On the Miraculous Images. Chapter 3: Position Of The First Christian Emperors Towards Paganism, And Their Policy In This Respect
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I have given in the preceding chapter a description, traced by one of the most learned Roman Catholic writers of our day, of the compromise between Christianity and Paganism, by which the church has endeavoured to establish her dominion over the adherents of the latter. I shall now try to give a rapid sketch of the circumstances which undoubtedly have influenced the church, to a considerable degree, in the adoption of a line of policy which, though it certainly has much contributed to the extension of her external dominion, has introduced into her pale those very errors and superstitions which it was her mission to destroy, and to deliver mankind from their baneful influence.
There is a widely-spread but erroneous opinion, that the conversion of Constantine was followed by an immediate destruction of Paganism in the Roman empire. This opinion originated from the incorrect statements of some ecclesiastical writers; but historical criticism has proved, beyond every doubt, that, even a century after the conversion of that monarch, Paganism was by no means extinct, and counted many adherents, even amongst the highest classes of Roman society.
When Constantine proclaimed his conversion to the religion of the Cross, its adherents formed but a minority of the population of the Roman empire. The deficiency of their numbers was, however, compensated by their moral advantages; for they were united by the worship of the one true God, and ardently devoted to a religion which they had voluntarily embraced, and for which they had suffered so much. The Pagans were, on the contrary, disunited, and in a great measure indifferent to a religion whose doctrines were derided by the more enlightened of them, though, considering it as a political institution necessary for the maintenance of the empire, they often displayed great zeal in its defence. The Christians of that time may be compared to the Greeks when they combated the Persians on the field of Marathon and at Thermopylæ; but, alas! their victory under Constantine proved as fatal to the purity of their religion as that of the Greeks under Alexander to their political and military virtues. Both of them became corrupted by adopting the ideas and manners of their conquered adversaries.
Some writers have suspected that the conversion of Constantine was more due to political than religious motives; but though great and many were the faults of that monarch, his sincerity in embracing the Christian religion cannot be doubted, because it was a step more contrary than favourable to his political interests. The Christians formed, as I have said above, only a minority of the population of the empire, and particularly so in its western provinces. There was not a single Christian in the Roman senate; and the aristocracy of Rome, whose privileges and interests were intimately connected with the religious institutions of the empire, were most zealous in their defence. The municipal bodies of the principal cities were also blindly devoted to the national religion, whose existence was considered by many as inseparable from that of the empire itself; and these bodies were generally the chief promoters of those terrible persecutions to which the Christians had been so many times subjected. The Pagan clergy, rich, powerful, and numerous, were ever zealous in exciting public hatred against the Christians; and the legions were chiefly commanded by those officers who had united with Galerius in compelling Diocletian to persecute the Christians. The capital of the empire was the particular stronghold of the ancient creed. Rome, says Beugnot, in the work from which I have so largely drawn, was the cradle and the focus of the national belief. Many traditions, elevated to the rank of dogmas, were born within her pale, and impressed upon her a religious character, which still was vividly shining in the times of Constantine. The Pagans of the west considered Rome as the sacred city, the sanctuary of their hopes, the point towards which all their thoughts were to be directed; and the Greeks, in their usual exaggeration, acknowledged in her, not a part of the earth, but of heaven.—(Libanii Epistolæ, epist. 1083, p. 816.) The aristocracy, endowed with its many sacerdotal dignities, and dragging in its train a crowd of clients and freedmen, to whom it imparted its passions and its attachment to the error, furnished, by the help of its immense riches, the means of subsistence to a greedy, turbulent, and superstitious populace, amongst whom it could easily maintain the most odious prejudices against Christianity. The hope of acquiring a name, a fortune, or simply to take a part in the public distributions, attracted to that city from the provinces all those who had no condition, or, what is still worse, those who were dissatisfied with theirs. Italy, Spain, Africa, and Gallia sent to Rome the elite of their children, in order to be instructed in a school, the principal merit of whose professors was, an envious hatred of every new idea, and who had acquired a melancholy reputation during the persecutions of the Christians. The standard of Paganism was waving in full liberty on the walls of the Capitol. Public and private sacrifices, sacred games, and the consultation of the augurs, were prevailing to the utmost in that sink of all the superstitions. The name of Christ was cursed, and the speedy ruin of his worshippers announced, in every part of that place, whilst the glory of the gods was celebrated, and their assistance invoked. How cruel must have been the situation of the Christians, left in the midst of that city, where, at every step, a temple, an altar, a statue, and horrible blasphemies were revealing to them the ever active power of the Lie! They dared not either to found churches, to open schools, or even publicly to reply to what was spoken against them, at the theatres, at the forum, or at the baths: so that they seemed to exist at Rome only in order to give a greater eclat to the dominion of idolatry.—(Vol. i., p. 75.) It was no wonder that such a religious disposition of Rome had placed it in a continual and strenuous opposition to Constantine, and his Christian successors; and this circumstance may be considered as an additional motive which induced Constantine to transfer the capital of the empire from Rome to Byzantium, though this measure may have been chiefly brought about by political considerations. In removing his residence to a more central point of the empire, he at the same time drew nearer to the eastern provinces, where Christianity had many devoted adherents. Constantinople became the capital of the Christian party, whence it gradually developed its sway over the other parts of the empire, but the Pagans maintained meanwhile their ground at Rome, in such a manner, that it seems to have been uninhabitable to the Christian emperors; because we see even those of them who ruled the western provinces fixing their residence either at Milan or Ravenna, and visiting only on some occasions the city of the Cæsars, which had become, since the foundation of Constantinople, the fortified camp of Paganism.
Constantine proclaimed full religious liberty to all his subjects. This measure, dictated by a sound policy, and in perfect harmony with the true spirit of his new religion, was not, however, sufficient to relieve him from the difficulties of his personal position, as he united in his person two characters diametrically opposed one to another. Being a Christian, he was at the same time, as the emperor of Rome, the head and the representant, not only of its political, but also of its religious institutions. This circumstance forced him into a double line of policy, which I shall describe in the words of M. Beugnot:—
There were in Constantine, so to say, two persons,—the Christian and the emperor. If that monarch had not been endowed with a rare intellect, he would have, by confounding these two characters, raised in his way obstacles which he could not overcome. As a Christian, he showed everywhere his contempt for the vain superstitions of the ancient worship, and his enthusiasm for the new ideas. He conferred with the bishops; he assisted standing at their long homilies; he presided at the councils; he deeply meditated the mysteries of Christianity; and he struggled against the heresiarchs with the ardour of a Christian soldier and the grief of a profoundly convinced soul. As emperor, he submitted to the necessities of a difficult position, and conformed, in all grave matters, to the manners and beliefs which he did not feel sufficiently strong openly to shock. On endowing the purple, he became the heir of that long series of emperors who had all remained faithful to the worship of the father-land; and he wrapt himself, so to say, in the ancient traditions and recollections of pagan Rome; for it was an inheritance which he could not renounce, without danger to himself as well as to the empire.
When we observe some actions of Constantine, evidently tinged with Paganism, we must consider less their external form than the relation in which they stood towards the constitution of Rome, which that emperor had no desire to destroy. We shall then become convinced that his conduct was the result of necessity, and not that of a crooked policy. As an individual, he was free; as an emperor, he was a slave; and his greatest merit, according to our opinion, was to have soundly judged the embarrassments of this situation. Animated as he was with a lively zeal for the truths of Christianity, it was very natural that he should employ the imperial power in order to break down all the obstacles to its progress. But this would have involved him in an open war with a nation, the majority of whom were composed of Pagans; and it is very likely that he would have succumbed in such a contest. He understood this; and it prevented him giving way to the entreaties, and even complaints, of over-zealous Christians.—Vol. 1., p. 88.
Constantine was, notwithstanding his conversion to Christianity, the supreme pontiff of pagan Rome. The title of this dignity was given him on the public monuments, and he performed its functions on several occasions; as, for instance, in 321, several years after his conversion, he wrote to Maximus, prefect of Rome, as follows:—
If our palace or any public monument shall be struck by lightning, the auguries are to be consulted, according to the ancient rites (retento more veteris observantiæ), in order to know what this event indicates; and the accounts of these proceedings are immediately to be sent to us. Private individuals may make similar consultations, provided they abstain from secret sacrifices, which are particularly prohibited. With regard to the accounts stating that the amphitheatre was recently struck by lightning, and which thou hast sent to Heraclianus the tribune, and master of offices, know that they must be delivered to us.
This is undoubtedly a very strange document for a Christian monarch, who officially commands to consult the Pagan oracles, and, as its concluding words seem to imply, is anxious to maintain, on similar occasions, his rights as the supreme pontiff of Paganism.
It was also in his quality of supreme pontiff that Constantine instituted, soon after his accession, the Francic games, for the commemoration of his victory over the Franks, and which were celebrated, during a considerable time, on the 18th of the kalends of August; and, in 321, the Sarmatic games, on the occasion of his victory over the Sarmatians, and celebrated on the 6th of the same month. These games were real Pagan ceremonies, and reprobated on this account by the Christian writers of that time. I could quote other instances of a similar kind; but I shall conclude this subject by observing, that a medal has been preserved, upon which Constantine is represented in the dress of the supreme pontiff,—i.e., with a veil covering his head.
Constantine was, indeed, very anxious not to offend the Pagan party. In 319 he published a very severe law against the soothsayers; expressing, however, that this prohibition did not extend to the public consultations of the Haruspices, according to the established rites. And a short time afterwards he proclaimed another law on the same subject, in which he still more explicitly declares that he does not interfere with the rites of the Pagan worship.
It must be observed, that the Romans, as well as the Greeks, had two kinds of divination: the public, which were considered as legitimate; and the secret, which were generally forbidden. This last had been prohibited by some former emperors; and the laws of the Twelve Tables declared them punishable with death. Constantine seems to have been very anxious that his intention on this subject should not be mistaken; and he published in 321 an edict, by which he positively allows the practice of a certain kind of magic, by the following remarkable expressions:—
It is right to repress and to punish, by laws justly severe, those who practise, or try to practise, the magical arts, and seek to seduce pure souls into profligacy; but those who employ this art in order to find remedies against diseases, or who, in the country, make use of it in order to prevent the snow, the wind, and the hail from destroying the crops, must not be prosecuted. Neither the welfare nor the reputation of any one are endangered by acts whose object is to insure to men the benefits of the divinity and the fruits of their labour.—Codex Theodosianus, lib. ix., f. 16, apud Beugnot.
This was, undoubtedly, a very large concession to the superstitions of Paganism made by a Christian monarch, and from which he was, perhaps, himself not entirely free. It is well known that Constantine, after his public declaration of Christianity, introduced the labarum, as a sign of the dominion of the new faith; but it was generally placed on his coins in the hands of the winged statue of the Pagan goddess of Victory. Besides these coins of Constantine, there are many others of the same monarch, having inscriptions in honour of Jupiter, Mars, and other Pagan divinities. The Pagan aristocracy of Rome seem to have been resolved to ignore the fact that the head of the empire had become a Christian, and to consider him, in spite of himself, as one of their own. Thus, after his death, the senate placed him, according to the usual custom, among the gods; and a calendar has been preserved where the festivals in honour of this strange divinity are indicated. The name of Divus is given to him on several coins; and, what is very odd, this Pagan god is represented on the above-mentioned medals holding in his hand the Christian sign of the labarum.
We thus see that Constantine, instead of persecuting the adherents of the national Paganism, was following a policy of compromise between the two characters united in his person, that of a Christian and of a Roman emperor. This did not, however, prevent him from heaping favours of every kind upon the Christian church,—favours which proved to her much more injurious than all the persecutions of the former emperors. And, indeed, the Christians, who had nobly stood the test of adversity, were not proof against the more dangerous trial of a sudden and unexpected prosperity.
The first favour granted by Constantine to the Christians, and which he did even before his public confession of their faith, was the extension to their clergy of the exemption from various municipal charges enjoyed by the Pagan priests, on account of their being obliged to give at their expense certain public games. The Christian clergy were thus placed in a more favourable position than the Pagan priests, because, though admitted to equal immunities, they were not subjected to the same charges; and thus, for the first time, a bribe was offered for conversion to a religion which had hitherto generally exposed its disciples to persecution. Numbers of people, actuated less by conviction than by the hope of a reward, were crowding from all parts to the churches, and the first favour granted to the Christians introduced amongst them guilty passions, to which they had hitherto remained strangers, and whose action was so rapid and so melancholy. The complaints of the municipal bodies, and the disorder which it was producing in the provincial administration, induced Constantine to put some restrictions on a favour which, being granted perhaps somewhat inconsiderately, did more harm than good to the interests of the Christian religion.—Beugnot, vol. 1., p. 78.
Constantine increased his favours to the Christians after he had publicly embraced their faith. The ecclesiastical historians, says the author whom I have just quoted, enumerate with a feeling of pride the proofs of his generosity. They say, that the revenues of the empire were employed to erect everywhere magnificent churches, and to enrich the bishops. They cannot be, on this occasion, accused of exaggeration. Constantine introduced amongst the Christians a taste for riches and luxury; and the disappearance of their frugal and simple manners, which had been the glory of the church during the three preceding centuries, may be dated from his reign.—Ibid., p. 87.
The ecclesiastical historian Eusebius, a great admirer of Constantine, whose personal friend he was, admits himself, that the favours shown by that monarch to the church have not been always conducive to her purity.
In short, the sudden triumph of the church under Constantine was one of the principal causes of her corruption, and the beginning of that compromise with Paganism, described in the preceding chapter. Paganism, though weakened through its abandonment by the head of the state, was by no means broken down at the time of Constantine’s death. Many of its zealous adherents were occupying the principal dignities of the state, as well as the most important civil and military offices; but its chief stronghold was Rome, where its partisans were so powerful, that the unfortunate dissensions which divided the Christians were publicly exposed to ridicule in the theatres of that city. The Arian writer Philostorgus says that Constantine was worshipped after his death, not as a saint, but as a god, by the orthodox Christians, who offered sacrifices to the statue of that monarch placed upon a column of porphyry, and addressed prayers to him as to God himself. It is impossible to ascertain whether examples of such mad extravagance had ever taken place amongst Christians or not; but the Western church has not bestowed upon his memory the honours of saintship, though she has been generally very lavish of them. Thus the first Christian emperor was canonised only by the Pagans.
The sons of Constantine followed the religious policy of their father; and the facility with which his nephew, Julian the Apostate, had restored Paganism to the rank of the dominant religion, twenty-four years after his death, proves how strong its party was even at that time. Julian’s reign of eighteen months was too short to produce any considerable effect upon the religious parties into which the Roman empire was then divided. After his death, the imperial crown was offered by the army to Sallust, a Pagan general, who having refused it on account of his great age, it was bestowed upon Jovian, a Christian, who reigned only three months. The legions elected, after Jovian’s death, Valentinian, who, though a sincere Christian, strictly maintained the religious liberty of his subjects; and the same policy was followed by his brother and colleague Valens, who governed the eastern part of the empire, and was an Arian. Valentinian’s son and successor, Gratian, though educated by the celebrated poet Ausonius, who adhered to the ancient worship, was a zealous Christian. He published, immediately after his accession, an edict allowing perfect religious liberty to all his subjects, with the exception of the Manicheans and some other sects. He granted several new privileges to Christians, but he continued to conform for some time to the duties inherited from his Pagan predecessors, of which the most remarkable instance was, that he caused his father to be placed amongst the gods, according to the general custom followed at the death of the Roman emperors.
Though greatly enfeebled by the continual advance of Christianity, Paganism was still the established religion of the state. Its rites were still observed with their wonted solemnity, and its power was still so great at Rome, that a vestal virgin was executed in that city for the breach of her vow of chastity, subsequently to the reign of Gratian. These circumstances induced, probably, the above-mentioned emperor to respect the religious institutions of Rome during the first years of his reign, but (382), acting under the advice of St Ambrose, he confiscated the property belonging to the Pagan temples, and the incomes of which served for the maintenance of priests and the celebration of sacrifices. He abolished, at the same time, all the privileges and immunities of the Pagan priests, and ordered the altar and statue of the goddess of Victory to be removed from the hall of the senate, the presence of which gave to that assembly, though it already contained many Christian members, the character of a Pagan institution.
The senate sent a deputation to Gallia, where Gratian was at that time, in order to remonstrate against these measures, and to present to him, at the same time, the insignia of the supreme pontificate of Rome, which none of his Christian predecessors had yet refused. But Gratian rejected these emblems of Paganism, saying that it was not meet for a Christian to accept them. This would have been probably followed by other more decided measures, had he not perished a short time afterwards in a rebellion. Theodosius the Great, whom Gratian had associated with him, adopted a decidedly hostile policy towards Paganism, and proclaimed a series of laws against it. Thus, in 381, he ordered that those Christians who returned to Paganism should forfeit the right of making wills; but as these apostasies continued, he ordered, in 383, that the apostates should not inherit any kind of property, either left by will or descended by natural order of succession, unless it were left by their parents or a brother. In 385 he proclaimed the penalty of death against all those who should inquire into futurity by consulting the entrails of the victims, or try to obtain the same object by execrable and magic consultations, which evidently referred to those secret divinations that had been prohibited by Constantine, as well as his Pagan predecessors. In the course of the year 391, he published a series of edicts, prohibiting under pain of death every immolation, and all other acts of idolatry under that of confiscation of the houses or lands where they had been performed.
Theodosius died in 395, but had his life been prolonged, he would probably have developed still farther his policy against Paganism, which was greatly weakened in the course of his reign. Many Pagan temples, particularly in the Eastern provinces, were destroyed during his reign by the Christians, acting without the orders of the emperor, but not punished by him for these acts of violence. He did not, however, constrain the Pagans to embrace Christianity; and, notwithstanding that he proclaimed several laws against their worship, he employed many of them even in the highest offices of the state. Notwithstanding the severe laws published by Theodosius against idolatry, Rome still contained a great number of pagan temples, and the polytheist party continued to be strong in the senate, as well as in the army, which is evident from the two following facts. When Alaric elected in 409 Attalus emperor of Rome, the new monarch distributed the first dignities of the state to Pagans, and restored the public solemnities of the ancient worship, in order to maintain himself on the throne by the support of the Pagan party; which proves that, though a century had already elapsed since the conversion of Constantine, this party was not yet considered quite insignificant. About the same time, Honorius having proclaimed a law which excluded from the offices of the imperial palace all those who did not profess his religion, was obliged to revoke it, because it gave offence to the Pagan officers of the army. Arcadius, who succeeded Theodosius on the throne of the Eastern empire, proclaimed, immediately after his accession in 398, that he would strictly enforce the laws of his father against Paganism, and he issued in the following year new and more severe ordinances of the same kind. The blow which may be said to have overturned Paganism in the Roman empire did not, however, come from its Christian monarchs, but from the same hand which destroyed its ancient capital, and inflicted upon the Western empire a mortal wound which it did not survive many years.
The Goths, whom the energy and wise policy of Theodosius had maintained in their allegiance to the empire, being offended by Arcadius, revolted, and invaded his dominions under Alaric, in 396. They ravaged the provinces situated between the Adriatic and the Black Seas, and penetrated into Greece, where Paganism, notwithstanding all the enactments of Theodosius, was still prevailing to a very great extent. The principal cities of Greece were devastated by the Goths, who, recently converted to Arianism, and having no taste for arts, destroyed all the temples, statues, and other pagan monuments, with which they met. Athens escaped the fury of the invaders, but the celebrated temple of Eleusis, whose mysteries continued in full vigour in spite of all the laws which had been published against polytheism, was destroyed, whilst its priests either perished or fled. This catastrophe was so much felt by the adherents of the ancient worship in Greece, that many of them are said to have committed suicide from grief. Since the defeat of Cheronea, and the capture of Corinth, the Greek nationality had never experienced a severer blow than the destruction of its temples and of its gods by Alaric, says an eminent German writer of our day. It was, indeed, a mortal blow to a religion which maintained its sway by acting upon the senses and the imagination, as well as upon the feelings of national pride or vanity, because it destroyed all the means by which such feelings were produced. Alaric and his Goths seem to have been destined by Providence to precipitate the fall of Paganism at Rome, as well as in Greece, because the capture and sack of the eternal city by these barbarians, in 410, accelerated the ruin of its ancient worship more than all the laws proclaimed against it by the Christian emperors. The particulars of this terrible catastrophe have been amply described by Gibbon, and I shall only observe, that though Christians had suffered on that occasion as much as Pagans, the worship of the latter was struck at the very root of its existence by the complete ruin of the Roman aristocracy, who, although frequently indifferent about the tenets of the national polytheism, supported it with all their influence as a political institution, which could not be abolished without injuring the most vital interests of their order. The decline of Paganism from that time was very rapid. It is true that we have sufficient historical evidence to show that pagan temples were still to be found at Rome after its sack by the Goths, and that many Pagans were employed, in the Western as well as in the Eastern empires, in some of the most important offices of the state; but their number was fast disappearing, and the exercise of their religion was generally confined to the domestic hearth, to the worship of the Lares and Penates. It seems to have been particularly prevalent amongst the rustic population of the provinces, and it was not entirely extinct in Italy even at the beginning of the sixth century; because the Goth, Theodoric the Great, who reigned over that country from 493 to 526, published an edict forbidding, under pain of death, to sacrifice according to the Pagan rites, as well as other superstitious practices remaining from the ancient polytheism.
I have given this sketch of the state of Paganism after the conversion of Constantine, and of the policy which was followed towards it by the first Christian emperors, because it seems to explain, at least to a certain degree, the manner in which Christianity was rapidly corrupted in the fourth and fifth centuries by the Pagan ideas and practices which I shall endeavour to trace in my next chapter.