Life is a paradoxical affair at the corner of Boulevards Saint-Michel and Saint-Germain. Uber drivers dressed in tailored suits whiz through the intersection in sleek Mercedes just yards away from an assemblage of ragged walls nearly 20 centuries old. Pocked with scraggy arches, they splay toward the streets—unapologetic in their dilapidation.
The U-shaped structure reads like a primordial throne large enough to accommodate Zeus were he inclined to visit. The crumbling L-shaped extensions cling to a restored portion of the complex, which was once an ancient Roman bath. The statuesque cavern was the frigidarium, which held the cold pool in this artifact known as the Thermes de Cluny. The ruins have whiled away their time on this corner since the third century when Paris was known as Lutetia.
They would have been demolished in 1485 had Jacques d’Amboise, the Abbot of Cluny who built the medieval mansion that now adjoins them, not felt the need to be fiscally responsible. Dismantling the baths would have added an exorbitant amount to the construction costs so he used parts of the old structure to support the new one. Lovers of historic architecture were bestowed a great blessing with his decision to be freugal. When the grand townhouse was finished in 1510, the Hôtel de Cluny became his pied-a-terre when he was required to visit the abbey. Leave it to the French during the anicen régime to see a stately residence of this size as modest accommodations!
In 1843, the complex became the Musée national du Moyen Âge, its rooms filled with artifacts collected by Alexandre du Sommerard, the owner of the mansion from 1833 to 1842. The museum is entered through one of the main doors of the residence at the edge of a courtyard that holds an ancient-looking well with a half-eaten-away gargoyle gaping at its edge. The string of spaces on the first floor serve as an introduction to medieval relics that tell a piece of France’s history. By necessity, they are dimly lit, which makes it a bit of a shock to step from the close-knit spaces into the immense frigidarium.
The original Gallo-Roman complex would have also featured a caldarium and a tepidarium, the three spaces completing a spa-like series of experiences de rigueur in the early Middle Ages. Only about a third of it remains, and even though the pool no longer glints in the center of the cavernous space, it is chilling to stand within it given its scale and the fact that the bricks composing its walls witnessed a remarkable moment in history.
The event was among the late fiascoes of classical antiquity, a story that proves how fickle humanity has always been. The mythic narrative involves the coronation of Julian the Apostate in 360 A.D. when the general’s soldiers carried him through the Thermes on a shield and declared him Augustus. By participating in the coup, he was thumbing his nose at his cousin Constintius II, who held the title at the time.
Julian was in Lutetia because Constintius had made him Caesar of Gaul, a position he held from 355 until that evening in 360 when his soldiers elevated his position, both literally and figuratively. During his tenure, he would spend two winters in the city, holed up in the old fortress known then as the Palais de la Cité. He was sequestered in the castle in between campaigns to thwart barbarians trying to capture portions of the Roman Empire, polishing his rhetoric skills and reading two books he saw as the perfect manuals to prepare him for a career as a great leader—Plutarch’s Lives and Caesar’s Commentaries.
His desire to rule wasn’t far-fetched. He was royalty, though it was the bloodline of his uncle Constantine the Great rather than his father’s that occupied the throne. He was classically educated and had studied in Athens for a time, the influence of this exposure to Hellenism and the ideas of his tutors showing up in the beliefs that would make him the last pagan emperor to ever hold power. As a fan of mythology who lives in a mind-set so opposite the superstitions of that time, the word pagan is fascinating to me in that it has lost so much of its power during the sixteen centuries since Julian was forced to hide his respect for the Greek gods.
Standing in the frigidarium surrounded by the primitive masonry, I wonder what would have been going through his mind as he was carried through the string of rooms on his way to be crowned. He must have been cunning to be able to keep the fact that he was not a Christian under wraps as he guided his armies through the skirmishes that made him a successful military man. In his book Julian the Apostate, G. W. Bowersock says Julian was an ace at publicly playing a worshiper of Christ while privately bowing to the pagan gods, and not just for a short period of time but for a decade.
This predilection is evident in his letters, which are peppered with phrases like “Zeus be my witness,” and “how, in the name of Zeus, did you behave?” About his admiration, he proclaims, “I feel awe of the gods. I love, I revere, I venerate them and in short have precisely the same feelings toward them as one would have towards kind masters or teachers or fathers or guardians or any beings of that sort.”
It’s no surprise he would have been looking for a father figure, as the Scottish Byzantinist Robert Browning points out he had survived a childhood that would have turned most men into cynics if not psychopaths. He was certainly shrewd: had he been transparent about his beliefs, his soldiers would not have honored him in the coronation that took place here; they would have been hunting him down and killing him. He actually claimed that he was pursued that evening; that a number of his officers busted down the door to his Lutetia quarters and carried him to the Thermes for his crowning.
Bowersock maintains that Julian manufactured this detail and a host of others in order to hide the fact that he participated in the eventual overthrow of his cousin. This is such a strong example of history being manipulated by a letter-writing campaign because the tactical thinkers who wrote them (he also enlisted friends to further the ruse) did sway opinions for quite some time. But, in spite of his intelligence, Browning says Julian was an utter failure, not only as a Roman Emperor but as a Greek philosopher. That said, scholars agree that his story is a valuable one because he left a thorough account of the struggle that defined his times. And even with as dire an opinion as Browning had of his legacy, he maintains the man had grit: “His character possessed a nobility that makes him shine out like a beacon among the time-servers and trimmers who so often surrounded him.”
I sometimes ask myself why I am compelled to spend so much time and effort delving into history in this way and the answer is always the same: having access to a building in which proof exists that such a far-gone event played out is an opportunity to experience context like no other. To be able to tread on stones over which a man so far back in time strode is simply mind-blowing because the exposure creates a dynamic that is impossible to glean from historical drawings, as helpful as they are. All you need to do to test the theory is look at a map and then walk the route.
Comprehending how small the footprint of Paris was during Julian’s time would be difficult to do otherwise, which is why I wound my way along the route he would have taken from the Île de la Cité, where he would have been ensconced during his visits to town, to the Thermes. The palace that existed as he read the books he hoped would make him a great leader no longer exists but its footprint would have been somewhere beneath the modern-day complex that holds the Conciergerie, the Palais de Justice and Sainte-Chapelle.
To come as close to his route to the Thermes as I could, I set off from the corner of the compound where the maps of Roman Paris situate the old palace, and traverse the river across the Petit-Pont, which would have been the only bridge between the island and the Left Bank then. I walk up Rue Saint-Jacques to Boulevard Saint-Germain and turn the corner to approach the ruins, marveling at the fact that Julian would have been urged along at night and through quite a different urban-scape than the one I am moving through in 2018. There would have been no glut of traffic, no horns blaring their frustration. Torches would have lit their way rather than streetlights. And the Metro that shudders to a halt at the Cluny-La Sorbonne stop beneath the museum would have been a shock to his system for sure.
I entered the museum thinking how ironic it is that he was reading the works of Caesar in the hopes of emulating him while seeming to have shared more personality traits with Brutus. I wonder if he recognized the fact as he read this anecdote about the man who murdered his hero in Plutarch’s Lives: “As he was about to take his army across from Abydos to the other continent, he was lying down at night, as his custom was, in his tent, not sleeping, but thinking of the future; for it is said that of all generals Brutus was least given to sleep, and that he naturally remained awake a longer time than anybody else.”
I am curious because Julian writes this about his own state of mind: “Sleepless nights on straw and a diet that is anything but filling make my character austere and an enemy to a luxurious city.” Statements like this and his letters show him to be a caustic man, though a clever one, as is proven by an argument he had in a letter he wrote to an unnamed official. He chided the man for comparing him to the mythological goddess Echo, pointing out that her utterances were “only the sound of the voice answering back when the air is struck, and bent back upon that which is opposite the ear that hears it.” Whereas his missives, he tells the guy, “lead off sweetly” and return “like for like” as though he has thrown back a ball.
The tall space I stand within suddenly reverberates with a child’s gleeful shouts as she races around the unfurnished room. The spell that had shunted me into the past is broken and I leave the Thermes thinking of the cheers that would have wafted toward the vaulted ceiling the evening Julian took his first step in elevating himself to sole Augustus. He would rule for only 19 months before being mortally wounded in a battle in Ctesiphon, a Persian city in modern-day Iraq. One of his few friends, Libanius, wrote Julian’s funeral speech. The Greek teacher of rhetoric honors his fellow pagan by calling him out as a defender of gods and converser with gods—high praise for a lover of Hellenism.
For a leader of the Roman empire of Julian’s time, his devotion to Greek deities was an affront to Christians, and this is the fickle aspect of human nature I alluded to earlier: Christianity had been considered an illegal movement only a few centuries before Julian was scorned for his beliefs. Browning summed up his predicament so beautifully in his epilogue to the Emperor’s story: “In a sense all historical figures are tragic for us, since we know what was for them unknowable—the future.”
The Modern Salonnière and Echoes of History © Saxon Henry, all rights reserved. Saxon is an author, poet and strategist whose books include Anywhere But Here, Stranded on the Road to Promise and Four Florida Moderns. She is the co-founder of Sharktooth Press. You can see recommendations for books from many of her posts on her Amazon Influencer page and find her essays on Medium.