Decline of Hellenistic polytheism

The Hellenistic religion at the time of the Constantinian shift consisted mainly of three main currents,
*Hellenic Polytheism,
*the official Roman imperial cult,
*various Mystery religions.

Christianity grew gradually in Rome and the Roman empire over the 1st to 4th centuries, until it became the official state religion with the Theodosian decrees of 389-391. Hellenistic pagan traditions survived in some pockets of Asia Minor and Greece into the 5th and 6th centuries. The Neoplatonic "Academy" was shut down by Justinian I in 529, a date sometimes taken to mark the end of Classical Antiquity.


Constantine and his sons

The Romans tended towards syncretism, seeing the same Gods under different names in different places of the Empire, especially where they encountered Indo-European nationalities such as the Hellenes, Germans, and Celts. In fact under Roman authority, the various national myths most similar to Rome were adopted by analogue into the overall Roman mythos, further cementing Imperial control. Consequently, they were generally tolerant and accommodating towards new deities and the religious experiences of other peoples who formed part of their wider Empire."A History of the Church", Philip Hughes, Sheed & Ward, rev ed 1949, vol I chapter 6. [] ] However, this tolerance only existed within the overall milieu of Western and European nationalities who did not resist Roman authority. This tolerance was not extended to religions that were hostile to the state nor any that claimed exclusive rights to religious beliefs and practice. Consequently, many Eastern cults were persecuted. Jews were given special privileges owing to their dominance in economy, numbers and dispersal, but this tolerance was balanced unevenly on a thin veneer of Jewish submission. Tolerance of Judaism turned to persecution when collaboration was perceived as ending. Jewish sects like the early Christians were denounced by the Jewish establishment as dangerous provocateurs. The result was genocides of Christian communities and Jewish nationalist groups.

Whereas the original Hebrew scriptures taught that "the Gods of the gentiles are nothing", the Greek Septuagint translation of that same passage, used by the early Christian Church, asserted that "all the Gods of the heathens are devils." ["The Greek Septuagint translated into English", psalm 95:5, translated by Sir Lancelot Charles Lee Brenton, 1851. Jerome would follow the Greek text rather than the Hebrew when he translated the Latin Vulgate edition of the bible. The "devils" epithet would still appear in bibles up until the end of the 20th century when the consensus reverted back to the original Hebrew text for modern translations] The same Gods whom the Romans believed had protected and blessed their city and its wider empire during the many centuries they had been worshipped were now demonized by the early Christian Church. ["Devil Worship", Catholic Encyclopedia, 1908 Edition. [] The modern Church takes a much less belligerent stance to non-Abrahamic faiths. see Dignitatis Humanae and Nostra Aetate]

The early Christian community was perceived at times to be an intrinsically destabilising influence ["Julian the Apostate and His Plan to Rebuild the Jerusalem Temple", Jeffrey Brodd, Biblical Archaeology Society, Bible Review, Oct 1995.] and threat to the peace of Rome, a "religio illicita". The pagans who attributed the misfortunes of Rome and its wider Empire to the rise of Christianity, and who could only see a restoration by a return to the old ways ["The Memorial of Symmachus". [] ] , were faced by the Christian Church that had set itself apart from that faith and was unwilling to dilute what it held to be the religion of the "One True God". ["Letter of Ambrose to the Emperor Valentinian", The Letters of Ambrose Bishop of Milan, 384AD, retrieved 5th May 2007. [] ]

After the initial conflicts between the state and the new emerging religion, Gallienus (ruled 253 to 260) was the first emperor to issue an edict of toleration for all religious creeds including Christianity. Constantine I was the first emperor to convert to Christianity, albeit on his deathbed, and he legislated against non-Catholic religions by the withdrawal of all privileges. ["Constantine The Great", Catholic Encyclopedia, 1908, [] ] ["The Codex Theodosianus On Religion", XVI.v.1, 4 CE. [] ] A Christian historian also records that he had some pagan temples torn down ["he razed to their foundations those of them which had been the chief objects of superstitious reverence"] . Nevertheless, whatever the imperial edicts said, the effects of policy under the Christian emperors down to Valentinian I and Valens were enough to cause a widespread trend to Christian conversion, but not enough to make paganism extinct. Actual persecution was sporadic and generally the result of local initiative, for example Martin of Tours' destructions of holy sites in Gaul in the later fourth century. [ [ Life of St. Martin ] ] Official orders may have established an understanding that actual persecution would be tolerated, but in the first century of official Christianity did not generally organize it.

Constantine continued, but was not the author, of the policy of toleration that Galerius had established. ["Edict of Milan", 313CE. [] ] His legislation against magic and private divination were driven out of a fear that others might gain power through those means. [Zosimus 2.29.1-2.29.4, Theodosian Code 16.10.1. Laws against the private practice of divination by Roman citizens had been enacted ever since the time of the emperor Tiberius. It was his fear that Roman citizens would fall outside of the official public Roman religion, accept foreign cults in their private family practices, and in turn corrupt the general Roman state. ] Nonetheless, this did not mean he or other Roman rulers disfavored divination. Instead, his belief in "Roman" divination is confirmed by legislation calling for the consultation of augurs after an amphitheatre had been struck by lightning in the year 320. [Theodosian Code 16.10.1] Constantine explicitly allowed public divination as a practice of State ceremony as well as public pagan practices to continue. [Theodosian Code 9.16.1-9.16.3.] Constantine also issued laws confirming the rights of flamens, priests and duumvirs. [Theodosian Code 12.1.21, 12.5.2]

The first emperor to put restrictions on the practice of Paganism was Constantine’s son, Constantius II. According to Libanius Constantius was effectively under the control of others who inspired him to end pagan sacrifices. ["Libanius Oration" 30.7, For the Temples, [] ] In the year 353 Constantius ordered the ending of public taxes for Roman temples and the abolishment of sacrifices by non-state Pagan cults under penalty of death, ["The Codex Theodosianus On Religion", XVI.x.4, 4 CE. [] ] but these edicts were not rigidly executed. ["Flavius Julius Constantius", Catholic Encyclopedia, 1914, [] ] [Ammianus (Res Gestae 9.10, 19.12) 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. Clearly, what occurred was the cessation of public expenditures for Pagan Roman public religion. See also the descriptions of Pagan worship in the following works: Firmicius Maternus, "De Errore Profanorum Religionum"; "Vetus Orbis Descriptio Graeci Scriptoris sub Constantio".] Due to the disturbances caused by Christians who were attempting to destroy ancient Pagan temples in the countryside, Constantius and his brother Constans were forced to issue a law for the preservation of the temples that were situated outside of city walls. [Theodosian Code 16.10.3] However, with the collapse of official government sanctioned pagan rites, private cults attempted to infiltrate the temples. Thus, later the same year another law declared that all Pagan temples were to be closed and access to them forbidden. [Theodosian Code 16.10.4] The desecration of Pagan tombs and monuments by Christians, however, apparently forced Constantius to enact another law that exacted a fine from those who were guilty of vandalizing them and placed the care of these monuments and tombs under the Pagan priests. [Theodosian Code 9.17.2] Magnentius rebelled against and killed Constans. Although he used Christian symbols on his coins, he revoked the anti-pagan 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. [Theodosian Code 16.10.5] 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. [Theodosian Code 16.10.6] It appears the magistrates were uncomfortable with carrying out this law; it was largely ignored.

In the year 357, Constantius celebrated his Vicennalia by visiting the city of Rome. Acting as the Pontifex Maximus, Constantius apparently conferred priesthoods on worthy individuals and confirmed privileges to the Vestal Virgins as well as subsidies to the Pagan cults. [Symmachus Epistle 10] Constantius also enacted a law confirming the prerogatives of the Pagan priests. [Theodosian Code 12.1.46] In spite of Pagan protests, however, Constantius removed the altar from the statue of Victory that stood in the Senate house because of the complaints of some Christian Senators. This was the altar where Romans had traditionally offered prayers for the welfare of the Empire and had pledged their allegiance to the Emperor for generations. 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 the Apostate. [Sheridan, J.J., “The Altar of Victor – Paganism’s Last Battle.” L’Antiquite Classique 35 (1966): 186-187.] Constantius, sensing that he was now hated by many of his subjects, became suspicious and fearful and carried on an active campaign against magicians, astrologers and other diviners who might use their power to make someone else emperor. [Theodosian Code 9.16.4, 9.16.5, 9.16.6] Constantius did not, apparently, attempt to stop the Christians from destroying and pillaging many of the ancient temples. [Ammianus Marcellinus Res Gestae 22.4.3; Sozomen Ecclesiastical History 3.18.]


Julian was a nephew of Constantine and received a Christian training but the murder of his father, brother and two uncles, in the aftermath of Constantine's death, he attributed to Constantius and by association to Christians in general.Fact|date=July 2007 This antipathy was deepened when Constantius executed Julian's only remaining brother in 354AD. ["FLAVIUS CLAUDIUS JULIANUS", Karl Hoeber, Catholic Encyclopedia 1910, retrieved 13 May 2007. [] ] After childhood Julian was educated by hellenists and was attracted to the teachings of neoplatonists and the old religions.

Julian’s religious beliefs were syncretic and he was an initiate of at least three mystery religions. But Julian’s religious open-mindedness did not extend to Christianity due to its belief that it had an exclusive perspective on religious truth. Seeing itself as the only true religion, Christianity was opposed to, and fundamentally incompatible with, the more inclusive syncretism of paganism --see introduction. ["Julian the Apostate and His Plan to Rebuild the Jerusalem Temple", Jeffrey Brodd, Biblical Archaeology Society, Bible Review, Oct 1995.]

As Emperor, Julian sought to turn the tide in the attempted suppression of non-Christian religions. As his first task he sought to reestablish the old Roman Pagan practice of incorporation of other religions. But now instead of allowing different cults using different names for the same or similar deities, Julian's training in Christianity and Imperial government influenced him to develop a singe pagan religion. Thus, his ideas concerning the revival and organisation of the old religion, shaping it into a coherent body of doctrine, ritual and liturgy with a hierarchy under the supervision of the emperor was the hallmark of his reign. ["FLAVIUS CLAUDIUS JULIANUS", Karl Hoeber, Catholic Encyclopedia 1910, retrieved 13 May 2007. [] ] Julian organized elaborate rituals and attempted to set forth a clarified philosophy of Neo-Platonism that might unite all Pagans. [Ammianus Res Gestae 22.12]

Julian allowed religious freedom and avoided any form of actual compulsion. The Christian Sozomen acknowledges that Julian did not compel Christians to offer sacrifice nor did he allow the people to commit any act of injustice towards the Christians or insult them. [Sozomen Ecclesiastical History 5.5 [] ] However, no Christian was allowed to teach or study the ancient classical authors, "Let them keep to Matthew and Luke", thus ending any chance they had of a professional career. [Ammianus Res Gestae 25.4.20 [] ]

He withdrew the privileges of the Christian clergy, bestowed on them by Constantine, and ordered them to make restitution. Those who had demolished temples during the reign of Constantine and Constantius, were made to rebuild them, or to defray the expenses of their re-erection. Only pagans were allowed to teach in law, rhetoric, philosophy, or practice any form of state sanctioned religious liturgy. Julian required those who had abandoned the deities to purify themselves before they were allowed the privilege of taking part in their worship once again. He was devoted to divination and allowed his subjects to freely practice this art. [Ammianus Res Gestae 25.4] In general the privileges and immunities given to the Christians were now replaced with those given to pagan philosophers and priests who subscribed to his neo-platonic pagan religion. [Sozomen Ecclesiastical History 5.5 [] ]

Jovian, Valentinian and Valens

After the death of Julian, Jovian seems to have instituted a policy of religious toleration which avoided the relative extremes of Constantius and Julian. [Themistius Oration 5; Photius, Epitome of the Ecclesiastical History of Philostorgius, 8.5] Under Valentinian I and Valens this period of religious toleration continued. Pagan writers praise both of these emperors for their liberal religious policies. [Ammianus Res Gestae 20.9; Themistius Oration 12.]

Valentinian, who ruled in the west, seems to have only been a halfhearted Christian as he avoided attending his inaugural ceremony by twenty-four hours in order to avoid an inauspicious day (the intercalary day of the bissextile year). [Grindle, Gilbert. The Destruction of Paganism in the Roman Empire. (1892): 17-18.] Valentinian and Valens granted complete toleration for all cults at the beginning of their reign in 364. [Theodosian Code 9.16.9 ] Valentinian even allowed the performance of nocturnal sacrifices, which had been previously prohibited due to the attempt of some people to practice unlawful divination under the cover of the night, after the proconsul of Greece appealed to him. [Zosimus 4.3] Valentinian also confirmed the rights and privileges of the Pagan priests and confirmed the right of Pagans to be the exclusive caretakers of their temples. [Theodosian Code 17.1.60, 17.1.75, 16.1.1] Valens, who was ruling in the east, was an Arian and was too engaged with fighting against the Orthodox Christians to bother much with the Pagans. In both the west and east severe laws were once again passed prohibiting private divination. [Theodosian Code 9.16.7, 9.16.8, 9.16.10, 9.38.3, 9.38.4] Due to the over zealousness of the populace to stop harmful divination, the haruspices and augurs began to be afraid to show themselves in public. This led the emperors to formally authorize the practice of official and lawful divination by law in 371. [Theodosian Code 9.16.9] Despite the official policy, anti-pagan laws remained in force, and unofficial destruction of pagan holy sites was also tolerated.

Gratian and Theodosius I

Upon the death of his father (Valentinian I) in the year 375, Gratian began his actual reign at the age of sixteen. Six days after the death of Valentinian I, Gratian’s half brother, Valentinian II, who was only four years old, was also declared emperor. After the death of Valens, at the battle of Adrianople in 378, Gratian chose a Spaniard named Theodosius I to succeed his uncle. Gratian had been educated by Ausonius who had praised his pupil for his tolerance. Upon the death of his father, Gratian came under the influence of Ambrose, who became his chief advisor. ["Gratian", Catholic Encyclopedia, 1909. [] ] ["Letter of Gratian to Ambrose", The Letters of Ambrose Bishop of Milan, 379AD. [] ] Under the influence of Ambrose, active steps to repress Paganism were taken. [Theodosian Code 2.8.18-2.8.25, 16.7.1-16.7.5]

The influence of Ambrose was a significant force that brought to an end a period of widespread, if unofficial, religious tolerance that had existed since the time of Julian. [Zosimus (4.35) indicated that change occurred in Gratian’s character when he fell under the influence of evil courtiers.] Gratian dealt Paganism several blows in 382. [Ambrose Epistles 17-18; Symmachus Relationes 1-3.] In this year, Gratian appropriated the income of the Pagan priests and Vestal Virgins, confiscated the personal possessions of the priestly colleges and ordered the removal of the Altar of Victory. [Sheridan, J.J., “The Altar of Victor – Paganism’s Last Battle.” L’Antiquite Classique 35 (1966): 187.] 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. [Theodosian Code 16.10.20; Symmachus Relationes 1-3; Ambrose Epistles 17-18.]

Pagan Senators responded by sending an appeal to Gratian, reminding him that he was still the Pontifex Maximus and that it was his duty to see that the Pagan rites were properly performed. They appealed to Gratian to restore the altar of Victory and the rights and privileges of the Vestal Virgins and priestly colleges. Gratian, at the urging of Ambrose, did not grant an audience to the Pagan Senators. In response to being reminded by the Pagans that he was still the head of the ancestral religion, Gratian renounced the title and office of Pontifex Maximus under the influence of Ambrose, declaring that it was unsuitable for a Christian to hold this office. Gratian was quickly faced with a revolt from the outraged Pagans who raised a Spaniard named Maximus to the throne because he was more sympathetic to the Pagan cause.

Theodosius I, who was reigning in the East, made no attacks upon Paganism during the lifetime of Gratian. Both Theodosius and Valentinian II formally recognized Maximus in the year 384. For a time, the Pagans enjoyed religious liberty once again and many distinguished Pagans rose to important offices in the state. [For example, in the year 384 Quintus Aurelius Symmachus was Urban Prefect and Vettius Agorius Praetextatus held the post of Praefectus Praetorio Italiae Illyrici et Africae Iterum. These men were distinguished Pagans.] The fact that the temples continued to be cared for and that Pagan festivals continued to be celebrated is indicated by a law of 386, which declared that care for the temples and festivals were the exclusive prerogative of the Pagans. [Theodosian Code 12.1.112] This law also confirms the right of the priests to perform the traditional Pagan rites of the temples. In the year 387, Theodosius declared war on Maximus after Maximus had driven Valentinian II out of Italy. Maximus was defeated and executed and the anti-Pagan regulations of Gratian were apparently reinstated by Valentinian II. The emperor Theodosius, who had been reigning in the East, had been relatively tolerant towards Pagans in the early part of his reign. [Theodosian Code 12.1.112. Theodosius dealt harshly with Arians, heretics and Christian apostates. A number of harsh laws were directed against apostates, indicated that many Christians may have been converting back to Paganism at this time, q.v. Theodosian Code 16.7.1, 1.7.2, 16.7.2, 16.7.3, 16.7.4, 16.7.5). Theodosius also legislated against private divination, q.v. Theodosian Code 16.10.7, 16.10.9, 9.16.11, 9.38.7, 9.38.8; Constitutiones Sirmondianae 8.] He is known to have appointed various Pagans to office in the earlier part of his reign. For example, he appointed the Pagan Tatianus as the praetorian prefect of Egypt. [Zosimus 4.45] His tolerance for other religions is indicated by his order (in 388) for the reconstruction of a Jewish synagogue at Callicinum in Mesopotamia [Ambrose was opposed to this reconstruction and paints a picture of all the dire consequences that he felt would result from this edict, q.v. Ambrose Epistles 40, 41.27. ]

Only after what is commonly known as the “massacre” of Thessalonica (in 390) was Ambrose able to gain influence with Theodosius. Ambrose accomplished this by excommunicating Theodosius and thereby forcing him to obey him.Fact|date=May 2007 After the death of Maximus, Valentinian II, under the aegis of Theodosius, once again assumed the office of emperor in the West. Valentinian II, advised by Ambrose, and in spite of pleas from the Pagans, refused to restore the altar of the statue of Victory and the income to the priesthoods and Vestal Virgins. [Ambrose Epistles 17, 18, 57.] In the year 391, Valentinian II issued a law that not only prohibited sacrifices but also forbade anyone from visiting the temples. [Theodosian Code 16.10.10] 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. [Theodosian Code 16.10.11] . Valentinian was murdered, possibly by agents of Arbogast whom he had tried to dismiss, and Eugenius, a professor of rhetoric, was proclaimed emperor. ["Valentian II", Encyclopedia Britannica, Ultimate DVD edition, 2003.] . The ancestral religious rites were once again performed openly and the altar of Victory was restored. ["St. Ambrose of Milan, Letters (1881). pp. 324-354. Letters 51-60., Letter 57: To the emperor Eugenius, retrieved 5th May 2007. [] ] Meanwhile, in the East, Theodosius ordered the massacre of seven thousand at Thessalonica in the year 390. Ambrose had a council of the Church condemn this act. Theodosius submitted himself to Ambrose and agreed to do penance. Theodosius’ penance apparently included his promise to adopt a new role as the champion of the Christian faith.Fact|date=May 2007

In the year 392, Theodosius officially began to proscribe the practice of Paganism. This is apparently the time in which he authorized the destruction of many temples throughout the empire. [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, q.v. Grindle, Gilbert. The Destruction of Paganism in the Roman Empire. (1892): 29-30.] Theodosius issued a comprehensive law that prohibited the performance of any type of Pagan sacrifice or worship in any place or any city. [Theodosian Code 16.10.12] Theodosius prohibited men from privately honoring their Lares with fire, their Genius with wine or their Penates with incense. Men were prohibited from such traditions as burning candles or incense and suspending wreaths in honor of the deities. Theodosius also prohibited the practice of all forms of divination, even those forms of divination that were not considered harmful to the welfare of the Emperor, with this wide-ranging law.

In 393, Theodosius was ready to begin his war against Eugenius and Arbogastes. The battle that ensued became, in essence, a battle for the survival of Paganism. [Zosimus 4.53-4.55, 4.58.] The defeat of Eugenius by Theodosius in 394 led to the final separation of Paganism from the state. The majority of the people were now either nominal or devout Christians. Most of the Germanic tribesmen settling in the Empire as auxilleries, federotes, or as former members of the army were also Christian. The military stood as the core of the Empire, and it was wholly Christian. Therefore, when Theodosius visited Rome he attempted to convert the Pagan members of the Senate thereby ending any remaining vestigial artifacts of pagan state religion. Being unsuccessful in this, he withdrew all state funds that had been set aside for the public performance of Pagan rites. [Zosimus 4.59] From this point forward, state funds would never again be made available for the public performance of Pagan rites nor for the maintenance of the Pagan temples. Despite this setback on their religion, the Pagans remained outspoken in their demands for toleration. [Symmachus Relatio 3.]

Pagan revival

Upon the death of Theodosius I 395, a political crisis ensued, which the barbarians were quick to take advantage of by invading the empire on an unprecedented scale. Since most of the Germanic tribes infiltrating, settling, or invading the Empire were not only Christian but Arian Christian, during this disaster, many nominal Orthodox Christians became less certain of their religion. Some in a sense of superstition or ancient Roman pagan patriotism, felt the invasions were the result of abandoning the old ways. Others believed the success of the Germans was because the Orthodox Church was corrupt. Consequently, many nominal Christians converted back to Paganism.Fact|date=July 2007 Pagans, in their turn, became more aggressive and began to blame the Christians for the disasters affecting the empire. [Eunapius reflects some of the Pagan attitudes of this period in his writings. His attitude, however, represents the most fanatical element of the Pagan reaction. ] Despite the pleas of many Pagans for tolerance, Honorius and Arcadius continued the work of their father by enacting even more anti-Pagan laws in an attempt to stop this revival of Paganism. The fact that they had to keep repeating their threats by the enactment of numerous laws against the practice of Paganism indicates that their efforts did not succeed in stamping out the traditional Pagan rites, which continued to be practiced discreetly. [Theodosian Code 16.5.41, 16.5.42, 16.5.51, 16,10.15, 16.10.17, 16.10.19]

During the early part of the reign of Honorius, Stilicho was able to exercise unlimited power over the west. Stilicho exercised moderation in his religious policies and enacted laws that were favorable to the Pagans. Consequently, during the time in which Stilicho held power, the Pagans enjoyed a brief respite from persecution. In the year 395, Arcadius declared that the solemn days of the Pagans were no longer to be included in the number of holidays. [Theodosian Code 2.8.22] In the same year, another law was passed by Arcadius that prohibited anyone from going to a Pagan sanctuary or temple or of celebrating any kind of Pagan sacrifice. [Theodosian Code 16.10.13] This law seems to have been targeted at those Christians who were converting back to Paganism as it specifically mentions “those who are trying to stray from the dogma of the Catholic faith.” In the year 396, the privileges of Pagan priests and other clerics were officially revoked. [Theodosian Code 16.10.14] In the same year, Arcadius ordered that Pagan temples standing in the countryside were to be destroyed without disorder or riot. [Theodosian Code 16.10.16, 15.1.36] This law seems to indicate that the number of Pagans in the countryside was still too large for the Christians to openly destroy the temples that were located there. As a result, zealous Christians had to be content with destroying the Pagan temples that were located in in mostly municipal areas where they could easily outnumber the Pagan inhabitants. The large number of Pagans in the east also seems to have forced Arcadius into allowing the ancient festivals and public games to continue. [Theodosian Code 15.6.1, 15.6.2]

Meanwhile three laws were enacted in the west in the year 399, under the influence of Stilicho, which were relatively favorable to the Pagans. Due to the riots caused by fanatical Christians in their attempts to destroy the temples, the first of these laws protected the Pagan temples from the destruction of zealous Christians who pretended that they had been authorized by the government to destroy them. [Theodosian Code 16.10.15] The second of these laws acknowledged the right of the people to continue to participate in the traditional banquets, shows, gatherings and amusements associated with the old Pagan religion; it did, however, forbid the public performance of any Pagan rites or sacrifice. [Theodosian Code 16.10.17] The third law forbade the destruction of Pagan temples that had been cleared of forbidden things and ordered that they were to be kept in good repair. [Theodosian Code 16.10.18] After the death of Stilicho, Honorius and his party in the state gained control and harsh laws against Paganism were once again enacted. In the year 408, Honorius enacted a new law which ordered that all statues and altars in the temples were to be removed and that the temple buildings and their income were to be appropriated by the government. [Theodosian Code 16.10.19] This law also forbade the holding of any Pagan banquet or celebration in vicinity of the temples. The execution of this law was placed in the hands of the bishops. Two other laws decreed that buildings belonging to known Pagans and heretics were to be appropriated by the churches. [Theodosian Code 16.5.43; Constitutiones Sirmondianae 12.]

Arcadius died in 408 and his eight-year-old son, Theodosius, was thereupon proclaimed emperor in the East. In the same year, Honorius enacted a law that prohibited anyone who was not Catholic from performing imperial service within the palace. [Theodosian Code 16.5.42] Zosimus reports that Honorius was forced to repeal this law after one of his best officers, who happened to be a Pagan, resigned in protest. [Zosimus 5.46; Theodosian Code 16.5.42.] At the beginning of the year 409, Honorius enacted a law that punished judges and officials who did not enforce the laws against the Pagans. [Theodosian Code 16.5.46] This law even punished men of rank who simply kept silent over any Pagan rite performed in their own city or district. The hopes of the Pagans were revived with the elevation of Attalus, at Rome, in the year 409. Alaric, an Arian Christian, soon tired of his puppet, however, and Attalus was deposed in the summer of 410 when Honorius promised to negotiate a peace treaty. When these negotiations failed, Alaric took and sacked the city of Rome. This catastrophe shocked the entire Roman world. Both Christians and Pagans quickly began to blame each other for something that had hitherto been thought impossible. In this heated atmosphere, Honorius once again reiterated his anti-Pagan legislation. [Theodosian Code 16.5.51] There are numerous fragments extant of several Pagan historical works, such as the works of Eunapius and Olympiodorus, which indicate that Pagans were now openly voicing their resentment in writing. Even after the sack of Rome, in the year 410, pagans believed that the recent decline of Rome had been caused by the neglect of the ancestral traditions.

In the year 415, Honorius enacted yet another law that appropriated the Pagan temples throughout the Roman Empire to the government and ordered that all objects that had been consecrated for Pagan sacrifices were to be removed from public places. [Theodosian Code 16.10.20] A prominent example of the anti-pagan climate at the time is the case of the philosopher Hypatia of Alexandria, killed by a mob in 415.

In 416, Honorius and Theodosius II ordered that Pagans would no longer be admitted to imperial service nor would they be allowed to receive the rank of administrator or judge. [Theodosian Code 16.10.21] In 423, Theodosius II reiterated the previous laws against Pagans and declared that all Pagans who were caught performing the ancient rites would now have all their goods confiscated and be exiled. [Theodosian Code 16.10.22, 16.10.23, 16.8.26.] In August of the year 423, Honorius died and power was seized in the west by John, who had held the office of Primicerius Notariorum. John appears to have ushered in a period of religious toleration. John seems to have attempted to curb the power of ecclesiastics and the privileges of the church in an attempt to treat all people equally. [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 John the Primicerius.] In the year 423, Theodosius II published a law that demanded that Christians (whether they were really such or pretended to be so) were not to disturb Pagans who were living peaceably and doing nothing contrary to the law. [This law (Theodosian Code 16.10.24) is interesting because it officially recognizes the fact they were many people who only pretended to be Christian.] In 425, Theodosius II sent an expedition to the west to depose John and establish Valentinian III as emperor of the west. After John was captured and executed, Valentinian III was proclaimed emperor in the city of Rome. While in the west, Theodosius II enacted two anti-Pagan laws in the year 425. The first of these stipulated that all Pagan superstition was to be rooted out. [Theodosian Code 16.5.63] The second law barred Pagans from pleading a case in court and also disqualified them from serving as soldiers. [Constitutiones Sirmondianae 6] Theodosius II then left Valentinian III to rule the west and returned to Constantinople.

The numerous laws against apostasy, that had been continuously promulgated since the time of Gratian and Theodosius, is evidence that the emperors were having a hard time even keeping Christians from going astray. [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.] In the year 426, Theodosius passed yet another law against Christian apostates, who converted to Paganism, and those who pretended to become Christian but in reality continued to perform Pagan sacrifices. [Theodosian Code 16.7.7] All this legislation proved so ineffective that Theodosius II found it necessary to reiterate his prohibition against Pagan rites and sacrifices in 435, this time increasing the penalty to death. [Theodosian Code 16.10.25. Theodosius II married Eudocia, the daughter of a Pagan sophist named Leontius, who herself patronized various Pagans including Cyrus of Panopolis and the poet Nonnus. ] This law also ordered that all Pagan shrines, temples and sanctuaries that still existed were to be destroyed by the magistrates. Magistrates who failed to carry out this order were ordered to be punished with death. Even the threat of death, however, failed to eradicate Paganism as we find Theodosius legislating again, in 438, against Paganism and forbidding Pagan sacrifice once more. [Corpus Legum Novellarum Theodosii 2.3] Theodosius threatens those who fail to comply with death and the confiscation of their property. It will be of interest to quote some of this law, as the Emperor explicitly admits that Pagan sacrifices were still being openly celebrated. It reads as:

"Hence our clemency perceives the need of keeping watch over the Pagans and their heathen enormities, since by natural depravity and stubborn lawlessness, they forsake the path of true religion. They disdain in any way to perform the nefarious rites of sacrifice and the false errors of their baleful superstition by some means or other in the hidden solitudes, unless their crimes are made public by the profession of their crimes to insult divine majesty and to show scorn to our age. Not the thousand terrors of laws already promulgated nor the penalty of exile pronounced upon them deter these men, whereby, if they cannot reform, at least they might learn to abstain from their mass of their crimes and the multitude of their sacrifices. But their insane audacity transgresses continually; our patience is exhausted by their wicked behavior so that if we desired to forget them, we could not disregard them." [Corpus Legum Novellarum Theodosii 2.3]

Final decline

The continued vitality of Paganism led Marcian, who became emperor of the east in 450 upon the death of Theodosius II, to repeat earlier prohibitions against Pagan rites. Marcian decreed, in the year 451, that those who continued to perform the Pagan rites would suffer the confiscation of their property and be condemned to death. Marcian also prohibited any attempt to re-open the temples and ordered that they were to remain closed. In addition to this, in order to encourage strict enforcement of the law a fine of fifty pounds of gold was imposed on any judge or governor, as well as the officials under him, who did not enforce this law. [Justinian Code 1.11.7] However, not even this had the desired affect, as we find Leo I, who succeeded Marcian in 457, publishing a new law in 472 which imposed severe penalties for the owner of any property who was aware that Pagan rites were performed on his property. If the property owner was of high rank he was punished by the loss of his rank or office and by the confiscation of his property. If the property owner was of lower status he would be physically tortured and then condemned to labor in the mines for the rest of his life. [Justinian Code 1.11.8]

Two more laws against Paganism, which may be from this period, are preserved in the Justinian Code. [These laws (Justinian Code 1.11.9, 1.11.10) do not give any date nor do they mention the emperors who promulgated them. ] After the deposition of Avitus, who ruled as emperor of the West from 455 to 456, there seems to have been a conspiracy among the Roman nobles to place the Pagan general Marcellinus on the throne to restore Paganism; but it came to nothing. [Sidonius Epistle 1.11.6]

In the year 457, Leo I became the first emperor to be crowned by the Patriarch of Constantinople. Anthemius, one of the last Roman emperors of the west who ruled from 467 to 472, seems to have planned a Pagan revival at Rome. [Photius Bibliotheca cod. 242] He was a descendant of Procopius, the relative of Julian. Anthemius gave Flavius Messius Phoebus Severus, a Pagan philosopher who was a close friend of his, the important offices of Prefect of Rome, Consul and Patrician. Anthemius placed the image of Hercules, in the act of vanquishing the Nemean lion, on his coins. The murder of Anthemius (by Ricimer) destroyed the hopes of those Pagans who believed that the traditional rites would now be restored. [Marcellinus Chronicle s.a. 468] Shortly thereafter, in 476, the last emperor of Rome 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 Orientum, Illus, revolted against Zeno and raised his own candidate, Leontius, to the throne. Leontius hoped to reopen the temples and restore the ancient ceremonies and because of this many Pagans joined in his revolt against Zeno. [Photius Bibliotheca cod. 242] 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. [Theophanes Chronographia s.a. A.M. 5976-5980; John Malalas Chronicle 15.12-15.14.]

As a result of the revolt, Zeno instituted a harsh persecution of Pagan intellectuals. With the failure of the revolt of Leontius, some Pagans became disillusioned and many simply became Christian, or simply pretended to, in order to avoid persecution. [There continued to be a sufficient number of Pagans 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 failure of their efforts to restore the traditional rites led many Pagans to completely lose confidence in Rome’s future. These men believed that the Roman Empire was now gone and irretrievable. The subjugation of the Roman Empire to Christianity became complete when the emperor Anastasius, who came to the throne in 491, was forced to sign a written declaration of orthodoxy before his coronation.


*313 By Edict of Milan Constantine and Licinius establish toleration of Christianity.
*329-335 Constantine orders destruction of Hellenic temples at Dydima, Mt. Athos, Aigeai, Baalbek etc. According to pagan rhetor Libanius (Address to Theodosius, Pro Templis, 6 and 37), Constantine I "did not bring any change to the traditional [=pagan] worship... one could notice that [during the reign of Constantine] all rituals were performed properly" and "he [Constantine] did not prohibit [pagan] sacrifices". According to Zosimus (book 2 of his "History"), Constantine erected two pagan temples in his capital, Constantinople.
*361-363 Emperor Flavius Claudius Julianus, the last pagan Emperor, proclaims tolerance and restoration of Hellenic worship.
*389-391 Theodosian decrees, Christianity becomes official state religion of the Roman Empire.
*415 Mob-killing of Hypatia.
*440 to 450 All Hellenic monuments, altars and Temples of Athens, Olympia, and other Greek cities are destroyed. As German historian Gregorovius, in his "History of Athens" says, the pagan monuments of Athens and Greece were the best preserved among other monuments in the late Roman Empire.
*529 Emperor Justinian closes the Academy of Athens. Some of the remaining Academy members--"whose occupation was gone" according to J.B. Bury [cite web|url=*.html#3|title=Chapter XXII, ECCLESIASTICAL POLICY, § 3. The Suppression of Paganism|publisher=University of Chicago] --flee to Ctesiphon, the capital of the Sassanid emperor Khosrau I. Modern historians such as Blumental [ “529 and its Sequell: What happened to the Academy?” Revue Internationale des Etudes Byzantines t. XLVIII [1978] , Bruxelles 1979, 370-385] and A. Cameron [“The Last Days of the Academy of Athens”, Proceedings of the Cambridge Philological Society 195 [1969] , 8, 25] claim that the Academy continued to exist for almost 50-60 years after 529.
*651 Harran conquered by the Arabs. Sabians, to some degree descendants of Hellenic tradition, are considered monotheists and as such are permitted to survive. "The Nabatean Agriculture" was said by Maimonides to have been an accurate record of the beliefs of the Sabians in the Harranian area.
*804 Hellenes of Laconia, Greece, resist the attempt of Tarasius, Patriarch of Constantinople, to convert them to Christianity.Greenhalgh and Eliopoulos, "Deep into Mani: Journey into the Southern Tip of Greece", 22]

ee also

* Hellenistic religion
* Roman imperial cult
* Mithraism
* Hellenistic Judaism
* Christianity and paganism
* Neoplatonism and Christianity
* Pseudo-Dionysius
* Damascius
* Early Christianity
* Constantinian shift
* Late Antiquity
* Christianization
* Historical persecution by Christians


*Ramsay MacMullen, "Christianizing the Roman Empire: AD 100-400" (1989)
*——, "Christianity and Paganism in the Fourth to Eighth Centuries" (1997) ISBN 0-3000-8077-8
*Athanassiadi, P., "Persecution and Response in Late Paganism: the Evidence of Damascius", Journal of Hellenic Studies 113 (1993), 1-29.
*K. W. Harl, "Sacrifice and Pagan Belief in Fifth- and Sixth-Century Byzantium", Past and Present (1990).

Wikimedia Foundation. 2010.

Look at other dictionaries:

  • Polytheism — Egyptians Gods …   Wikipedia

  • Decline of Greco-Roman polytheism — The Greco Roman religion at the time of the Constantinian shift mostly consisted of three main currents, Greco Roman Polytheism, the official Roman imperial cult, various Mystery religions. Early Christianity grew gradually in Rome and the Roman… …   Wikipedia

  • Celtic polytheism — Series on Celtic mythology Celtic polytheism Celtic deities (list) Gaelic mythology I …   Wikipedia

  • Imperial cult (ancient Rome) — Ancient Roman religion Marcus Aurelius (head covered) sacrificing at the Temple of Jupiter …   Wikipedia

  • Hellenic Polytheistic Reconstructionism — A ceremony at the annual Prometheia festival of the Greek polytheistic group Supreme Council of Ethnikoi Hellenes, June 2006. Ancient Greek religion …   Wikipedia

  • Religion in ancient Rome — Ancient Roman religion Marcus Aurelius (head covered) sacrificing at the Temple of Jupiter …   Wikipedia

  • Christianity and Paganism — Part of seventh century casket, depicting the pan Germanic legend of Weyland Smith, which was apparently also a part of Anglo Saxon pagan mythology. This article provides an overview of the relations between Christianity and its adherents vs… …   Wikipedia

  • Proto-Indo-European religion — The chariot, as a symbol of social rank and military strength but also mythologically as the sun chariot (Trundholm sun chariot pictured, Nordic Bronze Age, ca. 160 …   Wikipedia

  • Apollo — This article is about the Greek and Roman god. For other uses, see Apollo (disambiguation) and Phoebus (disambiguation). Not to be confused with Phobos (mythology). Apollo …   Wikipedia

  • Hermeticism — This article is about the magical and religious movement stemming from the teachings attributed to Hermes Trismegistus. For other uses of the term Hermetic , see Hermetic (disambiguation). Part of a series of articles on Hermeticism Hermetic… …   Wikipedia

Share the article and excerpts

Direct link
Do a right-click on the link above
and select “Copy Link”

We are using cookies for the best presentation of our site. Continuing to use this site, you agree with this.