A reminder that, as wonderful a public personality and intellectual as he was, he was also a fantastic writer. Julian, while not as brilliant as Burr, captures so many of the strengths of the public Vidal.
The philosophy within Julian is, of necessity, I think, the sophomore year dorm room variety (not freshman, but not folks who are more than half way through their philosophy B.A.s). Novels are rarely deeply philosophical and we should not expect them to be. Perhaps only Plato could have done both successfully.
The anti-religious Vidal is naturally sympathetic to the anti-Christian Emperor Julian, but he also gently mocks the protagonist’s own adherence to pre-Christian Hellenic paganism. But the depiction of a time when education meant, primarily, an education in philosophy and history, seems so wonderfully idyllic to a person like me (even if sanitation was undoubtedly worse). The various teacher-philosophers of Athens and Antioch are used to portray an achingly attractive milieu. And, in today’s climate, the idea of a leader who surrounds himself with leading philosophers sounds wonderful.
Narratively speaking, the best innovation is the form. It is a correspondence between two former teachers and devoted followers of the (real) Emperor Julian. Libanius wants to publish the memoirs of Julian, which he acquires from Priscus, who managed to grab them in the aftermath of Julian’s death during his military campaign in Persia. As the memoirs are copied and sent to Libanius by Priscus, you also see the annotations and notes of Priscus (defending himself against supposed inaccuracies and raging against some of the rivals for Julian’s ear). Then you see Libanius’ occasionally outraged remarks about Priscus’ parsimony and puffery. It’s a fantastic depiction of gossip and literary politics among intellectuals and semi-celebrities and you can imagine that no one does it better than Vidal.