Ancient History & Civilisation

Christianity and the State: Outlawry and Tolerance

During the third and fourth centuries the emperors faced difficult choices in their religious policies. The mainstream Christian tradition made much of persecution and martyrdom, presenting it as a virtual rite of passage through which the church had to pass before emerging in triumphant domination. This perspective is highly misleading. The episodes of persecution by the state were relatively short. Both Christians and pagans were powerful groups and the rulers of the empire during the main period of religious change could not lightly afford to alienate either side.

Christianity was one of a very small number of religious sects that had been outlawed by the Roman Empire. Christians were an object of casual persecution in Rome as early as the 40s and had been scapegoated for the crime of incendiarism after the great fire of AD 64. Reporting on those events, Tacitus says that the Christians were adherents of a pernicious superstition and were condemned on account of the detestation of the human race. It is unclear whether they are to be understood as the objects or the agents of this hatred, but the episode, as represented by Roman writers, cast the tiny Christian community in fundamental opposition to the values of the Roman state (Tacitus, Annals 15.44). Some fifty years later the younger Pliny, who conducted trials of persons charged with being Christians in the northern Anatolian province of Pontus, makes clear that their crime was precisely that of being Christian. Their religion was illegal in itself. He introduced a simple test at these hearings to establish their guilt or innocence. If they were prepared to invoke the gods and make a reverential offering with wine and incense to a bust of the emperor and statues of the gods, and abjured Christ, they would be acquitted (Pliny, ep. 10, 96–97). Other evidence shows that this should not be understood as a loyalty oath to the emperor and the imperial cult, but as a practical means of establishing that they were no longer Christians.54

At the same time both Pliny and the emperor Trajan recognized that Christian behavior was not inherently threatening. Although Christianity was a capital crime, punishable by death, its followers were rarely actively persecuted. The majority of cases which resulted in the execution of Christians before the middle of the third century involved more or less fanatical extremists, in particular followers of the Phrygian Montanist sect, who deliberately challenged the authorities and thus courted their own martyrdom.55Christians themselves were at odds over the desirability of such extreme and provocative behavior. From early days the movement was divided between a moderate majority, who led unobtrusive and inoffensive lives, and those who defied not only the state but all normal conventions by their behavior. The writer Lucian ironically portrayed Christians in the 170s as poor wretches who had convinced themselves that they would live for ever, and so despised death. They did not value worldly goods and shared their property in common, following a naive and literal interpretation of Christ's teaching that all men were brothers. Their gullibility made them easier dupes for Lucian's own butt, the trickster Peregrinus (Lucian, Peregrinus 11–16).

Christian numbers before 200 were very small, probably to be counted in tens not hundreds, except in the huge metropolitan cities of Alexandria, Antioch, Carthage, and Rome itself.56 These communities grew significantly in the first half of the third century, a point that was noticed by Origen, the greatest of the early theologians (De principiis 4.1.1–2), and we in fact possess reliable figures for the size of the clerical establishment at Rome in 251: 155 clergy, who ranged in rank from church doorkeepers to the bishop, and 1,500 widows who were supported by the church's charity (Eusebius, HE 6.43).

In 249 the emperor Trajan Decius issued an edict which required that all the empire's inhabitants sacrifice to the gods. Decius' officials employed the census rolls, the administrative mechanism which made possible systematic tax collection, to enforce individual compliance with the order. This was a significant new development. Generally in Graeco-Roman paganism regulations concerning sacrifices offered on behalf of the emperors, or for any other reason, were communal events, not matters for individual responsibility. Decius' measure, in contrast, required everyone, or at least all householders, to stand up and be counted. Moreover, it was a significant step towards exercising centralized control, directed by the emperor himself, over pagan religious practice. It is inconceivable that the edict was universally effective, but it was certainly enforced in parts of Egypt, where numerous certificates of sacrifice written on papyri (libelli) have been found. Its effects are also apparent at Smyrna in the province of Asia, where the proconsul of the year 250, who is independently known to have been an enthusiastic pagan, tried and condemned to death a number of non-compliant Christians, including the priest Pionius.57 It is debated whether the measure was originally intended to target Christians as such, or was a general measure designed to coordinate religious observance at a time of difficulty for the empire, but its undoubted effect was to place the Christian communities under severe pressure. The bishops of Rome and Alexandria were executed, and Cyprian, the bishop of Carthage, whose letters are a vital source for the effects of the edict in North Africa, fled to the countryside.58

The edict brought into the open the opposition between Christianity and the state's interests that had usually remained latent. Persecution was renewed in 257 by the emperor Valerian, and this led to the arrest and trial of Cyprian himself. Christian sources preserved a supposed record of two hearings in which the bishop was tried by successive proconsuls of Africa, Aspasius Paternus in 257 and Galerius Maximus in 258, the first of which led to his exile, the second to his execution. The wording of the exchanges between the governors and the bishop is significant:

Paternus: The most sacred emperors Valerian and Gallienus have honoured me with letters, wherein they enjoin that all those who do not observe the religion of Rome, shall make profession of their return to Roman rites; I have accordingly made enquiry as to how you call yourself; what answer do you make to me?

Cyprian: I am a Christian, and a bishop; I know no other gods beside the one and true God, who made heaven and earth, the sea and all things therein; this God we Christians serve, to him we pray day and night, for ourselves, for all mankind, for the health of the emperors themselves. (Acta proconsularia, CSEL III.3, 110; trans. Stevenson)

This appears to be the first time that the phrase “Roman religion,” Romana religio, appears in a contemporary source. It reflects the ideas that lay behind Decius' initiative, to articulate a concept of a unified pagan state religion, which, intentionally or not, became a direct counterpart to Christianity.

The anti-Christian climate of the 250s eased after the death of Valerian in Persian captivity in 260, thanks to the active decision of Gallienus, who addressed a letter to Dionysius, bishop of Alexandria, and other bishops, in which he allowed them to reclaim their churches and guaranteed their freedom of worship. He had also restored access to Christian cemeteries, one of the most important focal points of their religious activity (Eusebius, History of the Church 7.13.15–16). Thus the consensual model of mutual tolerance between the state and the Christians was resumed, but now reinforced by an official indication of imperial approval. This was a period of considerable religious innovation in the Roman world. Aurelian, who made strenuous efforts to restore unity and order to an empire that was under threat of fragmentation, promoted worship of the sun god, Sol Invictus, to a dominant place in the state cults and presented himself as a god, working for mankind's interests as Sol's earthly partner. The period also witnessed a growing emphasis on monotheistic beliefs, at the level of popular cult, among intellectuals and in the ruling elite. Christians began to be found in the upper levels of society, a fact which had important implications for the nature of Christianity itself, as Origen had already acknowledged in the 230s:

I admit that at the present time perhaps, when on account of the multitude of people coming to the faith, even rich men and persons in positions of honour, and ladies of refinement and high birth favourably regard adherents of the faith, one might venture to say that some become leaders of Christian teaching for the sake of a little prestige. (Origen, Contra Celsum 3.9, trans. Chadwick)

By 300 Christians were to be found in the Roman Senate, in the imperial entourage, and in the Roman army.59 They had thus become part of the state's most important institutions. Christian leaders became increasingly confident of their role in society. In 270 a group of church leaders from Asia Minor and Syria had appealed to the emperor Aurelian to intervene in their internal dispute with Paul of Samosata, the bishop of Antioch, and the emperor had ruled in their favor and for the deposition of Paul. This was a clear precursor to the involvement of fourth-century emperors in major church affairs.60 T. D. Barnes has argued forcefully that Christians formed “the dynamic element in Roman society and that by 300 no emperor could rule securely without the acquiescence of his Christian subjects.”61

The renewed period of persecution under the tetrarchy came as a serious shock. Diocletian's restoration of the Roman state was based on a systematic re-invention of Roman religion. This did not resemble Aurelian's sun cult, which was not difficult to reconcile with Christianity, but involved the re-affirmation of central features of traditional paganism. Diocletian promoted the worship of Jupiter as the supreme divine being, adopted Hercules as a major emblem of imperial ideology, and refocused attention on the main figures of the Olympian pantheon. The emperors were explicitly associated with Jupiter and Hercules, and were themselves viewed as gods with Olympian attributes and qualities.62 As had happened under Trajan Decius, when the emperors launched a new religious initiative which was specifically designed to reinforce the integrity of the Roman Empire, this threw a spotlight on un-Roman activities (see pp. 68–70). The decision in February 303 to renew persecution of the Christians was taken in the same spirit. The persecution between 303 and 312 recreated the hostile climate of the 250s. As then, anti-Christian measures were targeted on individuals, as is shown by the universal proclamation of 304/5, which ordered that all members of civic communities should sacrifice and make offerings to the pagan gods (Eusebius, Martyrs of Palestine III.1).63 The impact of the persecutions was not felt equally throughout the empire, for enforcement depended both on the zeal of officials in the provinces, and the attitudes of individual rulers in the imperial college. If full value is given to the assertion of Lactantius that “on assuming the imperial power Constantine's first act was to restore the Christians to their worship and their God. This was the first measure by which he sanctioned the restoration of holy religion” (On the Deaths of the Persecutors 24.9, trans. J. L. Creed/T. D. Barnes), it appears that the effects of the persecution were fully rescinded in the western provinces as early as 306, when Constantine became Augustus.64

The tide of conflict between the Roman state and the Church was of course reversed by the conversion of Constantine to Christianity (see pp. 278–85), and is especially evident in measures which were introduced immediately after 312. From 313 until 324 Constantine ruled the empire jointly with Licinius. After the defeat of Maximinus Daia in summer 313, the latter controlled the eastern provinces, where the majority of Christians lived. Although Constantine was now an avowed Christian, Licinius' religious allegiance is less clear. According to Lactantius, Licinius approved the wording of a monotheistic prayer to be used by his soldiers before the decisive battle with Maximinus' troops. This invoked the supreme and holy god and was certainly acceptable to Christians, but should probably be understood as a deliberate formula of generalized monotheism (Lactantius, On the Deaths of the Persecutors 46). When the two rulers met in Milan in February 313 they agreed on a policy of religious toleration, which is referred to in the preamble of a letter which Licinius shortly afterwards addressed to the provinces of Asia Minor, Syria, and Egypt.65 Specifically in the East, where the persecution of Maximinus had had a big impact in 312, this letter of Licinius guaranteed full restoration of privileges and property to Christians who had suffered under the persecutions, and promised state funds to recompense pagans who had unwittingly acquired confiscated property from Christians. However, the central issue of state policy was to establish freedom of worship throughout the empire, an objective on which both emperors were ready to agree (Lactantius, On the Deaths of the Persecutors 48; Eusebius, HE 10.5.2–14). An inscription from a military camp in Lower Moesia indicates that the soldiers of the garrison were required to make an annual dedication of an image of the sun god, with incense, candles, and libations, at the express order of Licinius and his son (ILS 8940). This probably dates to the period when Licinius was at open war with Constantine, but the latter is unlikely to have been acutely uncomfortable with the religious implications of this action. Constantine's own Christian views were themselves much influenced by solar monotheism, all the more so as the decisive event in his own conversion had been the Christian interpretation of a spectacular solar halo.66

As relations between Constantine and Licinius deteriorated, and civil war broke out between them, it was virtually inevitable that the difference in their religious positions was emphasized. Constantine fought under the banner of the God who had given him victory over Maxentius, while Licinius became increasingly mistrustful of Christians in his part of the empire. In the Life of Constantine Eusebius tells us that Licinius restricted Christian rights of assembly, prevented bishops from holding synods, and curbed the tax privileges which Constantine had offered to the clergy.67 In the final version of the History of the Church he alleged that Licinius revived the systematic persecution of Christians (HE 10.8.10–18). However, these actions probably amounted to no more than measures taken against subjects who were under reasonable suspicion of taking sides with Constantine, and fiscal rigor was a general feature of Licinius' administration. There is no evidence for the extreme religious polarization that had occurred during the great persecution.

Constantine's victory at the battle of Chrysopolis on the Bosporus in 324, followed a few months later by the death of Licinius in custody, was celebrated as a further victory for the Christian cause, and the years 324–5 witnessed a series of triumphalist gestures. Constantine himself expounded his own views on God's providence and his own place in history in the Oration to the Saints, delivered to an assembly of bishops, perhaps at Nicomedia, on Good Friday 325.68 His chief Christian adviser, Ossius, bishop of Cordoba, had made strenuous efforts to resolve the doctrinal split among the eastern Christians between the followers of the priest Arius and the bishop of Alexandria, and the largest ever gathering of church leaders came together at Nicaea in June 325 to agree a program of ecclesiastical unity and an organizational framework for the church. During the same period a decision was taken to create the new imperial city of Constantinople at the site of Constantine's latest victory.

Also in 324 the emperor wrote a series of letters to his subjects relating to Christianity, which are reproduced in Eusebius' Life. A long letter to the inhabitants of the eastern provinces celebrated the outcome of the war and the end of the persecutions as a vindication of God's judgment and as a reward for those who had retained faith in Him. The letter reiterated at length the numerous provisions and measures of restitution to restore Christians to the status, positions, and wealth they had possessed before the civil wars (Eusebius, VC 2.24–42). A second letter encouraged bishops to see to the reconstruction of damaged or abandoned churches, and promised them state aid (VC 2.46.1–3). A third, addressed to all his eastern subjects, commemorated the triumph of the Christian cause, but concluded with a significant and emphatic plea for religious tolerance:

For the general good of the world and of all mankind, I desire that your people be at peace and stay free from strife. Let those in error, as well as the believers, gladly receive the benefit of peace and quiet. For the sweetness of fellowship will be effective for correcting them and bringing them to the right way.…Persons of good sense ought to be convinced that those alone will live a holy and pure life, whom you call to rely on your holy laws. Those who hold back, let them keep, if they wish, their sanctuaries of falsehood. (VC 2.56.1–2, trans. Cameron and Hall)

It is important to distinguish the rhetoric from the substance of these imperial pronouncements. Constantine was a passionate convert to Christianity, and often used violent language to describe those with whose views he disagreed, including schismatic and heretical Christian groups as well as pagans.69 In Christian company he reveled in his religious convictions, flattered bishops by paying attention to their interests and wishes, and sought in return their approval, which was willingly and enthusiastically provided. His biographer and panegyricist Eusebius articulated the view of Constantine as a Christian man of destiny. He was buried in the church of the Holy Apostles, which he had built in Constantinople, in a sarcophagus surrounded by twelve cenotaphs designated for Christ's apostles. The symbolism placed him almost on a level of equality with Christ himself.

However, Constantine was also a secular political leader, who had survived a murderous series of civil wars. For his own regime to succeed he had to defuse the confrontational religious politics of the tetrarchic era. He must also have been aware that, however rapidly the Christian population was growing, Christians were still far outnumbered in the empire by pagans. The letter to the provincials of 324 is the prime document which attests to the politics of religious reconciliation. His famous remark made to a company of bishops, that he himself was perhaps also a bishop, appointed by God to watch over those outside the church, shows his awareness of his wider responsibilities. The remark was very likely intended as a riposte to those who were looking for a more aggressive imperial stance in regard to paganism (VC 4.24; see p. 74).

Constantine, like all emperors, was concerned about the subversive threat of magic and divination. He also demonstrated a missionary vigor in closing certain pagan sanctuaries that appeared immoral or were in other ways particularly offensive to Christians. Thus a ban on sacred prostitution led to the closure of temples at Aphaca and at Heliopolis in Phoenicia. The temple of the popular healing god Asclepius at Aegae in Cilicia was pulled down, and offensive pagan altars and statues removed from the holy site of the Oak-Tree of Mamre near Hebron, where God had appeared to Abraham (Eusebius, VC 3.51–8). However, it is far from clear in these cases that the words were matched by actions, and pagan cult activity continued long afterwards at the major temple sites.

One measure – the complete ban on sacrifice – has been interpreted in a much more confrontational sense, as a body blow aimed at pagan cult. Eusebius mentions a law “restricting the pollutions of idolatry…so that no one should presume to set up cult objects, or practice divination or other occult arts, or even to sacrifice at all” (VC 2.45, trans. Hall and Cameron). Another law of 341, ascribed to Constantius but more probably issued by his brother Constans, also refers back to a measure of Constantine which forbade sacrifice (CTh. 16.10.2). The significance of this legislation has been much disputed. The ban on sacrifice has been taken by Barnes and others as a key to understanding Constantine's religious intentions, evidence of a deliberate policy to cut the heart out of the old paganism. This seems to place too much weight on a flimsy foundation. If Constantine did propose such a sweeping measure, it was rapidly rescinded to make way for the conciliatory approach found in the letter to the eastern provincials in 324:

However, let no one use what he has received by inner conviction as a means to harm his neighbour. What each has seen and understood, he must use, if possible, to help the other; but if that is impossible, the matter should be dropped. It is one thing to take on willingly the contest for immortality, quite another to enforce it with sanctions. I have said these things and explained them at greater length than the purpose of my clemency requires, because I did not wish to conceal my belief in the truth; especially since (so I hear) some persons are saying that that the customs of the temples and the agency of darkness have been removed altogether. I would indeed have recommended that to all mankind, were it not that the violent rebelliousness of injurious error is so obstinately fixed in the minds of some to the detriment of the common weal. (Eusebius, VC 2.60, trans. Cameron and Hall)

This breathes the same spirit of reconciliation as the agreement between Constantine and Licinius in 313, while at the same time proclaiming and advocating the superiority of the Christian faith. If there was a ban, it seems to have applied to sacrifice in contexts associated with magical practices and divination, as Eusebius virtually implies and is in fact explicitly attested in a law of Constantine of 321 (CTh. 9.16.1–4).70

Most of the surviving sources for the period of nearly forty years that separated the defeat of Licinius in 324 from the accession of Julian to sole power in December 361 were written from a Christian perspective and dealt with church affairs, with which the emperors were closely involved. Christians were seriously divided among themselves during this period (see pp. 305–11) and their bishops expended little time and energy in attacking the pagans, now that their own faith was securely anchored as the state's religion. Legislation continued to be passed that favored the church, but few active measures were undertaken to repress paganism. It appears that Constantine and his sons had no major interest in sharpening the division between pagans and Christians. The emperors retained the title of pontifex maximus, implying that they took responsibility for pagan cults, and they continued to use this authority in a traditional way. During the interregnum of summer 337 that followed Constantine's death a rescript was issued in his name to the people of Hispellum in Tuscany, granting them permission to erect a temple of the imperial cult, a templum Flaviae gentis, in honor of his own dynasty, provided that the sanctuary was not “defiled by the deceits of any contagious superstition,” a reference to traditional blood sacrifice (ILS 705).71

Constantius II's position is less well attested than that of Constantine. His personal commitment to Christianity was at least as great as that of his father, and he became closely involved in ecclesiastical politics. Part of a law of Constantius stated that “it is our pleasure that the temples shall be immediately closed in all places and in all cities, and access to them forbidden, so as to deny to all abandoned men the opportunity to commit sin” (CTh. 16.10.4).Sources also list a number of temples, in addition to these closed under Constantine, which were re-commissioned by Julian and are therefore likely to have been subject to restrictions under Constantius.72 In 357, during his visit to Rome, Constantius II saw that the pagan priestly colleges were brought up to strength, while at the same time he removed the pagan altar of Victory from the Senate House (Symmachus, Rel. 3.7).

Julian brought a halt to legislation in favor of the Christians, and withdrew the privileges they had received from his predecessors. Christian clergy were no longer exempt from taxation, lost their right to receive free grain distributions, and were required to fulfill financial duties to their cities as curiales. Bishops no longer enjoyed the power to act as judges. Julian made no attempt to instigate active persecution, but sought to undermine the church in other ways (Theodoret, HE 1.11). Christians who had been exiled as a result of internal church disputes were recalled with the purpose, Ammianus claimed, of rekindling this disabling strife (Ammianus 22.5.3–4). Julian's own religious views, as attested by his writings, were complex. They reveal a man prepared to push his convictions to the limit and force the issue with Christian opponents. The famous edict which declared that Christians were morally unfit to serve as teachers of grammar, philosophy, or rhetoric was the act of an emperor intent on placing Christians beyond the pale of acceptability (see p. 200).73 Augustine later saw this as a clear act of religious intolerance (City of God 18.52). It is not surprising that inscriptions set up in Julian's honor should have revived the charged vocabulary of the 250s, and hailed him as restitutor libertatis et Romanae religionis, “restorer of liberty and the Roman religion” (ILS 752). For an eighteen-month period the politics of religious confrontation were revived.

Julian's reign was too brief to have had long-lasting effects on religious practice in the empire, but it is striking that his successors avoided adopting an extreme religious position, and did not copy the intolerant stance that he had taken up. Jovian in fact took advantage of Julian's drastic initiative in stripping clergy of their tax privileges, and only restored them to a third of the level at which they had been set by Constantine and Constantius, a level which was maintained until the mid-fifth century (Theodoret, HE1.11.3, 4.4.6). However, he ostentatiously advertised a policy of religious toleration. This is apparent from the speech addressed to him in Ankara on January 1, 364, by the political philosopher Themistius. Themistius himself was not a Christian, but a pagan with philosophical religious views. Ironically, he was not held in favor by Julian, who preferred other intellectual advisors, but acted as spokesmen for all the Christian emperors of the period who were based in the East: Constantius, Jovian, Valens, and Theodosius I.74The speech implies that Jovian allowed all his subjects to take part in rituals according to their individual inclinations. Themistius argued that it was appropriate to encourage healthy competition between people of different religious persuasions, to avoid falling into indolence and lethargy. Religious activity was compared to a race in which all the competitors strove to reach the same goal, even if they did not all travel by the same route. The metaphor as well as the argument strikingly anticipates that of Symmachus in his famous relatio to Valentinian II, pleading for the restoration of the pagan altar of victory at Rome. In an even more remarkable passage, the speech portrays god the creator delighting in the diversity of his worshippers, Syrians, Greeks, and Egyptians, each organizing their affairs in their own way. In this tripartite division the Syrians are evidently to be understood as the Christians (Themistius, Or. 5, 67b–70c). Jovian is credited with making religious laws relating to pagan cult that may be compared to Constantine's, “opening the temples, but closing the haunts of imposture, allowing lawful sacrifices but giving no license to those who practice the magic arts.”75

Jovian's policies were continued in the East by Valens and in the West by his elder brother Valentinian. A law of 371 implies that they had passed measures of religious toleration at a previous date (CTh. 9.16.9). Themistius' speeches should be interpreted as articulating the views of the emperors he served,76 and oration 6 (delivered exactly a year later than the speech for Jovian) puts a different emphasis on religious plurality, perhaps in deference to Valens' own more pronounced Christian standpoint. It emphasizes that humanity was united in spiritual kinship and shared moral goals. Men competed in virtue, but also shared feelings of shame when they behaved wickedly. They occupied the earth as property held in common and came to one another's aid when help was needed. All recognized and depended on a supreme divinity as their father, even if they perceived him in different ways (Or. 6.77a–c).77 This speech presents a deliberately vague form of political monotheism to justify Themistius' advocacy of a continued policy of mutual tolerance between pagans and Christians. The whole approach was succinctly summarized by Ammianus in his obituary notice for the emperor Valentinian:

His reign was distinguished for religious tolerance. He took a neutral position between opposing faiths, and never troubled anyone by ordering him to adopt this or that mode of worship. He made no attempt to fasten his own beliefs on the necks of his subjects, but left the various cults undisturbed as he found them. (Ammianus 30.9.5, trans. Hamilton)

Valentinian died of a stroke in 375, and was succeeded by the juvenile Gratian. After the death of Valens in 378, Theodosius, already a key military figure in the army of Illyricum, was acclaimed emperor in January 379. On November 24, 380, he entered Constantinople, having brought some calm and stability to the eastern Balkans. The relationship between the state and the church was about to undergo rapid change. Both Valens and Valentinian had kept their distance from ecclesiastical controversy; but their successors Gratian and Theodosius embraced it. Both were strong adherents of Nicene Christianity, the prevalent orthodoxy of the western empire. Theodosius' personal piety had been forged during his Spanish upbringing, while Gratian had to contend with the presence of the most formidable churchman of the last quarter of the fourth century, Ambrose of Milan, who presented the youthful ruler with a two-volume treatise On the Faith (De Fide) in 379 (see Plate 7.1).78 Immediately after Adrianople Gratian had issued an edict of religious tolerance for all but the Manichees and two extreme Arianizing sects. However, a law of August 379 prescribed the Catholic faith for all (CTh. 16.5.5). In February 380 Theodosius matched this with the most famous religious edict pronounced by any Roman emperor of late antiquity, known from the first words of the Latin text as Cunctos Populos:

We desire that all the peoples who are ruled by the guidance of our clemency should be versed in that religion which it is evident that the divine apostle Peter handed down to the Romans, and which the pope Damasus and Peter, bishop of Alexandria, a man of apostolic sanctity, adhere to.…We command that those persons who follow this rule shall have the name of catholic Christians. The rest, however, whom we judge to be demented and insane, shall sustain the infamy of heretical dogmas, their meeting places shall not receive the name of churches, and they shall be smitten first by divine vengeance and secondly by the retribution of our own initiative, which we shall assume in accordance with divine judgement. (CTh. 16.1.2)

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Plate 7.1    Fifth century mosaic portrait of Ambrose, bishop of Milan, from Chapel of St Victor, Basilica Ambrosiana, Milan (© 2013 Photo Scala, Florence)

The immediate political context of Theodosius' ruling was not as epochal as the wording suggests. It was aimed at the situation in Constantinople and indicated the wish of the emperor and his ecclesiastical advisers that the vacant bishopric should be taken up by a candidate who subscribed to the Nicene Creed, which was universally accepted in the western Church.79 However, the long-term effect of such a lapidary pronouncement was far-reaching. Unlike Constantine, who had been baptized only on his death-bed, Theodosius was anointed into the Church after suffering a life-threatening illness at exactly this time, and this reinforced his commitment to the Christian stance that he adopted on the eve of making Constantinople his main residence. The command that his subjects should follow the tenets of Orthodoxy laid down by the Council of Nicaea was confirmed two days after his arrival in Constantinople on November 24, 380, when he dismissed its Arian bishop (Socrates HE 5.8.11; Sozomen 7.5.1). This was followed by instructions to the praetorian prefect of Illyricum to outlaw heresies and to demand adherence from church leaders to Nicene theology (CTh. 16.5.6). Nicene bishops were summoned to a general council at Constantinople in May 381, whose early stages were entangled in highly contentious disputes about appointments to two key eastern bishoprics, Constantinople itself and Antioch. After these had been resolved, notably by the nomination of a political appointee, Nectarius, in Constantinople, the council moved to its main agenda: reaffirming the Nicene Creed, outlawing heresies including the main Arian groups, restricting the powers of individual bishops to their own dioceses, and – the most far-reaching decision – asserting the ecclesiastical importance of Constantinople, second in privilege after Rome.80

The storm did not break at once over the pagan cults. In 382 Theo­­dosius allowed a pagan temple to be re-opened at Edessa, provided that no sacrifices were carried out there (CTh. 16.10.8), and a verse inscription carved on an imperial equestrian statue at Constantinople called Theodosius “a second Helios,” harking back to the deliberately ambiguous religious language of the early Constantinian period (Anth. Pal. 16.65). However, in the same year in the West, Gratian took three measures that decisively undermined traditional paganism in Rome. He stopped imperial subsidies for the city's main cults, he abolished the salaries of the Vestal Virgins, and he once again ordered the removal of the altar of Victory from the Senate House.

Gratian was killed in the war with the usurper Magnus Maximus in 383, and was succeeded in the West by the very young Valentinian II. This offered the opportunity for the famous appeal that the altar be restored, sent to Valentinian by the pagan prefect of the city, Symmachus, who spoke for the still influential group of pagan senators at Rome (Symmachus, Rel. 3). These prominent men had revived and maintained the traditional cults through the middle and into the later years of the fourth century.81 Their request and the core of the argument was put in memorable words:

We ask, then, for peace for the gods of the homeland, for the divine heroes. It is equitable that whatever all worship be considered one. We gaze upon the same stars, the sky is common to us all, the same world envelops us. What difference does it make by what judgment a person searches out the truth? So great a mystery cannot be arrived at by one path. (Symmachus, Rel. 3, 10, trans. Boniface Ramsay)

The emperor was brow-beaten into rejecting their petition by the arguments of Ambrose which were set out in two long letters, the first delivered even before the formal presentation of Symmachus' petition, the second celebrating the fait accompli of its rejection (Ambrose, ep. 72 [17] and 73 [18]). The Christian poet Prudentius related the whole episode in hexameter verse a few years later.

In the eastern provinces anti-pagan measures are particularly associated with the praetorian prefect of the East of 384–8, Cynegius Maternus, a Spanish associate of the emperor. Enlisting the aid of grim and fanatical monks, and urged on by his zealous wife, Cynegius supervised the destruction of temples at Edessa in Osrhoene, at Apamea in Syria, and in Egypt. At Antioch the pagan orator Libanius, who was clearly aware that Maternus was acting without explicit imperial authority, protested to Theodosius in his speech in defense of the temples, which vainly reminded the emperor of the tolerance of his predecessors (Or. 30.4).

The praetorian prefect and his followers may have exceeded their instructions from the emperor, but there was no respite for pagans from this destructive zeal after Maternus' death in 388. In the course of his campaign against Magnus Maximus, Theodosius himself came to Milan in 389/90. Theodosius and his court had been used to dominating ecclesiastical affairs in Constantinople and this generated an atmosphere of tension between the emperor and the strong-willed bishop in Milan (Sozomen 7.12). Ambrose now insisted that the emperor in church should not take his place among the clergy, but in a position subordinate to the priesthood at the front of the congregation (Sozomen 7.27.8–9). In a first trial of wills, Ambrose put pressure on the emperor not to punish an eastern military leader for the wanton destruction of the Jewish synagogue at Callinicum in Syria and pay for its repair, and urged him not to rein in the monks who had destroyed a heretical Christian conventicle (Ambrose, ep. 74; this is an edited version of ep. extra collectionem 1a [40], 6–8).82 Then, in one of the most dramatic confrontations of church and state power in late antiquity, he forced the emperor to do thirty days penance. In 390 there had been a riot in Thessalonica during a festival when the local military commander Botheric, probably the magister militum for Illyricum, had arrested a favorite charioteer. The rioters killed Botheric himself and in retaliation Theodosius ordered punitive (but probably selective) reprisals against the population (Sozomen, HE 7.25; Rufinus, HE 12.18; Theodoret, HE 5.18). The punishment, carried out by the soldiers who had served Botheric, escalated out of hand and led to the massacre of 7,000 innocent – and Catholic orthodox – citizens of Thessalonica as reprisal for the murder of an Arian Germanic general. Ambrose, who was involved with a synod of Gallic bishops at the time when Theodosius and his court were taking the punitive decision, wrote a private letter to Theodosius to tell him that he would not be present to participate in the adventus ceremony when Theodosius came to Milan after the massacre. He also suggested a resolution to the issue: he would administer the sacrament, if Theodosius did public penance. This appears to have been Ambrose's diplomatic solution to a highly charged political crisis. Theodosius agreed to comply, securing his own reputation for piety, as he deflected the odium which his orders had aroused.83

The campaign against the pagans reached a climax soon afterwards. In early 391 Theodosius reiterated in emphatic form earlier rulings designed to outlaw sacrifice and to restrict activities in pagan sanctuaries:

Let no one defile himself by conducting sacrifices; let no one slaughter an innocent victim; let no one enter a pagan sanctuary, spend time in a temple or gaze in reverence on statues that have been shaped by mortal hands. (CTh. 16.10.10)

The order was directed at senior state officials, for the most part provincial governors in the Italian provinces, who exploited the advantage of their position to enter temples and conduct formal pagan rites.84 Four months later a law in similar terms was sent to the comes of Egypt and the military commander there (CTh. 16.10.11). As had happened in Syria during the 380s, local action went much further than the emperor's intentions. In early 392, amid riotous opposition from the pagan population of Alexandria led by the philosopher Olympius, Theophilus, the bishop of Alexandria, called on imperial troops to destroy the Serapeum, the largest pagan sanctuary in the Roman Empire. A church in honor of the emperor Arcadius was built on the site (see p. 344–5).

According to influential Christian sources, Theodosius' drive to suppress paganism turned to outright war in 394, during the conflict with Eugenius. In the final stages of the uprising the usurper, supported by the magister militum Arbogast, his pagan Frankish sponsor, sought help from the remaining pagan senators at Rome, promised to restore their religious privileges, and brought back the sacred statue of Victory into the Senate House. The account of the decisive battle at the river Frigidus written by the Christian writer Rufinus, in his continuation of Euesbius' Ecclesiastical History published in 402/3, presented Eugenius' pagan sacrifices pitched against the emperor's Christian piety, a miraculous wind which turned the course of battle in Theodosius' favor, and the belief that “more glory accrued to the devout sovereign's victory from the failed expectations of the pagans than from the death of the usurper” (Rufinus, HE 11.23, trans. Amidon). It was alleged that Eugenius' camp stood under the protection of Hercules and Jupiter (Augustine, City of God 5.26). The reversal of fortune when an East wind set in behind Theodosius' troops and enabled them to inflict a serious defeat on the enemy after their own serious losses of the previous day was hailed as the triumph of the Christian God over His pagan enemies.85 Alan Cameron has recently re-emphasized the point that this construction of the battle is almost entirely a propaganda exercise, not shared even by all the Christian accounts of the episode.86 The real issue was control of the western parts of the empire, not the overthrow of paganism. Theodosius' reputation as an emperor motivated by militant Christian piety is largely a construction of triumphalist Christian writers.

The issue of whether to outlaw or tolerate pagan practices became less urgent in the fifth century. The measures taken to repress sacrifice and to destroy major pagan cult centers under Theodosius I certainly coincided with the growth in Christian numbers, so that they were clearly in a majority in the empire at large. This is demonstrated by the accelerating pace of church building in the late fourth and early fifth centuries. Major temples in many eastern cities began to be converted into churches during the first half of the fifth century, a phenomenon that is only sporadically attested at an earlier date.87 Under Theodosius II laws continued to be passed which banned pagans from imperial service and from acting as judges (CTh. 16.10.21 [415], 16.10.23 [423]). Some of the legislation of this period simply repeated earlier imperial pronouncements against pagans, while simultaneously acknowledging that they had been ineffective. Both Marcian in 451 and Leo in 472 repeated earlier laws that banned sacrifice, and Leo in 468 made it illegal for pagans to become lawyers (CJust. 1.11.7–8, 1.4.5). Nevertheless Theodosius II, in keeping with the consistently eirenic approach which characterized the whole period of his reign, avoided confrontational legislation and instructed his praetorian prefect Asclepiodotus to ensure that Christians did not attempt violence against Jews or pagans who were not involved in disorderly or other illegal conduct (CTh. 16.10.24).88 Emperors and their advisors were much more consumed by the internal divisions of the church.89

The issue of paganism only re-emerged significantly at the beginning of Justinian's reign. His stance is drastically revealed by the preface to the publication of the law code:

All people who are ruled by the administration of our clemency shall practice that religion which the divine Peter the Apostle transmitted to the Romans. We command that those who follow this law shall embrace the name of Catholic Christians. (CJust. 1.1.1)

The first book of the Justinianic Code was concerned with religious legislation, leaving no doubt that the emperor's legislative priorities were significantly different from those of his predecessors. Active measures were taken to eradicate pagans for the first time in nearly 150 years. Justinian was responsible, perhaps in 531, for a law that aimed at comprehensive repression of pagans and of Manichees. Pagans were defined as those who had not received or agreed to undergo baptism. Those who refused were banned from practicing as teachers or being employed by the state. Their children were to be forcibly educated in Christian doctrine. Those who defied the law would be punished by exile and confiscation of their property (CJust. 1.11.10).90 Outright Christian intolerance of other forms of religious practice and belief was a new hallmark of the Justinianic regime.

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