Ancient History & Civilisation


From Pagan to Christian



Questions raised by religious change in the later Roman Empire


The persistence of paganism


The diversity of paganism: civic cults and sacrifice; private beliefs and magical practice


The central articles of Christian belief


Christian sects and heresies. Jews, Manichees, Montanists Christianity and the state


Anti-Christian legislation from Nero to Diocletian


The great persecution


Constantine's pro-Christian legislation


Julian promotes paganism


The state and pagan cults, from tolerance to persecution


The disappearance of paganism in the later empire

The later Roman Empire underwent an unprecedented level of religious change. At the center of this transformation was the conversion of pagans to Christians in the fourth century, when it seems likely that more than half the inhabitants of the Roman world converted to Christianity. The eradication of paganism was by any standards rapid, but it was not instantaneous. Many people, at all levels of society, stuck to their old beliefs and practices, and significant pagan groups were to be found in the fifth and even the sixth centuries. The impact of this religious revolution is evident in almost every aspect of the history of late antiquity. It remains, however, a challenging task to explain how and why this process occurred, and to evaluate its significance. These simple questions in turn raise a series of complicated historical problems. Neither pagans nor Christians formed homogeneous groups. Conversion itself can be seen both as an individual and as a collective phenomenon, sometimes adopted voluntarily, at others as a result of force and coercion. If we use the metaphor of a journey to describe the progress from one side to the other, it is clear there were many different starting points and destinations, that some pagans had much further to travel to become Christians than others, and that not all the traffic was in one direction. Certain features of pagan polytheism were more easily discarded than others, and many communities that called themselves Christian undoubtedly retained and perpetuated pre-Christian traditions.

There is also a larger consideration. How large a place did religion occupy in public and private life? Was conversion to Christianity of overwhelming importance in determining how individuals or communities related to one another? Did religious preferences largely determine people's social and political behavior, or was there plenty of secular space within which people could fraternize, intermarry, and conduct business regardless of each other's beliefs?

This chapter begins with a general account of the religious scene in the Roman Empire in the third century AD, drawing attention to the main aspects of pagan polytheism before the conversion of Constantine. It then considers the importance of state policies towards traditional paganism and Christianity during the main period of transition in the third and fourth centuries. Chapter 8 is concerned with conversion, and examines the importance of religion in shaping communal identities in the later empire.

There are serious difficulties in assessing the balance between paganism and Christianity in late antiquity, particularly during the fourth century. Most of the mainstream written sources available to us are Christian, and they belittle or suppress the evidence for paganism.1 Pagan rituals were often represented as the activities of a deluded minority. Christian writing at the beginning of our period had been predominantly apologetic, offering a defense and justification for the faith in the face of criminalization by the Roman state and the critique of Greek intellectuals. After the conversion of Constantine the tone and format of this literature changed to become assertively triumphalist. Christian authors had no interest in providing a realistic view of the strength of paganism, whether numerically or in other ways. Meanwhile secular authors of the fourth century, who were by no means all pagans, preferred to mention Christianity as little as possible. The brief historical epitomes, which document the period of the tetrarchs and Constantine, scarcely mention religious issues at all. Even Ammianus Marcellinus, who was fully aware of the nature and significance of Christianity, and may have been a Christian himself for some of his life, pushes all aspects of Christianity to the margins of his narrative, usually excluding it altogether from view.2

Other sources are also difficult to evaluate. Inscriptions, especially religious dedications, are the richest single source of information about pagan cults in the Roman Empire. They occur in great numbers during the second and third centuries, but become rare in the fourth.3 However, this is at least as much to do with a change in epigraphic habits of commemoration as it is with the abandonment of paganism. An exception must be made for the city of Rome, where the epigraphic habit remained strong and pagan cults are well attested, at least in the senatorial class until around 400. Archaeology may offer a more dispassionate and objective record, but the archaeology of cult is a problematic area. It is very rare to find archaeological evidence for the construction or even for the major rebuilding of pagan temples after the mid-third century. On the other hand material evidence for monumental church building is also sparse before the mid- or later fourth century in any part of the empire. Thus the most dynamic period of religious change from 250–350 has left little mark in monumental archaeology.4

Later paganism was also camouflaged and obscured by the distortions of its opponents. After the religious re-orientation of the Roman state, which was achieved by Constantine and his successors, all pronouncements or actions by emperors and their officials were also either explicitly or implicitly Christian. This characteristic became more pronounced as affairs of state and church became inextricably bound to one another. This creates an illusion that non-Christian religions had disappeared or had been marginalized. But much religious activity, like many other aspects of life in the late Roman world, was beyond the reach of the state.

In any case the society and culture of late antiquity were thoroughly imbued with pagan traditions that could not be speedily diluted. At the highest political level emperors developed a style of rulership which increasingly distanced them from the populations that they ruled. The huge gap between rulers of large territories and their subjects in the ancient world was one that was invariably bridged by cult.5 In the later Roman Empire, ritualized behavior which emphasized the emperors' power and authority became an even more prominent part of political life.6 Inevitably, therefore, many aspects of ruler worship survived in the late empire. Of course, both in literature and in representational art formulae were found to distinguish between the nature of divinity, in a Christian sense, and the charismatic power of the emperors. Both Constantine and Justinian were the agents of God's will, not divine beings themselves, but this did not prevent Eusebius from portraying Constantine as virtually a second Christ (Eusebius, VC 4.71), or Procopius from envisaging Justinian as a supernatural daemonic force (Procopius, Secret History 12). Priscus, in his famous account of the embassy to the Huns in 449, records how the separate groups of Romans and Huns that were encamped together on the road from Constantinople to Serdica became embroiled in a violent argument about the qualities of their respective rulers, Theodosius II and Attila. To the Roman party the question was incomprehensible, for how was it possible to make a comparison between a mere man and the emperor, a god (Priscus fr. 11.2)? The contradiction, at least to a modern student of the period, between Christian belief and the notion of ancient rulers as divinities appears most starkly in Procopius' Secret History. Procopius bitterly attacked Justinian and Theodora for requiring even members of the Senate to perform an extreme and humiliating form of proskynesis, corresponding to the conduct of slaves before their masters. The ideology of this despotism, which reflected similar practices in the contemporary Sassanian court, was that all mankind should abase themselves before the omnipotent and virtually divine authority of the emperor (Procopius, Secret History 30, 21–30).7

Pagan traditions also remained ineradicably embedded in the high culture of late antiquity. This was partly due to the enduring appeal to educated people of classical literature. But it was also the result of an educational system which was based on the study of grammar and rhetoric. The language of public life in the eastern part of the empire was a sophisticated and artificially elaborated form of literary Greek, which had been mastered by those who were the products of this system.8 However, it was only possible to master language at this level through the study of literature, and that unavoidably meant a familiarity with pagan mythology, philosophy, and rhetoric.9 The wealthy elite of the cities of the eastern Roman Empire, and also, to a lesser extent, their counterparts in the Latin-speaking West, were reared on classical learning and the pagan religious ideas that were embedded in it. Famously Julian the Apostate attempted to ban Christians from teaching this traditional syllabus. A Christian teacher was by definition guilty of gross hypocrisy if he rejected the moral substance of the works he was expounding.

I think it absurd that men who expound the works of these writers should dishonour the gods whom they used to honour. Yet, though I think this is absurd, I do not say that they ought to change their opinions and then instruct the young. But I give them the choice; either not to teach what they do not think admirable, or, if they wish to teach, let them persuade their pupils that neither Homer nor Hesiod nor any of these writers who they espoused and have declared to be guilty of impiety, folly and error in regard to the gods, is such as they declare. (Julian, ep. 42, 423a–b, trans. Stevenson)

Julian's legislation was short-lived, and was rejected by Christians as well as by pagans. Specific literary genres, notably epic poetry and panegyric oratory, retained the hallmarks of paganism throughout late antiquity. The longest Greek epic that survives is the Dionysiaca of Nonnus, written in Egypt around the middle of the fifth century by a poet who was also responsible for rendering St John's Gospel into hexameter verse.10 The fusion of Christian piety with the high culture of the pagan tradition is particularly evident in literary circles around the court of Theodosius II at Constantinople (see p. 116). It was left to Justinian to follow through the logic of Julian's law in legislation that forbade all pagan teaching (CJust. I.5.18, I.11.10).11

Of course the illiterate inhabitants of the ancient world, the great majority, had at best only indirect access to this sophisticated literature. During the fourth and fifth centuries there was a shift away from the traditional learning and elaborate rationality of what we call the classical world to much less sophisticated ideas. However, much of the writing of the fourth and fifth centuries, notably saints' lives, letter collections, and accounts of miracles, reveals popular superstitions and beliefs that are absent from more sophisticated genres of literature. After 300, as power in the empire began to slip from the civic elites and was transferred to thousands of state bureaucrats, and as the size of the clergy was vastly enlarged, so many more people in positions of authority were drawn from a wider pool of the population. These brought a less educated approach to decision making. The ideas and educational values of the elite were diluted by the popular beliefs of the masses.12

Pagan traditions were also tenaciously preserved at a popular level. Most of the evidence relating to popular festivals in the ancient world comes from late antiquity. The religious changes of the period could not obliterate pagan practices and cultural attitudes which were engrained in society itself.13 There is abundant evidence from late antiquity that non-Christian festivals and rituals continued to be celebrated throughout the empire.14 Most notable were traditional calendrical celebrations, associated with particular times or seasons of the year, but not strongly attached to specific pagan gods. These included the Brumalia and Saturnalia, staged in November and December respectively, festivities associated with the winter solstice and the spring equinox, and above all the celebration of New Year's Day, the Kalends, which was frequently deplored by Christian preachers, but left in place by imperial legislation (CTh. 16.10.3 [341]; 8 [382], 17 [399], 12.1.145 [399]).15 A notable event which was widespread in the Near East was the popular festival of the Maiuma, which involved night-time spectacles of pantomime, parties, and, according to the unreliable hostile testimony of the preacher John Chrysostom, naked female bathing.16 The event spread throughout the empire, to fifth-century Aphrodisias in Caria, to sixth-century Constantinople, and to the port of Ostia in the West.17 Christian leaders objected resolutely, but largely in vain, to these events.

Religious Pluralism in Late Antiquity

Paganism in the third-century Roman Empire took many different forms. In the forefront were the mainstream public cults of the Graeco-Roman cities. Throughout the empire the inhabitants of the provinces, especially those living in cities, identified their local gods with members of the Graeco-Roman pantheon. Although in many cases the indigenous origins of these cults remain identifiable, the practice of giving the gods familiar Greek or Latin names gave a unified appearance to public religion.

This unity was reinforced by the broadly similar institutions and patterns of religious practice.18 Cult activity was most conspicuous at major temples in towns and cities, and was often associated with large public festivals. Animal sacrifice was the most important form of ritual observance, but the festivals included ceremonial processions, public feasts, and especially games, competitions, and other spectacles. Many festivals from the first to the third centuries were associated with emperor worship, which enhanced rather than competed with traditional cult in provincial cities. Gladiatorial contests were a form of spectacle closely linked to the imperial cult. All this activity was expensive to mount and was only made possible by the disposable surplus wealth to be found in prosperous cities. Temple building and public festivals were either financed by the cities themselves or by donations from members of the local aristocracy. Sometimes individual families also paid the expenses of the priesthoods. This was in essence a city-based religious system. Cults and ritual activity were integrated into the institutions of the polis and funded to a considerable degree by the euergetism of private benefactors.

Social and economic changes during the third century had a big impact on the pattern of religious behavior. The most important of these was the decline of the city-states as viable and independent economic units with the freedom to dispose of their own surplus wealth. Aristocratic generosity, which had sustained the boom in public civic paganism since the later Hellenistic period, and which had reached a climax in the cities of the second and early third centuries AD, occurred while the empire was mostly at peace. New temples, lavish festivals, musical and athletic games were also a particular feature of the empire's peaceful provinces. The overall tax burden of the empire was generally affordable, and the most urbanized areas of the empire were not exposed to intense requisitioning or direct demands by Roman armies. These conditions changed during the third century, especially after the end of the Severan period, when increased taxation and militarization affected the ability and the willingness of Rome's richer subjects to pay for buildings and local festivals. Local elites no longer voluntarily spent their surplus wealth to enhance the public facilities of the cities. It is significant that in the fourth and fifth centuries public civic building was rarely initiated by members of the local elite but by provincial governors or other Roman officials.19 When the empire's fortunes revived at the end of the third century thanks to the energetic measures of the tetrarchs, the initiative came not from provincial cities but from the central authorities.20Meanwhile polis-based religion declined along with other institutions of the city-states.

This did not bring civic paganism to an immediate end. Although smaller cities succumbed to the pressures, large centers, and especially the capital cities of the new provinces, provide evidence for continued urban vitality. The municipalities of Roman North Africa remained viable until the end of the fourth century, and their leading families continued to finance local civic cults until the time of Augustine.21 But the overall impact of social and economic changes was to shift attention away from showy public festivals, which were supported by and served the interests of the urban elites, to popular and less formal aspects of paganism. Augustine, who had spent his student years in the aggressively secular environment of Carthage, encountered enthusiastic pagan festivities of this sort during his years as bishop of Hippo. In 409 he deplored blatant pagan impieties in the town of Calama:

At the June 1st festival, the impious ceremony of the pagans was celebrated without hindrance from anyone, with such impudent audacity as was not ventured in Julian's day: an aggressive crowd of dancers in the precinct passed directly in front of the church doors. And when the clergy attempted to prevent such an outrageous thing, the church was stoned. (Augustine, ep. 91.8)

But he was fighting not only against pagan traditions but against the government line. Ten years earlier Honorius had issued a law to the proconsul of Africa which expressly permitted these activities:

When by our salutary law we forbade the practice of sacrilegious rites, we were not giving our authority for the abolition of the festivals which bring the citizens together for their communal pleasure. In consequence we decree that, according to the ancient customs, these forms of entertainment should be available to the people, although without any sacrifice or illegal superstition. (CTh. 16.10.17 = CJust. 1.11.4)22

Blood sacrifice, the defining activity at the heart of pagan ritual, was banned, with gradually increasing effect, throughout the Christian empire,23 but animals were still slaughtered at feasts, which retained most of the elements of pagan festivities. Libanius at Antioch in the late 380s explained how the practice continued and might avoid Christian sanction:

But for a banquet, a dinner, or a feast and the bullocks were slaughtered elsewhere (not in temple grounds): no altar received the blood offering, no single part of the victim was burned, no offering of meal began the ceremony nor did libations follow it. If the people assemble in some beauty spot, slaughter a calf or a sheep or both, and boil or roast it, and then lie down on the ground and eat it, I do not see that they have broken the laws.…Even if they were in the habit of drinking together amid the scent of every kind of incense, they broke no law, nor yet if in their toasts they sang hymns and invoked the gods. (Libanius, Or. 30.17ff.)

In modern Islam animal sacrifice has no place within the religious ritual, but the Eid al-Adha festival (the Turkish Kurban Bayram), including the blood sacrifice of a victim, commemorating Abraham's sacrifice of the ram in place of his son Ishmael (or in Christian tradition Ishmael's half-brother Isaac), is a universal practice of Moslem societies.

It is, however, open to question whether these non-Christian rituals were fully pagan, or whether they had been tacitly accepted as part of popular everyday culture, whose religious overtones could be ignored. Of course they were deplored by bishops and other Christian authorities, but so too were other diversions such as circus spectacles and wild beast hunts in the amphitheater, which were as popular with Christian as with pagan spectators. Christians perpetuated many forms of popular pagan activity by disregarding their religious associations and re-branding them as secular or even as Christian events. We may compare the persistence of May Day and other festivals in Christian Europe, or the secular festival of Nourouz (New Year's Day) in contemporary Iran, which attracts criticism from zealots but is universally celebrated by the people and tolerated even by a strongly religious regime. One of the literary works of the fourth century which points towards a desacralization of popular festivities was the almanac of Dionysius Philocalus, produced in Rome in 354, which assembled lists of emperors and consuls, city prefects and bishops of Rome, as well as publishing the ecclesiastical calendar of the Roman Church juxtaposed with that of the non-Christian holidays of the civic year.24

It is much harder to classify the private religious beliefs and practices which played a large part in people's lives across the empire. Magical practices were ubiquitous, and belief in their effectiveness was widespread. People called on supernatural powers to achieve their personal goals in love, life, and business, or to thwart their rivals. Practitioners of magic, amateur or professional, drew on an eclectic medley of religious traditions. So magic texts refer to Greek, Near Eastern, Jewish, and Christian divine powers and demonic forces. People hedged their bets by calling on gods of all sorts to help them. However, it would be mistaken to see all this as merely random activity. Magic comprised a complex cultural system with its own recognized patterns and rules for curses and binding spells, spirit consultations and exorcisms.25 Belief in magic cut across other divisions, being common to pagans, Jews, and Christians, and was prevalent among all social classes. In the later empire accusations of sorcery were common in tense and competitive political environments, among the upper classes of the major cities, and around the fringes of the imperial court.26 Laws against magic and consulting astrologers were usually more concerned with the politically subversive implications of these activities than with the rituals themselves.27 Legislation about magic, however, implicitly concedes that there was an enormous body of “superstitious” activity which could not be suppressed. The social significance of magic may be compared with that of exorcism in this period. One third of Rome's clerical establishment in AD 251 consisted of exorcists; and exorcism, which had its origins in Palestinian Jewish practice, is portrayed as an essential remedy against demonic possession by Christian sources from the Gospels themselves, through the main Christian apologetic writers of the second and third centuries, to countless lives of saints between the fourth and sixth centuries.28 It spread beyond Judaeo-Christian circles and became part of a shared culture of magical activity.29

While magical practices assumed the existence of an almost unlimited number of daemonic forces, which might be marshaled to support or oppose human endeavors, it is also clear that monotheistic religious ideas were widespread. The notion that the universe was dominated by a single supreme god can be traced back to archaic Greek thought. The idea became a mainstream one in Greek philosophy and can be traced in the Platonic, Aristotelian, and Stoic traditions.30 The growing numbers of Jews and Christians, at all levels of the population, helped to spread monotheistic ideas even among those who did not fully subscribe to them. Paradoxically, it was not difficult to reconcile pagan monotheism with the pattern of polytheistic worship in Greek cities. Educated and also less sophisticated members of the population could see the logic of the argument that there should be one supreme god, to whom other divinities were subordinated. During the third century AD the oracle at Claros in Asia Minor propounded the view that there was a single god in heaven, known from many inscriptions as Theos Hypsistos (“Highest God”), to whom other divine beings, including the Olympian divinities were subordinate. Another oracle put out by Zeus Philios at Antioch in 311 offered a theology in which Zeus was the supreme deity, whose protective authority covered all the local civic gods and goddesses.31 In competition with the growing influence of Christianity, various forms of pagan monotheism emerged after the mid-second century and into late antiquity. Particularly important were the beliefs propagated by the so-called Chaldean oracles, a religious movement based in the Syrian city of Apamea.32

The most distinctive characteristic of Christianity was not that it was a monotheistic religion, which was by no means out of place in the spectrum of religious activity in the later Roman Empire, but that it was based on formal commitment to beliefs about Jesus' divinity. Christians believed that they would be redeemed through Christ's self-sacrifice, and consequently achieve eternal life.33 Their sacred books, especially the Gospels, the Acts of the Apostles, and Paul's letters, taught them that God had sent his son in human form to redeem mankind; that he had suffered for men, died on the cross and risen again; and that through his sacrifice his followers would find redemption from their own sins and eternal life in the kingdom of heaven. Christians through their faith would thus find salvation in the world to come. Those who denied Him forfeited their own redemption. Christians were distinguished not only from pagan polytheists, but also from other monotheists, including the Jews, whose religion was based not on the belief in redemption but on adherence to righteousness and God's law. Faith in Christ the redeeming god, which was at the core of Christian self-definition, was extraordinary by pagan and Jewish standards. It could be tested very simply. Do you believe that Jesus is the son of God, came to earth to redeem us, and rose from the dead? Those who subscribed to these claims considered themselves, and were considered by others, to be Christians. Those who called themselves Christians could be assumed to hold these beliefs.

Christian faith was represented by powerful symbols. Most important of these were the Easter festival and the sign of the cross, which simultaneously represented Christ's death and the locus of his resurrection, and thus became the central expression of Christian belief in redemption. In the search for Christian unity during the later Roman Empire it became essential to define the precise nature of Christ. The fundamental tenets of the faith had to be sharpened and presented in a form that was universally recognized and acceptable. The innumerable versions of the creed which were put forward and debated during the fourth and early fifth centuries were intended to supply this essential requirement. Between the ecumenical councils of Nicaea in 325 and Constantinople in 381 the relationship of Christ to God was the central theological and political issue for all believers. In the fifth century the debate shifted to the related issue of the nature of Christ himself, whether he had the dual nature of God and Man, or whether these two aspects were fused into a single divine nature. The first of these two positions was finally upheld by the Council of Chalcedon in 451, which thereby defined Christian orthodoxy for the remainder of antiquity in the East. However, this was only achieved at the expense of creating an unhealable split between orthodox Chalcedonians and other Christians, mainly in Syria, Egypt, and the eastern frontier areas of the empire, who upheld the Monophysite position of believing in the one nature of Christ (see pp. 313–9).

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