Literature / Julian
Julian is a 1964 historical novel by Gore Vidal.

Seventeen years after Julian the Apostate, so-named for his efforts to revive Hellenistic paganism, was slain on the battlefield, Nicene Christianity has become the state religion. His old teacher Libanius bemoans this and proposes to Julian's old friend Priscus that they write a biography using Julian's unfinished memoir.

The memoir, with margin notes by Libanius and Priscus, tells Julian's story covering his youth as a royal hostage to his ascension to Caesar and then Emperor. Despite early successes in his reign, Julian's headstrong and superstitious nature begins to affect his decisions, culminating in a disastrous invasion of the Sassanid Empire, and his death.

The novel is known for its vivid detail in bringing the Ancient World to life, and especially for its portrayal of Roman society without the Hollywood History typical of most historical recreations. Indeed Vidal spent years researching the life of Julian and famously published a bibliography of reference material at the end of the text to serve as a guide to critics and scholars.


  • A God Am I: Perhaps the worst thing Maximus does is to convince Julian that Cybele had spoken to him, telling him that she'd send the spirit of Alexander the Great to guide him, and that his victory is assured. This gets him into trouble.
  • Apocalyptic Log: Julian's diary entries and notations during the invasion of Persia.
  • Bad Dreams: Interestingly happens to Gallus, Julian, and Constantius. Gallus simply has nightmares in the days before his execution. Constantius and Julian, on the other hand, have dreams that could be anything from Anxiety Dreams to Dreaming the Truth to Dreaming of Things to Come. Julian gives great weight to his.
  • Badass Beard: Subverted with Julian, who insists on combing his long beard into a point (Everyone tells him it looks ridiculous).
  • Badass Bookworm: Julian. Priscus has his moments.
  • The Caligula: Gallus, although sociopathic to begin with, loses it completely once he becomes Caesar. Libanius muses that it was almost as if he and his wife studied the histories of past tyrants just so he could imitate them.
  • The Chains of Commanding: Constantius.
  • Deadly Decadent Court: What was the deal with that imperial robe—the one that got a deacon killed? You order the wrong color garment (in this case, the same as the Emperor's), and are immediately found guilty of treason? The tailor is executed too. Better safe than sorry, we guess. Literally no one is safe in Rome.
  • Death of the Old Gods: Hellenistic Religion, the Greek and Roman Pantheon are on their last legs. Their shrines and temples are used as roadside privies and their rituals have become gaudy exotic spectacles for tourists.
  • Deliberate Values Dissonance: Several. Among other things, Julian is OK with some persecution of the Christians, with limiting peasants into family careers, and with the existence of slavery.
  • Dirty Old Man: Priscus has an eye for the ladies.
  • Dropped a Bridge on Him: Things look bad for poor Julian. As he spends his time writing letters to every senate he can think of, Constantius has the biggest army on Earth. Two of his legions desert him, and leave a fatal gap in his defense. Julian finds himself in despair, knowing that the gods have left him. And then Constantius dies of a fever. But not before making him his heir. Just like he did in real life.
  • End of an Age: The book highlights Julian's brief reign as the end of the Ancient World with Christianity setting a Reset Button and changing civilization forever. Hellenistic religion despite Julian's fervent efforts to revive it is in total decay and in the end it will die out.
  • Eunuchs Are Evil: With the exception of Mardonius, who helped raise Julian after his father died, the eunuchs are this. Julian is more than happy to purge them.
  • Fatal Flaw: Julian's craving for the supernatural.
  • Fictional Document: Julian's memoir, supposedly dictated each night while campaigning in Persia.
  • The Friend Nobody Likes: Maximus. He deserves it.
  • Got Volunteered: Literally in the case of Julian, who is offered a choice between declaring himself Caesar of Gaul, or being murdered by said Gauls. It's unclear whether or not Julian is embellishing events to disguise his ambition.
  • Heroic BSOD: Julian has one when he thinks he's being set up to die in Gaul, and another when he realizes that the invasion is lost.
  • Hijacked by Jesus: It's noted several times that the key to Christian success is their willingness to assimilate any pagan holiday or custom that invites new blood.
  • Hypocrite: As pointed out numerous times by Julian himself and Libanius and Priscus, many Christian rituals and rites borrow wholesale from the despised "pagan" practices of Hellenistic religion. Julian also criticizes them for their endless schisms and their persecution of Jews.
  • Incest Is Relative / Unholy Matrimony: Gallus and Constantina.
  • Insane Troll Logic: Gallus says the following while talking to― at― Julian:
    Sometimes at night, I walk the streets in disguise. I listen to them. I watch them, knowing I can do anything to them I want and no one can touch me. If I want to rape a woman or kill a man in an alley, I can. Sometimes I do. But it is evil. I know it. I try not to. Yet I feel that when I do these things there is something higher which acts through me. I am a child of God. Unworthy as I am, he created me and to him I shall return. What I am, he wanted me to be. That is why I am good.
  • Jesus Was Crazy: Julian's view is that Jesus was just some guy who thought he was the Messiah. He acted out the prophetic requirements, such as riding into Jerusalem on a donkey, and eventually resorted to violence when nothing else worked.
  • Jesus Was Way Cool: Julian admits, grudgingly, that his moral teachings are beyond criticism though he notes that it's fairly simplistic compared to Plato and Aristotle.
  • King on His Deathbed: Constantius and Julian.
  • Leeroy Jenkins: Julian gives Libino half a legion and orders him to negotiate with a German King. On the way, he meets a German force five times his own. He promptly orders an attack, and he and his Romans are massacred.
  • Lonely at the Top: Constantius writes Julian a poignant letter to this effect while on his deathbed. Julian had to deal with this even before became Augustus, but more or less reconciled himself with it.
  • Make an Example of Them: The Deacon, killed for the cloak, and Ursulus, killed for badmouthing soldiers.
  • Modest Royalty: Julian takes up celibacy and asceticism.
  • Naughty Nuns: The "Shrine Of Aphrodite", where one can enjoy a priestess for a price. "They pretend it is religion. Actually, it is mass prostitution."
  • No Hero Discount: The 'margin notes' repeatedly note Priscus' exorbitant fees in exchange for pages from Julian's memoir.
  • No Social Skills: Constantius is actually rather dull and quite shy. He can only interact with others as Emperor.
  • Off with His Head!: Gallus' punishment.
  • Passive-Aggressive Kombat: Libanius and Priscus' constant snarking.
  • Phony Psychic: Maximus. Picture BRIAN BLESSED in a toga, waving a staff around and pretending not to be useless. (His bogus fortune-telling is a direct cause of Julian dying on the battlefield, and Maximus is later convicted of heresy by the new regime.)
  • Religion Is Wrong: Julian focuses on the eponymous Emperor's (failed) attempt to stem the rising tide of Christianity in Rome. (Vidal himself is a lifelong atheist.) While it extends much sympathy to Julian's religious tolerance and his attempt to halt Christianity without persecuting it, both Libanius and Priscus point that his attempt to revive Hellenistic religions only highlighted that it was Not So Different from Catholicism in the end with practice becoming just as rigid and rigorous as Christianity.
  • Shout-Out:
    • Julian starts off his memoir by mimicking Marcus Aurelius To Himself, though he drops it quickly. Aurelius is mentioned from time to time, with Julian looking at him as a model Philosopher King. Priscus thinks him overrated.
    • He also takes The March Upcountry with him during the invasion.
  • Sensitive Guy and Manly Man: Libanius and Priscus.
  • The Sociopath: Gallus hits almost every characteristic, fitting for a person who becomes The Caligula.
  • Take Over the World: For all his philosophy, Julian ends his memoir giddy with dreams of Persia and India and China. He recounts all the other emperors who measured themselves against Alexander:
    Each of my predecessors longed to equal this dead boy. None did. Now I shall!
  • Teeth-Clenched Teamwork: One of the more entertaining sides of Julian is a scathing letter exchange between Libanius and his collaborator Priscus, who is busy covering his posterior (and his wallet).
  • Unfortunate Names: Hilarius. Unfortunately, Gallus gets him alone and Hilarity does not Ensue.
  • Unfriendly Fire: Julian is killed by one of his own soldiers, who makes it appear as if he was felled by an enemy Persian's spear.
  • Unreliable Narrator: Julian's deference to the facts of his own life are spotty. His transcribers step in from time to time to fix any inconsistencies, though they note that Julian is mostly accurate and a fair writer.
  • We ARE Struggling Together: The Christians oppose Julian, while constantly killing each other such weighty questions as "Is the Son of the same substance as the Father, or merely similiar?"