Wednesday, 4 March 1998

Henrik Ibsen: Emperor and Galilean (1870)

Edition: Methuen, 1986
Translation: Michael Meyer, 1986
Emperor and Galilean is Ibsen's longest play, consisting of two five act parts, Caesar's Apostasy and Julian Emperor. It is also the last history play he wrote, being a fairly accurate account of the career of the Roman emperor, Julian the Apostate.
Julian was brought up a Christian and as heir (Caesar) to the Empire by Constantius, who had murdered most of Julian's family for political reasons. He was sickened by the hypocrisy and pettiness of the Christian church of the time, much as Ibsen was in his own day, and was attracted by the comparitively virtuous pagans. He became involved with a pagan mystic, Maximus, who told him that he would be the founder of the "third empire", following the pagan Roman empire and the Christian empire of the Galilean, Jesus.
He became Emperor and began to restore the pagan religion of Rome. His persecution of the church brought unity, purity and virtue back to it. He found that he might rule men's bodies, but the Galilean ruled men's hearts. Evenutually he was killed in a campaign against the Persian empire, and was succeeded by the Christian Jovian, so that his reforms came to nothing.
Emperor and Galilean occupied Ibsen over many years. It doesn't seem to me to be as great as many of his other plays; perhaps the historical nature of the play constrained him too much, making it impossible to alter the plot to make his points more telling. It deals with the themes of choice and freedom which were extremely important to Ibsen, and which it shares with other plays from the same period, notably Brand and Peer Gynt. Both these plays work better in my opinion, and Ibsen's abandonment of the historical form from this time onwards perhaps shows that he agreed.

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