Christian persecution of paganism under Constantius II

Christian persecution of paganism under Constantius II

Christian persecution of paganism under Constantius II, lasted from 337 till 361, and marked the beginning of the era of formal persecution against Paganism by the Christian Roman Empire, with the emanation of laws and edicts which punished Pagan practices.[1][2]

From the 350s, new laws prescribed the death penalty for those who performed or attended Pagan sacrifices, and for the worshipping of idols;[1][3][4] temples were shut down,[2][5] and the traditional Altar of Victory was removed from the Senate.[6] There were also frequent episodes of ordinary Christians destroying, pillaging, desecrating, vandalizing many of the ancient Pagan temples, tombs and monuments.[7][8][9][10]

The harsh imperial edicts had to face the vast following of paganism among the population, and the passive resistance of many governors and magistrates.[5][11][12][13] The anti-Pagan legislation, beginning with Constantius, would in time have an unfavourable influence on the Middle Ages and become the basis of the much-abused Inquisition.[14]


Beginning of anti-Pagan laws

Initially, the power was a co-reign between of the three sons of Constantine the Great: Constantius II, Constantine II and Constans; but of the three,Constantius was the one which survived longer and made the most significant acts of persecution. The first episodes of discrimination and persecution, but without formal anti-Pagan laws, had started at the end of Constantine the Great's reign, including pillaging and the torning down of some Pagan temples.[15][5][16]

Constantius II's actions instead will mark the beginning of the era of formal persecution and laws against Paganism by the Christian Roman Empire,[1][2] with the emanation of edicts which legislated against Pagan practices like sacrifices.[1][3][2] Constantius II was an unwavering opponent of paganism, his maxim was: "Cesset superstitio; sacrificiorum aboleatur insania" (Let superstition cease; let the folly of sacrifices be abolished).[14]

According to Libanius Constantius was effectively under the control of others who inspired him to end pagan sacrifices.[17][18]

With the collapse of official government sanctioned pagan rites, private cults attempted to infiltrate the temples. In the year 353 Constantius prohibited Pagan sacrifices under the penalty of death, shut down the temples, forbid access to them, and ended their subsidies of public taxes.[2][5]

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.[19]

The anti-Pagan legislation, beginning with Constantius, would in time have an unfavourable influence on the Middle Ages and become the basis of the much-abused Inquisition.[14]

Relative moderation

In spite of the some of the edicts issued by Constantius, it should be recognised that he was not fanatically anti-pagan – he never made any attempt to disband the various Roman priestly colleges or the Vestal Virgins,[20] he never acted against the various pagan schools, and, at times, he actually made some effort to protect paganism. In fact, he even ordered the election of a priest for Africa.[20] 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.[21]

Pagan Resistance

These first anti-Pagan edicts could not be rigidly executed due the strength of paganism,[5][11][12] which had a vast following 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;[5][13] 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

A cult statue of the deified Augustus, disfigured by a Christian cross carved into the emperor's forehead.

Lobbying the Emperor

Official orders may have established an understanding that actual persecution would be tolerated, but in the first century of official Christianity it did not generally organize it; but its members did encourage 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.[5]

Firmicus Maternus, a convert to Christianity, would urge: "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."[1]

Christians' vandalism

Constantius did not, apparently, attempt to stop the Christians from destroying and pillaging many of the ancient temples.[7][8]

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.[9]

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.[10]

Magnentius rebellion

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.[22] 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.[4] 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.[6]

Notes and references

  1. ^ a b c d e Kirsch, J. (2004) God against the Gods, pp.200-1, Viking Compass
  2. ^ a b c d e "The Codex Theodosianus On Religion", XVI.x.4, 4 CE
  3. ^ a b The Codex Theodosianus On Religion, 16.10.2
  4. ^ a b Theodosian Code 16.10.6
  5. ^ a b c d e f g "A History of the Church", Philip Hughes, Sheed & Ward, rev ed 1949, vol I chapter 6.[1]
  6. ^ a b Sheridan, J.J. (1966) The Altar of Victor – Paganism's Last Battle. in L'Antiquite Classique 35 : 186-187.
  7. ^ a b Ammianus Marcellinus Res Gestae 22.4.3
  8. ^ a b Sozomen Ecclesiastical History 3.18.
  9. ^ a b Theodosian Code 16.10.3
  10. ^ a b Theodosian Code 9.17.2
  11. ^ a b Catholic Encyclopedia (1914) Flavius Julius Constantius
  12. ^ a b 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.
  13. ^ a b Bowder, D. (1978) The Age of Constantine and Julian
  14. ^ a b c C. G. Herbermann & Georg Grupp, "Constantine the Great", Catholic Encyclopedia, 1911, New Advent web site.
  15. ^ R. MacMullen, "Christianizing The Roman Empire A.D.100-400, Yale University Press, 1984, ISBN 0-300-03642-6
  16. ^ 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"
  17. ^ "Libanius Oration" 30.7, For the Temples
  18. ^ According to Libanius Constantius was effectively under the control of others who unwisely inspired him to end pagan sacrifices:"Libanius Oration" 30.7, For the Temples, [2]
  19. ^ Theodosian Code 9.16.4, 9.16.5, 9.16.6
  20. ^ a b Vasiliev, A.A, History of the Byzantine Empire 324–1453 (1958), p. 68
  21. ^ Salzman, M.R., The Making of a Christian Aristocracy: Social and Religious Change in the Western Roman Empire (2002), p. 182
  22. ^ Theodosian Code 16.10.5

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