History - The 1st Missionary War

The Church take-over of the Roman Empire

This account of how organised Christianity, and the Roman state, systematically destroyed the existing followings of paganism, is reproduced by kind permission of Michael Routery.


The Christian religion has, so often, spread through violence, force and coercion, yet, its advocates, who have written the histories most of us learned in school, portray it, as having been, joyfully embraced by the ancient world, a loving embrace whose only restriction was imposed by the corrupt Roman state like a mean father with an innocent child. In this essay, I present the view of the pagans for a change and without apology. In truth, the Church triumphed by marrying the Empire, in that most fateful of centuries, the Fourth, and for the most part people converted because they were terrorized into doing so or forced to by ferociously repressive new laws. As Christ, is reputed to have said, he came with the sword. In the forced conversion of the inhabitants of the Roman Empire to Christianity, the new religion set itself apart from others, particularly, in its jealousy and extreme intolerance of any other spiritualities. In the ancient world this mania to impose one God, exclusively, was an aberration. Israel had attempted it, but only upon its own ethnic group.

The stage was set, by Christian mobs, led by their bishops, performing as shock troops, rampaging through pagan temples, looting, destroying art works, burning books and often murdering the priests and priestesses and assaulting their humble followers. The third century was a period of worsening economic crisis and social decline for the Mediterranean world, the Imperial government searched for ways to fortify the state structure with drastic laws curtailing people's freedom of movement, profession and eventually religion. The emergence of church dominance can only be understood within this matrix of decay. Taxation became extremely harsh, laws tied people to the professions of their parents, destitute farmers fled the tax men and sought refuge on the vast estates of the extremely rich, laying the pattern for medieval serfdom. The church, which was much more organized than the pagan religions, was seen by the state as a scaffolding upon which the sociopolitical order could be strengthened.

Contrary to the carefully fabricated 'histories' of the church, the hierarchically structured church had many wealthy members. It was not a movement with socially 'progressive' features as many contemporary liberal Christians believe. Christian apologists assert the supposedly compassionate stance of the new religion in contrast to the classical values, particularly in regards to slavery, yet in reality, the church officials supported slavery. A prominent Christian woman, Melania the Younger, was the owner of 24,000 slaves.(1) Christianity actually used the metaphor of the slave's relationship to his/her master as that of the human to God as in a parable of Jesus. Paul exhorted runaway slaves to return to their masters, determined that the church present no signs of rebellion to the established social order. Ambrose and Augustine stated that the institution of slavery was actually good for the slave who, insidiously, was said to receive a reward in heaven for what s/he suffered in this world. Jerome, on the other hand, was critical of household slavery, seeing it as a threat to sexual virtue, a temptation to whet the lust of the owners.

The early church tended to be hostile to all sexuality; even heterosexual relations between husband and wife were generally viewed as an unfortunate but necessary evil in a fallen world. The Church certainly wasn't entirely responsible for this gloomy attitude towards the world and its pleasures, the late pagan philosophers had taken an increasingly pessimistic turn, roots of such thinking can be seen in Platonic thought, where the world of ideas is seen as superior to the world of forms, but the Church, influenced by Gnostic and Manichaean (Persian) duality, wove together the more anti-worldly aspects of Greek and Hebrew thought with its particular salvation myth. While the Greco-Roman world was certainly a patriarchal one, it was a very complex, 'multi-cultural' society where many diverse cultural traditions , some extremely ancient, existed side by side and quite a few of these traditions provided a place for independent women in spiritual roles in temples. Both Roman and Greek women of the imperial period had more freedom than they did in either classical Greece or republican Rome. The Mother Goddesses temples were popular with many women and also gender-variant males; these especially met the wrath and hatred of the emerging church. These goddesses were labeled demons by the 'Church Fathers' and villainy was heaped upon their priestesses and priests.

Many of these spiritual traditions are often referred to as Mystery cults, a term perhaps confusing in terms of modern usage. They were personal religions, as opposed to the rather austere and formalist official cult and offered 'initiations': powerful psychic dramas that often occurred as part of festivals and pilgrimages. They offered experiences that deeply engaged the senses and imagination of the participants. They were not exclusive and often a single individual would undergo initiation from several. Their attitude towards myth was playful, not dogmatic, leaving plenty of room for personal interpretation and creation of meaning, but they often leaned towards ideas of the soul's continuation, mirrored in metaphors of the agricultural round of the death and renewal of plant life, and had emerged at an early date out of seasonal rites reflecting such natural cycles. Essentially, these were not religions in the modern Christian defined sense; there were no boundaries between them, a priestess of one was often a priestess of others, in short, they were part of the overall fabric of pagan spirituality.(2) They did stand in contrast, though, to the state cult which by imperial times had become a rather dry and formalistic affair that left many people cold. Some of the most popular Mysteries included that of the Egyptian goddess Isis, the originally Anatolian (Turkish) goddess, Cybele, of the Greek god, Dionysus, of the Persian solar god, Mithra, and probably the most famous of them all, that of Eleusis, a Greek ritual cycle of the earth and grain goddess Demeter and her daughter Kore (Persephone). It was these personally empowering centers and movements, which attracted people from all social strata, that the Church saw as such a major threat, its foremost competitors, and it seems no accident that their integral placing of women and sexually and gender variant people had something to do with the Church leaders extreme hostility towards them.

Notes to this chapter

1. Grant, A Social History of Greece and Rome, p.110.

2. see Burkert, Ancient Mystery Cults

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One of the great fallacies that the Church has so energetically propagated over the centuries is that of the persecution of the Christians themselves in their early days; a claim that is terribly exaggerated. The Catholic Church has made a small industry out of manufacturing tales and lurid illustrations of dubious saints and martyrs undergoing the most delirious of tortures and degradations. The only persecutions against Christians in general occurred during the third century starting in 250 under the emperors Decius, Valerian and Diocletian.3 At a time of crisis a law was passed requiring all inhabitants of the Empire to sacrifice to the Gods, pour libations and eat of the sacrifice. Many Christians left the church to escape the death penalty, leading to the term lapsi, the lapsed. Some rejoined synagogues. The Christian church was the only religion which required an all or none allegiance at the time. The State was persecuting the Christians for political reasons, because they refused to acknowledge the state cult and thereby asserting that they were outside its laws.

Diocletian continued the attempt to control the growth of the Church and consulted the oracle of Apollo at Didyma about what to do. He probably saw them as a dangerous threat to classical Mediterranean values. Six years later, on Feb. 23, 303, he issued his first decree against the Christians, provoked by the discovery of covert Christians in the innermost circle of his administration, ordering the destruction of churches and burning of bibles. In a decaying empire the hyper-organized church, was quite reasonably, felt to be taking over. In areas under control of Christian officials such as Antioch, influential pagans were executed in revenge. However Diocletian's successors issued edicts of tolerance. In general much of the population resented the Christians who were thought of as an unfriendly and elitist group; in some place mobs turned them in. Its important to remember that the people actually persecuted and certainly those killed were of a very small number.

Within a few years, the climate shifted dramatically and with most fateful consequences for the history of the world, with the rise of Constantine to the Imperial throne. In 306 he proclaimed himself Caesar. At the time he followed the Sun God (Sol Invictus) who had once appeared to him in a vision promising a long reign, but in his campaigns against his rivals he had courted the support of the Christians. Early on, bishops, who were admitted into his court, perceived his potential for the Church and called him the "Lords angel" and stated that his throne was a "picture of Christ's kingship". It seems that the church hierarchy had their designs on him from early on; they would mutually use each other to great effect.

On October 28, 311, Constantine's army with the help of the Christians defeated his rival, Maxentius, and killed him at the Battle of the Milvian Bridge at the city gates of Rome. Constantine claimed that at the outset of the battle that the god of the Christians sent him a sign of favor. Two different historical accounts from the time have survived about this history-shifting event: the Christian historian Lactantius , who personally knew Constantine, an imperial favorite and a tutor to Constantine's eldest son, said the sign was given in a dream the night before the battle, in which the emperor was instructed to place the monogram of Christ on the shields of his soldiers.

A second historian, Eusebius, who, also, had met the emperor and claimed to be relating personal confidences wrote that while journeying to the battle the emperor had seen a glowing cross in the sky with the words 'conquer with this' rendered in Greek. The next night in his dream he was told to use the sign for protection.4 The protection of the Sun god seems to have been combined with that of the Christ, in the memory of the emperor long after he had renounced his devotion to Sol. At any rate, symbolically the historical wheel was turned.... The now half-Christian emperor issued an edict, enacted at Milan, in Feb. 313, in which freedom was allowed for all religious paths, but gave the Christians a privileged place.

It's relevant that from an early date Constantine combines the Christian symbol with his personal image as a conquering general; the cross as a symbol of victory over 'darkness' imposed with imperial fervor. His coins reveal a picture of him in the conqueror's pose and armor next to a cross topped by a globe, while his helmet bears the name of Christ. The emperor stands in for the departed Christ, yet, for many years he used Apollonian imagery as well. A pragmatist, the image of Christ seemed to blur in his mind with that of the Sun god. He was aware that the majority of the inhabitants of the Empire were still pagans and so he smartly incorporated some pagan imagery into his personality cult. He was sophisticated in what would now be called public relations. So he exploited the use of ancient statues when he claimed Byzantium, an ancient Greek city, for his new capital (330) renaming it after himself -- Constantinople. Nevertheless, according to the historian Zosimus, he alienated the citizens of Rome by refusing to do the ancient sacrifices to Jupiter in the Capitol. But Byzantium had a higher concentration of Christians than any other part of the empire; churches already outnumbered temples there, so it was a strategic location for the newly Christian direction the empire was taking.

While Constantine was happy to use certain symbols of paganism to support his rule, he was deeply misogynist and 'transphobic' and suppressed, decidedly, non-patriarchal pagan centers. The state cult was one thing, ritual transvestism was another. And so he attacked the Temple of Aphrodite/Astarte in Aphaca, now Efqa, Lebanon. This Goddess temple was the home of ritual prostitutes, females and androgynous males who served in an ancient practice of bringing worshipers close to the divine through sexual communion. Constantine was determined to destroy this popular temple and had the temple razed to the ground; but was unable to destroy the sanctity of the site in the eyes of the populace. According to his fawning chronicler, Eusebius, in this "hidden snare of souls ... men undeserving of the name forgot the dignity of their sex ... and propitiate the demon [meaning the Goddess Astarte] by their effeminate conduct. "The priests were murdered, in Eusebius' words -- 'the hand of military force was made instrumental in purging the impurities of the place".5 An apologetics for atrocity that would course down the Christian centuries.

In Egypt transgendered priests, who ritually castrated themselves, served in the temples of the Nile (Hapy) and participated in the rites that encouraged the fertilizing flooding of the river. Constantine, expressly forbade their participation, although festivals encouraging the flooding of the river were allowed to continue. Hapy, known as Nilus to Latin speakers was an androgynous god depicted with a beard and women's breasts. The Greeks and Romans associated him with the astrological sign Aquarius and with Ganymede, reinforcing associations with homosexuality. He was served by transgendered priest/esses. Hapy's temples and worship was ordered abolished by the emperor and the priest/esses were slaughtered.6 The attacks on the Goddess Isis and her followers also began at this time. Served by, androgynous males, as well as traditional males and female priestesses, Constantine demanded that these gender-variant males stop their ceremonies. When they refused he ordered them killed. Later he had many of the priestesses murdered as well and temples were looted and desecrated. Here he mirrored a very old Roman patriarchal abhorrence of such customs of 'sex surgery'; amplified by the biases of the new Christian faith, the results were murderous. As so often, the laws were for the subjects not the ruled; in hypocrisy the emperors of the late empire continued to happily employ eunuchs in their palaces and used some of them for sexual purposes, but it was Constantine's son, Constans, who would wage war against homosexuality -- except his own -- making it against the law and a capital offense.7

Following a Christian agenda, Constantine also ordered the destruction of the Temple of Asclepius at Aigeai in Cilicia, now in Turkey. This was an important sanctuary of the Greek healer god, a lover of humanity whom the Christians considered a competitor of their Christ. Apparently the bishop of the city was responsible, probably acting with the emperor's tacit approval. Eusebius, the Christian historian, put Constantine, his hero, in the starring role. The bishop in an architectural performance designed to show the triumph of the church over Paganism stripped the temple of its exterior colonnade and reused it to build his church.

The most important legacy of Constantine was the marriage between the Church and the imperial state. Church clerics were given the status of imperial administrators, they became essentially government bureaucrats and secular and ecclesiastical law became one and the same. 'Ecclesia', the church community, became the body of the state. Under Constantine's successors this unity would become so seamless that paganism or heresy became, thought of, as, a form of treason; thoughts and practices not simply considered spiritually wrong but acts against the state. In an ominous development for the future the Roman imperial inquisitorial process became part of the Church legal process which from its earliest days had demonstrated a tremendous need for purity, marking off the boundaries between the faithful and those contaminated with heresy -- (hairesis, 'to choose', in Greek).8 Constantine took great interest in disciplining the unity of the Church and called for Church councils including the Council of Nicea in 325 which shaped the Christian doctrine of the Trinity and defined the Church against the heretics. He also established the present week, with the worship of Jesus to be performed on the day of the Christ symbolizing sun. Before the 'schismatics' (factions) fought among themselves, often with bloodshed, now the dominant faction had the state apparatus to enforce its will against other non-compliant Christians. By the Middle Ages, the Church had turned Constantine into a mythic figure. The Papacy, in fact, laid claim to its secular rulership and ownership of central Italy upon a document forged in the 8th century called the Donation of Constantine. The forgery, alleged to have been written by the emperor, gave the church vast lands and secular authority over them, lands the Popes would rule until the late 19th century and of which the Vatican City State is the surviving tiny, yet, extremely rich, remnant.9

Much worse was to come after Constantine but a precedence had been set. In an era of a declining economy, the late emperors passed harsher and harsher laws -- and viewed the solid organizational structure of the church as a wonderful support for the political regime. The tenacity and durability of the Christians monotheism, the extremely detailed dogmas, the definitive answers as to what happened after death, the cut and dried qualities, that made it distinct from the pagan traditions, lent itself to a peculiar merging and fusion with the needs of the imperial state. The Christian emperors symbolically stood in for the departed Christ, enacting God's will on earth, they carried much of the role that the popes would later carry alone. The laws of the Emperor were equated with the Word of Christ.10 In terms of structure the Church was like a steel bunker while the Mysteries were like beautiful colored tents, delightful and enchanting, but easily pulled down or torched. In the Mysteries people had to use their imaginations, in the Church they had to submit to rules that made life easy for those who wanted an answer for everything handed to them. It was a time of closing intellectual horizons. People traveled less. Many destitute people became bandits who haunted roads that had once seen the safe passage of people and goods. The church grew hand in hand with tyranny and as life grew more harsh the anti-worldly attitudes of Christ's religion probably came to make more and more sense to people; life was becoming a 'vale of suffering' (that beloved phrase of the Catholic Church and generations of preachers, designed for inducing passivity). An ascetic trend that had been growing for centuries in the Mediterranean world rose, a knife, which the church fathers, honed to a sharp sheen.

Notes to this chapter

3. Persecutions that occurred under some early emperors like Nero, were specifically of a political nature, they refused to acknowledge the government and it came after them for that reason, it was a strictly secular police action.

4. Chuvin, A Chronicle of the Last Pagans, p.25

5. Ibid. p.32

6. ibid.; Conner, Sparks and Sparks, Cassell's Encyclopedia of Queer Myth, Symbol, and Spirit

7. Chuvin, p.33

8. From the beginning the early Christians were obsessed with purity, who was 'in' with God and who was 'out'.

9. Peter de Rosa, Vicars of Christ, p. 41

10. Turcan, Cults of the Roman Empire, calls this development ceasaropapism.

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The Destruction of the Temples

Shortly after 350 the repressive winds quickened into a storm that would bring a frenzy of destruction. Anti-pagan laws were enacted. Sacrifices in the temples11 were prohibited, punishable by the death penalty. The altar of the Goddess Victory was removed from the Senate in Rome, although, the senators, most of whom were pagan, were assured of their continued religious rights ... and the traditional priesthood of the city was left intact. Sorcery and divination was outlawed; soothsayers, diviners, astrologers, augurers and magicians were denied the right to practice. The law stated: "let the curiosity to know the future be silenced for all, forever". This was a shocking blow to a society where people were used to finding hope, guidance and some relief for life's troubles in portents, but now met with the church's dogma that only its God could know anything of the future and only its bible could interpret reality. A new instrument of torture was instituted for the unfortunates arrested under these new laws: the iron comb (probably imported from Persia) which ripped open the sides of its victims. Still the emperor couldn't eliminate Paganism in Rome when so many of the city's officials remained pagan but countless power struggles flared throughout the empire between the local Christians and the pagan populace.

After a decade of violence and destruction there was a brief respite starting in 360 when the visionary and pagan Julian, sometimes known as the Transgressor or to Christians as the Apostate came to the throne. Julian saw the destruction of Mediterranean civilization in the nihilistic forces of Christianity and valiantly attempted to reverse the Church's take-over. He had temples that had been forcibly abandoned repaired and returned to their communities, and the revenues that had been seized returned. Julian wanted no martyrs and didn't persecute the Christians but followed a policy of strengthening the badly assaulted pagan traditions. Unfortunately his life was short and he died in 363 to the rejoicing of the bishops.

In Alexandria, Egypt, a center of late pagan philosophy and a city justly famous for learning and culture (home to the archetypal Library/Museum), the local Christian bishop, George, received from the government a supposedly long unused Mithraeum, a temple of Mithra. He was a god of Iranian derivation, popular with Roman soldiers and his faith was considered a rival to that of the cross. The bishop's followers rushed into the temple to desecrate it, but, in reality, it was very much in use and its users rushed in to defend their sanctuary. The Christians ripped some skulls from the crypt used for initiations, and claimed that the Mithraists were using human sacrifice for divination, certainly a trumped up charge. The Mithraists started rioting in the streets as the Christians tried to make the place into a church and were able to gain the upper hand against their adversaries, managing to kill a few. Despite the power of the bishop the ruination of the temple was stopped. But George continued to misread the feelings and allegiance of the Alexandrian populace: late one afternoon, while passing in front of the Temple of the Good Genius, one of the patron spirits of the city, he proclaimed -- "How much longer will that tomb continue to stand"? The angered citizens, afraid that he would try to destroy this temple as well, rose up in a mob and lynched him. Theoderet, a Catholic himself, said of George: "a shepherd more cruel than a wolf, punished by his own sheep".12 It's likely that some of the Christians rose against him as well also caring about the Good Genius of their city. Many, of course, were not so lucky; for a decade, temples and shrines that had been focal points of communities for centuries, if not millennia, were destroyed or looted.

  In Apamea, Syria, in 386, a bishop, named Marcellus, with political support in high places, carried out the destruction of the great Temple of Zeus (actually a Hellenized Semitic god). The prefect (civil official) arrived with his troops and told the crowd which had gathered in front of the temple to remain calm; soldiers were given orders to start tearing down the building. The people watched afraid of the army but the soldiers were also afraid of tearing down this sacred building and apparently hesitated to act. Then a Christian workman intervened and started to dig a tunnel under the columns in front and then tried to start a fire in the trench but it would not catch. The bishop had gotten tired and had gone home for a nap; someone went to awaken him and he returned with church holy water to sprinkle the trench. Finally the three front columns collapsed taking with them 12 more and then the whole front wall crashed down causing a terrible roar. The city awakened from the drowsiness of a hot summer afternoon and huge stunned crowds gathered in front of the ruined temple, staring in abject silence. The bishop, gloating, with this triumph over the populace, decided he could now destroy all of the other temples in the area but while attempting to destroy a temple in nearby Aulon with his private militia, which was partially composed of gladiators, the crowd was no longer passive in its shock. He was grabbed and thrown into a fire and died. His children demanded revenge but the regional assembly refused them. 13

Later in the decade, the Christians became more and more violent, taking the law into their own hands, harassing peasants suspected of sacrificing and making offerings to the gods, assaulting and robbing them much like the Nazi gangs that assaulted and robbed Jews in thirties Germany and Austria. The bishops, with their monks, formed gangs that traveled the Egyptian countryside ransacking and looting temples and pulling them down.

Around the same time, the Christian leader, Cynegius, demolished a temple-citadel on the Persian border. Scholars believe this was probably the temple of the Semitic Moon-god Sin at the citadel of Carrhae. It was said to contain statues made of iron which were kept in darkness, and presumably melted down by the Christians. Another temple that was attacked in this area was that of the Great Goddess of Syria (Dea Syria) at Hierapolis, a city, on the western bank of the Euphrates. It also was said to have contained an iron statue of bearded Apollo -- (another Hellenized local deity) -- and when the priests carried it inside, it pulled upward, drawn towards a powerful magnet, surely dramatic in a non-mechanical world14. Throughout Syria (and Lebanon) the monks were particularly thuggish, believing they could simply beat Christianity into the peasant populations, and certainly innumerable acts of violence must have occurred against the agricultural population. In Alexandria, by 390, the monks had become so violent, threatening the public order with their harassments on city streets that the government ordered them to depart for the desert.

The emperor Theodosius rose to power at the end of the 380's and became increasingly fanatical as he fell under the influence of the Christian 'father', Ambrose. The monks in the east were ransacking synagogues as well as pagan temples, and had burned an important synagogue and a Gnostic sanctuary on the Euphrates. The emperor ordered the bishop to rebuild the Jewish sanctuary but Ambrose ranted that the earlier emperor Maximus had fallen from public esteem because he had punished the Christian arsonist who had burned a synagogue in Rome.

Notes to this chapter

11. The traditional Greek and Roman religions made offerings to the Deities with animal sacrifice, much like contemporary Santeria, as well as wine and incense.

12. see Chuvin

13. Ibid, p.60

14. ibid, p.62

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The Serapeum of Alexandria

In 389, Theodosius made the pagan holidays into workdays, at least those that had not been appropriated by the Church. In 391, he outlawed blood sacrifice and decreed "no one is to go to the sanctuaries, walk through the temples, or raise his eyes to statues created by the labor of man". Not a law that the Church was to follow itself! In Egypt, Theophilus, the bishop of Alexandria, saw the opportunity to strike out and destroy the remaining temples. First, he obtained legal authority, over an abandoned temple, to turn it into a church. He stripped the pagan statues and art works and displayed them in his new church in a mocking fashion. He was good in the role of agent provocateur; the pagan population rose up in riots, as he may have planned, and he laid low for awhile. The pagan defenders now withdrew into the Serapeum, the most imposing of the city's remaining sanctuaries and proceeded to fortify it.

The Serapeum was by all accounts a building of startling size and striking beauty. Ptolemy lll had had it built in honor of Isis and Serapis, a syncretistic Greek/Egyptian deity who combined aspects of Osiris, Zeus, Pluto and the Egyptian 'Apis' bull. He was associated with both the dead and healing. The temple itself opened onto a courtyard surrounded by a complex of buildings which included housing for the priests, priestesses, and people who came for a retreat. It also housed part of the public collections of the city's fabled Library. People came for something called incubation: they would sleep in the temple with the intent of receiving a dream that would be healing or direct them towards a treatment or resolution of a problem. Sacred banquets were also given in the precincts. The statue of the god seemed even larger than it was because it had outstretched arms with hands that touched the walls of the temple. It was constructed of wood, metals and stones of contrasting colors. The body was painted dark blue, the clothing and sandals were covered with silver and golden grain and fruit spread from his headgear (calathus).15 According to Clement of Alexandria, the sculptor had used fragments of sapphire, hematite, emerald and topaz. There were seats by the statue where people could sit and meditate on the god, a kind and gentle god who set souls free according to, the pagan emperor, Julian the Transgressor. Here Isis became associated with the Greek goddess Demeter.

The situation turned into a siege, the defenders, rallied within, included the philosopher Olympius; troops swept the nearby streets but the complex was well fortified and the pagans who apparently had plenty of food stores, inside, maintained themselves. The stand-off continued, finally the prefect and the military governor of Egypt asked Theodosius to intervene. The emperor pardoned the resistors but declared that the temple must be destroyed (the evil extirpated). The support of the emperor rallied the Christian mobs who were goaded into action by the fanatical tirades of the bishop and in a tide-like frenzy the church mob succeeded in breaking through the barricades and smashing down the doors and swept through the sanctuary breaking, looting and tearing up everything they could get their hands on.

After the Serapeum was taken, the Christians pulled down the outer walls and sunlight fell on the interior, revealing walls covered with hieroglyphs. Sozomen, a Christian propagandist, making out ankhs, Egyptian 'crosses', symbolizing eternal life, declared that they had predicted the triumph of the Christian church. The mob halted before the awe inducing, enormous statue of Serapis, but the bishop urged the mob on and ordered an ax taken to the statue. A soldier got up the courage and hit the jaw with an ax, the statue, which was made from fitted-together pieces, collapsed and rats ran out from hollowed out sections to the glee of the Christians, according to Theodoret in the Ecclesiastical History. They chopped the statue up into little pieces and then, no doubt, its precious decorations carted off to church coffers, set it on fire. A manuscript depicts the bishop trampling on the shrine; finally, the Patriarch directed the torching of the entire sanctuary. This complex of buildings which had been the central symbol of the city was completely razed. according to Eunapius:

Men who had never heard of war boldly attacked stones and walls. They demolished the Serapeum! ... they made war on offerings. Courageously, they gave battle to the statues until they had vanquished and robbed them. Their military tactics consisted of stealing without being seen. As they could not carry away the pavement because of the weight of the stones that could hardly be moved, when they had simultaneously overturned everything in sight, these great and valiant warriors, whose hands though rapacious, were not stained with blood, declared that they had triumphed over the gods. They gloried in their sacrilege and impiety. In these 'sacred places 'monks' were installed, those creatures who resemble men but live like pigs.... In that period anyone who wore a black robe had despotic power! In the abode and in place of the gods, henceforward worship was rendered to the skeletons of a few wretched ex-convicts, slaves who deserved the whip: the 'martyrs'".16

The place was then covered with crosses.

Having such symbolic centrality, to so many of the inhabitants, its destruction would have been extremely dispiriting, psychologically, leaving the people demoralized and bound by despair. According to historian Robert Turcan, in this depressed state, "strong-arm monks and shock-troop Christians" terrorized many of the inhabitants into conversion. The Iseum in Memphis, the old capital of pharaonic Lower Egypt was closed around this time, its statues and sacred objects sent to a temple, at Menouthis, near Alexandria for safekeeping. An old prophecy (attributed to Hermes Trismegistus17) circulated among the broken Egyptians:

A time will come when it will seem that the Egyptians in the piety of their hearts, have honored their gods in vain, with a devoted cult.... The gods on leaving the earth, will return to heaven; they will abandon Egypt.... That holy earth, land of sanctuaries and temples, will be completely covered with coffins and corpses. O Egypt, Egypt nothing will remain of your religion but fables, and later, your children will not even believe them! ... the people abandoned, will all die, and then with neither gods nor men, Egypt will be nothing but a desert. It is to you that I speak, holy river, it is to you I announce the things to come: torrents of blood will swell your waters to their banks ... and there will be more dead than living ; as for those who survive, it is only by their language that they will be recognized as Egyptian: in their manners they will seem to be men of another race."18

Of course, the unfortunate Egyptians would even lose their language.

The Christians were pleased to use this prophetic text as propaganda and Augustine declared the prophecy was "the wild cry of the demons who foresee the punishment that await them".19 But the river god returned as always, in 392, fertilizing the country with his silt in the annual flooding and thereby sowing confusion among the depressed peasants who had expected the river to fail to rise due to the destruction of the Serapeum. The bishop ordered more temples pillaged in both Alexandria and Canopus, the resort city on the coast connected to Alexandria by a canal. Although, followers of Isis and Osiris hung on in both Egypt and Rome, they had been dealt a crippling blow. And Alexandria, itself, was to never recover its prestige, sinking into a sad decline, a city that for seven centuries had been one of the worlds most important intellectual, artistic, scientific and spiritual centers, a place where people from many cultures met and new syncretistic traditions had emerged. A city where Egyptian, Hebrew, Greek and Latin were all spoken and famed for its beauty, it was also associated throughout the Roman world with homoeroticism. With the Serapeum gone, many of the remaining intellectuals left for exile. Olympius had left before the fall of the Serapeum, having lost his nerve. He had claimed that the statues had lost their sacred energy, their dynamis, and he shipped for Italy where he faded from history. Two more of the defenders, Helladus and Ammonius emigrated to Constantinople where they taught literature and covertly served the priesthood of Zeus and Thoth-Hermes. Helladus had heroically killed nine of the zealot attackers, in hand to hand combat, a feat that I doubt many philosophers today would be capable of emulating. A poet, who had been involved in the defense, Palladus, remained although his stipend from the city was canceled. He wrote:

"The defuncts left the lively city
And we who continue to live bring the city to burial".20

Finally, in the figure of Hypatia (370-415), the demise of Alexandria as city of philosophy can be said to meet its conclusion. Hypatia was a brilliant philosopher, mathematician and astronomer and head of the platonic school at the Library/Museum. She was an independent woman who taught and lectured and whose life provides a glimpse of the remarkable women, who were able to make a place for themselves in the public sphere, in the late classical world. But her popularity, as one of the last pagan philosophers and a woman no less, met head on with the wrath of the intensely misogynist Patriarch Cyril who whipped his followers up into a hysterical hatred of Hypatia. In 415, the city was seething with discord, the Patriarch had ordered the expulsion of all Jews from the city and the secular authority, a Roman prefect, had tried to prevent this. In a move cementing Christian political control of the province, Cyril ordered his monks to murder the prefect. On a day shortly after the assassination, Hypatia, while driving through the city in her chariot, was set upon by a mob of Christian fanatics, who dragged her out of the chariot and into a nearby church where with grotesque cruelty they hacked her to pieces, with potsherds and broken glass, and then, triumphally, paraded through the streets with the grisly remains which they finally burned in a bonfire. (According to some accounts in the Library).21 Tolerance had evaporated into the desert air and the city, its famous library decimated, drifted into a fitful sleep. Still a couple of centuries later the Islamic conqueror found enough books (evidently mostly Christian) left to have them burned for fuel for his hot bath. A depressing end, for a Library that at its height is believed to have held a million works, in many languages, and functioned as a research center whose scientists measured with considerable accuracy (within 1%) the circumference of the planet22 and propounded the heliocentric nature of the solar system over 1700 years before Galileo.

Notes to this chapter

15. Turcan, p.78

16. quoted in Turcan p.127

17. Hermes Trismegistus was a wisdom figure of Alexandria, combining the Egyptian god of wisdom and keeper of hieroglyphs Thoth, and Hermes, Greek messenger of the gods.

18. quoted in Chuvin p.68

19. Ibid.

20. quoted in Chuvin p.66

21. see Ellen Brundige

22. The Librarian, Eratosthenes, wrote that "India could be reached sailing west from Spain".

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The Struggle in the West

Political problems were brewing which pushed Theodosius even farther. In the West the weak emperor, Valentinian, tried to get rid of his overly ambitious pagan army commander Arbogast (a Frank) but failed. Then Valentinian committed suicide under Arbogast's orders and a professor of rhetoric named Eugenius was placed on the western throne, a break from a long line of military emperors. Eugenius' prefect in Rome, Virius Nichomachus Flavianus, a patrician from a powerful family led a pagan revival and had the statue of Victory restored to the Senate as well as the refinancing of the ceremonies. Theodosius journeyed to Italy to do battle with the usurpers in a battle heavily symbol-laden: the cross-bearing pennants of the Christians flew against the banners, emblazoned with Hercules, of the pagans. But Theodosius' forces overwhelmed the rebellion and Virius and Arbogast committed suicide. Eugenius was executed. The ancient families of the Rome were now dispirited and felt that the ancient Luck of their ancestors had finally deserted them. Many gave up and converted. 23

Theodosius now abolished the freedom to practice pagan customs:

"No one, under any circumstances, is permitted to sacrifice an innocent victim nor, as a less serious sacrilege, to worship one's lares with fire, ones genius with uncut wine, ones penates with perfume, to light lamps, waft incense, or hang garlands ... offering incense to a divinity, decorating a tree with ribbons, or raising an altar with bunches of torn-up grass."24

Rome had turned against it roots.

Even though private, as well as public, acts had now been forbidden, private conscience was still allowed, as were processions, festivals and festive entertainments: the public revolt would still have been too strong to ban these. The ancient games in the Greek style, which had spread throughout much of the empire and were very popular, lost their funding and disappeared. An enormous cultural shift was being forced. Public and private life was purged of familiar patterns and age-old enjoyments.

At the end of the century the enormous temple of the goddess Tanit (known as Dea Caelestis to the Romans) was ordered shut in Carthage. "How great was the power of the goddess Caelestis" complained Augustine. Two counts (high officials), Jovius and Gaudentius traveled through North Africa carrying out the destruction of temples and the breaking of statues. Tremendous resentments welled up from these losses and the new emperors tried to placate the people, allowing festivals and ordering the halting of temple destruction. But in the following decade Christian mobs continued destroying popular statues such as that of Hercules in a Tunisian city which then erupted with rioting during which sixty of the Christian mob ended up being killed. In 408, at Calama, now in Algeria, pagan dancers attracted a crowd; Christian hecklers gathered but were roughed up while their churches were set on fire.25 A volcanic rage of the pagan majority seemed to burn just beneath the surface from time to time flaring up in public outpourings.

In Carthage, the temple of Tanit, after being closed for several years, was turned into a church for Easter services. Having been condemned, for some years, the approaches were lined with garbage and overgrown with brambles, but the goddess' followers claimed that snakes and especially vipers defended the site. A bishop, named Aurelius, led a column of Christians to the temple intending to consecrate it to the Christian father. The bishop, upon entering, seated himself upon the seat of the Goddess and proclaimed that the building was now a cathedral of Christ. Yet, pagans still frequented the grounds and avenues leading to the site, so in 422 the church authorities had the place completely razed but it wasn't until the Vandal conquest, with its disruptions, that the place lost its sacredness to the population.

Notes to this chapter

23. Chuvin, p.70

24. Ibid. p.71

25. ibid. 73-5

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Cybele and the East

In the Eastern empire the destruction continued; a law in 397 ordered that stones from destroyed temples were to be used in public works projects such as road repair, building of bridges, aqueducts and fortifications, which indicates the magnitude of destruction going on. John Chrysostom led a death squad through Phrygia (Turkey) killing all the third gendered devotees (galli) and other worshipers of the Great Goddess Cybele that they came across; the lynching party was praised by the Patriarch of Constantinople. He thanked Chrysostom for leaving Phrygia "without sons her whom they called the Mother of Gods".26 The Church particularly hated the tradition of Cybele, whose unpatriarchal practices (prominence of women, transgenderism, homosexuality including lesbianism, direct experience of divinity through ecstatic dancing and music and sex) went so against their own, and whose personal brand of spirituality and immense popularity among the poorer classes was felt as a serious competition. Three centuries earlier Augustine, one of the prime shapers of Christianity called Cybele, a 'demon' and a 'monster' and declared that "The Great Mother surpassed all the gods ... not by reason of the greatness of her divine power but in the enormity of her wickedness".27 Cybele, the Great Goddess known as Magna Mater in Rome, had extremely ancient roots in Anatolia but had entered both Greece and Rome at a very early date and was celebrated with ecstatic worship. After Justinian, Valentinian II officially banned her worship, making it illegal for citizens to visit her temples. And in 390 Theodosius issued a law directed at the galli and other gender-variant and homosexually inclined males: "All those who shamefully debase their bodies by submitting them, like women, to the desire of another man, and in giving themselves to strange sexual relations, shall be made to expiate such crimes in the avenging flames, in view of the people".28 It isn't an accident that St. Peters was built on the spot on the Vatican hill where her temple had stood.

  Later as Bishop of Constantinople, John Chrysostom, employed bands of monks to ransack the old sanctuaries of the Phoenician hills. Defending their sacred sites the peasants rose up and massacred or beat up these zealots, while the bishop encouraged the monks to hold on "like pilots in a storm or doctors when fever rises". He funded them, sending supplies of food, clothing and sturdy shoes, and money for hiring laborers to actually pull the buildings down, the christlike hands to remain unblistered, apparently. Contemporary observers described them as 'men in black' who ate like 'elephants'. However the bishop wrote that 'they train to live like angels; neither the men nor the women marry, they barely sleep and eschew all comfort; with the exception of a few, they have even become incorporeal".29

Eleusis fell to a mob of fanatical monks, in 396, bringing to a close, at least a thousand years and probably many more, of Mystery celebrations which had deeply nourished Mediterranean culture. Its loss constituted a violent rupture for western culture. This ritual center near Athens had already been ransacked by Christians in the third century but had been rebuilt. This time it went underground, the area remaining sacred to local peasants.

Gaza, in Palestine, was another city that saw enormous discord during this period. There Bishop Porphyrius contended with a most vexing problem, the city, he considered himself religious leader of, was almost entirely Pagan. At the beginning of his office, 396, he was only able to find 280 followers of Christ. To get to his diocese, upon his arrival to Gaza, he had to travel on a road which the city folk had scattered with brambles, thorns and trash; they also burned stinking smoking substances so as to sting the eyes of the hated bishop. Instead of the welcome, he had expected, of Christians scattering flowers and waving palm fronds, he was advised to enter at night passing along the deserted streets strewn with palm thorns and burning cow dung.30 In a highly ritualistic society this was sure to have terrorized the bishop and his retinue.

After couple of years, he'd gotten his courage up enough to order the shutting of the temples. The most popular was the Marneion dedicated to 'Zeus Marnas' a Hellenized Canaanite Baal; the worshipers ignored the closure and continued to use it secretly. But the bishop hungered for its total destruction, like so many of his kind satisfied only with such spectacular fits of power. The emperor advised against it, knowing how popular it remained and how this prosperous trading city substantially contributed to his coffers through taxes: "Well do I know that your city is full of idols. But it is prompt in paying taxes and contributes much to the treasury. If we were suddenly to terrorize these people, they might flee and we would lose considerable revenues",31 said the emperor. The bishop set himself upon a course of ingratiating himself with the imperial family, spending time in Constantinople, predicting correctly to the pregnant empress that she would give birth to a son, which was something she wanted to hear. This bishop seems to have been a man of much patience, able to well defer his goals. Porphyrius' next strategy was, to be the one to baptize the baby princeling and then with his new-found proximity to the imperial ear he finally obtained permission from the emperor to demolish all eight of Gaza's temples. The order was given for them to be destroyed in May 402 by imperial troops who were made enthusiastic by the promise of pillage. And so the temples were pulled down, the citizens of Gaza were humiliated and the stones of the temple were used for paving.

In city after city the most important sacred centers had been torn down, places that had centered ancient communities, woven peoples and local environments together in mythic stories and communal celebrations; the psychological shock was devastating to the pagan population. The local religions were religions of place, their deities intimately associated with local mountains and rivers or in the East as patrons of their cities; the Church the places of the deities were strategically seized and desecrated these places to destroy their power and finish the take-over often built a church on the site.. However, the temple of Aphrodite, in Constantinople, was turned into a garage for the chariots of the praetorian prefect. Of course, materialistic desires operated and the Church grew wealthy with what it looted from the temples. In Rome, the Christian fanatic, Stilicho scraped the gold from the doors of the temple of Jupiter on the Capitol. His wife Serena removed the beautiful necklace form the neck of the statue of Cybele and departed with it around her own neck. Stilicho is said to have burned the prophetic Sybilline books as well, although Christians would later say that these prophesied the coming of Christ.

Notes to this chapter

26. quoted in Conner p.125

27. ibid.

28. ibid.

29. quoted in Chuvin p.76

30. Chuvin p.77

31. quoted in Chuvin, p.76

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The Sack of Rome

In 410, the culminating event, that shattered the remains of the old pagan ways in the ancient capital, occurred with the capture and pillaging of Rome by the Visigothic chief, Alaric. Many said that the Gods were finally punishing the city for the abandoning of their worship. While Alaric's forces laid siege to the city, the Etruscans, apparently still keeping their old traditions, suggested that the prefect undertake certain conjuring rituals which they said had saved the city of Narni. To work, it was said, that such rites had to be official, paid for by the government and be participated in by the Senate. The prefect was tempted but felt compelled to consult with the pope, who said he would go along with it if they took place in secret, which brought the plans to an end. Perhaps the pope wasn't completely confident in his own God. At any rate Alaric entered the city but died, shortly afterwards, supposedly buried in a temporarily diverted river bed, in Calabria, along with the golden horde he had looted from the city. Afterwards there was a brief relaxation against the anti-pagan laws and the pagan 'colleges' were allowed to return including the dancers of Cybele as well as diviners and fortune-tellers. But by 415 the laws were back in force; and in 416 pagans were forbidden from the military, from the administration and from the judiciary. Over-all, the old culture was shattered and many ancient senatorial families finally converted.32 The western empire was rapidly crumbling, cities were nearly abandoned and in this vacuum, the pope, i.e. the bishop of Rome, was asserting himself, more and more, as a direct political force in Italy.

Around this time a law was passed finally challenging the festivals and the games that were so at the center of Greco-Roman social life. In Rome, the festivals were celebrated with games that included horse and chariot races, theatrical productions and banquets, as well as, the brutal gladiatorial fights. The Games had been instituted in the desire to foster Life, the bounties of nature invoked for both the private individual and the city. Just to give an idea of how important they were in Rome, almost the entire of month of April was dedicated to games, first the Megalensian games to honor Cybele from April 4 through the 10th, then the Ludi Ceriales, in honor of Ceres the grain goddess from April 12 to the 19th, and then the Floralia, dedicated to Flora, the flower goddess, who was a patroness of prostitutes, from April 28 to May 3rd, a time said to be marked with especial 'licentiousness'. In July, there were week-long games dedicated to Apollo and the Sun. The Roman Games were celebrated from September 4th to the 19th and were dedicated to the sky father, Jupiter. In early November, the Plebeian games were celebrated, also, dedicated with a great feast to Jupiter. In December the Saturnalia took place, dedicated to Saturn, a deity, originally, associated with the sowing of winter grain but celebrated with a carnivalesque topsy turvy setting aside of social rules, where slaves were served by their masters and a Lord Of Misrule was elected. It was also a time of gift exchange which would be incorporated into Christmas.

To destroy the festival games, the financing of the temples was banned along with the seizing of their properties and assets, thereby eliminating the ability to finance the festivals. This law gave the bishops the power to stop 'any kind of pagan celebration' and to 'prevent these practices'. In Gaul, Bishop Maurilius of Angers set fire to a forest where the people met to celebrate a week-long 'bacchanalian' festivity.33 The banquets were also banned. Rites retreated into private homes. Excavations in Rome have revealed a house where pagans gathered to celebrate nighttime banquets in honor of Dionysus, Sabazius, Venus, Hecate and other deities. At some point the house had been abandoned after being attacked by Christian vigilantes.34 The Olympic games were also included in the bans for they also had their roots in sacred festivities. The festivals died with difficulty and in several cases the Church was forced to appropriate them and Christianize them where it proved impossible to root them out. In 434, Leontius, a prefect of Constantinople attempted to continue the Olympic games across the Bosporus from the capital, but, he met with furious opposition, in the person of the abbot of a monastery, in the vicinity, by the name of Hypatius. This was the same abbot who lead his monks around the countryside cutting down the holy groves in the rural sanctuaries of Bithynia along the mountainous Black Sea coast. But the fanatic monks couldn't hope to cut down every tree in this deeply forested area where rural people reverenced trees, and even today the area is still called the Sea of Trees and tree honoring continues under a Muslim veneer. An edict in 435 ordered the destruction of any remaining temples; its interesting that significant numbers remained. By the end of the century 'inquisitors' were still finding some.

Notes to this chapter

32. Chuvin

33. Turcan, p.326

34. Ibid.

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The Temple of Isis

The worship of Isis was particularly resistant, she had attracted passionate devotion from Germania to the Sudan.35 In 417, an observer remarked on observing peasants, in the countryside, near Rome, rejoicing during her spring holiday. There was an Iseum, that had survived the destruction of the Serapeum and received the statues from Memphis, situated, at Menouthis near Canopus on the coast, about 15 miles from Alexandria. The canal ride from Alexandria was a favored passage, enjoyed as a combination pleasure ride and spiritual pilgrimage, with many monuments along the way including a famous temple of Aphrodite which had been closed. In 414 the Iseum attracted the attention of the Bishop Cyril, who had it shut down and then turned into a church loaded with Christian relics. But the priestesses and priests had managed to cart away and hide many of the old statues, in a neighboring village, they had set up another semi-clandestine temple in a double-walled house, whose sanctuary was entered through a small window like opening that could easily be closed off and hidden. By paying off the village officials they were able to continue there for decades.

  In 486, a student, named Paralius, who came to study in the area converted to Christ after being disappointed in seeking guidance at the Isis temple and set off a chain of events leading to its destruction. He had gone to the priestess seeking guidance, unhappy with the advice, he turned against her, publicly, proclaiming that she was a prostitute leading orgies. His fellow students turned against him and roughed him up but then he was saved by some Christian students. He pressed charges and went to court where he was received coolly but in the streets Christian agitation erupted into a riot against the pagans. Some of the last scholars fled the area. The Patriarch of Alexandria got involved and called on Paralius to lead a raiding party of monks from a monastery in Canopus This led to the destruction of the sanctuary of Isis at Menouthis (414); the pillaging party was organized by the bishop and formed by Paralius and the monks. Conditions had become hostile enough that the devotees of Isis had walled up their sanctuary and had attempted to disguise it, setting out incense, sweets and a lamp in front on the street like a domestic altar, perhaps hoping the mob would think there was nothing else. The place was full of wooden statues saved from the ancient Iseum in Memphis, the old pharaonic capital of northern Egypt, at its closing (probably in the 390's) after the locals there felt they weren't strong enough to defend the place. The crowds were stalled for a bit and then figured out the ruse and hauled the statues and other sacred art out onto the street. The monks burned some immediately in the street; some were saved for a dramatic public burning the following day; they were guarded in a church building by monks who sang canticles throughout the night to fuel their courage against the 'idols' they were so afraid of.

The sanctuary was razed, the Christian mob that had gathered looted and rampaged ; by the end of the day the monks departed for Alexandria with 20 camels loaded up with statues and other loot plus the priest whom had been arrested. Statues had been taken out of the public baths and private homes in the area, as well, and the monks and zealots jumped around breaking the arms and legs off the statues and thinking themselves clever shouting "their gods do not have surgeons"! The statues of Anubis, Thoth, Bastet and Sobek were all shattered by the zealous crowd. They heaped their insults on these gods who drank and were promiscuous according to the pleasure starved Christists. The priest of Isis was restrained and forced to tell the name and attributes of the gods represented by the statues as they were struck. First they destroyed the images of snakes, which to the Christian mob, were the "one that fooled Eve". Remaining pagan intellectuals were harassed by the police. Some were arrested and whipped.36

Notes to this chapter

35. see Turcan

36. Chuvin pp109-11, Turcan, p.128

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The Repressions of Justinian and Tiberius

Justinian (527-565), one of history's greatest politico-religious murderers, dealt the finishing blows to the old ways in the remaining Eastern empire, amplifying laws against all non-orthodox Christians: heretics, Pagans, Jews, Manichaeans, Samaritans etc. One of his laws stated: "With regard to heretics, and also Hellenes who try to introduce polytheism, as well as Jews and Samaritans, we have resolved not only to restore the regulations of existing laws and to reinforce them with this present law, but also to enforce other measures which will provide those who share our shining faith with greater security, order and honor".37 Later he proclaimed, "one finds persons possessed by the error of the unclean and abominable Hellenes, and performing their practices, and this arouses in God, in his love for mankind, a righteous anger." The statement is striking in how profound the sense of disconnection with his cultural past; Christians now thought of themselves as a new type of people, unrelated to their ancestors. He also commanded, "all those who have not become baptized must come forward, whether they reside in the capital or in the provinces, and go to the very holy churches with their wives, their children, and their households, to be instructed in the true faith of the Christians. And once thus instructed and having sincerely renounced their former error, let them be judged worthy of redemptive baptism. Should they disobey, let them know that they will be reduced to penury, without prejudice, to the appropriate punishments that will be imposed on them."38 If they were landowners their land would be seized, if in the capital they would be banished. Those found actually practicing pagan worship would be executed. Teachers and professors who were accused of being tainted with pagan philosophy were forbidden to teach and lost their pensions. Pagans lost any remaining civil rights and their children were taken from them and baptized. Of heretics, Justinian said "it is more than enough [for them] to be alive."39 An age of complete intolerance now reigned. The laws of 529 hauled in a large catch and led to trials of prominent figures in the capital and to executions plus a few acquittals. There was an attempt on Justinian's life but he had 30,000 to 50,000 people massacred at the Hippodrome (a horse-racing stadium) in retaliation. In 545, intense persecution erupted again with many scholars, doctors and others tortured and their property seized.

Justinian reserved his deepest hatred for worshipers of the "Great Goddesses", gender-variants, and people engaging in homosexuality. People who fell within these groups or practices were to have their property confiscated, were condemned to torture, and then either forced to commit suicide or be burned alive. No cruelty was horrible enough for this fanatical tyrant. Justinian was a believer in the evils of the biblical tale of Sodom and Gomorrah (and had no doubt as to what was being condemned unlike certain current Christian apologists) and declared that men who engaged in homosexuality were responsible for "famines, plagues and earthquakes".40 Men who were convicted were horribly mutilated and tortured and then paraded through the streets of Constantinople on their way to the execution grounds. An enemy of Cybele, he had her remaining temples torn down, the galli and the priestesses murdered and their sacred writings tossed to the flames. And yet somehow her worship survived in the wild mountains, in caves and groves and amid certain rocks and lonely plains; the surviving galli are believed to have hidden out in the rugged Anatolian mountains and pilgrims still risked vicious punishments to have their dreams interpreted at the site of the former Plutonium at Hierapolis in the sixth century. Some scholars believe that the practices of the galli who retreated into the mountains gave rise to the later medieval mystical sufis who also celebrated spiritually by means of whirling 'dervish' dances.41

Another crucial assault by Justinian was on the School of Athens, the Academy, which even at this time, remained well-funded (by former students). Around 531 or 532, the emperor confiscated the Academy's endowment. The philosophers emigrated to Persia, seeking more hospitable climes. Disappointed by the corruption of the Persian court, after a few years they migrated again to the western bank of the Euphrates where a center was set up that lasted well into Moslem times. It was to last till the 11th century but according to the historian Pierre Chuvin, its influence surprisingly didn't vanish under Moslem dominance, but was involved with the spread of ancient philosophy back to Europe at the beginning of the Renaissance.

In Egypt, another temple of Isis, still, remained in use on the island of Philae, even though it had been hemmed in by surrounding churches. Oddly enough, a desert tribe, called the Blemyes, came every year from the Sudan to 'borrow' the statue of Isis: they took her home where she made prophecies for them and then they returned her until the next year. But in 537, the duke Narses, commander of Justinian's troops in Egypt, ordered the temple closed and statues of Isis, Osiris and Min were sent to Constantinople while the priests were imprisoned. The hieroglyph covered walls were plastered over and it was remodeled into a church. Justinian was determined to evangelize and forcibly convert the 'ends of the earth' and even ordered expeditions deep into the Sahara to remote Libyan oases destroying the local places of worship of the Berber tribes (whom his Christian armies allegedly found worshiping Alexander the Great!) and raising churches atop their shrines.

Much closer to the capital, John of Ephesus, Inquisitor, began a campaign of forced conversion in 542. The government appointed him charge d'affaires for pagans, specifically responsible for rooting them out in Asia Minor. He destroyed what he called a "house of idols" and built 24 churches and four monasteries in the Turkish mountains and near the city of Ephesus. The great temple of Artemis/Diana at Ephesus, considered one of the seven wonders of the ancient world had already been burned down by Christians a century and a half earlier (405). In 558 John became bishop of Ephesus, and started a new round of persecutions and pogroms. Holy groves and woods were axed, altars overturned and as usual, statues broken and temples pulled down; converts who helped out were paid with a coin, the expenses divided between the government and the Church.42 70,000 people were forced to convert.

In the Lebanon, particularly in the Bekaa valley with its dense farming population, paganism hung on with great tenacity. The great temple of Baal endured as a sacred site. At Baalbek the Christians had arrogantly built a church right in the courtyard of the gigantic temple of 'Jupiter Heliopolitan', yet, had been unable to stop his worship. Here Syrians had long worshiped a god, Baal with a mermaid-like goddess, Atargatis. After the Roman conquest, a colonia, a Roman town was built and the local Baal blended with Jupiter and acquired solar attributes. The new temple was colossal, a platform reached by sweeping flights of stairs, measured 170 by 30 feet, upon which sat the temple, itself, which had 19 columns on each side and 10 at each end. The worship of Jupiter Heliopolitanus spread throughout the empire, and a temple was built in Rome which was pulled down by Christians in 341. But the church built in the entrance was just a thorn in the god's side; the peasants observed that the river still ran red every rainy season with the ancient Semitic god's blood -- the red silt.


Justinian's successor, Tiberius (580-582), continued the campaign to stamp out surviving pagans and became the terrorist of the Bekaa valley. The Jews and the Samaritans had rebelled and while giving instructions to the general, he was sending south to deal with them, Tiberius ordered him to exterminate the pagans of Heliopolis (Baalbek) on the way down. A reign of terror descended on the fertile valley. Multitudes were arrested, large numbers were crucified, the landscape turned into a nightmarish spectacle of horror; the population was humiliated. The cities, particularly Antioch, were put under the boot. Torture brought forth denunciations of prominent citizens including the governor of the province, Anatolius, who had been planning to attend a secret rite in Edessa. The police surrounded the priest's house; he committed suicide with his razor. The elderly wife and servants were arrested and probably subjected to torture; they revealed more names in their abjection. The governor, realizing what was happening, rode to the bishop's in the pretense of wanting to discuss Christian matters; but the ploy didn't fool the authorities and he was promptly arrested. It was all over for him when a crucifix was discovered in his house which hid an image of Apollo. Trials took place behind closed doors in the capital. Resentment against the government erupted into riots along the main avenues of Constantinople. The rioters threatened the bishop and invaded the courtroom. They found a bail room filled with gold. Eventually Tiberius placated the rioters with games and promises of new hearings. In the meantime he directed his troops to massacre them if riots broke out again; they didn't. He ordered a new round of tortures to turn up scapegoats for the civil unrest, supposedly Jews, Samaritans and heretics were responsible, so he ordered crucifixions, whippings and exiling. The Christians who'd been arrested weren't punished, their backs were painted with red paint to simulate floggings and they were released.43

Anatolius was eventually tortured , clawed by wild animals and then crucified, his corpse dragged through the capital's streets and thrown onto a garbage heap outside the walls; Christian mercy we can suppose. A witch hunt continued in the capital city, itself, ferreting out the shaky converts who still practiced a few secret rites in their homes: people were thrown to wild animals and burned; an atmosphere of extreme paranoia reigned. The inquisitions continued, under his successor, Maurice, in 582, still finding victims. John of Ephesus wrote, "every day more are denounced and they receive the just desserts of their actions, in this world and the next".44 Christianity had established itself as a religion of unparalleled fanaticism and intolerance. Pogrom after pogrom ran its blood drenched course followed by the temporary relief of torture and executions spasming spectacles of spent and broken bodies. Nevertheless, in Syria, Islamic conquerors a century later would still find pagans stubbornly practicing in Baalbek who would have to be converted to a different version of the Father god.

Here and there, pockets of paganism remained but they were retreating, either deeply underground, among educated urban people, or fading from historical view into the realms of folklore in remote rural areas. The Laconians provide an example, they were remote Greeks on the Mani peninsula, olive raisers, who escaped conversion until the ninth century.45 The frontiers of the missionary wars now shifted to the west and the north, to the Celtic and Germanic worlds. Its imperative to remember that the missionaries of the time were armed. In the West the Empire crumbled away but Roman imperialism survived in the guise of the Roman Catholic Church. As Nietzsche wrote, over a hundred years ago, Christianity spread and flourished in the exhausted soil of late classical nihilism, further leaching away the nutrients of life, spreading like root rot throughout the Mediterranean heritage. It's hard to conceive of the enormity of the cultural/spiritual loss that occurred, the destruction of books, art and of even such basic material aspects of life as bathing facilities and plumbing by morose world-hating monks, who saw, all such, as seductions of a contaminated world cursed by the serpent from the beginning. A view whose far-reaching legacy has played a considerable part in shaping the attitudes and practices that have actually led to the present contamination of our planet.

Notes to this chapter

37. Chuvin, p.132

38. ibid. p 133-4

39. ibid

40. Conner p.125

41. see Conner, Blossom of Bone, p.131

42. Chuvin pp143-44

43. Chuvin, p.146

44. quoted in Chuvin, p.147

45. Chuvin, p.148

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Brundige, Ellen N. "The Decline of the Library and Museum of Alexandria", 1991

Burkert, Walter. Ancient Mystery Cults, 1987
----Structure and History in Greek Mythology and Ritual, 1979

Chuvin, Pierre. A Chronicle of the Last Pagans

Conner, Randy. Blossom of Bone, 1993

Cowell, F.R. Life in Ancient Rome, 1961

Ferguson, John. The Religions of the Roman Empire, 1970

Grant, Michael. A Social History of Greece and Rome, 1992

Turcan, Robert. Cults of the Roman Empire, 1996

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