Christianity and the Persecution of Pagan Idolatry in the Roman Empire

One day in March 415, in the Egyptian city of Alexandria, the female philosopher Hypatia was driving on her carriage, when she was suddenly stopped by a mob of enraged Christians. According to the historian Socrates of Constantinople, they dragged her 

to the church called Cæsareum, where they completely stripped her, and then murdered her with tiles. After tearing her body in pieces, they took her mangled limbs to a place called Cinaron, and there burnt them (Socrates of Constantinople: Historia Ecclesiastica, Chapter XV).

Hypatia, by Charles William
Mitchell (source: Wikipedia)

The murder of Hypatia is a turning point in the history of the Roman Empire. It symbolizes the violent and abrupt end of pagan Greco-Roman culture and the irresistible rise of Christianity. The old world declines, and ruins and manuscripts are the only surviving testimony of the glorious past, of a thousand-year-old civilisation.

In modern times, Hypatia’s fate was immortalized by men such as Voltaire and Edward Gibbon, who saw in her a martyr of ancient civilisation and a victim of Christian repression. She represented a strange ideal: a woman, renowned for her beauty as well as for her erudition and her devotion to mathematics and science, an intellectual, who ended up being one of the last defenders of an ancient culture that was under attack from religious fanatics. 

It has often been said that she possessed “the spirit of Plato and the body of Aphrodite“, and in this mix of Greek religion and philosophy, she was perhaps the most symbolic protagonist of the decline of the Greco-Roman world (El- Abbadi / Fathallah / Serageldin [edit.] 2008, p. 129).

This is how the historian Socrates of Constantinople describes her:

There was a woman at Alexandria named Hypatia, daughter of the philosopher Theon, who made such attainments in literature and science, as to far surpass all the philosophers of her own time. Having succeeded to the school of Plato and Plotinus, she explained the principles of philosophy to her auditors, many of whom came from a distance to receive her instructions. On account of the self-possession and ease of manner, which she had acquired in consequence of the cultivation of her mind, she not unfrequently appeared in public in presence of the magistrates. Neither did she feel abashed in coming to an assembly of men. For all men on account of her extraordinary dignity and virtue admired her the more (Socrates: Historia Ecclesiastica, Chapter XV).

But why was she so brutally murdered by a crowd of Christians, who, as Socrates himself acknowledges, acted in a way that was contrary to their own faith?

Hypatia (350, or 370 – 415 AD) was steeped in the Hellenic-Roman civilisation, and she was a supporter of the old political and social system. She was a tragic figure, for she lived in a world that was crumbling in front of her eyes, and she could do little to stop this decline. She did not write works of her own (or at least, none of them are known to us). Her importance lies in the fact that she struggled to keep alive the knowledge that the ancient astronomers, philosophers and mathematicians had accumulated over the previous centuries (El- Abbadi / Fathallah / Serageldin 2008, p. 139). Hers was a lost battle. The Christian community was attacking paganism all the more decisively.

The city of Alexandria, founded by Alexander the Great around 331 BC, had from the the outset enjoyed a special status as one of the main cultural centres of the Greco-Roman world. State-supported institutions contributed to Alexandria’s outstanding role. The most notable example was the Mouseion, a sort of university and research institute of the time, which also included the famous Library of Alexandria, the biggest of its kind in the ancient world (see Trumble 2003, p. 5). 

Alexandria’s outstanding position as a capital of science, philology and philosophy remained intact throughout the 4th century. The intellectual life of Alexandria was well-suited to promote a fruitful engagement between pagans and the increasing number of Christian intellectuals (Watts 2008, p. 168). 

Patriarch Theophilus, with the
gospel in his hand, stands on
the ruins of the Serapeum
(source: Wikipedia)

However, towards the end of the 4th and the beginning of the 5th century AD, as Christians’ power and influence grew, the peaceful coexistence of pagans and Christians experienced a deep crisis (ibid., p. 169). The Christian community and its religious leaders became more and more intransigent and confrontational. During Hypatia’s lifetime, important places and symbols of pagan civilisation, such as the Serapeum (Temple of the Greco-Egyptian God Serapis), the Mouseion, and the Alexandrian Temple, were closed or demolished under pressure from Christians (El- Abbadi / Fathallah / Serageldin 2008, p. 132). Hypatia and her father Theon firmly believed that it was their duty to save the Hellenic tradition and culture from destruction.

Hypatia was a renowned teacher, highly regarded by her disciples, as well as by large parts of the Alexandrian society. But she became the victim of the political and religious turmoil of the time. The late Roman Empire was in a period of transition, from Antiquity to what we usually call the Middle Ages. And the most defining issue of the time was the relationship between Christianity and the state, and between Christianity and the ancient pagan tradition. In Alexandria, there were increasing tensions between the Christians, the Jewish community and the “heathens”, which often resulted in riots. 

These tensions erupted in 412, when Cyril (c. 376 – 444) was elected new patriarch of the city. A struggle between religious and temporal power began, which anticipated the future medieval conflicts between church and monarchy. In fact, the authority of the imperial prefect of Egypt, Orestes, was constantly challenged by the imperious Cyril. Hypatia sided with the prefect, who was the defender of the Roman state order against the growing power of Christian religious circles (see ibid., p. 138). She therefore became a target of Christian hatred. As Socrates writes, because “she had frequent interviews with Orestes, it was calumniously reported among the Christian populace, that it was she who prevented Orestes from being reconciled to the bishop. Some of them therefore, hurried away by a fierce and bigoted zeal, whose ringleader was a reader named Peter” murdered her (Socrates: Historia Ecclesiastica, Chapter XV).

While Socrates condemns those acts of violence, another church historian, John of Nikiu, justified and even praised the use of brute force in dealing with the pagans. John was an Egyptian bishop who lived in the 7th century (he lived long enough to witness the period of the Muslim conquest of Egypt). He believed that Hypatia’s execution was a step towards the forcible eradication not only of paganism but also of Judaism. The following passage from John’s work describes first how the Christians organised a punitive action against the Jews, and then how they killed Hypatia:

[T]he Christians mustered all together and went and marched in wrath to the synagogues of the Jews and took possession of them, and purified them and converted them into churches. And one of them they named after the name of S. George. And as for the Jewish assassins they expelled them from the city, and pillaged all their possessions and drove them forth wholly despoiled, and Orestes the prefect was unable to render them any help. 

And thereafter a multitude of believers in God arose under the guidance of Peter the magistrate—now this Peter was a perfect believer in all respects in Jesus Christ—and they proceeded to seek for the pagan woman [=Hypatia] who had beguiled the people of the city and the prefect through her enchantments [John depicts Hypatia as a witch]. 

And when they learnt the place where she was, they proceeded to her and found her seated on a (lofty) chair; and having made her descend they dragged her along till they brought her to the great church, named Caesarion. Now this was in the days of the fast. 

And they tare off her clothing and dragged her [till they brought her] through the streets of the city till she died. And they carried her to a place named Cinaron, and they burned her body with fire. And all the people surrounded the patriarch Cyril and named him ‘the new Theophilus’; for he had destroyed the last remains of idolatry in the city (John of Nikiu: Chronicle, CHAPTER LXXXIV, 98-103).

The Christians Against Pagan Idolatry

Delos’ Lions. From the point of view of the Christians, these statues were dangerous “idols”.

By the beginning of the 4th century AD, only about 10% or less of the population of the Roman Empire were Christians. They constituted a state within the state, with their church organisation and hierarchies running parallel to the imperial institutions. The relationship between the pagans and the Christians was somewhat ambiguous. On the one hand, the Christians didn’t seem like a violent or subversive group (at least not yet); but on the other hand, they were different from all other subjects of the empire (except perhaps the Jews) because of their religious zeal and their obstinate rejection of pagan customs, rites and traditions. They, in fact, believed that “the Christian God was a higher authority than the emperor and that many fundamental aspects of the traditional pagan society and religion were immoral institutions that should be abolished” (Novak 2001, p. 141).

Now, if we want to understand why some Westerners look down on certain religions or regard them as mere superstition, we need to go back to those first centuries of Christianity. Since the Christians believed that their religion and their god was the only true one, they began a process of delegitimization of paganism. Christians apologists argued that “all worship of Greek or Roman gods was equivalent to demon worship and, hence, magic. Even the highest and most revered deities of the Greek and Roman pantheon were impostors – not divine at all” (Stratton 2013, p. 120). 

We can see an early and fascinating example of this in the works of Justin Martyr (c. 100 – 165 AD). In his First Apology (c.151-155 AD) he not only justified and defended Christianity against accusations by pagans, but he counterattacked, condemning paganism as “idolatry” – a radical, subversive act against a whole civilisation. He addressed his Apology to the then Roman Emperor Antoninus Pius, his sons and the Roman Senate (see Barnard 1997p. 11). Concerning the pagan gods, Justin wrote:

[We Christians] assert that they [the pagan gods] are wicked and impious demons, whose actions will not bear comparison with those even of men desirous of virtue … 

And we confess that we are atheists, so far as gods of this sort are concerned, but not with respect to the most true God, the Father of righteousness and temperance and the other virtues, who is free from all impurity. 

And neither do we honour with many sacrifices and garlands of flowers such deities as men have formed and set in shrines and called gods; since we see that these are soulless and dead, and have not the form of God (for we do not consider that God has such a form as some say that they imitate to His honour), but have the names and forms of those wicked demons which have appeared. 

For why need we tell you who already know, into what forms the craftsmen, carving and cutting, casting and hammering, fashion the materials? And often out of vessels of dishonour, by merely changing the form, and making an image of the requisite shape, they make what they call a god; which we consider not only senseless, but to be even insulting to God, who, having ineffable glory and form, thus gets His name attached to things that are corruptible, and require constant service. 

And that the artificers of these are both intemperate, and, not to enter into particulars, are practised in every vice, you very well know; even their own girls who work along with them they corrupt. What infatuation! that dissolute men should be said to fashion and make gods for your worship, and that you should appoint such men the guardians of the temples where they are enshrined; not recognising that it is unlawful even to think or say that men are the guardians of gods (Justin Martyr: First Apology, Chapters VII, IX).

This fresco found in Pompeii depicts the Greek God Priapos. He was the “protector of livestock, fruit plants, gardens and male genitalia. Priapus is marked by his absurdly oversized, permanent erection, which gave rise to the medical term priapism” (source: Wikipedia). If one looks at this image, one fully grasps the absolute incompatibility between pagan and Christian religiosity.

Another enemy of paganism was Tertullian (c. 160 – c. 225 AD), one of the most important early church fathers. In his work On Idolatry he fiercely and uncompromisingly condemned the worship of any kind of idol. He wrote:

The principal crime of the human race, the highest guilt charged upon the world, the whole procuring cause of judgment, is idolatry. For, although each single fault retains its own proper feature, although it is destined to judgment under its own proper name also, yet it is marked off under the general account of idolatry. Set aside names, examine works, the idolater is likewise a murderer … 

Idol in ancient times there was none. Before the artificers of this monstrosity had bubbled into being, temples stood solitary and shrines empty, just as to the present day in some places traces of the ancient practice remain permanently. Yet idolatry used to be practised, not under that name, but in that function; for even at this day it can be practised outside a temple, and without an idol. 

But when the devil introduced into the world artificers of statues and of images, and of every kind of likenesses, that former rude business of human disaster attained from idols both a name and a development. Thenceforward every art which in any way produces an idol instantly became a fount of idolatry. For it makes no difference whether a moulder cast, or a carver grave, or an embroiderer weave the idol; because neither is it a question of material, whether an idol be formed of gypsum, or of colors, or of stone, or of bronze, or of silver, or of thread. For since even without an idol idolatry is committed, when the idol is there it makes no difference of what kind it be, of what material, or what shape … 

God prohibits an idol as much to be made as to be worshipped. In so far as the making what may be worshipped is the prior act, so far is the prohibition to make (if the worship is unlawful) the prior prohibition. For this cause-the eradicating, namely, of the material of idolatry-the divine law proclaims, “Thou shall make no idol” (Tertullian: On Idolatry, Chapters I-IV).

These are words of utter contempt for the worship of the ancient divinities, and we can feel how much Tertullian loathed and feared the statues and images of gods ( the same ones that we nowadays worship in another way: as works of art and historical artifacts, and we wish the Christians hadn’t destroyed so many of them). 

We should remember Tertullian’s words, because they not only shed light on the Christian view of the world that caused the destruction of all ancient pagan temples of Europe, but they also anticipate the language and approach of other Christians, those who, hundreds of years later, travelled to South America and then to China, and again met with “idolaters”. Indeed, the anti-pagan zeal of the Christians, their desire to annihilate idolatry, and their contempt for the worship of non-Christian deities, was already prefigured in the early Christian assaults against heathens.

When Tertullian was alive, the Christians were but a small and often persecuted minority. But in the 4th century their ascendancy began, and they were growing more numerous and powerful. The turning point for the Christians came when Emperor Constantine, perhaps the greatest emperor of Late Antiquity, embraced the Christian faith and promoted its equal status with other religions. Constantine did not persecute the pagans, but after his death, we observe how the Christians became increasingly radicalised and fanatical.

Saint Ambrose and Emperor Theodosius,
by Anthony van Dyck
(source: Wikipedia).

In the years of the decline of the Western Roman Empire … the tolerance showed by Constantine [towards non-Christians] gradually developed, under his successors, into an intolerance against the pagans. In 391 A.D. Theodosius issued a constitution that made Christianity the state religion” (Fraschetti (edit.) 2001, p. 160). Theodosius’ edict “forbade not only sacrifice but even approaching or wandering through the pagan shrines, and it imposed heavy fines on certain public officials who ignored the law” (Satterlee 2002, pp. 66-67).

Almost one thousand years later, an English clergyman and church historian, George Waddington, would celebrate Theodosius’ act of intolerance as a victory against superstition and ignorance:

[The] consequence of the Edict of Theodosius was a vast diminution in the number of professed Polytheists. This change was most immediately perceptible in the principal cities of the empire, throughout which the superstition for the most part disappeared (Waddington 1833, p. 113).

If we do not understand the early Christian attitude against paganism, we cannot understand why Christians behaved in the same way when they came into contact with other “heathens” outside of Europe. As we have seen, the most fanatical of Christians pushed for a real destruction, annihilation of paganism. The ruins of temples we see nowadays scattered throughout Southern Europe are nothing more than the testimony of the hatred that Christians felt towards what they considered the crime of idolatry.

Of course, over the last three centuries Christianity has lost its monopoly on the souls of Western individuals. Even among Christians, the fundamentalists are just a minority, and most of them accept the principle of the secular state and the plurality of religious beliefs. 

I myself am an atheist. However, I have received a Christian education when I was a child and a boy. Therefore, when I first came to Taiwan and visited a temple, and I saw people worshipping images of gods with the faces of animals and the bodies of humans, figurines of horses and frogs and dogs, and deities such as the God of Love, the God of Medicine, or the Town God, when I saw people going to fortune-tellers, and people taking part in ceremonies against evil spirits, well, I was thrown back centuries ago, I felt the same uneasiness, even perhaps the same horror, which Christians might have felt upon looking at ancient idols. I have struggled against such prejudice, but I just haven’t been able to get rid of that sense of aversion.

The altar of the Town God, with different images of deities. You can see figures with human bodies and faces of animals. Taipei, Xiahai Chenghuang Temple

Christian tradition has taught many Westerners to look at other folk beliefs as forms of superstition, prejudice or ignorance. Since late Antiquity, Christian zealots and Christian kings and emperors created a totalitarian worldview in which there is only one true religion. 

Categories: Uncategorized

2 replies »

  1. Hi Aris! I just wanted to let you know I really enjoyed reading this post! And since I enjoyed reading it, I wanted to let you know rather than just moving on without expressing my appreciation. (I should affirm that I'm in no way anti-Christian.) I hope to read your blog often in the future. Best wishes, Tuccia


  2. Hi Tuccia, thanks a lot for your comment! I am very happy you enjoyed this post, since I put quite a lot of time and effort into writing it. You're welcome to comment and share your views here whenever you want : )


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