Sometimes when I’m teaching ancient history to my undergraduate students, I like to ask them how the world today would be different if some key event in the past hadn’t happened. What if Julius Caesar had listened to his wife and not gone to meet with the Roman Senate on the Ides of March? What if Aristotle had decided to become a physician like his father rather than study at Plato’s Academy? What if Cleopatra had never been born? Of course, this sort of question isn’t very popular with professional historians since we tend—with good reason—to see vast cultural and economic forces shaping the fate of the world, rather than singular events. But still, it’s a fascinating question to ponder.
So, at the end of one recent class I asked the students what they thought would have happened to history if the Roman emperor Julian had not been killed by a random spear while fighting the Persians in 363? Having just studied the period, they knew that Julian was a talented and determined leader who was dedicated to eliminating the new religion of Christianity from any substantive role in Roman affairs. He had been raised a Christian himself, and could quote scripture like a bishop, but as a young man he had abandoned the family faith embraced by his uncle Constantine, and returned to the worship of the traditional Roman gods—earning him the label “Apostate” from his Christian enemies. When Julian became emperor just two years before the war on Persia, he launched an energetic campaign to revive the worship of the old gods of the classical world, along with causing as much trouble as he could for the Christians. Julian didn’t order violent persecutions of the Christian community, at least not at first, but he was rapidly moving in that direction when he died in Persia at the age of thirty-two. Perhaps only one in ten Romans were Christians when Julian began his rule, and most had little good to say about what they thought of as the misguided followers of a troublemaking Jewish rabbi crucified three centuries earlier. And so, I asked, if Julian had ruled another thirty or forty years, could he have succeeded in wiping out Christianity?
Some students said no: Christianity may have been a minority religion but it was well-organized and deeply embedded in Roman society by the time Julian ascended the throne. Others said yes: Julian was already having success in persuading, bribing, and threatening Christians to return to the ways of their ancestors while building up the ancient pagan temples and priesthoods. Others took a more nuanced approach and said Julian could never have eliminated Christianity entirely—but then again why would he need to if he could relegate it to the role of just another minor sect among many in the religious marketplace that was the Roman Empire?
They then asked what I thought. Being a professor I never like to give a simple answer when a complicated one will do, but in the end I said that I thought Julian could have reduced Christianity greatly if he had been allowed more time. With his fierce determination, brilliant mind, and vast imperial power, I think Julian could have reversed the growing influence of Christians in the Roman world and strengthened the old ways still followed by most Romans in his day. And if that had happened, I continued, the subsequent course of European if not world history would have been very different. There would have been no Crusades or Inquisition, no Augustine or Aquinas, no Martin Luther or Michelangelo. Whether the world would have been a better place or not, the students had varied opinions. But if the unknown Persian spearman had thrown just a few inches to one side and missed Julian, history indeed would have changed forever.
Philip Freeman is Fletcher Jones Chair and professor of the humanities at Pepperdine University. His books include Hannibal: Rome’s Greatest Enemy, Alexander the Great, and Julius Caesar.