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§ 6. Theodosius the Great and his Successors. a.d. 392–550.
J. R. Stuffken: Diss. de Theod. M. in rem. Christ. meritis. Leyden, 1828. M. Fléchier: Histoire de Theodose le Grand. Par. 1860.
The final suppression of heathenism is usually, though not quite justly, ascribed to the emperor Theodosius I., who, on this account, as well as for his victories over the Goths, his wise legislation, and other services to the empire, bears the distinction of the Great, and deserves, for his personal virtues, to be counted among the best emperors of Rome.9494 Gibbon gives a very favorable estimate of his character, and justly charges the heathen Zosimus with gross prejudice against Theodosius. Schlosser and Milman also extol him. A native of Spain, son of a very worthy general of the same name, he was called by Gratian to be co-emperor in the East in a time of great danger from the threatening barbarians (379), and after the death of Valentinian, he rose to the head of the empire (392–395). He labored for the unity, of the state and the supremacy of the Catholic religion. He was a decided adherent of the Nicene orthodoxy, procured it the victory at the second ecumenical council (381), gave it all the privileges of the state religion, and issued a series of rigid laws against all heretics and schismatics. In his treatment of heathenism, for a time he only enforced the existing prohibition of sacrifice for purposes of magic and divination (385), but gradually extended it to the whole sacrificial worship. In the year 391 he prohibited, under heavy fine, the visiting of a heathen temple for a religious purpose; in the following year, even the private performance of libations and other pagan rites. The practice of idolatry was therefore henceforth a political offence, as Constantius had already, though prematurely, declared it to be, and was subjected to the severest penalties.9595 Cod. Theos. xvi. 10, 12.
Yet Theodosius by no means pressed the execution
of these laws in places where the heathen party retained considerable
strength; he did not exclude heathens from public office, and allowed
them at least full liberty of thought and speech. His countryman, the
Christian poet Prudentius, states with approbation, that in the
distribution of the secular offices, he looked not at religion, but at
merit and talent, and raised the heathen Symmachus to the dignity of
consul.9696 Prudent. in Symrnachum (written A-D. 403), l.
i. v. 617 sqq.:
“Denique pro meritis terrestribus aequa rependens
Munera sacricolis summos impertit honores
Dux bonus, et certare sinit cum laud e suorum,
Nec pago implicitos [i.e. paganos, heathen] per debita culmina mundi
Ire viros prohibet: quoniam coelestia nunquam
Terrenis solitum per iter gradientibus obstant.
Ipse magistratum tibi consulis, ipse tribunal
Contulit.” The emperor likewise appointed the heathen rhetorician, Themistius, prefect of Constantinople, and even intrusted him with the education of his son Arcadius. He acknowledged personal friendship toward Libanius, who addressed to him his celebrated plea for the temples in 384 or 390; though it is doubtful whether he actually delivered it in the imperial presence. In short this emperor stood in such favor with the heathens, that after his death he was enrolled by the Senate, according to ancient custom, among the gods.9797 Claudian, who at this period roused pagan poetry from its long sleep and derived his inspiration from the glory of Theodosius and his family, represents his death as an ascension to the gods. De tertio consulatu Honorii, v. 162 sqq.
Theodosius issued no law for the destruction of temples. He only continued Gratian’s policy of confiscating the temple property and withdrawing entirely the public contribution to the support of idolatry. But in many places, especially in the East, the fanaticism of the monks and the Christian populace broke out in a rage for destruction, which Libanius bitterly laments. He calls these iconoclastic monks “men in black clothes, as voracious as elephants, and insatiably thirsty, but concealing their sensuality under an artificial paleness.” The belief of the Christians, that the heathen gods were living beings, demons,9898 Ambrose, Resp. ad Symmachum: “Dii enim gentium daemonia, ut Scriptura docet.” Comp. Ps. xcvi. 5, Septuag.: Πάντες οἱ θεοὶ τῶν ἐθνῶν δαιμόνια. On this principle especially St. Martin of Tours proceeded in his zeal against the idol temples of Gaul. He asserted that the devil himself frequently assumed the visible form of Jupiter and Mercury, of Minerva and Venus, to protect their sinking sanctuaries. See Sulpit. Severna: Vita B. Martini, c. 4 and 6. and dwelt in the temples, was the leading influence here, and overshadowed all artistic and archaeological considerations. In Alexandria, a chief seat of the Neo-Platonic mysticism, there arose, at the instigation of the violent and unspiritual bishop Theophilus,9999 Gibbon styles him, unfortunately not without reason, “a bold, bad man, whose hands were alternately polluted with gold and with blood.” a bloody conflict between heathens and Christians, in which the colossal statue and the magnificent temple of Serapis, next to the temple of Jupiter Capitolinus in Rome the proudest monument of heathen architecture,100100 See an extended description of the Serapeion in Gibbon, and especially in Milman: Hist. of Christianity, &c., book iii. c. 8 (p. 377 sqq. N. York ed.). was destroyed, without verifying the current expectation that upon its destruction the heavens would fall (391). The power of superstition once broken by this decisive blow, the other temples in Egypt soon met a similar fate; though the eloquent ruins of the works of the Pharaohs, the Ptolemies, and the Roman emperors in the valley of the Nile still stand and cast their twilight into the mysterious darkness of antiquity. Marcellus, bishop of Apamea in Syria, accompanied by an armed band of soldiers and gladiators, proceeded with the same zeal against the monuments and vital centres of heathen worship in his diocese, but was burnt alive for it by the enraged heathens, who went unpunished for the murder. In Gaul, St. Martin of Tours, between the years 375 and 400, destroyed a multitude of temples and images, and built churches and cloisters in their stead.
But we also hear important protests from the church against this pious vandalism. Says Chrysostom at Antioch in the beginning of this reign, in his beautiful tract on the martyr Babylas: “Christians are not to destroy error by force and violence, but should work the salvation of men by persuasion, instruction, and love.” In the same spirit says Augustin, though not quite consistently: “Let us first obliterate the idols in the hearts of the heathen, and once they become Christians they will either themselves invite us to the execution of so good a work [the destruction of the idols], or anticipate us in it. Now we must pray for them, and not exasperate them.” Yet he commended the severe laws of the emperors against idolatry.
In the west the work of destruction was not systematically carried on, and the many ruined temples of Greece and Italy at this day prove that even then reason and taste sometimes prevailed over the rude caprice of fanaticism, and that the maxim, It is easier to tear down than to build up, has its exceptions.
With the death of Theodosius the empire again fell into two parts, which were never afterward reunited. The weak sons and successors of this prince, Arcadius in the east (395–408) and Honorius in the west (395–423), and likewise Theodosius II., or the younger (son of Arcadius, 408–450), and Valentinian III. (423–455), repeated and in some cases added to the laws of the previous reign against the heathen. In the year 408, Honorius even issued an edict excluding heathens from civil and military office;101101 Cod. Theodos. xvi. 5, 42: “Eos qui Catholicae sectae sunt inimici, intra palatium militare prohibemus. Nullus nobis sit aliqua ratione conjunctus, qui a nobis fide et religione discordat.” According to the somewhat doubtful but usually admitted testimony of Zosimus, l. v. c. 46, this edict was revoked, in consequence of the threatened resignation of a pagan general, Generid, whom Honorius could not dispense with. But Theodosius issued similar laws in the east from 410 to 439. See Gibbon, Milman, Schröckh, and Neander, l.c. The latter erroneously places the edict of Honorius in the year 416, instead of 408. and in 423 appeared another edict, which questioned the existence of heathens.102102 Theodos. II. in Cod. Theodos. xvi. 10, 22: “Paganos, qui supersunt, quamquam jam nullos esse credamus, promulgatarum legum jamdudum praescripta compescant.” But between 321 and 426 appeared no less than eight laws against apostasy to heathenism; showing that many nominal Christians changed their religion according to circumstances. But in the first place, such laws, in the then critical condition of the empire amidst the confusion of the great migration, especially in the West, could be but imperfectly enforced; and in the next place, the frequent repetition of them itself proves that heathenism still had its votaries. This fact is witnessed also by various heathen writers. Zosimus wrote his “New History,” down to the year 410, under the reign and at the court of the younger Theodosius (appearing in the high office of comes and advocatus fisci, as he styles himself), in bitter prejudice against the Christian emperors. In many places the Christians, in their work of demolishing the idols, were murdered by the infuriated pagans.
Meantime, however, there was cruelty also on the Christian side. One of the last instances of it was the terrible tragedy of Hypatia. This lady, a teacher of the Neo-Platonic philosophy in Alexandria, distinguished for her beauty, her intelligence, her learning, and her virtue, and esteemed both by Christians and by heathens, was seized in the open street by the Christian populace and fanatical monks, perhaps not without the connivance of the violent bishop Cyril, thrust out from her carriage, dragged to the cathedral, completely stripped, barbarously murdered with shells before the altar, and then torn to pieces and burnt, a.d. 415.103103 Socrat. vii. 15 (who considers Cyril guilty); the letters of Synesius, a pupil of Hypatia; and Philostorg. viii. 9. Comp. also Schröckh, vii. 45 sqq. and Wernsdorf: De Hypatia, philosopha Alex. diss. iv. Viteb. 1748. The “Hypatia” of Charles Kingsley is a historical didactic romance, with a polemical aim against the Puseyite overvaluation of patristic Christianity. Socrates, who relates this, adds: “It brought great censure both on Cyril and on the Alexandrian church.”
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