June 17, 2015, by Will Leveritt
On this day in AD362 Julian banned Christians from teaching using pagan literature
Text by Rob Stone
Image © Mint Imperials
How do you change the world? How can any individual gain sufficient momentum to overthrow the status quo? Should they rely on violent revolution or peaceful evolution, is it more important to gain support from those at the top of society or to appeal to the majority of those found at the bottom?When the emperor Julian came to power, in 361 AD, he revealed to the empire that he had been hiding his pagan practices behind a Christian façade. Much to the new emperor’s dismay, the population of the empire had been converting to Christianity steadily over the preceding generations; the promotion of members of their own religion by Julian’s Christian predecessors had encouraged many of the rich and influential members of society to convert to further their own ambitions. While for those at the bottom of society, Christianity offered two things that the traditional Roman and local religions did not: spiritual aid, through the prospect of salvation, and physical aid, through their charity towards the less fortunate.
In his efforts to stem and reverse the flow of pagans switching to Christianity, Julian settled upon a policy that utilised all of the elements listed above; both revolution and evolution in a number of policies aimed at all living within his empire. He sought to revitalise the appeal of paganism through the introduction of a similar charitable system to the Christian church, the restoration of grand sacrifices and ancient traditions and publicly proclaimed that the empire should be tolerant towards both pagans and Christians. However, coupled with this positive evolution of paganism, he also sought to undermine the church by encouraging the growth of the schisms which had formed through different interpretations of the Bible and he ensured that any damage caused to pagan temples resulted in harsh punishments for Christians and churches in the locality. As emperor, he also could promote pagans rather than Christians to important positions within the civil and military bureaucracies, allowing pagans to once again enjoy a political advantage over their rivals.
However, Julian recognised that, while these policies were helping to redress the balance between paganism and Christianity, the education of imperial citizens was key for any pagan regime to prosper over several generations. Thus, Julian introduced his edict on teaching. No longer were Christian teachers allowed to use any pagan literature to teach their students. The classic texts, such as the Aeneid and Iliad, were to be taught only by pagans, while the edict stated that ‘if they [Christians] want to learn literature, they have Luke and Mark’ (trans. P. Brown, The World of Late Antiquity: AD 150-750, p.93). This edict was a major financial blow for Christian teachers, potential students, who wanted to progress through Roman society, needed a classical education and both Christian and pagan parents were forced to employ pagans to teach their children. Even for Julian’s most ardent supporter, the historian Ammianus, the edict was labelled a ‘harsh act which should be buried in lasting oblivion’ and was listed by the author amongst the failings of Julian’s regime (22.10.7, 25.4.20); in the eyes of a cultured man such as Ammianus, to deny roman citizens of their culture, in the form of rhetoric and literature, was to deny them part of their roman identity – part of what separated them from barbarians.
Had this edict been in place for the remainder of the fourth century, it and Julian’s other policies could have changed the world we know today. Instead, the death of Julian and the return of Christian emperors not only saw a restoration of the Christian schools but also an end to the pagan resurgence.