Podcast episode

Episode 169: Strategies of the Esoteric in the Hellenism of the Emperor Julian: Exclusion and Pluralism in a Late-Antique Polytheism

In this episode we delve a bit further into aspects of Julian’s religio-philosophico-political project of ‘Hellenism’. We learn some more things about Julian’s extraordinary religious and political reform project, and take this as an opportunity to reflect on the weirdness which occurs when not just religion, but esoteric religion is promoted to the corridors of power.

Works Cited in this Episode:


Ammianus Marcellinus: Julian’s edict of toleration: XXII.5.1. Julian’s distastefully excessive sacrifice: XXII.12, 6.

Gregory of Nazianzus on who owns Hellenism: Or. 4, 107.

John Chrysostom contra Hellenism: Adv. Oppugn. Vit. Mon. = PG 47 367.


  • Primacy of Iamblichus in Julian’s thought: Ep. 12, Hymn to the Sun (XI) 146a, 150d, 157d.
  • Distinction between elite epistēmē and common doxa: Orat. IX.197a.
  • Roman and Hellenic identities conflated, the Roman project seen as a fulfilment of Hellenic politics: Orat. XI.152d-153a.
  • Each people is assigned an ethnic god: Ep. 89a, 453b; 89b, 292cd. This god is an emanation of the first cause: Contr. Gal. 115de. These gods occupy a Iamblichean hypostatic hierarchy: Contr. Gal. 143ab; XI.145c.
  • Plato’s myths essential sources for his philosophy: Orat. VII.11.217a. Myths more generally are esoteric emblems of philosophical truths: Orat. V.169-170, and Orat. VII.206c. Myth of Babel: Contr. Gal. 134d-138a. Myth of Cybele and Attis: Hymn to the Mother of the Gods 8. The Chaldæan Oracles an inspired writing, which Julian learned to interpret from Iamblichus’ lost commentary: Ep. 12.
  • King Numa founder of essentially Julianic solar religion: Contr. Gal.155a-156b.
  • “The spirit that comes to mankind from the gods rarely, and to only a few, nor do all men share in it, nor at all times”, and the sacred arts granted by Zeus: Contr. Gal. 198bc.
  • Asclepius a saving god who has cured the emperor himself: Contr. Gal. 200a, for long encomium, 235c for cures. Asclepius conflated with Helios/Mithras: Contr. Gal. 200ab; cf. Eusebius P.E. III 13.15-16; Macrobius Sat. I.20.1.

‘Hellenism’ in the books of Maccabees: 2 Macc. 4:13.

On the Gods and the World on postmortem punishment: 18.3; cf. 20.


Athanassiadi on On the Gods and the World as ‘pagan catechism’: Athanassiadi-Fowden 1981 [see below], p. 159.

E. R. Dodds. Proclus: The Elements of Theology. Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1963, we cite p. xviii.

J. Walbridge. The Wisdom of the Mystic East: Suhrawardi and Platonic Orientalism. State University of New York Press, Albany, NY, 2001.

Wilmer Cave Wright, editor. The Works of the Emperor Julian. Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA, 1913.

Recommended Reading:

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

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

Idem. Hellenism in Late Antiquity. University of Michigan Press, Ann Arbor, MI, 1996.

Peter Brown. The World of Late Antiquity. Thames and Hudson, London, 1971.

M.P. Garcia Ruiz. Julian’s Self-Representation in Coins and Texts. In W. Burgersgijk, P. Ross, and A.J. Ross, editors, Imagining Emperors in the Later Roman Empire, pages 204–33. Brill, Leiden, 2018.

David Neal Greenwood. Julian and Christianity: Revisiting the Constantinian Revolution. Cornell University Press, Ithaca, NY, 2021.

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

Edward J. Watts. City and School in Late Antique Athens and Alexandria. University of California Press, Berkeley/Los Angeles, CA/London, 2006.


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