Tuesday, 13 May 2014

Cavafy, Julian the Apostate and Antioch


THE Greek poet Constantine P. Cavafy [Κωνσταντίνος Π. Καβάφης] was born in Alexandria, Egypt, in 1863 and died there in 1933. In the meantime he spent some years of his childhood and adolescence in Liverpool, England, and Istanbul, Turkey; but from 1885 and to his death he stayed in Alexandria.
     Although a member of the Greek Orthodox Church, Cavafy was an admirer of the ancient pagan Hellenic culture. Most of his historical poems have their setting in ancient Alexandria, but he also has poems on Antioch. It seems that he especially found the Roman Emperor Julian the Apostate (d. 363) interesting.
     This is slightly odd. Julian had been brought up in the Orthodox Faith, but after growing up he started to live a life of a pagan Greek philosopher. His style was so strict that even pagans found him unbearable. Thus, the lifestyle advocated by Julian hardly matched the one Cavafy chose for his private life. Neither was Julian’s criticism of the Church shared by Cavafy.
     In 362 Julian arrived at Antioch to make preparations for his campaign against Persia. Evidently he hoped that his pagan propaganda would find a hearing ear at Antioch as it was one of the most important Hellenic cities with a considerable number of pagans among the well-to-do. However, the church members did not agree with his paganism, and the pagans did not like his austerity. The Antiochenes, Christian and pagan alike, were a sybaritic lot.
     In this poem Cavafy describes the clash between Julian and the church members:
Concerning our religious beliefs-
the empty-headed Julian said: “I read, I understood,
I condemned.” As if the most ludicrous man
had annihilated us, with his “I condemned.”
However such cleverness carry no weight with us
Christians. “You read, but understood not; for if you had understood
you would not have condemned,” we retorted at once.[i]
     Julian also complained about his co-religionists, the pagans of Antioch. They were far too complacent and indifferent to his taste.
      At Daphne [now Harbiye] some 5 miles south of Antioch, there was a temple to the Greek god Apollo. It had been built shortly after the founding of Antioch. Daphne is a place with springs and waterfalls and, at least today, lots of laurels. According to Greek mythology, Apollo chased a nymph called Daphne (laurel) who consequently was transformed into a tree.[ii] One can imagine that the temple was located between the city center and the waterfalls, not too far from the Olympic Stadium.
      Whatever, Julian – devout as he was – wanted to visit the place. In a writing called Misopogon he himself describes what he experienced:
In the tenth month, according to your reckoning, - Loos I think you call it - there is a festival founded by your forefathers in honour of this god, and it was your duty to be zealous in visiting Daphne. Accordingly I hastened thither from the temple of Zeus Casius, thinking that at Daphne, if anywhere, I should enjoy the sight of your wealth and public spirit. And I imagined in my own mind the sort of procession it would be, like a man seeing visions in a dream, beasts for sacrifice, libations, choruses in honour of the god, incense, and the youths of your city there surrounding the shrine, their souls adorned with all holiness and themselves attired in white and splendid raiment. But when I entered the shrine I found there no incense, not so much as a cake, not a single beast for sacrifice. For that moment I was amazed and thought that I was still outside the shrine and that you were waiting the signal from me, doing me that honour because I am supreme pontiff. But when I began to inquire what sacrifice the city intended to offer to celebrate the annual festival in honour of the god, the priest answered, "I have brought with me from my own house a goose as an offering to the god, but the city this time has made no preparations.”[iii]
      We can imagine how scandalized Julian was. He must have been stunned by the indifference of his fellow pagans. Cavafy writes:
“Considering then that there is much indifference
on our part toward the gods” – he speaks with grave mien.
Indifference. Well, but then what did he expect?
He could organize religion to his heart’s content,
he could write to the High Priest of Galatia to his heart’s content,
or to others such as these, exhorting and guiding.
His friends were not Christians;
that was positive. But they were not able as he was
(nurtured in Christianity) to give performance
in a system of a new church,
as ridiculous in conception as in application.
They were Greeks after all. Nothing in excess, Augustus.[iv]
     The quotation of Julian above from the text called Misopogon [the Beard-hater] is a satirical essay written against the people of Antioch. The mutual dislike was total!  It is described in this poem of Cavafy:
The CHI,[v] they say, had never harmed the city, nor the
KAPPA.[vi] And we, finding the explanation by chance,
were taught that these were the initial letters of two
names; one stood for Christ, the other for Con-
JULIAN’S Misopôgôn
Was it ever possible that they should renounce
their lovely way of life; the variety of their
daily amusement; their magnificent theater
where a union of the Arts was taking place
with the amorous tendencies of the flesh!
They were immoral to a point – and possibly to a great
degree. But they had the satisfaction of knowing
that their life was the much talked about life of Antioch,
rich in pleasures perfectly elegant in every way.
To renounce all these, to turn to what after all?
To his airy chatter about false gods;
to his tiresome self-centered chatter;
to his childish fear of the theater;
his graceless prudery; his ridiculous beard?
Ah most certainly they preferred the CHI,
ah most certainly they preferred the KAPPA; a hundred times.[vii]
     Here Cavafy is painting the attitude of the Christians of Antioch towards their philosophically minded and ascetic emperor. They did not like his looks, his beard and his – in their views – pretentiousness. They admitted that they were immoral but felt that the elegance of their lifestyle was an excuse.
     It seems that the Apollo temple in Daphne played quite a role in the confrontation between the pagan emperor and his Christian subjects. At an earlier date during the rule of Gallus Caesar (d. 354) the bones of a martyr named Babylas was moved to a martyrium close to the Apollo temple at Daphne to annoy the pagans. Such an action is in fact not unusual in the Middle East. Years before the Syrian civil war, the Muslims built a mosque in a Christian neighbourhood in Aleppo. The Christians gave it the nickname “The Mosque of Teasing.”[viii]
     Now the priest officiating complained to Julian that the presence and interference of the bones of Babylas had silenced the oracle of Apollo. Consequently Julian had the remains of the martyr removed, and the local congregation had them buried in a Christian cemetery outside Antioch, perhaps at the spot where the barracks are situated today.
     Then one day something happened that resulted in the ultimate clash between these two extremes. The magnificent temple of Apollo in Daphne burned down, the Apollo statue, the building, and all. The cause may have been a lightning or a turned over lamp, but Julian blamed the fire on the Christians, perhaps believing that they wanted to get even with him after the Babylas affair, or perhaps just using the occation to get the better of the Church. After all, something similar had happened in Rome during the reign of Nero (d. AD 68).
     Cavafy describes what may have been the reaction:
We are bewildered at Antioch on learning
of the latest doings of Julian.
Apollo had it out with his highness in Daphne!
He would not give an oracle (as if we were worried!),
he had no intention of speaking prophetically
until his temple in Daphne should first be purified.
The neighboring dead disturbed him, he said.
There were numerous graves in Daphne,
one of the dead who were buried there
was the marvelous, the glory of our church,
the saint, the victorious Martyr Babylas.
It was to him the false god alluded, the one he feared.
As long as he felt him near, he did not dare
to give out his oracles; he was mum.
(They are terrified of our martyrs, the false gods.)
The impious Julian rolled up his sleeves,
his nerves were on edge and he shouted: “Take him up, Take him away.
Carry this Babylas away at once.
Can you imagine? Apollo is annoyed.
Take him up, seize him immediately.
Unbury him, take him wherever you like.
Take him away, throw him out. Are we joking now?
Apollo said his temple had to be purified."
We took it, we carried the holy remains elsewhere,
we took it, we carried it with love and honor.
And truly the temple showed beautiful improvement.
With no less of time whatever,
a huge fire broke out: a raging fire:
and the temple was burnt and Apollo also.
The idols in ashes, to be swept away with the refuse.
Julian was bursting with rage and he spread it abroad –
what else could he do? – that the fire had been started
by us Christians. Let him talk.
What really matters is that he was bursting with rage.[ix]
     The stand taken by Julian was clear, and so was that of the Antiochenes, pagans as well as Christians. Julian was an emperor, but also a pagan ascetic philosopher who wanted to impose his views on his subjects. The Antiochenes just wanted to keep to status quo, that is, their life “rich in pleasures perfectly elegant in every way,” as Caverfy puts it.
     But what about Caverfy himself? His poems reveal an admiration for the Hellenic past, but not in the austerity Julian promoted. On the other hand, he has a certain respect for the Church, but at the same time a liking for a life “rich in pleasures perfectly elegant in every way.” In the words of the modern Greek poet Georgios Seferis: “Like Julian, Cavafy longs for the return of the ancients, of their pleasure, but not like that puritan who is dedicated to an ideological cause.”[x]
     Evidently we have find Caverfy somewhere in between.


[i] The Complete Poems of Cavafy, tr. Rae Dalven (New York & London: A Havest / HBJ Book, 1976), 149.
[ii] Ovid, Metamorphoses, Book I (Harmondsworth, England: Penguin Books, 1968) 41-43.
[iii] Julian, Misopogon, accessed May 12, 2014, http://www.attalus.org/translate/misopogon.html.
[iv] The Complete Poems of Cavafy, 119.
[v] The Greek letter χ for Χριστος, Christ.
[vi] The Greek letter κ for Κονσταντιος, Constantios, the predecessor of Julian. In The Complete Poems of Cavafy the reading Constantinius has been preferred.
[vii] The Complete Poems of Cavafy, 137.
[viii] Jørgen Christenseen-Ernst, Antioch on the Orontes – A History and a Guide (Lanham, Maryland: Hamilton Books, 2012), 78, note 25. (جامع الجكارة).
[ix] The Complete Poems of Cavafy, 170, 171.
[x] Quoted in Curt Hopkins, Denying Julian, accessed May 13, 2014, http://www.lsa.umich.edu/UMICH/modgreek/Home/_TOPNAV_WTGC/C.P.%20Cavafy%20Forum/DenyingJulian_hopkins.pdf.