Flavius Claudius Julianus was the last pagan Emperor of Rome. His reign followed those of Constaintine, the first Christian emperor, and several other self-professed Christian emperors. Rejecting the Christianity of his family, Julian sought to use his power as Emperor to restore Rome as a pagan society.
Julian has become something of a hero to skeptics and atheists. According to the anti-Christian historian Edward Gibbons in his The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, “[Julian] extended to all the inhabitants of the Roman world the benefits of a free and equal toleration; and the only hardship which he inflicted on the Christians was to deprive them of the power of tormenting their fellow-subjects….”
Such a portrayal, however, overstates the intolerance of the early Christian emperors as well as the tolerance of the pagan Julian. As noted by Rodney Stark in his new book, Cities of God:
For Constantine neither outlawed paganism nor condoned persecution of non-Christians. In fact, although Constantine subsidized and gave official standing to the Christian church, he continued some funding of pagan temples…. More significant even than his tolerance of pagan temples, Constantine continued to appoint pagans to the very highest positions, including those of consul and prefect, especially if we may assume that most whose religious affiliation is unknown were, in fact, pagans.
Stark, Cities of God, page 190.
Stark is a big believer in metrics. History, in his opinion, suffers from the lack of the use of numeric evaluation to test theories. As the last part of the above quote alludes to, in order to test the notion that Julian was the emperor of tolerance whereas his Christian predecessors and followers were intolerant, Stark evaluated the religious identity of the high ranking appointments.
• Constantine: 50% Christians, 18% pagans, and 26% unknown.
• Constantinus/Constans: 26% Christians, 46% pagans, and 28% unknown.
• Constantius: 63% Christian, 22% pagan, and 15% unknown.
• Julian: 18% Christian and 82% pagan.
• Valentinian: 31% Christian, 38% pagan, and 31% unknown.
• Gratian: 39% Christian, 25% pagan, and 36% unknown.
When it comes to tolerance of placing officials with the other religion into high office, the Christian emperors before and after Julian have him beat hands down. Moreover, none of the following five Christian emperors came close to so lopsided a ratio of appointments as Julian.
In addition to attempting to shut Christians out of government, Julian’s reign saw more direct reaction to Christians.
Not wanting to create new martyrs, Julian did not initiate the bloody persecution of Christians a la Nero or Diocletian, but he did condone the torture of several bishops, exiled others, and ignored the ‘summary executions that seem to have taken place in large numbers in central and southern Syria during his reign.’ Thus, there was no imperial response when the ‘holy virgins in Heliopolis were rent limb from limb and their remains thrown to the pigs.’ When knowledge that a pagan emperor now ruled prompted pagans in Alexandria to torture the city’s Christian bishop, to tear him limb from limb, and then to crucify ‘many Christians,’ Julian’s main concern was to obtain the dead bishop’s library.
Stark, op. cit., page 195.
We should also remember that Julian was just getting started; his reign lasting less than two years. His obvious intolerance towards Christians could very well have lead to much greater persecution and even civil war. He appears to have been less tolerant of Christians than his preceding and even many of his following Christian emperors were towards paganism.