On 26 June A.D. 363, the Emperor Julian succumbed to a battle wound and died in Persia with considerable consequences for Christianity in the Roman Empire. For Christians, Julian’s death provided the opportunity not only for the return of a line of Christian emperors, but also for the occasion, much sooner than they might have originally anticipated, to render this pagan emperor and his acts in relation to the church for posterity. In the annals of the church produced by the fifth century ecclesiastical historians, Julian predominantly holds a place as an impious and vile man, a criminal and a typical persecutor of Christians. However, the late fourth century Latin church historian Rufinus of Aquileia uniquely describes an innovative approach on Julian’s part in his dealings with Christians by styling him callidior ceteris persecutor (HE 1.33), going on to outline Julian’s nonviolent methods.
Rufinus’ testimony regarding Julian's treatment of Christians has often been ignored or dismissed by modern scholars, such as Bowersock (1978: 107) and Barnes (1998: 53), who have given greater authority to late martyrologies. This paper engages in a reevaluation of the representation of Julian as a persecutor in Christian historiography in order to show that: i) Christian writers such as Gregory of Nazianzus and Theodoret willfully crafted Julian into a persecutor reminiscent of Diocletian and Galerius in their narratives to display the fatalism of paganism and triumph of Christianity; and ii) that their representations can be used to tease out Julian’s policy against Christians, which was consistent and rational and not reflective of a “puritanical pagan.” Moreover, though it is difficult to untangle religious and political motives, either on the part of Julian or Christians, on reconsideration, however, the deaths attributed to Julian’s reign, such as those of Juventinus and Maximinus, were due to the critical political and military factors then at play.
In my view, if Rufinus of Aquileia is being understood correctly, it appears that Julian’s policy centered on the avoidance of “violence,” instead striking Christians’ identity with the aim of inducing conversions and that the emperor was more successful in this than has been previously allowed. And Christian writers responded in kind. This follows the view of Drake, who, building on Gaddis (2005), has noted the evolution of discourse and definitions of martyrs from “essentially passive sufferers” to “more aggressive warriors” (2011: 209), or what we might simply call “active instigators.” In keeping with this evolution, we can see the consistency of Julian’s imperial policy and Christian responses to it, which reflects a shift by many Christians from victims of violence by the Roman state to practitioners of violence against it. The incitement of violence and desecration and/or destruction of pagan statues or temples were not tolerated by Julian’s high officials and provincial governors, with punishments being exile or death, depending on the individual and circumstances.
Emperors, Aristocrats, and Bishops in Late Antiquity