Ward-Perkins, Bryan: The Impact of Christianity

From The Cambridge Ancient History, Vol. XIII.

wperkinsAfter Christianity became the usual religion of the emperors from 312 onwards, it spread more rapidly than before through the cities of the empire, and a gradual process began whereby the traditional pagan cults were starved of patronage by the civic and imperial authorities. Throughout the empire this change affected urban populations first, long before the new religion made any significant inroads into the countryside. The conversion of the towns was indeed the one essential step needed for the eventual spread of Christianity throughout society, since the conversion of the countryside was to be achieved partly through the influence of landowners and their building of estate-churches; most of these landowners probably acquired their new religion through exposure to it during sojourns in the cities.

The demise of paganism and the spread of Christianity were by no means uniform processes, and even neighbouring civitates might have very different religious histories in the fourth century. For example, in Palestine the city of Gaza remained a pagan stronghold, and its great temple of Marnas was only closed and destroyed by violence in 402; but the neighbouring settlement of Maiuma was already sufficiently Christian at the beginning of the century for Constantine to remove it from the authority of Gaza and give it independent civitas status.(43) Similarly, we learn from the writings of Augustine that the provincial town of Bulla Regia in Africa Proconsularis was Christian by around 400; whereas in nearby Calama, perhaps as late as 407, the pagans burned down the church and killed a priest.(44)

In Antioch a strong pagan element existed amongst its cultured aristocracy until at least the end of the fourth century, exemplified by the traditionalist Libanius. But already by 362, when the pagan emperor Julian came to Antioch in the hope of finding a flourishing pagan city, much of the population was Christian (particularly amongst the broad body of the citizens, the demos) and the traditional cults had apparently lost most of their appeal. In a well-known passage, that probably contains a substantial dose of gloomy hyperbole, Julian complained to the Antiochenes of how, on a feast of Apollo, he hastened to the god’s temple at Daphne:

Thinking that at Daphne, if anywhere, I should enjoy the sight of your wealth and public spirit… I imagined in my own mind the sort of procession it would be … beasts for sacrifice, libations, choruses in honour of the god, incense, and the youths of your city there surrounding the shrine, their souls adorned with all holiness and themselves attired in white and splendid raiment. But when I entered the shrine I found there neither incense, nor a cake, nor a single beast for sacrifice … When I began to enquire what sacrifice the city intended to offer to celebrate the annual festival of the god, the priest answered, ‘I have brought with me from my home a goose as an offering to the god, but the city this time has made no preparations.(45)

It might, however, be a mistake to place too much historical weight on the scrawny shoulders of this unfortunate goose. The incident must indeed reflect a decline of the traditional public festivals – but perhaps as much through the decline of curial status and curial spending, which we have investigated above, as through the death of pagan sentiment. To survive in all their splendour, the great civic festivals and sacrifices needed both belief in the pagan gods and funding for the traditional ceremonies of the polis At Antioch and elsewhere, a more ‘private’ paganism may have been stronger; Ammianus recounts how Julian, as he entered the city for the first time on 18 July 362, was greeted by the ill-omened wailing of those marking the feast of the death of Adonis.(46)

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