The Emperor Julian and Divination

Julian in the ‘Thermes de Cluny’ — not my photo because my blog still won’t actually display uploaded media in posts

I just finished the second volume of J C Rolfe’s Loeb Classical Library edition of Ammianus Marcellinus’ (d. AD 390) history, the Res Gestae. What caught my mind the most in this volume was the Emperor Julian (called ‘the Apostate’), who died in AD 364 during his invasion of Sassanian Persia. Julian is called ‘the Apostate’ because of his conversion to paganism from Christianity in his youth. I am no Julian scholar, but there is a possibility that his conversion was in part driven by his response to the slaughter of his entire family and extended family save himself and his brother Gallus by the Emperor Constantius II when he was a boy in the ‘Summer of Blood’ (which is the title of a good article by R W Burgess). Whatever the causes, he was a strong adherent to traditional Graeco-Roman religion, the thing he is best remembered for.

Julian sported a beard like a philosopher emperor of old – indeed, he is compared to the Stoic Marcus Aurelius (r. 161-180) by Ammianus on several occasions. He kept pagan philosophers around him and composed some of his own philosophical and poetical works of a traditional nature. He also sacrificed animals to the gods on a regular basis, besides reopening many of the temples closed in decades since Constantine (r. 306-337) converted to Christianity in 312. His zeal for traditional religion also involved the banning of Christians from teaching rhetoric, a move of which the pagan Ammianus disapproved.

What struck me throughout Ammianus’ narrative of Julian’s brief reign was divination, the foretelling of the future, whether through omens or haruspicy (examination of entrails) or augury, etc.

Before his rise to the principate in AD 360 by acclamation of his troops in Paris (hey, I’m there right now!) and his gaining of sole rule in 361 upon the death of Constantius II (r. 337-361), he was already secretly practising traditional religion, including the arts of divination which foretold that he would rise to become Augustus (the formal title of the Roman emperors).

However, in 363, Julian decided that the best move for him to take was an invasion of the Persian Empire, partly in retaliation for some Persian activities on the frontier, partly in a show of one-upmanship to the deceased Constantius, who had only engaged the Persians in defensive warfare. He would take the battle to the Sassanians themselves.

As a good pagan with interest in divination, he made his consultations, and the omens turned up bad. In fact, all sorts of bad omens turned up. Julian chose to ignore the official augurs and haruspices and listen to the court philosophers instead, who gave lucky interpretations to the variety of omens that kept on happening or dismissed them as simply natural phenomena.* Whether or not every single omen discussed by Ammianus actually occurred cannot be said for sure, but I think that if one lived in a culture with omens as a regular part of daily life and plan-making, they could be found anywhere and everywhere.

So, despite the omens, Julian set out. And as he went, time after time, bad omens fell, such as his horse falling down and scattering its royal raiment. Time after time, the official diviners told him to go home. Time after time, he ignored them and pressed further and further into Persian territory, going so far, eventually, to burn ships and supplies, thus effectively stranding his armies a vast distance from the Roman border (a move that St Augustine of Hippo decried as a very dull-witted move in The City of God).

And then, one night, there was a shooting star – which Ammianus rightly notes could not possibly be an actual star, but he had no concept of other pieces of space debris that could appear in the heavens. Anyway, Julian consulted the Etruscan haruspices, and they said that:

any undertaking at that time must be most carefully avoided, pointing out that in the Tarquitian books, under the rubric “On signs from heaven” it was written, that when a meteor was seen in the sky, battle ought not to be joined, or anything similar attempted. When the emperor scorned this also, as well as many other signs, the soothsayers begged that at least he would put off his departure for some hours; but even this they could not gain, since the emperor was opposed to the whole science of divination, but since day had now dawned, camp was broken. (Amm. Marc., Res Gestae 25.2.7-8, trans Rolfe, Loeb Classical Library)

The next day, the Emperor Julian was stabbed and died of his wounds later on, discussing philosophy with the court philosophers to the end, after the manner of Socrates.

The statement in the Ammianus passage above is interesting, that ‘the emperor was opposed to the whole science of divination’. This is by no means an accurate statement based on Ammianus’ other evidence for Julian’s behaviour, including a discourse about Julian’s own skills in that art. Rolfe says in his footnote that this opposition came only when divination conflicted with Julian’s plans.

And here’s what I think most interesting about Julian’s relationship with divination. This is a man wholly committed to his own philosophy and religion. He engaged during his rule in a campaign of reconsecrating temples, recommencing sacrifices, desecrating Christian churches, barring Christians from certain professions, fostering pagan philosophical schools, and making himself out as a mythological figure adopted by the gods themselves. His devotion to traditional Roman religion combined with the philosophical schools of Late Antiquity can not remain in doubt. He was as sincere a pagan as Augustine was a Christian, even if Ammianus felt him superstitious rather than a legitimate observer of sacred things.

Yet, when push comes to shove, personal desires can trump belief. Julian wanted to invade Persia. The auspices, the auguries, the haruspices, the various omens, the Sibylline Books – none of these mattered. All that mattered was his own wish, and he would ignore or reinterpret the omens to fit his own vision, regardless of his personal piety.

There is a lesson here, I’m sure. Certainly a lesson in human nature, that all of us, even the sincere, can trump our own beliefs by other passions and drives. And perhaps that is lesson enough.

You can read Ammianus Marcellinus online here.

*The dismissing of an omen as a natural phenomenon is to ignore the essence of what an omen is, if you ask me. The point of an omen is that the supernatural is impinging upon the natural world to send a message using the available stuff that we see all around us. Notably, this is why the Carolingian obsession with astronomical phenomena as omens is not the same as astrology per se nor necessarily a pagan holdover – they believed the God of the Christians was communicating with them all the time, and the heavens were amongst his methods. A good essay on Carolingian star-gazing is P E Dutton ‘Of Carolingian Kings and Their Stars’, in Charlemagne’s Mustache and Other Cultural Clusters of a Dark Age.

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