Summary

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on January 13, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1662

First published: Smert Bogov: Yulian Otstupnik, 1896 (English translation, 1901)

Type of work: Novel

Type of plot: Historical romance

Time of work: Fourth century

Locale: Ancient Rome

Principal Characters:

Caesar Constantius, the Roman Emperor

Julian Flavius, Caesar’s cousin

Gallus Flavius, Julian’s brother

Arsinoe, Julian’s beloved

...

(The entire section contains 1662 words.)

See This Study Guide Now

Start your 48-hour free trial to unlock this study guide. You'll also get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

Get 48 Hours Free Access

First published: Smert Bogov: Yulian Otstupnik, 1896 (English translation, 1901)

Type of work: Novel

Type of plot: Historical romance

Time of work: Fourth century

Locale: Ancient Rome

Principal Characters:

Caesar Constantius, the Roman Emperor

Julian Flavius, Caesar’s cousin

Gallus Flavius, Julian’s brother

Arsinoe, Julian’s beloved

The Story:

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 beginning of changes in the empire. On his arrival in Constantinople, he reinstated the pagan gods and returned to their temples the treasure which had been seized by the Christian monks.

The Christians were outraged at his practices, and his popularity waned. Few visited the reopened pagan temples. Julian soon began to wonder if he would be successful in restoring a golden age of Hellenism to his empire. He discovered that even his beloved Arsinoe had become a Christian nun in his absence. When he went to visit her, she agreed to see him, but she refused to marry him and become the empress. Julian began to wonder to what end he was headed.

At the end of the first year of his reign as emperor of the Eastern Roman Empire, Julian found that he had become the laughingstock of his people, despite his power as a ruler. His appearance and his scholarly activities earned him the disrespect of all of his subjects, who were accustomed to a Caesar of martial power. When the Christians began to ridicule him and openly defy his edicts, Julian decided to adopt a different course. He hit upon the idea of a campaign against Persia. He hoped that after he had conquered Persia and returned as a victor, his people would respect both him and his anti-Christian views.

Julian’s army assembled at Antioch, but before it was ready to march, Julian had a demonstration of the feeling he had evoked by championing the Olympian deities against Christianity. When he ordered a Christian chapel removed from the temple of Apollo at Antioch, the Christians burned the temple and destroyed the idol in the presence of the emperor and his legions.

In the spring, Julian and his armies left Antioch and started toward the Persian frontier. They marched along the Euphrates until they came to the canal which the Persians had built to connect that river with the Tigris. The Persians had flooded the area to halt the invaders, and Julian’s army marched in water up to their knees until they were far down the Tigris. After days of marching under a burning sun, they reached Perizibar, a Persian fortress. The fort was gallantly defended, but the Romans finally battered down the walls.

After resting his army for two days, Julian pushed on to Maogamalki. By brilliant strategy and some luck, he carried the second of the Persian defense posts and then pushed onward to Ctesiphon, the Persian capital.

Arriving at a point across the river from the city, Julian consulted his pagan priests. When they failed to foretell a successful attack on the city, Julian became as enraged at Apollo and the other pagan gods as he had been at Christianity. In a frenzy, he overturned the altars, said that he trusted no god but himself, and added that he meant to attack the city immediately.

By a ruse, Julian and his army crossed the Tigris in boats at night. The next morning, a single Persian came to their camp and persuaded Julian to burn his boats so that his men would not lose heart and retreat from the assault. He also promised to lead the Romans into the city by a secret way. Too late, his boats destroyed, Julian realized he had been tricked. Unable to take the city, he ordered a retreat. After the Romans had been weakened by forced marches under burning desert suns, the Persians attacked.

In the battle, the Romans won a victory against heavy odds; but it was a victory for the Romans, not for their emperor. In the battle, Julian dressed in his purple robes and refused to wear any armor. He was mortally wounded by a javelin while chasing a band of Persians. When he was carried to his tent, Arsinoe, who was still a nun, came to him and attempted to make him see that Christ was a god of beauty and mercy. Julian would not listen to her. As he died, he lifted himself up and cried out to his attendants that the Galilean had defeated him.

Critical Evaluation:

Like many authors of his generation, Dmitry Merezhkovsky attempted in his writings to search for solutions to the problems that plagued czarist Russia in the turbulent quarter of a century preceding the Bolshevik Revolution. Merezhkovsky, one of the Russian symbolists as well as founder of the Religious and Philosophical Society of St. Petersburg, was intensely interested in identifying the philosophical underpinnings of Western civilization. He tried to do this in a fictional form in his trilogy KHRISTOS I ANTIKHRIST (CHRIST AND ANTICHRIST), comprising THE DEATH OF THE GODS,VOSKRESSHIYE BOGI: LEONARDO DA VINCI (1901; THE ROMANCE OF LEONARDO DA VINCI, 1928, 1953), and ANTIKHRIST: PYOTRI ALEKSEY (1905; PETER AND ALEXIS, 1905).

In THE DEATH OF THE GODS, Merezhkovsky sets up the thematic structure of opposing concepts upon which the entire trilogy is built. On a general level, this structure reflects the author’s perception of the dualistic nature of man, within whom the forces of flesh and spirit are constantly struggling, and his belief that all of human history has been shaped by this struggle. More specifically, he establishes two sets of values which cluster around Hellenistic and pagan beliefs, on the one hand, and Christian values, on the other, and counterposes them dramatically throughout the work. The author’s purpose in doing this is to illustrate his theory that Western civilization grew out of, and took its direction from, the clash between paganism and Christianity.

The historical novel genre proved a perfect vehicle for a writer with Merezhkovsky’s gift for re-creating the past, and, in THE DEATH OF THE GODS, this talent is at its best. The setting ranges from all the places visited by the young Julian during his travels in Asia Minor, to the capital of Constantinople, to the military posts along the Persian frontier which are stormed by the Roman legions. Each of these settings comes alive in the author’s hands; his use of colorful and specific details infuses both time and place with uniqueness and vividness. The reader feels very close to the real experience of life in the Roman empire of the fourth century.

When Herbert Trench, a fellow at All Soul’s College, translated THE DEATH OF THE GODS into English, he felt the novel to be one of the most significant works of the new generation of Russian authors and saw Merezhkovsky as the successor of Dostoevski. Although time has seen Trench’s enthusiasm replaced by a more moderate critical appraisal, Merezhkovsky’s novel nevertheless remains an excellent example of historical fiction inspired with crucial philosophical concerns.

Illustration of PDF document

Download The Death of the Gods Study Guide

Subscribe Now
Next

Characters