Julian was Vidal’s first venture into historical fiction. History fascinates him, and he has read as widely in the field as most professional historians. Vidal adheres closely to the historical record, but as a novelist he can do two things that professional historians cannot: He can invent facts when the facts are not known, and he can ascribe motives to historical figures. In both cases, Vidal carefully invents facts and motives that seem most likely to have been true historically. Vidal intends to entertain, but he also intends to instruct: He gives a historically accurate portrait of Julian and explores with his readers the origins of Western civilization.

The novel opens in 380 c.e., seventeen years after Emperor Julian’s death during an invasion of Persia. Two old friends of Julian, the philosophers Libanius of Antioch and Priscus of Athens, learn that the Emperor Theodosius has declared an end to toleration of Christian and non-Christian “heresy.” Libanius has heard a rumor that Priscus possesses the only copy of a memoir written by Julian. He proposes that they publish the memoir to remind the world of Julian’s previous attempt to stop the spread of Christianity. The novel, then, consists of Julian’s memoir, interspersed with letters and comments by Libanius and Priscus, who were eyewitnesses to the events described by Julian. They “correct” his version of events and add their own perspectives.

Julian (Flavius Claudius Julianus), born about 331, is a descendent of the Christian emperors Constantine the Great and Constantius II. Constantius kills all the other members of Julian’s family to prevent any challenge to his authority. Julian saves himself by making sure he is not seen as a...

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