julian “The Apostate” is painted by history as the last “pagan” emperor. Other scholars, though, have also found Julian’s actual beliefs to be puzzling since he often appeared to be merely attempting to return the Empire to its former religiously tolerant state rather than promoting one religion over another. Furthermore, Julian spent quite a bit of time in Mesopotamia and another scenario could have been that he at one point actively studied cultural beliefs of the region in anticipation of its conquest and this apparent interest was misinterpreted. Sadly, our contemporary source material for the 4th and 5th centuries is woefully fragmented, so all we can do is speculate.
I hope I have made my point about the folly of quoting sources (even ancient ones) without investigating the political context in which they were made and the relationship of the source with the target, especially if the information is defamatory in nature. At least Ingersoll approached these sources with a scholar’s healthy skepticism (although he obviously had his own axes to grind) rather than blindly repeating them as a sensational “fact” as Deary does in a book touted as “nonfiction”.