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The Destruction of Pagan Temples

"And in those days [the reign of Theodosius] the orthodox inhabitants of Alexandria were filled with zeal and they collected a large quantity of wood and burned the place of the heathen philosophers."

John, Bishop of Nikiu, Chronicle (LXXXIV.45)

In AD 385, Theodosius I directed Cynegius, his praetorian prefect in the East, to enforce the prohibition of sacrifice for the purpose of divination (CTh. XVI.10.9). Exceeding his mandate, Cynegius began to suppress the temples, themselves, including the Temple of Zeus at Apamea in Syria. Its destruction by the bishop there is described Theodoret in his Ecclesiastical History. An attempt was made, but the stone was so hard and the columns so massive, each measuring some twenty-five feet in circumference and held together with iron and lead clamps, that the prefect despaired of pulling them down. Praying for divine assistance, the bishop was visited the next morning by a simple laborer, who suggested that the foundation of three of the columns be undermined and replaced by timber beams, to which he then set fire. "When their support had vanished the columns themselves fell down, and dragged the other twelve with them. The side of the temple which was connected with the columns was dragged down by the violence of their fall, and carried away with them. The crash, which was tremendous, was heard throughout the town" (V.21). The bishop destroyed other pagan shrines in his diocese and Cynegius proceeded to Egypt.

It was then, in AD 386, that Libanius made an impassioned plea to Theodosius that the temples be preserved. Four years earlier, the emperor had decreed (CTh. XVI.10.8) that the temple at Edessa in upper Mesopotamia, "in which images are reported to have been placed which must be measured by the value of their art rather than by their divinity," remain open. It was destroyed nevertheless, even though it was as great a marvel as the Temple of Serapis, "which I pray may never suffer the same fate." Libanius argues that the destruction of the temples, which have been erected "with so much toil and time, labour and expense," is not only detrimental to society but a foolish loss of the emperor's own property, which, if not used as intended, could serve in some other way, perhaps for the collection of taxes. He pleads, too, for toleration and the preservation of the temples against the predation of Christian monks, who

"hasten to attack the temples with sticks and stones and bars of iron, and in some cases, disdaining these, with hands and feet. Then utter desolation follows, with the stripping of roofs, demolition of walls, the tearing down of statues and the overthrow of altars, and the priests must either keep quiet or die. After demolishing one, they scurry to another, and to a third, and trophy is piled on trophy, in contravention of the law. Such outrages occur even in the cities, but they are most common in the countryside. Many are the foes who perpetrate the separate attacks, but after their countelss crimes this scattered rabble congregates and they are in disgrace unless they have committed the foulest outrage...Temples, Sire, are the soul of the countryside: they mark the beginning of its settlement, and have been passed down through many generations to the men of today. In them the farming communities rest their hopes for husbands, wives, children, for their oxen and the soil they sow and plant. An estate that has suffered so has lost the inspiration of the peasantry together with their hopes, for they believe that their labour will be in vain once they are robbed of the gods who direct their labours to their due end. And if the land no longer enjoys the same care, neither can the yield match what it was before, and, if this be the case, the peasant is the poorer, and the revenue jeopardized."

Pro Templis (Oration XXX.8-10)

Libanius argued that the rural shrines gave hope to the farm laborer by allowing him to pray for his crops. As a result, the land is more productive, the peasant not impoverished, and the landlord's yield increased. And yet the temples were ordered to be demolished in AD 399: "For when they are torn down and removed, the material basis for all superstition will be destroyed" (CTh. XVI.10.16).

In AD 401, the last remnants of the Temple of Artemis at Ephesus, built to house the great cult image of Artemis and regarded as one of the seven wonders of the world, were plundered by John Chrysostom, the patriarch of Constantinople, its marble burned in lime kilns to make cement, and the stone robbed for the construction of other buildings. Before his conversion, John had studied rhetoric and law and been a pupil of Libanius.

This detail from the pedestal of the obelisk of Theodosius shows the worn image of the emperor offering a crown of victory to the winner of a chariot race. Transported from Alexandria in AD 390 to Constantinople, it graced the spina of the Hippodrome.

References: Libanius: Selected Works (1977) translated by A. F. Norman (Loeb Classical Library); The Theodosian Code and Novels and the Sirmondian Constitutions (1952) translated by Clyde Pharr; A Select Library of Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church, Series II (Vol III: Theodoret) (1892) edited by by Philip Schaff and Henry Wace; The Chronicle of John, Bishop of Nikiu (1916) translated by R. H. Charles.

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