Julian (the Apos)Tweets

Essay and Translations by Jeremy J. Swist

ἔστι καὶ μικροῦ γράμματος ἡδονὴ μείζων, ὅταν ἡ τοῦ γράφοντος εὔνοια μὴ τῇ τῆς ἐπιστολῆς σμικρότητι μᾶλλον ἢ τῷ τῆς ψυχῆς μεγέθει μετρῆται: εἰ δὲ δὴ καὶ νῦν βραχέα τὰ τῆς προσρήσεως ὑφ᾽ ἡμῶν γεγένηται, μηδ᾽ οὕτω τὸν ἐπ᾽ αὐτοῖς πόθον τεκμηριώσῃ.

To Elpidius, Letter 195.442D

The joy of reading even a few words is greater when you measure the writer's compassion not by their brevity but by the generosity of their spirit. So don't conclude that the sentiment of my message is at all proportional to its succinctness.

@QuotesByJulian, “It's the thought that counts”

The emperor Julian was a nephew of Constantine I and ruled the Roman Empire from 361 to 363 CE. Christian authors labeled him “the Apostate” because he renounced Christianity and undertook a restoration of traditional paganism under the aegis of his radical Neoplatonic philosophy, a program cut short by his death in battle against the Persians. He was a prolific writer whose surviving works (the most from any Roman emperor) include panegyrics, theological treatises, satires, and letters. He was also an avid reader of Greek literature, especially Homer, Plato, and Plutarch, a literary education he frequently references in his own work:

ἄλλοι μὲν ἵππων, ἄλλοι δὲ ὀρνέων, ἄλλοι δὲ θηρίων ἐρῶσιν: ἐμοὶ δὲ βιβλίων κτήσεως ἐκ παιδαρίου δεινὸς ἐντέτηκε πόθος.

To Ecdicius, prefect of Egypt, Letter 107.378A

Some love horses, others love birds or other animals. I, on the other hand, have had since childhood a deep-seated passion for acquiring books.

@QuotesByJulian, “Emphasis on 'acquiring'”

The life and writings of the emperor Julian have been a passion of mine ever since my undergraduate mentor Jay Bregman introduced me to him well over a decade ago. Reading Gore Vidal’s epistolary novel Julian as a sophomore in college, I came to identify with the young scholar, soldier, and ruler in many respects—his passions, his hatreds, his flaws, and even his unkempt hair and beard:

ἐμοὶ δὲ οὐκ ἀπέχρησε μόνον ἡ βαθύτης τοῦ γενείου, ἀλλὰ καὶ τῇ κεφαλῇ πρόσεστιν αὐχμός, καὶ ὀλιγάκις κείρομαι καὶ ὀνυχίζομαι, καὶ τοὺς δακτύλους ὑπὸ τοῦ καλάμου τὰ πολλὰ ἔχω μέλανας. εἰ δὲ βούλεσθέ τι καὶ τῶν ἀπορρήτων μαθεῖν, ἔστι μοι τὸ στῆθος δασὺ καὶ λάσιον ὥσπερ τῶν λεόντων, οἵπερ βασιλεύουσι τῶν θηρίων.

Misopogon 339B

Growing a long beard wasn’t enough for me. My whole head’s a mess as well. I rarely get haircuts or manicures, and my fingers are often black from all the writing I do. Want to hear a secret? I’ve got chest hair too, just like lions do, who are the emperors of beasts, after all.

@QuotesByJulian, “The life of the mind”

It was partly my drive to better understand his mind (and thus, perhaps, my own) that brought me to the University of Iowa for graduate school to work with scholar of classical philosophy John Finamore, and though I ended up dissertating on a different topic, Julian has remained one of my primary research areas. As I became more active on Classics Twitter in the past couple years, I connected with scores of people who either shared or at least appreciated my interest in him. 

Given this potential interest, I decided that Twitter might have a receptive audience for a subsidiary account devoted to sharing quotations from Julian’s writings, which I created in April 2021 and dubbed “Emperor Julian Quote of the Day” (@QuotesByJulian). Every day (or whenever I remember to do it), I produce an original translation of a passage that can be fit into a 280-character tweet. The hypothesis for this experiment is that Julian’s works, while intended to be read in full and not as collections of aphorisms like Marcus’ Meditations, could nevertheless be mined for quotations that could more or less stand on their own, even as gnomic sententiae.

τοῖς δεδεμένοις δὲ ἔτι, καθάπερ οἶμαι Ἰξίων νεφέλῃ τινὶ ἀντὶ τῆς θεοῦ λέγεται παραναπαύσασθαι, τούτοις ἀντ᾽ ἀληθοῦς ψευδὴς ἐντέτηκε δόξα: γίνεται γὰρ ἐντεῦθεν αὐτοῖς τὰ ὑπηνέμια καὶ τερατώδη ταυτὶ τῆς ἀληθοῦς ἐπιστήμης οἷον εἴδωλα ἄττα καὶ σκιαί.

To the Cynic Heraclius 206C

In people who are shackled to their bodies, false beliefs take root in place of truth and, just like Ixion after sleeping with a cloud that was substituted for the goddess Hera, beget monstrosities of hot air, mere phantoms & shadows of real science.

@QuotesByJulian, “Matter over mind”

While some of Julian’s more theological disquisitions can be impenetrably esoteric, I was confident that I could show the Twitterverse that the majority of the emperor’s musings can be accessible, relevant, and relatable to a twenty-first-century audience.

οἱ δὲ τῆς τέχνης ἀπολαῦσαί φασιν ἐν τῷ δύνασθαι περὶ τῶν μικρῶν μειζόνως διελθεῖν, καὶ τὸ μέγεθος ἀφελεῖν τῶν ἔργων τῷ λόγῳ, καὶ ὅλως ἀντιτάττειν τῇ τῶν πραγμάτων φύσει τὴν δύναμιν τῶν λόγων.

First Panegyric of Constantius 2C

What public speakers claim to enjoy most about their art is its ability to magnify matters of trivial importance, and to diminish the significance of events by means of language, in short, to recruit the power of words in a war against the nature of facts.

@QuotesByJulian, “Bullshit artists”

Sometimes I tweet with a specific passage in mind that suits the occasion of the day. For instance, after John Oliver released a video where he explained the incorrectness of octopi as the plural of octopus (which Classics Twitter seized upon with gusto), I chose a passage where Julian compares St. Paul to those camouflaging invertebrates, changing his colors to suit the audience of his preaching:

πρὸς γὰρ τύχας, ὥσπερ χρῶτα οἱ πολύποδες πρὸς τὰς πέτρας, ἀλλάττει τὰ περὶ θεοῦ δόγματα, ποτὲ μὲν Ἰουδαίους μόνον τὴν τοῦ θεοῦ κληρονομίαν εἶναι διατεινόμενος, πάλιν δὲ τοὺς Ἕλληνας ἀναπείθων αὑτῷ προστίθεσθαι, λέγων: ‘Μὴ Ἰουδαίων ὁ θεὸς μόνον, ἀλλὰ καὶ ἐθνῶν.’

Against the Galileans 106b

Just as octopodes change color to match rocks, so Paul changes his theology to match circumstances. At one time he's telling Jews that they alone are God's chosen people, but when he's trying to win over Greeks, he says "not only the god of the Jews, but of the Gentiles too."

@QuotesByJulian, “Pauline biology”

More often, however, I crack open one of the three Loeb volumes of Julian to a random page, playing a sort of Sortes Julianae until something catches my fancy. Every tweet includes a citation, either at the end or in a reply if space does not allow, for those who wish to look up the passage in context or check the Greek for themselves. While some of his works are more quotable than others—his letters and panegyrics contain far more pithy anecdotes and maxims than his treatises and satires—I have found usable material in nearly all of them that could still be meaningful when divorced from their contexts. For instance, a passage from one of Julian's consolatory orations contains several statements that could apply to any situation in which someone experiences hardship, and not just the forced reassignment of one of Julian’s closest friends in 358 CE:

τῶν προσπιπτόντων δὲ καὶ τὰ λίαν ἐργώδη φασὶν οἱ σοφοὶ τῷ νοῦν ἔχοντι φέρειν οὐκ ἐλάττονα τῆς δυσκολίας τὴν εὐπάθειαν, ἐπεὶ καὶ τὴν μέλιτταν ἐκ τῆς δριμυτάτης πόας τῆς περὶ τὸν Ὑμηττὸν φυομένης γλυκεῖαν ἀνιμᾶσθαι δρόσον καὶ τοῦ μέλιτος εἶναι δημιουργόν.

Consolation to Himself on the Departure of the Excellent Sallust, 241A

If you’re intelligent you’ll derive enjoyment no less than displeasure from excessive hardships that might befall you, much as bees suck up sweet nectar from the bitterest plants that grow on Hymettus, and manufacture honey.

@QuotesByJulian, “False entomology?”

Making Julian accessible depends on not only the content of his writings, but also how it is translated. W. C. Wright’s translations in his Loeb edition (the most widely available and complete rendering of the emperor’s corpus in English) are readable; but in the dry, formal register of a century ago, they are not very tweetable. For my own project, turning Julian’s Greek into tweetable English means occasionally rearranging syntax, exchanging grammatical constructions, and switching from the third to second person and passive to active voice, as for example in the tweet below, where, by translating the apodosis of the condition (i.e. the upshot of the “if” statement, ἀδικοῖτ᾽ ἄν) as “you’d do a disservice” rather than the more literal “they’d be done a disservice,” I make the advice of acknowledging one’s mentors more personal and immediate:

ἐρομένου γάρ τινος ὑπὲρ ὧν ἔμαθεν ὁπόσον τινὰ χρὴ καταβαλεῖν μισθόν: ὁμολογῶν, ἔφη, τι παρ᾽ ἡμῶν μαθεῖν τὴν ἀξίαν ἡμῖν ἐκτίσεις. οὐκοῦν καὶ ὅστις διδάσκαλος μὲν αὐτὸς οὐ γέγονε, πρὸς τὸ μαθεῖν δὲ καὶ ὁτιοῦν συνηνέγκατο, ἀδικοῖτ᾽ ἄν, εἰ μὴ τυγχάνοι τῆς χάριτος καὶ τῆς ἐπὶ τοῖς δοθεῖσιν ὁμολογίας.

Panegyric of the Empress Eusebia, Or. 3.126A

When someone asked Thales how much he charged for what they learned, he replied “pay by telling people you learned it from me.” You'd do a disservice even to those who weren’t your teachers, but who still helped set you on the path to learning, if they got no gratitude or credit.

@QuotesByJulian, “It takes a village”

Overall, Julian’s words and phrases cross over smoothly into casual, colloquial, snappy English. The greater and more frequent challenge is the necessity of squeezing the selected passage into a single tweet, but without so much procrustean amputation as to render the translation too unfaithful to the Greek. I take pains to make every word count, and must often rewrite several segments in order to reclaim even a single character space, employing contractions, ampersands, and abbreviations. This premium on space encourages me to choose shorter, more Germanic words and in effect produce an earthier style more at home on social media.

εἰ δέ σοι τοῦ πεμφθέντος ὑπὸ σοῦ χρυσοῦ νομίσματος εἰς τὸ ἴσον τῆς τιμῆς ἕτερον ἀργύρεον ἀντιδίδομεν, μὴ κρίνῃς ἥττω τὴν χάριν, μηδὲ ὥσπερ τῷ Γλαύκῳ πρὸς τὸ ἔλαττον οἰηθῇς εἶναι τὴν ἀντίδοσιν, ἐπεὶ μηδὲ ὁ Διομήδης ἴσως ἀργυρᾶ χρυσῶν ἀντέδωκεν ἄν, ἅτε δὴ πολλῷ τῶν ἑτέρων ὄντα χρησιμώτερα καὶ τὰς αἰχμὰς οἱονεὶ μολίβδου δίκην ἐκτρέπειν εἰδότα.

To Hecebolius, Letter 194.387C

If you send me a gold coin & I send you in return a silver coin of equal value, don’t think you’re getting shortchanged like Glaucus. Not even Diomedes would have traded silver armor for gold armor, since silver is far more practical and, like lead, better able to stop a spear. 

@QuotesByJulian, “Not all that glitters is gold”

Seven months in and counting, this project has enjoyed a warm reception and what I consider sustained success. The account has amassed nearly 1800 followers, and most tweets have received dozens of likes and multiple retweets and replies. One even went semi-viral, perhaps because it resonated with users’ own resentment against members of certain religions who do not live by the example of their own philanthropic deities:

πῶς δὲ ὁ τὸν Ἑταίρειον θεραπεύων Δία, ὁρῶν τοὺς πέλας ἐνδεεῖς χρημάτων, εἶτα μηδ᾽ ὅσον δραχμῆς μεταδιδούς, οἴεται τὸν Δία καλῶς θεραπεύειν; ὄταν εἰς ταῦτα ἀπίδω, παντελῶς ἀχανὴς γίνομαι.

Letter to a Priest 291C

How can you worship Zeus the god of fellowship when you see your neighbors in need of money and give them not even a drachma? How can you think you’re worshipping Zeus properly? I’m totally dumbfounded when I see this.

@QuotesByJulian, “Practice what you preach”

While the account was always meant to be both educational and entertaining, and not a blanket endorsement of Julian’s doctrines or worldview, @QuotesByJulian has nevertheless especially attracted members of the polytheist and Neoplatonist community who to various extents read the divine emperor’s pronouncements as gospel. As I showed the door to minor elements within these groups who espoused bigotry and cryptofascism, I nevertheless reflected on how Julian himself would have “understood, read, and condemned” my enterprise as an irresponsible and unnatural way to engage with his work and commit it to the winged words of the bird site:

Δαίδαλον μὲν Ἰκάρῳ φασὶν ἐκ κηροῦ πτερὰ συμπλάσαντα τολμῆσαι τὴν φύσιν βιάσασθαι τῇ τέχνῃ. ἐγὼ δὲ ἐκεῖνον μὲν εἰ καὶ τῆς τέχνης ἐπαινῶ, τῆς γνώμης οὐκ ἄγαμαι: μόνος γὰρ κηρῷ λυσίμῳ τοῦ παιδὸς ὑπέμεινε τὴν σωτηρίαν πιστεῦσαι.

To Eugenius the Philosopher, Letter 193.386B

Daedalus, they say, made Icarus wings out of wax, so bold was he to do violence to nature with his art. While I admire his art, I’m no fan of his judgment. He was the only parent, you see, to ever entrust their child’s safety to something so soluble as wax.

@QuotesByJulian, “Not too close to the son”

Julian banned Christians from being classicists on the grounds that they taught about things, such as the pagan gods, that they did not themselves believe in. Neither do I personally subscribe to Julian’s religious dogmas, and even the pagan historian Ammianus Marcellinus, one of Julian’s biggest fans, recommended his “cruel” prohibition “be buried in eternal silence” (inclemens, obruendum perenni silentio). The emperor’s rescript to that law, however, opens with a statement of educational philosophy that, independent of context, has timeless, and especially contemporary resonance:

παιδείαν ὀρθὴν εἶναι νομίζομεν οὐ τὴν ἐν τοῖς ῥήμασι καὶ τῇ γλώττῃ πραγματευομένην εὐρυθμίαν, ἀλλὰ διάθεσιν ὑγιῆ νοῦν ἐχούσης διανοίας καὶ ἀληθεῖς δόξας ὑπέρ τε ἀγαθῶν καὶ κακῶν, ἐσθλῶν τε καὶ αἰσχρῶν.

Rescript on Christian Teachers, Letter 61c.422A

The correct form of education, in my view, consists not in fussing over the proper use of grammar & language, but in creating a healthy condition of mind, a mind imbued with reason & true beliefs of what's good & what's evil, what's right & what's wrong.

@QuotesByJulian, “Oh the humanities”

@QuotesByJulian remains active, and has received extra impetus lately as I am currently teaching a seminar on Julian for a fantastic group of Brandeis graduate and undergraduate Classics students. Not only have they mined their own memorable quotations from his literary corpus, but they have even made memes as yet another means to make Julian more relatable, at least if you’re a Seinfeld fan. It is most gratifying to see that the various creative ways I communicate the emperor’s legacy to the world have been met with a variety of creative responses:

καὶ γράφω καὶ ἀντιτυχεῖν ἀξιῶ τῶν ἴσων. εἰ δὲ ἀδικῶ συνεχῶς ἐπιστέλλων, ἀνταδικηθῆναι δέομαι τὰ ὅμοια παθών.

To Lucian the Sophist, Letter 197

When I write to someone I expect to get something equal in return. If my continuous flood of letters offends you, then I should suffer the same from you in retaliation.

@QuotesByJulian, “An eye for an eye”


This essay contains translations originally published on Twitter, selected for their representation of the diversity of Julian’s works, but also for their particular relatability and relevance to current discourse on life in academia, social and news media, and trying to be a good citizen of the world. Aside from the added titles, the translation of each is unedited and as it originally appeared on Twitter, with a link to the original tweets provided. The original Greek text is from the 1913-1923 Loeb edition edited by W. C. Wright (available on the Perseus Project website). Special thanks to Emma Pauly for their help and encouragement during this stage of the project, as well as to Twitter user “Julian the Apostweet” (@impbromanorum) for inspiring the title of this piece, used with their permission.

Jeremy J. Swist


In the Classroom

Twitter Diversion: Choose from among the pieces published in this (or a previous) issue of Ancient Exchanges another ancient or otherwise premodern literary work that you think speaks to our modern times. Using as a model the strategies Jeremy Swist discusses in this essay, consider what kinds of changes might be called for to make the piece accessible and relatable to a broader internet audience. "Retranslate" the piece by revising the existing translation according to the modernizing criteria you choose, staying within Twitter's 280 character limit.
Bonus points if your retranslation falls under Twitter's original 140 character limit.

(With thanks to Rebecca Hanssens-Reed, who included a similar prompt in the exercises accompanying her In the Classroom essay published in our Spring 2021 issue.)