Decline of Greco-Roman polytheism

  (Redirected from Decline of Hellenistic paganism)

The decline of Greco-Roman polytheism, also sometimes referred to as the decline of paganism in the Roman Empire, according to a long established theory, began as a slow process in the second to first century BC, then sped up dramatically in the fourth century AD, producing paganism's catastrophic collapse in the fifth century AD. Both the slow decline of paganism (before 300 AD), and the catastrophic demise of paganism afterwards in Late Antiquity (300–800 AD), became disputed in the late twentieth century. Modern scholarship sees the traditional public cults as remaining vibrantly alive throughout the Hellenistic era and on into the period of empire. Defining Late Antiquity by its social, cultural and religious themes has allowed that period to be seen as a period of creative change, rather than decline, that lasted into the seventh century. In debates over the nature of Late Antiquity, a political model still champions the view of rupture, whereas a religious theme insists this process was a metamorphosis with a basic continuity rather than drastic collapse. People moved from "religion embedded in the city-state" to "religion as a choice".[1][2]: 178


Roman religion at the beginning of Roman Empire (27 BC - 476 AD) was polytheistic and local. Each city worshipped its own set of gods and goddesses that had originally been derived from ancient Greece and become Romanized. This polis-religion was embedded in, and inseparable from, "the general structures of the ancient city; there was no religious identity separate from political or civic identity, and the essence of religion lay in ritual rather than belief".[3]: 284 Support for this form of traditional Roman polytheism had begun to decline by the first century BC when it was seen, according to various writers and historians of the time, as having become empty and ineffectual.[4] A combination of external factors such as war and invasions, and internal factors such as the formal nature and political manipulation of traditional religion, is said to have created the slow decline of polytheism.[3]: 241–244

In this older view, this slow decline left a vacuum in the personal lives of people that they filled with other forms of worship. These alternatives came into Roman culture at differing times and places. They included the official imperial cult that saw the emperor as the divine representative of the state, which had formally begun with Augustus;[5] various mystery cults, such as the Dionysian cult, the Eleusinian Mysteries and the cult of Cybele; and various imported eastern religions such as the worship of Mithras which first made its way to Rome from Persia in the late first century AD,[6] and the worship of Isis which had been in Roman culture since the Republican times.[3]: 244 Christianity arrived in Rome sometime in the first half of the first century as a small minority group of Jews. It suffered opposition and on-again, off-again, persecution from Judaism and the Roman state, yet eventually became the dominant religion of the Roman empire, lasting as the state religion in the East till its fall in 1453.[3]: 244

There is a consensus that Christians were a minority in the early 300s when Constantine became Emperor, and that non-Christians were a minority by the time of the last Western anti-pagan laws in the early 600s. Scholars fall into two categories on how and why this dramatic change took place.

First, there are the long established traditional catastrophists who view polytheism's slow decline as developing into a precipitous decline in the fourth century, due to harsh Christian legislation, intolerance and violence, leading to its final violent end at the battle of Frigidus in the early fifth century.[7][8]

The second category comprises contemporary scholars who question whether there was such a thing as an actual decline at all. These scholars do not see decline so much as simply religious and cultural changes that began before the fourth century and continued into the eighth century.[7] For these scholars, "The perception of Late Antiquity has significantly changed: the period is no longer seen as an era of decline and crisis but as an epoch of metamorphosis in the Mediterranean region".[9]

One theory of early decline recognizes a momentous shift in religious history, when previous religions were replaced by plurality, that can be observed in this same time period all over the ancient Mediterranean world, the Near East, Iran, north India and China.[10] "Authors like Oswald Spengler (1880-1936) and Arnold Toynbee (1889-1975) [have] attempted to derive ... a notion of cultural cycles that would explain the emergence of new patterns of social, political, and cultural organization". The rise of monotheism would make the changes in Rome part of this same pattern of the overall evolution of religion.[9][11]


By the last few decades of the twentieth century, problems with both narratives of decline were becoming apparent. Rives asserts that, in part, this is because they depended upon a set of assumptions that modern scholars no longer accept.[3]: 249[note 1] Paula Fredriksen finds similar problems because earlier scholars imported terms from the modern day, not found in the ancient sources, and applied them to ancient religion.[13]: 231–232[note 2] The problem with using modern terms to understand the ancient, Fredriksen says, is that "they obscure more than they clarify, usually by inviting us along the path of anachronism. They too easily permit or even encourage us to project our own thoughts and values onto ancient people".[13]: 244 Elizabeth Clark also asserts that "Assessing historical events in terms of their decline or development rests on ideological assumptions".[14]

New narrativeEdit

"Over the last thirty years, scholars have expanded the evidentiary basis for the study of religion in the Hellenistic and Roman periods".[3]: 250 The development of sophisticated archaeological methods has made increasingly detailed research possible.[3]: 276–277 Peter Brown explains that he abandoned decline as an all encompassing theory because it was based on too simple a model of society and of the Christian culture of the fourth century.[15]: 27 Modern studies have produced a far more differentiated and distinctly regional view of Antiquity, while archaeology is "recovering the sheer complexity of the human geography". Brown adds that, along with a new understanding of how humans were affected by their many very different geographical environments, "a cultural, religious and social landscape whose variety had been flattened by the massive antitheses invoked by [catastrophist] scholars such as Rostovtzeff and Frend" has also been reclaimed.[15]: 27

It is not that the phenomena earlier scholars discussed did not exist; it is that later more detailed studies have shown those phenomena were only part of the story, a part frequently distorted by polemic, "and a much smaller part than those scholars assumed".[3]: 251[16]

Beginning in the 1980s, a scholarly syntheses had begun to develop a view of Roman culture in which traditional public cults were seen to have remained vibrantly alive on into late Antiquity.[17]: 5–7[18][19]: 9 One principal assumption of the new narrative was that a defining feature of late antiquity was its social fluidity. The late Roman empire was not the "totalitarian monster" previously believed.[15]: 24 Recent studies, however, have brought the Roman State back into the heart of late Roman society.[15]: 24 What is now stressed is the nature of "the presence" of the state, how it made itself felt, and "the subtle nature of power".[15]: 25 Rather than describing this in terms of decline, however, Brown says "the century that follows the reigns of Diocletian and Constantine [the fourth century] can be acclaimed, without any sense of deprecation, as the [highest point of the development] of the Roman state".[15]: 25

In Brown's view, the single most crucial change associated with late antiquity was the emergence of monotheism in a polytheist world.[15]: 26 The new narrative sees the distinctive quality of the later period of late antiquity — especially the sixth and seventh centuries – which seems to have placed the ideological content of Christianity itself at the center of late antiquity. The rise of Christianity was the cause of both a "behavioral revolution"[15]: 26 and a cognitive revolution provoked by the rise of ethical monotheism.[15]: 28

The new narrative has abandoned the tendency to privilege the Christian church in many of the developments that characterize the late antique period. The spreading of a form of classical culture by the Christian church did begin a process of the "democratization of culture" – a central feature of late antique civilization as a whole.[15]: 28–29 However, Christianity is no longer regarded as the only or even the principal agent in the diffusion of that more adaptable, more secular, form of classical culture. Scholars now speak not only in terms of "the vivid balance of classical and exotic, pagan and Christian in the late antique world, but of the swaggering 'pride of the world' [the ordinary man]".[15]: 30 "The result has been a radically altered picture of religious life, one that is the polar opposite of the grim account of collapse" and violent repression that constitutes the older interpretation of this period.[3]: 250

Religious changeEdit

J. A. North, Roman historian, says Roman imperial culture began in the first century with religion "embedded in the city-state", and throughout the imperial period, gradually shifted to "religion as a choice", with different groups offering different characteristics, experiences, insights, and stories.[2]: 178[3]: 272

Roman authorities had unknowingly created the context in which this shift occurred.[3]: 272–273 This change is tied to Roman religion's willingness to adopt foreign gods and practices into its pantheon, which is probably its defining trait and greatest strength.[20]: 18 The military settlement of various 'barbarians' within the empire, and at its borders, conscripting them, and granting them citizenship, brought their cults into the Roman military, which then carried and spread them, building altars wherever they went.[21]: 184, 200 Traders, legions and other travelers also brought to the empire religions that had originated in Egypt, Greece, Iberia, India and Persia. Some were religions with initiation ceremonies of intense personal significance similar to Christianity. By extending Roman citizenship in this way, the Roman empire created divergence between the diversity in Roman culture and the political reality of the empire's need for strength in unity.[22]: 9

Politically, the empire needed and required unity, but culturally, religious identity became increasingly separated from civic and political identity, progressively giving way to the plurality of religious options rooted in other identities, needs and interests.[13]: 237 [note 3] In the imperial Antique era, the early civic model of religion became "increasingly out of place".[3]: 272–273

A very early stage of this shift in religious interest and identity can be seen in the Bacchic/Dionysian cult and its persecution in 186 BC. Dionysianism involved private groups of worshippers ‘solely devoted to religion’. They existed entirely separately from the organization of the city, and provided people with a religious choice that had not previously existed within traditional polis religion. North says that this indicates "the relationship between religion and society [had] already [begun] a process of change" by this time.[24]: 96

"What we call 'paganism' survived far longer than we usually think to be the case. We no longer see this paganism, not because it disappeared, but because it changed its own nature".[25] The majority of modern historians agree that polytheism continued for an extended period, even after repressive legislation against it,[19]: 9 surviving in Greece into the 9th century AD; there is also evidence of its survival in some isolated areas up to the 12th century.[18]

Fourth centuryEdit

Early Christianity grew in the Roman Empire from the 1st century to become approximately 15–18% of the empire's population by the early fourth century when Constantine declared it officially tolerated.[26]: 13 Constantine's accession to the throne and his conversion to Christianity have long provided the dates for anchoring the catastrophist narrative, established with Gibbon, that became the hegemony of late Antiquity for 200 years. It claimed the rapid fourth century decline of paganism due to Christian intolerance, violence and anti-pagan legislation.[27]

Modern scholars assert that Constantine's accession to the throne and his conversion to Christianity cannot be seen as a fixed beginning of any purported decline of paganism.[28]: 3 The fourth century was not an age of decline, but was instead, an age of tremendous activity and change; an age where empire reinvents itself; an age of religious ferment comparable to the Reformation of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries.[29][30]: 9 This began long before Constantine. Pagan cults had begun changing by the beginning of the imperial period, and this continued for at least two centuries after Constantine.[19]: 9[31][32]: 6

Toleration and ConstantineEdit

Church historians writing after his death wrote that Constantine converted to Christianity and was baptised on his deathbed, thereby making him the first Christian emperor.[33][34] After the Edict of Milan (313 AD), Constantine continued the policy of toleration which Galerius had previously established.[35] Laws against the private practice of divination by Roman citizens had been enacted ever since the time of the emperor Tiberius. Constantine explicitly allowed public divination as a practice of State ceremony as well as public pagan practices to continue.[36] Constantine also issued laws confirming the rights of flamens, priests and duumvirs.[37] Under Constantine, there was some mild, sporadic persecution of paganism, although whether or not Constantine actually issued anti-pagan laws, or if they were falsely attributed to him after his death, is debated.[38][39]: 302[40][41][42]

Temples and monumentsEdit

Archaeology suggests that religious buildings were subject to three different directions of change during the imperial period: early abandonment, destruction and re-use.[19]: 28 The financial struggles begun in the third century continued on into the fourth century to negatively impact available funding to maintain the large temple complexes and their festivals.[43][44]: 60 Lower budgets, with less spent on statuary, monuments, and simple maintenance, meant the physical decline of urban structures of all types. Many Temples were left to fall into disrepair and in many instances, such as in Tripolitana, this happened before Constantine, and before any Christian anti-pagan legislation could have been a factor.[19]: 29[note 4] Progressive early decay was accompanied by an increased trade in statuary and salvaged building materials, as the practice of recycling became common in Late Antiquity.[19]: 2 "Even churches were reused in similar ways".[19]: 82 Some temple restorations took place throughout the imperial period, but there is no evidence of state participation or support. Restorations were funded and accomplished privately.[19]: 36–39

Overall data indicates that a number of elements coincided to end the Temples, but none of them were strictly religious.[19]: 82 The economy and necessity, along with political expressions of power, were the primary driving forces for the destruction and conversion of pagan religious monuments.[19]: 82


From the time of Constantine onward, imperial laws prohibited pagan sacrifices, restricted access to temples, and punished the worship of the traditional Roman gods.[46] This anti-pagan legislation reflects what Brown calls "the most potent social and religious drama" of the fourth-century Roman empire.[47] The Christian intelligentsia began writing of Christianity as fully triumphant over paganism. It didn't matter that they were still a minority in the empire, this triumph had occurred in Heaven; it was evidenced by Constantine; but even after Constantine, they wrote that Christianity would eventually defeat, and be seen to defeat, all of its enemies – not convert them.[47] As Peter Brown says, "Conversion was not the principal aim of a social order that declared the God-given dominance of Christianity".[47]

The laws were not intended to convert; "the laws were intended to terrorize... Their language was uniformly vehement, and... frequently horrifying".[48] Their intent was to reorder society along religious lines with the 'triumphant' Christian church at the center of power, and pagans and Jews at the outskirts of influence, so that laws could be made that were sufficiently intimidating to genuinely, finally, enable Christianity to put a stop to animal sacrifice.[49] Blood sacrifice was the element of pagan culture most abhorrent to Christians.[50][51] If they could not stop the private practice of sacrifice, they could "hope to determine what would be normative and socially acceptable in public spaces".[52] Altars used for sacrifice were routinely smashed by Christians who were deeply offended by the blood of slaughtered victims as they were reminded of their own past sufferings associated with such altars.[53]

"Blood sacrifice was a central rite of virtually all religious groups in the pre-Christian Mediterranean, and its gradual disappearance is one of the most significant religious developments of late antiquity. ... Public sacrifices and communal feasting had declined as the result of a decline in the prestige of pagan priesthoods and a shift in patterns of [private donations] in civic life. That shift would have occurred on a lesser scale even without the conversion of Constantine... It is easy, nonetheless, to imagine a situation in which sacrifice could decline without disappearing. Why not retain, for example, a single animal victim in order to preserve the integrity of the ancient rite? The fact that public sacrifices appear to have disappeared completely in many towns and cities must be attributed to the atmosphere created by imperial and episcopal hostility".[54]

One of the first things that is important about this, in Malcolm Errington's view, is how much this legislation was applied and used, which would show how dependable the laws are as a reflection of what actually happened to pagans in history.[55] Brown says that, given the large numbers of non-Christians in every region at this time, local authorities were "notoriously lax in imposing them. Christian bishops frequently obstructed their application.[56] The harsh imperial edicts had to face the vast following of paganism among the population, and the passive resistance of governors and magistrates, thereby limiting their impact.[57][58]

Limiting but not but not eliminating impact altogether. Anna Leone says, "Temple closures and the prohibition of sacrifices had an impact... After AD 375, the majority of [pagan] religious offices disappear completely from the epigraphic record".[19]: 83 [15]: 25

Secondly, what the laws do clearly reveal is the emergence of a language of intolerance. The legal language runs parallel to the writings of the apologists, such as Augustine of Hippo and Theodoret of Cyrrhus, and heresiologists such as Epiphanius of Salamis.[59] Christian writers and imperial legislators both drew on a rhetoric of conquest and reconquest[47] Writings were commonly hostile and often contemptuous toward a paganism Christianity saw as already defeated in heaven.[60][61]

Lastly, the laws and these Christian sources with their violent rhetoric have had great influence on perceptions of this period by creating an impression of overt and continuous conflict that has been assumed on an empire-wide scale.[62] Whereas, archaeological evidence indicates that, outside of violent rhetoric, there were only isolated incidents of actual violence.[63][64]: 7 [65][66][67] Non-Christian, non-heretical, groups enjoyed a tolerance based on contempt.[68]


After Constantine, the borders between pagan and Christian began to blur. Robert Austin Markus explains that, in society before the fourth century, churchmen like Tertullian saw the social order as irredeemably 'pagan' and "hence to be shunned".[69]: 103 But the edict of Milan (313) had redefined Imperial ideology as one of mutual toleration. Constantine could be seen to embody both Christian and Hellenic religious interests.[70] What counted as pagan had to be rethought.[71] [note 5]

In Markus' reading of events, this shift marked a 'colonization' by Christians of the pagan Empire and pagan values.[69]: 141–142 By the time of Late Antiquity, the city was characterized by an increasingly secular municipal life. It was no longer embedded with any particular religious tradition.[19]: 13 Late Antiquity witnessed the "vigorous flowering of a public culture that Christians and non-Christians alike could share"; the two religious traditions co-existed and tolerated each other, in social practice, throughout most of the period.[19]: 13, 42

By 423, emperor Theodosius II declared that polytheism no longer existed, and so "large bodies of polytheists, all over the Roman empire, simply slipped out of history". They continued to exist, in spite of such proclamations, enjoying "for many generations, [a] relatively peaceable, if cramped, existence".[68]

Throughout Antiquity, the religious landscape of the Mediterranean continued to be characterized by a patchwork of religious communities. Regions that boasted a triumphant, long-established Christianity were often flanked by equally tenacious settlements of polytheists. Polytheism itself evolved, often by adopting aspects of the new religion. The Euphemitai of Phoenicia emerged as a new cult in the mountains of Lebanon. Their gatherings, from which blood sacrifice was pointedly absent, were marked by hymn-singing and by blazing lights in buildings that could be mistaken for Christian basilicas. Rather than becoming uniformly 'Christianized', the Roman empire remained a land of religious contrasts.[68]

Alternative theoriesEdit

Nature caused declineEdit

"In the second century AD, the Roman Empire reached its zenith, but the forces of the state were stretched to their limit, and the accumulation of unresolved problems, and the plague epidemic at the end of the second century AD, led to a protracted political and economic crisis.[72][73]: 255–257 Still, Roman empire of the third and fourth century was resilient and actively responding to its many challenges.[74][75]: 62[76] It had survived the worst military defeat in its history by the Visigoths at Adrianople in 378. Goths had moved into the empire, seeming to be both enemy and ally, the empire permanently split between east and west, internal strife threatened the food supply, and social, religious and political changes of dramatic proportions had occurred.[74][75]: 2 But it may have been the massive demographic changes related to natural events that eventually led to its downfall and the end of polytheistic practices.[73]: 255–257

Prolonged intensive warfare unavoidably results in the migration of local populations. As the Roman empire expanded its boundaries through conquest, it also forced migration, depopulation and repopulation for military purposes.[73]: 255–257 This ever-expanding Roman empire was built on the fringes of the tropics, and its brilliant roads, which produced an abundance of trade, also unknowingly created an interconnected disease ecology that unleashed pathogenic evolution. The empire was soon engulfed.[75]: 5 Pandemic contributed to even more massive demographic changes, which in turn, quickly led to economic crises as evidenced in the real price levels of agricultural products, land and the debasement of silver coin.[75]: 112–113[77][78] Yet for the western empire, "the coup de grâce did not come until the Late Antique Little Ice Age of the mid-sixth century".[75]: 248–254

Roman empire finally fully unravelled in the West by the seventh century, when Rome was already politically fragmented and materially depleted. According to Kyle Harper, nature – volcanic eruptions, earthquakes, solar cycles, climate instability, devastating viruses, and bacteria – is what finally undid centuries of human achievement that was Roman empire.[75]: 264–267

Stark's market theory and the weakness of paganismEdit

For many years it has been axiomatic that the Roman elite ceased to have any real belief in the traditional forms of Roman polytheism, and as a result consigned it to neglect and decline.[3]: 247–248 [note 6] Sociologist Rodney Stark asserts that it was that weakness of support for paganism that created the opportunity for Christianity to become the state religion, and not the other way around. From a sociological perspective, the fate of any new religious movement depends entirely upon its environment providing the opportunity for it to develop.[79]: 196 He says, "The idea that paganism's weakness was caused by Christian political power fails to explain how Christianity managed to be so successful that it could become the state church [in the first place]. That Christianity was able to wedge out a significant place for itself directs attention to signs of weakness in paganism".[79]: 196–200

By the first century, Roman empire had developed excessive pluralism - what E.R. Dodds has called "a bewildering mass of alternatives... too many cults, too many mysteries, too many philosophies of life to choose from" and this affected levels of participation in any one religion thereby weakening them all.[80]: 133[3]: 241–244 Bagnall says the church did not replace paganism as much as it gradually filled the gaps left by the declining observance of the pagan cults.[81]: 270

Polytheistic revival and Cameron's secularismEdit

For over 60 years there has been a thesis of the demise of paganism that includes a short attempt at revival at the end of the fourth century. This thesis says revival was spearheaded by the aristocracy of Rome, and culminated in the "last pagan stand" in the battle of Frigidus, where Paganism was, finally, violently defeated by the orthodox Christian emperor Theodosius I.[8] The failure of Symachus' requests to Gratian and Valentinian for the restoration of the Altar of Victory has been seen as the precursor that prompted this revival.[8] Alan Cameron explains it: "In 391 Theodosius I (it is claimed) decided that the time had come to go beyond these half measures [of previous emperors] and eliminate paganism. So he issued a comprehensive ban...which was rigorously enforced. This was the last straw for pagan aristocrats who rallied behind the western usurper Eugenius... In return for their support, Eugenius (supposedly) restored both altar and subsidies, leading to a fully fledged revival of paganism in Rome, directed by his praetorian prefect Nicomachus Flavianus. [According to Cameron] Very little of this story survives serious scrutiny".[82]

For example, Flavianus' role has, in the past, been supported by an anonymous poem dated to 394 that was discovered in 1868. Cameron says that "New evidence and new arguments prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that the prefect [mentioned in the poem] is Praetextatus, in which case the poem belongs in 384 rather than 394... At one stroke, we lose not only virtually all the evidence there ever was for a pagan revival in the 390s but also for the belief that Flavianus was its ringleader and inspiration".[83] James J. O'Donnell describes the evidence for a 'revival of paganism' as "a scholar's fantasy and nothing more".[84]: 78

There is no evidence that anyone saw the battle of Frigidus as a religious contest at the time it happened.[83] Historian Michele Renee Salzman explains that "two newly relevant texts — John Chrysoston's Homily 6, adversus Catharos (PG 63: 491–92) and the Consultationes Zacchei et Apollonii, re-dated to the 390s, both reinforce the view that religion was not the key ideological element in the events at the time".[85] According to Maijastina Kahlos[note 7] the notion that pagan aristocrats, united in a "heroic and cultured resistance", rose up against the ruthless advance of Christianity in a final battle near Frigidus in 394, is a romantic myth.[86]


Cameron equally critiques the evidence for claims of the continuation of paganism into the sixth century. Evidence for a continued 'pagan resistance' is "virtually all" from Christian sources that are hostile and known to exaggerate and embellish. He says paganism lived longer for Christians than in reality.[87] There is a mass of material on the continuation of the circuses, amphitheater and games in the sixth century, but Cameron explains this by saying art and culture of the late fourth century had removed its pagan elements (i.e. sacrifice) and become secularized, and circuses and so on were therefore secular events that both pagan and Christian could participate in long before the sixth century.[88]

The economy of the third and fourth centuries was struggling, and traditional polytheism was expensive. Its temples were large, required regular maintenance, and lavish festivals that included enough sacrifices to provide free meat to all who participated; they were served by professional priests, and were financially dependent upon donations from the state and private elites.[89] Roger S. Bagnall reports that imperial support for the many large pagan temples declined markedly after Augustus then disappeared altogether in the middle of the third century.[81]: 261–269 Bagnall says "Festivals did not cease" but paganism did adapt.[81]: 270 The Festival of the Nile was celebrated in 424, but it was a secular affair, since festivals of the church didn't come into prominence until the next century.[81]: 270

O'Donnell reaches a similar conclusion along a different path by redefining the term pagan: "Pagans were those who held religion to be a largely private matter within which a variety of creeds and cults could exist side by side....Clearly this kind of paganism is not itself so much a religion or a religious movement as much as it is an attitude toward religion ... The point of difference between such individuals and zealous Christians, therefore, was just this attitude toward religion".[84]: 51 Paganism as the civic worship of the traditional Roman gods — the polis religion – was fast departing from the Roman scene in the fourth century; but paganism defined as "a tolerant, even careless attitude toward worship in general — was a more tenacious institution".[84]: 65

If paganism is an attitude toward one's religion, more than a religion itself, then the eradication of non-Christian cults did not necessarily lead to the eradication of that attitude.[84]: 87 Cameron says it is widely believed that pagans remained in the majority in the aristocracy, at least into the 380s, and continued to remain a powerful force into the fifth century, but scholars are reasonably sure that by 450, there were only a few pagan nobles left as the majority of aristocrats had converted to Christianity.[90] The general picture of the move from paganism to Christianity for many of the elite seems to have been based more on ambition as Christianity was seen as favorable to one's career: "...that kind of Christianity need not have been the most devoted, and may even have been 'pagan' in the sense of the attitude with which the believer regarded his cult".[84]: 83 Christianity triumphed, but paganism as an attitude toward religion – a secular attitude – survived.[84]: 83

By the time of Constantine, Brown indicates Christianity itself had changed and adapted to 'Romanness'. Indeed, without what Peter Brown has called "the conversion of Christianity" to the culture and ideals of the Roman world, Constantine would never have converted in the first place.[91][28] O'Donnel adds: "In the Roman West, what is remarkable at this period is the way in which considerations of class and culture prevailed in the end. Peter Brown has astutely pointed out that the continuation of Roman secular traditions was perhaps the most characteristic feature of the Christianization of the Roman aristocracy".[84]: 85

Intermingling caused declineEdit

Some second-century Gentile intellectuals who joined the Christian movement – Valentinus the gnostic, Marcion the heretic, and Justin the Martyr – twined together what had been originally separate strands of monotheism from paganism and Judaism and Christianity. They each produced their own interpretation, and did not agree with one another, but they all represented an increasing theological accommodation.[13]: 242 Jews were monotheists, while some Christian Jews, such as Paul or the author of the Gospel of John, also imputed divinity to Jesus.[13]: 242–243 Fredriksen explains that "John could (and did) designate Christ as theos, and could still be an ancient monotheist, because of the hierarchical arrangement of his heaven: logos is subordinate to theos, just as son is to father". Multiple divine personalities were considered natural in ancient pagan monotheism, and as long as one god reigned supreme at the peak of the theo-ontological pyramid, the base could be as broad as needed while monotheism was maintained.[13]: 242–243

The products and processes of fusion and intermingling (also known as hybridity, syncretism, interculturation, and transculturation),[92] indicate societal divisions began to blur along with theology. Constantine embodied both Christian and Hellenic religious interests.[70] John Cassian pulled the ideals of the holy men of the Egyptian desert into the ideals and practices of the monastic community, where it was then distributed through bishops and priests (who were often the products of monastic education in Gaul) to the wider society. In this way, asceticism was 'communalized' and society-at-large was 'asceticized'.[69]: 222

In the process of blending asceticism and the social order, 'pagan culture' produced secularism. [71] For Christians, this meant that what counted as pagan had to be rethought.[71] By the fifth-century, one of the popes attempted to denounce the Lupercalia as 'pagan superstition' but his call fell on deaf ears since, for many Christians, the festival had simply become an enjoyable 'secular' ritual. The developing cult of the martyrs gave post-Constantinian citizens a pagan-like link to a heroic past, and it gave a new way of claiming sacred time (the fast days) and sacred places (the martyrs' shrines) for Christianity as had been done in the past for paganism.[71]: 545 This contributed to yet more blurring of the borders between pagan and Christian.[70]

Brown describes this world as one in which "Polytheism itself evolved, often by adopting aspects of the new religion. The Euphemitai of Phoenicia emerged as a new cult in the mountains of Lebanon. Their gatherings, from which blood sacrifice was pointedly absent, were marked by hymn-singing and by blazing lights in buildings that could be mistaken for Christian basilicas".[68]

Imperial cult caused declineEdit

For many years, the worship of human rulers as though they were gods was regarded by the majority of scholars as both a symptom and a cause of the final decline of traditional Graeco-Roman religion. It was assumed this kind of worship could only be possible in a system that had become completely devoid of real religious meaning.[3]: 252 It was generally treated as a "political phenomenon cloaked in religious dress". Scholarship of the twenty-first century has shifted toward seeing it more as a religious phenomenon than a political one.[3]: 252

S. R. F. Price draws on anthropological models to show the imperial cult's rituals and iconography are elements of a cognitive system that the worshippers developed as a way of meeting their own need for coming to terms with the power of Rome.[93] Rives says that, "Most recent scholars have accepted Price’s approach, and extended it further".[3]: 255 The emperor was "conceived in terms of honors ... as the representation of power" personifying the middleman between the human and the divine.[93]: 52[3]: 252


  • 186 BC Bacchic/Dionysian cult is seen as a threat, separated from traditional religion, is broken apart and thereafter controlled by the state
  • First century BC polis based polytheism begins its slow decline
  • First to third centuries AD, Roman culture develops a plurality of religions; Christianity is one among many
  • 303 Christianity endures its most severe persecution under Diocletian
  • 313 with the Edict of Milan Constantine and Licinius establish toleration of all religions including Christianity.
  • 329–335 Constantine orders some destruction of Hellenic temples, construction of many churches, and the building of two pagan temples in his capital, Constantinople. There is a persistent pagan tradition that Constantine did not persecute pagans, whereas modern definitions indicate he did, but in a mild and mostly psychological and economic manner. He did not purge or force pagans to convert.
  • 361–363 Emperor Julian, the last pagan Emperor, proclaims restoration of Hellenic worship. Lack of popular support meant that revival did not survive him.
  • 389–391 Christianity becomes the official state religion of the Roman Empire promulgating harsh anti-pagan legislation that failed to be effectively enforced. Roman culture becomes secular in response.
  • 410 In the early 5th century (c. 410) a revived Platonic Academy (which had no connection with the original Academy) was established by some leading Neoplatonists.[94]
  • 450 Roman aristocrats have virtually all converted to Christianity for one reason or another.
  • In 529, the emperor Justinian ended the funding of the revived Neoplatonic Academy because of active paganism of its professors. Other schools continued in Constantinople, Antioch, and Alexandria which were the centers of Justinian's empire.[95][96] Modern historians such as Blumental[97] and A. Cameron[98] claim that the Neoplatonic Academy continued to exist for 50 or 60 years after 529.
  • 651 Harran conquered by the Arabs. Harranians, descendants of Hellenistic tradition by virtue of their Hermetism and Neoplatonism, claim to be Sabians and are therefore judged a People of the Book and as such are permitted to survive. The Nabatean Agriculture was said by Maimonides to have been an accurate record of the beliefs of the "Sabians" in the Harranian area.

See alsoEdit


  1. ^
    • One is the assumption that there is by definition a fundamental and clear-cut separation between the religious and political spheres, so that any overlap between the two can ipso facto be regarded as the political manipulation or appropriation of religion.[12]
    • another is the privileging of the personal dimension over the public dimension, so that the former is taken as the locus of ‘real’ religion.
    • the third, very closely related, is the emphasis on belief instead of ritual, so that ritual is thought to have ‘real’ religious meaning only when it is the external expression of an internal belief.[3]: 249–251
    • Rives asserts that these assumptions were only confirmed by a selective and arbitrary use of evidence that tended to privilege literary texts over documentary sources and define certain types of texts as more significant than others.[3]: 250, 251
    • "Scholars who want to see a profound change in religion during Hellenistic and Roman times turn again and again to the same authors and texts: Plutarch and Apuleius, Marcus Aurelius and Aelius Aristides, Hermetic treatises and gnostic scriptures.[3]: 250 Modern studies have shown this approach can no longer be maintained.[3]: 251
  2. ^
    • The first is the term conversion, which lets in the back door the contemporary Christian concept for measuring "belief" and carries the assumption that Christianity was something that existed for early Gentile Christians to convert into at a time when it wasn't that developed.[13]: 233–235
    • The second is nationalism. For first century Jewish Christians, religion was city-based and ethnically based, but Paul changes that for his Gentiles-in-Christ by insisting they are now, instead, identified by their eschatology: "They have been swept up, through Christ, into Israel’s redemptive history... but they are not thereby turned into Jews" (Rom. 15: 4–9).[13]: 238
    • Next, religio licita (legal religion) is a phrase taken from Tertullian's Apology usually used to explain why Christians were persecuted and not Jews, but "there is no record of any laws that render Christianity specifically illegal – nor any record of any laws that identify any religion as specifically legal".[13]: 239 Religions and their various ancestral practices simply existed because their subject peoples did and all had the right to practice them.[13]: 240
    • Lastly is the term monotheism. When ancient religion spoke of monotheism, it meant "one god on top, with other gods ranged beneath, lower than and in some sense subordinate to the high god."[13]: 241 The ancient world was filled with such lower gods, and the people who lived in it – even members of Jewish or Christian communities – encountered these lower gods fairly often.[13]: 241–243
  3. ^ Frederikson says that ethnic identity was also one of religion's organizing factors separately from any particular city or locale.[13]: 235 Members of the group were expected to demonstrate 'piety' by "observing acknowledged and inherited protocols... identified as 'ancestral custom'... One did not 'believe in' these customs; one 'respected' them", meaning that one kept them and was seen as keeping them.[13]: 235 From roughly the end of the lst century until 250 AD, Gentile Christians were the object of local resentments and anxieties because they were not doing this, "they were not honoring the gods upon whom their city’s prosperity depended". On the other hand, Jews were not persecuted because their exemption from public cultic participation was protected by long precedent as the obligation owed to the ancestry of their ethic group.[23][13]: 239
  4. ^ Economic struggles meant a "substantially poorer quality of life" from the fourth century onward, and demolition of temples was expensive (if destruction was not the result of natural phenomena like earthquakes or floods).[19]: 2, 30–32 Active destruction of temples by humans was rare.[19]: 30 It was not carried out unless it became necessary.[19]: 32 Archaeological evidence for the violent destruction of temples in the fourth and early fifth centuries around the entire Mediterranean is limited to a handful of sites.[45]
  5. ^ "Were not many civic celebrations simply part of a social world that Christians, too, shared? Could not 'sacred time' be reclaimed either through the replacement of pagan holidays by Christian ones (e.g., Christmas) or by the 'secularization' of festivals that originally had pagan religious overtones (e.g., January 1st)? Thus attempts by a fifth-century pope to denounce the Lupercalia as 'pagan superstition' fell (apparently) on deaf ears: to many Christians, the festival was now simply an enjoyable 'secular' ritual. More-over, the developing cult of the martyrs not only gave post-Constantinian Christians a link to their heroic past, it also gave them a new way of claiming for Christianity sacred time (the fast days) and sacred places (the martyrs' shrines)".[71]
  6. ^ "Evidence for neglect and manipulation could readily be found, and a standard list of examples gradually took shape: ancient priesthoods left vacant, ceremonies unperformed, temples allowed to decay, priesthoods sought for personal ends, the religious calendar exploited for political gain. It was also easy enough to find statements from contemporary writers that seemed to confirm that they themselves were aware of this religious decline, such as the passage from the first-century-bce scholar M. Terentius Varro quoted by Cumont. But, as more recent scholars have argued, this evidence has often been cited without proper consideration of its context; at the same time, other evidence that presents a different picture has been dismissed out of hand".[3]: 247–248
  7. ^ Finnish historian and Docent of Latin language and Roman literature at the University of Helsinki


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Further readingEdit

  • Athanassiadi, P. "Persecution and Response in Late Paganism: the Evidence of Damascius", Journal of Hellenic Studies 113 (1993): 1–29.
  • Greenhalgh, P. A. L.; Eliopoulos, Edward (1985). Deep into Mani: Journey to the Southern Tip of Greece. Faber and Faber. ISBN 0-571-13524-2.
  • Harl, K. W. "Sacrifice and Pagan Belief in Fifth- and Sixth-Century Byzantium", Past and Present 128 (1990): 7–27.
  • MacMullen, Ramsay. Christianizing the Roman Empire: AD 100–400. Yale University Press, 1984.
  • ——. Christianity and Paganism in the Fourth to Eighth Centuries. Yale University Press, 1997 ISBN 0-300-08077-8
  • Trombley, Frank R. Hellenic Religion and Christianization, c. 370–529. 2 vols. Leiden: Brill, 1993–4; reprint 2014.
  • Watts, Edward J. The Final Pagan Generation. University of California Press, 2015.