An overview of religiously motivated oppression
Events during the 4th century
CE in the Roman Empire
The tables are turned: Christians persecute Pagans after 313 CE:
The waves of persecutions by the Roman Empire against Christians ended in 313
CE when Constantine I (306–337 CE) published
the Edict of Milan. This decree recognized
Christianity as a legitimate religion, on a par with the official Pagan state
religion, Judaism, many mystery religions, etc. A period of religious struggle
began, mainly between the established Pagan polytheistic state religion and
Author Jonathan Kirsh has written about conflicts between paganism and
monotheism in the 4th century Roman Empire and at other times and locations. He
asserts that exclusivist monotheism which believes
"... that only a single deity is worthy of worship for the simple reason that
only a single deity exists" -- holds primary responsibity for thousands of years
of religious intolerance and persecution, up to and including the 9/11 terrorist
attacks. He describes the latter as "only the most recent example of the
violence that men and women are inspired to commit against their fellow human
beings by their true belief in the Only True God." He suggests that polytheism
is generally more tolerant. "At the heart of polytheism is an open-minded and
easygoing approach to religious belief and practice ... [in comparison with
monotheism's dangerous] tendency to regard one's own rituals and practices as
the only proper way to worship the one true god."
In 380 CE, Emperor Theodosius declared Christianity to be the official
religion of the Roman Empire. The general mood of religious tolerance that had
been prevalent in the Empire ended. Widespread tolerance was not to return to
Europe until the Enlightenment.
Persecution of Pagans during the reign of
Constantine's son, Constantius II, was a Christian and a fierce opponent of
Paganism. In 353 and 356 CE, he issued decrees that closed
all of the Pagan temples, made the practice of sacrifices to the ancient Gods
and Goddesses a capital crime, and even executed anyone who attended sacrifices
or worshiped idols. One of his favorite sayings was: "Cesset superstitio;
sacrificiorum aboleatur insania" (Let superstition cease; let the folly of
sacrifices be abolished). Initially, the edicts had little effect because of the
loyalty of the Pagan Roman public to their traditional religions. Even followers
of mystery religions had retained a nominal allegiance to the Roman deities.
"There is no evidence that this law was widely enforced."
Yet, in 357 CE he confirmed privileges to the Vestal Virgins and enacted a
law confirming the prerogatives of the Pagan priests. However, in response to
complaints by some Christian Senators he removed the Altar of Victory in the
Senate house. This is an altar where Senators had traditionally made a sacrifice
before entering the chambers. Constantius apparently did not attempt to stop the
Christians from destroying and pillaging many of the ancient temples.
A convert to Christianity, Firmicus Maternus, commented:
"Paganism, most holy emperors, must be utterly destroyed and blotted out,
and disciplined by the severest enactments of your edicts, lest the deadly
delusion of the presumption continue to stain the Roman world. ... How
fortunate you are that God, whose agents you are, has reserved for you the
destruction of idolatry and the ruin of profane temples."
Even though the edicts and persecution were not widely applied to the Pagan
public, many converted to Christianity. Wikipedia comments:
"The edicts which legislated against pagans, beginning with Constantius,
would in time have an unfavourable influence on the Middle Ages and become
the basis of the much-abused Inquisition.
Persecution of Christians partly reintroduced
under Emperor Julian (361-363):
Emperor Julian appeared to be at least a nominal Christian in public.
However, he was initiated into at least three Pagan mystery religions. He
rejected Christianity because of its exclusivism --
its claim to be the only true religion. Once emperor, he tried to reverse the
oppression of Paganism and to reorganize the old religion's doctrines, rituals
and liturgy. His hope was to unite all Pagan religions under one belief system.
He forbade the teaching of ancient classical works to Christians; this
prevented them of entering a profession. He removed special privileges given to
the Christian clergy by Constantine. He ordered Christians who had demolished
pagan temples to rebuild them or pay for their reconstruction. Otherwise,
Christians were not persecuted during his short reign.
Because of his promotion of tolerance for the old religion of Rome, Julian
was called "Julian the Apostate."
Tolerance of Pagans and Christians under Jovian , Valentinian (364-375) and
Jovian created a climate of religious tolerance during his brief reign of
363-364 CE. This policy continued by his successors Vanentinian, who ruled the
Western part of the Roman Empire and Velens who ruled the East. Valentinian
confirmed the rights and privileges of the Pagan priests and allowed them to
have control over their temples. Still, "... unofficial destruction of pagan
holy sites, notably by such Christians as Martin of Tours," was
Renewal of persecution of Pagans under Gratian,
Theodosius I, & Valentinian II:
Emperor Gratian succeeded Valentinian in the West; Ambrose, the Bishop of
Milan, became his chief advisor. Theodosius succeeded Valens in the East.
Historian Samuel Dill wrote:
"In the long truce between the hostile camps, the pagan, the skeptic,
even the formal, the lukewarm Christian, may have come to dream of a mutual
toleration which would leave the ancient forms undisturbed. But such men,
living in a world of literary and antiquarian illusions, know little of the
inner forces of the new Christian movement."
In 382 CE, Gratian:
|Appropriated the income of Pagan priests and Vestal Virgins;|
|Confiscated the personal possessions of the priestly colleges while
terminating their privileges and immunities;|
|Confiscated all of the Pagan temples and shrines along with their
|Resigned as Pontifex Maximus -- the head of the old religion -- and
abolished the office. 1|
During the same interval, Theodosius extended religious tolerance in the
East: he did not oppress Pagans; in 388, he ordered that a Jewish synagogue be
rebuilt at Callicinum in Mesopotamia after it had destroyed by a bishop and his
Pagans enjoyed renewed religious freedom after the death of Gratian. Many
Pagans achieved important offices. A law of 386 stated that Pagans were given
exclusive responsibility to maintain their temples and celebrate their
festivals. However, Valentinian II later reinstated Gratian's oppressive
regulations against Pagans in the west. In 391 he issued a decree that again
prohibited sacrifices and even forbade anyone from visiting the temples. He was
murdered and replaced by Eugenius, a professor of rhetoric.
Decline of Paganism in the very late 4th century:
According to Wikipedia: 1
"In the year 391 in Alexandria in the wake of the great anti-pagan riots
'busts of Serapis which stood in the walls, vestibules, doorways and windows
of every house were all torn out and annihilated..., and in their place the
sign of the Lord's cross was painted in the doorways, vestibules, windows
and walls, and on pillars'."
Serapis (a.k.a. Sarapis, Zaparrus) was a composite of several Egyptian and
Greek Pagan deities. He was introduced in Egypt during the reign of Ptolemy I,
and lasted well into the Roman period. He formed a link between Greek and
Egyptian Pagan religions. 8
"Rome was more pagan than Christian up until the 390's; Gaul, Spain and
northern Italy, in all but the urban areas, were pagan, save Milan which
remained half pagan. In the year 392, Theodosius officially began to
proscribe the practice of Paganism. This is apparently the time in which he
authorized the destruction of many temples throughout the empire. Theodosius
issued a comprehensive law that prohibited the performance of any type of
Pagan sacrifice or worship, even within the privacy of a person's own home.
Theodosius prohibited men from privately honoring their Lares with fire,
their Genius with wine, or their Penates with incense. Men were prohibited
from such traditions as burning candles or incense and suspending wreaths in
honor of the deities. Theodosius also prohibited the practice of all forms
of divination, even those forms of divination that were not considered
harmful to the welfare of the Emperor, with this wide-ranging law. Paganism
was now proscribed, a 'religio illicita'."
"In 393, Theodosius was ready to begin his war against Eugenius and
Arbogastes. The battle that ensued became, in essence, a battle for the
survival of Paganism. The defeat of Eugenius by Theodosius in 394 led to the
final separation of Paganism from the state. Theodosius visited Rome to
attempt to convert the Pagan members of the Senate. Being unsuccessful in
this, he withdrew all state funds that had been set aside for the public
performance of Pagan rites. From this point forward, state funds would never
again be made available for the public performance of Pagan rites nor for
the maintenance of the Pagan temples. Despite this setback on their
religion, the Pagans remained outspoken in their demands for toleration.
Many Pagans simply pretended to convert as an obvious instrument of
"[Philip Hughes wrote:] 'Theodosius was not the man to sympathise with
the balancing policy of the Edict of Milan. He set himself steadfastly to
the work of establishing Catholicism as the privileged religion of the
state, of repressing dissident Christians (heretics) and of enacting
explicit legal measures to abolish Paganism in all its phases'."
"Examples of the destruction of pagan temples in the late fourth century,
as recorded in surviving texts, describes Martin of Tours' attacks on holy
sites in Gaul, the destruction of temples in Syria by Marcellus, the
destruction of temples and images in, and surrounding, Carthage, the
Patriarch Theophilus who seized and destroyed pagan temples in Alexandria,
the levelling of all the temples in Gaza and the wider destruction of holy
sites that spread rapidly throughout Egypt. This is supplemented in
abundance by archaeological evidence in the northern provinces (for which
written sources hardly survive) exposing broken and burnt out buildings and
hastily buried objects of piety. The leader of the Egyptian monks who
participated in the sack of temples replied to the victims who demanded back
their sacred icons: 'I peacefully removed your gods...there is no such thing
as robbery for those who truly possess Christ'."
"According to a Christian historian 'Paganism was now dead', though
pagans survived and would continue to do so for another three centuries,
mainly outwith the towns -- 'rustics chiefly - pagani'."
"Edward Gibbon wrote:
'The generation that arose in the world after the promulgation of the
Imperial laws was attracted within the pale of the Catholic Church: and
so rapid, yet so gentle, was the fall of paganism that only twenty-eight
years after the death of Theodosius the faint and minute vestiges were
no longer visible to the eye of the legislator'."
The following information sources were used to prepare and update the above essay. The hyperlinks are not necessarily still active today.
- "Persecution of religion in ancient Rome," Wikipedia, at:
- "The Theodosian Code," at:
- " 'Julian the Apostate' Flavius Claudius Julianus," Illustrated history of
the Roman Empire," at:
- Samuel Dill, "Roman Society in the Last Century of the Western Empire",
Meridian, (1958), Page 26.
- Jonathan Kirsch,
"God Against the Gods: The history of the war between monotheism and
polytheism", Viking Compass, (2004). Read
reviews or order this book safely from Amazon.com online book store
- Studies in Comparative Religion, "The Conversion of the Roman Empire, Philip
Hughes, Vol 3, CTS.
- Edward Gibbons, "The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire," Chapter 28.
- Jefferson Monet, "Serapis (Sarapis), the Composite God," Tour Egypt!, at:
Copyright © 2008 by Ontario
Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Latest update: 2008-APR-11
Author: B.A. Robinson