Comfort Classics: Jeremy J. Swist

The world is in a state of upheaval at the moment, and we’re all looking for things to make us feel less anxious. Maybe Classics can help.

Today’s interview is with Jeremy J. Swist

Is there a source from the ancient world that you find yourself coming back to when you want to feel better?

As someone with a rather dark sense of humor, I find validation and resonance with texts that mix the comedic with the tragic, or juxtapose the ridiculous with the serious. For instance, one of the most compelling aspects of the Iliad is how, to the immortal gods, war is just a game, a sporting event where they can be either spectators or competitors. Sure, they have honor at stake, but at the end of the day their wounds heal and they’re back to banqueting on Olympus. The theomachy of Book 21 is all the more absurd in its contrast to how the mortals wage war, where not only honor but men’s lives and women’s freedom are at stake.

More examples include Aristophanes’ Clouds, where sexual innuendo and fart jokes go hand-in-hand with dire warnings about the threats that science, rhetoric, and philosophy pose to traditional society; Plato’s Symposium, where the sublime meets the bacchanalian; Lucan’s Bellum Civile, where spectacles of violent death and dismemberment are so grotesque and unnatural that horror crosses into humor.

But the above texts are common favorites of many people, and so I’m also drawn to more recondite works that are less known, read, or appreciated. The text in question is by the Roman emperor and prolific Greek prose writer Julian the Philosopher (or, to his detractors, the Apostate). This is a sympotic satire now known as The Caesars, which in the convivial atmosphere of the Saturnalia of 362 CE he explicitly presents as a philosophical myth in the style of Plato.

When did you first come across this source?

Early on in my undergraduate years (2008, I think) I enrolled in a Roman History course taught by my soon-to-be mentor Jay Bregman. It was the first time I really became familiar with the period of late antiquity, and right in the middle of it was an emperor with whom I felt, and still feel, a quasi-spiritual kinship. Dr. Jay was himself a scholar and fan of Julian, and he recommended I read Gore Vidal’s novel about him. Vidal’s Julian is an epistolary novel consisting mostly of an autobiography written in Julian’s own voice, and this work of reception colored my subsequent devourment of Julian’s own writings, which includes orations to rulers and deities, invectives against his critics, and scores of letters to friends, officials, and cities. He’s perhaps best known for his self-parodic satire the Misopogon, where the long-haired and bearded bohemian airs his grievances with the clean-shaven urbanites of Antioch. But I found that text to be a bit of a drag, much preferring his other satire, written around the same time, and it remains my favorite Julianic work to read and research. 

Jeremy’s tattoo of Julian, based on a coin minted in Antioch, 361-363

Can you tell me a bit about this work and its context?

Julian was the last of the dynasty of Constantine, and ascended to sole rule in 361 after the death of his cousin Constantius II, son of Constantine. When Constantine had died in 337, his sons murdered most of Julian’s branch of the Flavian family, Julian only surviving because he was just a child, who was educated largely under house arrest, where his only companions were his tutors and the Greek classics, especially Homer and Plato. In the 350s, when he was permitted to travel to places like Ephesus and Athens to advance his studies, he came under the influence of pagan Neoplatonists of the Iamblichan school. He renounced Christianity in secret for the five or so years since he had been elevated to the rank of Caesar by Constantius, before his troops in Gaul proclaimed him Augustus and his cousin died of natural causes, thus avoiding a civil war. As sole ruler he announced a program of imperial renewal in the form of dechristianizing the empire and of restoring and reviving the multiplicity of pagan cults over which he presided as pontifex maximus. As his family was traditionally devotees of Sol Invictus, Julian identified his supreme deity with the gods Helios and Mithras, subscribing to a form of Platonism in which religious ritual activities transcended rational discourse and contemplation as the means of attaining the salvation not only of his own soul, but of the world that he, the Roman emperor, ruled. Julian’s religious program had a mixed reception even among non-Christians, and whatever potential it had for success was never actualized due to Julian’s death in battle against the Persians in 363, when imperium passed back to Christian emperors for the rest of history.

As mentioned, Julian composed The Caesars on the Saturnalia, or Kronia as he called it, in Antioch as he was preparing for his fateful Persian campaign. While it is often labeled a satire, it is best to imagine this text as modeled on Plato’s Symposium. But instead of a banquet in honor of the poet Agathon attended by the Athenian intelligentsia, it is a banquet of the gods in honor of Cronus, to which Quirinus (the deified Romulus) invites his imperial successors, i.e. the deified Caesars from Julius Caesar to Constantine’s sons. The emperors enter in order of their reigns, while some such as Caligula, Nero, and Commodus are ejected from Olympus and hurled into Tartarus (i.e. failed to earn deification). And like Plato’s Symposium, there is a contest of speeches, not on the nature of Love, but on who was the best emperor! The contestants are Julius Caesar, Augustus, Trajan, Marcus Aurelius, and Constantine, but they add Alexander the Great to the competition in order to see if any Roman can outdo a Greek. Most of them boast of their military conquests, service to the state, or in the case of Constantine, fabulous wealth and extravagance. But Marcus Aurelius wins the contest on the grounds that the guiding principle of his rulership is “to imitate the gods,” i.e. to become morally perfect and impart that perfection on his empire. Naturally, this championing of the philosopher-emperor well served Julian’s political and religious agenda.

What is it about this text that appeals to you most?

Like I said earlier, I love it when authors find entertaining and humorous ways to make you think about serious issues and big questions. Julian explicitly cites Plato as his model, who presented his ideas through storytelling and mythmaking. That is the form and style of The Caesars, but it’s the content that really does it for me. One of the many reasons Julian appeals to me is that I am as equally interested in Greek literature and philosophy as I am in Roman imperial history. Julian combined those two things in everything he did, viewing the cultural, literary, and religious inheritance of Greece and Rome as a unity: Hellenismos and Romanitas were one and the same. But with The Caesars, Julian gratifies my interest in imperial history and interprets it through the lens of his Hellenic philosophy and theology. It’s rare to hear a Roman emperor speak so candidly about any of his predecessors, let alone all of them. Yet at the same time, we really get insight into how Julian’s imperial program was not just a pagan revival that restored temples, legalized sacrifices, and banned Christians from teaching texts about gods they didn’t believe in. Through The Caesars, we see how the conferral of Roman imperium is a divinely sanctioned mission to become a new Romulus, to attain divinity by refounding Rome, and, like the Demiurge of Plato’s Timaeus, to renew the material cosmos by modeling it on the perfection of the divine realm. I just find it exhilarating when so many things that interest me combine in a single cup, especially one so rimmed with satirical honey.

And finally… what do you do, outside of studying the ancient world, to cheer yourself up?

My therapy is heavy metal. My church and congregation is the scene, the concert my mass. The plague times have been rough, but the music will never die.

Jeremy J. Swist is an instructor in the Department of Classics and Modern Languages at Xavier University in Cincinnati, and teaches remotely as a lecturer in the Department of Philosophy and Classics at the University of Texas at San Antonio. He received his BA in History and Latin from the University of Maine, and his MA and PhD in Classics from the University of Iowa, with a dissertation on the reception of the seven kings of Rome in imperial historiography after Livy. He has published on topics such as Greek declamation in late antiquity, the thought and statecraft of the emperor Julian, and the reception of the ancient world in heavy metal music. He has a forthcoming chapter on Florus in the second volume of Sources et modèles des historiens anciens (eds. O. Devillers & B. Sebastiani), and is currently writing a chapter on the reception of Sparta for the Cambridge Companion to Metal Music (ed. J. Herbst).

Find him on Twitter (@MetalClassicist) and follow his blog

Catch up with all the Comfort Classics interviews here.

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