Podcast episode

Episode 167: Jeremy Swist on the Emperor Julian, Part I: the Political Background and Political Project of the Emperor

We are delighted to speak with Jeremy Swist, specialist on the most heavy metal of Roman emperors, the great Julian. In Part I of our interview we concentrate (mostly) on the political side of things, although philosophy and spiritual practice are never divorced from politics with The Emperor.

Topics discussed include:

  • A review of the crucial political/religious events of Diocletian’s and Contantine’s reigns, which set the stage for subsequent late-antique politics, including religious politics,
  • Julian’s early biography, leading to his eventual claiming of the sole Roman imperial power,
  • Julian’s decision to ‘revert’ to the ‘traditional ways’, declaring universal religious tolerance, restoring the subsidies for local civic cults (and revoking subsidies for Christian congregations), attempting to revert to something politically more like the Principate and less like the Dominate (at least in theory), and
  • Julian’s view of his own imperial destiny as a providential act of the gods ( and especially of the Emperor Helios, the sun god) for the preservation and renewal of the world of Nature and of Rome,
  • His revisionist assimilation of the Greeks and Romans into a single Hellenic people (genos) with a providential destiny and a developed sacred history, and
  • Julian’s practice of esoteric reading as applied to traditional Græco-Roman mythological stories, through which gods, heroes, and historical personages (e.g. Dionysus, Hercules, and the Roman king Numa) are re-read in a Platonist light.

We end on a cliffhanger, with the word ‘metaphysics’ promising more delights to come ….

Interview Bio:

Jeremy Swist works on imperial Greek and Roman historiography, with an emphasis on late antiquity, and with a particular emphasis on the great Julian. He also studies classical reception in the greatest musical genre – I refer, of course, to METAL. Find his work on this subject at his blog, Heavy Metal Classicist. He is currently working on a monograph on Julian’s political project, working title Julian, Refounder of the Roman Empire.

Works Cited in this Episode:


Our two main (and conflicting) Christian accounts of Constantine’s vision before the battle of the Milvian Bridge are found in Lactantius (earlier: De mortibus persecutorum 44.5) and Eusebius (later: Life of Constantine 1.28-29).

Plato’s ascent-myth in the Phædrus: 246d-247e. See Episode 34. Plato’s allegory of the sun: Republic 508a-509d. See Episode 31.

Julian on the need for his priests to outcompete the Christians on their own turf, the turf of philanthropia: Fragment of a Letter to a Priest (in vol. 2 of Wright’s Loeb edition). Law of Julian in the Theodosian Code, that the state must approve teachers: CTh.13.3.5:
Imp. iulianus a magistros studiorum doctoresque excellere oportet moribus primum, deinde facundia. sed quia singulis civitatibus adesse ipse non possum, iubeo, quisque docere vult, non repente nec temere prosiliat ad hoc munus, sed iudicio ordinis probatus decretum curialium mereatur optimorum conspirante consensu. hoc enim decretum ad me tractandum referetur, ut altiore quodam honore nostro iudicio studiis civitatum accedant. dat. xv kal. iul., acc. iiii kal. augustas spoletio mamertino et nevitta conss. (362 iun. 17).


Scholarship suggesting that Julian was especially influenced by Arian Christianity, as being more compatible with his Platonist assumptions: David Neal Greenwood, A Cautionary Note on Julian’s ‘Pagan Trinity’. Ancient Philosophy 33.2 (2013): 391-402.

Candida Moss suggests that Julian never really persecuted Christians in the ways claimed by Christian martyr-literature: Candida Moss. The Myth of Persecution: How Early Christians Invented a Story of Martyrdom. HarperOne, San Francisco, CA, 2013.

Recommended Reading:

Polymnia Athanassiadi-Fowden. Julian and Hellenism. Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1981.

G. Bowersock. Julian the Apostate. Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA, 1978.

Jay Bregman. Elements of the Emperor Julian’s Theology. In John J. Cleary, editor, Traditions of Platonism: Essays in Honour of John Dillon, volume Traditions of Platonism: Essays in Honour of John Dillon, pages 339–50. Ashgate, Brookfield, VT, 1999.

Julianus Imperator. L’Empereur Julien: Oeuvres Complètes. Les Belles Lettres, Paris, 1932.

Rowland Smith. Julian’s Gods: Religion and Philosophy in the Thought and Action of Julian the Apostate. Routledge, London, 1995.

Jeremy Swist. Medicine in the Thought and Action of the Emperor Julian. International Journal of the Platonic Tradition, 12:13–38, 2018.

Hans Teitler. The Last Pagan Emperor: Julian the Apostate and the War Against Christianity. Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2017.

Shaun Tougher and Nicholas Baker-Brian, editors. Emperor and Author: The Writings of Julian the Apostate. The Classical Press of Wales, Swansea, 2012.

Wilmer Cave Wright, editor. The Works of the Emperor Julian. Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA, 1913 [as always, the inimitable Wright provides us with scrupulous textual work combined with fantastic translations. Highly recommended as a one-stop-shop for all your Julian needs].


, , , , , , , , , , , , ,