Why would a modern pagan want to know about the lives of two Roman emperors of the fourth century? Those emperors were named Constantine and Julian, and we want to know because they shaped the world we live in today. They’re probably part of the reason we left the standard-brand religions to become pagan.
Constantine (274–337), called the Great, was consumed by ambition all his life. With his father, he toured Britannia and Gaul, and his ambition threatened the older emperor, Diocletian, who is best known for edicts that criminalized the practice of Christianity and began the Great Persecution. In 312, on the night before the Battle of the Milvian Bridge, Constantine had a vision and heard a voice say, “In hoc signo vinces (In this sign, conquer)!” Some writers say he saw Jesus in his vision, others say he saw a cross, still others say it was a “heavenly sign” that looked like the letter P superimposed over the letter X. In Greek, this is called the “chi-rho,” and early Christian authors call it the monogram of the Christ. Whatever the sign was, Constantine, who had previously worshipped Sol Invictus (The Unconquered Sun), had the sign painted on his army’s shields. He won the battle, made his way through battles and blood to the throne, and eventually became emperor. In 313, he issued the Edict of Milan, which granted religious toleration to Christians; in 325, he called the Council of Nicaea (from which Christians get the Nicene Creed that says Jesus is of the same substance as his father, and thus is not the son of god but god himself); in 326, he issued an edict against Christian heretics (who were spending much of their time still arguing over the substance of Jesus). If Constantine was the Christian he appeared to be, however, he was a very ambiguous one and was only baptized on his deathbed.
Julian (ca. 331–363), called the Apostate, was Constantine’s nephew and, after various family purges, his only surviving heir. Raised in captivity, Julian appeared to be a good Christian boy, but he was reading some very suspicious, though scholarly, books—Homer, Hesiod, Plato, Socrates, Aristotle. Political events and murders occurred, and Julian eventually became emperor. No longer a secret pagan, he instituted a pagan counterrevolution. One of his first acts was to order the reopening of pagan temples in Alexandria, and he issued several edicts of tolerance for all religions. Julian died in a battle against the Persians, and his successor, Theodosius, elevated Christianity to Rome’s state religion.
Christianity was not, of course, the first monotheistic religion. As we know, Akhenaton (ca. 1364–1347) established the first monotheistic religion in Egypt, but because it was a top-down religion it lasted only a few years. Judaism was not purely monotheistic until Josiah (ca. 640–609), king of Judah, ordered the reformation of the ancient faith of Israel and threw the goddesses out of the temple.
Kirsch explains how, early on, monotheism became “rigorism,” how the zeal for the One True God led to extreme strictness. “Extreme strictness,” he writes, is possible only when a man or woman is so convinced of the truth of a certain religious teaching that it becomes quite literally a matter of life or death. … Rigorism may inspire that man or woman to punish others who fail to embrace the religion beliefs that he or she finds so compelling. The history of religion reveals that rigorism in one’s beliefs and practices can readily turn into the kind of zealotry that expresses itself in unambiguous acts of terrorism (p. 13).
In the early centuries of the Common Era, there were no polytheistic rigorists. Polytheists could live with monotheists. It was the early Christians who called the pagans atheists because the latter didn’t believe in just the One True God. It was monotheistic rigorists who murdered each other, became willing martyrs, not only closed but totally destroyed pagan temples and groves, burned the Alexandrian Library, and murdered the scholar, Hypatia.
Constantine ruled for 30 years, Julian for 18 months. What if these durations had been reversed? This is one of the great if’s of history. If Julian the Great had ruled for 30 years, religious tolerance might have been the law of the empire. There might have been no Christian rigorists or heretics or schismatics or martyrs. The papacy might have been spiritual, not militant, and there might have been no Crusades and no Inquisition. There might have been neither Reformation nor Counter-Reformation, and perhaps the Prophet Mohammad (himself known to be more tolerant than his followers) would have established a less militant monotheistic religion. There would perhaps be no religious fundamentalism or terrorism today. If Julian had ruled for 30 years, we would be living in a different world. Pagans wouldn’t be wearing our pentacles under our shirts and meeting in each other’s living rooms.
~review by Barbara Ardinger, Ph.D.
Author: Jonathan Kirsch
Viking Compass, 2004