Home >> Volume 7, Issue 01

Julian the Apostate in Athens1

Timothy Bartel

AD 355

Good riddance, then, return to Cappadocia,
My Christian friends, who came to Athens proud
Of your new freedom unlocked at Milan,
Where Constantine threw wide the doors of Rome
To welcome in the doctrines of the East
Where God and man flash between sky and earth.
All this our cults could take if not for law—
And moral law at that—which echoes from
Such lighting landings and such lightning leavings
Like throbs of thunder that can shatter glass.
Jove jumped to earth a thousand times, but placed
No shackles on my conduct or my mind;
Now this new Jove, this Jesus, throws not bolts
But new commandments, striking men to earth
And soon all Rome will groan under his crush.
The provinces may buckle, the whole world
Yield then to his unyielding creed until
This dusty grove at Athens, this Academy
Will close its ancient doors—of mind—
And be transformed into another ruin where
The enemies of Christ lie lifeless.
There is another god still in the earth,
But slumbering till his prophet cries “awake!”
Awake, then, Janus, lord of doors and years,
And make this heart of mine conservative.
Come, too, Eumenides, who haunt these hearths
And gather round me like a laurel crown—
I come to lend you back a little of
The wrath that great Athena leached from you;
For I know where the greatest matricides
Reside: in Galilee, where Roman sons
Have left the pantheon that nursed them when
The slim sinews of reason had not formed,
And humans were a myth that death composed.
I, backed by Chaos, ringed by Fury, I
Will raise the brazen scepter, will turn back
The swift horse of imperial time, will ride,
When it is mine, the promised throne like some
High ship’s Octavian prow to Galilee,
Jerusalem, to Rome—wherever that
Malignant cross has burned a mark—
And exorcise Jehovah from my home.

But look—the olives here are still pale red,
And spring and youth still cling within the trees.
This earth, for now, for all, will be enough.
We pagan men are humble, not too humble;
We do not wish for immortality,
The flame that should, by right, belong to gods.
I will be happy if my name lives on.
I ask no other privilege. Resurrection
Is a prideful hope, a vain one too.
The gods did not become men so we could
Become as gods ourselves—we are more mild.
For men are a myth created by Death,
Brief stories told by changing time’s moonlight,
And all who overreach their natures will
Be overthrown, as oceans toss a child.

1 The Emperor Julian ruled the Roman Empire from 361–363 AD. In a fascinating coincidence of history, Julian attended the Academy at Athens in 355 AD alongside two of the great Christian theologians of the fourth century, Saint Basil of Caesarea and Saint Gregory of Nazianzus. But in Athens, Julian committed himself not to the Christian faith, as his predecessor Constantine and his schoolmates had done, but instead to Greco-Roman paganism. He is often called “The Apostate” for his brutal persecution of Christians during his rule.