Gloria Romanorum: The Sudden Collapse of Greco-Roman Paganism and Rise of Christianity during the 4th century AD ~ Some Stark Clues Courtesy of Julian the Apostate

In the years following the victory of Constantine the Great over Maxentius at the Battle of the Milvian Bridge outside Rome in AD 312, something unprecedented in human history happened.

Gloria Romanorum: The Sudden Collapse of Greco-Roman Paganism and Rise of Christianity during the 4th century AD ~ Some Stark Clues Courtesy of Julian the Apostate
Fresco of Jesus approaching the tomb of Lazarus, from the Catacombs
of the Via Latina in Rome, 4th century AD.

In the years following the victory of Constantine the Great over Maxentius at the Battle of the Milvian Bridge outside Rome in AD 312, something unprecedented in human history happened. A religion embraced by a small, despised, unwarlike minority cult became the dominant faith of the mighty Roman Empire. How this happened has been the subject of endless scholarly debate ever after. Did the ascendant Christians impose their faith on the multitude of pagans by brute force? Did examples of miraculous events or prophecies play a role? Or did the Christian emperors simply make it so advantageous to become a Christian, as a matter of law, that the vast majority of pagans knuckled under? 

None of these solutions by itself is satisfying. Nor does the combination of all of the above provide a complete answer for why the bulk of the Empire’s population began embracing a religious creed which had been suspected, oppressed, and brutally persecuted for three centuries before. Indeed, the pagan emperors had attempted to make it advantageous to abjure Christianity. They also claimed that the pagan divinities had granted oracles saying that the gods would smile upon the Empire if those who rejected them were extirpated. And finally, pagan emperors used brute force to compel Christians to abjure. But none of these strategies proved effective in crushing Christianity.

So why, then, did Roman paganism collapse in the 4th century AD, and why did so many Roman pagans eventually flock to Christianity? 

Some evidence may be gleaned from the surviving writings of Christian apologists who had been pagan intellectuals such as Aristides of AthensJustin MartyrClement of Alexandria, and others. The common rationale offered by these converts is that the pagan world had become so morally corrupt that they could no longer abide a hypocritical philosophy that praised virtue and glory but practiced the most debased vices and brutally killed poor souls in horrible ways for the most trifling of crimes.

More evidence may be found, ironically, in the works of Julian the Apostate. The reader will recall that Julian was a sign of contradiction in his day – a Christian apostate and revert to Classical paganism who became Roman emperor and attempted to undo forty years of Christian ascendancy within the Empire. Julian himself was an enigma, as we have seen in previous posts. He specifically spared the Christians the harshest forms of persecution, not out of compassion but because he had learned from history that such tactics didn’t work to suppress Christianity. In his own words, he says: 

A gold solidus of Julian as Caesar under
Constantius II (ca. AD 355-360), lacking at
this time his trademark philosopher’s beard.

I affirm by the gods that I do not wish the Galilaeans [that is, Christians] to be either put to death or unjustly beaten, or to suffer any other injury; but nevertheless I do assert absolutely that the god-fearing must be preferred to them. For through the folly of the Galilaeans almost everything has been overturned, whereas through the grace of the gods are we all preserved. Wherefore we ought to honor the gods and the god-fearing, both men and cities. [Julian’s letter to Atarbius, AD 362]

Considering he was a Christian himself (indeed, he was the nephew of Constantine the Great) who reverted to paganism, Julian is able to offer some unique insights into what the average Roman found so attractive in Christianity, and why paganism seemed so moribund by comparison. In his letter to Arascius, pagan high-priest of Galatia, written in AD 362, Julian offers advice on how to revive pagan practices, while inadvertently revealing some of the weaknesses inherent in paganism and the contrasting strengths of Christianity:

The Hellenic religion [that is, paganism] does not yet prosper as I desire, and it is the fault of those who profess it; for the worship of the gods is on a splendid and magnificent scale, surpassing every prayer and every hope. May Adrasteia [a pagan goddess] pardon my words, for indeed no one, a little while ago, would have ventured even to pray for a change of such a sort or so complete within so short a time. Why, then, do we think that this is enough, why do we not observe that it is their benevolence to strangers, their care for the graves of the dead and the pretended holiness of their lives that have done most to increase atheism?

By “atheism”, Julian here is referring to Christianity, whose adherents he collectively scorns as “Galilaeans.” Interestingly, he faults paganism for lacking the virtues that were taught to him as being a key facet of Christian life. He goes on to chide the high-priest, suggesting that his brother pagans should adopt Christian-like piety, honor the gods with the same type of zeal, engage in ascetical practices, and refrain from dishonorable trades: 

I believe that we ought really and truly to practice every one of these virtues. And it is not enough for you alone to practice them, but so must all the priests in Galatia, without exception. Either shame or persuade them into righteousness or else remove them from their priestly office, if they do not, together with their wives, children and servants, attend the worship of the gods but allow their servants or sons or wives to show impiety towards the gods and honor atheism more than piety. In the second place, admonish them that no priest may enter a theater or drink in a tavern or control any craft or trade that is base and not respectable. Honor those who obey you, but those who disobey, expel from office. 

Finally, we see Julian revealing one of the aspects of Christianity that average Romans must have found very compelling—charity to the poor. The Christian zeal for the care of widows, orphans and the impoverished must have contrasted very favorably with standard pagan practices. Here we see Julian enjoining the high-priest to adopt more Christian attitudes, even providing a subsidy from the Imperial fisc: 

In every city establish frequent hostels in order that strangers may profit by our benevolence; I do not mean for our own people only, but for others also who are in need of money. I have but now made a plan by which you may be well provided for this; for I have given directions that 30,000 modii of corn shall be assigned every year for the whole of Galatia, and 60,000 pints 3 of wine. I order that one-fifth of this be used for the poor who serve the priests, and the remainder be distributed by us to strangers and beggars. For it is disgraceful that, when no Jew ever has to beg, and the impious Galilaeans support not only their own poor but ours as well, all men see that our people lack aid from us. Teach those of the Hellenic faith to contribute to public service of this sort, and the Hellenic villages to offer their first fruits to the gods; and accustom those who love the Hellenic religion to these good works by teaching them that this was our practice of old….Let us not, by allowing others to outdo us in good works, disgrace by such remissness, or rather, utterly abandon, the reverence due to the gods.” [The above three quotes are all taken from Julian’s Letter to Arascius, High-Priest of Galatia].

In another work, the satirical essay entitled Misopogon or “Beard-hater”, Julian strikes a similar note. In chastising the pagan citizens of Antioch for their neglect of the sacrifices, Julian compares the public parsimony of the leading pagan men when it comes to the rites of the gods, to the liberality of their wives who shower their goods on the Christian churches for the care of the poor:

Yet every one of you delights to spend money privately on dinners and feasts; and I know very well that many of you squandered very large sums of money on dinners during the May festival. Nevertheless, on your own behalf and on behalf of the city’s welfare not one of the citizens offers a private sacrifice, nor does the city offer a public sacrifice, but only this priest! Yet I think that it would have been more just for him to go home carrying portions from the multitude of beasts offered by you to the god. For the duty assigned by the gods to priests is to do them honor by their nobility of character and by the practice of virtue, and also to perform to them the service that is due;  but it befits the city, I think, to offer both private and public sacrifice. But as it is, every one of you allows his wife to carry everything out of his house to the Galilaeans, and when your wives feed the poor at your expense they inspire a great admiration for godlessness in those who are in need of such bounty – and of such sort are, I think, the great majority of mankind, – while as for yourselves you think that you are doing nothing out of the way when in the first place you are careless of the honors due to the gods, and not one of those in need goes near the temples – for there is nothing there, I think, to feed them with – and yet when any one of you gives a birthday feast he provides a dinner and a breakfast without stint and welcomes his friends to a costly table; when, however, the annual festival arrived no one furnished olive oil for a lamp for the god, or a libation, or a beast for sacrifice, or incense.” [Julian’s Misopogon]

In another fragmentary letter to a pagan priest, Julian again hammers home his point, urging his correspondent very strongly not only to adopt charity as a regular practice, but also offering advice on the appointment of priests. Julian exhorts that only men of the highest character who possess a genuine sympathy for their fellow man be appointed as priests of the gods. This indicates, perhaps, that this was often not the case and that the character of the pagan priests likely compared very unfavorably to the priests of the “miserable Galilaeans.” Note also that Julian shows himself to be something of a pagan moralist, calling out the damage that filthy pantomime performances had done to Roman society — to the point that he would have them banned if he could:

No priest must anywhere be present at the licentious theatrical shows of the present day, nor introduce one into his own house; for that is altogether unfitting. Indeed if it were possible to banish such shows absolutely from the theaters so as to restore to Dionysus those theatres pure as of old, I should certainly have endeavored with all my heart to bring this about; but as it is, since I thought that this is impossible, and that even if it should prove to be possible it would not on other accounts be expedient, I forebore entirely from this ambition. But I do demand that priests should withdraw themselves from the licentiousness of the theaters and leave them to the crowd. Therefore let no priest enter a theater or have an actor or a chariot-driver for his friend; and let no dancer or mime even approach his door. And as for the sacred games, I permit anyone who will to attend those only in which women are forbidden not only to compete but even to be spectators. With regard to the hunting shows with dogs which are performed in the cities inside the theaters, need I say that not only priests but even the sons of priests must keep away from them?

… I say that the most upright men in every city, by preference those who show most love for the gods, and next those who show most love for their fellow men, must be appointed, whether they be poor or rich. And in this matter let there be no distinction whatever whether they are unknown or well known. For the man who by reason of his gentleness has not won notice ought not to be barred by reason of his want of fame. Even though he be poor and a man of the people, if he possess within himself these two things, love for God and love for his fellow men, let him be appointed priest. And a proof of his love for God is his inducing his own people to show reverence to the gods; a proof of his love for his fellows is his sharing cheerfully, even from a small store, with those in need, and his giving willingly thereof, and trying to do good to as many men as he is able.

We must pay especial attention to this point, and by this means effect a cure. For when it came about that the poor were neglected and overlooked by the priests, then I think the impious Galilaeans observed this fact and devoted themselves to philanthropy. And they have gained ascendancy in the worst of their deeds through the credit they win for such practices. [Fragment of Julian’s letter to a priest]

In sum, we see in these passages Julian’s attempt to transplant living Christian practices into the expiring corpse of paganism in a futile effort at revivification. We should be thankful that Julian’s unique contributions to our understanding of the movement of the mid-4th century Zeitgeist have been preserved in such a remarkable way, largely through the offices of a few Church Fathers who included his writings within their own. Hermias Sozomen, for example, recorded Julian’s Letter to Arascius above in his 5th century Ecclesiastical History, saying further: 

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On reflecting that one main support of the Christian religion was the life and behavior of its professors, he [Julian] determined to introduce into the pagan temples the order and discipline of Christianity, to institute various orders and degrees of ministry, to appoint teachers and readers to give instruction in pagan doctrines and exhortations, and to command that prayers should be offered on certain days at stated hours. He moreover resolved to found monasteries for the accommodation of men and women who desired to live in philosophical retirement, as likewise hospitals for the relief of strangers and of the poor and for other philanthropical purposes. He wished to introduce among the pagans the Christian system of penance for voluntary and involuntary transgressions; but the point of ecclesiastical discipline which he chiefly admired, and desired to establish among the pagans, was the custom among the bishops to give letters of recommendation to those who traveled to foreign lands, wherein they commended them to the hospitality and kindness of other bishops, in all places, and under all contingencies. In this way did Julian strive to ingraft the customs of Christianity upon paganism. [Sozomen, Ecclesiastical History, Book V, Chapter 16].

Much more could be written on this topic, but this post has already become more verbose than I had intended.

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