Praetextatus – Religion … Rome in the Fourth Century (Ch. 2.1)


Maijastina Kahlos, Vettius Agorius Praetextatus – Senatorial Life in Between. Acta Instituti Romani Finlandiae no. 26, Roma 2002.



The legislation against pagans under the Christian emperors

Emperor Constantine’s attitude toward pagans and pagan rituals is a highly problematic and complicated issue that continues to be under lively scholarly discussion. Many scholars have regarded Constantine as a champion of religious toleration while T.D. Barnes, accepting Eusebius’ apologetic and partisan depiction of Constantine, has interpreted the emperor as an aggressively anti-pagan emperor whose religious policy was coherent and comprehensive. Barnes’ reinterpretation has been criticized by other scholars, e.g. H.A. Drake, Averil Cameron, S. Bradbury and J. Curran who have ended up with a more complex view of Constantine’s religious policies.[2] The most problematic evidence is Eusebius’ claim that Constantine banned all sacrifices by a law when he became sole Roman emperor after the victory over Licinius in 324.[3] Eusebius’ account is supported by the first extant law against sacrifice, issued by Constans and Constantius in 341, which alludes to a law against sacrifice issued in the past by Constantine.[4]

There is no certain evidence for a simple campaign by Constantine against polytheistic cults; on the contrary, the emperor’s views were evolving in these years. It is nevertheless clear that Constantine as well as his successors maintained a personal hostility towards the practice of sacrifice. In his letters, Constantine referred to polytheistic practices with hard words and with a polemical tone but he never seems to have passed any general repressive legislation.[5]

In his religious legislation Constantine permitted the polytheistic practices to continue publicly. He prohibited sacrifices and divination practiced in private but public sacrifices and haruspicina were still allowed because they were seen as a contribution to the public welfare. Thus, Constantine distinguished between good and harmful magic, and emphasized that the old rites practiced publicly were not forfidden: nec enim prohibemus praeteritae usurpationis officia libera luce tractari.[6] Emperor Constantius II reaffirmed his father’s prohibitions against sacrifices and soothsaying done in secrecy.[7]

It must be emphasized that these imperial edicts were not innovations in Roman legislation but in these prohibitions the emperors continued a long-standing Roman tradition from the Twelve Tables on. Sacrifices connected with illicit divination and magic had been defined as dangerous superstition and forbidden in the late Republic and early Empire.[8] A superstitio, either tolerated or prohibited, was understood as contrary to the proper religio of the Roman state. The traditional Roman meaning of superstitio was improper religion, irrational or excessive religious awe, credulity, private divination or magic but Christian writers began to use it to refer to the incorrect beliefs of pagans. According to M.R. Salzman, both definitions appear in the Codex Theodosianus and the interpretation of the ambiguous term superstitio in legislation depended on who interpreted and enforced the laws in each area. A Christian interpreter could regard the term superstitio as a pagan sacrifice while a polytheist could interpret it traditionally as illicit divination and magic.[9]

Constantine’s and Constantius’ legislation against magic aimed at controlling divination and magic since these were feared as politically dangerous skills; they might be utilized to seize and maintain power and practitioners of those sciences could take part in imperial politics, foretelling the successor of the reigning emperor and other important political events.[10] Thus, the laws against nefarious sacrifices should not always be regarded as a simple campaign directed against pagan cults themselves but it was possible for a local governor to interpret the laws as prohibitions against polytheistic ritual practices and thus to use them as weapons against polytheistic cults.

In their religious legislation Constantine’s sons forbade, on pain of death, pagan sacrifices and worship of statues and decreed closure of some temples. Though these measures against pagan cults and temples may sound strict, the laws did not take effect as severely as Constantine’s successors may have intended. The properties of the temples were not confiscated nor were the cult places systematically harmed.[11]

Emperor Julian (361-363) with his open pro-pagan policies was an exception among the Christian emperors of the fourth century. He ordered the pagan temples to be opened again and restored the properties of the temples taken over by Constantine and his sons.[12] After the death of Julian, during Emperor Jovian’s short reign (363-364), cult practices and sacrifices defined as legal seem to have been tolerated.[13]

Valentinian I and Valens began their reign in 364 with a decree of religious tolerance that allowed everyone free opportunity to profess their own religion.[14] Pagans as well as Christians praised Valentinian I for his impartiality and tolerance in religious matters.[15] Though Valentinian and Valens were both Christian, their religious policy was tolerant for practical political reasons; they wished to maintain internal peace and order in the Roman Empire by keeping equilibrium between pagans and Christians, and avoided interfering in religious disputes between Christians.[16] The Roman cult still remained as the state religion for, though a Christian, the emperor was pontifex maximus, the head of the state cult, and the college of the pontifices continued arranging the great pagan festivities and processions, oversaw tombs and burials and judged according to the ancient pontifical law.[17]

Valentianian and Valens, however, took over again the incomes and properties that Emperor Julian had returned to the pagan temples.[18] They also attempted to control magic, divination and private sacrifices in their legislation. CTh 9.16.7 of Sept. 9, 364 forbade, on pain of death, nefarious prayers, magical practices and nocturnal sacrifices (see also ch. 2.3). A later law, CTh 9.16.8 issued in the Eastern part of the Empire, prohibited the activities of astrologers, mathematici and all sacrifices, public as well as private, by day as well as by night. Both laws against magic were issued for political reasons, following Constantius’ legislation and the tradition of earlier imperial legislation, and aimed at the total annihilation of magical practices but not of the Roman civic cult. As Valentinian I states in CTh 9.16.9, he did not intend to condemn divination but to forbid it to be practised harmfully, nec haruspicinam reprehendimus, sed nocenter exerceri vetamus. In spite of the prohibitions, systematic terror and trials, magical practices continued in all social and cultural groups.[19] However, the prohibition of private sacrifices could not be directed against the traditional Roman cults because these civic cults were public in character and therefore, Roman magistrates could continue the traditional public sacrifices in the name of the senate and the people.[20]

The Christian emperors prohibited many pagan rituals but they allowed pagan festivals to continue and the Roman civic cults even enjoyed state subsidies.[21] It was Emperor Gratian who withdrew the public subsidies of the Roman cult costs, cancelled the immunity of pagan priests and confiscated the revenues of pagan temples, among them the revenues of the Vestal Virgins. His edict is not extant but CTh 16.10.20 issued by Honorius in 415 refers to it.[22] Gratian also abandoned the title of pontifex maximus that had been retained by the previous Christian emperors, e.g. by Constantius II who in spite of his harsh measures against pagan rituals in general had fulfilled his duties as pontifex maximus.[23] The historian Zosimus claims that Gratian refused the robe of pontifex maximus – regarding it as unsuitable for a Christian – when the Roman pontifices offered it to him. The leader of the pontifices, whom F. Paschoud has identified with Praetextatus, answered with a pun: “If the emperor does not want be pontifex maximus, Maximus soon will be pontifex”.[24] The story related by Zosimus is problematic and dubious, and the pun, on the one hand, could have been composed afterwards after Maximus’ usurpation and Gratian’s death.[25] On the other hand, it is possible that Praetextatus as the leading figure of the senatorial aristocracy could have led an embassy to the court of Milan. Moreover, the play on words pontifex maximus – Maximus nicely fits the picture we get of a joking Praetextatus in Jerome’s account.[26]

In the 380s, at the beginning of Theodosius’ reign, the pagan cults were tolerated probably because the emperor had to concentrate on the so-called heretics first. Thus, he maintained the status quo of his predecessors, allowing pagan rites of fire, incense, fumigations and libations and preserving the freedom of conscience; temples stayed open and eminent pagans like Praetextatus were treated with favour. The Roman civic religion was still allowed and only private pagan devotions were forbidden for, following his predecessors’ tradition, Theodosius also prohibited soothsaying and magical practices.[27]

Emperor Theodosius turned systematically against paganism only at the end of his reign. This repressive legislation against pagan cults did not begin in Praetextatus’ lifetime but there were signs of restrictions of pagan cults since 381 and at the same time the legislation against Christian heretics, especially against Arians, became more decisive. The year 391 has been considered as the turning point in the religious legislation of Theodosius and Valentinian II since thereafter all polytheistic practices were banned thoroughly and prohibitions were meant for universal application.[28] The total abolition of pagan cults was completed by Theodosius’ successors Arcadius and Honorius.[29] Pagan sacrifices and prayers were forbidden but public ceremonies, processions and spectacles celebrated by pagan priests were still allowed; particularly, the ludi and circenses continued with the support of the emperors and the local aristocracy. The Lupercalia festival, for example, was celebrated as late as 494. Temples were permitted to remain open if they were used in traditional civic festivals.[30]

We do not know what was the immediate effect of these imperial regulations. The existence of austere laws did not imply that they were widely obeyed; the laws had to be renewed again and again and punishments became more severe. The repetition of laws might suggest that they were not fully enforced everewhere. It must also be remembered that enforcement of these enactments depended on regional circumstances and initiatives. Local authorities certainly had other more urgent problems to solve than the coercion of non-Christians. There was a wide gap between the solemn proclamations and everyday practice. S. Bradbury, for example, points to the moralizing character of late antique legislation; thus, the anti-pagan laws could have been held as moral proclamations and exhortations to the right conduct. The imperial government also seems to have been far more concerned with the souls of heretics than of polytheists since there are far more laws directed against heretics than against pagans in the Theodosian Code.[31]

By the end of the fourth century Roman civic religion and its public rituals and sacrifices ceased to be those of the state but private practices continued and private beliefs lived on for centuries. Even a new kind of private piety influenced by Neoplatonic philosophy and mysteries emerged in the intellectual circles in the fifth century. G. Fowden stresses that polytheism as a state of mind could survive within institutional Christianity for centuries.[32]


[1] For the religious legislation in the late Roman Empire, see Ioannou 63-116; Salzman 1993, 362-378.

[2] For the discussion, see Barnes 1981, 210, 269, 377 n.11; Drake 463-465; Averil Cameron 1983, 189; Barnes 1984, 69-72; Bradbury 120-139; Curran 68-77; Lane Fox 666-667; Beard – North – Price 1998a, 372.

[3] Eus. vita Const. 2.45.1.

[4] CTh 16.10.2: … legem divi principis parentis nostri.

[5] Polemical language e.g. Eus. vit. Const. 2.60 where Constantine calls paganism as the power of darkness. Curran 1996, 74-77; Bradbury 124-130.

[6] CTh 9.16.3 (May 23, 318), 9.16.2 (May 15, 319); see also CTh 9.16.1 (Feb. 1, 319/320): superstitioni enim suae servire cupientes poterunt publice ritum proprium exercere; CTh 16.10.1 (March 8, 321): ceteris etiam usurpandae huius consuetudinis licentia tribuenda, dummodo sacrificiis domesticis abstineant, quae specialiter prohibita sunt.

[7] CTh 16.10.2 (in 341): Cesset superstitio, sacrificiorum aboleatur insania. Also 9.16.4 (Jan. 25, 357); 9.16.5 (Dec. 4, 357); 9.16.6 (July 5, 358).

[8] An example of the previous legislation against magical arts is the Lex Cornelia de sicariis et veneficis in 81 B.C.E. referred by Paul. sent. 5.23.14-19 (FIRA II, 409-410) and Dig. 48.8.3 and a prohibition in 11 C.E. mentioned by Cass. Dio 56.25.5.

[9] Salzman 1987, 176-180, Salzman 1990, 206. For the relationship between superstitio and religio, see also Beard – North – Price 1998a, 215-218, 371, Gordon 1990b, 237-253 and Grodzynski 36-60.

[10] Martroye 671-673; Noethlichs 20, 66-68; Barb 105; Cancik 1987, 68; Beard – North – Price 1998a, 372; Fowden 1998, 549. Roman lawyers made a distinction between good and bad magic: Dig. 50.16.236. According to CTh 9.16.3, there was licit magic for health and harvests, and illicit magic for someone’s death or seduction. Superstitio in CTh 16.10.2 refers to a certain superstition, divination through the entrails of sacrificial animals.

[11] CTh 16.10.4 (between 356-361); CTh 16.10.6 (Feb. 20, 356). For the measures against temples and sacrifices, see also Iul. or. 7.228BC; Lib. or. 1.27; 18.114-115; Eunap. vit. soph. 10.6.3; 10.6.8. Fowden 1998, 539.

[12] For Julian, see e.g. Athanassiadi 1981, Bouffartique and Browning. Amm. 22.5.2; Lib. or. 18.126; CTh 5.13.3 (Dec. 23, 364); 10.1.8 (Feb. 4, 364); Sozom. 5.3.1-2.

[13] Them. or. 5.69C-70B (cf. p. 109 n. 250). Fowden 1998, 548.

[14] In CTh 9.16.9 (May 29, 371) Valentinian I refers to the laws promulgated at the beginning of his reign, Leges a me in exordio imperii datae, quibus unicuique, quo animo inbibisset, colendi libera facultas tributa est. Chuvin 54-55.

[15] Amm. 30.9.5 praises Valentinian I for taking his stand in the middle of a diversity of faith, inter religionum diversitates medius stetit; Socrat. 4.1; Sozom. 6.6.

[16] Chastagnol 1960, 150; Klein 1972, 8.

[17] CTh 9.17.2 (March 28, 349).

[18] Amm. 30.9.5; CTh 5.13.3 (Dec. 23, 364); 10.1.8 (Feb. 4, 364). Cf. above p. 52, n.12.

[19] CTh 9.16.8 (Dec. 12, 370). Amm. 29.1 writes of the great trials in Antioch in 371-371. Martroye 677-679; Chuvin 55.

[20] Tertullus’ offering to Castor and Pollux during the famine of 359: Amm. 19.10.4.

[21] E.g. CTh 12.1.60 (Sept. 12, 364) declares that the ancient custom, vetus mos, must be observed in the creation of sacerdotes and curiales. In CTh 12.1.75 (June 28, 371) the privileges of pagan priests were reinforced.

[22] CTh 16.10.20 (Aug. 30, 415) = CIust 1.11.5: Omnia etiam loca, quae sacris error veterum deputavit, secundum divi Gratiani constituta nostrae rei iubemus sociari, ita ut ex eo tempore, quo inhibitus est publicus sumptus superstitioni deterrimae exhiberi, fructus ab incubatoribus exigantur. See also Symm. rel. 3.15-17; Ambr. epist. 17.3-5; 18.11-16.

[23] The abandonment of the title has been dated between 375 and 383, to 375 by Mommsen 1887, 1108; to 376 by Paschoud 1975, 77; to 379 by Alföldi 1937, 36-37, Chastagnol 1960, 157, Piganiol 250 and Noethlichs 202; to 382 (in connection with the fiscal measures) by Palanque 1933b, 41-47, Matthews 1973, 176 and Cracco Ruggini 1979, 4 n.3; to 383 by Alan Cameron 1968, 96-99, Klein 1972, 5, 8 and Sordi 1991, 127.

[24] Zos. 4.36.5.

[25] Paschoud 1979, 419-422, n.174; Paschoud 1975, 76-94; Fortina 248.

[26] According to Hier. c. Ioh. 8, Praetextatus said jokingly to Bishop Damasus, Facite me Romanae urbis episcopum, et ero Christianus. See ch. 2.6.

[27] CTh 16.10.7 (Dec. 21, 381); CTh 16.10.9 (May 25, 385); CTh 16.10.12 (Nov. 8, 392). The exception was CIust 11.66.4, as early as in 383, already confiscating pagan temple properties.

[28] CTh 16.10.10 (Feb. 24, 391) and CTh 16.10.11 (June 16, 391). Trombley 1993, 3;  Noethlichs 182; Martroye 692-695; Salzman 1993, 362-378; Fowden 1998, 553.

[29] CTh 16.10.13 (Aug. 7, 395).

[30] CTh 16.10.8 (Nov. 11, 382): temples in traditional civic festivals. Salzman 1990, 239; Salzman 1999, 125-126; Beard-North-Price 1998a, 382.

[31] Repeated sanctions are mentioned e.g. in CTh 16.10.19 (Nov. 15, 408): … hoc repetita sciamus saepius sanctione decretum. For the enforcement of laws, see e.g. Bradbury 133-137; Beard-North-Price 1998a, 375; Brown 1998b, 638-639; Fowden 1998, 54; Hunt 1993, 157; MacMullen 1964, 49-53.

[32] Browning 161-162 on antiquarian paganism; Fowden 1998, 558 on polytheism as a state of mind; Athanassiadi 1999, 180 on Proclus and his polytheistic piety without blood sacrifices. Matthews 1975, 369 uses Praetextatus and Augustine as early examples of the religion of a private nature: “In his philosophical studies Praetextatus had touched greater depths of personal experience than Symmachus … Augustine’s pursuit of ‘philosophy’ at Cassiciacum was a very far cry from the organized church life of contemporary Milan.”


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