Flavius Claudius Julianus Augustus, the last Pagan Roman Emperor (355 CE to 363 CE), has been vilify by some (Julian the Apostate) and held in great esteem by others (Julian the Philosopher); yet, what I have recently leaned from this Roman Emperor are some economic lessons. Check out The History of Rome podcast episode 144 – The Road to Constantinople for more information and the source for my realizability that Julian has more to offer me than philosophy.
Julian during his fateful stay in Gaul…in the little town Lutèce that we now call Paris…faced the ever present problem of the Alamanni (German tribes) and need money to fortify the Rhine frontier. Conventional wisdom presented by the Praetorian Perfect Florentius was to raise taxes but Julian step in (that is overruled Florentius) to lower taxes. Now, if more money is needed, then why would Julian step in and lower taxes. Well the soon to be Emperor also ensured that the rich…who over the years used various tax forgiveness opportunities to simple not pay would in fact pay their taxes. Julian understood that he could lower taxes for those already at the breaking point, permitting a growth in local trade, and still secure the funds needed by taxing those who did have the means to pay. I am not sure if Julian’s understanding of economic growth include the idea of tax relief towards small business people; however, he did seem to have an understanding fairness towards all those he ruled.
I, like many, wonder what would have happened if Julian would have rule longer than he very short time; however, he did not and what we have left is a few writings and sampling of what he tried to do during his time as emperor. I have read some of these philosophical writings but I completely missed his attempt to change how the emperor interacted with the people, economic changes, and the restoration of Paganism. Yet, with such a short time as emperor, Julian did not have much lasting effect.
The lessons I do see are those of being practical about getting to where you want to be. Julian need money to protect the Rhine frontier, so he turned to those who had both money and an obligation to pay. He wanted to restore Paganism but understood the criticism that the temples and clergy were corrupt, so Julian implemented reforms for the temples along with restoration. In my work in the world I have become more of a pragmatist looking for what works while I try to balance what I think is the right thing to do. I get the feeling that Julian was walking this line too and as such is a good example of a philosopher applying actions to change the world.
Joseph R. Hoffmann, in Julian’s Against the Galileans (see his chapter Julian the Restorer) gives the reader an overview of Julain’s writings, times, and life. I would suggest Jonathan Kirsch’s God against the Gods: The History of the War Between Monotheism and Polytheism for an general introduction.