by Ferdinand Bardamu
Christianity: bringer of violence and bloodshed
Word of mouth is notoriously ineffective as a means of spreading religious propaganda. This explains why Christianity’s growth remained largely unspectacular until the early 4th century. Of course, the primary reason for the Christianization of the empire was the conversion of Constantine to the new religion. The influence of Christianity in the empire was continuously reinforced and strengthened by the imperially coercive legislation of his successors. Christianization also sanctioned acts of religious violence against pagans, which contributed significantly to the religion’s spectacular growth in numbers and influence. Christianity unleashed a wave of violence that nearly drowned Europe in an ocean of blood. Without Constantine, and the religious violence of his successors, Christianity would have remained just another competing religion in the provincial backwaters of the empire, like Mithraism or the Eleusinian Mysteries.
The imperial policy of Christianization was further aided by the religion’s intrinsic advantages over rival philosophical and religious belief systems, making it more palatable to the ignorant masses. This facilitated its rapid spread across the empire until, by the reign of Theodosius in the late 4th century, most urban areas were predominantly Christian. These advantages included the egalitarian ethos of the Christian church. Unlike Mithraism, which was elitist, Christianity accepted all potential recruits, regardless of ethno-linguistic or socio-economic difference. The Christians of the first three centuries practiced a form of primitive communism. This attracted the chronically indigent, as well as freeloaders. Another advantage was the child-like simplicity of Christian doctrine.
The Crisis of the 3rd century, where rival claimants fought each other for the title of Caesar, was an internecine conflict lasting for decades. It produced widespread economic instability and civil unrest. This disruption of daily life encouraged men and women to seek refuge in the mystery religions, but also Christianity, which offered easy answers in an increasingly chaotic and ugly world. The Christian religion promised life everlasting to those who successfully endured tribulation on earth.
Passage of the edict of Milan in 313 meant that Christians would go from being a persecuted minority to a persecuting majority. Although persecution of religious dissidents had occurred before Constantine, such events were comparatively rare. Roman “persecution” of Christianity was mild and sporadic. It was not even religious in nature, but political; Christians refused to swear loyalty to the state by offering the pinch of incense to the emperor’s genius. Christians were not so much persecuted as they were subjected to Roman police action for disobeying the laws of the land. In contrast, Christian persecution of pagans and heretics was entirely motivated by religious hatred. It combined the authoritarian anti-pagan legislation of the emperors with the bigotry of the clergy and the violence of the Christian mob.
The first repressive laws against paganism were passed by Constantine. In 331, he issued an edict that legalized the seizure of temple property. This was used to enrich church coffers and adorn his city of Constantinople. He redirected municipal funds from the curiae to the imperial treasury. The curiae used these funds for the construction and renovation of temples, as well as for pagan banquets, processions and festivals. The redirection of municipal funds significantly diminished the influence of paganism in the public sphere. Constantine also showed preference for Christians when considering prospective candidates for government posts. For the first time in the empire’s history, conversion to Christianity was considered an attractive proposition.
Pagan temples and statuary were first vandalized and destroyed under Constantine. Christians believed that this first wave of iconoclasm was in fulfillment of scriptural command: “Ye shall destroy their altars, break their images, and cut down their groves; . . . for the Lord, whose name is Jealous, is a jealous God” (Exod. 34.13f). The earliest Christian iconoclasm included the partial destruction of a Cilician temple of Asklepios and the destruction of temples to Aphrodite in Phoenicia (ca. 326 AD).
Constantine’s sons, Constans and Constantius II, followed in their father’s footsteps. In 341, Constans issued an edict banning animal sacrifice. In 346, Constans and Constantius II passed a law ordering the closure of all temples. These emperors were egged on by the Christian fanatic Firmicus Maternus who, in an exhortation addressed to both emperors in 346, called for the “annihilation of idolatry and the destruction of profane temples.” The fact that pagans continued to occupy important posts in the imperial administration made it difficult to legislate the active destruction of temples, statuary and inscriptions without alienating a large segment of the empire’s population. Nevertheless, Constantine’s sons turned a blind eye to private acts of Christian vandalism and desecration.
After the death of Constantius II, Julian was made emperor in 361. Having succumbed to the influence of pagan tutors in his youth, he developed a deep hatred for the “Galilean madness.” Accession to the throne allowed him to announce his conversion to Hellenism without fear of retribution. Julian set about reversing the anti-pagan legislation first enacted by his uncle. He re-opened the temples, restored their funding and returned confiscated goods; he renovated temples that had been damaged by Christian vandals; he repealed the laws against sacrifice and barred Christians from teaching the classics. Julian’s revival of pagan religious practice was cut short in 363, when he was killed in battle against the Persian Sassanids.
His successor Jovian revoked Julian’s edicts and re-established Christianity as most favored religion in the empire. The emperors who came after Jovian were too occupied with barbarian invasion to be concerned with internal religious squabbles; it was more expedient to simply uphold the toleration imposed on pagans and Christians alike by the Edict of Milan. Anti-pagan conflict again came to the forefront with Gratian. In 382 he angered pagans by removing the altar of Victory from the Senate. In the same year, Gratian issued a decree that ended all subsidies to the pagan cults, including priesthoods such as the Vestal Virgins. He further alienated pagans by repudiating the insignia of the pontifex maximus.
In 389, Theodosius began his all-out war on the old Roman state religion by abolishing the pagan holidays. According to the emperor’s decrees, paganism was a form of “natural insanity and stubborn insolence” difficult to root out, despite the terrors of the law and threats of exile. This was followed by more repressive legislation in 391, which re-instated the ban on sacrifice, banned visitation of pagan sanctuaries and temples, ended imperial subsidies to the pagan cults, disbanded the Vestal Virgins and criminalized apostasy. He refused to return the altar of Victory to the Senate house, in defiance of pagan demands. Anyone caught performing animal sacrifice or haruspicy was to be arrested and put to death. In the same year, the Serapeum, a massive temple complex housing the Great Library of Alexandria, was destroyed by a mob of Christian fanatics. This act of Christian vandalism was a great psychological blow to the pagan establishment.
Pagans, dissatisfied with the imperially-sponsored cultural revolution that threatened to annihilate Rome’s ancestral traditions, rallied around the usurper Eugenius. He was declared emperor by the Frankish warlord Arbogast in 392. A nominal Christian, Eugenius was sympathetic to the plight of pagans in the empire and harbored a certain nostalgia for pre-Christian Rome. He restored the imperial subsidies to the pagan cults and returned the altar of Victory to the Senate. This angered Theodosius, emperor in the east. In 394, Theodosius invaded the west and defeated Eugenius at the battle of Frigidus in Slovenia. This ended the last serious pagan challenge to the establishment of Christianity as official religion of the empire.
Apologists for Christianity argue that imperial anti-pagan legislation was more rhetoric than reality; their enforcement would have been difficult in the absence of a modern police state apparatus. This objection is contradicted by archaeological and epigraphic evidence. First, based on stratigraphic analysis of urban temples, cult activity had virtually ceased by the year 400, after passage of the Theodosian decrees. Second, temple construction and renovation declined significantly under the Christian emperors. In Africa and Cyrenaica, temple construction and renovation inscriptions are far more common under the first Tetrarchy than the Constantinian dynasty, when pagans still constituted a significant majority of the empire’s citizens. By the end of the 4th century, the authoritarian legislation of the Christian emperors had seriously undermined the strength and vitality of the old polytheistic cults.
The emperors did not stop with the closure of pagan religious sites. In 435 AD, a triumphant Theodosius II passed an edict ordering the destruction of all pagan shrines and temples across the empire. He even decreed the death penalty for Christian magistrates who failed to enforce the edict. The Code Justinian, issued between 529 to 534, prescribes the death penalty for public observance of Hellenic rites and rituals; known pagans were to seek instruction in the Christian faith or risk property confiscation; their children were to be seized by officials of the state and forcibly converted to the Christian religion.
Imperially mandated closure of all urban temples resulted in the privatization of polytheistic worship. This further exacerbated the decline of the pagan religious cults because of the object-dependent nature of ritual practice, which could not be fully realized in the absence of statuary, processions, festivals, lavish banquets and monumental building. In urban areas, imperial legislation was clearly effective. This was ruthlessly enforced by professional Christians and zealous magistrates, who used the additional muscle of the Roman army to get their own way, especially when preaching and public example failed.
Pagan rites and rituals were still observed at rural sanctuaries and temples for some time after the closure of urban centers of worship. These remained off the beaten track, so to speak, and were harder to shut down.
Churchmen like the fiery John Chrysostom, cognizant of this fact, exhorted the rich landowning class of the east to convert the heathen on their country estates. Those who allowed pagan worship on their rural properties were just as guilty of violating imperial anti-pagan legislation as the pagans themselves. Itinerant Christian evangelists, like Martin of Tours, fanned out across the countryside, winning souls for Christ through a campaign of intimidation, harassment and violence. In the end, aggressive evangelism, privatization of pagan religious practice and social marginalization ensured the death of paganism in rural areas.
Christianization of the empire was complete by 600 AD, although it is unclear to what extent Christ was considered just another deity to be worshipped alongside the old pagan gods.