It used to be thought that, at the end, the eradication of paganism really required no effort. The empire in its waning generations had suffered decline not only material but spiritual. Of itself, “paganism had by late antiquity become little more than a hollow husk.” [MacMullen is here quoting a 1995 article by New York Times art critic Pepe Karmel: “Persistence of pagan myth in modern imagination
“] To replace it, only a preferable alternative was needed which, when supplied and explained, over the course of time inevitably found acceptance. But historians seem now to have abandoned this interpretation (even if, outside their ranks, it persists for a time). The real vitality of paganism is instead recognized; and to explain its eventual fate what must also be recognized is an opposing force, an urgent one, determined on its extinction. Such a force is easily felt in Christian obedience to the divine commands of both Testaments, calling for the annihilation of all error. It was this that controlled the flow of religious history from the fourth century on.
Long before it could be expressed in actions, urgency was clear in the way Christian writers described paganism. From the start, it is not easy to find in the whole of their literature a matter-of-fact, uncolored reference to its beliefs or rituals or (of course, especially) the actual images of gods. Some touch of denigration is almost always added. We might suppose Christians therefore lived in a fog of dark disapproval which they were supposed to breath in and make a part of themselves, if they listened to their leaders or read their works, while of course living also in a mist of love — for each other. Needless to say they could not all, in each moment, respond as they were bid. Instead they responded only in fits and bits, as one might expect, not always with outrage toward their unbelieving neighbors nor ever-charitably toward their own fellows. Periodic outbursts, however, of hate-filled mob or gang violence after the mid-fourth century are indeed recorded — reference will be made to them in what follows — and the role of the church leadership in exciting them is clear. The leaders’ appeals could be heard over a general background of terms such as “mad,” “laughable,” “loathsome,” “disgusting,” “contaminating,” “wicked,” “ignorant,” and so forth, characteristic of ancient invective and freely applied by Christians to everything religious that was not also Christian. More to the fore were specific demands for aggressive action by fulminating synods or individual zealots, of whom I may pick out Firmicus Maternus in 346, adjuring the emperors, “Little remains, before the Devil shall lie utterly prostrate, overthrown by Your laws, and the lethal infection of a vanquished idolatry shall be no more. . . . The favoring numen of Christ has reserved for Your hands the annihilation of idolatry and the destruction of profane temples.” Adjuration rises to a shout: “Abolish! abolish in confidence, most holy emperors, the ornaments of temples. . . . Upon You, most holy emperors, necessity enjoins the avenging and punishing of this evil, . . . so that Your Severities persecute root and branch, omnifarum, the crime of idol worship. Harken and impress upon Your sacred minds what God commands regarding this crime” (and he goes on to work up Deut. 13.6-9, “If thy brother, son, daughter, or wife entice thee secretly, saying, ‘Let us go and serve other gods, . . . . thou shall surely kill” them). A little more focused than Firmicus’ exhortations will be the legislation of the time with its own version of inflammatory name-calling, for example, aimed at “pagans and their heathen enormities, since with their natural insanity and stubborn insolence they depart from the path of the true religion . . . [in] nefarious rites of their sacrifices and false doctrines of their deadly superstition.” At the end, most sharply of all, specific injunctions on specific occasions by leaders to particular audiences. John Chrysostom by letter to the monks or Augustine to his congregation, demanded action.
Firmicus was writing toward the turn of that point where appeals for toleration also change, from the Christian to the non-Christian. Ecclesiastical leaders now began to exercise their superior powers proportionately against their various enemies; what had been words, earlier, became reality and event. Among those enemies, not to be forgotten, were Jews and Manichees against whom laws and arms were turned in about the same period and manner, while sectarian rivalries within the church continued unabated and with freer use of force, now that it was safe (so, in the century opened by the Peace of the Church, more Christians died for their faith at the hands of fellow Christians than had died before in all the persecutions). These areas of religious strife I recall only to make plain in other ways the great urgency lying behind those Old and New Testament commands cited above, which would allow no truce with error. Christians might point with envy to the concordia that prevailed among non-Christians, just as non-Christians pointed with amazement at the murderous intolerance within the now dominant religion; but there could be no compromise with the Devil.
Christian readiness for action carried to no matter what extremes has not always received the acknowledgment it deserves in modern accounts of the period. Among them, prior to the 1980’s, readers will be hard put to find Firmicus’ word “persecution” describing the conduct of the Christian empire toward tis non-Christian subjects. Instead, they will find a reference to that happy moment in 312 “when the era of persecutions ended [!] and Christianity became publicly established in the Later Roman Empire.” Still in the 1990s, congratulation is made on the process of converting the ancient empire “without society tearing itself apart . . . . the fourth century said goodbye to religious strife.” [The first part of the quote is from Stephen Wilson’s Introduction to his Saints and their Cults
(1983), while the second is from R.M. Price’s “Pluralism and Religious Tolerance in the Empire in the Fourth Century”, which is published in Papers presented at the 11th International Conference on Patristic Studies
The lynching of Hypatia took place toward the beginning of the fifth century (A.D. 415). Her fate is illuminating. It may be recalled that, snatched from the street by a mob of zealots in Alexandria, she was hacked to death in the gloom of the so-called Caesar-church and her body burned. She was a non-Christian and a prominent voice for her views; she had become the focus of the patriarch Cyril’s resentment; the lector had caught his master’s wishes and led the crowd that killed her. All this seems certain. In the background, explaining Cyril’s heat, were the indirectly connected Greek-Jewish tensions in the city and the patriarch’s and the provincial governor’s conflict over their respective followings and strength. In the contest between these two, the patriarch called on his parabalani
, church workers with some muscle, as well as hundreds of monks from the Nitrian wilds with still more muscle. The monks shouted against the governor [Orestes
] and stoned him, though he escaped alive. They constituted, with the civil and episcopal authorities and nameless zealots, the available agents of that reforming urgency which governed religious change in the centuries post-400, all conveniently seen in action in the drama that ends with the death of Hypatia.