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Theodosius, Persecutions and Disunity

Theodosius, Ambrose and other Christians against the Jews

By now, Christians saw Judaism and Christianity as absolutely separate, and Christians viewed Judaism as the work of the devil as much as it did paganism. Moreover, they saw Judaism as a special competitor. The Jews were burdened by an odium that pagans were spared: the Jews had rejected Jesus and Christians saw them as responsible for killing Jesus. 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 describing Jews as carnal. At Christian torchlight meetings, among the angry slogans shouted were those against Jews and Jew lovers.

As Roman citizens, Jews were protected from attack by law, and when Christians burned a synagogue, Theodosius ordered it rebuilt, the cost to be paid by the Church. Then Bishop Ambrose intervened. Outraged, he told Theodosius that he, Theodosius, was threatening the Church's prestige, and he convinced Theodosius to withdraw his move and 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 Jews living in the empire had their privileges withdrawn.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 the army, and they were not to proselytize Christians or intermarry with them.

Theodosius and Ambrose Persecute Pagans

In the city of Salonika (Salonica), in northern Greece, a local military commander of German descent imprisoned a popular chariot driver for homosexuality. A crowd of outraged fans, anti-German in sentiment, lynched the military commander. Theodosius retaliated by ordering a massacre of seven thousand or so of the city's inhabitants, and the influential bishop Ambrose refused sacraments to Theodosius until he accepted penance for this deed.

Theodosius did his 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, causing the disappearance of many writings. In the repression, some of the most splendid buildings of Grecian architecture were destroyed.

Pagans in the east tried to defend their freedom to worship, and in the west some pagans rallied in an attempt to overthrow Gratian, and in 383 Gratian 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 Eugenius in the west, 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.


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