Anti-paganism policy of Constantius II
The anti-paganism policy of Constantius II lasted from 337 till 361. It was marked by laws and edicts that punished pagan practices. Laws dating from the 350s prescribed the death penalty for those who performed or attended pagan sacrifices, and for the worshipping of idols; temples were shut down, and the Altar of Victory was removed from the Senate meeting house. There were also frequent episodes of ordinary Christians destroying, pillaging, desecrating, vandalizing many of the ancient pagan temples, tombs and monuments. Paganism was still popular among the population at the time. The emperor's policies were passively resisted of many governors and magistrates. Herbermann contends that the anti-paganism legislation had an unfavourable influence on the Middle Ages and become the basis of the Inquisition.
Beginning of anti-pagan laws
Constantius II's legislation began with the banning of the pagan practice of sacrifice. This was in keeping with his personal maxim was: "Cesset superstitio; sacrificiorum aboleatur insania" (Let superstition cease; let the folly of sacrifices be abolished). According to Libanius, Constantius was effectively under the control of others who inspired him to end pagan sacrifices.
With the collapse of official government sanctioned pagan rites, private cults attempted to infiltrate the temples. In the year 353 Constantius prohibited pagan sacrifice under the penalty of death. He also shut down some temples, forbade access to them, and ended their subsidies of public taxes.
Consistent with Christian theology, Constantius carried out on an active campaign against magicians, astrologers and other diviners. This may also be due to his becoming fearful that others might use these means to make someone else emperor.
The emperor never attempted to disband the various Roman priestly colleges or the Vestal Virgins, He never acted against the various pagan schools. He ordered the election of a priest for Africa. Also, he remained pontifex maximus until his death, and was deified by the Roman Senate after his death. The relative moderation of Constantius' actions toward paganism is reflected by the fact that it was not until over 20 years after Constantius' death, during the reign of Gratian, that any pagan senators protested their religion's treatment.
The government's policies could not be rigidly executed due the strength of paganism among the population. No matter what the imperial edicts declared in their fearful threats, the vast numbers of pagans, and the passive resistance of pagan governors and magistrates rendered them largely impotent in their application. However, the effects of policy were enough to contribute to a widespread trend towards Christian conversion, though not enough to make paganism extinct.
Persecution by ordinary Christians
Some Christians encouraged the emperor to take even more extreme measures in their zeal to stamp out paganism, e.g. in the aftermath of the abolition of sacrifices. Firmicus Maternus, a convert to Christianity, urged: "Paganism, most holy emperors, must be utterly destroyed and blotted out, and disciplined by the severest enactments of your edicts, lest the deadly delusion of the presumption continue to stain the Roman world" and "How fortunate you are that God, whose agents you are, has reserved for you the destruction of idolatry and the ruin of profane temples."
Sozomen contends that Constantius did not, apparently, attempt to stop the Christians from destroying and pillaging many of the ancient temples. However, in the Theodosian Code there is a law for the preservation of the temples that were situated outside of city walls.
Constantius enacted another law that exacted a fine from those who were guilty of vandalizing sites holy to pagans and placed the care of these monuments and tombs under the pagan priests.
Magnentius rebelled against and killed Constans. Although he used Christian symbols on his coins, he revoked the anti-paganism legislation of Constans and even permitted the celebration of nocturnal sacrifices. Three years later, in the year 353, Constantius defeated Magnentius and once again forbade the performance of the rituals. This law seems to have had little effect as we find Constantius once again legislating against paganism in 356. Constantius now declared that anyone found guilty of attending sacrifices or of worshipping idols would be executed. It appears the magistrates were uncomfortable with carrying out this law; it was largely ignored.
Removal of the Altar of Victory
In 357 Constantius removed the Altar of Victory in the Senate house because of the complaints of some Christian Senators. This altar had been installed by Augustus in 29 BCE; each Senator had traditionally made a sacrifice upon the altar before entering the Senate house. This altar was later restored, either silently, soon after Constantius' departure, or by the emperor Julian.
Notes and references
- Kirsch, J. (2004) God against the Gods, pp.200-1, Viking Compass
- "The Codex Theodosianus On Religion", XVI.x.4, 4 CE
- The Codex Theodosianus On Religion, 16.10.2
- Theodosian Code 16.10.6
- "A History of the Church", Philip Hughes, Sheed & Ward, rev ed 1949, vol I chapter 6.
- 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
- 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.
- "Libanius Oration" 30.7, For the Temples
- "Libanius Oration" 30.7, For the Temples, 
- Theodosian Code 9.16.4, 9.16.5, 9.16.6
- Vasiliev, A.A, History of the Byzantine Empire 324–1453 (1958), p. 68
- Salzman, M.R., The Making of a Christian Aristocracy: Social and Religious Change in the Western Roman Empire (2002), p. 182
- Theodosian Code 16.10.5