Rome: How Julian’s Conversion to Paganism Impacted Christianity


By Bart D. Ehrman, The University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill

The last gasp of paganism at the highest level of imperial rule came with a brief reign of Constantius’s cousin, Julian, often called Julian the Apostate. Unlike the other survivors of Constantine, he reconverted to paganism and, after assuming the imperial throne, tried to enforce pagan practices on the empire. The effect on the Christian church was enormous.

Silhouette of three crosses
The Christian mission that got a boost during the reign of Constantius suffered a setback under Julian. (Image: Vectorfusionart/Shutterstock)

The Emergence of Julian

Julian had been a young boy at the time of the Massacre of the Princes in the wake of Constantine’s death. He was not given any access as a young man to the court or political life generally. He was raised Christian and participated actively in the Christian church.

In 355, Constantius was confronted with serious problems on his borders in both the east, on the border of Persia, and the west in Gaul. He needed someone to deal with the threat in the west while he personally directed the defenses in the east. So, he took his completely inexperienced, and naive, 24-year-old cousin, Julian, out of his isolation and appointed him to direct the military efforts in Gaul.

Julian turned out, to everyone’s surprise, to be a competent and skilled military commander. He had studied the commentaries of Julius Caesar on his military campaigns. And he transferred his book learning to the field. Within a few years, everyone realized Julian was someone to look out for. Constantius himself detected a potential threat.

Julian’s Ascension

In 360 CE, Constantius decided to downsize Julian’s army and ordered him to transfer a large number of his troops to his post in the east, both to bulk up his own armies for the more desperate needs on the Persian front, and probably to ensure a power imbalance in his favor.

Julian’s armies rebelled against the order, and they proclaimed Julian as the new Augustus. This was bound to lead to a civil war, but as it turns out, Constantius unexpectedly died en route to meeting his cousin in battle at age 44.

By default, Julian became the sole ruler of the empire.

This article comes directly from content in the video series The Triumph of Christianity. Watch it now, on Wondrium.

Julian’s Conversion to Paganism

Upon ascending to the throne, Julian almost immediately announced that he had secretly converted to paganism years earlier and committed himself to secure the assistance of the pagan gods for the good of the empire.

As a schoolboy, he had devoured the pagan classics and grew to love the moral world they represented.

It could also be that his bad experience with Christians stood out by contrast. It was his ardent Christian cousin, Constantius II, who had arranged for the murder of all of Julian’s male relatives, including his brother Gallus. He scarcely embodied an enviable moral code. Whatever the reason for his conversion to pagan tradition, Julian’s decision to promote it necessarily meant suppressing Christianity.

Universal Tolerance

As a student of history, Julian knew better than to implement legislation outlawing Christianity or enacting violent persecution. That had never worked and, in fact, had arguably hurt the pagan cause 60 years earlier, during the Great Persecution under Diocletian.

Julian’s approach was far more subtle. To begin with, he declared universal tolerance, and reopened pagan temples, and restored pagan rites as a first step.

Julian’s Wileful Ways

A bust of Constantius
Many laws passed by Constantius (above) were overturned by Julian. (Image: Lefteris Papaulakis/Shutterstock)

Though seemingly harmless, the laws Julian passed were insidious in their effects.

His cousin Constantius II, the devout Arian Christian, had ordered all Christian leaders who opposed Arian views to be sent into exile away from their congregations and the civic power they had enjoyed. Julian restored them to their homes. This was no act of tolerance; it almost certainly was an attempt to split and weaken the church by bringing vehemently opposed spokespersons back into churches that had been rid of them.

Julian eliminated the privileges enjoyed by the Christian clergy. Aristocrats in the empire before Christianity had heavy financial obligations to support their cities and civic causes. By canceling these obligations for Christian leaders, for aristocrats who became clerics, Constantine had greatly strengthened Christian leaders and brought enormous funds into the churches, as, instead of supporting the cities now, the aristocrats were putting their funds into the church.

By reinstating the obligations, Julian weakened the clergy and deprived the churches of their funding.

Thinking One Step Ahead

Possibly most insidious of all, Julian made it illegal for Christians to teach the pagan classics to schoolboys.

This legal ruling may seem rather innocuous but, in fact, it was anything but that. Julian’s expressed logic was that no one should teach what they disbelieve and oppose. Christians then could either acknowledge the pagan gods or abandon their positions teaching the classics.

Legislation like this about the classics would obviously be unimportant probably in our day, but in the 4th century, the classics were the focus of all education, even in Christian contexts. Since the classics were used to teach grammar, rhetoric, and philosophy, all the main topics of education were given to the elites, who would themselves be given positions of authority later in life. This meant that the next generation of elites would all be trained exclusively by pagans.

As ancient historian Glen Bowersock points out, Julian knew perfectly well what he was doing. Within a little more than a generation, the educated elite of the empire would be pagan.

Relief to Christianity

Fortunately for the Christian movement, but unfortunately for paganism, not to mention Julian himself, his rule was short-lived. After 19 months on the throne, Julian was compelled to lead a military campaign against the Persians. This time, his battle plan was poorly conceived and even more poorly executed.

Julian was killed in battle, and on June 26, 363, he was succeeded on the throne by one of his military commanders named Jovian.

Christianity now grew unimpeded by leaps and bounds under Jovian’s reign.

Common Questions about How Julian’s Conversion to Paganism Impacted Christianity

Q: How did Julian ascend to the throne?

Julian‘s army was up in rebellion against Constantinus, which led to a civil war. But Constantinus died en route to meeting Julian in battle. By default, Julian became the sole ruler of the empire.

Q: When did Christianity received some respite?

With Julian was killed in battle in 363, he was succeeded on the throne by one of his military commanders named Jovian. Christianity now grew unimpeded by leaps and bounds under Jovian’s reign.

Q: What was Julian’s approach to religion?

Julian’s approach to religion was very subtle. To begin with, he declared universal tolerance, and reopened pagan temples, and restored pagan rites.

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