Jan 23, 2020, 11:54 AM
The first episodes of persecution of paganism in the history of the Roman Empire started late in Constantine’s reign, with his orders for the pillaging and the tearing down of pagan temples. The anti-paganism policy of Constantine the Great evolved from the initial prohibition on the construction of new temples and the toleration of pagan sacrifices, to orders for the looting and the tearing down of the temples by the end of his reign. Earlier in his reign he had prohibited the construction of new temples but tolerated the practice of pagan sacrifices.
According to Church historians writing after his death, Constantine converted to Christianity and was baptised on his deathbed, thus making him the first Christian emperor.
Constantine, though he made his allegiance clear, did not outlaw 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. In a 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”, and in the new capital city he built, Constantine made sure that there were no pagan temples built. Constantine would sporadically prohibit public sacrifice and close pagan temples; very little pressure, however, was put on individual pagans, and there were no pagan martyrs.
When Constantine dedicated Constantinople, two Neoplatonist friends – Sopater and Praetextus – were present. A year and a half later, on Monday 11 May 330, when the festival of Saint Mocius was celebrated, the city was finally dedicated. The goddess Tyche was invited to come and live in the city, and her statue was placed in the hand of the statue of the emperor that was on top of the Column of Constantine, on the Forum with the same name. Although by now Constantine openly supported Christianity, the city still offered room to pagan religions: there were shrines for the Dioscuri and Tyche. The Acropolis, with its ancient pagan temples, was left as it was. As for worshipping the emperor, Constantine’s mausoleum gave him a Christ-like status: his tomb was set amid 12 monuments, each containing relics of one of the Apostles. Constantine had continued to engage in pagan rituals. The emperor still claimed to be a supernatural being, although the outward form of this personality cult had become Christian.
According to some authors, the issuing of the Edict of Milan, showed that Constantine continued the policy of toleration which Galerius had established. He “continued to pay his public honors to the Sun”, until 325, on coins that showed him jointly with Sol Invictus, whereas his later coins showed the Chi-Rho sign. In that year he had the Christian Bishops convene at the First Council of Nicaea, and from then on continued to take an active interest in the affairs of the Church.
Many historians, including MacMullen, have seen the seeds of future persecution by the state in Constantine’s more belligerent utterances regarding the old religion. Other historians[who?] emphasize that de facto paganism “was tolerated in the period from Constantine to Gratian. Emperors were tolerant in deed, if not always in word.”
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.
Constantine became the first Emperor in the Christian era to persecute specific groups of Christians, the Donatists, in order to enforce religious unity.
Legislation against magic and private divination
Constantine legislated against magic and private divination, but this may have been motivated by a fear that others could gain power through those means. Despite enacting such legislation, he also enacted contradictory legislation that called for the consultation of augurs after an amphitheater had been struck by lightning in the year 320. Constantine explicitly allowed public divination as well as public pagan practices to continue. Constantine also issued laws confirming the rights of flamens, priests and duumvirs. In 321, he legislated that the “venerable day of the sun” should be a day of rest for all citizens. This ambiguous wording is capable of being interpreted as referring to the Christian day of rest or to Sol Invictus. However, in the year 323, he issued a decree banning Christians from participating in state sacrifices.
He destroyed the Temple of Aphrodite in Lebanon. He ordered the execution of eunuch priests in Egypt because they transgressed his moral norms. According to the historian Ramsay MacMullen, Constantine desired to obliterate non-Christians but lacking the means he had to be content with robbing their temples towards the end of his reign. He resorted to 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”.