The Emperor Julian’s Advice: Know Your Offspring


Julian (A.D. 331-363) was one of the most fascinating emperors of the later Roman empire.  While a full description of him and his reign is beyond our scope here, a few words may be said.  He spent a great deal of time and energy trying to revive paganism, only to see his hopes dashed on the rocks of reality.  He was an ascetic personality, subsisting on little food and many books; and it is said that he preferred the salons of the philosophers to the intrigues of the palace.

But he was not at all a dreamy idler.  He was adept at military campaigning, won some great victories in Gaul keeping the Germans on their side of the frontier, and had ambitious plans to conquer Persia.  He was killed in battle against the Persians early in his attempt to move eastward.  He left behind a substantial body of written work:  mainly panegyrics, rhetorical dialogues, and assorted letters.  As far as I know, no other Roman emperor except Marcus Aurelius has left written works in his own hand.

One letter contains firm counsel against raising children not one’s own.  The letter is entitled “To Maximus the Philosopher” and appears as letter 59 in volume III of W.C. Wright’s excellent collection of Julian’s Greek works (Cambridge: Harvard Univ. Press).

Julian’s words are these:

We are told in the myth that the eagle, when he would test which of his brood are genuine, carries them still unfledged into the upper air and exposes them to the rays of the sun, to the end that he may become, by the testimony of the god, the sire of a true nursling and disown any spurious offspring.


…I submit my speeches to you as though to Hermes the god of eloquence; and, if they can bear the test of being heard by you, it rests with you to decide whether they are fit to take flight to other men also.

But if they are not, then fling them away as though disowned by the Muses, or plunge them in a river as  bastards.  Certainly the Rhine does not mislead the Celts, for it sinks deep in its eddies their bastard infants, like a fitting avenger or an adulterous bed.


But all those that it recognizes to be of pure descent it supports on the surface of the water and gives them back to the arms of the trembling mother, thus rewarding her with the safety of her child as incorruptible evidence that her marriage is pure and without reproach. [Cf. Wright, p. 210-211].

We can see from this that Julian believed men should take care that the children they were raising were their own.  The Celts–and presumably other tribes as well–thought the same.  Bearing and raising one’s own children was of paramount importance, as this letter demonstrates.

The Rhine was well-known as a place for the practice of these “legitimacy” rites.  Other such references exist in literature.  The poet Claudian mentions the legitimacy rite in his poem In Rufinum (II.112) when he uses the phrase quos nascentes explorat gurgite Rhenus [“The Rhine’s bubbling water tests the infants”].  


Read More:  What Is The Imagination?