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Emperors against Pagans, Jews and Arian Christians

The Christian emperor Valentinian I, emperor of the western half of the empire, permitted religious freedom for pagans except for sacrifices, witchcraft, some kinds of fortune-telling and magic. He disliked the increasing wealth and worldliness of the Chrsitian clergy, while allowing himself an ample amount of worldliness. He was a conscientious administrator and founded schools and provided medical assistance for Rome's common people. And he was an able military commander. His army defeated German invasions three times.

Valentinian died in 375 and was succeeded by his son, Gratian, who moved in the direction of division. A devout Christian, Gratian resented the empire's continued support of paganism. His bureaucracy had been supporting a pagan college of pontiffs. It still supported keepers of the Sibylline books and the three priests who served the gods Jupiter, Mars and Quirinus, and his bureaucracy supported the six Vestal Virgins who guarded the sacred fire. Statues of the pagan gods were still available to the public, and over four hundred pagan temples still stood. In the Senate, where Christians remained a minority, was a pagan altar – the Statue of Victory – where senators had long sworn to observe the laws of the empire and the emperor.

Gratian's plans to remove the Statue of Victory outraged pagans and provoked three years of debate. A senator named Symmachus pleaded for tolerance from Christians. He argued for the right of pagans to pass on Rome's great traditions to their children. He appealed to Christians by saying that heaven was common to all. He said that, whatever god one adored, all looked up to the same stars, all sought whatever truths were above the stars and that such truths were not necessarily arrived at by a single path.

Symmachus' main adversary, Ambrose, the Bishop of Milan, would have none of this diverse approach to worship. He advised Emperor Gratian for the sake of his own salvation to carry on with his plans against paganism. Ambrose denounced paganism as the path of error, suggesting that Christians were the only adherents of truth. Ambrose spoke against marriages between pagans and Christians, and regarding the Statue of Victory, Ambrose's view prevailed: Gratian had the statue removed from the Senate.

The new emperor in the eastern half of the empire, Theodosius, also moved against rival faiths, and against Arian Christianity. He decreed that the doctrine of the Trinity was to be the official state religion. He labeled Arianism, Manichaeanism and some other views that had been adopted by Christians as heresies. He announced that all heretics were "demented and insane," and he proclaimed that the places where they met would not be recognized as churches. This ruling became law in the entire empire. In Spain a bishop named Priscillian, who taught that matter was evil and took other unorthodox positions, became the first Christian executed by Christians for his religious beliefs.

Theodosius revised laws to fit what he saw as Christian principles. He banned public and private activities of a non-religious nature on Sundays, he made Easter and Christmas legal holidays, and he attacked Jews.

Christians saw Judaism and Christianity as absolutely separate and Judaism as the work of the devil. They saw Judaism as a special competitor. The Jews were burdened by an odium that pagans were spared: the Jews had rejected Jesus. Christians saw Jews collectively as responsible for killing Jesus – no matter how remote the ancestor of an individual Jew might have been from that event that had occurred almost four centuries earlier. And with Jews uninfluenced by the asceticism and asexuality of Jesus, and not seeing sexuality as tainted by lust and filth as Christians did, Christians were beginning to describe Jews as carnal. At Christian torchlight meetings, angry slogans were shouted against Jews and "Jew lovers."

As Roman citizens, Jews were protected from attack by law, and when a Christian mob burned a synagogue, Theodosius ordered it rebuilt, the cost to be paid by the Church. Bishop Ambrose intervened. Outraged, he told Theodosius that he, Theodosius, was threatening the Church's prestige. He convinced Theodosius to let the destruction of the synagogue stand.

Here and there across the Roman Empire, the burning of synagogues continued. In Judea, entire villages of Jews were set ablaze. Jews living in the empire had their privileges withdrawn. They were excluded from holding any state office, from joining the army, and they were not to proselytize Christians or intermarry with them.

Theodosius agreed to do penance, and in gratitude for his reconciliation with Ambrose he acted on Ambrose's views as to what should be done about paganism. Theodosius banned the Olympic games – which were considered pagan. He prohibited visits to pagan temples and forbade all pagan worship. Ordinary Christians were delighted at this move, and mobs of Christians joined the anti-pagan program by robbing pagan temples of their treasures and looting temple libraries.

Pagans in the eastern half of the empire tried to defend their freedom to worship, and in the west some pagans rallied in an attempt to overthrow Gratian's successor and brother, Valentinian II. Valentinian II was assassinated. A military commander in the west, being a German and not eligible to be emperor, created an anti-Christian puppet named Eugenius, who announced that the hour of deliverance from Christianity was at hand.

In response, Theodosius cracked down harder on pagans in the eastern half of the empire. He made pagan worship punishable by death. In 394, he led an army of Visigoth cavalry and others against the reign of Eugenius, defeating Eugenius' forces at the Frigidus River, in the extreme northeast of Italy, a victory the Church was later to interpret as the work of God triumphing over paganism.

With his victory against Eugenius, Theodosius moved against paganism in the western half of the empire as he had in the east, wiping out freedom of worship across the whole of the empire. Then in 395, perhaps because of the strain of his recent military campaign against Eugenius, Theodosius died, at the age of fifty, believing that the empire had been unified by his wisdom and had become secure under the guidance of God.


Against the Christians, Porphyry, edited and translated by R. Joseph Hoffman, 1994

A History of the Christian Church, William Walker et al, 1918

A History of Christianity in the World, by Clyde L Manshreek,1984

Roman Realities, by Finley Hooper, 1979

The Grandeur that was Rome, by JC Stobard, 1920

Pagan Rome and the Early Christians, by Stephen Benko, 1985

Pagans and Christians, by Robin Lane Fox, 1987

Eusebius as Church Historian, Robert M Grant, 2006

The History of the Church from Christ to Constantine, by Eusebius, G.A. Williamson, 1984

Christianity: a Global History, Part I, by David Chidester, 2001

Encyclopedia Britannica

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