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THE CHRISTIAN PERSECUTION OF PAGANISM

THE REIGN OF TERROR OF THE FOURTH CENTURY

The ancient world was a relatively tolerant place in the world of religion.  There were occasional bursts of persecution of this or that sect but as a rule many religions existed side by side.

During the years 390 CE to 395 CE all this changed when Christianity established itself as the only religion in the Roman Empire and launched an all out campaign of religious terror against all other sects.

What follows are quotes from the legal code of the Roman Empire as set forth by the Emperor Theodosius at the request of Christian leaders to crush competing religions.  The legal persecution of non-Christian religions by Rome marked the beginning of a wave of religious terror that would remain in place until the eighteenth century.


EDWARD GIBBON ON THE DESTRUCTION OF PAGANISM

LAW BANNING ALL RELIGIONS OTHER THAN CHRISTIANITY EDICTS AGAINST NON-CHRISTIAN WORSHIP

THE DESTRUCTION OF TEMPLES THE BURNING OF NON-CHRISTIAN BOOKS

MANDATORY WORSHIP SELECTED HISTORICAL TEXTS FURTHER INFORMATION


EDWARD R. GIBBON ON "THE DESTRUCTION OF THE PAGAN RELIGION, A.D. 378-395"
 

"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. The Christians, more especially the clergy, had impatiently supported the prudent delays of Constantine and the equal toleration of the elder Valentinian; nor could they deem their conquest perfect or secure as long as their adversaries were permitted to exist. The influence which Ambrose and his brethren had acquired over the youth of Gratian and the piety of Theodosius was employed to infuse the maxims of persecution into the breasts of the Imperial proselytes. Two specious principles of religious jurisprudence were established, from whence they deduced a direct and rigorous conclusion against the subjects of the empire who still adhered to the ceremonies of their ancestors: that the magistrate is, in some measure, guilty of the crimes which he neglects to prohibit or to punish; and that the idolatrous worship of fabulous deities and real daemons is the most abominable crime against the supreme majesty of the Creator. The laws of Moses and the examples of Jewish history were hastily, perhaps erroneously, applied by the clergy to the mild and universal reign of Christianity.  The zeal of the emperors was excited to vindicate their own honour and that of the Deity; and the temples of the Roman world were subverted about sixty years after the conversion of Constantine."

Source: Edward Gibbon, The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Chapter 28 ("The Destruction of Paganism")


LAW BANNING ALL RELIGIONS OTHER THAN CHRISTIANITY

"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. According to the apostolic teaching and the doctrine of the Gospel, let us believe in the one deity of the father, Son and Holy Spirit, in equal majesty and in a holy Trinity. ... 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." -- Codex Theodosianus, XVI.1.2.

Source: Encyclopaedia Romana, "The End of Paganism" see also Henry Bettenson, ed., Documents of the Christian Church (London: Oxford University Press, 1943, p. 31.


EDICTS AGAINST NON-CHRISTIAN WORSHIP

"No one shall consult a soothsayer, astrologer or diviner.  The perverse pronouncements of augurs and seers must fall silent. ... The universal curiosity about divination must be silent forever.  Whosoever refuses obedience to this command shall suffer the penalty of death and be laid low by the avenging sword." -- Codex Theodosianus, IX.16.4

Source: Brian Croke & Jill Harries (eds.), Religious Conflict in Fourth-Century Rome: A Documentary Study (Sydney: Macarthur Press, 1982).

"Whatever privileges have been allowed under ancient law to priests, ministers, prefects and hierophants of the pagan cults, whether know by these or other names, are to be entirely abolished, nor should they pride themselves on being protected by any privilege, since their profession is known to be condemned by law." -- Codex Theodosianus, XVI.10.14

Source: Brian Croke & Jill Harries (eds.), Religious Conflict in Fourth-Century Rome: A Documentary Study (Sydney: Macarthur Press, 1982).

"The knowledge of those, who being equipped with magic arts, are discovered to have plotted against men's lives or who have perverted modest minds with lust must be punished and a penalty rightly exacted under the harshest of laws." -- Codex Theodosianus, IX.16.2

Source: Brian Croke & Jill Harries (eds.), Religious Conflict in Fourth-Century Rome: A Documentary Study (Sydney: Macarthur Press, 1982).

"Since We have learned that certain ecclesiastics and others serving the Catholic sect are being compelled by men of different religions to celebrate lustral sacrifices, We decree hereby that whoever should consider that those who serve the most sacred law may be forced into celebrating the rites of an alien superstition, he shall be beaten with clubs in public, provided his status so permits.  However, if the consideration due to honorable rank protects him from such injury, let him undergo the penalty of a very heavy fine." -- Codex Theodosianus, XVI.2.5

Source: Brian Croke & Jill Harries (eds.), Religious Conflict in Fourth-Century Rome: A Documentary Study (Sydney: Macarthur Press, 1982).

"Let superstition cease.  Let the madness of sacrifices be exterminated; for if anyone should dare to celebrate sacrifices in violation of the law of our father, the deified Emperor, and of this decree of Our Clemency, let an appropriate punishment and sentence immediately be inflicted on him." -- Codex Theodosianus

Source: Brian Croke & Jill Harries (eds.), Religious Conflict in Fourth-Century Rome: A Documentary Study (Sydney: Macarthur Press, 1982).

"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." -- Codex Theodosianus, XVI.10.10.

"It is necessary that the privileges which are bestowed for the cultivation of religion should be given only to followers of the Catholic faith. We desire that heretics and schismatics be not only kept from these privileges, but be subjected to various fines." -- Codex Theodosianus, XVI.5. 1.

"The ability and right of making wills shall be taken from those who turn from Christians to pagans, and the testament of such an one, if he made any, shall be abrogated after his death."-- Codex Theodosianus, XVI.7.1. 

"Whenever there is found a meeting of a mob of Manichaeans, let the leaders be punished with a heavy fine and let those who attended be known as infamous and dishonored, and be shut out from association with men, and let the house and the dwellings where the profane doctrine was taught be seized by the officers of the city." -- Codex Theodosianus, XVI.5.3.

Source: Codex Theodosianus, in Oliver J. Thatcher, ed., The Library of Original Sources, Vol. IV: The Early Medieval World (Milwaukee, WI: University Research Extension Co., 1907), pp. 69-71.

"We command that all those proved to be devoting themselves to sacrificing or worshipping images be subject to the penalty of death." -- Codex Theodosianus, XVI.10.6

Source: Brian Croke & Jill Harries (eds.), Religious Conflict in Fourth-Century Rome: A Documentary Study (Sydney: Macarthur Press, 1982).


THE DESTRUCTION OF TEMPLES

"It is decreed that in all places and all cities the [pagan] temples should be closed at once, and after a general warning, the opportunity of sinning be taken from the wicked. We decree also that we shall cease from making sacrifices. And if anyone has committed such a crime, let him be stricken with the avenging sword. And we decree that the property of the one executed shall be claimed by the city, and that rulers of the provinces be punished in the same way, if they neglect to punish such crimes."-- Codex Theodosianus, XVI.10.4.

Source: Codex Theodosianus, in Oliver J. Thatcher, ed., The Library of Original Sources, Vol. IV: The Early Medieval World (Milwaukee, WI: University Research Extension Co., 1907), pp. 69-71.

"[Christian monks}... 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 ..." -- Letter of Libanius to Emperor Theodosius I, 386 C.E.

Source: Libanius: Selected Works, Tr. A.F. Norman (Loeb Classical Works, 1977)

"Let all temples in the countryside be demolished without disturbance or upheaval.  With their overthrow and removal, all material basis for superstition will be destroyed." -- Codex Theodosianus, XVI.10.16

Source: Brian Croke & Jill Harries (eds.), Religious Conflict in Fourth-Century Rome: A Documentary Study (Sydney: Macarthur Press, 1982).


THE BURNING OF NON-CHRISTIAN BOOKS

"All writings whatever which Porphyry or anyone else has written against the Christian religion, in the possession of whomsoever they shall be found, shall be committed to the fire." -- Emperor Theodosius I.

Source: Lardner, Works, vol. vii., pp. 206, 396.


MANDATORY WORSHIP: ESTABLISHMENT OF "THE LORD'S DAY"

"On the Lord's day, which is the first day of the week, on Christmas, and on the days of Epiphany, Easter, and Pentecost, inasmuch as then the [white] garments [of Christians] symbolizing the light of heavenly cleansing bear witness to the new light of holy baptism, at the time also of the suffering of the apostles, the example for all Christians, the pleasures of the theaters and games are to be kept from the people in all cities, and all the thoughts of Christians and believers are to be occupied with the worship of God.  And if any are kept from that worship through the madness of Jewish impiety or the error and insanity of foolish paganism, let them know that there is one time for prayer and another for pleasure. And lest anyone should think he is compelled by the honor due to our person, as if by the greater necessity of his imperial office, or that unless he attempted to hold the games in contempt of the religious prohibition, he might offend our serenity in showing less than the usual devotion toward us; let no one doubt that our clemency is revered in the highest degree by humankind when the worship of the whole world is paid to the might and goodness of God. Theodosius Augustus and Caesar Valentinian." -- Codex Theodosianus, XV. 5.1

Source: The Medieval Sourcebook


SELECTED HISTORICAL TEXTS


FURTHER INFORMATION