9th Grade: History Doesn’t Help Julian

Greetings to all,

This week we began to put the nails in the coffin of Roman civilization in the West.

We looked at the emperor Julian the Apostate and thought about the purpose of the study of history.  One would think that a leader who loved history, read extensively in history, and believed in learning from history would serve Rome well.  In fact, Julian had a disastrous reign and it was his use of history that brought his reign to a swift end (361-63 A.D.).

In a sense, anyone who uses the past to inform the present is a historian, and this includes all of us.  History gives us valuable lessons from the past, but it’s study should not make us seek to repeat the past.  That is not History’s purpose.  Someone who looked to the past only for facts about what happened would gain knowledge.  But wisdom comes when we take this knowledge and learn to apply it in our current context.  Julian seemed to be unable to think of history at more than a grammar level.  For him, learning from the past mean repeating the past.  This showed up during his brief reign in a variety of ways:

  • He fought Persia instead of those crossing the Northern frontier and dealing with the pressing problem of the northern barbarians.  Fighting Persia meant he could follow in the footsteps of Achilles and Alexander, and replay the whole grand epic of East v. West, as well as avenge the death of Crassus and Rome’s defeat at Carrhae in 53 B.C.
  • To inspire his men he burned his supply ships, just like Agathon of Sicily and Alexander.  But he did so apparently without realizing that those previous armies marched into fertile areas and could supply themselves from the surrounding terrain, whereas he marched into semi-arid terrain with scant supplies.
  • He modeled his seige of a city off of Scipio’s successful seige of Carthage, without taking into account the different design of each city, specifically the fact that his army would be more exposed than that of Scipio’s back in 146 B.C.
  • We refer to him as “The Apostate” because though he was raised as a Christian, he wanted Rome to return to its pagan beliefs, and he himself abandoned Christianity for paganism — again finding his anchor entirely in the past.

Julian had intelligence and ruled conscientiously.  He did not live extravagantly.  He was not cruel, erratic, or selfish.  He had a genuine devotion to Rome and believed in the idea of Roman civilization.  But he suffered from some of the same defects that plagued his contemporaries.  For him, progress for Rome could only mean a return to the past.  He had competent administrative capability, but he had no clear vision or purpose with what to do with that ability.  As one student said last year, when all you think of is the past, it shows you don’t think much of the future.  In this respect, Julian simply followed in the footsteps of emperors like Diocletian, who we looked at last week.  He too could only think of the past when he conceived of Rome’s future.  Rome continued along the same path in a different guise.

It seems that Julian could not synthesize and apply information — he could not think at the rhetoric stage of learning.  Like Rome, he too was stuck in the grammar stage.  His death on a foolish campaign into Persia seems emblematic of Rome’s demise.

Rome had been declining in many ways from the years 180-350 A.D., and one of the problems they faced was their thinning population.  This could be managed if Rome pulled back from its borders and closed ranks.  But Rome could not face that.  To pull back would admit that the emperor had no clothes.

Rome decided to try and solve the problem by integrating barbarian soldiers into Rome.  Maybe the old Roman magic would reassert itself.  Barbarians would be acclimated to Rome and serve them loyally.  It had worked that way in the past.  But that was when Rome was healthy.  Now there was little to attract them to Rome.  What ended up happening was simply that they armed and trained barbarian war lords, who would not need much provocation to turn against them.  Rome’s defeat at Adrianople in 378 B.C., and the sack of Rome by Alaric in 410 AD, can be directly related to this.  In 476 Rome ends with a whimper, as no Roman is even able to be emperor.  The title goes to the barbarian Odoacer, and Rome as we know is no more.

I include below a missive of Julian the Apostate’s thoughts on how to revive paganism in Rome.  If you read, you will see that Julian was no fool.  He saw that Christianity had greater vitality than paganism, and his observations can apply to any age.  The mistake he makes of assuming that all religions share a common morality at the center, with rites, ceremonies differing at the fringe, seems very modern.  In fact, his “modern” error has deep roots.  Julian’s program for returning Rome to paganism failed in part because he lived such a short time in power (361-63 A.D.), but also because he asks pagans to act like Christians in order to return to paganism.  Julian, like Rome, was tragically confused.



Julian the Apostate: On Paganism’s Revival

The religion of the Greeks does not yet prosper as I would wish, on account of those who profess it. But the gifts of the gods are great and splendid, better than any prayer or any hope . . . Indeed, a little while ago no one would have dared even to pray for a such change, and so complete a one in so short a space of time [i.e., the arrival of Julian himself, a reforming traditionalist, on the throne]. Why then do we think that this is sufficient and do not observe how the kindness of Christians to strangers, their care for the burial of their dead, and the sobriety of their lifestyle has done the most to advance their cause?

Each of these things, I think, ought really to be practiced by us. It is not sufficient for you alone to practice them, but so must all the priests in Galatia [in modern Turkey] without exception. Either make these men good by shaming them, persuade them to become so or fire them . . . Secondly, exhort the priests neither to approach a theater nor to drink in a tavern, nor to profess any base or infamous trade. Honor those who obey and expel those who disobey.

Erect many hostels, one in each city, in order that strangers may enjoy my kindness, not only those of our own faith but also of others whosoever is in want of money. I have just been devising a plan by which you will be able to get supplies. For I have ordered that every year throughout all Galatia 30,000 modii of grain and 60,000 pints of wine shall be provided. The fifth part of these I order to be expended on the poor who serve the priests, and the rest must be distributed from me to strangers and beggars. For it is disgraceful when no Jew is a beggar and the impious Galileans [the name given by Julian to Christians] support our poor in addition to their own; everyone is able to see that our coreligionists are in want of aid from us. Teach also those who profess the Greek religion to contribute to such services, and the villages of the Greek religion to offer the first-fruits to the gods. Accustom those of the Greek religion to such benevolence, teaching them that this has been our work from ancient times. Homer, at any rate, made Eumaeus say: “O Stranger, it is not lawful for me, even if one poorer than you should come, to dishonor a stranger. For all strangers and beggars are from Zeus. The gift is small, but it is precious.” [Julian is quoting from the Odyssey, 14-531.] Do not therefore let others outdo us in good deeds while we ourselves are disgraced by laziness; rather, let us not quite abandon our piety toward the gods . . .

While proper behavior in accordance with the laws of the city will obviously be the concern of the governors of the cities, you for your part [as a priest] must take care to encourage people not to violate the laws of the gods since they are holy . . . Above all you must exercise philanthropy. From it result many other goods, and indeed that which is the greatest blessing of all, the goodwill of the gods . . .

We ought to share our goods with all men, but most of all with the respectable, the helpless, and the poor, so that they have at least the essentials of life. I claim, even though it may seem paradoxical, that it is a holy deed to share our clothes and food with the wicked: we give, not to their moral character but to their human character. Therefore I believe that even prisoners deserve the same kind of care. This type of kindness will not interfere with the process of justice, for among the many imprisoned and awaiting trial some will be found guilty, some innocent. It would be cruel indeed if out of consideration for the innocent we should not allow some pity for the guilty, or on account of the guilty we should behave without mercy and humanity to those who have done no wrong . . . How can the man who, while worshipping Zeus the God of Companions, sees his neighbors in need and does not give them a dime–how can he think he is worshipping Zeus properly?  . . .

Priests ought to make a point of not doing impure or shameful deeds or saying words or hearing talk of this type. We must therefore get rid of all offensive jokes and licentious associations. What I mean is this: no priest is to read Archilochus or Hipponax or anyone else who writes poetry as they do. They should stay away from the same kind of stuff in Old Comedy. Philosophy alone is appropriate for us priests. Of the philosophers, however, only those who put the gods before them as guides of their intellectual life are acceptable, like Pythagoras, Plato, Aristotle, and the Stoics . . . only those who make people reverent . . . not the works of Pyrrho and Epicurus . . . We ought to pray often to the gods in private and in public, about three times a day, but if not that often, at least in the morning and at night.

No priest is anywhere to attend shameful theatrical shows or to have one performed at his own house; it is in no way appropriate. Indeed, if it were possible to get rid of such shows altogether from the theater and restore the theaters, purified, to Dionysus as in the olden days, I would certainly have tried to bring this about. But since I thought that this was out of the question, and even if possible would for other reasons be inexpedient, I did not even try. But I do insist that priests stay away from the licentiousness of the theaters and leave them to the people. No priest is to enter a theater, have an actor or a chariot driver as a friend, or allow a dancer or mime into his house. I allow to attend the sacred games those who want to, that is, they may attend only those games from which women are forbidden to attend not only as participants but even as spectators.

A Culture of Victory, a Culture of Collapse

The evaluations of the historically minded often move like a pendulum.  I see this throughout my own life.  Initially, like everyone, I thought Napoleon a great genius.  But then you think again . . . after all, he lost.  And what about what happened in Egypt, to say nothing of Russia?  And what of all those armies he beat from 1799-1809–nothing more than decrepit, out-dated Enlightenment entities destined for the trash-heap anyway.

After a while, however, I thought again and gave credit where due.  Sure, his armies were the perfect foil for the Austrians and Prussians, but he helped create the French army that formed that perfect foil.  Like any great leader he imprinted himself all over his army.  And we say that the armies he faced were bound for trash-heap only with the benefit of hindsight.  Napoleon put them there, after all.

But . . . he lost.

Writing about The Civil War comes with similar pitfalls.  As the states began to come together in the Progressive Era (ca. 1880-1920) we looked for unity and healing from our past, and we lionized Lee as a romantically doomed warrior, who nevertheless, performed heroic feats.  Lee’s generalship for that era stood second to none.  Beginning in the 1960’s historians swung the narrative.  They focused on Lee’s irascible temper, his huge losses, his weak opponents, his strategic failures at Antietam, Gettysburg, and so on.

Joseph Glatthar’s excellent General Lee’s Army brings balance back to this narrative.  He studies the army of Northern Virginia in depth and concludes51tuzkutcjl that of course, Lee was a great commander.  He helped forge a great army with a great record in the field.  He deserves much of the credit he receives.

But . . . he lost, and we do well to remember this.

Glathaar shows us how the strengths and weaknesses of Lee and his army come from the same place by looking at culture, demographics, the life of the common solider, and those directly under Lee’s command.

We do have to take into account Lee’s frequent opponent, the Union’s Army of the Potomac.  From a pure match-up standpoint, it would have been interesting to have Lee, Longstreet, and Jackson oppose Grant, Sherman, and Thomas for the duration of the conflict.  As it happened Lee only faced Grant towards the end of the war, and then Grant had to work with the Army of the Potomac, where he inherited a completely different, and vastly inferior, operational and command culture than he worked with out west.

In  A Savage War, the authors point out that the Army of the Potomac inherited a disproportionate number of soldiers recently graduated from West Point.  A West Point education tended at that time to over-emphasize math, engineering, and organization (something that U.S. Grant lamented in his memoirs).  Such skills have their place, but should not have pride of place in officer training.  Those that drank from the firehose of this approach would inevitably give way to excessive caution. Meticulous organization takes a lot of time.  In addition, once you have built something so “pure” and pretty, one might not wish to do anything that might get it dirty. This helps explain why McClellan (tops in his class at West Point) could think himself a great general even though he couldn’t actually win a battle.  He was excellent in doing what his education, at least in the narrow sense, trained him to do.

The plodding, rigidly organized Army of the Potomac gave Lee and his men a perfect target given their particular strengths.

Glaathar points out that the men in Lee’s army fully believed in their cause and came with the strongest of motivations.  Ante-bellum southern society had the duel influences of the aristocratic planter and the Appalachian border-settlers.  Both of these cultures emphasized honor and courage.  Both of these cultures preached a vision of manliness that gave way to no one.  Letters home from top officers on down the ranks show a constant desire for combat and to prove themselves.

Lee both understood and embodied this himself.  Many other accounts of his generalship focus on his ability to psychologically assess his opposite number on the Union side and devise the proper approach accordingly.  Glaathar adds to this, showing how Lee knew how to use his men expertly.  They proved superlative in the counter-attack, and could march quickly and fight hard back-to-back.  We see this at Bull Run, in Jackson’s Shenandoah campaign, and at Chancellorsville, as at other times.

But both the aristocratic planter and border settler culture had its weaknesses, and these too had a significant impact on the war.


Appalachian border culture emphasized freedom of initiative and eschewed “systems” like tight and itchy collars.  Lack of formal structure gives one great freedom.  But an army of tens of thousands needs tight organization to act as a unit.  Without this organization, large scale offensives could never be undertaken.


Many in the south seceded because they did not want to be told what to do by anyone they did not like or respect.  They tended to run hot and cold alternatively.  Sure enough, Lee had a hard time enforcing discipline.  The army at time looted the Virginia countryside for supplies, stole from the bodies of dead Union soldiers,** and had a hard time maintaining equipment.  Many went AWOL unexpectedly not necessarily out of cowardice but because “they felt like it.”

Honor and Ego:

The aristocratic nature of the army came through in the upper echelon of the officers.  The bickered for position and rank.  At times they disobeyed directly if they felt insulted.   Some at times seemed to prefer maintaining their honor to winning a battle.

All of these weaknesses would make coordinated action over a large distance difficult.  Perhaps this is why Lee spread out his armies in his invasion of the north in 1863.  It gave each commander more independence. But . . . when the time came for coordinated action, invariably Lee’s forces could not pull it off.

Shelby Foote wrote that, “Gettysburg was the price the South paid for having Lee command their army.”  I’m guessing that he meant at least that no one is perfect.  But I surmise that he meant more.  The weaknesses of Lee’s army, and of much of southern culture, outed themselves at that battle.   To make their situation worse, the Confederacy fought their weaker opponent in ways that favored their slim strengths.  The good ground and interior lines of the Union forces at Gettysburg played right into the laps of their slower, plodding, yet more bull-headed nature.^

Lee’s 1863 invasion may have been a mistake, but he intuited correctly that the South could not win a long and protracted war.  He emphasized the Confederacy’s logistical shortcomings, but the army had cultural shortcomings as well.  Perhaps Lee had read and recalled Tocqueville’s commentary on aristocratic and democratic societies at war.  Tocqueville comments that,

In aristocracies the military profession, being a privileged career, is held in honor even in time of peace. Men of great talents, great attainments, and great ambition embrace it; the army is in all respects on a level with the nation, and frequently above it.

We have seen, on the contrary, that among a democratic people the choicer minds of the nation are gradually drawn away from the military profession, to seek by other paths distinction, power, and especially wealth. After a long peace, and in democratic times the periods of peace are long, the army is always inferior to the country itself. In this state it is called into active service, and until war has altered it, there is danger for the country as well as for the army.

It may be remarked with surprise that in a democratic army after a long peace all the soldiers are mere boys, and all the superior officers in declining years, so that the former are wanting in experience, the latter in vigor. This is a leading cause of defeat, for the first condition of successful generalship is youth. I should not have ventured to say so if the greatest captain of modern times had not made the observation.

A long war produces upon a democratic army the same effects that a revolution produces upon a people; it breaks through regulations and allows extraordinary men to rise above the common level. Those officers whose bodies and minds have grown old in peace are removed or superannuated, or they die. In their stead a host of young men is pressing on, whose frames are already hardened, whose desires are extended and inflamed by active service. They are bent on advancement at all hazards, and perpetual advancement; they are followed by others with the same passions and desires, and after these are others, yet unlimited by aught but the size of the army. The principle of equality opens the door of ambition to all, and death provides chances for ambition. Death is constantly thinning the ranks, making vacancies, closing and opening the career of arms.

. . . An aristocratic nation that in a contest with a democratic people does not succeed in ruining the latter at the outset of the war always runs a great risk of being conquered by it.


*Interesting parallels exist between Lee and Napoleon’s armies.  Both faced stiff, rigidly organized opponents.  Both emphasized movement, speed, and capitalized on the energy and spirit of their men.  Both had great success early, but both also suffered significant setbacks as their respective wars dragged on.  Each faced manpower issues, but also, their opponents got better over time and neither Napoleon or Lee made the necessary adjustments based on the improvement in their opponents.

In fairness to the Army of the Potomac, the soldiers displayed extreme courage at Fredericksburg, and were stalwart in the defense at Gettysburg.

**Many southerners decry the actions of Sherman.  Glaathar demonstrates that Lee’s army did many of the same things, albeit on a smaller, less organized scale, as Sherman’s army.  And . . . they did this not just in Pennsylvania but in Virginia as well.

^Fredericksburg might serve as a good example of these qualities, with a negative outcome.