home | 1000 BCE to 500 CE


previous | next

Emperors Julian (the Apostate) to Valentinian

Emperor Constantine died in 337. Each of his three sons acquired rule in a portion of the empire. And the harmony that Eusebius celebrated did not materialize. The eldest son, Constantine II, claimed authority over his two brothers, who were unwilling to submit. One of the brothers, Constans, defeated the eldest, and the eldest died. Constans was killed by a rebel military commander, and the third and sole surviving brother, Constantius, abandoned his front against Persia and made war on the rebel commander, and defeating him he acquired rule over the entire empire. And to consolidate his rule he had members of his army murder possible rivals within his family: half-brothers and others.

Constantius (to be known to historians as Constantius II) attempted to extend his victories into the realm of religion. Unlike his deceased brothers and some others in his family, Constantius was an Arian rather than a Trinity-believing Christian. Believing that he was advancing the cause of Christianity, he exiled numerous Trinity-believing bishops. And, to advance the cause of Christianity, he also banned the ritual sacrifices of pagans, making participation in such rituals a capital offense. Mobs of zealous Christians followed the lead of Constantius by invading pagan temples and overturning alters. Pagans were offended, and across the empire they responded with bitterness and rioting.

Constantius had chosen to rear one of the boys orphaned by his soldiers' killings within the family: a five-year-old named Julian. Julian felt oppressed by Christian strictness and the earnestness with which his guardians espoused Christianity. Secretly Julian rebelled against Christianity. He became bookish and acquired a love for Hellenistic culture. Christian bishops had become proud of their Greek culture – another of the cultural diffusions of ancient times – and Julian was allowed to further his Hellenist education. Secretly he became a neo-Platonist while continuing an outward appearance of a required Christian devotion.

When Julian was twenty-three, Constantius sent him to Gaul. He gave Julian the rank of Caesar at the head of an army against the Franks and Alamanni who were invading Gaul. There Julian proved himself an able leader, winning a great victory in 357 on the Rhine River at Strasbourg and expelling the Franks and Alamanni from the empire. Constantius became jealous of the glory won by Julian and was concerned about Julian as a rival. He kept Julian and his army short of funds and kept him under surveillance. In 360 in Lutetia (Paris) his soldiers acclaimed Julian to be Augustus.

Constantius died of fever in 361. Julian became emperor – the last of Rome's non-Christian emperors. Not bound by monotheism's intolerances, he began his rule with an acceptance of other faiths. Lacking the hostility felt by Christians toward Jews, he rescinded a law that forbade marriage between Jews and Christians. He rescinded the law that banned Jews from entering Jerusalem, and he allowed Jews in Jerusalem to rebuild their temple.

While maintaining the rights of Christians as citizens, including their right to worship, Julian moved to abolish privileges that had been bestowed upon the Christian clergy, including their positions as teachers. The hostility of Christians toward Julian grew. In 363, he led a military campaign against Shapur II, pushing Shapur's forces back to his capital, Ctesiphon, as the Persians scorched the earth in retreat. Julian's army captured many, including women and youths, and he allowed no one to molest them. Again he went into battle against the Persians, and he died of wounds from an arrow or spear. Christians rejoiced at news of his death, and they expressed their belief that Julian's death was the work of God. The following year, 364, the Greek orator, Libanius of Antioch, stated that Julian had been assassinated by a Christian who was one of his own soldiers.

With Julian's death, his army's leaders chose one among them as their commander. This was Jovian, a trinity-believing Christian. In becoming commander of what had been Julian's army, Jovian became emperor, and Christians in the Roman Empire celebrated the return of a Christian as head of state. Turning his attention to domestic affairs, Jovian transferred state support from pagan temples to Christian churches, but he followed Julian's example and decreed religious toleration for pagans and for Arian Christians. Then, after only months in power, he died from the fumes of his freshly plastered and unventilated bedroom.

In early 364 the army declared as emperor another Christian, a general to become known as Valentinian, age 43, a capable military commander from Illyricum. Valentinian believed that defense of the empire required at least two emperors, and in March 364 he appointed his brother Valens as Emperor of the East. Valentinian continued religious toleration, declaring that no religion was to be declared criminal. He created schools throughout his realm. And to protect the poor he created offices called Defenders of the People.

In the year 366 the world of harmony that Eusebius thought God and Constantine had created receded a bit as rival factions in Rome supported different men for Bishop of Rome. Emperors no longer resided in Rome, and the bishops of Rome were becoming the city's leading potentate and authority. In the competition for power, a local Roman deacon, Damasus, was elected, but it was disputed by another deacon from Rome, Ursinus. Supporters clashed in the streets and in churches. Blood flowed and Emperor Valentinian had to send a force to quell the rioting. Ursinus and some of his followers were exiled and became established in Milan, and with continuing intrigues Ursinus was exiled to Cologne. He sought to succeed Damasus following Damasus' death in 384, but lost again, to Siricius, another deacon from Rome.


Copyright © 1998-2018 by Frank E. Smitha. All rights reserved.