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Earthdate 2003-06-02

7.  Legislation against Paganism  by the Rev. T. M. Lindsay, D.D., LL.D.

It cannot have been difficult for Constantine to carry out his policy towards the Christian religion.  We cannot ascertain the proportion of Christians to pagans at the close of the second decade of the fourth century, but it may be assumed that, when their organisation is taken into account, they were able to control public opinion in the most populous and important provinces of the Empire.  All he had to do “was to let the leading provinces have the religion they desired”; the rest of the Empire would follow in their wake.  He was content to adopt the principle of toleration; though for himself Christianity became more and more the one religion in which “crowning reverence is observed towards the holiest powers of heaven.”  He probably carried the public opinion of the Empire with him.  The paganism of the fourth century was for the most part quiet and desired only to be left in peace.  Perhaps Ammianus Marcellinus, himself a pagan, expressed the general opinion of his co-religionists when he praised the Emperor Valentinian because he tolerated all creeds, gave no orders that any one divinity should be worshipped, and did not strive to bend the necks of his subjects to adore what he did.

The sons of Constantine changed all this.  They proposed to destroy paganism by legislation.  Their laws, doubtless, inflicted much injury on individual pagans, and, in the hands of such unprincipled Imperial sycophants as Paulus and Mercurius, were the pretexts for many executions, banishments and confiscation of goods; but they remained inoperative in all the greater pagan centres.  The worship of the gods went on as before in Rome, Alexandria, Heliopolis and in many other cities.  But they could not fail to irritate.  If the laws were inoperative, they remained to threaten.  Proposed destruction of temples and prohibition of heathen ceremonies meant in many cases the abandonment of the games and spectacles to which the careless multitude were strongly attached.  Scholars saw in the advancing power of the Church the destruction of the old learning which gave its charm to their lives.  Christianity itself, troubled by the meddling of the heads of the State, seemed to be rent in pieces by its controversies, to have lost its original purity and simplicity, and to have degenerated into “old-wife superstitions” (Ammianus).  So wherever paganism abounded, and in places too where it only lingered, there was a general feeling of discontent ready to welcome the first signs of a reaction and eagerly listening to whispers that the last of the race of Constantine, if he lived to assume the Imperial purple, would undo what his kinsmen had accomplished.



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