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From toleration to proscription: Christian Emperors’ attitude toward Paganism in the Fourth Century

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  1. Introduction.
  2. Paganism, a secondary issue under Constantine?
    1. The accuracy of Constantine's conversion to Christianity.
    2. Constantine's religious legislation preserved in the Theodosian Code.
    3. Constantine' religious toleration.
  3. AD 337-78, a continuous and progressive hardening of anti-pagan legislation?
    1. The year 353 a turning point for Pierre Chuvin.
    2. Constantine's religious legislation preserved in the Theodosian Code.
    3. The reign of Julian the Apostate.
    4. Julian's death and the lack of a Christian reaction against paganism.
  4. Toward the Interdict.
  5. Conclusion.

Constantine's conversion to Christianity in 312 at the battle of the Milvian Bridge is highly debated among scholars. There is on the other hand no doubt that the Roman population was widely pagan at that time and did not convert to Christianity overnight on October 28, 312. The fourth century AD was however that of the triumph of Christianity. From an ardently persecuted religion in the first decade of the fourth century, Christianity had clearly become the most powerful and prevalent one in the Empire by the end of the emperor Theodosius I's reign in 395. This paper aims to explain the progressive shift of the Christian emperors' attitude toward paganism throughout the fourth century AD from toleration under Constantine to proscription under Theodosius. To a large extent, our knowledge of Christian emperors' legislation is based on the Theodosian Code, it is therefore essential to be aware of its limits. The Theodosian Code was compiled between AD 429 and 437. It contained only a part of the imperial legislation of the fourth century and moreover the compilers of the Code edited the laws so that only the essential aspects of each were included.

[...] Although a Christian himself, he tried to gain support from the pagan senatorial aristocracy by being very tolerant of pagan practices. On the other hand, he issued bronze coins representing the monogram of Christ with Alpha and Omega to left and right of it (Fig. which was very probably an exhortation addressed to Orthodox Christians to join his cause and fight against the Arian Constantius II. Magnentius's use of Orthodox Christian imagery on coinage was particularly notable because Christian emperors issued very few Christian coins throughout the fourth century. [...]


[...] Social Background of the Struggle between Paganism and Christianity? in The Conflict between Paganism and Christianity in the Fourth Century. Momigliano, Arnaldo (edit.) London: Oxford University Press Markus, R. A. Christianity in the Roman World. London: Thames & Hudson Mattingly, Harold. Christianity in the Roman Empire. New York: Norton Library Cameron (1993) p.56 Although it is called ?Edict of Milan' by Lactantius, it was actually an oral agreement between Constantine and Licinius. It is likely that there was no such an Edict published at Milan but only an imperial letter sent out by Licinius in the east and issued by convention in joint names. [...]


[...] Julian's attempt to restore the supremacy of paganism came to an end with his death in Persia. His successor, the short-lived Emperor Jovian (363-364), was a Christian as well as the next two co-emperors Valentinian I (364-375) and his brother Valens (364-378). Contrary to the defeat of the usurper Magnentius in 353, Julian's death did not bring in a Christian reaction against paganism. Valens and Valentinian limited themselves to cancelling the transfers of property Julian had made to the temples and to prohibiting, on pain of death, night ceremonies.[15] From a letter of 371 from the emperors to the Senate, we know that Valentinian published an edict of toleration at the time of his accession. [...]

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