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(Masterpieces of American Literature)

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 threat. He lives a secluded life, aiming first to be a priest and later studying philosophy with some of the greatest minds of his age.

Yet Julian loses his faith in Christianity, even though he has a religious mentality and personality. His friends say that at another time Julian might well have been a Christian saint. He leads a life of asceticism and, after his wife’s death, maintains sexual celibacy. His faith breaks because he grows up in an age when church bureaucrats gain control of Christianity and rob it of its mystery by carrying on dry and learned battles over esoteric matters. They engage in political intrigues that neglect or distort Jesus’s simple message of love. Julian is drawn to Jesus but detests the church that speaks in his name. As a young boy, Julian witnesses Christians beating and killing other Christians. He cannot square Christian violence and brutality with Jesus’s message of peace and love. Simultaneously, he reads the works of non-Christian scholars, who teach pre-Christian Greek philosophy and religion.

Meanwhile, Constantius brings Julian out of seclusion to play a role in governing the huge Roman Empire. In 355 c.e., Constantius places Julian in control of the Roman provinces beyond the Alps. The young, ascetic scholar proves to be a military genius and quickly wins the love of his troops. In 361, Constantius dies, and Julian becomes emperor.

As emperor, Julian proclaims religious toleration for both Christians and non-Christians. Julian says that he is going to punish Christians by forbidding them...

(The entire section is 807 words.)