The Slow Decline and Discrimination of Pagan Religions:
A Brief History
By Justin C,
Student of Seekers Temple
To begin this journey, we begin in 306 AD Rome when Constantine began his reign. Until Constantine, Rome was almost entirely Pagan having many temples, altars, and other sanctuaries dedicated to Pagan gods across the city. Baptized on his deathbed, Constantine not only became the first Christian emperor, but he also decriminalized Christianity. Unfortunately, it was also he who put into place some laws like prohibiting the construction of new Pagan temples and later ordered the destruction and plundering of some(Most notably the Temple of Aphrodite in Lebanon, and the murder of Eunech priests in Egypt). Very little pressure was placed on individual Pagans at this time. Paganism itself was not illegal but was slowly being shown regulation handed down by an Emperor.
Constantius II, continuing the works of Constantine, began enacting numerous anti-Pagan laws
that included up to the death penalty for things like attending sacrifices and worshipping idols. Firmicus Maternus, a convert to Christianity, urged to the Emperor, "Paganism, most holy emperors,
must be utterly destroyed and blotted out, and disciplined by the severest enactments of your edicts, lest the deadly delusion of the presumption continues to stain the Roman world" and "How
fortunate you are that God, whose agents you are, has reserved for you the destruction of idolatry and the ruin of profane temples." Christians, although still outnumbered, began vandalizing,
destroying, defacing, defiling, and pillaging ancient Pagan temple, tombs, and monuments. Although he encountered some resistance from governors and magistrates, it was mostly passive. However, he
did not do away with some Pagan things like the College of Vestal Virgins(The group who cared for the sacred, ever burning fire of Rome), and he himself was deified by the Roman Senate after
Julian, educated by Hellenists and co-emperor since 355, ruled from 361-363 AD. A true pagan Emperor, he witnessed the assassination of his father, brother, and other family members by guards of the Imperial Palace under Constantius. Under his rule, he allowed religious freedom and attempted to restore Roman Religion as the driving force of the Empire. Other notable actions include the reinstallment of the Altar of Victory. Julian, as told by Sozomen, did not allow any injustice or insult done unto Christians. However, Christians were not allowed to study ancient authors. "Let them keep to Luke and Matthew, Julian was quoted. Julian himself saw Christianity as completely incompatible with syncretic Paganism and made the implication very clear that the partnership between Rome and Christian Bishops was now at an end. He was thought to have been killed in battle by a spear, to which Christianity developed a myth stating Saint Mercurius killed Julian in later years.
Fast forward to 382. Emperor Gratian began reinstating anti-Pagan laws (most likely influenced by Ambrose, Bishop of Milan). He ordered the confiscation of possessions from priestly colleges and ordered the Altar of Victory to be removed once again. He also declared all temples and shrines to be taken by the government and their revenue to be directed towards the Royal Treasury.
Valentinian II, continued anti-Pagan laws and also added to them things like prohibiting Pagans from visiting temples, denied the request to restore the Altar of Victory, and refused to restore income to the Priestly Colleges.
Theodosius, beginning in 381, presented the harshest Pagan laws compared to his predecessors.
He criminalized magistrates who refused to enforce anti-Pagan laws and destroyed some Pagan temples. The infamous "Theodosian Decree" forbade once again the visiting of Pagan temples, abolished
remaining Pagan holidays, extinguished the sacred fire of Rome, and disbanded the Vestal Virgins. When he became emperor of the whole empire in 392, he ordered the killing of Pagan priests and the
destruction of any idol, object, or place of reverence for Pagans. This became an official war on any traditional religious practice, and anyone caught was put to death and their property confiscated
(Even for small familial rites). It is thought he also banned the Olympic Games, considering the last recorded one was in 393.
Theodosius's policies were proceeded by emperors like Arcadius, Honorius, Theodosius II, Marcian, and Leo I. They continued to increase penalties against Pagans due to Pagan support being among Roman nobles, senators, magistrates, imperial palace officers, and other officials. This implies that Paganism still had many followers. Paganism continued to be carried out in secret, as implied by the existence of Theodosian Code 16.10.24 (Which outlines the recognition that some people were just pretending to be Christian). Some Christians even converted back to Paganism, with even more laws being enacted upon apostasy. By this time, Pagans began voicing their resentment (Ex, Eunapius, and Olympiodorus), to the point that they blamed the Sack of Rome in 410 to the empire being under Christian governance. Non-Christian writings found themselves in bonfires, with Christians threatening to cut off the hands of anyone who dare copy them. Saint Augustine of Hippo used his congregation in Carthage to smash all symbols of Paganism they could lay their hands on.
In 476, after the fall of the Western Empire, Pagans attempted to revive
the old rites. Magister Orientem Illus, revolted against Eastern Emperor Zeno and raised his own candidate named Leontius to the throne. With hopes to restore temples and ancient ceremonies, many
Pagans joined in the revolt against Zeno. Zeno captured both of them 488 and had them executed. Following, Zeno instituted many more anti-Pagan laws. Many Pagans, disillusioned by the failed revolt,
became Christian or pretended to be, to avoid persecution.
Under Pope Gregory, I, the holy sites and places once used to worship Pagan gods were now appropriated by Christianity. "Let altars be built and relics placed there so that the Pagans have to change from the worship of demons to that of the true god".
As far as the ancient Roman Empire goes, the line stops here as no more laws and regulations could be enacted because the ultimate punishment for a Pagan would be death. From here on, the virus of Christianity would continue to spread through Europe, and eventually the rest of the world to which Pagans would be placed under the same persecution.
May we learn from this, and may it never happen again.
May the gods bless us all.
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