By Bruce Nelson, Eleusis Publishing
The first thing we ought to preach is reverence toward the gods. For it is fitting that we should perform our service to the gods as though they were themselves present with us and beheld us, and though not seen by us could direct their gaze, which is more powerful than any light, even as far as our hidden thoughts.~Julian
One of the most remarkable events in the history of the Classical world was the ascension to the throne in 360 CE of Flavius Claudius Julianus, known as the Emperor Julian. In his brief reign he sought to strengthen the Roman empire, which had suffered under almost fifty years of Christian dominance, by restoring the ancient spiritual foundations that had nourished it for over a thousand years. His legacy and vision as a true spiritual and temporal ruler is still an inspiring testament to the strength and brilliance of the Hellenic religious tradition.
Julian is of special significance because he was one of the first and most enthusiastic *converts* to Hellenism. For someone in his position, a potential heir to the Emperor, to pursue the ancient religion at that time was quite dangerous and required a great amount of courage. It was also a stunning refutation to the Christian myth that their ascent to power was based on a higher morality and a deeper spiritual vision rather than on an aggressive willingness to use religion and spirituality as a means to achieve political control.
Christian leaders took quick advantage of their official status as decreed by Constantine in 313 CE to expand their influence. By Julian's time, they had become the state cult, and were using their powers to destroy with equal fervor both traditional religious rites and dissenting Christian practices. Akin to the Bolsheviks of our own era, the Christians at that time were a small but well organized radical elite who exploited the anxiety of a country in transition to seize power for themselves. And like other revolutionary movements would do after them, the Christians ruthlessly sought the elimination of opposition, both within and outside their ranks, while imposing on the populace an unprecedented spiritual conformity whose tenets were carefully crafted to ensure that political and spiritual authority remained concentrated.
As a child, Julian experienced in an immediate and visceral way the essential evil present in the new order when his family was murdered on the order of Constantine II. His discovery of the ancient religious traditions became for him a stunning counter vision to the atheism and fanaticism that had come to pass for spirituality. At that time, the principle school of ancient philosophy was what scholars have come to call Neoplatonism - a synthesis of Platonic wisdom with strong devotional and ritual practice. Julian was able to learn deeply both the philosophical teachings and ritual practices. He participated in the Mysteries and his love and devotion to the ancient gods was unparalleled. As the Greek rhetorician Libanius described Julian's conversion,
He met with people who were steeped with the learning of Plato, and he learned of gods and spirits and the real creators and saviors of the whole universe; he gained knowledge of the nature of the soul, its origin and destination, the causes of its glory and elevation, and of its ruin and debasement: he discovered its bondage and its freedom, and the means to avoid the one and attain the other, and he washed a sour story clean with sweet discourse, casting out all that earlier nonsense and in in it's place introducing into his soul the beauty of truth.
This vision of a restored Hellenism and a true love of the gods guided Julian through numerous dangers and challenges. When he became Emperor of Rome he immediately sought to bring to life this vision of spiritual renewal,
a restoration of the balance between Hellenism and Romanitas that would bring peace and prosperity both to the state and to it's Citizens. As Plymnia Athanassiadi expressed it in her book, "Julian an Intellectual Biography",
For him true paideia (learning) means an understanding of the Graeco-Roman cultural tradition in all its aspects and implications;
only through this knowledge can man hope to begin to know himself, and thus ultimately be led to union with the divine. Like all truly great human achievements, Graeco-Roman culture is for Julian the product of divine revelation...Thanks to the revelation of Apollo-Helios the Greeks developed an admirable religious, philosophical and artistic tradition which their kinsmen, the Romans, were to perfect by enriching it with the best political constitution the world had known... For Julian, the sanctity of Greek culture was ensured by the fact that Apollo-Helios, the patron of culture and the god of truth, acted as the teacher of humanity and, in special cases, could also bestow his divine grace through instant illumination.
Julian himself had experienced this illumination. He discovered not only that the Classical tradition was a continuous and living spiritual force, but that the gods *are* eternal and even if forgotten by a confused and disgraced populace, are still present and willing to share their blessings with those who recognize and honor them. Julian's vision was one of renewal - he worked to train priests, to rebuild temples, to reinstitute ancient rites. He did not shy away from debate, discussion and teaching, and his two most spiritually profound works, "Hymn to Helios" and "Hymn to the Mother of the Gods" are still unsurpassed as theurgic expositions reflecting the highest spirit of devitional Neoplatonism. In Libanius words,
He divided his life into care for the state and devotion to the altars, associating with the gods in countless initiations, mourning for our desecrated temples, when mourning was all that he could do, but then, when the opportunity came, taking up arms for them. He restored the ruined temples to their places, and he restored their ritual back to them and all others: he brought back, as it were from exile, sacrifice and libation, and renewed the festivals that had fallen into abeyance. He did away with the danger that was attached to the worship of higher powers, never allowed his intellect to be diverted from his consideration of the gods, dispersed the mist that enveloped so many, and would have done the same for us all, had he not been untimely taken from us.
In 363 CE Julian was killed while leading the Roman army against it's longtime enemy, Persia. Christian leaders rejoiced at this turn of events and renewed their assault on the ancient faith with increased fervor and intensity. Yet this destruction was not without consequence. Scarcely fifteen years later, the demoralized Roman army would suffer its greatest defeat ever at the battle of Adrianople. Thirty years later Rome itself was sacked and Western civilization was plunged into a spiritual dark age from which we are only now beginning to emerge. In it's wake not only did we lose our ancient spiritual traditions, but Christianity, a religion ostensibly born in love of the divine, would make martyrs of millions of men, women and children in Europe and the new world, even forcing it's hatred against the earth itself.
And yet it didn't have to be that way. Julian through his life and teachings presented a compelling alternative, one with respect for the past and hope for the future, a path not of persecution and destruction. His conversion is the one our society still needs to make, perhaps now more than ever. For the way to harmony is the same as always - reference for the gods. With their grace, the West having neared the end of history, may yet remember what it knew at it's beginning.