I knew Gore Vidal’s ‘Julian’ would be sad, but I never realised it would be so heartbreaking.
Part of it is just how much I loved his Julian - this naive, heartfelt, talkative, romantic, exuberant, bookish, thoughtful, energetic dork. His relationship with Helena was especially fascinating, because so often arranged marriages in fiction are polarised into either working well or really, really not, and here……they clearly didn’t love each other, and would never have chosen each other normally, and yet there were moments where you could see a potential for at least partnership, and maybe even friendship, between them. I was particularly touched by her wishing they had been closer in age, and by her death scene, where Julian tells Oribasius he doesn’t know how to feel. (though I feel like there’s something of sublimated grief in its being followed by his dedicating his chastity to Cybele, and maybe even the moment where he thinks that Faustina is the Princess, not the Augusta. I did really like how the death of his first child was handled, because Robert Browning in his biography of Julian makes a point of how cold his lack of reaction is, whereas here it’s acknowledged that he learned of the child’s existence and its death in pretty much the same moment, making it harder to sincerely grieve. Plus I feel like there’s something very deliberate and pointed in his focusing on the troops marching in Pyrrhic measure, a careful non-reaction when normally he says and feels so much about everything.)
He’s made more lovable by just how much those people who get him care for him — I found Priscus difficult to like throughout much of the book (mostly due to his cynicism and misogyny), much as some of his bitchy asides were absolute gold, yet I was moved by his berating himself for having been unable to express his affection at Julian’s deathbed and talking about Plato instead. It was Libanius who truly broke me, though - the part where he says he was enchanted by Julian, and all of the ending, especially the sincerity of his letter to Theodosius and his encounter with John Chrysostom, where Chrysostom says he saw Julian in the Forum of Antioch leaving for Persia, and Julian smiled at him and he thought this man is a saint, why do we hate him? and Libanius starts weeping.
What I like best, though, is how gently and sincerely it handles Julian’s beliefs, with a depth you wouldn’t see in many historical novels nowadays. He’s not a prig or a fanatic. There is something unutterably beautiful about the classical pantheon - I feel the pull even reading the poetry of that time, and how much more would you feel it being steeped in philosophy, knowing that it informed everything you love, knowing how close by it was, and being able to sense some sort of falling away from the heights of Roman culture to now; some indefinable, inexplicable decline? I’ve always judged his attempt to restore paganism as ‘tragically misguided’, and now I feel embarrassed at coming to such a snap conclusion (even though I don’t think Christianity had anything to do with the fall of Rome).
(also the Eleusinian mysteries. I’ve only ever read about what exactly they entailed, so far as we know, in one other book - it was a terrible mystery novel set in ancient Greece - and somehow it’s stayed with me, somehow it feels meaningful.)
However what I think Christianity has to offer, on the other hand, is forgiveness and charity. While I don’t know very much about what classical philosophy has to say on how to lead a good life, Roman society in the late Republic/early Empire was dog-eat-dog, and surely there was something wonderfully radical in saying blessed are the meek, the persecuted, the merciful, the reviled; that strongest isn’t always best. In the book the Christians Julian sees are all very worldly, dedicated to the letter rather than the spirit of the law, and it’s easy to see how for him it’s just another part of the oppressive machinery of the court, and why he insists that Hellenic priests must lead a pure life. But thinking objectively about why he failed, you have to wonder exactly what the appeal of Christianity was.
Finally, the last section of the book was painful - it’s always difficult to read novels about someone you’ve come to love, knowing when they will die and watching the clock inevitably tick down. I was caught between wanting to stop and wanting to read faster so it would be over with. (and oh, he died in Persia at age 32, leaving his succession to the best, just like Alexander. I keep a biography of Alexander at my bedside; it is finished with living it. I’m also reading Robin Lane Fox’s book about Alexander at the moment, and much as I knew that all Romans heading east invoked him, cf. Pompey, I hadn’t realised the eerie synergy.)
I think for me it would be four stars rather than five, just because there were moments where I found myself sliding off it, and reading without really taking in, but what a beautiful, rich book. Are there any good non-fiction treatments of Julian? I think I might go with Adrian Murdoch’s The Last Pagan, but do let me know if there are any others I should be reading. (would love Shaun Tougher’s, but it’s a bit expensive; ditto Julian’s Gods, which looks fab; and apparently Bowersock has really got it in for him. Browning I’ve already mentioned - from a skim it seems elegant but I don’t think he’s a fan.)
And finally, where in the Iliad does my title come from? My copy is on Kindle so I can’t flick, and googling only turns up Julian’s quoting it.
Okay, so I thought it was about time to gather some of the most believed myths and rumours about historical people that are simply not true. Here we go:
Marie Antoinette never said “Let them eat cake!”. The phrase was first published in the memoirs of Jean-Jacques Rousseau which was written in 1765 when Marie Antoinette was 10 years old and still in Vienna.
Anne Boleyn did not have a sixth finger. After her execution it became widespread to further “shame” the late Queen and at the time a sixth finger was considered a sign of witchcraft which was just among the charges laid to her. It has been suggested that she had an extra fingernail but a King would never have married her with such an obvious mutation.
Cleopatra did not have a vibrator run by trapped bees. Like Anne Boleyn this was a rumour spread to demean the Egyptian Pharaoh and underline the rumours that she was promiscuous - which she was not either.
Lucrezia and Cesare Borgia did not have an incestuous affair. At the time incest was not merely considered wrong but a death sin and the rumour happened to circle when the Borgias was at the height of their power - it was nothing else but a way to demean and spread a sense of sin and disgust of the family.
Christopher Columbus was not the first European to discover America. The Vikings had reached American soil 500 years before Columbus ever set sails and were therefore the first Europeans to reach the new continent - of course the native Americans were already there. Leif Eriksson is the man remembered for several Viking expeditions to America and not that long ago Viking jewels and tools were found in the USA, conclusively proving that Columbus was not the man who discovered America.
Napoleon Bonaparte was not a short man. Actually, he was the average height of a French man of his time which - granted - is not considered tall today but nothing out of the ordinary. He was nicknamed “the little Corporal” not because of his height, but because he never snubbed his soldiers and was generally friendly with them.
Elizabeth I never had a child in secret. Honestly this one is just against common logic since the Queen was constantly surrounded by her courtiers and it was not uncommon for a lady-in-waiting to sleep within her chambers. This means that there is no way that the Queen could ever had had a child without anyone finding out.
Juan Borgia was not murdered by his brother, Cesare Borgia. Though it has long been the told story the myth is today denounced as false - instead it was almost certainly the Orsini family who was responsible for the death of Juan.
Nero did not play the fiddle while watching Rome burn. There is a very simple reason for this: the fiddle was not invented until 1500 years later. Officially he was not even in Rome at the time but with an insane Emperor there is a chance he might have been there.
Thomas Edison did not invent the light bulb. The British Sir Humphrey Davy had invented a method to create light using a carbon filament four decades earlier. The only thing the technicians of Thomas Edison did was to figure out a way to make it shine for a longer period of time but they did not invent it - Thomas Edison himself was nowhere near the entire product.
So there you go. For some reason these rumours has survived the edge of time despite their falseness. Perhaps we just want to believe something sensational about people we can never meet?
Reblogging because I’ve never heard the bee vibrator story about Cleopatra before - is this a thing?? (also, why would you need a vibrator powered by trapped bees when you have Mark Antony, I’m sorry. ;D)
so I happened to catch the first 40 minutes or so of The Dreamers a few weeks ago, and oh my goddddd the way Isabelle smiles at Matthew when revealing she’s not really chained to the railings; I can see how he was enchanted by her from that moment. I don’t know why I actually find Eva Green hotter when she’s playing sweet and girlish than when she’s playing the wicked vamp, but seriously, I can’t.
"Book dandies can be distinguished from conventional bibliophiles by their interest in the book as a harmonious aesthetic object. They regarded volumes as delicious symphonies of text, illustration and binding; their Holy Grail was a book in which these elements formed perfect unity. To them, books were beautiful works of art in themselves, rather than mere repositories of the text."
The other week I went to see Holy Warriors at the Globe, from which we can conclude that Richard the Lionheart is apparently responsible for everything that’s wrong in the Middle East today. Or something. But more seriously, I loved John Hopkins’ blunt, energetic Richard, and how little patience he had with Jolyon Coy’s elegant and courtly Philippe (though there was disappointingly little hint of their having been ex-boyfriends! but, oh, the dishonour and bruised pride in Richard’s voice when Philippe presses him to marry his sister the Countess of Vexin, and Richard reminds him that she’s already….familiar with his father). I was also really taken by the wilfulness of Eleanor of Aquitaine, how much she’s a force answerable only to herself, and the wisdom and grace of Saladin.
But I genuinely wished that it had been a straight-up history play; the section where Richard finds himself in the afterlife and then sees the future of the Middle East presumes a huge amount of knowledge on the part of the audience, in terms of who and what is being referred to, and it doesn’t really come to any conclusions as to how any of this could have been avoided. It’s all a bit wishy-washy. Whereas the historical part…..also presumed a lot of knowledge on the audience’s part (I shouldn’t have to go on Wikipedia to figure out that the rulers of Jerusalem are Queen Sibylla and I guess Guy de Lusignan?), but the interplay of all the different factions, and the ties between them, was absolutely fascinating.
I really want a proper TV series about this Crusade now, one which treats everyone involved with respect and understanding, and gives them all depth. (also one which brings in the Byzantines, because WHERE MY ANGELOI AT. To be honest I just want a portrayal of the Byzantine Empire on TV full stop; literally any point in their history would do.)
And I keep meaning to read Sharon Penman’s books about Richard, but the thing is, I also want to go through the Angevin pentalogy in order, even if (much as I love Matilda and think she was a total badass) my impatience to get to Richard makes it feel a bit like chomping through your vegetables in order to get to dessert. Maybe I can skip ahead and then circle back…..