Persecution of pagans in the late Roman Empire began during the reign of Constantine the Great (306–337) in the military colony of Aelia Capitolina (Jerusalem), when he destroyed a temple for the purpose of constructing a church. Christian historians alleged that Hadrian (2nd century) had constructed a temple of Aphrodite on the site of the crucifixion on Golgotha hill in order to suppress Jewish-Christian veneration there. Constantine used that to justify the temple's destruction, saying he was simply reclaiming the property.:30 Constantine and those who followed him instituted many anti-pagan laws. For example, in 341, Constantine's son Constantius II enacted legislation forbidding pagan sacrifices in Roman Italy. In 356, he issued two more laws forbidding sacrifice and the worship of images, making them capital crimes, as well as ordering the closing of all temples.:87,93 In 357, Constantius visited Rome, and in preparation for his visit, so he would not be faced with being expected to offer a sacrifice on the Altar by his pagan senators, Constantius ordered the Altar of Victory to be removed from the Senate. The statue of victory was allowed to remain.:92,101
Even so, it can be reasonably claimed that from 312 until 375, paganism was relatively tolerated. This period of toleration ended under the reigns of three emperors, Gratian, Valentinian II and Theodosius I when anti-paganism policies were reinstituted and penalties increased.:100 There is consensus that these laws affected paganism, but there is debate over how much, and when, and at what locations. Scholars fall into two categories: the long established traditional catastrophists who see the rapid demise of paganism due to the intolerance of Christianity, and those contemporary scholars who see, instead, a long decline of paganism and less real conflict with Christians. Modern sociology indicates extra care must be taken when applying the modern definitions of persecution and toleration to the Antique age.
Historical setting of the period of Antiquity
Antiquity remains a hotly debated period.:xxvii Periodization is still being debated and is yet to be firmly defined, but late antiquity is generally thought of as beginning after the end of the Roman empire's Crisis of the Third Century (AD235–284) and extending to about AD600 in the West, and AD800-1000 in the East.:xvi,xvii
Walter Kaegi depicts the world of Late Antiquity as one in which paganism had stagnated as it failed to challenge the emergence of Christianity and failed to adjust successfully to its less favourable position. Archaeologist Richard Bayliss writes that Roman civilization and its many cults were already in decline long before the Christian emperors of Antiquity: some aspects of pagan religion declined, while those aspects of pagan practice which were popular were maintained, often beneath a Christian veneer. According to Bayliss, this is the case for all aspects of society touched by religion, from methods of worship, to the decorative arts, to architecture.:23 Roger S. Bagnall cautions that “One should not assume that the decline of pagan religion and the rise of Christianity are simply related, like children at opposite ends of a see-saw”.
Contemporary archaeology indicates there is no single narrative of the end of paganism, and that instead, it varied from place to place.:54 In regions away from the imperial court, the end of paganism was, for the most part, both gradual and untraumatic.:156,221:5,41 The Oxford Handbook of Late Antiquity says that "Torture and murder were not the inevitable result of the rise of Christianity".:861 Instead, there was fluidity in the boundaries between the communities and "coexistence with a competitive spirit".:7 Historian Peter Brown says that "In most areas, polytheists were not molested, and, apart from a few ugly incidents of local violence, Jewish communities also enjoyed a century of stable, even privileged, existence".:643 Pagans were not wiped out or fully converted by the fifth century as Christian sources claim. Those pagans who remained were the hard-core traditionalists who proved difficult to convert through ordinary means, and they existed in sufficient numbers to preserve a broad spectrum of pagan practices into the 6th century and even beyond in some places.:19
Scholars such as Garth Fowden have written that pagan temples across the entire Mediterranean world were destroyed by determined Christian iconoclasm in the late fourth and early fifth centuries;:49 and in 1939, archeologist Friedrich Wilhelm Deichmann claimed, those pagan temples that were not destroyed, were converted to churches throughout the empire.:xix–xxi However, subsequent scholarship such as that of archaeologists Richard Bayliss and Luke Lavan, has tended to refute aspects of this picture in terms of chronology and intensity.:xxi According to Bayliss' study, 120 pagan temples were converted to churches in the whole empire, out of the thousands of temples that existed, and only a third are dated before the end of the fifth century. Desacralization and destruction were attested to in 43 cases in the written sources, but only 4 were confirmed by archaeological evidence.:xxiv
The combination of lack of funds, earthquakes, and an increasing degree of local apathy meant that most temples were doomed to either dismantlement or eventual conversion to other uses, both secular and Christian, without iconoclasm being involved.:44,118 The temples were exposed to the same forces that were gradually changing the cities themselves.:104 For example, the extended financial impact of the Crisis of the Third Century meant that resources for the restoration of the great temple complexes dried up.:19,22
The Late Antique period was also a time when a series of devastating earthquakes shook the eastern Mediterranean. The city of Ephesus (present-day Turkey) apparently suffered severely from an earthquake, and was never properly repaired, as no funds were available. Earthquakes in the early 4th century appear to have destroyed the Temple of Apollo and other public buildings at Hyle near Paphos on Cyprus. The temple was not rebuilt.:80 Oriens and North Africa appear to have been hit by a series of earthquakes in the 360s, with a particularly devastating and famous quake recorded in 365.
R. P. C. Hanson says the direct conversion of temples into churches didn't begin until the mid fifth century in any but a few isolated incidents.:257 In Rome the first recorded temple conversion was the Pantheon in 609. :65–72 Bayliss explains there was a pragmatism to temple conversion that was part of the milieu of 're-utilization' in late antiquity.:559–560 Many disused or poorly maintained building plots – not just the sites of temples – were being put to new uses at a time when considerable efforts were being made to rejuvenate urban centers and restore defunct urban monuments.
Temple destructions and conversions are attested in some locations, just in very small numbers, but Bayliss says we should probably accept that "old age and gradual dilapidation were the main contributors to the demise of the temples, and that fewer met their fate through invasion, violence or plunder".:118
Michele R. Salzman says there wasn't as much anti-paganism in Antiquity as previously thought, partly because heretics were a higher priority than pagans for most Christians of the fourth and fifth centuries.:861 Ramsay MacMullen also notes that nearly all the violence that occurred in the hundred years after Constantine occurred between Christian sects.:267 Brown concludes that "any attempt to draw a scale of violence in this period must place the violence of Christians toward each other at the top.:647
Religious policies and actions of Constantine I
Although Constantine openly supported Christianity after 324, there are accounts that indicate Constantine remained tolerant of the pagans.:3 His city (Constantinople) still offered room to pagan religions: there were shrines for the Dioscuri and Tyche.:131 According to historian Hans-Ulrich Wiemer, there is good reason to believe the ancestral temples of Helios, Artemis and Aphrodite remained functioning in Constantinople.:523 The Acropolis, with its ancient pagan temples, was left as it was.
Constantine ruled from 306–337, and he never outlawed paganism; in the words of an early edict, he decreed that polytheists could "celebrate the rites of an outmoded illusion," so long as they did not force Christians to join them. His earlier edict, the Edict of Milan, was restated in the Edict of the Provincials. Historian Harold A. Drake points out that this edict called for peace and tolerance: "Let no one disturb another, let each man hold fast to that which his soil wishes…" Constantine never reversed this edict, and Drake contemplates whether Constantine may have been trying to create a society where the two religions were syncretized.:7
Drake goes on to say the evidence indicates Constantine favored those who favored consensus, chose pragmatists over ideologues of any persuasion, and wanted peace and harmony "but also inclusiveness and flexibility".:5 In his article Constantine and Consensus, Drake concludes that Constantine's religious policy was aimed at including the church in a broader policy of civic unity, even though his personal views undoubtedly favored one religion over the other.:9,10
Wiemer says Constantine destroyed sanctuaries, including the prestigious Asclepias at Cilician Aegeae, and pillaged many, but was generally not in favor of suppression of paganism by force.:523 Constantine's main approach to pagans was to use enticement by making the adoption of Christianity beneficial.:243 Constantine would sporadically prohibit public sacrifice and close pagan temples, but he put very little pressure on individual pagans, and there were no pagan martyrs. Lives were lost around the imperial court, but there is no evidence of judicial killings for illegal sacrifices before Tiberius Constantine (574-582).:xxiv
Conversion and baptism
Francis Opoku writes that, "Whilst some are of the opinion that Constantine‟s conversion was genuine, others think that his policies to support Christians were for political expediency".:19 Opoku asks, if he was a sincere Christian, why was he never a properly instructed catechumen? Why was he not baptized until he was on his death bed?:19
On Sunday 8 November 324, Constantine consecrated Byzantium as his new residence, Constantinoupolis — "city of Constantine" — with the local pagan priests, astrologers, and augurs. However, the emperor still went back to Rome to celebrate his Vicennalia: his twenty-year jubilee. Two years after the consecration of Constantinople, Constantine left Rome behind, and on Monday 4 November 328, new rituals were performed to dedicate the city as the new capital of the Roman empire. Among the attendants were the Neoplatonist philosopher Sopater and pontifex maximus Praetextus.:355
A year and a half later, on Monday 11 May 330, at the festival of Saint Mocius, the dedication was celebrated and commemorated with special coins with Sol Invictus on them.:326 In commemoration, Constantine had a statue of the goddess of fortune Tyche built, as well as a column made of prophyry, at the top of which was a golden statue of Apollo with the face of Constantine looking toward the sun. Litehart says "Constantinople was newly founded, but it deliberately evoked the Roman past religiously as well as politically".:120
Even so, Lenski says there can be no real doubt Constantine genuinely converted to Christianity.:112 In his personal views, Constantine denounced paganism as idolatry and superstition in that same document to the provincials where he espoused tolerance.:7 Constantine and his contemporary Christians did not treat paganism as a living religion; it was defined as a superstitio— an 'outmoded illusion.' He ordered the execution of eunuch priests in Egypt because they transgressed his moral norms. Constantine made many derogatory and contemptuous comments relating to the old religion; writing of the "true obstinacy" of the pagans, of their "misguided rites and ceremonial", and of their "temples of lying" contrasted with "the splendours of the home of truth". In a later letter to the King of Persia, Constantine wrote how he shunned the "abominable blood and hateful odors" of pagan sacrifices, and instead worshiped the High God "on bended knee".:61
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. Lenski observes that the myth of Constantine being baptized by Pope Sylvester developed toward the end of the fifth century in a romantic depiction of Sylvester's life which has survived as the Actus beati Sylvestri papae (CPL 2235).:299 Lenski says that this story absolved the medieval church of a major embarrassment: Constantine's baptism by an Arian bishop, Eusebius of Nicomedia, which occurred while on campaign to Persia. Lenski says that Constantine swung through the Holy Land with the intent of being baptized in the Jordan river, but he became deathly ill at Nicomedia where he was swiftly baptized. He died shortly thereafter on May 22, 337 at a suburban villa named Achyron.:81
Ban on sacrifices
Scott Bradbury, professor of classical languages, writes that Constantine's policies toward pagans are "ambiguous and elusive" and that "no aspect has been more controversial than the claim he banned blood sacrifices". Bradbury says the sources on this are contradictory, quoting Eusebius who says he did, and Libanius, a historian contemporary to Constantine, who says he didn't, that it was Constantius II who did so instead.:120  According to historian R. Malcolm Errington, in Book 2 of Eusebius' De vita Constantini, chapter 44, Eusebius explicitly states that Constantine wrote a new law "appointing mainly Christian governors and also a law forbidding any remaining pagan officials from sacrificing in their official capacity". :310
Other significant evidence fails to support Eusebius' claim of an end to sacrifice. Constantine, in his Letter to the Eastern Provincials, never mentions any law against sacrifices. Errington says it is generally seen that the Letter's purpose "is to flatter and praise the Christians, to show the personal commitment of the emperor to their cause, while at the same time preventing a crusade against the unbelieving".:312 Archaeologist Luke Lavan writes that blood sacrifice was already declining in popularity, just as construction of new temples was also declining, but that this seems to have little to do with anti-paganism.:xlvii Drake says Constantine personally abhorred sacrifice and removed the obligation to participate in them from the list of duties for imperial officials, but evidence of an actual sweeping ban on sacrifice is slight, while evidence of its continued practice is great.:6
Legislation against magic and private divination
Maijastina Kahlos, scholar of Roman literature, says religion before Christianity was a decidedly public practice.:200 Therefore, private divination, astrology, and 'Chaldean practices' (formulae, incantations, and imprecations designed to repulse demons and protect the invoker:1,78,265) which became associated with magic in the early imperial period (AD 1-30), carried the threat of banishment and execution even then.:200,fn.32 Lavan explains these same private and secret religious rituals were also associated with treason and secret plots against the emperor.:xxiii Kahlos says Christian emperors inherited this fear of private divination.:200,201
The church had long spoken against anything smelling of magic and its uses. Polymnia Athanassiadi says that, by the mid fourth century, prophecy at the Oracles of Delphi and Didyma had been definitively stamped out. However, Athanassiadi says the church's real targets in Antiquity were home-made oracles for the practice of theurgy: the interpretation of dreams with the intent of influencing human affairs. The church had no prohibitions against the interpretation of dreams, yet, according to Athanassiadi, both Church and State viewed this practice as "the most pernicious aspect of the pagan spirit".:115
Constantine's decree against private divination did not classify divination itself as magic, therefore, even though all the Christian emperors forbade all secret rituals, Constantine allowed the haruspices to practice their rituals in public.:201 He still labeled it "superstitio".:200
Looting, desacralization and destruction of temples
According to the historian Ramsay MacMullen, Constantine wanted to obliterate non-Christians, but lacking the means, he had to be content with robbing their temples.:90,96 On the other hand, Wiemer says that Libanius, the historian who was also Constantine's contemporary, writes in a passage from his In Defense of the Temples, that Constantine looted the Temples in order to get their treasures to build Constantinople, not because of anti-paganism.:522 Wiemer says this reflects a persistent pagan tradition that Constantine did not persecute pagans.:522 Noel Lenski says that Constantinople was "literally crammed with statuary gathered, in Jerome's words, by 'the virtual denuding' of every city in the East".:263
Using the same vocabulary of restoration he had used for the Aelia Capitolina, Constantine acquired sites of Christian significance in the Holy Land for the purpose of constructing churches, destroying the temples in those places. For example, Constantine destroyed the Temple of Aphrodite in Lebanon. Most of these sites had been “polluted” by pagan shrines and needed "desacralization" or "deconsecration" before they could be used (the practice of "cleansing" a sacred site of its previous spiritual influences was not limited to Christians).:39,40 According to the historical writings of Prudentius, the deconsecration of a temple merely required the removal of the cult statue and altar, and it could be reused. However, this was often extended to the removal or even destruction of other statues and icons, votive stelae, and all other internal imagery and decoration.:39,40
Such objects were not always destroyed, some were desacralized or "cleansed" by having crosses chiseled onto them and perhaps a rite performed over them. Some were simply relocated and displayed as works of art. For example, the Parthenon frieze was preserved after the Christian conversion of the temple, although in modified form. At the sacred oak and spring at Mambre, a site venerated and occupied by both Jews and pagans alike, Constantine apparently ordered the burning of the idols, the destruction of the altar, and erection of a church. The archaeology of the site, however, demonstrates that Constantine’s church along with its attendant buildings, only occupied a peripheral sector of the precinct, leaving the rest unhindered.:31
According to historian Gilbert Dagron, there were fewer temples constructed empire-wide, for mostly financial reasons, after the building craze of the 2nd century ended. However, Constantine’s reign did not comprise the end of temple construction. In addition to destroying temples, he both permitted and commissioned temple construction.:374 The dedication of new temples is attested in the historical and archaeological records until the end of the 4th century.:37
Under Constantine, (and for the first decade or so of the reigns of his sons), most of the temples remained open for the official pagan ceremonies and for the more socially acceptable activities of libation and offering of incense. Church restrictions opposing the pillaging of pagan temples by Christians were in place even while the Christians were being persecuted by the pagans. Spanish bishops in AD 305 decreed that anyone who broke idols and was killed while doing so was not formally to be counted as a martyr, as the provocation was too blatant. Despite the polemic of Eusebius claiming Constantine razed all the temples, Constantine’s principal contribution to the downfall of the temples lay quite simply in his neglect of them.:31
Anti-paganism policy of Constantius II
According to the Catholic Encyclopedia, Constantius issued bans on sacrifice which were in keeping with his personal maxim: "Cesset superstitio; sacrificiorum aboleatur insania" (Let superstition cease; let the folly of sacrifices be abolished). He removed the Altar of Victory from the Senate meeting house.:68 Since he allowed the statue of Victory to remain, Thompson says this was to avoid having to personally sacrifice when visiting Rome, something the senators did when entering the Senate.:92,101 This altar had been installed by Augustus in 29 BCE; each Senator had traditionally made a sacrifice upon the altar before entering the Senate house. Soon after the departure of Constantius, the altar was restored, either silently or by the Emperor Julian. Constantius also shut down temples, ended tax relief and subsidies for pagans, and imposed the death penalty on those who consulted soothsayers.:36 Orientalist Alexander Vasiliev says that Constantius carried out a persistent anti-pagan policy, and that sacrifices were prohibited in all localities and cities of the empire on penalty of death and confiscation of property.:67
The relative moderation of Constantius' actions toward paganism is reflected by the fact that it was not until over 20 years after Constantius' death, during the reign of Gratian, that any pagan senators protested their religion's treatment. The emperor never attempted to disband the various Roman priestly colleges or the Vestal Virgins and never acted against the various pagan schools. He remained pontifex maximus until his death.
The temples outside the city remained protected by law. At times, Constantius acted to protect paganism itself.:68 According to author and editor Diana Bowder, the historian Ammianus Marcellinus records in his history Res Gestae, that pagan sacrifices and worship continued taking place openly in Alexandria and Rome. The Roman Calendar of the year 354 cites many pagan festivals as though they were still being openly observed.:63
Legislation against magic and divination
In 357, Constantius II linked divination and magic in a piece of legislation forbidding anyone from consulting a diviner, astrologer, or a soothsayer; then he listed augers and seers, Chaldeans, magicians and 'all the rest' who were to be made to be silent because the people called them malefactors.:201 In the fourth century, Augustine labeled old Roman religion and its divinatory practices as magic and therefore illegal. Thereafter, legislation tended to automatically combine the two.:201
Application of law
Edward Gibbon's well-known editor J. B. Bury dismisses Constantius’ law against sacrifice as one which could only be observed "here and there", asserting that it could never, realistically, have been enforced within a society that still contained the strong pagan element of Late Antiquity, particularly within the imperial machinery itself.:367 Paganism was still popular among the population, as well as the elites at the time, and the emperor's policies were therefore passively resisted by many governors, magistrates, and even bishops, rendering the anti-pagan laws largely impotent when it came to their application.
Anti-pagan actions by ordinary Christians
Some Christians encouraged the emperor to take even more extreme measures in their zeal to stamp out paganism, e.g. in the aftermath of the abolition of sacrifices. Firmicus Maternus, a convert to Christianity, urged: "Paganism, most holy emperors, must be utterly destroyed and blotted out, and disciplined by the severest enactments of your edicts, lest the deadly delusion of the presumption continue to stain the Roman world" and "How fortunate you are that God, whose agents you are, has reserved for you the destruction of idolatry and the ruin of profane temples".
Sozomen contends that Constantius did not, apparently, attempt to stop Christians from destroying and pillaging many ancient temples. However, in the Theodosian Code there is a law for the preservation of the temples that were situated outside of city walls. Constantius also enacted a law that exacted a fine from those who were guilty of vandalizing sites holy to pagans and placed the care of these monuments and tombs under the pagan priests. Successive emperors in the 4th century made legislative attempts to curb violence against pagan shrines, and in a general law issued in 458 by the Eastern emperor Leo and the western emperor Majorian, (457 to 461), the temples and other public works gained protection with strict penalties attached.:42
Restoration from Julian and toleration from Valentinian I/Valens (361–378)
Julian (361–363) attempted to revive paganism during his brief period of rule. The Jewish historian and theologian Jacob Neusner wrote: "It was only after the near catastrophe of Julian's reversion to paganism that the Christian emperors systematically legislated against paganism so as to destroy it". However, under the equally brief reigns of his Christian successors - Jovian, Valens and Valentinian I (363-378) - persecution of pagans remained minimal.
Restoration under Julian (361–363)
Julian, who had been a co-emperor since 355, ruled solely for 18 months from 361 to 363. He was a nephew of Constantine and received Christian training. After childhood, Julian was educated by Hellenists and became attracted to the teachings of neoplatonists and the old religions. He blamed Constantius for the assassination of Julian's father, brother and other family members, which he personally witnessed being killed by the palace guards. As a result, he developed an antipathy to Christianity which only deepened when Constantius executed Julian's only remaining brother in 354. Julian's religious beliefs were syncretic and he was initiated into at least three mystery religions, but his religious open-mindedness did not extend to Christianity.
Upon becoming emperor, Julian attempted to restore the old Roman religion. He also introduced some reforms to that religion. Julian allowed religious freedom and avoided any form of actual compulsion. The Christian Sozomen recorded that Julian neither compelled Christians to offer sacrifice nor allowed the people to commit any act of injustice towards the Christians or to insult them. However, no Christian was allowed to teach or to study the ancient classical authors; "Let them keep to Matthew and Luke". That effectively barred them from a professional career. He did not believe that Christians could honestly teach subjects replete with allusions to Greek deities, whose existence they denied.
Although initially proclaiming religious toleration to all, Bayliss says that within a short period, Julian "emerged as a pagan more puritanical than many of his Christian predecessors". In the later period of his reign, historians such as David Wood assert there was a revival of some persecution against Christians.:32  On the other hand, H. A. Drake says that "In the eighteen brief months that he ruled between 361 and 363, Julian did not persecute [Christians], as a hostile tradition contends. But he did make clear that the partnership between Rome and Christian bishops forged by Constantine and maintained, despite conflicts over goals, by his son Constantius II, was now at an end, replaced by a government that defined its interests and those of Christianity as antithetical.:36 Julian tried to undermine the church by ordering the construction of churches for Christian “heretical” sects and by destroying orthodox churches.
Religious toleration under Jovian, Valentinian and Valens
Bayliss says the position adopted by Valentinian I (321-375) and Valens (364 to 378) was in tune with a society of mixed beliefs since they each granted all cults toleration from the start of their reign. Pagan writers, for example Ammianus Marcellinus, describe the reign of Valentinian as one “distinguished for religious tolerance... He took a neutral position between opposing faiths, and never troubled anyone by ordering him to adopt this or that mode of worship ... [he] left the various cults undisturbed as he found them”. This apparently sympathetic stance is corroborated by the absence of any anti-pagan legislation in the Theodosian Law Codes from this era.:32 Christopher P. Jones says Valentinian permitted divination so long as it wasn't done at night, which he saw as the next step to practicing magic.:26 Valens, who ruled the east, also tolerated paganism, even keeping some of Julian's associates in their trusted positions. He confirmed the rights and privileges of the pagan priests and confirmed the right of pagans to be the exclusive caretakers of their temples.:26
Anti-paganism of Gratian, Valentinian II, and Theodosius I
John Moorhead says that Ambrose, the Bishop of Milan is sometimes referred to as having influenced the anti-paganism policies of the emperors Gratian, Valentinian II and Theodosius I to the degree of achieving dominance of church over state.:3 Alan Cameron observes that this dominating influence is "often spoken of as though documented fact". Indeed, he says, "the assumption is so widespread it would be superfluous to cite authorities".:63 fn.131:100
However, some modern scholarship has revised this view.:13 Cameron says Ambrose was only one among many advisors, and there is no evidence Theodosius favored him. On occasion Theodosius purposefully excluded Ambrose, and at times, got angry when Ambrose asked something from him.:64:192 Neil B. McLynn observes that the documents that reveal the relationship between Ambrose and Theodosius seem less about personal friendship and more like negotiations between the institutions the two men represent: the Roman State and the Italian Church.:292
According to McLynn, the events following the Thessalonian massacre cannot be used to "prove" Ambrose' exceptional or undue influence. The encounter at the church door does not demonstrate Ambrose' dominance over Theodosius because, according to Peter Brown, there was no dramatic encounter at the church door.:111 McLynn states that "the encounter at the church door has long been known as a pious fiction".:291:63,64 Harold A. Drake quotes Daniel Washburn as writing that the image of the mitered prelate braced in the door of the cathedral in Milan blocking Theodosius from entering is a product of the imagination of Theodoret, a historian of the fifth century who wrote of the events of 390 "using his own ideology to fill the gaps in the historical record".:215
Gratian took steps to repress pagan worship; this policy may have been influenced by his chief advisor, Ambrose, the Bishop of Milan. In 382, Gratian was the first to divert public financial subsidies that had previously supported Rome's cults; he was the first to appropriate the income of pagan priests and the Vestal Virgins, the first to confiscate the possessions of the priestly colleges, and the first to refuse the title of Pontifex Maximus. He also ordered the Altar of Victory removed again. The colleges of pagan priests also lost all their privileges and immunities. After Gratian, the emperors Arcadius, Honorius and Theodosius confiscated the entire revenue from taxes collected by the temple custodians through a law that was widely implemented.
In 388 Valentinian II assumed the office of Emperor in the Western Roman Empire. He refused to grant the request from pagans to restore the Altar of Victory to the Senate House. He also refused to overturn the policies of his predecessor by restoring the income of the temple priests and Vestal Virgins. These policies may have been influenced by Ambrose. In the year 391, Valentinian II issued a law that prohibited sacrifices and that forbade anyone from visiting the temples. A later law of Valentinian declared that pagan temples were to be closed; this was viewed as practically outlawing paganism. Urban ritual procession and ceremony, a vital aspect of urban communality and unity, was gradually stripped of support and funding during the 4th century.:35 Rather than being removed outright though, many festivals were secularized and incorporated into a developing Christian calendar, often with little alteration. Some had already severely declined in popularity by the end of 3rd century.:39
Theodosius I (381–395)
The Eastern Roman Emperor Theodosius I (347 - 395) signed a decree, on February 27, 380 in Thessaloniki, with the Western Roman Emperor Valentinian II (371 - 392) present, making Christianity the official religion of the Roman empire and punishing the practice of pagan rituals. According to Brown, Theodosius was a devout Christian anxious to close the temples in the East, and his commissioner, the prefect Maternus Cynegius (384-88), was assisted by monks who proceeded to fall on temples all over Syria, the Euphrates frontier, and Phoenicia.:107 Brown says Libanius wrote "this black robed tribe" were acting outside the law, but Theodosius passively legitimized their violence by listening to them instead of correcting them.:107 However, in 388 at Callinicum, (modern Raqqa in Syria), the bishop along with monks from the area burned a Jewish synagogue to the ground, and Theodosius responded, "The monks commit many atrocities" and ordered them to pay to rebuild it.:108
Between 382 and 384, there was a dispute over the Altar of Victory. According to the Oxford Handbook of Late Antiquity, Symmachus requested the altar that Gratian had removed be restored to the Senate house. Ambrose campaigned against this and prevailed in what is often described as "a turning point in Christianity's 'triumph' over paganism".:776 Theodosius refused to restore the Altar of Victory in the Senate House, while pagans remained outspoken in their demands for toleration.
Between 389-391 Theodosius I had collected and promulgated the "Theodosian decrees," which were effectively, a total ban on paganism. He forbade all forms of sacrifice. No governor was to even approach a temple for the purpose of worship. The eternal fire in the Temple of Vesta in the Roman Forum was extinguished and the Vestal Virgins disbanded. All practices of divination, auspices and witchcrafting were to be punished.
Temple and icon destruction
According to Bayliss, the most destructive conflict between pagans and Christians took place in the diocese of Oriens under the prefecture of Maternus Cynegius, who apparently commissioned temple destruction on a wide scale, even employing the military under his command for this purpose.:67 Christopher Haas says Cynegius oversaw temple closings, the prohibition of sacrifices, and the destruction of temples in Osrhoene, Carrhae, and Beroea, while Marcellus of Apamea took advantage of the situation to destroy the temple of Zeus in his town. Haas says "Pagan reactions to this changed climate are eloquently expressed" by Libanius who wrote that these violent acts were against a host of existing laws.:160–162
Peter Brown says that in 392, inspired by the mood created by Cynegius, Theophilus of Alexandria staged a procession ridiculing statues of pagan gods. It turned into a riot with political complications and the philosopher Hypatia was killed and the unique Serapium was destroyed. When Theodosius was told, Christian histories record that he praised God that "such an error was snuffed out" and was grateful the damage to the great city wasn't worse.:114 The tide of violence against temples continued throughout the 390s.:114 Helen Saradi-Mendelovici says the reign of Theodosius opens the period when the persecution of pagans and their temples was undoubtedly at its peak.:47  Gibbon says Theodosius either authorized or participated in the destruction of temples, holy sites, images and objects of reverence throughout the empire.
However, there are difficulties with this view. Trombley and MacMullen say that details in the historical sources are commonly ambiguous or unclear. For example, Bayliss observes that "Malalas claimed that Theodosius 'razed all the shrines of the Hellenes to the ground' after already stating that Constantine had done the same; he then stated that 'he (Constantine) made many other temples into churches'. He claimed that Theodosius I 'made the temple of Damascus a Christian church,' whereas the archaeological research of the site shows the church was positioned away from the temple, in the corner of the temenos. In another example, according to Procopius, Justinian’s general Narses tore down the temples of Philae. Archaeology has shown quite clearly that what occurred was a very minimalist structural conversion".:246–282:158 :110
The archaeological evidence for Cynegius' type of destructive action against temples around the Mediterranean is limited to a handful of sites. Archaeologist Luke Lavan says that, if one accepts all claims, even the most dubious ones, concerning destruction of pagan shrines and temples in Gaul, that only 2.4% of all the known temples were destroyed there by violence, and that occurred in the late fourth century and later.:xxv In Africa, the city of Cyrene has good evidence of the burning of several temples; Asia Minor has produced one weak possibility; in Greece the only strong candidate may relate to a barbarian raid instead of Christians. Egypt has produced no archaeologically-confirmed temple destructions from this period with the exception of the Serapeum. In Italy there is one; Britain has the most with 2 out of 40 temples.:xxv
Bayliss says that earthquakes caused much of the destruction that occurred to temples, and people determined not to rebuild as society changed. Recycling often contributed to demolition with one building being taken down and another constructed with no anti-pagan desacrilization being involved. Civil conflict and external invasions also destroyed temples and shrines.:xxvi Lavan says: "We must rule out most of the images of destruction created by the Theodosian laws. Archaeology shows the vast majority of temples were not treated this way".:xxx
Classicist Ingomar Hamlet says that, contrary to popular myth, Theodosius did not ban the Olympic games. Sofie Remijsen indicates there are several reasons to conclude the Olympic games continued after Theodosius and came to an end under Theodosius II instead. Two scholia on Lucian connect the end of the games with a fire that burned down the temple of the Olympian Zeus during his reign.:49
According to the Cambridge Ancient History, the Theodosian Law Code is a collection of thematically organized laws dating from the reign of Constantine to the date of their promulgation as a collection in 438. Brown says the language is uniformly vehement and the penalties are harsh and frequently horrifying.:638 The code contains at least sixty-six laws targeted at heretics. Most are found in Book XVI, ‘De Fide Catholica’, which, for the first time, also provides a formal description of moral behavior for Catholic Christians. The laws fall into three general categories: laws to encourage conversion; laws to define and punish the activities of pagans, apostates, heretics and Jews; and laws concerned with the problems of implementing the laws, that is, laws aimed at the conversion of the aristocracy and the administrative system itself. Most importantly, it details the cult activities that the emperor and the Catholic Church considered unsuitable.:10–19 Little is known about the criteria used in the editing process. For example, much of the Thessalonian Decrees are repeated in the Justinianic Code of 565, however, Justinian's code also contained 240 laws from Constantine to Theodosius II that do not appear in the 438 codification and no one knows why.:106
According to Jill Harries and Ian Wood, in their original forms, each of these laws were created by their individual emperors to resolve the issues of a particular region, province or individual city at a particular time. They were not intended as general laws for the entire empire.:5–16 As a result, they presented a series of conflicting opinions: for example, some laws called for the complete destruction of the temples and others for their preservation. Local politics and culture also produced divergent attitudes.:47 Antique historian Philippe Fleury observes that Ammianus Marcellinus says this complexity produced corruption, forgery of rescripts, falsified appeals and costly judicial delays.
Lavan says that Theodosius' anti-paganism laws give a "dramatic view of radical Christian ambition".:xxii Yet, as Cameron observes, what Theodosius might have wished to do as a Christian, and what practical politics prescribed for an emperor recovering from a civil war, were likely very different.:64 In Rome, "religion could be tolerated only as long as it contributed to the stability of the state" which would "brook no rival for the allegiance of its subjects. The state was the highest good in a union of state and religion".:87
The Theodosian Law Code has long been the principal historical source, (along with a virtual mountain of Christian literature and hagiography and a few pagan sources), for the study of Late Antiquity. Gibbon described the Theodosian decrees, in his Memoires, as a work of history rather than jurisprudence. :25 Sirks, on the other hand, points out that the Theodosian Code was a legal document, not an actual historical work. Other scholars, such as Lepelly, Brown and Cameron question the use of the Code for understanding the history of late antique society. Different perspectives on Christianization from archaeological studies have also led scholars to readdress much of what had previously been assumed from law. Saradi-Mendelovici says that Christian hostility toward pagans and their monuments was far from the general phenomenon the law and literature seems to imply.:47
It is a common belief these laws marked a turning point in the decline of paganism in this era. The destruction of the temple of Zeus Marnas at Gaza, the temple of Zeus at Apamea, the murder of the philosopher Hypatia, and the destruction of the Serapeum of Alexandria, all took place at the end of the 4th century or in the very early years of the 5th century. :12 Cameron says that it is unlikely that Theodosius' legislation is the reason for their destruction.:60
However, Theodosius' later decrees are seen by some historians such as MacMullen, as a 'declaration of war' on traditional religious practices,:100 and for anyone caught, it was a death sentence, as well as an automatic confiscation of property, especially for private familial rites within the home. However, it appears that many covertly still chose to do so in defiance of the edicts, despite the risks. Michele Renee Salzman says the law was indeed used as a means of conversion through the "carrot and the stick", but that anti–pagan laws were rarely enforced.:363,375 According to Brown, local authorities were still mostly pagan and were lax in imposing them, and even Christian bishops frequently obstructed their application.:639
"Behind the Code was a world of social fluidity and diversity, of tradition interacting with change and of complexities which could not be encompassed by “general” rules. The contents of the Code provide details from the canvas but are an unreliable guide, in isolation, to the character of the picture as a whole".:95
Anti-paganism after Theodosius I until the collapse of the western empire
Anti-paganism laws were established and continued on after Theodosius I until the fall of Roman empire in the West. Arcadius, Honorius, Theodosius II, Marcian and Leo I the Thracian reiterated the bans on pagan rites and sacrifices, and increased the penalties. The necessity to do so indicates that the old religion still had many followers. In the later part of the 4th century there were clearly a significant number of pagan sympathizers and crypto-pagans still in positions of power in all levels of the administrative system including positions close to the emperor; even by the 6th century, pagans can still be found in prominent positions of office both locally and in the imperial bureaucracy.:37–38 From Theodosius on, public sacrifice definitely ended in Constantinople and Antioch, and in those places that were, as Lavan says, "under the emperor's nose". However, away from the imperial court, those efforts were not effective or enduring until the fifth and sixth centuries.:xxiii
By the early fifth century under Honorius and Theodosius II, there were multiple injunctions against magic and divination. One example was the law of 409 de maleficis et mathematicis against astrologers ordering them to return to Catholicism, and for the books of mathematics that they used for their computations to be "consumed in flames before the eyes of the bishops".:201 A fifth century writer Apponius wrote a condemnation of methods "demons used to ensnare human hearts" including augery, astrology, magical spells, malign magic, mathesis, and all predictions gained from the flights of birds or the scrutiny of entrails.
The prefecture of Illyricum appears to have been an attractive post for pagans and sympathisers in the 5th century, and Aphrodisias is known to have housed a substantial population of pagans in late antiquity, including a famous school of philosophy. In Rome, Christianization was hampered significantly by the elites, many of whom remained stalwartly pagan. The institutional cults continued in Rome and its hinterland, funded from private sources, in a considerably reduced form, but still existent, as long as empire lasted.:228 "We know from discoveries at Aphrodisias that pagans and philosophers were still very much in evidence in the 5th century, and living in some luxury. The discovery of overt pagan statuary and marble altars in a house in the heart of the city of Athens gives a very different impression from that presented by the law codes and literature, of pagans worshipping in secrecy and constant fear of the governor and bishop".:242
After the fall of the Western Empire
Kingdom of Italy
The Kingdom of Italy (under Odoacer) in 480 AD.
|Status||Vassal state of the Eastern Roman Empire|
• 476–493 AD
|Historical era||Late Antiquity and Early Middle Ages|
|ISO 3166 code||IT|
In 476, the last western emperor of Roman descent, Romulus Augustulus, was deposed by Odoacer, who became the first "barbarian" king of Italy. Pagans used the occasion to attempt to revive the old rites. In 484, the Magister militum per Orientem, Illus, revolted against Eastern Emperor Zeno and raised his own candidate, Leontius, to the throne. Illus and Leontius were compelled, however, to flee to a remote Isaurian fortress, where Zeno besieged them for four years. Zeno finally captured them in 488 and promptly had them executed. Following the revolt, Zeno instituted harsh anti-paganism policies. With the failure of the revolt of Leontios, some pagans became disillusioned and became Christian, or pretended to do so, in order to avoid persecution. Emperor Anastasius I, who came to the throne in 491, was the first emperor required to sign a written declaration of orthodoxy before his coronation.
Under Pope Gregory I, the caverns, grottoes, crags and glens that had once been used for the worship of the pagan gods were now appropriated by Christianity: "Let altars be built and relics be placed there" wrote Pope Gregory I, "so that [the pagans] have to change from the worship of the daemones to that of the true God".
The eastern emperor Justinian I, also known as Justinian the Great (527-565), enacted legislation with repeated calls for the cessation of sacrifice well into the 6th century. Judith Herrin writes that Emperor Justinian was a major influence in getting Christian ideals and legal regulations integrated with Roman law. Justinian revised the Theodosian codes, introduced many Christian elements, and "turned the full force of imperial legislation against deviants of all kinds, particularly religious".:213 Herrin says, "This effectively put the word of God on the same level as Roman law, combining an exclusive monotheism with a persecuting authority".:213
Herrin adds that, under Justinian, this new full "supremacy of Christian belief involved considerable destruction".:213 The decree of 528 had already barred pagans from state office when, decades later, Justinian ordered a "persecution of surviving Hellenes, accompanied by the burning of pagan books, pictures and statues" which took place at the Kynêgion.:213 Most pagan literature was on papyrus, and so it perished before being able to be copied onto something more durable. Herrin says it is difficult to assess the degree to which Christians are responsible for the losses of ancient documents in many cases, but in the mid-sixth century, active persecution in Constantinople destroyed many ancient texts.:213
In the Law Codes of Justinian, there is a shift from the generalized legislation characterizing the Theodosian Code to targeted action against individual centres.:248–9 The gradual transition towards more localized action, corresponds with the period when it seems most conversions of temples to churches were undertaken: the late 5th and 6th centuries.:72 Chuvin says that, through the severe legislation of Justinian, the freedom of conscience that had been the major benchmark set by the Edict of Milan was finally abolished.:132–48
"The triumph of Catholic Christianity over Roman paganism, heretical Arianism [and] pagan barbarism," asserts Hillgarth "was certainly due in large part to the support it received, first from the declining Roman state and later from the barbarian monarchies".
Toleration has not always been seen as a virtue.:907,908 Before the modern era, religious intolerance and even persecution were not seen as evils, but were instead, seen as necessary and good for the preservation of identity, for truth, and for all that people believed depended upon those truths.:16 There is some justification for the fear the people in Late Antiquity had that tolerance can contribute to the erosion of identity.
Establishing toleration as a value that is considered good to have, is a complex process that Richard Dees indicates is more a product of context than rationality. Because the development of identity often involves contradiction, ('what we are not' as much as 'what we are'), James L.Gibson indicates that strong social-group identities, such as those produced by nationalism and religion, often produce intolerance.:93:64 The greater the attitudes of group loyalty and solidarity, and the more the benefits to belonging there are perceived to be, the more likely a social identity will become intolerant of challenges. Gibson goes on to say this indicates intolerance is largely a social process and not as much an individual one.:94
Toleration is a modern concept not found in its contemporary form before the Reformation and the Enlightenment periods.:xi,3 Michael Gervers and James Powell have said that toleration as a modern value grew out of humanity's earlier experiences of social conflict and persecution, and that the kind of toleration that is now seen as a virtue, is part of the legacy garnered from this.:xiii,1
This is why Peter Garnsey strongly disagrees with those who describe the attitude of the "plethora of cults" in the Roman empire as "tolerant" or "inclusive". For Garnsey, what Ramsay MacMullen wrote, that in its process of expansion, the Roman Empire was "completely tolerant, in heaven as on earth" (with the notable exceptions of the Jews and Christians, Druids and possibly the followers of Bacchus:92) is a simple "misuse of terminology".:25 The foreign gods were not tolerated, but made subject together with their communities when they were conquered. The Romans "cannot be said to have extended to them the same combination of disapproval and acceptance which is actual toleration".
The Peace of Westphalia in 1648 included the first statement of freedom of religion in modern history.:737 In 2020, nearly all contemporary societies in the world include religious freedom in their constitutions or other national proclamations in support of human rights.:462
In the 20th century, the Roman Catholic Church issued the decree "Dignitatis Humanae" that fully embraced the right of every human person to religious freedom, as part of the Second Vatican Council, on 7 December 1965. On 12 March 2000, Pope John Paul II prayed publicly for forgiveness because "Christians have often denied the Gospel; yielding to a mentality of power, they have violated the rights of ethnic groups and peoples, and shown contempt for their cultures and religious traditions".
Differing scholarly views
According to the Oxford Handbook of Late Antiquity (OHLA), scholars of the Late Roman Empire fall into two categories concerning anti-paganism; they are referred to as holding either the "catastrophic" view or the "long and slow" view of the demise of polytheism.:xx
The classic inception of the catastrophic view comes from the work of Edward Gibbon, The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. Written in the 18th century, historian Lynn White says that Gibbon gave four reasons for the downfall of the Roman empire: "immoderate greatness," wealth and luxury, barbarians, and Christianization, but it was Christianization that Gibbon saw as primary.:26 White says that, by Gibbon's own self-description, Gibbon was a "philosophical historian" who believed in advocating hereditary monarchy, equated civilization with the upper classes, thought the masses of the poor were by nature barbarians, and felt that democracy would be the downfall of civilization. Gibbon believed that the primary virtues of civilization were war and monarchy.:9,19–21,26 He saw Christian teaching as pacifistic and Christians as unwilling to support the virtue of war and join the military; he said Christians were hiding their cowardice and laziness under the cloak of religion. It was this unwillingness to support war that Gibbon claimed was the primary cause of Rome's decline and fall, saying: "the last remains of the military spirit were buried in the cloister".:27 Gibbon disliked religious enthusiasm and zeal and singled out the monks and martyrs for particular denigration as representative of these 'vices.':18
As historian Harold A. Drake puts it, "It is difficult to overestimate the influence of Gibbon's interpretation on subsequent scholarship".:7,8 His views developed into the traditional "catastrophic" view that has been the established hegemony for 200 years. "From Gibbon and Burckhardt to the present day, it has been assumed that the end of paganism was inevitable once confronted by the resolute intolerance of Christianity; that the intervention of the Christian emperors in its suppression were decisive; ... that, once they possessed such formidable power, Christians used it to convert as many non-Christians as possible – by threats and disabilities, if not by the direct use of force".:633,640 :xx
The "long" view was first stated by Peter Brown, whom the Oxford Handbook of Late Antiquity calls the "pioneer" who inspired the study of Late Antiquity as a field in itself, and whose work remains seminal. Brown used anthropological models, rather than political or economic ones, to study the cultural history of the period.:xv He says polytheism experienced a "long slow" demise that lasted into the 600s: "The belief that Late Antiquity witnessed the death of paganism and the triumph of monotheism, as a succession of Christian emperors from Constantine to Theodosius II played out their God-given role of abolishing paganism, is not actual history but is, instead, a "representation" of the history of the age created by "a brilliant generation of Christian writers, polemicists and preachers in the last decade of this period". :633 The Christian church believed that victory over the 'false gods' had begun with Jesus; they marked the conversion of Constantine as the end — the final fulfillment — of this heavenly victory — even though Christians were only about fifteen to eighteen percent of the empire's population at the time of Constantine's conversion.:7:xxxii This narrative imposed a firm closure on what, according to Pierre Chuvin, had in reality been a 'wavering century.':634
According to MacMullan, the Christian record declares pagans were not only defeated, but fully converted, by the end of the fourth century, but he says that this claim was "far from true". Christians, in their triumphant exaggeration and sheer bulk of material, have misrepresented religious history, as other evidence shows that paganism continued.:3–5 MacMullen says that writings declared heretical were burned, and that non-Christian writings of opposition got the same treatment. Anyone trying to copy them was threatened with having their hands cut off.:4 MacMullen says this is why "We may fairly accuse the historical record of having failed us, not just in the familiar way, being simply insufficient, but also through being distorted".:4
The historical sources are filled with episodes of conflict, however, events in Late Antiquity were often dramatized for ideological reasons.:5 Jan N. Bremmer says that "religious violence in Late Antiquity is mostly restricted to violent rhetoric: 'in Antiquity, not all religious violence was that religious, and not all religious violence was that violent'".:9 Brown contends that the Fall of Rome is a highly charged issue that leads many to "tendentious and ill supported polemics".:xxxi Antique Christian accounts proclaim uniform victory. Some current historiography begins with the "infinite superiority" of Roman empire based on an "idealized image" of it, then proceeds to vivid accounts of its unpleasant, ignorant, and violent enemies, (the barbarians and the Christians), which is all intended to frame a "grandiose theory of catastrophe from which there would be no return for half a millennia". :xxxi The problem with this, according to Brown, is that "much of this 'Grand Narrative' is wrong; it is a two dimensional history".:4,xxxii Andreas Bendlin says the thesis of polytheistic tolerance and monotheistic intolerance has long been proven to be incorrect.:6
Archaeologists Luke Lavan and Michael Mulryan point out that the traditional catastrophic view is based largely on literary sources, most of which are Christian, and are known to exaggerate".:xx Christian historians wrote vividly dramatized accounts of pious bishops doing battle with temple demons, and much of the framework for understanding this Age is based on the “tabloid-like” accounts of the destruction of the Serapeum in Alexandria, the murder of Hypatia, and the publication of the Theodosian Law Code.:26,47–54:121–123 Lavan and Mulryan indicate that archaeological evidence of religious conflict exists, but not to the degree or intensity previously thought, putting the traditional catastrophic view of "Christian triumphalism" in doubt.:41 Rita Lizzi Testa, Michele Renee Salzman, and Marianne Sághy quote Alan Cameron as saying the idea of religious conflict as the cause of a swift demise of paganism is pure historiographical construction.:1
Salzman goes on to say: "Although the debate on the death of paganism continues, scholars ...by and large, concur that the once dominant notion of overt pagan-Christian religious conflict cannot fully explain the texts and artifacts or the social, religious, and political realities of Late Antique Rome".:2 Luke Lavan in "The Archaeology of Late Antique "paganism" says, "Straightforward readings of the laws can lead to a grossly distorted image of the period: as thirty years of archaeology has revealed. Within religious history most textual scholars now accept this, although historical accounts often tend to give imperial laws greatest prominence... we have to accept that archaeology may reveal a very different story from the texts... The anti-pagan legislation of the Christian emperors drew on the same polemical rhetoric and modern scholars are now all too aware of the limitations of those laws as historical evidence". :xxi,138 Lavan adds that "most scholars now agree that up to circa AD 400, the majority of the upper classes remained pagan".:fn74,336
Bayliss says the Christian sources have had great influence on perceptions of this period, to the extent that the impression of conflict they create has been assumed on an empire-wide level.:68 However, archaeological evidence indicates the decline of paganism in many places throughout the empire, for example Athens, was relatively non-confrontational.:65 While some historians have focused on the cataclysmic events such as the destruction of the Serapeum at Alexandria, there are in reality, only a handful of documented examples of temples being entirely destroyed through such aggression.:49 According to Bayliss, that means the archaeological evidence might show Christian responsibility for the destruction of temples has been exaggerated.:70 As Peter Brown points out with regard to Libanius’ anger: “we know of many such acts of iconoclasm and arson because well-placed persons still felt free to present these incidents as flagrant departures from a more orderly norm".:49 Scholars, such as Cameron, Brown, Markus, Trombley and MacMullen, have lent considerable weight to the notion that the boundaries between pagan and Christian communities in the 4th century were not as stark as some prior historians claimed and that open conflict was actually something of a rarity.:6–8
Brown and others such as Noel Lenski and Glen Bowersock say that "For all their propaganda, Constantine and his successors did not bring about the end of paganism".:77 It continued. Previously undervalued similarities in language, society, religion, and the arts, as well as current archaeological research, indicate paganism slowly declined for a full two centuries and more in some places, thereby offering an argument for the ongoing vibrancy of Late Antique Roman culture, and its continued unity and uniqueness, long after Constantine.:xv
- Decline of Greco-Roman polytheism
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- History of persecutions by Christians
- Religious persecution in the Roman Empire
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