Skip to Content
You are here:Home/Research/ Byzantine Studies/ Podcast/ Episode 9: Emperor and Galilean with Drs. Brad Boswell, Matthew R. Crawford, and Anna Stavrakopoulou

Episode 9: Emperor and Galilean with Drs. Brad Boswell, Matthew R. Crawford, and Anna Stavrakopoulou

For our October podcast, we were joined by Drs. Brad Boswell (Duke University), Matthew R. Crawford (Australian Catholic University), and Anna Stavrakopoulou (Dumbarton Oaks) for a discussion of “Emperor and Galilean,” an oversized 1873 historical play by Henrik Ibsen in two parts and ten acts, which has at its center the Byzantine emperor Julian, also known as Julian the Apostate, who reigned from 361 to 363 CE.

Anna Stavrakopoulou: Welcome to the 9th episode of The Dumbarton Oaks Byzantine podcast series. I am Anna Stavrakopoulou, the program director in Byzantine Studies at Dumbarton Oaks from October 2018 to August 2021. This is our last podcast of the first season and it is a pleasure and an honor to be joined today by Matthew Crawford.

Matt Crawford: Hi, I’m Matt Crawford.

Anna: And Brad Boswell.

Brad Boswell: Hi, I’m Brad Boswell.

Anna: We will be discussing Emperor and Galilean, an oversized 1873 historical play by Henrik Ibsen in two parts and ten acts, which has at its epicenter the Byzantine Emperor Julian, who reigned from 361 to 363 Common Era, also known as Julian the Apostate.

Matthew R. Crawford is an associate professor at Australian Catholic University, where he serves as director of the Program in Biblical and Early Christian Studies in the Institute for Religion and Critical Inquiry. He’s the author of numerous articles and two books, most recently The Eusebian Canon Tables: Ordering Textual Knowledge in Late Antiquity, published by Oxford University Press in 2019.

He is currently engaged in the joint project to produce the first-ever English translation of Cyril of Alexandria’s treatise Against Julian, for which he received a Discovery Early Career Researcher Award from the Australian Research Council.

Brad Boswell received his PhD in early Christianity from Duke University’s Graduate Program in Religion in 2021. He is currently an associate in research at Duke Divinity School. His current book project explores the exegetical, theological, and philosophical aspects of Christian-pagan polemics in Cyril of Alexandria's Against Julian and the eponymous Emperor Julian the Apostate’s Against the Galileans. He has articles on Julian and Cyril forthcoming in the Journal of Early Christian Studies and Studia Patristica.

Our guests will be discussing: How familiar was Ibsen with the historical sources? Has he altered the facts? For instance, was Julian as rigid and arrogant according to the sources as he is presented, especially in Part 2, where he is on the imperial throne?

After studying Julian in the historical record, what is it like reading Ibsen’s version of Julian? Are there any connections between Emperor and Galilean and the realistic plays that followed, which made Ibsen the first playwright ever to be translated in multiple languages during his lifetime? What is the effect of the play on the 21st-century reader?

Today we will be discussing Emperor and Galilean, a monumental historical tragedy by Henrik Ibsen, with Matt Crawford and Brad Boswell.

Ibsen, 1828–1906, was a stellar pioneer of modernism in the European theatre, with a lasting impact throughout the 20th and 21st century. He is the first playwright ever who achieved international fame during his lifetime, despite the fact that he wrote in Norwegian, a language spoken by 1.4 million people in Ibsen's lifetime.

He spent 27 years living in Italy and Germany, from 1864 to 1891, where he composed both epic plays like Brand and Peer Gynt, as well as pathbreaking, bourgeois dramas with marital hardships at their epicenter.

His plays, especially the realistic ones, were translated into more than 15 languages before his death in 1906, and have mesmerized audiences globally ever since, having been translated into 80 languages.

Although theatergoers are very familiar with The Doll’s House, Ghosts, An Enemy of the People, The Wild Duck, or Hedda Gabler, Ibsen’s favorite play, his cardinal work, as he called it, was Emperor and Galilean, a historical tragedy in two parts, written between 1871 and 1873, while he spent a few years before doing historical research, and acquainting himself with the 4th century AD, and the political tribulations of the Eastern Roman Empire.

Now I would like to invite Matt and Brad to give us a summary of the two parts of the play.

Brad: Let me first say thank you just to Anna and Judy for inviting us. It’s an honor to be here. Can I say a quick word about where this started first, background for our audience? Matt and I were at Dumbarton Oaks in the fall of 2019, the last full semester before the COVID-19 pandemic. We were there to be working together. I was working on my dissertation, Matt was on my committee, my external reader in from Australia.

We were working on the text by the bishop Cyril of Alexandria from the 5th century, a Christian bishop. He had written this long, long polemical refutation of Emperor Julian, sometimes known as Julian the Apostate. We were there to work on Cyril’s text, but, of course, intertwined in this refutation is of course trying to understand Julian and what he was about, and working with Anna was, she realized, “Well, there’s this incredible play that Henrik Ibsen had written about Julian.”

We decided to get together and read the play over this semester. It was really a wonderful conversation, putting the historical studies that we were doing, the literary studies from late antiquity in conversation with Anna’s work on Ibsen. All that to say that’s behind this. Thank you, Anna, for bringing that together in the first hand, and for coming back around to the podcast. That’s been a lot of fun.

To Emperor and Galilean, maybe I’ll do the first five acts. There’s ten total, it’s a quite a lengthy play. The first five goes under the title of Caesar’s Apostasy. There’s Julian the Apostate, as he’s recorded through much of history.

It begins with Julian in Constantinople at Easter, and it progresses over these five acts through his itinerancy through many parts of the empire studying, trying to find his place on the edges (to start with) at the imperial court.

He’s, in Ibsen’s portrayal, a fairly zealous and authentic Christian to start with, but he also is dissatisfied with different pieces of the way that Christianity and the empire are coming together. He ends up studying in a variety of places, in Athens, Ephesus, and is increasingly interested in several of the students of Neoplatonism—Ibsen doesn’t name it as such, but compared to the historical record, there’s a lot of Plotinus and especially Iamblichus of Chalcis.

As he’s passing through these many stages of growth and of understanding, he’s becoming less and less satisfied with Christianity. This intensifies when he becomes caesar. He’s made Emperor Constantius’s caesar, and he’s sent to the western frontier, to Gaul, to put down some of the rebellions along the border there. He succeeds against all odds, and it’s increasingly apparent that he was sent there probably to fail, maybe to accomplish some things, but he was really set up in a lot of ways to fail.

The more successful he is, the more he evokes both jealousy and worry from Constantius the emperor, and so we have this looming crisis on the political front, and it’s mirrored by these internal shifts and even a crisis at several points for Julian, religiously with respect to Christianity—there’s all kinds of signs that are trying to be interpreted, we should come back to that.

It doesn’t quite conclude. Act 4, just to get back into the flow of the play, Act 4, we have this famous moment from history, from the historical record where Julian is acclaimed by his troops as emperor in Gaul. He has all these victories and there’s several reasons that the troops become dissatisfied with Constantius, who’s off in the east fighting on the Persian frontier. They say, “Well, we’re going to make Julian, also emperor.”

This creates a crisis point of sorts. Julian’s having to decide is he going to accept this? How is he going to angle it? Because this is, in some ways, open rebellion against Constantius. That’s Act 4 of five in these first five acts, and then Act 5 culminates—again, we’ve had the political web set, [Act] 5 culminates back in the religious side. Julian is in some ways deciding is he going to fully commit to this rival system, this rival way of seeing the world, understanding his place with respect to the gods, or is he going to somehow try and incorporate Christianity and the Roman Empire? It ends in this quite dramatic climax where they read a rite of initiation in one of the ancient mystery cults that it’s his way of casting off the baptism of his youth, of embracing this other trajectory and this other destiny that he’s come to believe he has for the empire. That’s the first five. Matt, do you want to take the next five and how it develops from there?

Matt: Yes, the second play is titled Emperor Julian. At this point, Julian is emperor of the Roman Empire. Act 1 opens with Julian in Constantinople, the capital city in the east, standing by the water as Constantius’s coffin, the former emperor’s coffin, is being brought into the city. He’s there and he’s in mourning for the now-deceased emperor, which is a great thing for him of course, because he became sole emperor without having to fight the bloody civil war that was in the offing.

It begins with Julian in Constantinople then transitions to the palace. You get a sense in Act 1 of Julian interacting with his courtiers and advisors. He then begins to enact this program to restore traditional Greco-Roman religious practice, what we might call paganism for lack of a better term. Julian, even there, as he’s receiving Constantius’s coffin, begins sacrificing to the gods in a traditional manner.

Later on in Act 1, he engages in a Dionysian procession. What you see really quickly in Act 1 is Julian being dissatisfied with this new course. He’s essentially finally got what he wanted, both the empire and freedom to embrace the religious views that he wants to. It’s just not satisfying to him at all.

Essentially, what the second play, the last five acts amount to is Julian slowly unravelling to the point of even losing his sanity by the end of the play. He’s not happy with the Dionysian procession and, by the end of Act 1, even decides to leave Constantinople because it’s not what he thought it would be.

In Act 2, he then, like the historical Julian, transitions to the city of Antioch, where he intends to make his base going forward. The scene, the act opens again in Julian having success as a judge in Antioch, acting as the emperor should, but again, quickly, things begin to unravel. So you have Gregory of Nazianzus, [who] shows up as an ambassador for a group of Christians who are not happy with Julian’s new religious program and are beginning to react, and even to react with violence against that.

As that act moves on, there begins to be violence and unrest even in the city of Antioch itself between Christians and non-Christians. And then, an important detail of this point is that among those Christians in Antioch is someone by the name of Agathon from earlier in the play, who now returns, a childhood friend of Julian, who shows back up in Antioch at this point.

Then Act 2 ends with this climactic moment where Julian is preparing to sacrifice in the Temple of Apollo in Daphne on the outskirts of Antioch, and as he does so—a slight departure from the historical record, but as he does so, an aged Christian bishop shows up and pronounces a woe upon him. As a result, the entire temple falls to ruins right there before Julian.

Julian’s response is to turn right around and say, “Well, then I’m going to rebuild the Temple in Jerusalem to prove that Jesus was wrong.” What you’ll begin to see from this point on is an increasing conflict between Julian and Jesus specifically, it really is Christ who is in his sights as the one that is the source of his frustration, and this just becomes more and more apparent.

In Act 3, there’s more and more unrest in Antioch, not just with Christians, but with Libanius and the city council; things are again spinning out of control for Julian. By the end of Act 3, he’s really distraught, the rebuilding of the Temple in Jerusalem has come to naught and isn’t going forward. At the end of Act 3, he has another conversation with his advisor, Maximus the Mystic, and in response to these repeated failures, decides to invade Persia, despite his earlier plans not to do so.

In Act 4, we find Julian in Persia, again, things are going well at first. Julian, as he’s having some success, is also having flights of grandeur to the point of even embracing his own identity as being somehow divine. Importantly, in Act 4 along the way to Persia, there’s this detour through this territory where, lo and behold, the Christians Basil and Macrina, brother and sister, have a dwelling, in an ascetic community and Julian decides to take them captive with him and carry them with him to Persia, which is an interesting touch to the play that maybe we’ll come back to.

Again, by the end of Act 4, things are just not going well for Julian. He’s burning the ships and as he does so, almost in a divine-like manic frenzy, commanding the winds to come up and cause the flames to grow as the ships burn, even as he finds out that the intelligence that he was relying on that made that seem like a good course of action was in fact entirely false and he’s been dreadfully fooled by the Persians. Things are not going as well for him as they seem.

In Act 5, again, things are really spinning out of control at this point. Julian is suicidal, he’s having visions, we can’t quite tell whether they're real or simply in his own mind. Then Agathon, the childhood friend who had showed up in Antioch, the Christian, in fact, is among the Christian soldiers in Julian’s army. In the midst of pitched battle at daybreak between the Persians and the Romans, Agathon takes the opportunity to thrust the spear in Julian’s side, none other than the spear with which Christ himself was stabbed by the soldier, a nice poetic touch there.

The last scene where the play ends, we have Julian on his deathbed surrounded by close friends and advisors and Julian dies and that’s where the play ends.

Anna: Thank you very much for the summary of this huge play. Now, Julian as a historical character was rather trendy in the 19th century, and several other plays were inspired by his life. Despite the fact that this is the least, one of the least-staged Ibsen plays, in this podcast today, we will be discussing the historical accuracy, the interpretation of the sources by Ibsen, the particular light he’s shedding on Julian, and the points of contact between this play and his internationally acclaimed, realistic plays.

I would like to start with the question, now that we have an idea about the content, what is based on historical evidence and what is fiction in this play?

Brad: Thanks, Anna. That’s a fantastic question. The historical Julian, we actually have a remarkable amount of evidence about him, both from his own pen, quite a few orations and letters have survived that he himself wrote, but then there’s also several contemporary or near-contemporary accounts.

One of the remarkable things for me reading Ibsen’s play and then going to look at some of the historical record that we have about Julian is how informed Ibsen was with a wide variety of these sources, both from Julian himself and from others. Just to give one example, one of the most full sources that we have about Julian’s life is from the historian Ammianus Marcellinus, who wrote a long history. Part of it’s been lost, but the central sections on Julian spanning several books have survived and reading Ammianus beside Ibsen was just a lot of fun because Ibsen’s done a lot more than just pick up the general contours of Julian’s life.

He’s done a lot more than just pick up that he was in Constantinople and Athens and Ephesus. He’s actually read very carefully what Ammianus is doing, little details. I mentioned earlier that one of the fun things about the play is a lot of the signs that show up. According to Ammianus, there’s this moment where Julian gets word—partially this is while he’s deciding what is he going to do in terms of trying to move up the empire to become emperor.

There’s these two signs about a shield breaking in a hand and then about someone trying to get onto a horse and falling off, and he interprets these as signs that basically he’s destined, that his progress is guaranteed towards emperor, that’s in Ammianus. As you’re reading along in Ibsen, well, what do you know? These moments where Julian recounts hearing these signs. Really in a lot of ways, Ibsen gets into granular detail of some of the historical record.

That’s fun to see how informed he is. It’s also fun to see what’s fiction. It’s also the extent to which he really knew Ammianus and some of these other sources really allows to bring into relief what Ibsen has done creatively. If you can track all these places that he has followed, or at least used creatively Ammianus, you can then also see where he’s gone off-book. Matt has already given one example of Basil and Macrina showing up late in the play. There’s fun questions we could ask about why does Ibsen do that? What role do they play?

Another question that we should probably get into at some point is Julian’s reasons for his conversion. This is a historical question. How do we talk about Julian’s early life raised as a Christian and then his eventual writings? Ibsen has got a lot of explanation about, in Julian’s mind, what’s going on with himself. There’s a lot of improvisation, let’s maybe say rather than even fiction, improvisation that Ibsen has.

The other place that I’ll point to and then I’ll stop talking and let Matt get in here, where Ibsen has been creative is in a lot of the classic historical quandaries about what went on with Julian. One of them is his acclamation as emperor in Gaul. There are questions about the extent to which his machinations are behind it, he’s striving for this or questions about whether, as a contemplative philosopher wannabe, he had this forced on him and he took it up out of a sense of duty. Ibsen has his own way of explaining and reconciling that.

On the final campaign in Persia there’s this classic problem of, Julian does this, to historical eyes, this crazy thing of burning his whole fleet of ships, which he’s been bringing up the river with supplies as he’s on this assault. There’s this question, why in the world would you do that? It ends up contributing to the utter disaster of this campaign. Not only does Julian die at the end, but the Roman Empire has to cede huge swathes of land to Persia in order to negotiate a kind of peace and to let the remaining parts of the army retreat after Julian has died.

There are different suggestions in the historical record about why this happened, and Ibsen seems to have incorporated several of those, but he’s also improvising in providing this really creative and interesting explanation for why would someone like Julian, given the kind of character he is, the kind of aspirations he has, why would he do this? I’ll stop there and let Matt get in here.

Matt: Yes, I think Brad’s absolutely right. One of the impressive things about reading the play is the degree to which Ibsen is drawing on actual historical material. It’s not clear, at least it’s not clear to me, to what degree he’s actually read these sources or is he perhaps relying on other mediating sources, or other modern literature that’s passed this along to him, but nonetheless—if you trace the stories and some of the sayings that he includes back to their ancient sources, it’s clear that he’s drawing upon the 5th-century Church historians: Sozomen, Socrates, Rufinus, even.

It seems that he’s drawing upon Eunapius, who is a very influential late 4th/early 5th-century Neoplatonic biographer, who wrote a large collection of Neoplatonic biographies and Ibsen seems to be drawing on him.

Ammianus, of course, as Brad has already said, but at least two other sources that I’d mention or highlight here. One is Libanius, who is a close friend of Julian in the time in Antioch, confidant at least, and also Julian’s own writings. There are passages in the play where Ibsen seems to be channeling Julian’s own words pretty accurately, in fact. There’s real grounding in the ancient sources and Ibsen’s doing creative work with them.

Sometimes there’s of course, I guess, simplification, which is just necessary for the transference to this new format. For example, Ibsen has Julian going from Constantinople to Athens to Ephesus and then on to Gaul, and instead his route seems to have been from Pergamum, to Ephesus, probably to Milan but then to Athens and into Gaul so it’s a bit more complicated and he’s changing some of the routes and then conflating some figures as well.

Libanius in the play shows up early in Julian’s life, not as an orator as we as scholars know him today, but as a philosopher instead. He’s sort of an amalgamation of two philosophers that Julian in the historical record was studying with in Pergamum before going on to Ephesus to meet Maximus. In the play, all of this happens in Athens with respect to Libanius instead. There’s some conflation and simplification that’s going on. Nonetheless, I think it’s impressive just how much Ibsen is aware of the sources and deploying them in a really creative and fun and insightful way.

Anna: Great. Out of curiosity, you described the Part 2 before, and in Part 2, he’s presented more and more as rigid and arrogant. I was wondering, is this in the sources or did Ibsen concoct this version of Julian?

Brad: Yes, that’s a great question. In some ways, I think an open question, even to the historical record. This is the kind of thing that has made Julian perennially such a fascinating character. You can trace—there’s scholars who have traced the afterlives of Julian, basically from the moment he died up until the present day, he inspires all these questions.

I think there’s evidence in the historical record that Ibsen’s conceivably building on for that kind of portrayal. Just to go back to Ammianus, he tries to have an even hand when he’s dealing with not just Julian but with other emperor figures throughout his history. He says well, here's their good things and here’s their bad things. He says a few things that would probably, could easily be strung together to match this portrayal that Ibsen has.

On the other hand, one of the interesting things even about Ammianus in studies of him over the last couple of decades is he’s writing a history but it’s still an act of backward-looking rhetorical construction. He has his own interests. He’s writing after Julian has died, and after this attempt at a turning back of the empire, or at least in its religious and philosophical underpinnings. He’s writing after that’s happened and it is failed pretty clearly after Julian is dead.

This is again, a lot of the questions that a figure like Julian inspires. I think Ibsen gives a compelling version or plausible version of it. Adjudicating the historical data is, it’s part of what makes it fun to study Julian.

Matt: Yes, I could come in there and add just a couple of things. I think if we were wanting to be as fair as possible to Julian, we’d have to point out that Ibsen’s leaving out some important points towards the end. For example, Julian definitely does have early on a significant degree of military success in the Persian invasion, captures a number of cities and fortresses, even has a successful assault on the Persian capital itself. Ibsen leaves that out entirely.

There’s also, just to be clear, no clear evidence that Julian lost his mind at the end to the degree to which Ibsen portrays him and so I don’t think that’s fair to Julian as like a reading of the sources. It’s a creative reading, of course, it makes for good drama. I understand why Ibsen did it. I think in terms of the drama, or the narrative of the play, Anna, to your question, part of what’s going on in that last act is a continuation of a theme you see early on, just increasingly intensified, and that is the degree to which Julian seems to be unable to control the circumstances in which he’s operating.

Part of what’s literally driving him mad in those last acts is the fact that so many people are not on board with this religious reform program. He’s facing serious opposition from Christian, you might call them fanatics or zealots or people who are happy to be martyred for their faith, and he just can’t comprehend this, or he does comprehend it and he hates it, which is perhaps maybe that’s the better description. He’s running out of options increasingly as the play moves along, and I think that’s maybe a slightly more sympathetic way of presenting the kind of arrogant Julian towards the end of the play. Though, there’s no denying that it reaches really absurd heights, towards the end, he’s definitely declaring himself to be a god. As I said earlier, commanding the wind to obey him in a manner not unlike Christ himself. He’s definitely got grandiose visions, but for Julian, this is all a response to the circumstances and opposition that he’s faced, that’s really reducing the options that he has for him for acting in the play.

Brad: Let’s dig into one of these themes that plays between Ibsen’s version and the historical record. Matt, and I have, while working, talked about this, but I’d love for you to tell us a little bit, Matt, about the Julian of the play and the Julian of history and the rejection of Christianity.

Again, it’s very clear in the play, Ibsen develops this line about why Julian has come to this point and turns his back, however you want to describe it, on Christianity, and how does that relate to the kinds of objections that historical Julian gives for the record?

Matt: Yes, I think that’s a great question, because it highlights one of the places where most clearly you see Ibsen’s 19th-century concerns coming through. I think the best way of answering the question is to consider what the Christianity is that the Julian of the play is reacting to, and it’s definitely a Christianity of law, of commands, of retribution, of constraining freedom.

There’s one point in the play where Julian says that Christianity doesn’t give a man elbow room to act, it is constantly constraining what you can do. In contrast, what the Julian of the play sees, again, “paganism” to be is an embrace of life and beauty and the goodness of the world and in stark contrast to this ascetic renunciation that he sees in Christianity, which is just a denial of every bit of that.

I think part of what we see there that’s important to recognize is the highly personal nature of this question for the Julian of the play. I think that that is evident in our historical sources but maybe this is one of the points where Ibsen’s drama, his fiction, helps us recognize perhaps some of the humanity of our historical figures that we might too easily overlook.

A passage on this point that I thought I might read that, I think highlights this contrast. Well, this is in the first half of the play in a dialogue between Maximus the mystic and Julian, and Julian says, “My whole youth has been one long dread of the Emperor and of Christ. Oh, He is terrible, that mysterious that merciless God man, at every turn, wheresoever I wish to go He met me, stark and stern with His unconditional inexorable commands.”

Then Maximus asks a question and Julian comes back with, “Always ‘Thou shalt.’ Is my soul gathered itself up in one knowing and consuming hate towards the murderer of my kin,” that’s Constantius, the other emperor. What does Christianity say? Julian says, “Love thine enemy. If my mind, a thirst for beauty, longed for scenes and rites from the bygone world of Greece, Christianity swooped down on me with its, ‘Seek the one thing needful.’ If I felt the sweet lust of the flesh towards this or that the Prince of Renunciation terrified me with his, ‘Kill the body that the soul may live.’ All that is human has become unlawful since the day when the seer of Galilee became ruler of the world. Through him, life has become death, love and hatred both are sins.”

I think that captures this contrast between renunciation of life and beauty and on the one hand that Julian sees in Christianity and the joy or embrace of life and pleasure, and the goodness of the world that he sees in the contrast. For the Julian of the play, this is what’s motivating him, but again I think a nice personal touch even in the passage that I just read is Julian refers to the murder of his family, which is absolutely an important part of the historical record.

Julian, when he’s still a child, the majority of his male members of his family are murdered, all except for him and his half-brother Gallus, and so it’s hard not to think that that event, even though he was so young, must not have played into his own personal development and eventual rejection of Christianity, though he never quite couches it in those terms. Ibsen’s probably recognizing something that’s probably a part of what was going on with the historical Julian and not just the Julian of the play.

Anna: Yes. We should say here that only the excerpts that we are reading are from the old William Archer translation, because we found it easy and handy to use. We did not use a contemporary translation, hence the English can sound a little antiquated at times.

Matt: Yes. Another question to throw back to you, Brad. You’ve already mentioned the signs and the ambiguity of signs in the play. I wondered if you want to expand a bit more on that? The way in which the ambiguity of signs plays into the development of the plot and how that relates to the historical sources as well.

Brad: Yes. That's another great question. Another place where I am again impressed, I think, with Ibsen because he’s taken what is a part of the history about Julian in Ammianus and others, and he’s really turned it to fantastic dramatic effect. The opening scene Agathon, whom Matt mentioned is a childhood friend of Julian, shows up and he’s hastened to Constantinople and it takes a while for this to come out, but it’s because he's had a vision, he’s had a dream and they’re talking about, “Oh, is this accurate? Do we believe dreams?” Yes, so here’s the dream. Then it’s not clear, there’s a robed figure.

Julian takes it as clear or he seems to take it as clear, but he wants to resist. It seems like, no, that can’t be right. Remember this is in a play, still the very devoted Christian Julian, but there’s something about it that’s potentially pointing away. Then of course Agathon is, as Matt mentioned at the end in the play, is the one that kills Julian.

This is fun, both in terms of the way that Ibsen has turned these details from the history to very useful and effective dramatic effect. It’s also fun to read just in light of the wider philosophical background. Iamblichus of Chalcis, the Neoplatonist philosopher, isn’t mentioned in the play, but he was a huge influence on Julian. He’s known as the Neoplatonist who really defended a highly theorized, but highly physical, highly material form of ritual and practice to divination through sacrifices, through reading of stars. The whole passel of things you might think of if you think of old Roman pagan religion, again for lack of a better way of putting it. Iamblichus is the one who really gives a lot of philosophical rationale for it.

That comes through in some ways in Julian and it comes through partially in the signs, because if you go and read Iamblichus, one of his most known works is De Mysteriis. There’s a lot there on how to read signs and it’s vague because these are mystery rituals in a lot of ways, so he’s not laying out how it works. You can see when you’re reading this issue with interpreting the message of the gods, and so that’s there on the background and it’s coming forth very clearly all throughout the play.

To give maybe one more quick example, Matt mentioned in the overview of the play this moment at this temple in Antioch where Julian and this priest, this Christian priest, face off and right at the end of their—conversation’s putting it too nicely, right?—their argument, the temple crashes down. It’s so stark because this bishop says, “God has spoken.” He clearly means Julian was going to do these rituals, God’s not going to let that happen at this temple.

Right after that, Julian says, “Yes, the gods have spoken. This temple was defiled by you Christians and would not let this continue.” The ambiguity there of the sign, just literarily, it’s such a fantastic and interesting moment, but it’s also rooted in some of these larger questions in the history of philosophy, as well as just in the history of Julian’s life himself.

Matt: Just to tag on another example of that, that I think is delightful that is a combination of historical material and creative license on the part of Ibsen is as Julian is on his Persian invasion, Maximus is there and is constantly sacrificing and seeking for some kind of a sign and nothing’s coming for the longest time, and finally a sign comes in and the sign is that Julian is safe. The only danger he has to worry about is the danger in Phrygia. He thinks that it’s the Phrygia in the Roman Empire, of course, because that’s the only kind of well-known location with that name, but Ibsen cleverly uses this in the plot because, in fact, we know from the historical sources, I think in fact from Ammianus, that this is indeed where Julian dies, a place in Persian territory by the same name.

In the play when Maximus receives this omen or this message, it gives he and Julian great confidence, and this is part of what makes Julian bold to then burn the ships and go forth confidently against the Persians but in fact that’s precisely what leads to his downfall because of this ambiguity, because it’s a different location than what’s meant by the sign than what he understood.

Anna: Yes. Matt, would you like to tell us a few things about your thoughts about the third empire? What does Ibsen mean by the third empire?

Matt: I’m happy to try, but I want to emphasize that it’s hard to pin down and I’d love to hear your thoughts on this question as well. Maybe it’s helpful for listeners to know as well, Ibsen when he spoke about this play said that what he was trying to do here was to set forth his positive worldview.

He had been critiqued by his critics I guess for being too negative. This was finally the play where he was going to set forth something, I guess, more prescriptive or constructive account of the world. It’s to this concept of the third empire that he pointed. I think Ibsen at least wants us to think that this is one of the main motifs, maybe even the main theme of the play.

We may well disagree with him. In fact, Archer, in his introduction to the translation we’re using, says that the incorporation of this plot element into the play completely ruins the play, that it would have been much better without it, so maybe, from a dramatic criticism perspective that’s correct.

It’s really intriguing to ponder what Ibsen is trying to do with this. The concept, it’s another instance where you see the distance between the ancient source material and the play. The notion of the third empire certainly isn’t something that Julian himself ever talked about or the other ancient sources. It seems to have arisen in medieval Christianity among apocalyptic speculation, and then had a very long afterlife after that point, right up to the 19th-century Germany, and indeed even beyond that, after Ibsen's life in Europe.

The third empire is a concept with a long pedigree that Ibsen’s aware of and then appropriating and putting to his own use. The way it works out in the play just I’ll give basic plot maybe, and then we can look at interpretation a little bit. In the third act of the first play, there’s this really crucial scene where Maximus and Julian are having a ritual seance, perhaps, in Ephesus, conjuring up spirits. They think it’s the two of them, and then they begin the ritual and then all of a sudden there are five of them that are present, so Maximus says, and Julian wants to find out who the other two are. Maximus doesn’t seem to be able to see or hear these individuals, only Julian can, but Maximus can force them to speak, and he does so.

Julian asks them a series of questions that they answer very enigmatically, but eventually it becomes clear that the first of these additional figures is Cain, who of course murdered his brother. The second figure is Judas, who of course was the one who killed Christ. Then when it comes time for the third person to speak, there's a curious silence and Maximus quickly realizes that this is because there is no fifth person, that the third individual for the third empire is in fact, Julian himself. The implication of course, is that Julian will suffer the same fate as these previous two figures that have just been revealed. There’s a definite historical progression at work.

There’s the first empire, which seems to for Ibsen stand for Classical Greece and Rome, and Alexander the Great, for example, at one point seems to be identified as a founder for this first empire. The second empire seems to be the empire of Christ, more or less. Then there’s this third empire, which Ibsen says in a kind of Hegelian synthesis isn’t merely a negation of the first two, but there’s somehow a conflation of them both, though it’s not really clear what that means. Maximus is clear at least in his criticism of Julian. Late in the play, when Julian’s in Antioch facing the failure of his efforts to enact religious reform, Maximus tells him that his mistake was just trying to return the world back to its first empire rather than recognizing that that was actually impossible. That going backwards isn’t possible, you have to move forward. At that point, Maximus, while they're in Persia, seems to still think that Julian is the one who’s about to inaugurate this third empire, but then Julian of course dies.

Even after Julian’s died, I think it’s perhaps Maximus’s last words of the play is that the third empire is still to come. Maximus in Ibsen leaves you tantalizingly wondering, what is this third empire? I wonder if it’s not exactly this ambiguity of the identification of this is what gives the concept in the play its potency that this is why you have to ponder what this means. It allows the reader to engage in their own process of filling in the gaps and making meaning of it. It could be adapted to really anyone who imagines that they stand on the verge of some great new momentous development in world history.

That seems to be about the degree of the content that we can give it from the play itself.

Anna, since you’ve done a lot of work on Ibsen in the past, I’d love to hear you talk about what the impact of the play is for someone who’s familiar with the rest of Ibsen’s corpus, especially the realistic plays. How does this fit into his wider body of work?

Anna: Yes. Thank you. When you read Emperor and Galilean, there is no doubt that several broader and more specific themes that one encounters in the realistic plays are traceable in Emperor and Galilean. For instance, from uses and abuses of power, which is a big theme in the play, we find this for instance in An Enemy of the People.

There are big existential dilemmas. We find these in Solness. I’m just mentioning some plays although these themes exist in more than one play. The search for the truth, the hypocrisy of religious people, we find this in Ghosts among other plays. From bigger themes to smaller themes like Ibsen’s scorn of intellectuals, which we see in Little Eyolf and Hedda Gabler. The use of letters. There’s lots of letters in Ibsen, for instance, in A Doll’s House, all the way to qualities of specific characters like the similarities between Julian and Løvborg. Løvborg is a famous, very important character in Hedda Gabler.

All of these examples reveal Ibsen’s authentic seal and explain why he considered the play as his most central or vital work. For those of us familiar with his realistic plays, the ten acts of the multitude of characters and situations included in Emperor and Galilean would qualify the play as a depository of material where Ibsen drew from until 1899, when he published his last play, When We Dead Awaken.

Brad: Thank you, Anna. As we’re coming into the end of our time, we thought it might be fun if we each talked for a minute or two about our favorite moment in the play. Separate from all of the scholarly questions, this is a play to be watched and appreciated. What did you all appreciate most, a moment in the play?

Matt: I’m happy to take that one first. I think my answer is a laugh-out-loud moment. At least for me it was. Anna mentioned a moment ago Ibsen’s scorn for intellectuals. I think you see him having a bit of fun at that towards the end of the play where, in the final scene, as the Persians have broken into the Roman camp and are engaged in hand-to-hand combat with the Roman soldiers there in the very camp. Well, what about these philosophers that Julian’s brought along with him on the campaign, these petty intellectuals who aren’t used to such violent situations? What are they to do?

Well, Ibsen has one of the philosophers running to and fro trying to convince one of the Roman commanders to give him a detachment of soldiers to ensure his safety because of course he hasn’t finished his world historical work titled On Equanimity in Affliction.

This philosopher is running about dreadfully, worried about his book and the loss of it to the rest of the world should he be killed. Of course, the topic of the book is on equanimity in affliction. It’s a delightfully ironic moment that I’m glad Ibsen stuck in.

Brad: I love that moment also. That was a contender for me for favorite moment, too. Maybe I should go next. If we talk about landing on a light note, mine’s not exactly a light note. Maybe Anna can do that. If I can’t pick, as Matt already has, this ironic moment with the philosopher, I think the end of Part 1 is this climax that just in terms of all the tensions that Ibsen has been putting into place, all of the conflicts that have been brewing reach this head and it's done just in such an incredible way.

This is the moment when—it’s after Julian has been acclaimed as emperor in Gaul. He’s moved to Vienne now with the army and the army is all raring and ready to go to finish this process of placing him on the throne, either with Constantius or probably against Constantius, but Julian still isn’t quite sure about what he should be doing, what his fate is. He goes away from the army for some time and they’re getting restless.

It turns out that he’s in this—it’s like a crypt. We hear later that it must be either the crypt of a church or underneath or beside a church because Maximus is down in this hole waiting for a word.

Julian is up talking to him, and he’s getting messages from some of his generals and some of his associates about all the things that are going on and all of the, again, the mounting tension.

Then Julian himself realizes that this is the moment that he has to decide where his ultimate allegiances lie. He descends, he performs this sacrifice of some kind, and again, the blood of the sacrifice is what washes away the baptism that he’s had. Then as he’s coming up and out, what’s going on in the church is kind of a memorial for Julian’s wife, who was killed, probably poisoned by Constantius. At the same moment, there’s these miracles reportedly that are happening at the body. People being healed.

It’s this climax and you really get a sense of, it’s not a sense of the direction that Julian’s pointing toward and direction he is pointing away from. Like one’s true and one’s false. There really is a sense of these competing, deeply competing claims on his life and he has to pick one. He says at one point “the life or the lie” and he’s got to pick. He makes this decision and as he’s coming up out, and this is how it concludes. It’s such a powerful moment.

The people in the church are saying the Lord’s Prayer. They’re saying the end of the Lord’s Prayer and Julian in a back-and-forth way starts to interpose his own things. He rushes up the steps and he says, “The army mine, the treasure mine, the throne mine,” and the next line is the choir and the church saying, “Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.”

Julian says, “Mine is the kingdom.” Then one of his associates says, “And the power and the glory,” and the choir says, “Thine is the kingdom and the power and the glory.” Julian comes up into the light and the notes in the play say that he’s dazzled by the light. He gasps, he says, “Ah,” and Maximus says, “Victory.” Then the final words of this first part in this climax are the choir. They say, “Forever and ever, Amen,” and it closes then we go into the second part.

It’s an incredibly intense moment, just dramatically. It’s probably one of my new favorite moments in literature for just all of these pieces coming together and being not resolved. It’s the climax or it’s not the resolution being brought to such a masterful climax.

Anna: Yes. Thanks. Actually, it's an interesting thing that your favorite moment is the end of the first part, because I think my favorite moment is the end of the play, of the tenth act, let’s say, where he brings in Macrina, Macrina being the sister of St. Basil. We haven’t had the chance to talk about the two of them.

I find it amazing. She is a nun, and she’s there because he has brought them along in the campaign. She’s the person who basically closes his eyes, covers his face at the end. I find this very interesting because the presence of women in the ten acts is very, very minimal, let’s say, there are very few women and what follows in his realistic plays is a very equal presence of men and women.

As we know, this is a play in the middle Ibsen’s oeuvre, it’s 12 plays before we have and 12 plays after. It’s like a preamble for what is going to follow, this importance of women, preeminence of women in his realistic plays. It’s almost preeminence there. I find it very interesting that he closes the play with Macrina, this wonderful character. She’s one of the most serene, luminous, calm, and together, as opposed to all of the tribulations that happen in Julian’s mind.

As this is my last Dumbarton Oaks-related activity, I would like to thank Professor Anthony Kaldellis for giving me the idea of a podcast series and Judy Lee for all her hard work, preparing and editing the podcasts. I really enjoyed the journey of these podcasts from Umberto Eco’s Baudolino, to Armenian art, and from the biography of the city of Antioch to Julian’s Antioch of Christian fanatics in Emperor and Galilean.

Warmest wishes to our listeners for their scholarly projects. We hope you’ll join us for more virtual Dumbarton Oaks events in Byzantine Studies. 

Podcast musical theme is from the Concerto in E-flat “Dumbarton Oaks” by Igor Stravinsky, recorded by the Smithsonian Chamber Orchestra, Kenneth Slowik, conducting.