Study Guide

The Death of the Gods

by Dmitry Merezhkovsky

The Death of the Gods Summary

Summary (Essentials of European Literature)

The Roman Emperor Constantius had risen to power by a series of assassinations. Two of his cousins, Julian and Gallus, were still alive, prisoners in Cappadocia. No one knew why they were permitted to live, for they were the last people who could challenge the right of the emperor to his position. Julian was the greater of the two, a young man steeped in the teachings of the philosophers. His brother was younger and more girlish in his habits. Both knew that they could expect death momentarily.

When Julian was twenty years old, Constantius gave him permission to travel in Asia Minor, where the lad affected the dress of a monk and passed as a Christian. His younger brother, Gallus, was given high honors as co-regent with Constantius and named Caesar. The affection which Constantius seemed to bestow on Gallus was short-lived, however, for soon the young man was recalled to Milan, and on his journey homeward, he was beheaded by order of the emperor. When word of his brother’s death reached Julian, he wondered how much longer he himself had to live.

While Julian wandered about Asia Minor, he met many philosophers and was initiated into the mysteries of Mithra, the sun god. Julian felt more power in the religion of the pagans than he did in the Christ which his grandfather had declared the official religion of the Roman Empire. Knowing the danger of his beliefs, Julian kept them secret.

One day, Publius Porphyrius took Julian to an ancient wrestling arena where they watched a young woman playing at the ancient Grecian games. She was Arsinoe, who, like Julian, found more joy in paganism than in Christianity. One night, she told him that he must believe in himself rather than in any gods, and he replied to her that such was his aim.

Before long, Julian had an opportunity to strike at Constantius. Raised to a position of honor at court and given the purple robe of a Caesar, he was trained as a warrior and sent to Gaul to tame the barbarians. Contrary to Constantius’ hopes that the young man would be killed, he was highly successful in Gaul. When Constantius sent an emissary to recall several of Julian’s legions, the soldiers revolted and hailed Julian as the emperor and made him accept the crown. Meanwhile, Julian’s anger against all Christians had risen; his wife refused to share his bed because she had decided to become a nun. He felt no pity when she fell ill and died. He thought her actions had disgraced him.

With his loyal legions, Julian began a march of conquest through the empire. While he was crossing Macedonia, he received word that Constantius had died in Constantinople.

As soon as word spread among Julian’s legions that he was now the rightful emperor, he gathered his men together for a ceremony at which he denied Christianity and affixed the statue of Apollo in place of the cross on his standards. That act was only the...

(The entire section is 1190 words.)