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Julian's Platonopolis?

Matthew Lupu

Florida State University

Julian’s attitudes towards religious reform have been controversial (Wiemer 2017, Nesselrath 2013, Bouffartigue 1992). The evidence from Julian’s own writing indicates that whatever his intentions might have been, they were rooted deeply in his study of Plato (Elm 2012, Smith, 1996). In this paper I will examine Julian’s journey to Antioch in the year 362 as part of his imperial agenda to make Antioch his capital, modeled on the ideal but ill-fated concept of Platonopolis as formulated by Plato and pursued by Plotinus. I will argue that this decision is a result not only from the political and military conditions of his rule, but also from a desire to reform the culture and religion of the empire. Indeed, this interest in reform via philosophy was not unique to Julian. Plotinus attempted to convince the emperor Gallienus to build a city that would be ruled according to Plato’s Laws.  This city was to be built from a previously abandoned settlement and called “Platonopolis”. Both Plotinus’ and Julian’s attempts proved futile, but they offer valuable insights into Julian’s mindset as emperor.

 I will focus my attention on two examples of public addresses meant for two major eastern cities: Alexandria and Antioch. Julian’s letter to the people of Alexandria was written in response to an anti-Christian riot which resulted in the deaths of not only the bishop of the city, but also two imperial functionaries. It punishes no one. When the people of Antioch would fail to behave as Julian might have wanted, he writes the Misopogon and appoints a new governor well-known for his harshness in order to punish the city. Such uneven responses demand explanation.

I will begin with an analysis of the two letters, demonstrating the uneven tone in each given the relative severity of the crimes. Then I will examine how his fraught interaction with the people of Antioch was a consequence of the mismatch between Julian’s expectations for how a city ought to be ruled, and the real results of putting political theory into practice. Further evidence of this attitude can be found in Julian’s Oration 7, which contains the “autobiographical myth” in which Julian describes a communion with Helios. This myth bears a striking resemblance to Plato’s allegory of the cave.

Lastly, I conclude that Julian saw himself as a kind of real prisoner liberated from the cave through the study of philosophy, whose divine responsibility was to return to the cave and thereby release the other prisoners trapped there. Julian likely saw his involvement with the affairs of empire precisely in these terms: he thought, as Plato did, that a “normal” man, i.e. a man not trained in philosophy, and therefore not seeking to become divine was not fit for rule. This interpretation explains Julian’s attitude towards the citizens of Antioch who reacted so poorly when Julian attempted to “free” them via his imprecations to his own conceits of pagan civic piety, while at the same time treating the Alexandrians with a comparatively mild hand.

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Pagans and Christians

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