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The End of Paganism

"The ruin of Paganism, in the age of Theodosius, is perhaps the only example of the total extirpation of any ancient and popular superstition; and may therefore deserve to be considered, as a singular event in the history of the human mind."

Gibbon, Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (XXVIII)

When Constantius II (the second son of Constantine I) visited Rome in AD 357, the Altar of Victory was ordered removed from the Senate House. Although returned by his successor Julian, it again was removed by Gratian in AD 382, this time at the instigation of Ambrose, bishop of Milan, who also persuaded the emperor to withdraw state subsidies, and prohibit the legacies and revenues that maintained many of the pagan cults, including endowment of the Vestal Virgins and the college of pontiffs. The title of pontifex maximus, which had signified authority over state religion since the time of Julius Caesar, was renounced as well.

These measures were protested by the pagan aristocracy, who feared that the loss of official recognition would threaten the legitimacy and efficacy of the cults themselves. But a deputation of senators led by Symmachus, the leading orator of his day, was refused even an audience with the emperor. After Gratian's death, there was another petition, and in AD 384 the question again was put to his successor Valentinian II.

Hearing of this attempt to restore the Altar, Ambrose sent a letter to the young emperor, asking to see the petition and threatening censure and sacrilege if favorably received by Valentinian.

"Salvation will not be assured unless each one truly worships the true God, that is, the God of the Christians...Since you have truly shown your faith in God, most Christian Emperor, I am amazed that your zeal for the faith, and our protection and devotion, have inspired hope in some that you are now obligated to erect altars to the gods of the pagans and to furnish funds for the upkeep of profane sacrifices...If today some pagan emperor—God forbid!—should erect an altar to idols and compel Christians to hold their meetings there, to attend the sacrifices, so that the breath and nostrils of Christians would be filled with the ashes from the altar, cinders from the sacrifice, and smoke from the the wood...the Christian, compelled to come into the Senate, would on these conditions regard it as persecution....Now that you are Emperor, will Christians be forced to take their oath on an altar?...A decree like this cannot be enforced without sacrilege. I beg you not to make such a decree, nor pass a law, nor sign a decree of this sort."

Epistle XVII

Again representing his pagan colleagues in the Senate, Symmachus, who had assumed the prefecture of Rome that year, made an eloquent plea that the Altar be returned and revenues restored to the priesthood, arguing that the fortune of Rome depended on maintaining its ancient customs and religious institutions.

"Man's reason moves entirely in the dark; his knowledge of divine influences can be drawn from no better source than from the recollection and the evidences of good fortune received from them. If long passage of time lends validity to religious observances, we ought to keep faith with so many centuries, we ought to follow our forefathers who followed their forefathers and were blessed in so doing. Let us imagine that Rome herself stands in your presence and pleads with you thus, 'Best of emperors, fathers of your country, respect my length of years won for me by the dutiful observance of rite, let me continue to practise my ancient ceremonies, for I do not regret them. Let me live in my own way, for I am free. This worship of mine brought the whole world under the rule of my laws, these sacred rites drove back Hannibal from my walls and the Senones [Gauls] from the Capitol'....And so we ask for peace for the gods of our fathers, for the gods of our native land. It is reasonable that whatever each of us worships is really to be considered one and the same. We gaze up at the same stars, the sky covers us all, the same universe compasses us. What does it matter what practical system we adopt in our search for the truth? Not by one avenue only can we arrive at so tremendous a secret."

Relatio III

Having read the petition, Ambrose wrote to refute each point that had been made.

"And why should I say anything of the Senones, whose entrance into the inmost Capitol the remnant of the Romans could not have prevented, had not a goose by its frightened cackling betrayed them? See what sort of protectors the Roman temples have. Where was Jupiter at that time? Was he speaking in the goose? But why should I deny that their sacred rites fought for the Romans? For Hannibal also worshipped the same gods. Let them choose then which they will. If these sacred rites conquered in the Romans, then they were overcome in the Carthaginians; if they triumphed in the Carthaginians, they certainly did not benefit the Romans. Let, then, that invidious complaint of the Roman people come to an end. Rome has given no such charge. She speaks with other words. 'Why do you daily stain me with the useless blood of the harmless herd? Trophies of victory depend not on the entrails of the flocks, but on the strength of those who fight....Was there then no Altar of Victory? I mourn over my downfall, my old age is tinged with that shameful bloodshed. I do not blush to be converted with the whole world in my old age.'"

Epistle XVIII

The Altar was not restored; indeed, measures against pagans became more repressive. Ambrose also exerted extraordinary dominance over Theodosius I (AD 379-395), to whom he threatened excommunication for having ordered the massacre of thousands in the circus at Thessalonica. The chastened emperor presented himself, bareheaded and in sackcloth at the cathedral in Milan. The next year, in AD 391, he issued the first in a series of edicts that prohibited all pagan cult worship and effectively made Christianity the official religion in the empire. They are preserved in the Codex Theodosianus, a codification of legislative enactments (constitutiones) from the time of Constantine, issued by Theodosius II in AD 438. Divided into titles and arranged chronologically, it is comprised of sixteen books, the last of which deals with pagans, sacrifices, and temples. Addressed to the prefect of Rome and issued on February 24, AD 391, the rescript stated that

"No person shall pollute himself with sacrificial animals; no person shall slaughter an innocent victim; no person shall approach the shrines, shall wander through the temples, or revere the images formed by mortal labor, lest he become guilty by divine and human laws" (CTh. XVI.10.10).

Following bloody riots in Alexandria, the Temple of Serapis was destroyed by a Christian mob. As Prudentius confessed a decade or so later: "I love a temple of the heart, not one of marble."

There was no official proscription of paganism, however, until AD 392, when in a long decree Theodosius forbade, not only the offering of blood sacrifice, but all forms of pagan worship, including private religious rites. No sacrifice in any place or any city was permitted. Privately, no wine or incense was to be offered, no votive candles or burning lamps, no suspended wreaths, either to one's genius (the tutelary spirit of a person or place) or to the Lars and Penates (the household gods). A burnt offering or the divining of entrails became a treasonable offense, while one who practiced more humble pagan rites, such as the veneration of a statue or even tying a ribbon around a tree, was threatened with the loss of property (CTh. XVI.10.12).

And yet, aspects of the old religion did survive.

"It must ingenuously be confessed, that the ministers of the Catholic church imitated the profane model, which they were impatient to destroy. The most respectable bishops had persuaded themselves, that the ignorant rustics would more cheerfully renounce the superstitions of Paganism, if they found some resemblance, some compensation, in the bosom of Christianity. The religion of Constantine achieved, in less than a century, the final conquest of the Roman empire: but the victors themselves were insensibly subdued by the arts of their vanquished rivals."

Gibbon, Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (XXVIII)


Theodosius was no more tolerant of heretical Christians. Reversing the support given to Arianism by Constantius II and Valens in the East, he issued a series of edicts to enforce orthodoxy.

"It is Our will that all the peoples who are ruled by the administration of Our Clemency shall practice that religion which the divine Peter the Apostle transmitted to the Romans....The rest, whom We adjudge demented and insane, shall sustain the infamy of heretical dogmas, their meeting places shall not receive the name of churches, and they shall be smitten first by divine vengeance and secondly by the retribution of Our own initiative" (CTh. XVI.1.2).


Symmachus was a younger contemporary and friend of Praetextatus, prefect of Rome (AD 367), whom Jerome, in his letter To Pammachius Against John of Jerusalem, characterized as a "a profane person and an idolater." It is Praetextatus who banished the rival of Pope Damasus, quipping to the pontiff, "Make me bishop of Rome, and I will at once be a Christian" (VIII). And it is he who discusses the Roman calendar in the Saturnalia of Macrobius.


The fallen Corinthian column above, its drums neatly toppled, is from the Temple of Olympian Zeus (Athens). Blown over by a gale in 1852, it once stood almost sixty feet high.


References: Prefect and Emperor: The Relationes of Symmachus, AD 384 (1973) translated by R. H. Barrow; Prudentius: Against Symmachus (1949) translated by H. J. Thomson (Loeb Classical Library); Edward Gibbon: The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (1995) edited by David Womersley (Penguin Classics); The Theodosian Code and Novels and the Sirmondian Constitutions (1952) translated by Clyde Pharr; Roman Civilization: Selected Readings: Vol II. The Empire (1990) edited by Naphtali Lewis and Meyer Reinhold; A Select Library of Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church, Series II (Vol X: Ambrose) (1890-1896) edited by by Philip Schaff and Henry Wace; The Later Roman Empire (1993) by Averil Cameron.

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