I added quite a bit to the original post, especially on the 5th century (to fill in the gap between Theodosius and Justinian). And I also fiddled with the opening section a bit. So I decided to repost the whole thing with the new material – and just leave a link pointing here at the address of the oiriginal post.
Most of this post will be comprised of extended excerpts from J.B. Bury’s History of the Later Roman Empire, which is freely available online thanks to the folks at LacusCurtius: A Gateway to Ancient Rome.
Some might be shocked by what Bury has to say, and how he says it. For example:
Persecution was an unavoidable consequence of Constantine’s act in adopting Christianity.
Bury wrote that just about 100 years ago. There might be a temptation to think that such a sweeping and unequivocal condemnation of Christianity would not be found among modern day mainstream academics, and indeed there are a great many scholars today, not (nearly!) all of them Christians, who would categorically reject Bury’s statement not only as wrong, but as profoundly wrong-headed and even beyond the pale of acceptable discourse. (Bury, by the way, was the most important historian of the Roman Empire to come along since Edward Gibbon, and compared to what Gibbon had to say about Christianity, Bury was positively flattering!)
Among contemporary scholars, there are, in fact, many whose work confirms Bury’s point of view. Some of the more important names are Ramsay MacMullen, Perez Zagorin, Michael Gaddis, Pierre Hadot, Charles Freeman, Frank Trombley and Eberhard Sauer (names that might be familiar to regular readers of this blog). Here are just a few examples of how these modern scholars support what Bury said a century ago:
In his study Christianity and Paganism in the Fourth to Eighth Centuries, Macmullen titles his first chapter simply Persecution, and provides the following preview of the chapter’s contents:
describing the determination of the Christian leadership to extirpate all religious alternatives, expressed in the silencing of pagan sources and, beyond that, in the suppression of pagan acts and practices, with increasing harshness and machinery of enforcement.
In his Voting about God in Early Church Councils, MacMullen tells us that between 325 and 550 AD “not less than twenty thousand” Christians lost their lives at the hands of their co-religionists due to “credal diffferences” (see Chapter Five The Violent Element, and page 56 in particular). While in his Paganism in the Roman Empire, MacMullen writes that Pagans who worshipped different Gods were tolerant and accepting of each other as a matter of course, and that the religious beliefs of Pagans also “envisioned” relations among the Gods Themselves that were “fraternal” and “courteous”, and it was only after the triumph of Christianity that “gods were found to be at war with other gods.” (see Chapter 2, section 3, How the Divine World was Envisioned, page 93 in particular).
Zagorin begins the first chapter of his How the Idea of Religious Toleration Came to the West with the rather blunt declaration:
Of all the great religions of the world past and present, Christianity has been by far the most intolerant.
Chapter Two of Zagorin’s book is titled The Christian Theory of Religious Persecution, in which Zagorin writes:
Religious intolerance and persecution [under Christendom] … were seen not as evils but as necessary and salutary for the preservation of religious truth and orthodoxy and all that was believed to depend on them. What chiefly rendered persecution commendable was a set of doctrines and an underlying rationale that explained and justified it. There was, in short, a Christian theory of persecution that long antecedated any concept of philosophy of religious toleration and freedom….
Much of Gaddis’ book with the chilling title There is no crime for those who have Christ: Religious Violence in the Christian Roman Empire is focused on Christian on Christian violence, but the title is taken from the words of a Christian monk, named Shenoute, who had led an angry mob to the house of a local prominent Pagan. The mob ransacked the Pagan’s house and destroyed anything that looked, to them, remotely related to his religion. When brought before a judge and charged with lestia (banditry, crime, illegal violence), Shenoute did not deny what he had done, but merely proclaimed that “There is no crime for those who have Christ!”
Hadot’s masterful What is Ancient Philosophy? upset some Christian readers because, in the words of one reviewer,
Hadot credits Christianity with the decline of philosophy practiced as a way of life.
“[W]hy is it that today”, Hadot asks, that philosophy is “presented” in a way that “lacks a direct relationship to the philosopher’s way of life?” For Hadot, it must be emphasised, Philosophy is “the philosopher’s way of life”. Therefore Hadot is asking why philosophy has, in effect, been replaced by something that is not philosophy at all.
The causes of this transformation are primarily historical: it is due to the flourishing of Christianity.
Charles Freeman in his The Closing of the Western Mind: The Rise of Faith and the Fall of Reason and also his AD 381: Heretics, Pagans and the Christian State, goes much further than Hadot, and this is because, as a historian, he more determined to undertake an explicit examination of how Christianity brought about the “decline of philosophy” (and of freedom of thought, generally).
Frank Trombley & Eberhard Sauer
Trombleys monumental labor of love Hellenic Religion and Christianization, and Sauer’s The Archaeology of Religious Hatred stand out as the most thorough and detailed examinations of Christian persecution in action.
But I still think that no one has said it all quite so well as Bury!! And so, without further adieu ….
From Constantine to Theodosius
First lets look at the early Christian emperors, from Constantine up through Theodosius (AD 324-395). The following is taken from Chapter 11, Church and State, and specifically from section 3 of that chapter, Persecution of Paganism (there is also a separate section on Persecution of Heresy):
Persecution was an unavoidable consequence of Constantine’s act in adopting Christianity. Two of the chief points in which this faith differed from the Roman State religion were its exclusiveness and the vital importance which it assigned to dogma. The first logically led to intolerance of pagan religions, the second to intolerance of heresies, and these consequences could not be averted when Christianity became the religion of the State. It might be suggested that Constantine would have done better if, when he decided to embrace it and favour its propagation, he had been content to deprive pagan cults of their official status and to allow Christianity to compete in a free field with its rivals, aided by the prestige which it would derive from the Emperor’s personal adhesion and favour. But such a policy would have been an anachronism. A state, at that time, was unthinkable without a State cult, and if an Emperor became a Christian a logical result was that Christianity should be adopted as the official religion of the Empire, and a second that the old Roman policy of toleration should be thrown overboard. In an age of superstition this was demanded not only in the interest of the Church but in the interest of the State itself. The purpose of the official cults in the pagan State was to secure the protection of the deities; these were liberal and tolerant lords who raised no objection to other forms of worship; and toleration was therefore a principle of the State. But the god of the new official religion was a jealous master; he had said, “thou shalt have none other gods before me,” and idolatry was an offence to him; how could his protection and favour be expected in a state in which idolatry was permitted? Intolerance was a duty, and the first business of a patriotic ruler was to take measures to extirpate the errors of paganism.
But these consequences were not drawn immediately. It must never be forgotten that Constantine’s revolution was perhaps the most audacious act ever committed by an autocrat in disregard and defiance of the vast majority of his subjects. For at least four-fifths of the population of the Empire were still outside the Christian Church. The army and all the leading men in the administration were devoted to paganism. It is not, therefore, surprising that Constantine, who was a statesman as well as a convert, made no attempt to force the pace. His policy did little more than indicate and prepare the way for the gradual conversion of the Empire, and was so mild and cautious that it has been maintained by some that his aim was to establish a parity between the two religions.
He retained the title of Pontifex Maximus, and thereby the constitutional right of the Emperor to supervise the religious institutions. He withdrew the support of state funds from pagan rites, but made an exception in favour of the official cults at Rome. His most important repressive measure was the prohibition of the sacrifice of victims in the temples. One reason for this measure was the dangerous practice of divination by entrails, often employed by persons who contemplated a rebellion and desired to learn from the higher powers their chances of success.
In some particular places cults were suppressed, but a pagan could still worship freely in the temples, could offer incense and make libations of wine, and might even perform sacrificial rites in a private house. The sons of Constantius were indeed inclined to adopt a stringent policy, and their laws might lead us to suppose that there was something like a severe persecution. Constantius, in reaffirming the prohibition of sacrifices, menaced transgressors with the avenging sword. But the death penalty was never inflicted, and there was a vast difference between the letter of the law and the practice. In the same edict was ordained the closing of temples “in all places and cities,” but this order can only have been carried out here and there. Its execution depended on local circumstances, and on the sentiments of the provincial governors. In some places Christian fanatics took advantage of the Imperial decree to demolish heathen shrines, and the pagans were naturally very apprehensive. When Julian visited Ilion, he inspected the antiquities under the guidance of Pegasius, who was “nominally a bishop of the Galilaeans,” but really worshipped the Sun god. He had taken orders and succeeded in becoming a bishop in order that he might have the means of protecting the heathen sanctuaries from Christian destruction.
When paganism was restored by Julian, it is probable that any temples which had been closed under the edict of Constantius were again reopened, and after his fall it would seem that they were allowed to remain open for worship, though sacrifices were regarded as unlawful.
The Emperors Valentinian I and Valens were consistently tolerant. The mysteries of Eleusis were expressly permitted, for the proconsul of Achaia told Valentinian that if they were suppressed the Greeks would find life not worth living. But a new religious policy was inaugurated by Gratian and Theodosius the Great. Gratian abandoned the title of Pontifex Maximus; he withdrew the public money which was devoted to the cults of Rome, and he ordered the altar of Victory to be removed from the Senate-house, to the deep chagrin of the senators. The fathers appealed to Valentinian II to revoke this order, and to restore the public maintenance of the religious institutions of the capital; but the moving petition of Symmachus, who was their spokesman, was overruled by the influence of Ambrose, the archbishop of Milan, who possessed the ear of Valentinian and of Theodosius.
It remained for Theodosius to inflict a far heavier blow on the ancient cults of Greece and Rome. In the earlier years of his reign the extirpation of pagan worship does not seem to have been an aim of his policy. He was only concerned to enforce obedience to the laws prohibiting sacrifices, which had evidently been widely evaded. He decided on the closing of all sanctuaries in which the law had been broken. He entrusted to Cynegius, Praetorian Prefect of the East, a pious Christian, the congenial task of executing this order in Asia and Egypt. But otherwise temples were still legally open to worshippers. It is to be particularly noted that the Emperor did not desire to destroy but only to secularise such buildings as were condemned, and the cases of barbarous demolition of splendid buildings which occurred in these years were due to the fanatical zeal of monks and ecclesiastics. Monks wrought the destruction of the great temple of Edessa, and the Serapeum at Alexandria, which gave that city “the semblance of a sacred world,” was demolished under the direction of the archbishop Theophilus (A.D. 389), who thereby dealt an effective blow to the paganism of Alexandria.
But Theodosius and his ecclesiastical advisers thought that the time was now ripe to make a clean sweep of idolatry, and in A.D. 391 and 392 laws were issued which carried to its logical conclusion the act of Constantine. We may conjecture that this drastic legislation was principally due to the influence of the archbishop of Milan. To sacrifice, whether in public or in private, was henceforward to be punished as an act of treason. Fines were imposed on any who should frequent temples or shrines; and for worshipping images with incense, for hanging sacred fillets on trees, for building altars of turf, the penalty was confiscation of the house or property where such acts were performed.
In the insurrection of A.D. 392 the restoration of paganism was a capital feature in the programme of the general Arbogastes and Eugenius the creature whom he crowned, and the lure attracted some distinguished adherents. For a short time the altar of Victory was set up in the Roman Senate-house. After the suppression of the revolt Theodosius visited Rome, attended a meeting of the Senate, and though his tone was conciliatory, his firmness compelled that body to decree the abolition of the ancient religious institutions of Rome. Some of the pagan senators had Christian families, and domestic influence may have reinforced the imperial will.
The last years of the fourth century mark an epoch in the decay of paganism. While the gods were irrevocably driven from Rome itself, time-honoured institutions of Greece also came to an end. The old oracles seem to have been silenced at a much earlier date. The “last oracle” of the Delphic god, said to have been delivered to Julian, is a sad and moving expression of the passing away of the old order of things.
Tell the king on earth has fallen the glorious dwelling,
And the water springs that spake are quenched and dead,
Not a cell is left the god, no roof, no cover;
In his hand the prophet laurel flowers no more.
The Olympian games were celebrated for the last time in A.D. 393, and the chryselephantine statue of Zeus, the greatest monument of the genius of Pheidias, was removed soon afterwards from Olympia to Constantinople. The Eleusinian mysteries ceased three years later in consequence of the injuries wrought to the sanctuaries by the invasion of Alaric. The legend that Athens was saved from the rapacity of the Goths by the appearance of Athene Promachos and the hero Achilles illustrates the vitality of pagan superstition. Athens had fared better than many other towns at the hands of the Emperors. Constantine, who ransacked Hellenic shrines for works of art in order to adorn his new capital, spared Athens; and in the reign of Theodosius, when the Samian Hera of Lysippus, the Cnidian Aphrodite of Praxiteles, the Athene of Lindos were carried off, the Parthenon was not compelled to surrender the ivory and gold Athene of Pheidias. Soon after A.D. 429 this precious work was ravished from the Acropolis, but we do not know its fate. Nor do we know at what date the Parthenon was converted into a church of the Virgin.
The ordinances of Theodosius did not, of course, avail immediately to stamp out everywhere the forbidden cults. Pagan practices still went on secretly, and in some places openly, and the government, generally perhaps yielding to ecclesiastical pressure, issued from time to time new laws to enforce the execution of the old or to supplement them. Arcadius, under the influence of Chrysostom, issued an edict to destroy, not merely to close, temples in the country and to use the material for public buildings. Chrysostom sent monks to Phoenicia to carry out the work of destruction there, but the money required was provided not by the state but by pious Christians, especially women. We have seen how bishop Porphyrius of Gaza secured with the help of the Empress Eudoxia the demolition of the temple of Marnas. As a rule the Emperors desired that the ancient sanctuaries should be preserved and turned to other uses, and we find them interfering to prevent destruction. In many country districts Christianity was only beginning to penetrate, and for the eradication of heathenism there was much missionary teaching to be done, such as was carried on by Martin in western Gaul, by Victricius, archbishop of Rouen, in the Belgic provinces, and by Nicetas of Remesiana in the Balkan highlands.
The Fifth Century (more or less)
Theodosius II at one time professed to believe that no pagans survived in his dominions, but this sanguine view, if it was seriously held, was premature, for in a later year he repeated the prohibition of sacrifices and ordered anew the conversion of temples into churches; and Leo I legislated severely against heathen practices. It is to be observed that this persecution differed in one important respect from the ecclesiastical persecutions of later ages in western Europe. Only pagan acts were forbidden; opinion as such was tolerated, and no restrictions were placed on the diffusion of pagan literature. Perhaps the only exception was the edict of Theodosius II shortly before his death, ordering the books of Porphyry, whose dangerous treatise Against the Christians had apparently shocked the Emperor or some of his advisers, to be burned. The same monarch had enacted that no Christian shall disturb or provoke Jews or pagans “living peaceably.” Indeed pagans could not be dispensed with in the civil service, and in the sixth century we still find them in prominent positions. Hellenism largely prevailed in the law schools, and was no bar to promotion, though it might be made a pretext for removing an official who had fallen out of favour. An able pagan, Tatian, enjoyed the confidence of the fanatical Theodosius the Great, and was appointed Praetorian Prefect of the East; and the same Emperor showed friendly regard towards spokesmen of the old religion like Libanius and Symmachus. The headquarters of unchristian doctrine, the university of Athens, was held in high esteem by Constantine and Constans, and it continued throughout the fifth century unmolested as the home of a philosophy which was the most dangerous rival of Christian theology. Pagans also received appointments in the university of Constantinople.
In a hundred years the Empire had been transformed from a state in which the immense majority of the inhabitants were devoted to pagan religions, into one in which an Emperor could say, with gross exaggeration, but without manifest absurdity, that not a pagan survived. Such a change was not brought to pass by mere prohibition and suppression. It is not too much to say that the success of the Church in converting the gentile world in the fourth and fifth centuries was due to a process which may be described as a pagan transmutation of Christianity itself. If Christian beliefs and worship had been retained unaltered in the early simplicity of their spirit and form, it may well be doubted whether a much longer period would have sufficed to christianize the Roman Empire. But the Church permitted a compromise. All the religions of the age had common ground in crude superstition, and the Church found no difficulty in proffering to converts beliefs and cults similar to those to which they had been accustomed. It was a comparatively small matter that incense, lights, and flowers, the accessories of various pagan ceremonials, had been introduced into Christian worship. It was a momentous and happy stroke to encourage the introduction of a disguised polytheism. A legion of saints and martyrs replaced the old legion of gods and heroes, and the hesitating pagan could gradually reconcile himself to a religion, which, if it robbed him of his tutelary deity, whom it stigmatized as a demon, allowed him in compensation the cult of a tutelary saint. A new and banal mythology was created, of saints and martyrs, many of them fictitious; their bodies and relics, capable of working miracles like those which used to be wrought at the tombs of heroes, were constantly being discovered. The devotee of Athene or Isis could transfer his homage to the Virgin Mother. The Greek sailor or fisherman, who used to pray to Poseidon, could call upon St. Nicolas. Those who worshipped at stone altars of Apollo on hill-tops could pay the same allegiance to St. Elias. The calendar of Christian anniversaries corresponded at many points to the calendars of Greek and Roman festivals. Men could more easily acquiesce in the loss of the heathen celebrations connected with the winter solstice and the vernal equinox, when they found the joyous celebrations of the Nativity and the resurrection associated with those seasons, and they could transfer some of their old customs to the new feasts. The date of the Nativity was fixed to coincide with the birthday of Mithras (natalis Invicti, December 25), whose religion had many affinities with the Christian. This process was not the result, in the first instance, of a deliberate policy. It was a natural development, for Christianity could not escape the influence of the ideas which were current in its environment. But it was promoted by the men of light and leading in the Church.
A particular form of miraculous healing illustrates the way in which Christianity appropriated pagan superstitions. The same dream-cures which used to be performed by Aesculapius or the Dioscuri for those who slept a night in the temple courts were still available; only the patient must resort to a sanctuary of Saints Cosmas and Damian, the new Castor and Pollux, or of the archangel Michael or some other Christian substitute. We have an interesting example of the method employed by ecclesiastical magnates in an incident which occurred in Egypt. Near Canopus there was a temple of Isis where such nocturnal cures were dispensed, and professing Christians continued to have recourse to this unhallowed aid. The Patriarch Cyril found a remedy. He discovered the bodies of two martyrs, Cyrus and John, in the church of St. Mark at Alexandria, and dislodging Isis he interred them, and dedicated a church to them, in the same place, where they freely exhibited the same mysterious medical powers which had been displayed by the great goddess.
The more highly educated pagans offered a longer and more obdurate resistance to the appeals of Christianity than the vulgar crowd. Throughout the fourth and fifth centuries they retained higher education in their hands. The schools of rhetoric, philosophy, law, and science maintained the ancient traditions and the pagan atmosphere. In their writings, some pagans frankly showed their hostility to Christianity, others affected to ignore it. We saw how they threw upon this religion the responsibility for the invasion of the barbarians. But in general their attitude was one of resignation, and they found no difficulty in serving Christian Emperors and working with Christian colleagues. This spirit of resignation is expressed in the most interesting piece we have of the poet Palladas of Alexandria, occasioned by the sight of a Hermes lying in the roadway.
At a meeting of ways I was ware of a bronze god prone at my feet,
And I knew him the offspring of Zeus, whom we prayed to of old, as was meet.
“Lord of the triple moon,” I cried, “averter of woe,
Ever a lord hast thou been, and behold, in the dust thou art low.”
But at night with a smile on his lips the god stood by me sublime,
And said, “A god though I be, I serve, and my master is Time.”
Throughout the fifth century Athens was the headquarters of what may be called higher paganism. The Stoic and Epicurean schools had died out in the third century, and in the fourth the most distinguished savants of the university like Proaeresius and Himerius were sophists, not philosophers. But the Platonic Academy continued to exist, independent of State grants, for it had its own private property producing a revenue of more than £600 a year. Its scholarchs, however, were not men of much talent or distinction, until the office was filled by Priscus, a Neoplatonist and a friend of Julian, after that Emperor’s death. Priscus inaugurated the reign of Neoplatonism at Athens; with him the revival of the university, as a centre of philosophic study, began, and vastly increased under his successor Plutarch. Towards the end of the fourth century, Synesius had spoken in disparaging words of Athens and her teachers: her fame, he said, rests with her bee-keepers.a He was jealous for the reputation of Alexandria, and with good reason, for under Plutarch and his successors Syrianus and Proclus Athens was to eclipse the Egyptian city. These Platonists attracted students from all parts of the East, and some who had begun their studies, like Proclus himself, at Alexandria, completed them at Athens.
The Athenian professors had always regarded themselves as the champions of Hellenism, but when the Neoplatonic philosophy became ascendant, the Hellenism of Athens was a more serious danger. At this time Neoplatonism was the most formidable rival of Christian theology among educated men of a speculative turn of mind. Augustine recognised this; we know how it attracted him. The Neoplatonists taught a system fundamentally differing from the current Christian theology as to the position which was assigned to the creator of the world. According to Plotinus, Nous or Reason, the creator, emanated from and was subordinate to the absolute One, and Soul again emanated from Nous. His successors developed his principles by multiplying and dividing the emanations, and the growth of the philosophy culminated in the system which Proclus constructed by means of a dialectic which Hegel himself has described as “extremely tiring.” In all these phases, the Demiurge or Creator is subordinated to the One of which no divine attributes could be predicted, and thus an apparently impassable gulf was fixed between the later Platonic philosophers and Christian theologians. There was, indeed, at Alexander another school of Platonism, which held closer here and there to the teaching of Plato himself, and men who were trained in this school found the transition to Christian doctrine comparatively easy. We know something of the system of Hierocles, a leading Platonist at Alexandria in the fifth century. In his system there was no One or any other higher principle above God the creator and legislator, who was above, and in no sense co-ordinate with, the company of sidereal gods; and he, like the Christian Deity, created the world out of nothing. Some of the pupils of Hierocles became Christians. It is a curious circumstance that Hierocles should have been condemned to exile at Constantinople on grounds which are unknown to us. It can hardly have been for his teaching, seeing that far more anti-Christian Platonists, who had their stronghold at Athens, were tolerated.
But the danger and offence of the later Neoplatonists did not lie in their mystical metaphysics, but in the theurgy and pagan practices to which they were almost always addicted. Proclus in his public lectures as scholarch confined himself, doubtless, to the interpretation of Plato in the Neoplatonic sense, and to problems of dialectic, but he reserved for his chosen disciples esoteric teaching in theurgy, and venerated the gods as beneficent beings worthy of worship, though occupying a subordinate place in the hierarchy of existences. He believed that by fasting and purifications on certain days it was possible to get into communication with supernatural beings, and he recognised the gods of other nations as well as those of Greece. He said that the philosopher should not confine himself to the religious rites of one city or people, but should be “a hierophant of the whole world.” He was more scrupulous in observing the fasts of the Egyptians than the Egyptians themselves. He had been initiated in the Eleusinian secrets by his friend Asclepigenia, the daughter of Plutarch, who had learned them from the last priest of Eleusis, and in one of his writings he told how he had seen Hecate herself. Athens believed in his magical powers; he was said to have constructed an instrument by which he could bring down rain.
The Hellenists, even in the days of Proclus, had not abandoned all hope of winning toleration for pagan worship. At any time some one might ascend the throne with Hellenic sympathies. The elevation of Anthemius in the West was a proof that this was not impossible, though Anthemius was able to do little to help the pagan interest. Proclus died in A.D. 485, and at that very time a former pupil of his was prominently associated with a rebellion which, if it had been successful, might have been followed by some temporary relaxation of the severe laws against polytheism and pagan worship. This was to be the last flutter of a dying cause.
Now lets jump ahead to the reign of Justinian, which lasted from 527 to 565. The following is from Chapter 22 Ecclesiastical Policy, and specifically from section 3, The Suppression of Paganism:
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.
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.36
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.41
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 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. 529. 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.
Christian on Christian Violence
The above passages all focus on Christian efforts to extirpate Paganism. Christians were equally concerned with imposing monolithic conformity within their own ranks, and Bury did not neglect that topic, either. Here, in its entirety, is Chapter 11, section 4, The Persecution of Heresy:
The persecution of heretics was more resolute and severe than the persecution of pagans. Those who stood outside of the Church altogether were less dangerous than those members of it who threatened to corrupt it by false doctrine, and the unity of the Catholic faith in matters of dogma was considered of supreme importance. “Truth, which is simple and one,” wrote Pope Leo I, “does not admit of variety.” A modern inquirer is accustomed to regard the growth of heresies as a note of vitality, but in old times it was a sign of the active operation of the enemy of mankind.
The heresy which was looked upon as the most dangerous and abominable of all was that of the Manichees, which it would be truer to regard as a rival religion than as a form of Christianity. It was based on a mixture of Zoroastrian and Christian ideas, along with elements derived from Buddhism, but the Zoroastrian principles were preponderant. This religion was founded by Manes in Persia in the third century, and in the course of the fourth it spread throughout the Empire, in the West as well as in the East. Augustine in his youth came under its influence. The fundamental doctrine was that of Zoroaster, the existence of a good and an evil principle, God and Matter, independent of each other. The Old Testament was the work of the Evil Being. Matter being thoroughly evil, Jesus Christ could not have invested himself with it, and therefore his human body was a mere appearance. The story of his life in the Gospels was interpreted mystically. The Manichees had no churches, no altars, no incense; their worship consisted in prayers and hymns; they did not celebrate Christmas, and their chief festival was the Bêma, in March, kept in memory of the death of their founder, who was said to have been flayed alive or crucified by Varahran I. They condemned marriage, and practised rigorous austerities.
The laws against the Manichees, which were frequent and drastic, began in the reign of Theodosius I. The heresy was insidious, because the heretics were difficult to discover; they often took part in Christian ceremonies and passed for orthodox, and they disguised their views under other names. Theodosius deprived them of civil rights and banished them from towns. Those who sheltered themselves under harmless names were liable to the penalty of death; and he ordered the Praetorian Prefect of the East to institute “inquisitors” for the purpose of discovering them. This is a very early instance of the application of this word, which in later ages was to become so offensive, to the uses of religious persecution. When the government of Theodosius II, under the influence of Nestorius, made a vigorous effort to sweep heresy from the world, the Manichaeans were stigmatised as men who had “descended to the lowest depths of wickedness,” and were condemned anew to be expelled from towns, and perhaps to be put to death (A.D. 428). Later legislation inflicted death unreservedly; they were the only heretics whose opinions exposed them to the supreme penalty.
Arcadius, at the beginning of his reign, reaffirmed all the pains and prohibitions which his predecessors had enacted against heretics. In most cases, this meant the suppression of their services and assemblies and ordinations. The Eunomians, an extreme branch of the Arians, who held that the Son was unlike the Father, were singled out for more severe treatment and deprived of the right of executing testaments. This disability, however, was afterwards withdrawn, and it was finally enacted that a Eunomian could not bequeath property to a fellow-heretic. Thus there was a certain vacillation in the policy of the government, caused by circumstances and influences which we cannot trace.
The combined efforts of Church and State were successful in virtually stamping out Arianism, which after the end of the fourth century ceased to be a danger to ecclesiastical unity. They were also successful ultimately in driving Nestorianism out of the Empire. The same policy, applied to the Monophysitic heresy, failed. Marcian’s law of A.D. 455 against the Eutychians was severe enough. They were excluded from the service of the State; they were forbidden to publish books criticising the Council of Chalcedon; and their literature, like that of the Nestorians, was condemned to be burned. But in Syria, where anti-Greek feelings were strong, and in Egypt, where national sentiment was beginning to associate itself with a religious symbol, all attempts to impose uniformity were to break down.
The severe measures taken by the State against the Donatists in Africa were chiefly due to their own fanaticism. Donatism was not properly a heresy, it was a schism, which had grown out of a double election to the see of Carthage in A.D. 311, and the question at issue between the Catholics and the Donatists was one of church discipline. We need not follow the attempts of Constantine and Constans to restore unity to the African church by military force. The cause of the Donatists was not recommended by their association with the violent madmen known as Circumcellions, who disdained death themselves, and inflicted the most cruel deaths on their opponents. The schismatics survived the persecution. At the death of Theodosius I the greater number of the African churches seem to have been in their hands, and during the usurpation of Gildo they persecuted the Catholics. When Augustine became bishop of Hippo, where the Donatists were in a great majority, he set himself the task of restoring ecclesiastical unity in Africa by conciliation. He and the Catholic clergy had some success in making converts, but the fanatics were so infuriated by these desertions that with their old allies the Circumcellions they committed barbarous outrages upon the Catholic clergy and churches; Augustine himself barely escaped from being waylaid. Such disorders demanded the intervention of the secular power. Some injured bishops presented themselves at Ravenna, and in A.D. 405 Honorius condemned the Donatists to severe penalties by several laws intended “to extirpate the adversaries of the Catholic faith.”
The Donatists rejoiced at the death of Stilicho whom they regarded as the author of these laws, and disorders broke out afresh. When Alaric was in south Italy threatening Rome, the Emperor revoked his decrees and soon afterwards, at the request of the Catholics, he convoked a conference of the bishops of the two parties which met at Carthage (A.D. 411) under the presidency of Marcellinus, one of the “tribunes and notaries” whom the Emperors employed for special services. Marcellinus was empowered not only to act as chairman but to judge between the rival claims. The appointment of a secular official to adjudicate did not mean that the civil power claimed to settle questions of doctrine. The controversy, which originally turned on a dispute about facts, had throughout concerned the government not in its ecclesiastical aspect but as a cause of grave disorders and disturbances. But the commission entrusted to Marcellinus shows that the bishop of Rome was not yet recognised as possessing the jurisdiction which in later times resided in his see. At the end of the discussions, Marcellinus decided against the Donatists; they were allowed a certain time to come into the Church. Some were convinced, but others appealed to the Emperor, who confirmed the decision of his deputy and enacted a new law against the schismatics, imposing heavy fines on the recalcitrants, and banishing the clergy. Two years later they were deprived of civil rights. These strong measures, which Augustine defended, alleging the text “Compel them to come in,” broke the strength of the schismatics, and though the Donatist sect continued to exist and was tolerated under the Vandals, it ceased to be of importance.
It must be allowed that if the government had been perfectly indifferent and impartial in matters of religion, it would have had ample excuse for adopting severe measures of repression against the fanatical sect who disturbed the peace of the African provinces and persecuted their opponents. The penalties were severe but they stopped short of death. It should be remembered to the credit of the Emperors that, in contrast with the Christian princes of later ages, they never proposed, in pursuing their policy of the suppression of heresy, to inflict the capital penalty, except in the case of the Manichaeans, who were regarded as almost outside the pale of humanity. The same may be said for the leading and representative ecclesiastics, all of whom would have recoiled with horror if they could have foreseen the system of judicial murder which was one day to be established under the auspices of the Roman see. Martin of Tours did all he could to stay the persecution of the Spanish bishop Priscillian, who, rightly or wrongly, was accused of heresies akin to Manichaeanism. Priscillian was put to death by the Emperor Maximus (A.D. 385), but he was tried before a civil tribunal for a secular offence. It may well have been a miscarriage of justice, but, formally at least, he was not executed as a heretic.
Under the Christian Empire the Jews remained for the most part in possession of the privileges which they had before enjoyed. The Church was unable to persuade the State to introduce measures to suppress their worship or banish them from the Empire. They were forbidden to possess Christian slaves, and a law of Theodosius II excluded them from civil offices and dignities. But the legislator was perhaps more often concerned to protect them than to impinge upon their freedom.
I hope that this material from J.B. Bury (along with the more briefly noted supporting material from recent scholarship discussed at the very beginning of this post) will help at least some people to better understand just how idiotic it is when people (like Stephen Mitchell) claim that the transition from Pagan polytheism to Christian monotheism was “tidy“!!