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E01956: The emperor Julian in his Letter 79 of 362, recounts his meeting in 354 with Pegasios, bishop of Illion, who regarded the veneration of pagan heroes as equivalent to that of the Christian martyrs. Written in Greek in Constantinople.

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posted on 23.10.2016, 00:00 by Bryan
Julian the Apostate (Flavius Claudius Iulianus Augustus), Letter 79

Letter 79, To Aristoxenos the Philosopher


The author knew that Pegasios, bishop of Ilion (Troy) revered the gods, even though he was a Christian bishop. Summoned to the court of the late emperor Constantius II, Julian visits the Troad, and is welcomed by Pegasios who offers Julian a tour of the sites and shrines of the city.

[……] Ἡρῷόν ἐστιν Ἕκτορος, ὅπου χαλκοῦς ἕστηκεν ἀνδριὰς ἐν ναΐσκῳ βραχεῖ. Τούτῳ τὸν μέγαν ἀντέστησαν Ἀχιλλέα κατὰ τὸ ὕπαιθρον· εἰ τὸν τόπον ἐθεάσω, γνωρίζεις δήπουθεν ὃ λέγω. Τὴν μὲν οὖν ἱστορίαν, δι’ ἣν ὁ μέγας Ἀχιλλεὺς ἀντιτεταγμένος αὐτῷ πᾶν τὸ ὕπαιθρον κατείληφεν, ἔξεστί σοι τῶν περιηγητῶν ἀκούειν. Ἐγὼ δὲ καταλαβὼν ἐμπύρους ἔτι, μικροῦ δέω φάναι λαμπροὺς ἔτι τοὺς βωμοὺς καὶ λιπαρῶς ἀληλιμμένην τὴν τοῦ Ἕκτορος εἰκόνα, πρὸς Πηγάσιον ἀπιδών· «τί ταῦτα;» εἶπον, «Ἰλιεῖς θύουσιν;» ἀποπειρώμενος ἠρέμα ὡς ἔχει γνώμης. Ὁ δέ· «καὶ τί τοῦτο ἄτοπον, ἄνδρα ἀγαθὸν ἑαυτῶν πολίτην, ὥσπερ ἡμεῖς», ἔφη, «τοὺς μάρτυρας, εἰ θεραπεύουσιν;» Ἡ μὲν οὖν εἰκὼν οὐχ ὑγιής, ἡ δὲ προαίρεσις ἐν ἐκείνοις ἐξεταζομένη τοῖς καιροῖς ἀστεία.

‘There is a sanctuary of Hector, where a bronze statue stands in a little shrine. Opposite this, they have set up the great Achilles in the open space. If you have seen the site, you should know what I am talking about. The reasons why the great Achilles has occupied the whole open space opposite him you can learn from the guides. Now, I found the altars still alight – I should almost say, ablaze – and the image of Hector richly anointed, and I looked at Pegasios and said: ‘What are these things? Do the people of Ilium offer sacrifices?’, thus discreetly exploring his views. And he replied: “And what is wrong about this, if they do service to a noble man and fellow citizen of theirs, just as we do to the martyrs?” The comparison, of course, was not valid, but his attitude was well-meaning by the standards of those times.’

Pegasios takes Julian to the temple of Ilias Athena, which preserves all its statues intact. In the temple, the bishop makes none of the apotropaic gestures Christians normally do when entering a pagan shrine.

Text: Bidez 1960, vol. 1.2.
Translation: E. Rizos


Evidence ID


Saint Name

Martyrs, unnamed or name lost : S00060

Type of Evidence

Literary - Letters



Evidence not before


Evidence not after


Activity not before


Activity not after


Place of Evidence - Region

Constantinople and region

Place of Evidence - City, village, etc


Place of evidence - City name in other Language(s)

Constantinople Constantinople Κωνσταντινούπολις Konstantinoupolis Constantinopolis Constantinople Istanbul

Major author/Major anonymous work

Julian (emperor)

Cult activities - Non Liturgical Practices and Customs

Visiting graves and shrines

Cult activities - Rejection, Condemnation, Scepticism

Acceptance/rejection of saints from other religious groupings

Cult Activities - Protagonists in Cult and Narratives

Ecclesiastics - bishops Monarchs and their family


Born in Constantinople in 331/332, Flavius Claudius Iulianus reigned as emperor in 361-363. His reign is most famous for his attempt to restore paganism as the official religion of the Roman state. A man of letters, he has left a substantial corpus of rhetorical, philosophical and epistolary texts.


Written in 362, this letter refers to Pegasios, former bishop of Illion/Ilium (Homer's Troy), who, under Julian, came out as a pagan and joined Julian's pagan clergy. The emperor reassures his correspondent about the sincerity of the man’s faith, who, quite understandably, was treated with suspicion as an opportunist. Julian had met him during a visit to Illion in 354, while he was on his way from Constantinople to Milan, in order to join the court of Constantius II. Julian recognised Pegasios as an undercover solar henotheist who, although serving as a Christian bishop, tolerated the pagan religion and its shrines in the city. Particularly important is Pegasios’ reported attitude towards the pagan cult of heroes (at the shrine of Hector and Achilles) as an equivalent of the Christian cult of martyrs. As it seems, people like Pegasios saw no difference between the funerary veneration ascribed to the tombs of heroes, and the Christian devotion to the remains of their martyrs, both of which probably shared several common practices. Yet, in the eyes of others, like Julian, it was the object of the cult, not its external features, that distinguished between legitimate religious devotion and superstitious magic. This was the stance of the patristic authors of the time, and, apparently, also of devout pagans like Julian. The latter openly rejects any equation of Christian with pagan cult: although welcoming Pegasios' tolerant stance in the religiously hostile atmosphere of the 350s, Julian rejects his religious interpretation. For him, the Christian martyrs were godless dead people, and hence abominable; their cult was a form of blasphemous superstition and necromancy, not to be confused with the pure worship of gods and heroes (E01986). For these reasons, the stance of Pegasios is particularly interesting. Whether one chooses to interpret it as tolerant, pragmatic, or even opportunistic, he managed to convince both the pagan and the Christian regimes of his intentions, and secured a career as a priest. It is difficult to know how widely his views were shared. Julian presents him as a surprising exception.


Text and translations: Bidez, J. L'empereur Julien. Oeuvres complètes, vol. 1.2, 2nd edn. Paris: Les Belles Lettres, 1960. (with French translation). Wright, W. C.The Works of the Emperor Julian, vol. 3, Loeb classical library, London: W. Heinemann, New York: G. Putnam's Sons, 1913-1923, vol. III (listed as letter 19) (with English translation). Weiss, B. K. Julian Briefe, München : Heimeran, 1973 (with German translation). Further reading: Bidez, J. La vie de l'empereur Julien, Paris: Belles Lettres, 1930. Athanassiadi-Fowden, P. Julian and Hellenism, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1981. Elm, S. "The Letter Collection of the Emperor Julian." In Late Antique Letter Collections. A Critical Introduction and Reference Guide, edited by Cristiana Sogno, Bradley K. Storin and Edward Watts, 54-68. Oakland: University of California Press, 2017. Lippold, A. "Iulianus I (Kaiser)." In Reallexikon für Antike und Christentum, 442-83. Stuttgart: Heinemann, 2001. Rinaldi, G. La Bibbia dei pagani. La Bibbia nella storia. 2 vols. Vol. 1, Bologna: Edizioni Dehoniane, 1997, 319-414.

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