Friday, July 11, 2008

A Book Report

I don't think anyone can read too much. I'm fortunate that I finally got around to reading this particular gem, Gore Vidal's Julian. I must confess that I have read nothing by this particular author. I remember once that I saw an interview with him (he's now in his 80s) and my impression that he was a bit odd, though not flamboyantly so like Truman Capote or Tennesse Williams. I learned that he frequently tackled taboo topics and I thought that made him acceptable for literary elites but not for me. I was glad to be proven wrong.
I've always wanted to read this book because my area of study is Late Antiquity, the time period from the death of Commodus in the Roman West in 193 A.D. to the rise of Charlemagne in 780 A.D. My focus has neglected the East during this same period which I am trying to rectify. Julian, called the Apostate, because he had forsaken his Christian upbringning to the gods and religion of Homer and Hellenism. Nevertheless, he was one of the bright stars of this period of twilight for the Roman Empire which would fall in the West some 100 years later but would be maintained in the East until the fall of Constantinople in 1453. Julian was the last pagan emperor of Rome, though he was the nephew of Constantine the Great, the first "Christian" emperor of Rome (there is still debate as to how Christian or whether Constantine was a Christian). He also tried to fight a (losing) battle against the establishment of Christianity as the state religion, trying to reassert the old dormant religion of Hellenism and Homer.
Vidal's portrait of Julian is multi-faceted. Vidal clearly sympathizes with him and his struggles to restore the reason and religion of Hellenism in the face of a Christian empire (Vidal's virulent anti-Christianity is very apparent throughout the book. Some of it is deserved as Christianity was still divided into factions of Arians vs. Orthodox. Encounters with the other faction did often turn violent, unforntately. Many of those responsible were clerics and monks). As much as he admires Julian for his restraint, his reason and even subterfuge to keep himself alive, especially when he was young as most of his relatives had been assassinated by Constantius, the son of Constantine and newly crowned Augustus who fearedrivals, Vidal also adequately portrays Julian as a man who becomes as corrupted by power as his cousin, Constantius, eager to remove plots and ideas that are incompatible or opposed to his own. Julian becomes almost mad with power. Though an unlikely soldier, Julian had managed to win major battles in Gaul which preserved the Western half of the Empire before he was elevated to Augustus. His victories then put him in the perfect position to take on his cousin, Constantius, who was in the East battling the proverbial thorn of Rome, Sapor the Great, Great King of the Parthians. Julian moves against him and becomes Augustus since Constantius dies before battle is met. Julian then becomes exactly like Constantius and moves against Sapor and the Persians, envisioning himself as a reincarnation of Alexander the Great who would finish what the young Macedonian started over 600 years prior to his reign.
The novel is written in the form of a memoir of Julian Augustus while he is on campaign against Sapor. The memoir is now in the hands of Libanius, one of Julian's teachers and one of the world's greatest minds at the time, who desires to publish an entire work dedicated to the late emperor, though his and Julian's paganism is not in favor with the resurrection of Christian emperors, including Theodosius the Great. Libanius acquired the memoir from one of Julian's teachers and friends, Priscus. The memoir is added to by both Libanius and Priscus with their own observations. So, you get three perspectives.
Though this is a historical novel, it should not be regarded as history. There is much that is historically correct in this work and Vidal should be commended for his excellent command of the many sources which detail Julian's reign and the late Roman Empire of the time. But with such a work comes poetic license and I understand that. If you wish to read a more biographical and historical appraisal of Julian and his reign, then I would suggest Dr. G.W. Bowersock's Julian. I have read that in conjunction with Vidal and it provided much insight.
Julian has been demonized by the Christians of his time (notably St. Gregory the Theologian and St. Basil the Great who are characters in the book and were actual acquaintances, if not friends, with Julian) and is still called the apostate by the Christians of this day. The man is sympathetic but he is nowhere near the ideal ruler. Vidal chronicles the many problems which Julian either failed to deal with or ignored while he was on his campagin in the East against the Parthians. Julian is portrayed as the ultimate idealist whose ideals get the better of him, which propels him to megalomania, the price idealism usually carries. Perhaps Julian died a broken-hearted idealist, a description which I often give to myself.
In a world where pragmatism and practicality are elevated to the highest of virtues, where the Machiavellian principle of the end justifies the means, perhaps another Julian is exactly what we need. Our society may return to the status quo afterwards, but there is always some hope to be found in that one, brief, shinging moment. Camelot should not always be unattainable.
Go read this book. It's a fairly long read (500 pages) and it doesn't go that quickly especially if you are not as acquainted with Roman history. It has a rich cast of characters. I plan to read more of Vidal and I would definitely count this man to be one of America's great authors of all time, up there easily with Twain, Hawthorne, Steinbeck and Poe.

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