The above inscription was set up in the small town of Casae, in Numidia, in celebration of the emperor Julian’s restoration of Roman – or “pagan” – cults across the empire. Although its whereabouts is now unknown, the surviving text represents an important testimony of the extent to which Julian’s attempts to renew traditional religious practices were felt across the Roman world, even in some of the smaller cities of the provinces.
The reign of the emperor Julian, which lasted just nineteen months, remains one of the most disputed of the late imperial period. The nephew of the emperor Constantine, Julian and his brother Gallus had managed to escape the massacre of their relatives that was led by Constantius II, in his attempt to secure the imperial throne for himself and his brothers in the wake of Constantine’s death (see Zosimus, New History, II.57-8). Julian and Gallus were deliberately excluded from life at any of the imperial courts, finding themselves transferred to Macellum, an imperial estate in Cappadocia, between 342-348 CE. Julian was subsequently sent to Nicomedia in order to pursue his education, where he first encountered the teachings of the pagan orator Libanius, in the schools of rhetoric and grammar that were emerging there. Gallus was raised to the position of Caesar in 351 CE, but was later executed following criticisms of corruption in 354 CE, after which Julian was summoned to meet Constantius II in Milan; although initially held under suspicion by the emperor he was later permitted to travel to Athens to continue his education, which was cut short due to rebellions across the Alps in Gaul. Constantius promoted his cousin as a dynastic lieutenant and sent him with a modest entourage and small escort of soldiers to Gaul, to deal with the insecurities and uprisings in the province. Julian’s initial campaigning along the Rhine region, in the company of the main Gallic field army, resulted in the recapture of territory held by the barbarian Alamanni tribe and Julian’s “finest hour” in Gaul at the Battle of Strasbourg in 357 CE, at which the tribe was thoroughly defeated and driven back into the Rhine, having suffered severe losses (for detailed description of these events, see Hunt, “Julian,” p. 44-51; for Julian’s early life and education, see Libanius, Orations XVIII.13-17; Athanassiadi, Julian, p. 27-51). Further conquests of the Gallic tribes were to follow, with Julian leading another two campaigns across the Rhine laying waste to the land and villages of the Alamanni until they reached the Roman frontier of the Antonine period, by then deeply entrenched in barbarian territory; after four years, Julian could claim to have recaptured “almost forty towns” and to have taken more than 10,000 prisoners, with his panegyrists applauding the civic revival of Gaul and the reconstruction of the frontier (Hunt, “Julian,” p. 55; Julian, Letter to the Athenians, 280c-d; Libanius, Orations, XVIII.80-1).
In February of 360 CE, Constantius II ordered that half of Julian’s Gallic army be transferred to Mesopotamia, to support his eastern army in their campaign against the Sassanid Shapur II; the soldiers apparently revolted, refusing to leave Gaul and instead acclaimed Julian their Augustus, in a “classic [display] of late Roman usurpation” (Hunt, “Julian,” p. 57). Although this did little to improve the by-now strained relationship with Constantius II, by November of 361 CE news reached his camp – now in Naissus, in the Balkans – that Constantius II had died, naming him as his sole heir on his deathbed, thereby preventing the outbreak of civil war which had hung over the last two years (Ammianus Marcellinus, Res Gestae, XXI.15.2, 5 and XXII.2.1). Julian immediately made for Constantinople, where he presided over the Christian burial of his predecessor, in a “display of dynastic solidarity…calculated to advertise Julian’s new-found legitimacy,” by which support from both the military and civilians of the eastern communities might be solicited (Hunt, “Julian,” p. 61). Although his reign was to prove too short for it to be possible to identify his own specific “policies” his attitude to government does appear to have been more deliberate than that of the emperors who had preceded him, particularly with respect to his approach to religious issues (Mitchell, A History of the Later Roman Empire, p. 82). As evidenced by this inscription, Julian introduced many measures and restored many practices that appear to have been aimed at curbing Christian influence and protecting the remaining pagan institutions of the empire.
The inscription addresses Julian with fewer of the traditional honorific titles and epithets usually given in epigraphic dedications, acknowledging him as “Lord” (dominus), “unconquered prince” (invictus princeps) and with the titles Pius and Felix, but omitting the military acclamations such as “Alammanicus” and “Sarmaticus” that appear in other inscriptions. Instead, Julian is celebrated here as being “powerful in all kinds of virtue” (omni ge/nere polle/nti virtu/tum), as the “restorer of freedom” (res/titutori li/bertatis) and of “Roman religion” (Ro/manae re/ligionis). To describe an emperor as a restitutor (“restorer”) was not unusual in third century inscriptions; from the reign of Gordian III onwards, it appeared in numerous dedications, associating the emperors with a variety of achievements. They might be acclaimed restitutor on account of the peace and prosperity that they had brought to a particular province, or it could refer more specifically to the capital itself, where it symbolised the restitution of order after civic strife (see e.g. the dedicatory inscription of the Arch of Septimius Severus in Rome). Restitutor could also refer to the restoration of particular virtues, such as pietas (“piety”), libertas (“liberty”) – as it also does in the case of this inscription – or securitas publica (“public safety”), whereby the emperor’s own personal connection with these qualities extended them beyond his person and into the populace of the empire as a whole. As Ugo Marelli has noted, the formula restitutor libertatis, along with the variants conservator libertatis (“conserver of liberty”) and auctor libertatis (“creator of liberty”), is relatively well diffused in the third century CE, an epoch in which emperors came to power through the violent deposition of the “tyrants” that preceded them (Marelli, “L’epigrafe di Decio a Cosa,” p. 54).
The intent of the inscription, then, was to celebrate the particular traditional and intellectual aspects of restoration that characterised Julian’s short reign; the reference to his “power in all kinds of virtue” may have been an allusion to his devotion to Hellenism, and the old ideals of the classical polis, restoring to cities the right to collect taxes from their own lands, and attempting to reduce the demands of the State with regards to taxation, for example (Mitchell, A History of the Later Roman Empire, p. 82). Under Julian, the imperial court looked to earlier periods when Roman emperors cultivated images of simplicity, humility and of their status as fellow citizens, respectful of the wishes of both the senate and the people. Julian’s “virtues” were presented as being in direct opposition with those of Constantine, who was criticised by the pagan apologists of the age for having allowed the imperial entourage to expand in an unnecessarily extravagant way (Hunt, “Julian,” p. 64). In order to emphasise the contrast between himself and Constantine, Julian rejected the laws passed by his predecessor in favour of a model of empire that was grounded in the Greek eastern Mediterranean, and which prioritised the order, tradition and heritage of cities, with the proper worship of the gods a sign of each place’s success (Athanassiadi, Julian, p. 98-100). As part of this vision, Julian sought to restrict the excessive taxation of cities and reduced the number of agents who could use the cursus publicus, or the imperial courier/transportation-service, the maintenance of which fell upon the cities through which it passed (Hunt, “Julian,” p. 65). Public estates were restored to cities as sources of revenue, and the categories of those who were exempt from civic office, such as Christian clergy, were substantially revised and restricted (Codex Theodosianus X.3.1; XII.1.50; Hunt, “Julian,” p. 65). Such measures were received very positively by the cities affected by the legislation and were promoted by Julian as a “restoration of freedom” necessitated by the tyranny and greed of Constantine’s reforms of the empire.
Most striking in this inscription is the claim that Julian was the “restorer of Roman religion” (restitutor Romanae religionis). Julian’s devotion to traditional pagan cult is well documented. His pagan beliefs were said to have originated in his education at Nicomedia, where he was introduced to the philosophy of the Neoplatonists; as his education progressed, he became further devoted to Greek literary culture and philosophy (Mitchell, A History of the Later Roman Empire, p. 287; for the origins of Julian’s pagan beliefs, see Eunapius, Sophists, 474-5; Julian, Orations, 7.235; Libanius, Orations, 12.34; Fowden, “Polytheist Religion and Philosophy,” p. 538-560). As emperor, Julian immediately sought to reverse some of the punitive legislation that his predecessors had extended towards pagan religious practice across the empire. He ordered temples to be restored and reopened according to the traditional public rites of the gods, restoring the lost incomes of the temples and reinstating the privileges of the pagan priesthoods (see Ammianus Marcellinus, Res Gestae, XXII.5.2); Julian believed that he had been sent by the gods to rescue the empire from tyranny and thus proceeded with a plan based on an ideal of religious tolerance; he seems to have been motivated rather by the necessity to restore general piety towards all deities, and thus did not seek to forbid the performance of Christian cult.
Crucially, Julian revived the practice of public blood sacrifice, suppressing the anti-sacrificial legislation of his predecessors. Although not explicitly stated so here, we can assume that the “restoration of Roman religion” inferred also the reintroduction of sacrifice as a central element of public cult, which is confirmed by another dedicatory inscription from Thibilis, or modern Announa, Algeria (ILAlg, 4674; Greenwood, “Five Latin Inscriptions,” p. 108-109); in this text he is celebrated specifically as the restitutor sacrorum (“restorer of the sacred rites”) in a term used also of the emperor Trajan Decius, who had similarly instituted a decree of universal sacrifice in 251 CE (see Dedication to Trajan Decius as the Restorer of Cults). Although emblematic of the whole concept of pagan belief and cult, blood sacrifice had declined with the growing popularity of Christianity, representing the “most loathsome aspect of cult and arous[ing] the greatest amount of Christian hostility” (Bradbury, “Julian’s Pagan Revival,” p. 331-332). Julian sought to reverse this decline, rebuilding altars and personally ordering the sacrifice of great numbers of victims, to the extent that he was criticised for “excess” and even “superstition” by Ammianus Marcellinus (Res Gestae XXV.4.17) Note that Julian’s attempt to rebuild the Jerusalem Temple must have fitted in with the re-establishment of all the cults, and especially of sacrificial rites (see Ammianus Marcellinus, Res Gestae XXIII.1.1-3). Even Libanius conceded that the enthusiasm with which Julian pursued public sacrifice on a daily basis went beyond what was conventional, criticising him too for the vast sums of money that these practices incurred (Orations, XII.80; XVIII.170). Scott Bradbury has investigated just what the “sacrificial convention” in the Greek East might have been in the fourth century CE, concluding that if not completely abandoned, sacrifice was certainly no longer practiced in public without impunity (see Bradbury, “Julian’s Pagan Revival,” p. 341-347 for a full discussion of this). The question then remains as to why Julian insisted upon blood sacrifice as the key feature of his restoration of pagan cult; it would have been perfectly possible for him to institute a revival of pagan practice that celebrated other traditional cult forms, such as processions and prayers or hymns, without turning towards a measure as controversial as sacrifice. Scott Bradbury has suggested that the restoration of sacrifice was a deliberately confrontational move; while Julian had openly disapproved of the physical persecution of Christians, the insistence on sacrifice represented another form of coercion, which was “designed to politicize religious issues and to confront Christians with a stark choice” (Bradbury, “Julian’s Pagan Revival,” p. 346-347). Where in earlier periods the shared consumption of sacrificial meat was a symbol of solidarity in otherwise mixed communities, in the later fourth century CE it instigated division amongst communities of mixed religion (Bradbury, “Julian’s Pagan Revival,” p. 347). Refusing to participate in the ceremony could also be interpreted as a statement of confrontation with respect to the imperial court; Julian believed his successes had been bestowed upon him by the gods, and so to refuse to sacrifice to them was a clear act of defiance towards the will and security of the emperor. Julian’s restoration of public cult was clearly met with some popularity, however; inscriptions such as this one, from a relatively small city in northern Africa, attest to the enthusiasm with which his measures were received by local communities, amongst whom the decline of pagan practices may have occurred with less uniformity than the literary sources might have us believe.
Fowden, Garth, Polytheist Religion and Philosophy, in Cambridge Ancient History Vol. 13, The late Empire, A.D. 337-425 (ed. A. Cameron, P. Garnsey; Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998), 538-560