top of page

An Alternate History of the Roman Empire: Back to Imperial Basics?

By Tim Venning

Portrait of Emperor Julian on a bronze coin from Antioch. Image from Classical Numismatic Group, Inc and shared under the CC BY-SA 3.0 licence.

This long Series of Articles discusses a hypothetical history of the Roman Empire wherein Marcus Aurelius lives longer and so it's more stable. In the first eighteen articles this took us to 362. We join the story with in the reign of the new Emperor Julian, the first pagan to be Emperor in decades.

Upon gaining power, Julian soon showed his religious priorities. He restored officially-sponsored pagan sacrifices, reopened various temples which had been closed down at Christian requests under Constantine I and Constantius, and cancelled all the Christian clergy’s legal privileges in an effort to make that career less inviting for the ambitious careerists. He did not ban clergy or the Christian laity from serving as magistrates, but he preferred to appoint pagans and encouraged the latter to apply for such jobs and he notably made frequent speeches stressing the moral ethics of pagan cults, especially the Eastern mystery religions and the soldiers’ ‘secret’ cult of the originally Persian ‘saviour hero’ Mithras. He also encouraged pagan teachers and philosophers to take part in State governance and the Law and set a good example to future imitators as the Christians were doing.

Despite this he initially declared his support for universal toleration rather than repressing Christianity and sought to ridicule the latter as hypocritical, pointing out the incongruity of Christian teachers accepting pagan classics. Later in 362 Christians were banned from teaching on the grounds that their religion and holy books did not accept the basics of Romano-Greek culture or ethics and sought to condemn them as sinful. Salaries were given to pagan priesthood to prop them up financially, keep their temples running, and bring in recruits to the priesthood as a career. Pagan temples were granted charitable functions to counter-act the Christians’ appeal for doing social work and supporting the poor, and festivals were made more attractive with state-funded processions and free public feasts arranged in each province.

Though in reality this effect was very localised as there were only a few extant temples and priesthoods left in some Western areas that had been heavily Christianised,

eg North Africa, Gaul, Spain, and the Rhineland. And there were only a few local cults of

‘Nature gods’, of non-Roman origin, in outlying areas of (ex-Celtic) Britain and (ex-

German) Marcomannia, Dacia, and the Danube provinces. The main areas boosted by

Julian’s measures were Italy, Greece, the southern Balkans (which had local ex-Thracian

‘Nature gods’), Syria, and Egypt. In the East, it was also too late in places as there was already a dominant Christian presence in Palestine, Phoenicia, and parts of Asia Minor and the Eastern capital, Constantinople, had a massively Christian presence – though division among various sects – and so was mostly hostile to the Emperor’s pro-pagan legislation. Julian notably left a meeting of the Senate there to greet his arriving pagan philosopher mentor Maximus (his main teacher at Athens) in person, a reversal of recent Imperial aloofness and protocol. He soon ordered an official compilation of pagan dogma to set up a ‘holy book’ that could be taught to students and would rival the Bible, encouraged the Christian sects to fight each other to undermine their popularity and show up their violent tendencies, and planned the rebuilding of the Jewish temple in Jerusalem as a snub to the locally dominant Christians.

In May 362, Julian left Constantinople to tour Anatolia. He arranged imperial help for the restoration of earthquake-ruined Nicomedia, and in Galatia visited the shrine of the pagan ‘Great Mother’ goddess at Pessinus. On the 18th July he reached Antioch, on the ill-omened day of lamentations for the goddess Cybele’s male partner Adonis, to prepare for a major Persian war, and encouraged the local pagan shrines and festivals in the area especially the sacred grove at Daphne downriver from Antioch with its prostitutes. The Emperor led sacrifices at the major festivals himself and helped to arrange impressive spectacles and to fund large public feasts, seducing the populace away from the local Christian communities. In case anyone missed this agenda, he pointed out in speeches to the Senate and at the festivals that the adherents of the ‘Galilean’ (i.e. rural Palestinian and so alien and socially inferior) new religion were calling themselves men of peace but fighting and slandering each other. The way of the ancient gods, he claimed, was both more honourable and more patriotic, and he duly set up schools attached to the main local temples to train young priests and promised tax-breaks to those who supplied their sons for this role.

Roman Mosaic at Daphne. Unknown artist, photographed by Marie-Lan Nguyen and shared under the CC BY 2.5 licence.

This Syrian initiative was to be extended to Egypt later in 362 after an appeal from the envoys sent to him by their ancient cults of Amun, Osiris and Isis and the newer, Hellenistic cult of Serapis at Alexandria, and in 364-5 he was to extend it across the Empire. But on the 22nd of October 362, the Temple of Apollo at Daphne, centre of the local cult that Julian had lavished support on, was burnt down in a mystery fire, and Julian blamed the Christians and closed Antioch’s cathedral. He would only reopen the latter when the Christian community had paid for the rebuilding of the burnt temple, and after he left Antioch his special commission of ex-fellow-students from Athens and local pagan nobles ensured that this was carried out. But on their advice he did not reopen the prostitutes’ precinct as this was coming under criticism as ‘immoral and unworthy of a virtuous religion’ from thoughtful pagan philosophers in the city and moderate Christians alike. As he became unpopular with the Senate in the city for ordering the regulation of prices and other edicts he wrote the biting satire ‘Misopogon’ (‘Beard-Haters’) about his critics, and in return was caricatured by his Christian polemicist enemies as a bearded dwarf trying to emulate giants and as an ‘axe-man’ obsessed with performing sacrifices. Meanwhile Athanasius called a Church Council at Alexandria to rule on the rival non-Arian churches of Miletius and Paulinus at Antioch, and accepted the latter as did the Pope.

The entire Empire now had to cope with a non-Christian Emperor who was, at the least,

attempting to ‘sideline’ Christians from positions of power and to create a ‘level playing-

field’ for ‘pagans’ loyal to the old Roman , Greek, and Middle Eastern religions and had

the resources to do this. It is perhaps useful at this point to look at the general pagan hierarchy as it existed post Constantine and whether it was ever possible for it to make a come back.

There were a large number of ‘pagans’, who had not been baptised despite the popularity of this among the Imperial Court since Constantine’s time and the Emperors’ preferring Christians for senor posts, and who – fervently or just out of ancestral habit – continued to practice the old pre-Christian cults. This perseverance in thinking of a ‘pagan’ identity as being synonymous with being Roman was indeed most noticeable in the old capital, Rome, as the centre of the Empire’s historic cultic worship and the location of the most prestigious, more or less hereditary priesthoods which were restricted to members of the noble elite.

Indeed, the removal of the Emperor’s main residences and the accompanying Court and guards-regiments to cities nearer the threatened Northern frontier, especially Milan and Trier, after c. 285 meant that the traditional Senatorial elite had little to do with the Emperor or his government and thus such alienation from the ‘Court religion’ was easier. Gallienus had effectively banned Senators from holding provincial governorships, due to the plethora of revolts by rich and well-connected senators in charge of provinces and armies in the mid-third century, though this may have largely lapsed by c. 330 as Constantine certainly employed some nobles from Italy as governors in the West and to a smaller extent in the East. After Julian's reign, the religious chasm between a mostly ‘pagan’ Senate and a Christian Court was to become a matter of political concern and cause clashes under Valentinian I’s son Gratian (378-83) and then Theodosius, centred on the Imperial demands to remove the pagan ‘Altar of Victory’ in the Senate House. (This happened both OTl and TTL.)

The statue of Victory on a coin issued under Augustus.

By this point the traditionalist senatorial dynasties who refused to abandon their ancestors’ religion and priesthoods amounted to what would now be called ‘dissidents’ defying State orders. Pagans from great and ancient families such as Nicomachus Flavianus, whose brother ran the restored cult of the Syrian mother-goddess Cybele in Rome, would go on to to defy Gratian and Theodosius over the matter of the ‘Altar of Victory’ – and the arguments of leading senator and orator Symmachus made (in vain) to Gratian about removing the altar of Victory bringing bad luck on the Empire show a wider feeling that the old gods needed to be respected more. It was this feeling that Julian would tap into and insist on throughout his reign.

Most ‘pagans’ in the Empire at a lower than elite level were not so much traditionalist, elegantly cultured believers in cults and ceremonies hallowed by time and military success - but rather, truculently conservative practitioners of traditional local cultic

worship which was supposed to bring good luck and fertility. They clung to their religion

out of ancestral devotion and superstition not out of an ideological hostility to

Christianity ‘per se’. Crucially, Christianity had the advantages of an egalitarian

ideology that had appealed to slaves, women and the poor – the ‘left-behinds’- in the

Early Empire and its Church leaders were supposed to organise social welfare, which

added to its attractions at a time of glaring inequality and insecurity. Indeed, the bishops

who Constantine invited to join the local magistracy were often demonstrably less corrupt or brutal than many ‘pagan’ ones, as possessing an ideological ‘training’ in favour of being honest or facing God’s wrath.

This did not mean the pagans were doomed, however. A flexible Emperor like Julian could, and did, recruit similarly incorrupt and honest ‘pagans’ who adhered to those old cults which had more of a ‘social conscience’, eg of Isis or Mithras, and/or the ‘modern’ and more intellectual ‘Neoplatonist’ theories. They could then use their role to promote their religions as being as socially aware as Christianity, and use the latter’s appeal for another cause – but this would need much organisation than the pagans had upon Julian's coronation.

The ‘Neoplatonists’ were more often learned scholars rather than men who became

involved with social issues like the more ‘activist’ bishops, and were not all dedicated

idealists who could usefully rally to an anti-Christian Emperor such as Julian. His own

defiantly traditionalist religious loyalty was mixed with learning advanced ‘pagan’

Neoplatonic ethics at the Academy in Athens, taught by the intellectual followers of its

founder Plato. The numbers of those taught by the Academy scholars and allied thinkers was bound to be small, and the resulting body of idealists was not a feasible ‘parallel Church’ of helpers who Julian could rely on to staff officially-funded ‘pagan’ temple cults and schools across the Empire to rebuild a body of support for his religion and ‘under-cut’ the appeal of Christianity. They lacked both the numbers and the discipline of the rival Christian organizations, which had had centuries to grow up and which Constantine had co-opted into a parallel organization for the civic administration in each province.

They also lacked a precise doctrine with an emotional appeal of salvation that was easily understood by the populace, and their intellectual talk of ‘the One’ (sometimes identified with the sun-god Sol, popular in the 3rd century) and the diffusion of divine attributes was no match for the ‘basics’ of egalitarian Christian dogma . The mystic Neoplatonist logistics of the leading 3rd century philosopher and writer Plotinus (d. 270), whose work could have provided a literary intellectual framework for their philosophy, matched Christian theology but lacked the ‘salvationist’ appeal of the latter to the ordinary public. And their rivals had a ‘head start’ in personnel, organization and funding - the new Church organization which Constantine set up had a bishop for each city or major

town, a network of them supporting and hopefully obeying the ‘metropolitan’ bishop who was the senior bishop of each province, and these provincial organizations were then subservient to the regional Patriarchates at the apex of the administrative pyramid.

The latter were those of Rome (for all the West), Antioch, Alexandria, and Jerusalem – and now Constantinople. This large Empire-wide organization, parallel to the provincial civil service with a network of lowly provinces and then above them the regional ‘dioceses’ under ‘vicars’, was a substantial structure which the Christian community was able to staff - and which provided a tax-free ‘career ladder’. Creating a rival network of ‘pagan’ priests and temple cults would be a huge operation, though in the East in the late 300s fanatically anti-Christian emperor Maximin II had attempted it. Julian now had fourteen years from 361-75 to pour resources into it and, as he lacked enough pagan ex-student allies from Athens to fill the vital posts which he needed, he now slowly brought in a staff of traditionalist Italian aristocrats from the senatorial families to run it – though this was more effective where major and richer cults still existed. So again this was mainly effective in Italy, Greece, Egypt and Syria.

Logically he had to delegate the day-to-day recruitment and running of the network to appropriately competent and active assistants, presumably from among the major senatorial families not yet converted to Christianity. The men who would later gather around ‘super-rich’ and well-connected leading senator Symmachus who objected to Gratian’s early 380s attempt to get rid of the ‘Altar of Victory’ from the Senate House would be first empowered during this time period. The fuss made around this issue, in OTL, shows that there was a coherent group of traditionalist nobles in Rome who were capable of rallying around a symbolic cause and to link this to Roman patriotism, so once the Persian war was over Julian could form a link to them (and their private wealth mean that he would not have to find substantial funds to pay their salaries).

Confiscating some Church estates in the relevant provinces, could also be done to fund the old and new temples. This could not happen by an Empire-wide law as this would rouse Christian hatred and might cause a military mutiny by a Christian general but Julian could responded to individual requests to him by local pagans as his predecessors had done to defund pagan temples. Once the temples were refunded their cults could provided the money for staging impressive public displays of sacrifices and

their accompanying feasts to impress the fickle populace (as Julian did in Antioch in 362-

3 ). This was done in major cities across the Empire, particularly ones with entrenched

and aggressive Christian congregations plus militant bishops (who were exiled).

With Imperial enthusiasm, aristocratic recruits, and money a viable ritual structure was set up by the Empire-wide civil bureaucracy - but most cults still lacked any ideological ‘motive force’ compared to the moral imperatives of Christian worship and dogma. The most coherent and best-supported cults were the ones in Egypt, and the cult of Isis (with the goddess as an equivalent of the Virgin Mary) was restored to a favourable position with Imperial support in Rome itself while Julian promoted Mithraism with its ‘saviour’ hero Mithras. A form of State-sponsored traditionalist ritual linked to the notion and past glories of Empire was created, like a Western version of Japanese ‘Shinto’. The Emperor was seen as the favoured one and partner of the supreme God, as Constantine had originally intended for his ‘partnership’ with Apollo the sun-god (and Aurelian had with ‘Sol’).

The old association of the Julio-Claudian dynasty with the goddess Venus – alleged mother of the hero Aeneas who had brought the Trojan exiles to Italy to found the

dynasty of Romulus in Vergil’s ‘Aeneid’ – was ‘dusted off’ in the late 360s by Julian’s

pet writers. Presumably this was requested by him personally in his famous court ‘symposia’ (intellectual dinner-parties) for his pagan courtiers to discuss projects, to play up the role of the Emperor, with the old ‘Temple of Venus and Rome’ adjacent to the Palatine Hill and Forum restored in 366-8 as a cultic centre. The longer Julian reigned, the better his plan’s chances of surviving with a viable body of aristocratic priests – provided Julian could find a sympathetic successor who would not promptly ban it to win Church approval once Julian was dead.

Relief panel from an altar to Venus and Mars depicting Romulus and Remus suckling the she-wolf,

There was a huge gulf between the intellectuals around Julian (e.g. his philosopher

friend and ex-tutor Maximus, a court intimate of his in the 360s) and at the Academy in

Athens - whose Imperial funding was confirmed in 362 and trebled after the Persian war

in 368, providing salaries for many new teachers - and the ‘local rural’ or socially

higher ‘Rome senatorial elite’ practicers of the multifarious non-Christian cults of the

Classical world. These ranged from the ancient Egyptian pantheon to the smaller local

‘Celtic’ rural cults of regional gods, often connected to woods, springs, or rivers, in rural

Britain and Gaul. In ancient Rome itself there had been local Latin and Etruscan cults of

‘boundary’ and ‘household’ gods which the expanding Roman state spread.

The intellectual Platonists (originally centred in Athens) and their more recent ‘Neoplatonist’ branch, a development from Plato’s thought produced by mid-C3rd Italian philosopher Plotinus (d, 270) and developed into a coherent intellectual viewpoint by him and his followers Porphyry (d. c. 305) and later Iamblichus (a supporter of Licinius so forcibly retired from the Eastern court in 324) , were to a degree ‘monotheists’ in regarding there as being one controlling ‘Divine Principle’ or ‘Being’ of whom the Classical gods were reflections or attributes. This was closer to Christianity than to the traditional Classical pantheism and even referred to the controlling supreme divine presence’s active manifestation as the ‘Logos’ (e.g. in the 2nd century work of Celsus). It reflected the search by 1st century to 3rd century intellectuals for a redeeming ‘Saviour God’ which had led some to Christ and others to the Egyptian worship of Isis or the Middle Eastern worship of Mithras (especially popular among the soldiery).

Unfortunately the collection of writings in which Plotinus set out his beliefs and systematised his semi-monotheistic universe and mystic experiences in the 260s, the ‘Enneads’, were both long-winded and complex and were going to be difficult for ordinary people to understand. Julian understood it, and had it ‘flagged up’ as a major ‘set book’ on the main Neoplatonist courses at the Academy in 362, but it still lacked many serious supporters among the graduates there and most were experts on the ‘easier’ works of Plato and Aristotle. This potential rival corpus of religious doctrine to the Old and New Testaments, as Julian thought of it, was no serious ‘populist’ challenge to the Bible as taught in Christian schools, but only appealed to scholars and serious students. Porphyry had done his best to further systematise his master’s thought in the 270s-300s, and also created a vehement and well-argued literary intellectual challenge to Christian doctrine and the achievements of St. Paul in his ‘Against the Christians’.

The amount of abuse heaped on him by indignant Church writers implied that he was seen as a genuine threat –and his ally Iamblichus helped to arrange the accompanying State persecution of Christianity under Diocletain to wipe out their rivals. A coherent ‘school’ for teaching the works of Plotinus was revived by Julian at the former site of Plotinus’ old school in Campania in the late 360s, once he had time to think about reviving paganism in Italy in detail, and it slowly turned out a body of dedicated (mainly upper-class Italian) ‘disciples’ ready to further his beliefs across the educated classes. An equivalent to an Indian ‘ashram’? But this needed decades of steady Imperial support to provide any sort of rival scholarly leadership to Church theologians, and funding was to be cut back by Theodosius after 388 though Gratian and Maximus dared not touch it for fear of a backlash from Julian’s well-placed allies in the bureaucracy and military commands.

The notion of linking the exalted position and ‘mission’ for leadership of his people

by the Emperor with the Christian religion, as created by Constantine, had been a

political ‘windfall’ for the Christian religion and its elite. The Emperor was the

vicegerent of God in ruling the world and also the ‘thirteenth Apostle’, as seen in

Constantine’s propaganda, and he duly presided at the Church Council of Nicaea in 325

to formalise and determine doctrine. Defying the State’s one, all-embracing Christian

doctrine now became treason to the Emperor not just disobedience to the Church, with

Constantine doing his best to order ‘dissidents’ from the new ‘Nicene Creed’ like Arius

to convert and join the ‘One Church’ on pain of punishment. But ending this link of

Emperor and Church would be a major blow to Imperial power and propaganda, and

while Julian could now stomach ending this, it would not last. His succeeding rulers after 375 reversed it.

The idea of a semi-divine role for the Emperor as the heroic protector of the world and its link to the gods had been developed well before Constantine, and reverted to its earlier position with Christianity removed from the equation in Julian’s reign – but this was temporary as far as the ‘official line’ taken in court propaganda went, though the pagan majority of the Senate in Rome kept it up in their references to the Emperor’s role well into the fifth century.) There was also a linkage in propaganda of the Emperor to the

presiding protector-spirit, the ‘Genius’, of the city of Rome, and this was played up in

Diocletian’s coinage. Constantine kept this up and initially portrayed himself as the

favoured partner of the supreme sun-god, but later transferred this association of

Emperor and supreme god to the Christian God. The potential thus existed for Julian to

return to this linkage of Emperor and God to bolster the Imperial position without having to rely on Christianity, provided that he could capture the public imagination through his official propaganda (principally the coinage) over a long reign and counter the current linkage of the Church and its saints to bringing good fortune to the public.

Julian, who wrote his own anti-Christian polemics, had a problem over lacking a

major Neoplatonist figure of Empire-wide stature to assist his plans – if he had been able to link up with the formidable Porphyry and Iamblichus he would have had more

intellectual backing for his campaign. They could then have set up more schools to

educate a generation of anti-Christian ‘Neoplatonist’ thinkers and polemicists, to replace

the Christians who Julian was banning from teaching; instead Julian had to do this

himself, most notably with his Campanian school, and use those second-ranking teachers and writers who were available such as Maximus (who headed the Campanian school in 370-4 but was never much good as an administrator as opposed to a teacher).

Meanwhile, the Church was taxed and bishops had to pay a third of their salary in taxes from 364 so an ecclesiastical career was not seen as a good option for ambitious men. The Christians at senior level in the administration were mostly replaced by traditionalist

‘pagan’ senatorial aristocrats, and State-funded official ‘pagan’ cults and regular sacrifices on feast-days at temples across the Empire attracted popular participation. But though he was actively giving tax-relief to pagan temples, promoting worship there with subsidized public ceremonies, and educating pagans at special schools this ultimately failed to reverse the ‘inevitable’ tide of conversions to Christianity. He needed a larger ‘committed’ elite dedicated to his legislation and his ideological approach – and

‘paganism’ was a mass of disparate cults lacking an underlying idealistic ideology, one

appealing ‘narrative’ of salvation, or a coherent approach to philosophical questions.

The exception was the esoteric ‘neo-Platonist’ philosophy taught at the Academy at Athens which Julian had learnt himself, but this was too complex to appeal to non-scholars.


Timothy Venning is a respected Historian who won the London University History Prize in 1979 and whose latest straight history book is Cromwell's Failed State. He has also written multiple books of counter factual essays including Caesars of the Bosphorus, Eternal Caesars, King Charles or King Oliver and King Henry IX, all published by Sea Lion Press, and If Rome Hadn't Fallen.


bottom of page