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Julian and Rome’s Eternal Refoundation

Jeremy J. Swist

Miami University

Since Julian (r. 361-363) was both a Roman emperor and Hellenic philosopher, scholars have long explored how he put Neoplatonic theory, theology, and theurgy into the practice of imperial ideology and statecraft (e.g. Smith 1995, Bregman 1998, Greenwood 2014). Their discussions often dwell on how Julian throughout his writings presented himself as sent by the gods to restore the channel of divine blessings that preserve the material cosmos, and how he implicitly modeled his divine mission to revive traditional religion on the incarnation and labors of demigods such as Heracles (Conti 2009; Greenwood 2014), Asclepius (Swist 2018), and Romulus (Athanassiadi 1981).

In this paper, I will first connect Julian’s emulation of Romulus, along with his arguably equal emulation of his successor Numa Pompilius, to the emperor’s participation in the discourse of imperial refoundation. Drawing precedents from Hellenistic monarchies, Augustus and his imperial successors employed textual and visual media to suggest themselves as new founding fathers of Rome (Angelova 2015). I argue that Julian wed this discourse to his own, Iamblichean brand of Neoplatonic metaphysics in order to show that not only his own soul, but the soul of every preceding Roman emperor had been providentially sent to renew the cosmos by refounding the Empire. Their re-ascent to the gods was contingent on fulfilling this providential mission, and not every emperor succeeded in fulfilling their purpose as instruments of divine blessings. As paradigms thereof, Julian established first Romulus as a city-founder sent by Ares, then Numa sent by Zeus as the founder of religion, made in Julian’s own image as a philosopher-priest who practices theurgy (Or. 4.154c-155d; CG 193c). These founder-archetypes I then apply to Julian’s literary appropriations of Roman history, where he inserts imperial, heroic souls into original myths inspired by Platonic allegories. His autobiographical myth in Or. 7 presents himself as an escapee from the Cave of Plato’s Republic who is tasked by the gods with descending back into the Cave to liberate more prisoners. His satire The Caesars, moreover, arguably draws from the Chariot Allegory of Plato’s Phaedrus in presenting the souls of some past emperors ascending to the banquet of the gods, while others who had failed in their missions plummet back to earth. Their ascent to the divine realms depends on and mirrors their relationship to the traditional gods in life.

Julian shared the belief that Rome and its civilization were “from beginning to end, Hellenic” (Or. 4.153a). Hence the Augustan discourse of re-foundation and emulation of Rome’s founding fathers was in his mind eminently compatible with his identity as a Hellenic philosopher-priest-king. As emperor and pontifex maximus, Julian saw himself not as one on a unique mission to save the Empire from the threat of Christianity, but as the latest in a line of rulers eternally and providentially sent to guarantee the stability and prosperity of the imperial cosmos by securing the gods’ blessing through orthodox worship.

Session/Panel Title

Late Antiquity

Session/Paper Number

65.1

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