“Why were you so ungrateful to our gods
as to desert them for the Jews?”
—Julian, addressing the Christians
Libanius to Priscus
Antioch, March [A.D.] 380
Yesterday morning as I was about to enter the lecture hall, I was stopped by a Christian student who asked me in a voice of eager with malice, “Have you heard about the Emperor Theodosius?”
I cleared my throat ready to investigate the nature of this question, but he was too quick for me. “He has been baptized a Christian.”
I was noncommittal. Nowadays, one never knows who is a secret agent. Also, I was not particularly surprised at the news. When Theodosius fell ill last winter and the bishops arrived like vultures to pray for him, I knew that should he recover they would take full credit for having saved him. He survived. Now we have a Christian emperor in the East, to match Gratian, our Christian emperor in the West. It was inevitable.
I turned to go inside but the young man was hardly finished with his pleasant task. “Theodosius has also issued an edict. It was just read in front of the senate house. I heard it. Did you?”
“No. But I always enjoy imperial prose,” I said politely.
“You may not enjoy this. The Emperor has declared heretic all those who do not follow the Nicene Creed.”
“I’m afraid Christian theology is not really my subject. The edict hardly applies to those of us who are still faithful to philosophy.”
“It applies to everyone in the East.” He said this slowly, watching me all the while. “The Emperor has even appointed an Inquisitor to determine one’s faith. The days of tolerance are over.”
I was speechless; the sun flared in my eyes; all things grew confused and I wondered if I was about to faint, or even die. But the voices of two colleagues recalled me. I could tell by the way they greeted me that they, too, had heard about the edict and were curious to know my reaction. I gave them no pleasure.
“Of course I expected it,” I said, “The Empress Postuma wrote me only this week to say that…” I invented freely. I have not of course heard from the Empress in some months, but I thought that the enemy should be reminded to what extent I enjoy the favor of Gratian and Postuma. It is humiliating to be forced to protect oneself in this way, but these are dangerous times.
Now, my old friend, as I sit here in my study surrounded by our proscribed friends (I mean those books of Greece which made the mind of man), let me tell you what thoughts I had last night—a sleepless night not only because of the edict but because two cats saw fit to enliven my despair with their noise of lust (only an Egyptian would worship a cat). I am weary today but determined. We must fight back. What happens to us personally is not important, but what happens to civilization is a matter of desperate concern. During my sleepless night, I thought of various appeals that might be made to our new Emperor. I have a copy of the edict before me as I write. It is composed in bad bureaucratic Greek, the official style of the bishops, whose crudity of language is equaled only by the confusion of their thought. Not unlike those celebrated minutes of the council—where was it? Chalcedon?—which we used to read to one another with such delight! Carefree days, never to come again. Unless we act now.
Priscus, I am sixty-six years old and you are, as I recall, a dozen years older than I. We have reached an age when death is a commonplace not to be feared, especially by us, for is not all philosophy but preparation for a serene dying? And are we not true philosophers who have nothing to lose but that which in the natural course we shall surrender in any case, more soon than late? I have already had several seizures in recent years which left me unconscious and weakened, and of course my chronic cough, aggravated by an unseasonable wet winter, threatens to choke me to death at any time. I am also losing my sight; and I suffer from a most painful form of gout. Therefore let us, fearing nothing, join forces and strike back at the Christians before they entirely destroy the world we love.
My plan is this. Seventeen years ago when you returned from Persia, you told me that our beloved friend and pupil, the Emperor Julian, had written a fragment of memoir which you had got hold of at the time of his death. I have often thought to write you for a copy, simply for my own edification. I realized then, as did you, that publication was out of the question, popular though Julian was and still is, even though his work to restore the true gods has been undone. Under Emperors Valentinian and Valens we had to be politic and cautious if we were to be allowed to go on teaching. But now in the light of this new edict, I say: and end to caution! We have nothing but two old bodies to lose, while there is eternal glory to be gained by publishing Julian’s memoir, with an appropriate biography to be written by either or both of us. I knew his quality best, of course, but you were with him in Persia and saw him die.
So between the two of us, I his teacher and you his philosopher-companion, we can rehabilitate his memory and with close reasoning show the justice of his contest with the Christians. I have written about him in the past, and boldly. I refer particularly to the eulogy I composed just after his death when, if I may say so, I was able to bring tears even the hard Christian eyes. Shortly afterwards, I published my correspondence with Julian. Incidentally, I sent you a copy and though you never acknowledge this gift, I do hope you found it interesting. If by any chance you did not receive it, I shall be happy to send you another one. I kept all of Julian’s letters to me over the years, as well as copies of my own letters to him. One can never rely on the great keeping one’s letters; and should those letters vanish, one is apt to be remembered only as the mysterious half of a dialogue to be reconstructed in the vaguest way from the surviving (and sometimes lesser!) half of the exchange. Finally, I am at work on an oration to be called “On Avenging the Emperor Julian.” I mean to dedicate this work to Theodosius.
I hope after so many years of silence between us that this letter finds you and your admirable wife, Hippia, in good health. I envy you your life at Athens, the natural center of our universe. Do I need to add that I will of course defray any expenses you might incur in having Julian’s memoir copied? The price of copying, luckily, is less at Athens than here in Antioch. Books always cost more in those cities where they are least read.
Let us make Julian live again, and for all time!