Paganism in the sixth century (English version)

published originally, translated into Spanish by J. Signes Codoñer, as El paganismo en el siglo VI in debats 90 (Autumn 2005), 79-85


[p.79] Despite the issuing of numerous laws against them for two centuries, pagans still constituted a sizeable minority within the eastern Roman empire in the sixth century. As their name implies, many were to be found in the countryside: in the 540s, for instance, tens of thousands of pagans in remote parts of Asia Minor were converted by the missionary work of the Monophysite church historian, John of Ephesus. Over the course of the century, however, and above all during the reign of the Emperor Justinian (527-565), determined efforts were made by the imperial authorities to stamp out all pagan practices and teachings; other minorities, such as Jews, Samaritans and indeed Christians whose views differed from the prevailing orthodoxy, likewise felt the weight of an increasingly intolerant government.


Before considering the measures taken by Justinian to eradicate paganism from the empire, we must address a few essential points. First, [p.80] the ubiquity of the classical, i.e. pagan, past in the sixth century, in the form of (for instance) monuments, mosaics, statues and temples. To be sure, Christians had in some cases torn down pagan temples; in other cases they had converted them into churches. Statues might be defaced or neutralised by the engraving of a cross. But these witnesses to the pagan past were too numerous and too widespread to be capable of being suppressed entirely. We might note in passing that Constantine, when he founded Constantinople, did not hesitate to import objects of art of pagan significance to his new city. The people of the sixth century, whether pagans or Christians, were thus surrounded by these reminders of the pagan past. They were able to recognise the gods without difficulty, as a biography of the patriarch Severus of Antioch clearly shows. Severus' biographer recounts a raid by a group of Christian students on a pagan shrine in Alexandria and the removal from there of various idols. They then exposed the idols before the governor of Egypt in the course of an enquiry into this incident of idolatry. The spectators, we are told, flocked to the proceedings and declared:


There is Dionysus, the hermaphrodite god. There is Kronos, who hated his children. There is Zeus, the adulterer and the one who loved young men. This one is Athene, the virgin who loved war; this one is Artemis, the huntress and the foe of strangers. Ares, this demon here, made war and Apollo, this is the one who slew many. Aphrodite for her part was in charge of prostitution...[1]


We may presume that the majority of the audience were Christians, but they evidently had no difficulty in recognising the gods whom they no longer worshipped.


This leads naturally on to a second, and even more fundamental, point. Who was a Christian? And who was a pagan? Scholars have frequently engaged in lengthy disputes as to the allegiance of various individuals, chiefly of those whose works survive and (in many cases) appear to show no traces of Christian influence whatever. From the sixth century we might mention the historian Procopius [p.81] of Caesarea, the bureaucrat John the Lydian, the bishop Choricius of Gaza and the poet Dioscuros of Aphrodito. In some cases, there is still no general consensus: Procopius was long believed to be a pagan because of his exclusion of Christianity from his work and his deliberate efforts to write in the style of earlier, classical writers. Since the 1960's, however, he has more plausibly been regarded as a Christian, as evidenced by his treatment of God and fate, although a recent work has once again put forward a case that he was indeed a pagan.[2] Yet we may wonder whether we can hope to label such people so precisely in a society where, as Michael Maas has so well expressed it,


In the course of a single day he [a late antique man such as John the Lydian] might read Plato, be healed at a saint's shrine, deliver a panegyric in Latin, praise or criticize the emperor, and sing the Trisagion hymn - without any sense of contradiction.[3]


For the fact is that the trappings of paganism retained much of their vitality right up until the sixth century. The monuments that we have already noted represent one aspect of this. But we must also stress the enduring popularity of pagan spectacles, for instance the mimes and pantomimes that were performed in theatres throughout the East. The subject of these performances, frequently lascivious in nature, were above all the deeds and adventures of the Olympian gods. Naturally they were the target of the fulminations of church fathers, who thus provide us with the best evidence for their continuing appeal. The Syriac writer Jacob of Serug, writing in the early sixth century, argues thus:


For if he, the flute of Satan (i.e. the actor), does note take his origin from paganism, why then does he introduce the story of Artemis? If he is not the friend of idols and the lover of dead images, wherefore by his gestures does he call to mind the goddess of the Ephesians? ... He mimes the stories of the gods, and burns perfumes at the plays, in order that he may do great honour to tales which are true for him.[4]


For Jacob, the popularity of such spectacles represents a serious menace to Christians. His hard-line stance, however, was at odds with the flexibility of contemporary views. As his opponents pointed out,


It is a game (i.e. a spectacle), not paganism. What will you lose if I laugh? And, since I deny the gods, I shall not lose through the stories [p.82] concerning them. The dancing of that place (i.e. the theatre) gladdens me, and, while I confess God, I also take pleasure in the play, while I do not thereby bring truth to nothing. I am a baptised Christian even as you are, and I confess one Lord; and I know that the mimings which belong to the spectacle are false. I do not go that I may believe, but I go that I may laugh...[5]


Jacob refutes such relaxed views, arguing that the immoral tales represented in the theatre can only lead to corruption; interestingly, as he does so, he provides considerable detail on the myths themselves that were associated with the various gods. Given that Jacob is not alone in condemning such shows we may surmise that they remained popular and served to keep the pagan past alive. In similar fashion panegyrics in praise of an emperor might cite numerous classical precedents, drawn especially from Homer, but this cannot be taken as indicative of a pagan attitude on the part of the author.[6] In the 510s, moreover, a bishop in Syria commissioned a mosaic that represented on it Romulus and Remus being suckled by the wolf, further proof, if it were needed, of the blurred boundaries between 'paganism' and Christianity.


We must also emphasise that paganism was far from being a monolithic entity. There were always, of course, many strands in what we now term paganism. It is worth underlining that in the period with which we are concerned, considerable influence on it was exercised by Christian beliefs and practices. Glen Bowersock has well brought out this interesting aspect of the development of paganism in a stimulating book on Hellenism in Late Antiquity (Ann Arbor, 1990). Pagan practices and beliefs evolved to take into account Christian rites and beliefs, e.g. in adapting legends of virgin birth. In the account cited above of the idols stolen from a pagan shrine in Alexandria, it is significant that perhaps the most important object seized was a serpent made of wood said to be the one which had deceived Eve. This serpent must have sat alongside the statues of Zeus, Athene and the other classical (and Egyptian) gods. There was also a trend towards monotheism that had been gathering pace for some time, which to some extent may be linked to the rise of Christianity. However, it is important to stress the multifaceted nature of paganism and the absence of any particular orthodoxy. There was, moreover, a considerable gulf between the high-brow paganism of philosophers, for which there is of course more literary evidence, and the simpler paganism of ordinary inhabitants of the empire. This contrast is thrown into sharpest relief during the brief reign of the Emperor Julian, and in particular in 362-3, when the emperor stayed at Antioch before undertaking his fateful Persian campaign. Whereas Julian favoured a markedly ascetic paganism, seeking in some ways to set up a pagan church to counteract the Christian hierarchy, the population of Antioch soon grew tired of his practices and his ascetic style and thus incurred the emperor's wrath. The Antiochene preference for spectacles and festivals clearly trumped any broader considerations of what was `pagan' or Christian, as the dissatisfaction of both Julian and patriarch Severus (in the sixth century) attest.[7]


It remains to consider the fate of pagans in the sixth century. Under the reign of Justinian a determined effort was made to eradicate all forms of unorthodox belief, including of course paganism. Right from the start of his reign the emperor made clear in his legal pronouncements that heresies, paganism and other religions would not be tolerated. In order to obtain God's favour for his empire, and no doubt for the ambitious projects that he nourished, it was essential to ensure orthodoxy among his people. Initially pagans were penalised in various ways, such as not being able to enlist in the imperial bureaucracy or army; they were also barred from holding important posts. Meetings were forbidden; sacrifices, of course, had long since been banned. In the following years, these restrictions grew ever stricter. The emperor's impatience is barely concealed in a law passed perhaps in 531 (C.J. I.5.11.10):


Since certain people still remain, who are possessed by the error of the impious and abominable pagans [for which the Greek term 'Hellenes' is used, as was normal] and commit acts that move our clement God to justified rage, we shall not permit these matters to remain uncorrected. We know that they have abandoned the worship of the one true God and have sacrificed [p.83] to idols through their irrational error and have held feasts filled with every sort of impiety. We shall hand over, in a clement way, those who have been baptised and who have already committed such acts to a suitable chastisement, after their errors have been investigated. For the future we declare by the present law that those who become Christians and are deemed worthy of holy and saving baptism, if they appear still to be persisting in the error of the pagans, then they will be punished by death.


Under such circumstances it is not surprising that philosophical teaching in Athens was brought to an end: the chronicler Malalas dates its demise to 529, stating that Justinian 'issued a decree and sent it to Athens ordering that nobody should teach philosophy nor interpret the laws.' (Chronicle, 18.47). The buildings used by the famous Academy in Athens were swiftly taken over by Christians, while a group of philosophers from the Roman empire sought refuge in the Persian empire (probably in 531). Disappointed in their new life in Persia, they were permitted to return to the Roman empire by the terms of the Eternal peace concluded between the two empires in 532.[8]


For all the emperor's fulminations, pagan philosophers continued to practise, notably at Alexandria in Egypt. In the imperial capital itself, however, Justinian's harsh new laws were followed up by a clampdown on suspected high-ranking pagans. As Malalas reports,


In that year there was a great persecution of pagans. Many had their property confisated. Some of them died: Macedonius, Asclepiodotus, Phocas, the son of Craterus, and Thomas the quaestor. This caused great fear. (Chronicle, 18.42)


Although Malalas overstates the number of those killed, since Phocas at least survived, it is clear that there was a new determination to root out all pagans, no matter how powerful they were. Such a thoroughgoing approach was new and bound to inspire fear in many. Accusations of paganism were easily made and hard to disprove definitively: Phocas, who succumbed to a second round of persecutions in 545-6, had endowed a church in Galatia and contributed to the construction [p.84] of Hagia Sophia in the 530s, but even this was not enough to save him from accusations of paganism. Any opponent of the emperor was liable to be suspected of paganism. Once the praetorian prefect John the Cappadocian had fallen from power, for instance, it was easy to insinuate that he had pagan sympathies, as Procopius relates.


The empire was struck by a devastating plague in 542; during the same period war resumed with Persia in the East and Justinian's conquests in Italy were steadily eroded by the renewed successes of the Ostrogoths. Under such circumstances it is not surprising that he responded by launching a further round of persecutions in 545-6 in order to regain the favour of God, so conspicuously lacking over the previous few years. The church historian John of Ephesus was entrusted with the task and he reports that large numbers of high-ranking pagans were discovered in Constantinople. They were arrested, beaten, and forcibly instructed in the Christian faith. There is no reason to doubt the sincerity of Justinian's desire to impose orthodox Christianity on his empire, although it is equally clear that such a climate of accusation and denunciation strengthened his political position and prevented the emergence of any rival who might capitalise on the difficulties being experienced by the empire. A final round of persecutions was undertaken in 562, which involved the public burning of pagan idols and books.


Despite these repeated bouts of persecution, paganism continued to survive, in various forms, in the eastern Roman empire: even at the end of the seventh century the Council of Trullo was still condemning pagan practices. In the 580s a major scandal erupted in which the patriarch of Antioch himself was accused of being a pagan. According to the historian John of Ephesus, a contemporary of the events, the matter began in the city of Heliopolis, modern Baalbek, where pagans remained in a majority and oppressed the local Christians. When a local commander intervened at the emperor's request, the pagans implicated a whole network of fellow-believers throughout the eastern provinces. Christian priests, even the patriarch Gregory himself, and high-ranking officials were said to be involved in sacrifices to Zeus. An enquiry was set up in Constantinople to investigate the accusations, but its slowness to convict those accused incensed the population of the city and led to serious riots. Following the intervention of the Emperor Tiberius, certain pagans were executed, and, according to John [p.85],


Upon this, fresh names began to pour in [from throughout the empire], and every day new arrests were made, and more and more involved in the danger, until the prisons were all full: and even many of the clergy officiating in the churches were informed against, and convicted of many heathenish crimes, and the sentence pronounced upon them was that they should be cast to the wild beasts and their bodies burnt with fire. (Church History, III.34)


The patriarch, we might note in passing, was exonerated. But the trials continued throughout the rest of Tiberius' reign and were pursued likewise under his successor, Maurice. We should be careful, however, in inferring the existence a widespread network of pagans from John's evidence. His account clearly illustrates the atmosphere of mass hysteria that existed and that was undoubtedly exploited by certain people for their own ends. The governor executed by Tiberius was convicted mainly because of the discovery of an image of Apollo in his residence, said to be concealed on the opposite side of an image of Christ. Yet, as we have seen, there were certainly some Christians who appreciated pagan images and even entertainments featuring pagan deities. It is highly probable therefore that, at least partly as a result of Justinian's hard-line policies, an increasing polarisation between paganism and Christianity had set in by this period. The ambiguous stance of certain people, noted above, became steadily less practicable over the course of the century.


In conclusion, the sixth century was a critical point in the decline of paganism in the Roman empire. Strenuous efforts were made by successive emperors to eradicate all traces of pagan belief and practice. Among these, Justinian was certainly the most vigorous, acting not only against popular cults and practices, but also against the teaching of pagan philosophy, something that earlier emperors seem to have been prepared to tolerate. Small groups of pagan philosophers were able to survive even his measures, however, notably at Alexandria and at Carrhae, not far from Edessa and the Persian frontier. But whereas even in the fifth century we still hear of important imperial officials who were pagans, in the sixth their number steadily dwindles. The chronicler Malalas, describing the defeat of Vitalian, a commander in the Balkans who had revolted against the Emperor Anastasius in the 510s, gives great emphasis to the role of a certain Proclus, an Athenian philosopher. He it was who devised the 'Greek fire' used by the imperial navy to rout the enemy fleet. It is likely that the whole involvement of Proclus is apocryphal, since the most famous Athenian philosopher of this name was already dead in 485. But the story illustrates the close relations that had existed on occasion in the fifth century between emperors and philosophers. No such accounts of Justinian and philosophers exist; we have moved now into a more polarised and less tolerant age.





G. Bowersock, Hellenism in Late Antiquity (Ann Arbor, 1990)

P. Chuvin, Chronique des derniers païens : la disparition du paganisme dans l'Empire romain, du règne de Constantin à celui de Justinien (Paris, 1990)

M. Maas, John Lydus and the Roman Past (London, 1992)

M. Meier, Das andere Zeitalter Justinians (Göttingen, 2003)


Geoffrey Greatrex, University of Ottawa

    [1] Zachariah, Life of Severus, ed. and tr. M. Kruger, Patrologia Orientalis 2 (1904), p.34-5.

    [2] See A. Cameron, Procopius (London, 1985) and A. Kaldellis, Procopius of Caesarea : tyranny, history, and philosophy at the end of antiquity (Philadelphia, 2004).

    [3] M. Maas, John Lydus and the Roman Past (London, 1992), p.4.

    [4] Homily 3 in C. Moss, 'Jacob of Serugh's homilies on the spectacles of the theatre'. Muséon 48 (1935), p.104.

    [5] Moss, 'Homilies', Homily 5, p.108-9.

    [6] See (e.g.) G. Bowersock, 'Recapturing the Past in Late Antiquity', Mediteranneo Antico 4 (2001), p.12.

    [7] Bowersock, 'Recapturing the past', p.7-8 on Julian.

    [8] See J. Walker, 'The Limits of Late Antiquity: Philosophy between Rome and Iran', Ancient World 33 (2002), p.45-69.

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