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The Three Accessions of Julian the Apostate: Social Power and the Question of Late Roman Imperial Legitimacy

JaShong King

University of Ottawa

When did Julian, the last "pagan" Roman emperor, come to power? Was it in 355 CE, the year he was made a caesar/junior emperor by his cousin the augustus/senior emperor Constantius II? Was it in 360 CE, the year that he was acclaimed as an augustus by his army? Or was it in 361 CE, the year that the civil war between the two ended with Constantius II's sudden death, after which Julian made his triumphal entry into Constantinople to the applause of the senate and the people of the city?

For Julian himself, the answer was clear: 355 CE was the year of his dies imperii (Burgess 1988). However, the answer is not as clear cut for modern scholarship, as different reference texts have different start dates. Some say 360 CE (CAH 13, 1998) while others say 361 CE (Mitchell 2015). Deciding on a start year for Julian's accession is problematic because it means deciding on a theory as to the foundation of imperial power. Was the basis of Julian's power his dynastic connection to the former emperor Constantine the Great, his coercive power as a military leader, or his adherence to customary rituals as someone acclaimed by the senate and people?

I will argue, through the example of these three "accessions" of Julian, that one way of clarifying both ancient and modern debates over the foundations of imperial power is by seeing them as subtypes of social power. I assert that each "foundation" represents an attempt at controlling the inclusion and exclusion of participants within or for the formation of a ruling political coalition (Bueno de Mesquita 2003). In Julian's case, dynastic legitimacy limited the decision-making coalition to the ruling family, coercive power limited the coalition to military commanders and their armed forces, and adherence to ritual limited the coalition to capital city groups such as the senate, the church, the bureaucracy, or the factions. Imperial accessions like Julian's are particularly useful for identifying key political players because they were opportunities for the renegotiation of coalitions (Börm 2015).

In my presentation, I will outline a methodology for identifying key political groups by classifying them according to their types of power and their perceived level of influence. My typology for power is based loosely on the theories of sociologist Michael Mann (1986), who divided social power into ideological, economic, military, and political power, and Egon Flaig (1992), who suggested that Roman legitimacy be thought of in terms of political acceptance. Level of influence is based upon the imperial selection precedence of various political groups, i.e. whether they could nominate, only affirm or deny, or were merely noted as present during key ceremonies. By applying this methodology to Julian as a case study, we can see which groups were most important for the securing of the imperial office, after which we will have a system which can organize, under one social power umbrella, the different theories of an emperor's "ultimate" legitimacy not only for Julian, but for other Roman emperors as well.

Session/Panel Title

Power and Politics in Late Antiquity

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