The Policy of the Succeeding Emperors Toward Heathenism


The discretion of the emperor who followed Julian saved Christian rule, for the time being, from an unfavorable contrast with heathen rule, as respects tolerance. Jovian earned the hearty encomiums of representative heathens, such as Themistius, by granting full liberty for the exercise of their religion, those obnoxious rites alone excepted for which no one expected a governmental sanction. Valentinian, Emperor of the West from 364 to 375, adhered in general to the same principles; a superstitious zeal in prosecuting those suspected of practising magic being his most serious exhibition of intolerance. Valens (364-378), Emperor of the East, by the grace of his brother Valentinian, acknowledged the same laws in relation to heathenism, and sanctioned a similar severity against all supposed to be guilty of magic and divination. The reputation for intolerance attached to Valens is due rather to the rigor with which, as an Arian, he treated the orthodox party, than to any violent attack upon heathenism, It was during the joint reign of these emperors that the word paganism was first employed officially as a designation of a religion. [Codex Theodos., Lib. XVI., Tit. ii. 18.] Gratian, who followed Valentinian in the rule of the West, while he issued no sweeping prohibition against the practice of heathenism, dealt it a destructive blow by ordering that the revenues of the temples, and the public support which had been given to priests and vestals, should be withdrawn. He also commanded the statue and altar of Victory to be removed from the Senate. A strong effort was made by heathen partisans to have these measures repealed; but the diligence and energy of Ambrose, who was highly influential both with Gratian and his successor, Valentinian II., defeated the attempt.

In 379 Theodosius came to the throne of the East, and in 394 his success in overthrowing the usurper Eugenius gave him also the rule over the West. Reversing the policy of Valens in relation to the doctrinal controversies of the age, he assisted the orthodox party to a final victory. As regards heathenism, his decrees and his practice indicated for a considerable time a wavering between toleration and proscription; but in 391 he entered decidedly upon a policy of total repression, -that is, of heathen rites. The mere belief, or even its advocacy, he did not think of touching, and numbered professed heathen among his friends and officers. By a law of 392, the offering of idolatrous sacrifices was declared a crimen majestatis, and as such might be capitally punished. This penalty, however, had its place in the statute-book, rather than in actual execution. "The ready obedience of the pagans," says Gibbon, "protected them from the pains and the penalties of the Theodosian code." [Chap. xxviii.] But if their persons were spared, their temples in many instances were not. No general edict was issued by Theodosius for their destruction; but the passions of the populace, and the fanatical zeal of the monks, urged on, in various districts, the work of spoliation and ruin. In some cases retaliation was provoked from the heathen. We read of Christian churches being burned in Palestine and Phœnicia. In Alexandria the heathen requited what they deemed an insult to their faith (namely, an ostentatious parading of the indecent symbols found in a temple which had been devoted to the worship of Bacchus) with violence and bloodshed; and, indeed, they so far committed themselves by their sedition, that they finally counted it good fortune that they were allowed to escape with their lives, though obliged to witness the destruction of the magnificent temple of Serapis, as well as of less noted edifices.

A similar course, attended with similar incidents, was pursued by the sons of Theodosius, Arcadius, and Honorius, and by their immediate successors. The episode most disgraceful to the Christian side was the murder at Alexandria, in 415, of the beautiful and talented female philosopher Hypatia. It is to be observed, however, that, while professed Christians were the agents in this brutal and unchristian deed, it was not altogether in the name of religion that it was accomplished. Political motives were prominent. The deed, moreover, was that of a mob, -a mob drawn from a populace noted for its turbulence and ferocity. "The Alexandrians,"says Socrates, who was in middle life at the time of the tragedy, "are more delighted with tumult than any other people; and if they can find a pretext they will break forth into most intolerable excesses." [Hist. Eccl., vii. 13.] The same historian speaks in the highest terms of the character and ability of Hypatia, representing her as gaining universal admiration by her dignified modesty of deportment, as drawing students from a great distance to hear her exposition of the Neo-Platonic philosophy, and as surpassing all the philosophers of her time through her attainments in literature and science. "Yet even she fell a victim," he continues, "to the political jealousy which at that time prevailed. For as she had frequent interviews with Orestes [the prefect], it was calumniously reported among the Christian populace that it was by her influence he was prevented from being reconciled to Cyril. Some of them, therefore, whose ring-leader was a reader named Peter, hurried away by a fierce and bigoted zeal, entered into a conspiracy against her; and observing her as she returned home in her carriage, they dragged her from it, and carried her to a church called Cæsareum, where they completely stripped her, and murdered her with shells. After tearing her body in pieces, they took her mangled limbs to a place called Cinaron, and there burned them. An act so inhuman could not fail to bring the greatest opprobrium, not only upon Cyril, but also upon the whole Alexandrian Church." [Hist. Eccl., vii. 15.] The judgment which the Christian historian passes upon the deed, it may fairly be presumed, was the judgment of intelligent and sober-minded Christians the Empire over.

As heathenism had very little to contend for, it gradually succumbed. Only a remnant of it was left in the East by the time of Justinian (527-565), and to this the despotic emperor endeavored to give a finishing blow. Heathen worship was declared by him a capital offence, and its last source of intellectual prestige was quenched by the abolition of the philosophical school of Athens. In the West, the incursions of the barbarians left little chance for the exercise of any central and decisive authority on the subject. But as the barbarians themselves had no favor for the old classic heathenism, it found no refuge, save in the hearts of occasional devotees in the cities, and in the rites which might safely be practised in the unfrequented districts.