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Fighting a Civil War through Autobiography: The Emperor Julian's Epistle to the Athenians and the Promotion and Consolidation of Imperial Authority and Legitimacy

Moyses Marcos

University of California, Riverside

In summer 361 CE, while based at Naissus (Niš) in Illyricum, the Roman Emperor Julian wrote a series of open letters in Greek to various communities in Greece such as Athens, Corinth, and Sparta, as well as a letter to the Senate of Rome in Italy, all of which sought to explain his usurpation of Augustan rank in February 360 while Caesar or deputy emperor in Gaul. Of these letters, the Epistle to the Athenians alone has come down to us almost completely intact. This is an important imperial ‘letter’ that functions as an autobiography and apologia of the emperor and his actions, one which Julian produced for the purpose of advancing his bid for supreme power during the short and ultimately bloodless civil war with his cousin and Augustan superior Constantius II. In this context, the Epistle to the Athenians is a unique and informative pronouncement that illustrates Julian’s ideology/political program during a critical period of imperial transition, a pronouncement which the emperor used simultaneously to consolidate his claim to higher rank and authority and to promote his legitimacy in holding such power, all the while undermining the authority and legitimacy of Constantius in the eyes of the public in the process.

Scholars such as Labriola (1975; 1991–2) have focused on the autobiographical quality of Julian’s Epistle where he comes off as a wronged man who is worthy of greater power; while Humphries (2012) more recently has explored it as an exposition of good and bad government by its negative depiction of Constantius as a “tyrant.” However, I will demonstrate that scholars have not appreciated fully how Julian employs the genre of autobiography in his Epistle not only to promote what he accomplished as Caesar in Gaul, but also what he would do as sole Augustus empire-wide. Indeed, as a genre, autobiography was a narrative type and strategy well-suited to advancing the imperial image and agenda such as utilized by Octavian Augustus in his Latin Res Gestae. While Constantius’ depiction in Julian’s ‘letter’ and autobiography is certainly polemical, it seems to have gone unnoticed that Julian, who had written two masterful panegyrics on Constantius c. 355/6 and 358/9, also uses his Epistle to the Athenians to build on his self-presentation in the Second Panegyric on Constantius (Or. 3, 86A–92C), which offers a political program for proper rule by the good king/emperor. In his Epistle to the Athenians, Julian thus makes subtle references to other texts that give this Epistle a particular intertextual quality which blurs the boundaries between autobiography and panegyric as narrative types and strategies. In so doing, Julian presents readers of his Epistle with both an autobiography and self-panegyric of Julian as a good king/emperor and an anti-panegyric and biography of Constantius as a bad and therefore a false one, a portrayal which Gregory of Nazianzus would challenge later by embedding a mini panegyric and biography of Constantius in his First Invective against Julian (Or. 4, 34–42, 45).

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Narrating the Self: Autobiography in Late Antiquity

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