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Gore Vidal
In Print
Little, Brown and Company (1962)

John the OFM writes:

I thought when I read it back in the last century tha Vidal's main objective was to mock Christianity, the earlier the better.

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This entry created 9 September 2012. Last revised on 1 September 2016.

3,641 hits since 9 Sep 2012
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502 pages. Map on endpapers. Partial bibliography.

It seems an odd thing to wait until an author is dead before reading any of his works, but frankly, Gore Vidal appeared on far too many talk shows in my youth, and his apparent pomposity repelled me.

But he's gone now, and I felt sad that I'd never read anything from this acclaimed author, so I asked for recommendations and then sought this novel from my local library.

This book is described both as "compelling biography" and "novel," and it is some of both: it's an attempt to tell the story of Julian the Apostate, 4th Century Roman emperor. The book is presented as Julian's (fictional) autobiography, with extensive notes added by two philosopher/scholars planning to publish a history; the very end of the book is Julian's (fictional) journal while on campaign in Persia.

Much is known of Julian's life, and so the author has many facts upon which to weave his story. Julian's young life is spent wondering when he'll finally be put to death - his uncle, the Emperor Constantius, has systematically executed all members of the Constantine family he suspects of desiring to usurp the throne (including Julian's father). Fortunately, Constantius has also come to believe that his lack of progeny is a curse for having killed so many family members; it is also fortunate that Constantius' wife is fond of Julian and protects him at court.

And so Julian (and his older brother) are shuffled from place to place, usually in the company of some eunuch or bishop, kept isolated and unprepared to rule. Though the boys are instructed in the Christian faith, Julian discovers and eventually is able to study the "philosophers" (those who believed in the ancient gods). Over the years, he goes from doubting Christian to sun worshiper, experiencing a personal conversion experience, but maintaining the facade of Christianity for fear of the emperor. Julian's pursuit of scholarly studies is also intended to brand him as "harmless" to his uncle.

As Julian reaches adulthood, the situation finally changes. Constantius, finding it impractical to rule the Empire alone, raises Gallus (Julian's older brother) to Caesar. Unfortunately, the handsome and charming Gallus is also a sado-masochist and an inept ruler; when he is executed, Julian is recalled from his studies and brought under guard to court.

Despite those who advocate to put him to death, Julian is given command in the West and sent to German-ravaged Gaul. (He's also married off to his older cousin, Constantius' sister Helena.) Julian's role is supposedly as a figurehead - after all, he has no military experience - but he outfoxes his mentors, gets himself into the fight, and proves himself to be a military genius while saving Gaul.

Constantius, now entirely suspicious of Julian, tries to strip the West of troops - ostensibly for a war with Persia - and only succeeds in provoking civil war. Even the dying Helena sides with Julian, as she desires revenge for their children murdered in secret at the Emperor's will. Yet just as the rival armies prepare for battle, Constantius takes ill and dies...

Julian now takes command of the Roman Empire, instituting administrative reforms (including reforms involving the Christian church) and promoting traditional forms of worship. He forgoes persecution of Christians (whom he refers to contemptuously as Galileans who worship a dead rabbi), believing he can accomplish more by reason, persuasion, and by establishing empire-wide bodies to advocate traditional worship.

Finally, Julian embarks on the campaign against Persia which is where he will die. At this point in the novel, the fictional autobiography ends, but one of the scholars has obtained Julian's journal of his last days... and when this comes to a close, the same scholar recalls Persian events from his own viewpoint on Julian's staff... and then, years later, reveals what he finally learned about how Julian died.

This novel does an excellent job of bringing the ancient Empire to life, and of fleshing out Julian as military conqueror, philosophical dreamer, reformer and mystic. The material about Julian's life in Gaul is especially enjoyable, though wargamers will despair that so many of the details are glossed over; similarly, much of the Persian campaign is described from a non-military perspective - the emphasis is on politics and religion.

And, speaking of religion - the author seems to have chosen Julian as a subject out of a desire to criticize the Christian church of that time, as well as to "rehabilitate" someone whom later historians condemned (from a Christian viewpoint) as apostate and heretic. Therefore, there is a lot of emphasis on ancient gods, mystery rites, temples, magicians, priests and worship, to the degree that the novel really bogs down (particularly after Julian becomes emperor); the criticism of the Christian church and its largely corrupt clerics is more interesting, particularly as the author admits the sincerity of some believers (while allowing Julian to mock their beliefs, which seems entirely in character). However, this novel does not present Julian's complete argument against Christianity; you get highlights, and it's clear where Julian stands.

One failure to my mind is that, while the novel does depict some hostility toward Emperor Julian from his Christian subjects, it fails to fully explain the schisms in the ruling class, and therefore doesn't adequately set up the final part of Julian's story. This cannot be due to the limitations of telling the story from Julian's perspective, as presumably he was well aware of court intrigues, and besides, the "autobiography" is "notated" by scholars long after the fact. Perhaps the author thought it would help sustain some suspense, but I think it is the primary flaw in the work.

All that aside, I strongly recommend this novel to anyone with an interest in the 4th Century, and particularly to those who need inspiration for wargaming campaigns in Gaul or Persia!

(Note that the novel does occasionally deal with subjects of violence or sexual content, but not in a graphic manner. Not suitable for children.)

Reviewed by M895684671.