This essay examining the military career of the last pagan emperor while he resided in Paris is included in my most recent book The Modern Salonnière. The 34 other essays in the book feature similar literary adventures and essays about traveling with intention.
The Paris of a Pagan
Striding along the same path a man trod during the fourth century brings a visceral understanding of history that is impossible to glean from books or historical documents, as helpful as they may be. All you need to do to test the theory is approach the Thermes de Cluny from the direction of the Petit-Pont. Once a bustling Roman bath at the now outrageously busy corner of the Boulevards Saint-Michel and Saint-Germain in Paris, the jagged remnants look remarkably primitive attached as they are to the medieval mansion holding the Musée national du Moyen Âge. Though powerful, the ruins only hint at what was once an imposing structure. Battered by destructive revolts during civil wars in ancient times, and further diminished by weather and time, pieces of the original walls rise today because visionaries have made it their mission to reconstruct what they can of the original complex.
The U-shaped fragment connected to the museum reads like a primordial throne large enough to accommodate Zeus if he were inclined to visit, and the crumbling L-shaped extensions cling to a statuesque cavern known as a frigidarium, which held the cold pool before the complex was destroyed. The bricks that make up these architectural artifacts have whiled away their time on this corner since sometime between the first and second centuries A.D. During their heyday, the residents of Paris, then known as Lutetia, enjoyed a spa-like experience within the complex that was de rigueur when the Romans dominated Europe.
My interest in the baths were piqued when I read about a maligned Roman emperor, Julian the Apostate, and found several references connecting him to the Thermes. One is a fanciful etching of him being carried through the statuesque spaces on a shield as his soldiers declared him sole Augustus; the other is a claim that he frequented the popular baths in the description of a painting on the Tate Museum site. According to the Scottish Byzantinist Robert Browning, who wrote The Emperor Julian, the baths would have been destroyed by attacks during civil unrest a century before Julian arrived.
This illustrates one of the challenges the internet age brings to the independent researcher—what sources can be trusted to render history accurately? Though the complex was no longer functioning as a bath, the remnants of the buildings still exist so I do believe Julian must have passed by the collection of ruins at least once when he crossed the river from his command center on the Île-de-la-Cité to the Left Bank. The headquarters he inhabited on the island are described by a historical guide to Paris as “a robust fortress surrounded by ramparts” at the time. The building wouldn’t morph into a palace until the tenth-century when it was enlarged and improved by the Capetians, since then known as the Palais de la Cité.
I decided to walk to the Thermes from where the old fortress would have been in order to comprehend how small the footprint of the city was when Julian was its leader. I began my journey at the corner where the maps of Roman Paris situate the building beneath the modern-day complex that holds the Conciergerie, the Palais de Justice, and Sainte-Chapelle. To imitate the only route he could have taken since the Petit-Pont was the only bridge between the island and the Left Bank then, I traversed the river across it and walked up Rue Saint-Jacques to Boulevard Saint-Germain. As I turned the corner to approach the ruins, I thought about what a different urban-scape Julian would have been carried through in 360 A.D. when his men raised him on a shield to coronate him as Augustus and paraded him through the streets. There would have been no glut of traffic, no horns blaring their frustrations. And the Metro that shudders to a halt at the Cluny-La Sorbonne stop beneath the museum couldn’t have been imagined by the contingent.
Spying the ragged walls just beyond the medieval garden, splayed as they are toward the fence hemming the property, I saluted the artifacts that are so unapologetic in their ruination they seem grandly arrogant. The architectural gems would have been completely 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 of the residence so he used parts of the old structure to support the new one—a frugal move that bestowed a blessing on lovers of ancient architecture.
When the grand townhouse was finished in 1510, it was christened the Hôtel de Cluny, and served as the abbot’s home when he was in town and housed the monks he oversaw. The building didn’t become the Musée national du Moyen Âge until 1843 when Alexandre du Sommerard, who owned the mansion from 1833 to 1842, bequeathed it to the city to serve as a venue for the medieval artifacts he had avidly collected.
Entering the museum’s courtyard is like sliding through the looking glass, the feel of otherworldliness enhanced by a dilapidated well with a half-eaten-away gargoyle gaping at its edge. The string of spaces on the first floor are dimly lit to protect the artifacts within them, which makes it a bit of a shock to step from the close-knit warren of rooms into the immense frigidarium, the only fully-constructed space that would have been in the original Gallo-Roman complex.
The cavernous room is chilling even without the coolness of the pool glinting in its center due to its scale and the fact that the bricks composing its walls would have witnessed so many primitive acts as the city was conquered, ransacked, rebuilt, and conquered again. In antiquity, Gaul was overseen by a succession of foreign leaders, including Julian, a Caesar of Rome. Deciding to participate in the treasonous act of declaring himself Emperor was one of the most momentous occasions in his life. According to Julian, his soldiers urged him to accept their nomination as the sole Augustus, a position held by his cousin Constantius II at the time.
The Roman leader had sent Julian to the territory expecting he would die along the way due to his inexperience as a man of war, which must have made the fact that he was successful at battling the Roman Empire’s foes surprising to his cousin. Given the brutality of the skirmishes he fought, it’s no wonder he chose to sequester himself in the fortress in Lutetia, which he declared was one of his favorite places, between battles. The pagan would spend several contented winters in the building polishing his rhetorical 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 Julius 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 when he set his sights on becoming the ruler. Most often, he is referred to as Julian the Apostate because he was the last pagan emperor to ever hold power, his predilection for worshiping the Greek gods developed when he was classically educated in Athens. But he would have to conceal his loyalty to Hellenism because Christianity had become the accepted religion of the day by then.
As a fan of mythology living during a time when our cultural mores lack the superstitions of that age, the word pagan is fascinating to me in this context. That’s because mythology has lost so much of its power in educated circles during the sixteen centuries since Julian was forced to hide his respect for the Greek gods. 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 battles that made him a successful military man. G. W. Bowersock, who wrote Julian the Apostate, says the Emperor was tremendously good 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 for the mythic panoply, the pagan proclaimed, “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 father figures. He had survived a seriously traumatic childhood during which most of his family, including both of his parents, were slaughtered by the cousin whose throne he was usurping, Constantius II.
One of the fascinating angles of his story is that had he been transparent about his pagan beliefs, instead of crowning him Augustus that evening, his soldiers would have hunted him down and locked him up, or worse. It was clever of him to blame these legions of men he oversaw for his betrayal in the end, but even if his claim that his soldiers were responsible for insisting he be coronated was true, he certainly did not resist their urgings. Scholars maintain that Julian manufactured the claim that his soldiers pressured him, along with a host of others, in his quest to hide the fact that he had participated in the eventual overthrow of his cousin.
He did so through a letter-writing campaign that manipulated the story, the truth coming out as scholars far enough removed from that era began to look for clarity. His desire to rewrite his own narrative is nothing new, of course: it’s a human trait to want one’s life-story to present oneself in the best light. This is particularly so when the ego is as aggressive as it is in power-hungry men—as we know all too well given our current political climate.
Historians do not doubt that Julian was intelligent, but he is seen as a failure by many biographers, not only as a Roman Emperor but as a Greek philosopher. That said, his story is seen as 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 proclaimed that the pagan 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.”
The spell cast by my reverie was suddenly broken when a child’s gleeful shouts reverberated in the space as she raced around the unfurnished room. I wasn’t sure how long I had stood there immersed in ancient politics but I knew it was time to rejoin modernity. As I exited the museum, I thought of the cheers that would have wafted toward the heavens 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 Phrygia, a Persian city in modern-day Turkey. Libanius, one of his few true friends, wrote Julian’s funeral speech. The Greek teacher of rhetoric honored his fellow pagan by calling him out as a defender of gods and converser with gods—high praise for a lover of Hellenism.
Proving how fickle humanity can be is the fact that it was only a few centuries before he was scorned for his pagan beliefs that Christianity was considered the illegal movement. What a difference several hundred years can make when the map of history is drawn! Browning summed up Julian’s predicament so eloquently in his epilogue to the pagan Emperor’s story: “In a sense all historical figures are tragic for us, since we know what was for them unknowable—the future.”
The Paris of a Pagan © Saxon Henry, all rights reserved. Saxon is an author, journalist, poet, and strategist whose books include The Modern Salonnière, Anywhere But Here, Stranded on the Road to Promise, and Four Florida Moderns.