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CAT 76. Engraved by George Cooke. Julian. In Historic Gallery of Portraits and Paintings, vol. 1. London: Vernor, Hood, & Sharpe, 1807. Melville Memorial Room, Berkshire Athenaeum.

Julian: Roman emperor, 331-363. From HG 1: “There are few princes whose character has occasioned a greater diversity of opinion than the Emperor Julian, surnamed the Apostate. . . . He was the younger son of Constantius, the brother of Constantine the great. His mother . . . died a few months after his birth, at Constantinople, in the year 331.” His tutors “spoke with ecstasy of his promising talents . . . . By this flattery they sowed the seeds of that excessive vanity and obstinacy which were his peculiar defects.” He “ostensibly practiced Christianity, but in secret studied the absurd tenets of the Magi.” After being “elevated to the dignity of Cæsar,” and “sent into Gaul . . . without troops and without money,” he “formed an army, inspected its discipline, and acquired its confidence. He passed the Rhine and repulsed the Germans. To the military talents of Caesar, he united the virtues of Titus and Marcus Aurelius.” Constans “wished to withdraw from him the best part of his troops, but they revolted and proclaimed Julian emperor” (142-44). 

After becoming Emperor in A.D. 361, Julian “disclosed his religious sentiments, and offered solemn sacrifices to all the gods of ancient Rome. . . . . From this circumstance, therefore, Julian has been called the Apostate. . . . His conduct, from that period of his elevation, was a mixture of wisdom and folly—of sublimity and extravagance. . . . Having aspired to the title of a philosopher, he was desirous of the reputation of a conquerer. At the head of a numerous army, he attacked the Persians, with whom the empire was at peace,” a campaign during which he received a “mortal wound” from an arrow at the age of “thirty-two.” In addition to his exploits as “one of the most extraordinary men that ever existed,” he also wrote “his Cæsars, the most famous of all his compositions, in which he passes in review all the emperors who preceded him. It is written in the form of a dialogue, in which the author severely attacks the venerable character of M. Aurelius, whom he had proposed to himself as a pattern” (144-48).

Cooke’s engraving of Julian the Apostate depicts a half-body rather than a simple bust. The arm is in an awkward position, as if in a sling, the hand casting a shadow over the heart. Cooke’s engraving of Julian suggests a man who keeps his own counsel. To a reader of Gibbon, for whom Julian is one of the great heroes of the Roman Empire, the angle of the arm might suggest the fatal “javelin” which, “after razing the skin of [Julian’s] arm, transpierced his ribs” (1: 827). One of the most controversial elements of Gibbon’s Decline and Fall was the extent to which he extolled Julian for his religion of “Universal Tolerance” after having excoriated Constantine for having converted Imperial Rome to an intolerant Christianity that was deeply injurious to the empire, in effect reversing their respective characterizations as “The Apostate” and “The Great.” (For a judicious account of Gibbon’s treatment of Julian in relation to Constantine, see Jordan, chapter 6, “Gibbon’s ‘Age of Constantine.’”) Melville’s hearty interest in Julian throughout his writing career indicates that he shared much of Gibbon’s admiration of the man and his mind. 

In Mardi Melville alludes to Julian in the spirit of Julian’s own dialogues when he writes, “In me, many worthies recline and converse. I list to St. Paul who argues the doubts of Montaigne. Julian the Apostate cross-questions Augustine” (NN M 367). Melville may be alluding to Julian’s eventful life as well as to the Julian calendar when he declares that “man himself lives months ere his Maker deems him fit to be born; and ere his poised shaft gains its full stature, twenty-one long Julian years must elapse” (NN M 229). In The Confidence-Man Melville makes an unexpected analogy between Julian and the backwoodsman of the American frontier. “Though held in sort a barbarian, the backwoodsman would seem to America what Alexander was to Asia—captain in the vanguard of conquering civilization." He was in this sense "worthy to be compared with Moses in the Exodus, or the Emperor Julian in Gaul, who on foot, and bare-browed, at the head of covered or mounted legions, marched so through the elements, day after day” (NN CM 145).

In Clarel Melville shows detailed knowledge of Julian’s religious thought when, in the “Huts” canto about the lepers of Jerusalem, he writes of “that smothered text / Which Julian’s pagan mind had vexed” (NN C 1.25.55-6). In the lines immediately following Melville shows the source of the “smothered text” to have been “Isaiah’s prophecy of Christ’s low estate and sufferings” in Isaiah 53, here “reworked” in Melville’s own words (NN C, p. 739). Julian’s “vexed” response to that particular text is something Melville probably knew from Gibbon, whose chapter on Julian’s religions thought notes the “ungenerous irony” with which Julian, after having “confiscated the whole property” of the Christian church in Edessa, and “distributed” its money “among the soldiers,” indicated that he had thereby shown himself “a true friend” of Christians because “their admirable law has promised the kingdom of heaven to the poor” (1:792).

Melville’s most cogent appreciation of Julian, as rehabilitated by Gibbon, comes in a line spoken by Rolfe in Clarel immediately after having given credit to Helena, Constantine’s Queen, for having cleared the ground for the “Cathedral of the Tomb” in Jerusalem: “But Constantine—there falls the blight!” Rolfe articulates that “blight” with four lines that ably condense Gibbon’s massive and meticulous case against what he argued was Constantine’s politic (and harmful) conversion to Christianity: “Even he who, timing well the tide, / Laced not the Cross upon Rome’s flag / Supreme, till Jove began to lag / Behind the new religion’s stride” (NN C 1.31.105-20). The poet who wrote these lines has internalized Gibbon’s critique of Constantine as thoroughly as he has Gibbon’s admiration of Julian.

Melville's copy of this print appears discolored as if overexposed to light. The wider view on the Print Identification level shows stains on the surface of the page. Maybe Melville had the print open on his desk or otherwise visible as he wrote and thought about Julian.