Julian the Apostate
Julian (331-363) was the last non-Christian Roman emperor. He believed that restoring paganism was crucial to the empire’s survival, so he embarked on a campaign to establish Hellenic polytheism as the state religion. Unfortunately, his untimely death and strong opposition by the established Christian hierarchy doomed his religious policies to failure. His reforms failed to stem the tide of Christianity. Still, the memory of his short reign remains an example of a tempting opportunity to bridge the gap between Christianity and paganism.
Julian held profound respect for the Eleusinian Mysteries. The hierophant of Demeter was widely respected as the preeminent theurgist of his time. Julian honoured him and felt honoured by his acquaintance. He was, therefore, enthusiastic about the prospect of his initiation. Julian visited Athens in the summer of 355, intent on enjoying the city’s spiritual and intellectual life. During his stay in Athens, Julian attended the lectures of Prohaeresius, the “king of rhetoric”, who was almost eighty years old and yet commanded widespread respect. So did Himerius, another Greek sophist and rhetorician, who was also an initiate in the Eleusinian Mysteries. Himerius’ father-in-law, Nicagoras, was a Platonist philosopher and a daduch in Eleusis. In the 350s, there was an increasing association of the Eleusinian Mysteries with the teachings of the Platonists. Julian was strongly influenced by the latter and developed an interest in the former. He spent considerable time discussing with the hierophant, who revealed to the young prince the “spiritual wealth that lay hidden beneath the apparently incongruous symbols and rites of Eleusis”. These teachings, and the encouragement he received by the Neoplatonist teachers Maximus and Chrysanthius, encouraged Julian to be initiated into the Eleusinian Mysteries.
Soon after, Julian left for Gaul and a successful military and political career as a ruler of this far-flung province. In 360, he was proclaimed emperor and turned against Constantius, who occupied the throne in Constantinople. Before he embarked on the campaign, though, Julian summoned the hierophant of Eleusis and performed some secret rites. Upon the successful completion of his plans to become sole emperor, Julian sent the hierophant to Greece loaded with presents and support that would enable him to restore and maintain the pagan temples. The identity of this illustrious priest remains uncertain, but it may have been Nestorius, who is known as one of Julian’s principal councillors in his campaign for political reform. The interest of Julian and his imperial largesse enabled Eleusis to shine one last time as the pre-eminent spiritual and religious centre of Greece.