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Introduction to Oration IV

Introduction to Oration IV

In the fourth century a.d. poetry was practically extinct, and hymns to the gods were almost always written in prose. Julian’s Fourth Oration is, according to the definition of the rhetorician Menander, a φυσικὸς ὕμνος, a hymn that describes the physical qualities of a god. Julian was an uncritical disciple of the later Neo-Platonic school, and apparently reproduces without any important modification the doctrines of its chief representative, the Syrian Iamblichus, with whom begins the decadence of Neo-Platonism as a philosophy. Oriental superstition took the place of the severe spiritualism of Plotinus and his followers, and a philosophy that had been from the first markedly religious, is now expounded by theurgists and the devotees of strange Oriental cults. It is Mithras the Persian sun-god, rather than Apollo, whom Julian identifies with his “intellectual god” Helios, and Apollo plays a minor part among his manifestations. Mithras worship, which Tertullian called “a Satanic plagiarism of Christianity,” because in certain of its rites it recalled the sacraments of the Christian church, first made its appearance among the Romans in the first century b.c.1 Less

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Introduction to Oration IV

hospitably received at first than the cults of Isis and Serapis and the Great Mother of Pessinus, it gradually overpowered them and finally dominated the whole Roman Empire, though it was never welcomed by the Hellenes. For the Romans it supplied the ideals of purity, devotion and self-control which the other cults had lacked. The worshippers of Mithras were taught to contend against the powers of evil, submitted themselves to a severe moral discipline, and their reward after death was to become as pure as the gods to whom they ascend. “If Christianity,” says Renan, “had been checked in its growth by some deadly disease, the world would have become Mithraic.” Julian, like the Emperor Commodus in the second century, had no doubt been initiated into the Mysteries of Mithras, and the severe discipline of the cult was profoundly attractive to one who had been estranged by early associations from the very similar teaching of the Christians.

Julian followed Plotinus and Iamblichus in making the supreme principle the One (ἓν) or the Good (τὸ ἀγαθὸν) which presides over the intelligible world (νοητὸς, κόσμος), where rule Plato’s Ideas, now called the intelligible gods (νοητοὶ θεοί). Iamblichus had imported into the Neo-Platonic system the intermediary world of intellectual gods (νοεροὶ θεοί). On them Helios-Mithras, their supreme god and centre, bestows the intelligence and creative and unifying forces that he has received from his transcendental counterpart among the intelligible gods. The third member of the triad is the world of sense-perception governed by the sun, the visible counterpart of Helios. What distinguishes Julian’s

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DOI: 10.4159/DLCL.emperor_julian-oration_iv_hymn_king_helios_dedicated_sallust.1913