The Last Pagan - Adrian Murdoch (2003)

Flavius Claudius Julianus was ruler of the Roman Empire in the middle of the 4th Century. He was a dedicated pagan, a lover of Hellenism, a talented military commander, a philosopher and an opponent of Christianity who was in a a position to do something about it. When he died, the victory of Christianity in the Western world was assured and history branded him Julian the Apostate.

The Last Pagan traces the short but eventful life of Julian from his childhood to his early death on campaign in Persia.

His early years were fraught with danger, as Imperial Roman politics at the time tended to involve a lot of killing your relations to secure your own claim, while trying to leave someone alive to whom you could eventually pass rule. Julian was therefore shuffled from place to place as a child, never spending much time near major political centers where a revolution could coalesce around him. He was raised and educated as Christian, but the education necessarily brought him in contact the pagan history of the region, still moderately fresh, and he was converted (or perhaps reverted) to paganism.

Eventually, he was called to serve the Empire militarily in Gaul. Victories there led, as they so often seemed to, to acclamation as Emperor. Successful revolt brought him the Empire. As Emperor he was uniquely suited to encourage the old ways and both directly and indirectly to inhibit the spread and rise of Christianity. This he did as well as he could while preparing for a campaign in the East against Persia. That war went pear-shaped and Julian died near what is now the capital of Iraq.

That arc is most of the book. The last chapter of the book examines changing views of Julian throughout history - from his initial "demonizing" as an enemy of the Church who was struck down by the hand of God, to his rehabilitation and use against the Church during the Reformation and on to the modern day.

It would be easy to categorize The Last Pagan as "history lite" because it is so eminently readable. That would do the book a disservice, though, since the scholarship seems solid and the speculation which is so much a part of almost all historical writing is supported. The style is engaging, not dry at all, and in this Murdoch is helped by his subject, whose life was full of event. Murdoch returns the favor by using those events to paint a vivid, sympathetic and engaging picture of Julian. The result is history which does not feel dead but alive, with personages at once larger than life and human. It would be a fine introduction to Ancient/Classical history for those who have not yet dabbled in the Roman (or Greek) world.

Overall Grade: B+

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