The Initiation Of Two Roman Emperors At Eleusis-Hadrian and Julian


Part I-Hadrian

I was initiated at Eleusis eighteen months later. In one sense this visit to Osroes had been a turning point in my life. Instead of going back to Rome I had decided to devote some years to the Greek and Oriental provinces of the empire; Athens was coming more and more to be the centre of my thought, and my home. I wished to please the Greeks, and also to Hellenize myself as much as possible, but though my motives for this initiation were in part political, it proved nevertheless to be a religious experience without equal.

These ancient rites serve only to symbolize what happens in human life, but the symbol has a deeper purpose than the act, explaining each of our motions in terms of celestial mechanism. What is taught at Eleusis must remain secret; it has, besides, the less danger of being divulged in that its nature is ineffable. If formulated, it would result only in commonplaces; therein lies its real profundity. The higher degrees which were later conferred upon me in the course of private talks with the Hierophant added almost nothing to that first emotion which I shared in common with the least of the pilgrims who made the same ritual ablutions and drank at the spring. I had heard the discords resolving into harmonies; for one moment I had stood on another sphere and contemplated from afar, but also from close by, that procession which is both human and divine, wherein I, too, had my place, this world where suffering exists still, but error is no more. Human destiny, that vague design in which the least practiced eye can trace so many flaws, gleamed bright like the patterns of the heavens. And it is here that I can best speak of a habit which led me throughout my life along paths less secret than those of Eleusis, but after all parallel to them, namely, the study of the stars.

I have always been friend to astronomers and client to astrologers. The science of the latter is questionable, but if false in its details it is perhaps true in the total implication; for if man is part and parcel of the universe, and is ruled by the same laws as govern the sky, it is not unreasonable to search the heavens for the patterns of our lives, and for those impersonal attractions which induce our successes and our errors. On autumn evenings I seldom failed to greet Aquarius to the south, that heavenly Cup Bearer and Giver of Gifts under whose sign I was born. Nor did I forget to note in each of their passages Jupiter and Venus, who govern my life, nor to measure the influence of dangerous Saturn.

But if this strange refraction of human affairs upon the stellar vault preoccupied many of my wakeful hours, I was still more deeply absorbed in celestial mathematics, the abstract speculations to which those flaming spheres give rise. I was inclined to believe, along with certain of our more daring philosophers, that earth, too, takes part in that daily and nightly round which the sacred processions of Eleusis try, at best, to reproduce in human terms. In a world which is only a vortex of forces and whirl of atoms, where there is neither high nor low, periphery nor centre, I could ill conceive of a globe without motion, or a fixed point which would not move.

At other times I was haunted in my nightly vigils by the problem of the precession of the equinoxes, as calculated long ago by Hipparchus of Alexandria. I could see in this passage and return the mathematical demonstration of those same mysteries which Eleusis represents in mere fable and symbol. In our times the Spike of Virgo is no longer at the point of the map where Hipparchus marked it, but such variation itself completes a cycle, and serves to confirm the astronomer’s hypotheses. Slowly, ineluctably, this firmament will become again what it was in Hipparchus’ time; it will be again what it is in the time of Hadrian. Disorder is absorbed in order, and change becomes part of a plan which the astronomer can know in advance; thus, the human mind reveals its participation in the universe by establishing such exact theorems about it, just as it does at Eleusis, by ritual shout and dance. Both the man and the stars which are the objects of his gaze roll inevitably toward their ends, marked somewhere in the sky; but each moment of that descent is a pause, a guide mark, and a segment of a curve itself as solid as a chain of gold. Each movement in space brings us back to a point which, because we happen to be on it, seems to us a centre.

From the nights of my childhood, when Marullinus first pointed out to me the constellations above, my curiosity for the world of the spheres has not abated. In the watches of camp-life I looked with wonder at the moon as it raced through the clouds of barbarian skies; in later years, in the clear nights of Attica, I listened while Theron of Rhodes, the astronomer, explained his system of the world. In mid- Aegean, lying flat on the deck of a ship, I have followed the slow oscillation of the mast as it moved among the stars, swaying first from the red eye of Taurus to the tears of the Pleiades, then from Pegasus to the Swan.

I answered as well as I could the naïve questions so gravely put by the youth gazing with me at that same sky. Here at ‘the Villa I have built an observatory, but I can no longer climb its steps. Once in my life I did a rarer thing. I made sacrifice to the constellations of an entire night. It was after my visit to Osroes, coming back through the Syrian desert: lying on my back, wide awake but abandoning for some hours every human concern, I gave myself up from nightfall to dawn to this world of crystal and flame. That was the most glorious of all my voyages. Overhead shone the great star of the constellation of Lyra, destined to be the polar star for men who will live tens of thousands of years after we have ceased to be. In the last light of the horizon Castor and Pollux gleamed faintly; the Serpent gave way to the Archer; next the eagle mounted toward the zenith, wings widespread, and beneath him appeared the constellation at that time unnamed by astronomers, but to which I have since given that most cherished of names.

The night, which is never so black as people think who live and sleep indoors, was at first more dark, and then grew lighter. The fires, left burning to frighten the jackals, went out; their lying coals made me think of my grandfather warming himself is he stood in his vineyard, and of his prophecies, which by then had become the present, and were soon to be the past. I have tried under many a form to join the divine, and have known more than one ecstasy; some of these have been atrocious, others overpoweringly sweet, but the one of the Syrian night was strangely lucid. It inscribed within me the heavenly motions with greater precision than any partial observation would ever have allowed me to attain. I know exactly, at the hour of this writing, what stars are passing here at Tibur above this stuccoes and painted ceiling; and elsewhere, lar away, over a tomb. Some years later it was death which was to become the object of my constant contemplation, the thought to which I was to give every faculty of my mind not absorbed by the State. And who speaks of death speaks also of that mysterious world to which, perhaps, we gain access by death. After such long reflection, and so many experiments, some of them reprehensible, I still know nothing of what goes on behind death’s dark curtain. But the Syrian night remains as my conscious experience of immortality.


Part II-Julian

…/…’On the fifth day the procession starts from the Dipylon Gate to Eleusis. It was a lovely sight. An image of the god Iacchos, son of Demeter, is borne in a wooden carriage at the procession’s head. This part of the ceremony is sacred to him. Though all are supposed to walk to Eleusis, most of the well-to-do are carried in litters. I walked. My bodyguard complained, but I was exalted. I was crowned with myrtle and I carried not only the sacred branches tied with wood but also, according to tradition, new clothes in a bundle on a stick over my shoulder…/…


🌿Part 1: Chapter 3, ‘Tellus Stabilita’ (territory stability) from Marguerite Yourcenar’s ‘Memoirs of Hadrian’, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, New York 1974. 🌿Part 2: From ‘Emperor Julian’, by Gore Vidal. Page 162 in the 1992 Vintage edition. 🌿More about Marguerite Yourcenar : 🌿 More about Gore Vidal:
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