How a scholar became Caesar

Flavius Claudius Julianus, known to posterity as Julian the Apostate was the sole emperor of the Roman Empire from 361-363. During his reign, he tried to revive the old pagan practices in place of Christianity. His pagan beliefs and actions earned him his famous nickname. But Julian did not seek the throne. Constantius II forced it on him. All Julian wanted to do was to study. Read on to find out the chain of events that led him to become Caesar.

Julian’s Background

Julian was born the son of Julius Constantius. His father was the son of the Emperor Constantius Chlorus and his second wife Theodora. This made him half-brother to Constantine the Great. When Constantine came to power, he made his mother Helena an empress. Due to Helena’s dislike for Theodora and her family, Julius had to keep a low profile. Thus the greater part of Julius’ life was spent in obscurity.

When Helena died, Constantine sent for Julius and his family to stay in Constantinople. By this time, Julius had a second wife by the name of Basilina. Following them were two sons and a daughter from his earlier marriage. The family settled happily in the new capital and soon, Julian was born in 332. Sadly, Basilina died shortly after giving birth to him. Despite her death, life had to go on. Constantine showed great favour to Julius by giving him high positions in his court. As such, Julius was able to give his large brood a proper upbringing, getting the best nurses and tutors for them. But this peaceful existence did not last.

Massacre of 337

In 337, Constantine the Great died. Following in the wake of his death was the struggle for the throne. Constantius II, the son of Constantine, was eager to wipe out potential rivals. Under a false pretext, he ordered the deaths of his father’s half-brothers and their families. Imperial troops executed Julius and his eldest son. But Constantius spared the five-year-old Julian and his older half-brother, Gallus, due to their young age.

The massacre left a deep impact on Julian. In the blink of an eye, for no apparent reason, he lost his father and older brother. As he grew older and learned the truth of the massacre, he could not help but hate his cousin. Yet he was not in a position to do anything for the moment. Survival came first.

The Early Upbringing of Julian

Although Constantius had spared the lives of Gallus and Julian, they were a nuisance to him. He decided that the best way to deal with the brothers was to send them off to Nicomedia to study. There the Bishop Eusebius would take care of and educate them. Thus, Christian teachings shaped the early years of Julian’s life.

In his eleventh year, Julian’s life underwent another upheaval. The emperor sent Julian and Gallus to Macellum as a safety measure. There, in the ancient palace, cut off from the rest of the world, the brothers had little to do but study. It was during this period that Julian stumbled upon classical literature. This began a lifelong interest that would define his worldview.

In 349, after six years at Macellum, Constantius allowed the brothers to return to Constantinople. There their paths diverged. Gallus would go on to serve in the imperial court. As for Julian, he had discovered his passion for learning. Bent on the pursuit of knowledge, he asked for and gained the permission to further his studies. Constantius did not think that a bookworm could do him much harm.

Julian the Philosopher

During the next six years, Julian roamed the Greek world. In his quest for knowledge, he visited the various philosophical schools and sought out the best thinkers of his day. Day and night, he read and engaged in discourses. Soon he heard of Libanius, a famous pagan philosopher and he set off to Nicomedia to learn from him.

By this time, Julian had begun to favour the classical teachings over the Christian ones. When one of his former Christian tutors learned of his admiration for Libanius, he became alarmed. To save the soul of his wayward pupil, he made Julian promise not to attend Libanius’ lectures. Julian kept his word by paying someone to copy the lectures for him.

From Nicomedia, he travelled to Pergamum, then to Ephesus and finally he reached Athens. Somewhere along the way, Julian made the fateful choice to turn his back on Christianity. This was not a decision made on a whim. Julian was too deep a thinker to make haphazard choices. He had come to realize that he did not agree with Christian teachings. In its place, he embraced the old Pagan ways that appealed to him on a spiritual level. But despite his conviction, he had to keep his religious views to himself. Christianity was on the rise while paganism was on the decline. If word got out of his views, he would face grave consequences.

The Reluctant Caesar

In late 355, at the age of 23, Julian learned that Constantius intended to make him Caesar. By now, the future Caesar was a grown man. Stocky in build and plain looking, he was socially awkward and shy. The way he carried himself did nothing to inspire confidence in others. Furthermore, he did not wish to rule. All he wanted in life was to learn. But he had no choice. He had to leave Athens for Milan to meet Constantius.

At Milan, Constantius informed Julian he was to rule as Caesar. After the needed personal grooming to look the part of a Caesar, Julian appeared before the troops on November 6. Constantius gave a short speech as he presented Julian to those present. There, despite his reluctance, Julian received the acclamation of the troops as their new Caesar. Constantius also married his sister Helena to Julian to bind him to his household. For his part, Julian was fulsome in his praise of Constantius. Although he hated the murderer of his family, he had no choice but to submit for now.

Reflections of the Vizier

Despite trying to stay away from the throne, the throne found Julian. For years, he had kept a low profile and immersed himself in study. He did so because it was his passion. But fate would not leave Julian alone. After the execution of his brother Gallus, Julian was the best choice that Constantius had left as Caesar. Even though Julian tried to live the life of a scholar, fate called upon him to be Caesar. Julian would go on to prove he was a dynamic one.


Norwich, John Julius. Byzantium: The Early Centuries. England: Penguin Books, 1990.

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