Dedicated to the military history and civilization of the Eastern Roman Empire (330 to 1453)

"Time in its irresistible and ceaseless flow carries along on its flood all created things and drowns them in the depths of obscurity."

- - - - Princess Anna Comnena (1083–1153) - Byzantine historian

Sunday, March 24, 2013

The Roman Suppression of Paganism

The Pagans were right about the Christians
  • Once in power the Christians of the Roman Empire did everything possible to prevent freedom of religion with persecutions of their fellow Christians, Jews and Pagans of all types.

Yes, the Pagans were right.  Christianity was a threat to to the Empire.

Freedom of Religion  -  Considering 2,000 years of Christian propaganda, as strange as it may sound, the Roman Empire mostly practiced freedom of religion.

As we all know Rome ruled over an enormous Empire from Scotland to the Pillars of Hercules to Persia.  The Empire consisted of hundreds and hundreds of languages, races, tribes, ethnic groups and religions.  As long as the locals paid their taxes and did not present a political threat to the Empire their local religions and customs were pretty much ignored.

But Christians believed they were the "True Faith".  As true believers tolerating other faiths was not high on their list.  The Romans rightly felt Christians wanted to undermine the government and persecutions of Christians occurred.
Mars - the Roman god of war.
 Mars was also an agricultural guardian. He
was second in importance only to Jupiter,
and he was the most prominent of the
military gods worshipped by the
Roman legions.

With the adoption of Christianity by Constantine I, heresy had become a political issue in the late Roman empire. Adherents of unconventional Christian beliefs not covered by the Nicene Creed like Novatianism and Gnosticism were banned from holding meetings, but the Roman emperor intervened especially in the conflict between orthodox and Arian Christianity, which resulted in the burning of Arian books

The persecution of pagans by the Christian Roman Empire began late in 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.

In 382, Emperor Gratian appropriated the income of the Pagan priests and 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.

In the year 391, Emperor 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.

Worship in Rome (HBO) 

Neptune - the Roman god of water and the sea.
He is the counterpart of the Greek god Poseidon. Neptune was the brother of Jupiter and Pluto, each of them presiding over one of the three realms of Heaven, Earth and the Underworld.

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 (the last to do so). 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. He likely suppressed the Ancient Olympic Games; the last record of the Olympics being celebrated in ancient Rome is from 393.

Temple of Isis  -  Pompeii
Image from Ancientvine.com - Temple of Isis.

Persecution in the Eastern Roman Empire

Theodosius II anti-Pagan laws since 425

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. The second law barred Pagans from pleading a case in court and also disqualified them from serving as soldiers. Theodosius II then left Valentinian III to rule the west and returned to Constantinople.

The numerous laws against Pagans seems to have had only limited immediate effect in stamping out the old religion. Many people simply conformed outwardly and pretended to become Christian while secretly continuing to practice their beliefs. 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.

Bust of Germanicus defaced by
Christians with a cross on the head.

In the year 426, Theodosius II made it illegal for Christian apostates to convert to the old religion, and against those who pretended to become Christian but continued to perform Pagan sacrifices. He found it necessary to reiterate his prohibition of Pagan rites and sacrifices in 435, this time increasing the penalty to death.

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. In 438 Theodosius legislated again, forbidding Pagan sacrifice once more.

Theodosius seems to admit that Pagan sacrifices were still seemingly being openly celebrated in places.

It reads:
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.

Anti-Pagan laws by Marcian (450-457)

The continued vitality of pagans 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. However, not even this act by Marcian had the desired effect, as his successor Leo I the Thracian will have to issue a new anti-Pagan law in 472.

Two more laws against Paganism, which may be from this period, are preserved in the Justinian Code. 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.

Temple of Bacchus  -  Lebanon
The Baalbeck’s temples were built around the first millennium B.C. The enclosed court was built on the ancient tell. The more accurate history of Baalbeck first begins during the Hellenistic period (333-64 B.C.). The Greeks identified the god of Baalbeck with the sun god and enlarged the court. The temple was begun in the last quarter of the first century B.C., and was nearing completion in the last years of Nero’s reign. The Great Court Complex of the Temple of Jupiter was built in the second century A.D. The other addendum courts to the Jupiter Temple were added in the third century.
Antoninus Pius (138-161) built the Temple of Bacchus, the best preserved of the sanctuary's structures, for it was protected by the rubble of the site's ruins. It is enriched with refined reliefs and sculpture. Septimius Severus (193-211) added a pentagonal temple of Venus, who as Aphrodite had enjoyed an early Syrian role with her consort Adonis ("Lord", the Aramaic translation of "Baal."). Emperor Philip the Arab (244–249) was the last to add a monument at Heliopolis: the hexagonal forecourt. When he was finished Heliopolis and Praeneste in Italy were the two largest sanctuaries in the Western world.
     The Baalbeck temples were closed in 313 A.D. by order of the Emperor Constantine.

Attempted Pagan revival by Anthemius

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. He was a descendant of Procopius, the relative of Julian.

Anthemius gave Messius Phoebus Severus, a Pagan philosopher who was a close friend of his, the important offices of Praefectus urbi 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.

Emperor Leo I
A loving "Christian", Leo ordered the
torture of Pagans and sent them to
work in the mines for life.

In 472 Leo I published 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.

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.

The Suppression of Paganism under Justinian

From  -  History of the Later Roman Empire
by J. B. Bury

We saw in a former chapter how throughout the fifth century the severe laws against paganism were not very strictly enforced. So long as there was no open scandal, men could still believe in the old religions and disseminate anti-Christian doctrine.

This comparatively tolerant attitude of the State terminated with the accession of Justinian, who had firmly resolved to realise the conception of an empire in which there should be no differences of religious opinion. Paganism was already dying slowly, and it seemed no difficult task to extinguish it entirely. There were two distinct forms in which it survived. In a few outlying places, and in some wild districts where the work of conversion had been imperfectly done, the population still indulged with impunity in heathen practices. To suppress these was a matter of administration, reinforced by missionary zeal; no new laws were required.

A more serious problem was presented by the Hellenism which prevailed widely enough among the educated classes, and consequently in the State-service itself. To cope with this Justinian saw that there was need not only of new administrative rigour, but of new legislation. He saw that Hellenism was kept alive by pagan instructors of youth, especially in teaching establishments which had preserved the Greek tradition of education. If the evil thing was to be eradicated, he must strike at these.
Emperor Justinian
Showing true Christian charity, Justinian
murdered and stole the property of Jews,
Christians and Pagans alike.

Not long after his accession, he reaffirmed the penalties which previous Emperors had enacted against the pagans, and forbade all donations or legacies for the purpose of maintaining "Hellenic impiety," while in the same constitution he enjoined upon all the civil authorities and the bishops, in Constantinople and in the provinces, to inquire into cases of pagan superstition. This law was soon followed by another which made it illegal for any persons "infected with the madness of the unholy Hellenes" to teach any subject, and thereby under the pretext of education corrupt the souls of their pupils.

The persecution began with an inquisition at Constantinople. Many persons of the highest position were accused and condemned. Their property was confiscated, and some may have been put to death; one committed suicide. Among those who were involved were Thomas the Quaestor and Phocas, son of Craterus. But Phocas, a patrician of whose estimable character we have a portrait drawn by a contemporary, was speedily pardoned, for, as we saw, he was appointed Praetorian Prefect of the East after the Nika riot.

Some of the accused escaped by pretending to embrace the Christian faith, but we are told that "not long afterwards they were convicted of offering libations and sacrifices and other unholy practices." There was, in fact, a second inquisition in A.D. 546. On this occasion a heretic was set to catch the pagan. Through the zeal of John of Ephesus, a Monophysite, who was head of a Syrian monastery in the suburb of Sycae, a large number of senators, "with a crowd of grammarians, sophists, lawyers, and physicians," were denounced, not without the use of torture, and suffered whippings and imprisonment.

Then "they were given to the churches to be instructed in the Christian faith." One name is mentioned: Phocas, a rich and powerful patrician, who, knowing that he had been denounced, took poison. The Emperor ordered that he should be buried like an ass without any rites. We may suspect that this was the same Phocas, son of Craterus, who had been involved in the earlier inquest and knew that death would be the penalty of his relapse. There was yet another pagan scandal in the capital in A.D. 559; the condemned were exposed to popular derision in a mock procession and their books publicly burned.

It may be considered certain that in all cases the condemned were found guilty of actual heathen practices, for instance of sacrificing or pouring libations in their private houses, on the altars of pagan deities. Men could still cling to pagan beliefs, provided they did not express their faith in any overt act. There were many distinguished people of this kind in the highest circles at Constantinople, many lawyers and literary men, whose infidelity was well known and tolerated.

The Pagan Athenian University
The edicts of Justinian sounded the doom of the Athenian schools, which had a continuous tradition since the days of Plato and Aristotle.   The property of the schools was confiscated and their means of livelihood withdrawn.  Seeking protection from persecution, the teachers fled to the Persian Empire.  

The great jurist Tribonian, who was in high favour with the Emperor, was an eminent example. He seems to have made no pretence at disguising his opinions, but others feigned to conform to the State religion. We are told that John the Cappadocian used sometimes to go to church at night, but he went dressed in a rough cloak like an old pagan priest, and instead of behaving as a Christian worshipper he used to mumble impious words the whole night.

It can hardly be doubted that by making the profession of orthodoxy a necessary condition for public teaching Justinian accelerated the extinction of "Hellenism." Pagan traditions and a pagan atmosphere were still maintained, not only in the schools of philosophy, but in the schools of law, not only at Athens, but at Alexandria, Gaza, and elsewhere. The suppression of all law schools, except those of Constantinople and Berytus, though not intended for this purpose, must have affected the interests of paganism.

But philosophical teaching was the great danger, and Athens was the most notorious home of uncompromising Hellenists. After the death of Proclus (A.D. 485) the Athenian university declined, but there were teachers of considerable metaphysical ability, such as Simplicius and Damascius, the last scholarch, whose attainments can still be judged by their works.

The edicts of Justinian sounded the doom of the Athenian schools, which had a continuous tradition since the days of Plato and Aristotle. We do not know exactly what happened in A.D.

Temple of Zeus Ammon  -  Egypt
Justinian ended Pagan worship at the Temple by force and
built a church at the site.
Alexander the Great traveled through the desert of Egypt to the
oracle at the temple of Zeus Ammon.  While traveling, there was a
lot of rain and Alexander took this as a good sign. He was also
led to the temple by ravens. Once at the temple, the oracles told
Alexander that he was in fact the son of Zeus and that he
was destined to rule the world.

We may suppose that the teachers were warned that unless they were baptized and publicly embraced Christianity, they would no longer be permitted to teach; and that when they refused, the property of the schools was confiscated and their means of livelihood withdrawn.

This event had a curious sequel. Some of the philosophers whose occupation was gone resolved to cast the dust of the Christian Empire from their feet and migrate to Persia. Of these the most illustrious were Damascius, the last scholarch of the Academy, Simplicius, and Priscian. The names of four others are mentioned, but we do not know whether they had taught at Athens or at some other seat of learning.

These men had heard that king Chosroes was interested in philosophy, and they hoped, protected by his favour and supported by his generosity, to end their days in a more enlightened country than their own. But they were disappointed. Chosroes was flattered by their arrival and begged them to remain. But they soon found the strange conditions of life intolerable. They fell homesick, and felt that they would prefer death on Roman soil to the highest honours the Persian could confer. And so they returned.

But the king did them a great service. In his treaty with Justinian in A.D. 532 he stipulated that they should not be molested or forced to embrace the Christian faith. We are told that they lived comfortably for the rest of their lives, and we know that Simplicius was still writing philosophical works in the later years of Justinian.

In western Asia Minor, in the provinces of Asia, Phrygia, Lydia, and Caria, there was still a considerable survival of pagan cults, not only in the country regions, but in some of the towns, for instance in Tralles. In A.D. 542 John of Ephesus, the Monophysite whose activity in hunting down the Hellenes at Constantinople has already been noticed, was sent as a missionary to these provinces to convert the heathen and to put an end to idolatrous practices.

He tells us in his Ecclesiastical History that he converted 70,000 souls. The temples were destroyed; 96 churches and 12 monasteries were founded. Justinian paid for the baptismal vestments of the converts and gave each a small sum of money (about 4s.).

In Egypt, in the oasis of Augila, the temple dedicated to Zeus Ammon and Alexander the Great still stood, and sacrifices were still offered. Justinian put an end to this worship and built a church to the Mother of God. At Philae the cult of Osiris and Isis had been permitted to continue undisturbed. This toleration was chiefly due to the fact that the Blemyes and Nobadae, the southern neighbours of Egypt, had a vested interest in the temples by virtue of a treaty which they had made with Diocletian.

Every year they came down the river to worship Isis in the island of Elephantine; and at fixed times the image of the goddess was brought back to the temple. Justinian would tolerate this indulgence no longer. Early in his reign he sent Narses the Persarmenian to destroy the sanctuaries. The priests were arrested and the divine images sent to Constantinople. Much about the same time the Christian conversion of the Nobadae and Blemyes began.

Justinian was undoubtedly successful in hastening the disappearance of open heathen practices and in suppressing anti-Christian philosophy. Although in some places, like Heliopolis, paganism may have survived for another generation, and although there were inquisitions under his immediate successors, it may be said that by the close of the sixth century the old faiths were virtually extinct throughout the Empire.

(History of the Later Roman Empire by J.B. Bury)        (Religion in ancient Rome)

(Persecution of pagans by the Christian Roman Empire)

(History of persecutions by Christians)


Doina de Florentin said...

When Romans executed people for their religious beliefs in Christianity, it was justifiable, ok ! But if Christianity condemned paganism THAT is suppression of religious freedom, wow, looking from the other side of the river! Romans executed Christians , Christians executed pagans, pagans execute anybody as a necessary offering to their gods, Muslims execute Christians and pagans....what's the point of this article, attacking Christianity again!

Gary said...

This is not an attack . . . it is called history!!!!

When Christians took over the empire the first thing they did was to suppress other Christian groups with different ideas.