As an adolescent in the west of Scotland I was something of a historical trainspotter, able to list all the kings and queens of England, though not, oddly enough, those of Scotland, and able to arrange all the fights from Marathon to Waterloo in order categorical.
To such a sensibility, the Romans were particularly congenial (number of maniples in a legion; names, dates and sexual preferences of the Julio Claudian emperors) but Gore Vidal's historical novel about the last pagan Roman emperor and his attempt to restore the worship of the old gods was a revelation. Although my interest in history was to move forward several centuries from the era of Vidal's hero to the era of Charlemagne, and although the trainspotting element has bulked larger in that interest than I would wish (can Boso, nephew of Boso, really be related to Bernard, son of Bernard?), Julian transformed my view of history and confirmed a vocation.
On looking at Julian again, this seems surprising. It is not among the very greatest imaginative feats of the historical novelist. It is not even Vidal's most immediately impressive novel. Its rather austere prose and solemn displays of historical learning will disconcert those who succumbed to the outre camp of Myra Breckinridge and Myron.
Nonetheless, it remains for me a great novel. Its impact on my adolescent self was threefold. First, I was startled by its hostile view of Christianity. This novel was not merely anti-clerical but launched a root and branch attack on Christianity. It was hard to relate the douce Presbyterian ministers of Paisley to the gorgeously jewelled bishops of the late Roman world, but it seemed all too easy to relate the doctrinal squabbles of fourth-century Antioch to the sectarian bigotries of the west of Scotland. This was food for thought. Second, Vidal's attack on Christianity revealed how much the past could matter to the present.
The Roman empire was not a gone world but one from which our own stemmed; its quarrels and struggles shaped the Europe to come after, the Europe of barbarism and religion. This seems banal but history, as taught at school, eschewed such connections. It seemed to concentrate either on the lost glories of Scotland (Bannockburn good, Flodden bad) or on those esoteric fossils, the potwallopers of the 1832 Reform Act, which we studied year after year as a sacred text from a remote civilisation. History seemed sealed off. Vidal's story of a Greek pagan from the fourth century blazed with life and interest.
The reason it did so lies in the third aspect of the book that so impressed me: its construction. Julian's story unfolds through three narratives; his memoirs are interrupted by commentaries from two of his friends, the philosopher Priscus of Athens and the orator Libanius of Antioch. Julian's hopes and fears are continually undercut by his commentators but the effect is far from reductive. Vidal catches something of the tragic irony built into all historical narratives where we know the outcome of the protagonists' struggles. More than that, Julian and his world gain in depth as the multi-layered narrative unfolds. Simple notions of a single truth are replaced, not by the easy relativism of post-modernism, but by argument, reassessment of testimonies, and the image of a ceaseless dialogue between past and present. Vidal's inclusion of the reader in this dialogue provides a model for historical writing from which we professionals -the scholar-squirrels as he calls us- can still learn.
Stuart Airlie is a lecturer in history, University of Glasgow.