The Destruction of Paganism – Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire Chapter 28

Destruction-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.”

When Gibbon wrote those words they were true.  Ancient paganism was the only major religion ever to have been deliberately wiped out. But there is a comparable story that has happened since.  The Bolsheviks who overthrew the Russian Czar were intent on destroying the church that had supported him.  This was logical enough from their standpoint. The Orthodox Church had been a big source of legitimacy to the regime they were trying to replace.  Given the premise that absolute dynastic rule approved by the deity was a bad thing, curtailing the organisation that provided the approval made perfect sense.  So how did the communists go about getting rid of Christianity?

The approach was not to make religion illegal or to repress it with violence. It was much more strategic than that.  Church property was confiscated.  Theological courses were halted.  And most of the time, with withdrawal of state subsidies, that was about it.

As with so much of what went on in the USSR, policy wasn’t applied particularly consistently.  There were some periods of outright persecution where priests and monks were carted off to labour camps, though the numbers involved weren’t very large when compared to the industrial scale of political repression that the USSR went in for.  And there was even some positive support at other times, such as during the war.  So it was far from a consistent and determined campaign of persecution.  And the USSR had plenty of other higher priorities.

Even so, the results have been devastating for the church in Russia.  Church attendance now runs at 2%  according to the CIA world fact book, coming in at no 53 on a list of countries by church attendance level.  Even the notoriously atheistic Swedes have a higher level of participation in religious services.  What this shows is that religions can be effectively eradicated.  The communists didn’t devote huge resources to persecuting Christianity, and such persecution as there was was episodic and of fairly short duration. There were no decrees banning faith and no systematic destruction of Christian literature.   All it took was official disapproval, a reduction in funding and the removal of a lot of the infra-structure.

The pagans of the Roman Empire had a much tougher time of it under the Christian emperors.  Constantine had been circumspect about actually attacking paganism.  As the first Christian emperor he probably didn’t feel too secure about what he was doing.  But his sons, Constantius in particular, had gone further and encouraged much desecration of the temples of the pagans.  But at the same time they continued, probably unconsciously, to fund some of the key pagan appointments such as the vestal virgins and the flamen of Mars, Jupiter and Quirinus.  It was almost as if they were still testing the water to see how far they could go rather than pushing for all out elimination.

One symbolic battleground was the alter and statue of Victory in the Senate.  The statue of Victory was ancient, dating to at least the mid period of the republic. It had been captured from the greek general Pyhrrus in 272 BC and was probably very old even when the Romans first got it.  Since then its outspread wings and proffered laurel crown had presided over every meeting of the Senate.  Constantius had it removed.  His cousin Julian replaced it – as you’d expect from the champion of revived paganism.  The Christian emperors after Julian left it in place.  It was removed again by the youthful Gratian under the influence of the spiteful Ambrose, the forceful bishop of Milan.  At this time the Senate still had a pagan majority and they petitioned to get it back again.  But Ambrose was uncompromising.  During the brief reign of Eugenius paganism was once again tolerated and at last the statue was restored.  But once Eugenius was overthrown by Theodosius, the statue was removed again and passed out of history.  Presumably it was destroyed.

The destruction of paganism was, mercifully, achieved without a huge amount of bloodshed. But the number of priceless artefacts like the historic statue of Victory that were lost is incalculable. The temples in particular were the finest examples of Greek and Roman architecture and these were the primary targets of the Christians. The desecrations under Constantius had started the process, but they had been left in peace under the reigns of the succeeding emperors.

It was shortly after the start of the reign of Theodosius that the vandalism recommenced, and with a renewed thoroughness. It may have been his personal initiative, but one of the stories about him makes me think it originated elsewhere.  Shortly after Theodosius came to power a Synagogue had been attacked and damaged by Christian arsonists.  Theodosius ordered compensation be paid.  That doesn’t sound too controversial. Maintaining order is a big part of a ruler’s job description.  And even non-believers don’t like seeing other people’s holy places attacked, so there was a sort of natural justice to the judgement.

When Ambrose heard the story he went mental.  He fired off a letter demanding that the culprits – who included a bishop – should receive an immediate pardon.  Theodosius meekly complied. This obviously gave license to anybody who felt like looting a synagogue anywhere.  It all sounds very sinister to modern ears, and indeed so it should.  But for once in history the Jews didn’t end up as the persecuted minority.  There were bigger fish to fry.  The target was the temples and places of worship of the pagans, who were still in the majority.

A concerted campaign was launched across the whole empire. In Gaul Martin, the bishop of Tours, led a team who located and destroyed temples and sacred groves. In Syria a temple of Jupiter was found to be so well built that it defied attack by the tools mustered against it.  It could only be brought down by undermining it.  It must have been quite a building.  We will never know what it looked like.  The leader of this particular team was Marcellus, and he proceeded to destroy other less impressive temples in the region.  There were troops detailed to protect the wreckers, but Marcellus wandered too far off during one operation and was beaten to death by some rustics incensed by the desecration of their holy place.  He was later made a saint, being I think the only person ever to be canonised for vandalism.

The Serapeaum of Alexandria was the site of one of the most spectacular events of this purge of heathen masonry.  The Serapeum was sacred to Serapis and was still well supported by the local population.  It was the largest and most impressive building in the city and almost certainly was the location of the great library of Alexandria.  The exact history of this collection is disputed. Nobody wants to be associated with its destruction, and it would by nice to be able to simply say that nobody knows what happened to it.

Gibbons account is that Julius Caesar burnt the first version, but that Marc Anthony refounded it with a generous and substantial donation of manuscripts that he had picked up (i.e. looted).  It was therefore likely to still there up until 391 when trouble kicked off.  I have to say that Gibbon’s account seems perfectly plausible, though hard facts are simply not available to confirm it.  Maybe it had already been dispersed by neglect, or destroyed in one of the many violent events in Alexandria’s history.

If it was still there in 391, it is hard to imagine that it made it into 392. It became clear that the bishop of Alexandria was planning to move against the Serapeum.  He had already demolished a temple of Dionysus.  A philosopher called Olympius called together the votaries of Serapis and urged them to defend their holy place with their lives.  Despite being considerably outnumbered they held their ground.  They were helped in their resolve by having taken some Christian prisoners who they tortured and made to worship their sacred animals.  A truce was called by a local magistrate and both sides agreed to abide by the decision of Theodosius.   The decision was later announced in a public square to a mixed crowd of christians and pagans. The judgement was that the building was to be levelled.  The christians cheered, and the pagans slunk away disheartened.

And so the monument was destroyed.  The huge statue of Serapis was smashed and its pieces burned in the public square.  The gold and silver objects captured were melted down and pressed into service for Christian churches.  A small church, consecrated to the Christian martyrs ironically enough, was founded on a small portion of the temple site.  All the other pagan temples in Alexandria were destroyed.

The entire infrastructure of pagan worship was eliminated in a few years in the eastern half of the empire.  The next step was to halt the associated practices.  Sacrifices were banned even in private.  Pagan holidays were no longer recognised.  The Theodosian Decrees stopped short of imposing baptism universally.  That such a move was considered a possibility is demonstrated by the fact that he is praised by a pagan writer for not actually doing it.  The last official support for paganism came under the brief reign of Eugenius.  Even this seems to have been somewhat ad hoc.  The civil war caused by his elevation in Rome seems not to have been particularly pre-meditated.  With Theodosius on his way to snuff out what he regarded as simply a rebellion, it may well be that Eugenius, who was a Christian, was simply trying to get as much support as possible.   The idea that this was a pagan revival doesn’t really stand up.  But it suited the Christian party to portray pagans as disloyal, and it is their accounts that have survived.

But let’s go back to Gibbon’s original point that the destruction of paganism was one of the most singular events in the history of the human mind.  He really wasn’t wrong.  An entire culture was consciously wiped out.  This was of course, our culture.  When Tacitus described the religion of the Germans in the 1st century BC, he could recognise the similarities between their gods and his own.  We can still do so today dimly.  You don’t need to be a scholar to spot that Thor and Jupiter have a lot in common.  Paganism was the common thread that linked organically all the diverse cultures of prehistoric Europe.

Paganism had deep roots and had built up over thousands of years.  It must have been rich in stories and characters that had been passed down and adapted through frequent retelling.  There must have been many traditions and customs associated with the stories of the gods and heroes.

This is a rich heritage that we have never received.   It is now lost forever.  The destruction has continued until very recently.  I can remember being told at Sunday School that we shouldn’t listen to stories about fairies and trolls.  Even these lightweight examples of folklore were anathema.

I think there is a great difference between a religion that has grown up naturally and which no particular group can claim ownership of, and one founded on a specific historical event.  Christianity can claim to be the sole proprietor of a particular heritage.  They call it apostolic succession, which sounds rather grand.  Basically it just means they are the only ones with the recipe, and so like Coke they are the real thing.  There is only one pope and he claims to have infallible insight into what God thinks.

I think believing in a set of gods is much healthier.  You can chose which one works for you, without having to disrespect other peoples.  It makes the whole business much more personal and less controversial.  If I want to follow Saturn and you quite like Woden, what is the big deal?  And it would be quite nice when travelling to find different gods in different places.  Who would choose to live in a world where everyone’ beliefs and traditions are identical?  But it is exactly that that the church seeks to achieve and has nearly succeeded.

I need to be quite straight here, if only with myself.  Am I simply romanticising something that I don’t really know about?  Well I have quite a lot of objections to Christianity, but in a sense they are besides the point.  Even if Christianity was totally wonderful I would still object to the way paganism was disposed of.   It was our culture and even if it was inferior to what has replaced it, it should have been preserved and documented and treated with some kind of respect.  It shouldn’t have been simply dumped.

But in reality I think Christianity is a lot worse than the religion it replaced. Paganism was deliberately and ruthlessly suppressed in the greatest example of cultural vandalism in the history of the world.  A singular event indeed, as Gibbon put it.

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2 Comments

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2 Responses to The Destruction of Paganism – Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire Chapter 28

  1. Catfish Mann

    “I think believing in a set of gods is much healthier. You can chose which one works for you, without having to disrespect other peoples. It makes the whole business much more personal and less controversial.”
    I believe that you have never seen the honoring of the various saints in Roman Catholic and Orthodox Churches. Often, they are placed on a level of the pagan gods. Christianity started within Jewish people, but never completely replaced the old time religions of Europe. Some of the saints are actually pagan gods with new names or altered names: “Some scholars suggest that believers syncretised St Brigid with the pagan goddess Brighid. According to medievalist Pamela Berger, Christian “monks took the ancient figure of the mother goddess and grafted her name and functions onto her Christian counterpart.”

    • You have a good point Catfish. I live in a cold northern ex-protestant country so I don’t know much about that stuff. I don’t think it invalidates the point about cultural vandalism though.

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