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Earthdate 2003-06-02

14.  Survivals of Paganism in the East  by the Rev. T. M. Lindsay, D.D., LL.D.

In the East it never recovered its position as a state religion, but it existed as a private cult practised by no inconsiderable proportion of the people.  It did not offer the strenuous resistance to Imperial anti-pagan legislation which was to be seen in the West.  The number of Christians had always been much larger and it is more than probable that many of the laws against pagans were supported by public opinion.  Julian's immediate successors practised a policy of toleration for all religions, and contented themselves with professing and favouring Christianity.  It was the religion of the Imperial household and of the great majority of the population — nothing more.  Pagans lived on free to worship what divinities they pleased.  Even when Valens and emperors who came after him renewed and enforced laws against pagan worship no traces are to be found of anything like a general persecution.  Accusations were listened to and procedure taken against numbers of wealthy persons in the hope of filling the Imperial treasury; but the mass of the people remained untouched.  Whole districts, which were notoriously poor, were exempted from the operation of the laws.  During the reign of Valens a large number of temples fell into ruins, but probably it was not the operation of the law which caused their destruction.  The more celebrated temples were often in possession of large yearly revenues derived from lands and other endowments and in charge of the hereditary priesthood who presided over the worship.  As paganism decayed these priesthoods frequently secularised the revenues, took possession of them and were content to see the edifices fall into ruin.  Still paganism remained rooted in many of the old noble families of the East, and in such aristocratic households the place of private chaplain was filled by a Neoplatonic philosopher.  As many of the members of this nobility were called to occupy high places in the civil administration of the Empire, they were able to protect their co-religionists and took care to see that the anti-pagan laws were not enforced within their jurisdictions.  Optatus, praefect of Constantinople in 404 was a pagan.  In A.D. 467 Isocasius, the quaestor of Antioch, was accused of paganism.  Phocas took poison to prevent himself being obliged to embrace Christianity as late as the time of Justinian.  Many of the more famous literary men — Eunapius, Zosimus, perhaps Procopius — were strongly anti-Christian.  Pamprepius, a Neoplatonist, famed for his power of divination, an avowed pagan, drew a salary from the public revenues and, along with distinguished generals like Marsus and Leontius, aided Illus in his revolt against the Emperor Zeno in 484.  But by the end and indeed throughout the whole of the fifth century thoughtful paganism had become a sort of Quietism and exercised no influence on the public life of the population.  When Theodosius the Great succeeded in uniting the orthodox Church with the Imperial administration, when the great bishops were placed in possession of powers almost equal to those of the governors of provinces, the Church became the guardian of the rights of the people and the interpreter of its wishes.  The Church, in that age of bureaucracy, had a popular constitution; its clergy came from the people; the services were in the language of the district; its bishops were the natural and sympathetic leaders of the people; and the whole population gradually became included within the Christian Church.

Athens and Achaia long remained the last stronghold of paganism in the East.  The Eleusinian and other mysteries, the great heathen festivals celebrated in Athens and in other cities of Hellas, attracted crowds of strangers from all parts of the Empire.  Religious beliefs, patriotic associations, thoughts of material prosperity combined to make the people of the towns and districts resolute to maintain and defend them.  So strong were the popular feelings that it would have led to riots, probably to attempted insurrection, to enforce the Imperial legislation against temples, sacrifices and the celebration of pagan ceremonies by night.  The emperors found it necessary either to exempt Hellas from the operation of these laws altogether or to suffer their non-enforcement.  The Eleusinian Mysteries continued until the famous temple was destroyed by the Goths under Alaric.  The Olympic Games were celebrated until the reign of Theodosius I (394).  The great and venerated statue of Minerva remained to protect the city of Athens until about 480.  The great temple of Olympia remained open until its destruction — whether by the Goths or by command of Theodosius II is unknown.

In the fourth and fifth centuries Athens remained the most distinguished intellectual centre of the time.  The teachers in its schools, for the most part Neoplatonists who resolutely refused to accept Christianity, maintained the old pagan traditions.  Their influence was recognised and feared.  Theodosius II forbade private teachers to give public lectures under pain of banishment.  Justinian, determined to crush the last remains of paganism, confiscated the funds which furnished the salaries of the professors, seized on the endowments of the Academy of Plato, and closed the schools.  The persecuted philosophers fled to Persia to avoid imprisonment or death and remained there until King Chosroes obtained from the Emperor a promise that they would be unmolested if they returned to their homes.



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