Persecution of pagans in the late Roman Empire
The persecution of pagans in the late Roman Empire began late during the reign of Constantine the Great, when he ordered the pillaging and the tearing down of some temples. The first anti-Pagan laws by the Christian state started with Constantine's son Constantius II, who was an unwavering opponent of paganism; he ordered the closing of all pagan temples, forbade Pagan sacrifices under pain of death, and removed the traditional Altar of Victory from the Senate. Under his reign ordinary Christians started vandalizing many of the ancient Pagan temples, tombs and monuments.
From 361 till 375, Paganism was relatively tolerated, until three Emperors, Gratian, Valentinian II and Theodosius I, under Bishop of Milan Saint Ambrose's influence, reinstituted and escalated the persecution. Under pressure from the zealous Ambrose, Theodosius issued the infamous 391 "Theodosian decrees," a declaration of war on paganism, the Altar of Victory was removed again by Gratian, the Vestal Virgins were disbanded, and access to Pagan temples was prohibited.
- 1 Anti-paganism policy of Constantine I
- 2 Beginning of anti-paganism laws
- 3 Restoration and tolerance from Julian till Valentinian I/Valens (361-378)
- 4 Saint Ambrose's influence
- 5 Persecution and bans after Theodosius I till the collapse of the Principate
- 6 After the Fall of the Roman Empire
- 7 Evaluation and legacy
- 8 See also
- 9 Notes and references
Anti-paganism policy of Constantine I
The persecution of paganism in the Roman Empire started late in the reign of Constantine the Great, with his orders for the pillaging and tearing down of pagan temples;  Earlier in his reign he had prohibited the construction of new temples but tolerated the practice of pagan sacrifices.
Beginning of anti-paganism laws
From the 350s, new laws imposed the death penalty for attendance and participation in pagan sacrifices and the worship of "idols." Temples were shut down and the traditional Altar of Victory was removed from the Senate. There were also frequent episodes of ordinary Christians destroying, pillaging, desecrating and vandalizing pagan temples, tombs and monuments.
These harsh imperial edicts had to contend with the immense popularity of paganism among ordinary folk and the passive resistance of governors and magistrates. The anti-pagan legislation that began with Constantius would in time have a detrimental influence on freedom of thought during the Middle Ages and serve as a precedent for the horrors of the Inquisition.
Restoration and tolerance from Julian till Valentinian I/Valens (361-378)
Under the brief rule of Julian the Apostate (361-363), a pagan himelf, a revival of paganism was attempted. During the reigns of Christian emperors Jovian, Valens and Valentinian I (363-378), persecution of pagans was minimal.
Saint Ambrose's influence
Saint Ambrose lobbying against paganism
Under the influence of Ambrose, emperors Gratian, Valentinian II and Theodosius I carried out a persecution of paganism. Under Ambrose's zealous pressure, Theodosius issued the infamous Theodosian Decrees of 391, a declaration of war on paganism, and the Altar of Victory was removed by Gratian. At the urging of Ambrose, Gratian, Valentinian and Theodosius rejected requests to restore the Altar.
Gratian: Seizing of pagans' wealth and privileges
Gratian, under the influence of his chief advisor the Bishop of Milan Ambrose, took active steps to repress pagan worship. In 382, Gratian appropriated the income of pagan priests and the Vestal Virgins, confiscated the possessions of the priestly colleges and ordered the Altar of Victory removed again. The colleges of Pagan priests also lost all their privileges and immunities. Gratian declared that all of the Pagan temples and shrines were to be confiscated by the government and that their revenues were to be joined to the property of the royal treasury.
Anti-paganism policy of Valentinian II
In 388 Valentinian II assumed the office of Emperor in the Western Roman Empire.
Valentinian II, advised by Ambrose, and in spite of pleas from the Pagans, refused to restore the Altar of Victory to the Senate House, or their income to the priests and Vestal Virgins. In the year 391, Valentinian II issued a law that not only prohibited sacrifices but also forbade anyone from visiting the temples. This again caused turbulence in the West. Valentinian II quickly followed this law with a second one, which declared that Pagan temples were to be closed, a law that was viewed as practically outlawing Paganism.
Total ban, on pain of death, for all public and private pagan practises by Theodosius (381-395)
The Christian persecution of paganism under Theodosius I began in 381, after the first couple of years his reign in the Eastern Roman Empire. In the 380s, Theodosius I reiterated Constantine's ban on Pagan sacrifice, prohibited haruspicy on pain of death, pioneered the criminalization of Magistrates who did not enforce anti-Pagan laws, broke up some pagan associations and destroyed Pagan temples.
Between 389-391 he emanated the infamous "Theodosian decrees," which established a practical ban on paganism; visits to the temples were forbidden, remaining Pagan holidays abolished, the eternal fire in the Temple of Vesta in the Roman Forum extinguished, the Vestal Virgins disbanded, auspices and witchcraft punished. Theodosian refused to restore the Altar of Victory in the Senate House when asked to do so by Pagan Senators.
In 392 he became emperor of the whole empire. From this moment till the end of his reign in 395, while Pagans remained outspoken in their demands for toleration, he authorized or participated in the killing of pagan priests, destruction of many temples, holy sites, images and objects of reverence throughout the empire and participated in actions by Christians against major Pagan sites. His later decrees were seen as effectively a declaration of war on traditional religious practises and for anyone caught, was a death sentence, as well as an automatic confiscation of property, even for private familial rites within the home. However, it appears that many covertly still chose to do so in defiance of the edicts, despite the risk to their heirs. He likely also suppressed the Ancient Olympic Games; the last record of the Olympics being celebrated in ancient Rome is from 393.
Persecution and bans after Theodosius I till the collapse of the Principate
Christian persecution of paganism after Theodosius I until the fall of the Roman Empire involved a long series of emperors, from both the Eastern and Western parts of the Empire, and ranged from 395 till 476.
Anti-Pagan laws were instated throughout this period, by emperors including Arcadius,  Honorius, Theodosius II, Marcian and Leo I the Thracian. The reiterations of the bans, especially on Pagan religious rites and sacrifices, and the increases in the penalties, indicated that the "Pagan" religion had still many followers. Significant support for Paganism was still present among Roman nobles, senators, magistrates, imperial palace officers, and other officials, who often protested or failed to enforce the edicts.
"Paganism" continued to be practiced by a large portion of the population, although the Pagans increasingly had to worship their gods undercover in order to comply formally with the edicts. There were many who pretended to convert to Christianity while secretly continuing Pagan practices, and many Christians converted back to Paganism; numerous laws against apostasy were promulgated and penalties increased from those in the time of Gratian and Theodosius. Pagans openly voiced their resentment in historical works, such as the writings of Eunapius and Olympiodorus; some writers blamed the Christian hegemony for the 410 Sack of Rome. Christians destroyed almost all such Pagan political literature, and threatened to cut off the hands of any copyist who dared to make new copies of the offending writings.
Laws declared that buildings belonging to known Pagans and heretics were to be appropriated by the churches. St. Augustine exhorted his congregation in Carthage to smash all tangible symbols of paganism they could lay their hands on. The persecution was somewhat reduced in some periods under the influence of the high-ranking general Stilicho and under the "usurper" Joannes Primicerius; a revival was attempted by Anthemius from 467.
After the Fall of the Roman Empire
Anti-paganism policy of Zeno
Shortly thereafter, in 476, the last emperor of Rome, Romulus Augustulus, was deposed by Odoacer, who became the first "barbarian" king of Italy. In spite of this disaster, the Pagans made one last attempt to revive the Pagan rites. In 484, the Magister militum per Orientem, Illus, revolted against Eastern Emperor Zeno and raised his own candidate, Leontius, to the throne. Leontius hoped to reopen the temples and restore the ancient ceremonies; as such, many Pagans joined in his revolt against Zeno. Illus and Leontius were compelled, however, to flee to a remote Isaurian fortress, where Zeno besieged them for four years. Zeno finally captured them in 488 and promptly had them executed.
Following the revolt, Zeno instituted a harsh persecution of Pagan intellectuals. With the failure of the revolt of Leontius, some Pagans became disillusioned and many became Christian, or pretended to do so, in order to avoid persecution. The subjugation of the Roman Empire to Christianity became complete when the emperor Anastasius I, who came to the throne in 491, was required to sign a written declaration of orthodoxy before his coronation.
Appropriation by Pope Gregory I
The caverns, grottoes, crags and glens that had once been used for the worship of the Pagan gods were now appropriated by Christianity: "Let altars be built and relics be placed there" wrote Pope Gregory I, "so that [the pagans] have to change from the worship of the daemones to that of the true God."
Anti-paganism policy of "barbarian" monarchies
"The triumph of Catholic Christianity over Roman paganism, heretical Arianism [and] pagan barbarism," asserts Hillgarth "was certainly due in large part to the support it received, first from the declining Roman state and later from the barbarian monarchies."
Evaluation and legacy
Except for the most recent literature, for at least the last 200 years historical scholarship has followed a conceptual scheme in which the persecution of those Mediterranean religions that we now label "paganism" was seen as the result of the religious intolerance inherent in the monotheistic Christian faith. The classic expression of this view occurs in the work of Edward Gibbon, who, in his Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. As historian Herbert Drake puts it, "It is difficult to overestimate the influence of Gibbon's interpretation on subsequent scholarship."
Herbert Drake takes issue with the historiography of Gibbon, arguing that while persecution certainly occurred for religious religious, that the underlying motivation was consolidation of power in the Constantinian dynasty, which was offered in the form of promoting the cult of Christianity to the exclusion of others. He writes that "while there is obviously some truth in the proposition that intolerance follows from the rejection of other gods that lies at the core of monotheistic belief," this alone could neither explain why pagans had previously persecuted Christians, nor why there were "important voices for moderation in the early Christian community." H.A. Drake writes: "Gibbon skirts a serious problem: for three centuries prior to Constantine, the tolerant pagans who people the Decline and Fall were the authors of several major persecutions, in which Christians were the victims." Gibbon, however, implies that such an argument is in itself flawed, in that Christians later exaggerated the depth and magnitude of the persecutions against them. He argues that a diligent review of the earliest Christian source, Eusebius, reveals by his own accounting that less than one hundred Christians were executed under Diocletian for refusing civic sacrifices as a test of their loyalty.
It should be remembered, however, that early persecution of Christians did not follow the same prerogatives commonly ascribed to religious persecution in the modern sense, but rather arose from a feeling of "otherness" that Christians aroused in the society of the time, being adverse as they were to participating in the religious life of the Roman empire at large. Private religion, or the sacra privita, was not regulated by the state until the Christianization of the Empire, when paganism was proscribed even within the home. Private religion was the purview of the family and the individual, and varied between various ethnic groups. As such, many pagans were not opposed to Christian theology per se, but rather to the motivations of early Christians, who seemed rather "unpatriotic" in their isolation and aggressiveness towards other faiths. Christians were also seen as being a public embodiment of superstitio; what might be described today as religious zeal, but which also had connotations of magical thinking. While this was usually regarded as a private vice, one which was commonly thought to cause mental instability, it could also been seen as dangerous to the order of society. Romans had previously ascribed superstitio to excessive practice of magic, as well as other religious groups, namely Druidism and Judaism, both of which were seen as opposed to the interpretatio romana, under which their public observances would be syncretised and brought into line with Roman practices. Unlike Christianity, however, these groups were not generally seen as threats to traditional Roman religious observance itself, but as obstacles to civic order and Romanization.
Peter Garnsey strongly disagrees with those who describe the attitude of the "plethora of cults" that are labelled 'Paganism' as "tolerant" or "inclusive." What Ramsay MacMullen wrote, that in its process of expansion, the Roman Empire was "completely tolerant, in heaven as on earth" (with the notable exceptions of the Jews, Christians and Druids), is for Garnsey a simple "misuse of terminology." The foreign Gods were not tolerated, but made subject together with their communities when they were conquered. The Romans "cannot be said to have extended to them the same combination of disapproval and acceptance which is toleration."
The example of Constantine, Theodosius and Justinian, who were seen as "godly emperors (...) serving the church and crushing its enemies," has been cited repeatedly by Christian authors who endorsed an idea of religious persecution. According to the historian Ramsay MacMullen, a council of bishops at Toledo in 681 called on civil authorities to seize and behead all those guilty of non-Christian practices of any sort. Medieval Emperor Charlemagne ruled in September 774 that the Saxons (Westfali, Ostfali, and Angrarii) must be presented with the alternative of baptism or death and had 4,500 pagan Saxons beheaded in the Massacre of Verden.
In the 20th century, the Roman Catholic Church issued the decree "Dignitatis Humanae" that fully embraced the right of every human person to religious freedom, as part of the Vatican II council, on 7 December 1965. On 12 March 2000, Pope John Paul II prayed publicly for forgiveness because "Christians have often denied the Gospel; yielding to a mentality of power, they have violated the rights of ethnic groups and peoples, and shown contempt for their cultures and religious traditions".
- History of persecutions by Christians
- History of Christianity
- Religious persecution in the Roman Empire
- Decline of Greco-Roman polytheism
Notes and references
- R. MacMullen, "Christianizing The Roman Empire A.D.100-400, Yale University Press, 1984, ISBN 0-300-03642-6
- "A History of the Church," Philip Hughes, Sheed & Ward, rev ed 1949, vol I chapter 6.
- Eusebius Pamphilius and Schaff, Philip (Editor) and McGiffert, Rev. Arthur Cushman, Ph.D. (Translator) NPNF2-01. Eusebius Pamphilius: Church History, Life of Constantine, Oration in Praise of Constantine quote: "he razed to their foundations those of them which had been the chief objects of superstitious reverence"
- Kirsch, J. (2004) God against the Gods, pp. 200-1, Viking Compass
- "The Codex Theodosianus On Religion," XVI.x.4, 4 CE
- Sheridan, J.J. (1966) The Altar of Victor – Paganism's Last Battle. in L'Antiquite Classique 35 : 186-187.
- Ammianus Marcellinus Res Gestae 22.4.3
- Sozomen Ecclesiastical History 3.18.
- Theodosian Code 16.10.3
- Theodosian Code 9.17.2
- Byfield (2003) pp. 92-4 quote:
In the west, such [anti-pagan] tendencies were less pronounced, although the enemies of paganism had an especially influential advocate. No one was more determined to destroy paganism than Ambrose, bishop of Milan, a major influence on both Gratian and Valentinian II. [...] p. 94 The man who ruled the ruler - Whether Ambrose, the senator-bureaucrat-turned-bishop, was Theodosius's mentor or his autocrat, the emperor heeded him--as did most of the fourth-century church.
- MacMullen (1984) p. 100 quote:
The law of June 391, issued by Theodosius [...] was issued from Milan and represented the will of its bishop, Ambrose; for Theodosius--recently excommunicated by Ambrose, penitent, and very much under his influence43--was no natural zealot. Ambrose, on the other hand, was very much a Christian. His restless and imperious ambition for the church's growth, come what might for the non-Christians, is suggested by his preaching.
- King (1961) p.78
- Gerberding, R. and J. H. Moran Cruz, Medieval Worlds (New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2004) p. 28.
- Peter Brown, The Rise of Christendom 2nd edition (Oxford, Blackwell Publishing, 2003) p. 60.
- Theodosian Code 16.10.6
- Catholic Encyclopedia (1914) Flavius Julius Constantius
- Ammianus Marcellinus Res Gestae 9.10, 19.12. quote summary: Ammianus describes pagan sacrifices and worship taking place openly in Alexandria and Rome. The Roman Calendar of 354 cites many pagan festivals as though they were still being openly observed. See also the descriptions of pagan worship in the following works: Firmicius Maternus De Errore Profanorum Religionum; Vetus Orbis Descriptio Graeci Scriptoris sub Constantio.
- Bowder, D. (1978) The Age of Constantine and Julian
- C. G. Herbermann & Georg Grupp, "Constantine the Great," Catholic Encyclopedia, 1911, New Advent web site.
- Roldanus (2006) p.148
- Hellemo (1989) p.254
- "Gratian," Catholic Encyclopedia, 1909
- "Letter of Gratian to Ambrose," The Letters of Ambrose Bishop of Milan, 379 AD.
- Theodosian Code 2.8.18-2.8.25, 16.7.1-16.7.5
- Sheridan, J.J., "The Altar of Victory – Paganism's Last Battle." L'Antiquite Classique 35 (1966): 187.
- Ambrose Epistles 17-18; Symmachus Relationes 1-3.
- Theodosian Code 16.10.20; Symmachus Relationes 1-3; Ambrose Epistles 17-18.
- Ambrose Epistles 17, 18, 57.
- Theodosian Code 16.10.10
- Theodosian Code 16.10.11
- Routery, Michael (1997) The First Missionary War. The Church take over of the Roman Empire, Ch. 4, The Serapeum of Alexandria
- Zosimus 4.59
- Symmachus Relatio 3.
- Grindle, Gilbert (1892) The Destruction of Paganism in the Roman Empire, pp.29-30. Quote summary: For example, Theodosius ordered Cynegius (Zosimus 4.37), the praetorian prefect of the East, to permanently close down the temples and forbade the worship of the deities throughout Egypt and the East. Most of the destruction was perpetrated by Christian monks and bishops.
- Life of St. Martin
- Gibbon, Edward The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, ch28
- Catholic Encyclopedia (1912) article on Theophilus, New Advent Web Site.
- Ramsay McMullan (1984) Christianizing the Roman Empire A.D. 100–400, Yale University Press, p.90.
- Gibbon, Edward The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, ch28
- Kotynski, p.3. For more information about the question of this date, see Kotynski.
- Theodosian Code 2.8.22
- Theodosian Code 16.10.13
- Theodosian Code 16.10.14
- Theodosian Code 16.10.16, 15.1.36
- Theodosian Code 15.6.1, 15.6.2
- Gibbon, Edward The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, ch28, note 54.
- Theodosian Code 16.5.42
- Theodosian Code 16.10.19
- Theodosian Code 16.5.63
- Constitutiones Sirmondianae 6
- Justinian Code 1.11.7
- Theodosian Code 16.7.7
- Justinian Code 1.11.8
- Sidonius Epistle 1.11.6
- Theodosian Code 16.5.46
- Zosimus 5.46
- This law (Theodosian Code 16.10.24) is interesting because it officially recognizes the fact that there were many people who only pretended to be Christian.
- Theodosian Code 16.5.51
- Theodosian Code 16.7.1, 16.7.2, 16.7.3, 16.7.4, 16.7.5, 16.7.6
- Justinian Code 1.7.2.
- Theodosian Code 16.10.25
- MacMullen, Ramsay (1997) Christianity & Paganism in the Fourth to Eighth Centuries, Yale University Press, p.4 quote: "non Christian writings came in for this same treatment, that is destruction in great bonfires at the center of the town square. Copyists were discouraged from replacing them by the threat of having their hands cut off
- Kirsch, R. (1997) God Against the Gods, p.279, Viking and Compass
- Constitutiones Sirmondianae 12.
- MacMullen, R. Christianizing The Roman Empire A.D.100-400, Yale University Press, 1984, ISBN 0-300-03642-6
- Theodosian Code 16.5.43
- Theodosian Code 16.10.15
- Theodosian Code 16.10.17
- Theodosian Code 16.10.18
- A law in the Theodosian Code (16.2.47) refers to a tyrant who issued edicts in opposition to the church. This tyrant (i.e. usurper) is most likely to be identified with Joannes the Primicerius.
- Photius Bibliotheca cod. 242
- Marcellinus Chronicle s.a. 468
- Theophanes Chronographia s.a. A.M. 5976-5980; John Malalas Chronicle 15.12-15.14.
- Pagans were still sufficiently numerous during the reign of Justinian for a law to be published, in 527 (Justinian Code 1.5.12), which barred Pagans from office and confiscated their property.
- The modern Church takes a much less antagonistic stance to non-Abrahamic religions. See Dignitatis humanae and Nostra aetate
- R. MacMullen, "Christianity and Paganism in the Fourth to Eighth Centuries," Yale University Press, 1997.
- J.N Hillgarth, ed. "Christianity and Paganism 350-750,:The Conversion of Western Europe", rev. ed., University of Pennsylvania Press, 1986.
- R. Kirsch, "God Against the Gods," p. 278, Viking Compass, 1997.
- H.A.Drake, Lambs into Lions, p. 8
- H.A.Drake, Lambs into Lions, p. 5
- H.A.Drake, Lambs into Lions, p. 7
- Gibbon, Edward The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Chapter XVI, Part 2; online text from Project Gutenberg
- Garnsey 1984: 24
- quoted after Garnsey 1984: 25
- Garnsey 1984: 25
- John Coffey (2000), Persecution and Toleration in Protestant England 1558-1689, Studies in Modern History, Pearson Education, p. 31; O. O'Donovan (1996), The Desire of the Nations: Rediscovering the Roots of Political Theology, esp. ch. 6.
- Ramsay MacMullen, "Christianity & Paganism in the Fourth to Eighth Centuries," Chap 1:16, "Persecution," ISBN 0-300-07148-5
- Thomas J. Shahan & E. Macpherson, "Charlemagne," The Catholic Encyclopedia, Volume III. Published 1908 
- "POPE JOHN PAUL II ASKS FOR FORGIVENESS". March 12, 2000. Archived from the original on 2008-10-23. Retrieved 16 April 2007.