3 Leadership Lessons From The Roman Emperor Julian

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The Roman Emperor Julian, also known as Julian the Apostate, was born in 330 C.E. He was the nephew of Constantine the Great, the first emperor to be baptized into the Christian faith (the actual baptism occurring just before his death).

Julian’s was a time of great change and transformation in Rome. Diocletian had in the middle part of the 3rd century breathed new life into a nation on the verge of death—a nation that for decades had suffered the ravages of civil war and the depredations of an army that had become a military gang with titular figureheads as emperors. Constantine consolidated and strengthened the reforms and reconstructions made by Diocletian and passed to his sons a nation at relative peace with itself and its neighbors.

Constantine’s son, Constantius II, succeeded his father and went about murdering all his rivals and potential rivals for the throne, including all of his male relatives, among whom was Julian’s father. Julian and his brother Gallus were the last of the Flavian line, as Constantius had no offspring. They were raised and educated in a way consistent with their social station but were kept under constant surveillance.

Originally Gallus was to be a statesman and Julian a Christian priest. The latter had shown an insatiable hunger for knowledge and considerable skill in philosophical disputation. Nothing turned out as planned.

The more Julian studied the more he came to embrace the whole of Hellenic culture, including its religion. At some point in his early twenties, Julian turned against Christianity and embraced Greek Paganism. The flagrant moral hypocrisy of the Christians, including his fratricidal cousin, played no little role in convincing him that a true and good and virtuous life could only be found in what he viewed as the more fastidious belief systems of Ancient Greece.

To make a long story short Gallus was made governor of what is modern day Turkey; Julian continued his studies. Gallus, who was a vicious and cruel man, was eventually removed from office, imprisoned, and murdered at the order of his cousin. Julian was made Caesar of the West (a Caesar at that time was a kind of deputy emperor) and sent to Gaul (modern day France).

He did well in Gaul, winning many military victories, relieving the people of burdensome taxes, and engaging in a series of works to improve the infrastructure and prosperity of the province. He became popular; much more popular than his uncle. Conflict between them was inevitable. It finally occurred in 361. Julian was triumphant and became the last Pagan emperor of Rome.

Julian lived in an age of religious zeal and superstition. When he became emperor, he immediately set about restoring the pagan temples and of re-ordering the religion so as to make it a more formidable opponent of Christianity. In many ways, Julian infused the evangelicalism of his Christian upbringing into paganism. He could be as intolerant, perverse, irrational, and persecutory as the Christians.

Despite these faults and shortcomings, he was an extraordinary leader. He reigned for only 18 months. But in that time he made the world stand witness to a mind, a purpose, and a series of actions that it had not seen since Alexander the Great.

Modern leaders can learn much from this boy hero. Here are a few lessons.

1. A well-disciplined mind inures you to hardship

Julian showed no talent for soldiering as a young man. When he was dispatched to Gaul, his cousin commanded him to take instructions and guidance from the experienced generals that were already there. But Julian was a fast learner. He quickly grasped the principles of combat tactics, and his reading of Homer had formed within him a ready spring of courage and an intense desire for glory. He had not only studied philosophy but lived the spirit of it.

From an early age he had disciplined his mind and his body, curbing the excesses of both. When he rose to high office, he was known to eat little food, to sleep on the ground as his soldiers did, and to march on foot at the head of them. It was said that he could write, dictate letters, and settle disputes among litigants all at once.

The lesson here is that a well-ordered mind can prepare you for unexpected trials and challenges. It quickens your ability to deal with unfamiliar matters with dispatch, and it enables you to do work that tests the limits of your mental and physical capacity.

2. Know when you are being set-up to fail

Julian was sent to Gaul with a small contingent of soldiers and very little money. At no point was he unaware that he was being set up to fail by his cousin. Rather than resign himself to his fate he summoned his energies and went into action. He made the best of the men he had under his command—indeed, inspired them to do much more than they thought they could. He defeated Rome’s enemies and became master of Gaul within two years of his arrival.

The lesson here is to know the politics of your office and your position. Know when you are being given an assignment or task that is seemingly impossible to complete. Plan ahead, strategize, outwit and outmaneuver your enemy. Take on the impossible and defy the odds; it will put you in a position to crush the person who tried to undo you.

3. Lead by words and action

We hear a lot nowadays about the man of words versus the man of action. Everyone is always for the latter because it is believed they get things done. Julian was a man of both words and action. He understood the need for both. People respond to clear, articulate, and uplifting speech. Speaking and writing are forms of action. The well-timed pep talk with your team or one-on-one conversation with someone in your charge can do a great deal of good.

History records that Julian was loved by his troops. Not only because of his masterful oratory but also because he never asked them to do anything that he wouldn’t do first. He constantly exposed himself to danger in leading his armies; and it is said that the royal cloak, or “The Purple”, was always soiled, as the emperor preferred to tramp through mud and dirt like alongside his troops.

Julian led by example, and spoke words that inspired his men to accomplish the most daring and remarkable feats in the history of Rome.


About Christopher Reid

Chris was born in Washington, D.C. and lives in Britain. He works as a blogger, essayist, and novelist. His first book, Tea with Maureen, has just been published.

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