The Emperors From Jovian To Theo
The reign of Jovian lasted so short a time, June, 363, to February, 364,
that he had no time to develop a policy, and the assertion of Theodoret
that he extinguished the heathen sacrificial fires is doubtful. On the
death of Jovian, Valentinian was elected Emperor, who soon associated with
himself his brother Valens as his colleague for the East. The two were
tolerant toward heathenism, but Valens took an active part in favor of
Arianism, while Valentinian held aloof from doctrinal controversy. On the
death of Valentinian I, his sons Gratian (murdered at Lyons, 383) and
Valentinian II (murdered at Vienne by Arbogast, 392), succeeded to the
Empire. Under them the policy of toleration ceased, heathenism was
proscribed. In the East under Theodosius, appointed colleague of Gratian
in 379, the same policy was enforced. Arianism was now put down with a
strong hand in both parts of the Empire.
(a) Ammianus Marcellinus, Roman History, XXX, 9, § 5.
The religious policy of Valentinian I.
Ammianus Marcellinus is probably the best of the later Roman
historians, and is the chief authority for much of the secular
history from 353 to 378, in which period he is a source of the
first rank, writing from personal observation and first-hand
information. Ammianus was himself a heathen, but he seems not to
have been embittered by the persecution to which his faith had
been subjected. He was a man of a calm and judicial mind, and his
judgment is rarely biassed, even when he touches upon
ecclesiastical matters which, however, he rarely does.
Valentinian was especially remarkable during his reign for his moderation
in this particular--that he kept a middle course between the different
sects of religion, and never troubled any one, nor issued any orders in
favor of one kind of worship rather than another; nor did he promulgate
any threatening edicts to bow down the necks of his subjects to the form
of worship to which he himself was inclined; but he left these parties
just as he found them, without making any alterations.
(b) Codex Theodosianus, XII, 1, 75; A. D. 371.
In this edict Valentinian I confirms the immunities of the heathen
priesthood which had been restored by Julian. The heathen
priesthood is here shown to continue as still open to aspirants
after political honors and conferring immunities upon those who
attained it. The curial had to pass through the various offices in
fixed order before he attained release from burdens which had been
laid upon him by the State's system of taxation.
Let those be held as enjoying immunity who, advancing by the various
grades and in due order, have performed their various obligations and have
attained by their labor and approved actions to the priesthood of a
province or to the honor of a chief magistracy, gaining this position not
by favor and votes obtained by begging for them, but with the favorable
report of the citizens and commendation of the public as a whole, and let
them enjoy the repose which they shall have deserved by their long labor,
and let them not be subject to those acts of bodily severity in punishment
which it is not seemly that honorati should undergo.
(c) Theodoret. Hist. Ec., IV, 21; V, 20. (MSG, 82:1181.)
The following statement of Theodoret might seem to have been
inspired by the general hatred which was felt for the violent
persecutor and pronounced Arian, Valens. Nevertheless the
statement is supported by references to the conditions under
Valens made by Libanius in his Oratio pro Templis, addressed to
the Emperor Theodosius.
IV, 21. At Antioch Valens spent considerable time, and gave complete
license to all who under cover of the Christian name, pagans, Jews, and
the rest preached doctrines contrary to those of the Gospel. The slaves of
this error even went so far as to perform pagan rites, and thus the
deceitful fire which after Julian had been quenched by Jovian, was now
rekindled by permission of Valens. The rites of the Jews, of Dionysus and
Demeter were no longer performed in a corner as they would have been in a
pious reign, but by revellers running wild in the forum. Valens was a foe
to none but to them that held the apostolic doctrine.
V, 20. Against the champions of the apostolic decrees alone he persisted
in waging war. Accordingly, during the whole period of his reign the altar
fire was lit, libations and sacrifices were offered to idols, public
feasts were celebrated in the forum, and votaries initiated in the orgies
of Dionysus ran about in goatskins, mangling dogs in Bacchic frenzy.
(d) Symmachus, Memorial to Valentinian II; Ambrose, Epistula 17.
A petition for the restoration of the altar of Victory in the
Senate House at Rome.
Symmachus, prefect of the city, had previously appealed to Gratian
to restore the altar which had been removed. The following
petition, of which the more impressive parts are given, was made
in 384, two years after the first petition. The opening paragraph
refers to the former petition. The memorial is found among the
Epistles of Ambrose, who replies to it.
1. As soon as the most honorable Senate, always devoted to you, knew what
crimes were made amenable to law, and saw that the reputation of late
times was being purified by pious princes, following the example of a
favorable time, it gave utterance to its long-suppressed grief and bade me
be once again the delegate to utter its complaints. But through wicked men
audience was refused me by the divine Emperor, otherwise justice would not
have been wanting, my lords and emperors of great renown, Valentinian,
Theodosius, and Arcadius, victorious, triumphant, and ever august.
3. It is our task to watch on behalf of your clemency. For by what is it
more suitable that we defend the institutions of our ancestors, and the
rights and destiny of our country, than by the glory of these times, which
is all the greater when you understand that you may not do anything
contrary to the custom of your ancestors? We request, then, the
restoration of that condition of religious affairs which was so long of
advantage to the State. Let the rulers of each sect and of each opinion be
counted up; a late one [Julian] practised the ceremonies of his ancestors,
a later [Valentinian I], did not abolish them. If the religion of old
times does not make a precedent, let the connivance of the last
[Valentinian and Valens] do so.
4. Who is so friendly with the barbarians as not to require an altar of
5. But even if the avoidance of such an omen(113) were not sufficient, it
would at least have been seemly to abstain from injuring the ornaments of
the Senate House. Allow us, we beseech you, as old men to leave to
posterity what we received as boys. The love of custom is great. Justly
did the act of the divine Constantius last for a short time. All
precedents ought to be avoided by you, which you know were soon
6. Where shall we swear to obey your laws and commands? By what religious
sanctions shall the false mind be terrified, so as not to lie in bearing
witness? All things are, indeed, filled with God, and no place is safe for
the perjured, but to be bound in the very presence of religious forms has
great power in producing a fear of sinning. That altar preserves the
concord of all; that altar appeals to the good faith of each; and nothing
gives more authority to our decrees than that our order issues every
decree as if we were under the sanction of an oath. So that a place will
be opened to perjury, and my illustrious princes, who are defended by a
public oath, will deem this to be such.
7. But the divine Constantius is said to have done the same. Let us rather
imitate the other actions of that prince [Valentinian I], who would have
undertaken nothing of the kind, if any one else had committed such an
error before him. For the fall of the earlier sets his successor right,
and amendment results from the censure of a previous example. It was
pardonable for your clemency's ancestor in so novel a matter not to guard
against blame. Can the same excuse avail us, if we imitate what we know to
have been disapproved?
8. Will your majesties listen to other actions of this same prince, which
you may more worthily imitate? He diminished none of the privileges of the
sacred virgins, he filled the priestly offices with nobles. He did not
refuse the cost of the Roman ceremonies, and following the rejoicing
Senate through all the streets of the Eternal City, he beheld the shrines
with unmoved countenance, he read the names of the gods inscribed on the
pediments, he inquired about the origin of the temples, and expressed
admiration for their founders. Although he himself followed another
religion, he maintained these for the Empire, for every one has his own
customs, every one his own rites. The divine Mind has distributed
different guardians and different cults to different cities. As souls are
separately given to infants as they are born, so to a people is given the
genius of its destiny. Here comes in the proof from advantage, which most
of all vouches to man for the gods. For, since our reason is wholly
clouded, whence does the knowledge of the gods more rightly come to us,
than from the memory and records of successful affairs? Now if a long
period gives authority to religious customs, faith ought to be kept with
so many centuries, and our ancestors ought to be followed by us as they
happily followed theirs.
9. Let us now suppose that we are present at Rome and that she addresses
you in these words: "Excellent princes, fathers of your country, respect
my years to which pious rites have brought me. Let me use the ancestral
ceremonies, for I do not repent of them. Let me live after my own fashion,
for I am free. This worship subdued the world to my laws, these sacred
rites repelled Hannibal from the walls, and the Senones from the capitol.
Have I been reserved for this, that when aged I should be blamed? I will
consider what it is thought should be set in order, but tardy and
discreditable is the reformation of old age."
10. We ask, therefore, peace for the gods of our fathers and of our
country. It is just that what all worship be considered one. We look on
the same stars, the sky is common, the same world surrounds us. What
difference does it make by what paths each seeks the truth? We cannot
attain to so great a secret by one road; but this discussion is rather for
persons at ease; we offer now prayers, not conflict.(115)
(e) Ambrose, Epistula 18. (MSL, 16:1013.)
Reply of Ambrose to the Memorial of Symmachus.
Immediately after the receipt of the Memorial of Symmachus by
Valentinian II, a copy was sent to Ambrose, who wrote a reply or
letter of advice to Valentinian, which might be regarded as a
counter-petition. In it he enters upon the arguments of Symmachus.
Although he could not present the same pathetic figure of an old
man pleading for the religion of his ancestors, his arguments are
not unjust, and dispose satisfactorily of the leading points made
by Symmachus. The line of reasoning represents the best Christian
opinion of the times on the matter of the relation of the State to
3. The illustrious prefect of the city has in a memorial set forth three
propositions which he considers of force--that Rome, he says, asks for her
rites again, that pay be given to her priests and vestal virgins, and that
a general famine followed upon the refusal of the priests' stipends.
7. Let the invidious complaints of the Roman people come to an end. Rome
has given no such charge. She speaks other words. "Why do you daily stain
me with the useless blood of the harmless herd? Trophies of victory depend
not upon the entrails of the flock, but on the strength of those who
fight. I subdued the world by a different discipline. Camillus was my
soldier who slew those who had taken the Tarpeian rock, and brought back
to the capitol the standards taken away; valor laid low those whom
religion had not driven off. Why do you bring forward the rites of our
ancestors? I hate the rites of Neros. Why should I speak of emperors of
two months,(116) and the ends of rulers closely joined to their
commencements. Or is it, perchance, a new thing for barbarians to cross
their boundaries? Were they, too, Christians whose wretched and
unprecedented cases, the one a captive emperor(117) and under the
other(118) the captive world,(119) made manifest that their rites which
promised victory were false? Was there then no altar of Victory?"
8. By one road, says he, one cannot attain to so great a secret. What you
know not, that we know by the voice of God. And what you seek by fancies
we have found out from the very wisdom and truth of God. Your ways,
therefore, do not agree with ours. You implore peace for your gods from
the Emperor, we ask peace for our emperors themselves from Christ.
10. But, says he, let the ancient altars be restored to their images, and
their ornaments to the shrines. Let this demand be made of one who shares
in their superstitions; a Christian emperor has learned to honor the altar
of Christ alone. Has any heathen emperor raised an altar to Christ? While
they demand the restoration of things which have been, by their own
example they show us how great reverence Christian emperors ought to pay
to the religion which they follow, since heathen ones offered all to their
We began long since, and now they follow those whom they excluded. We
glory in yielding our blood, an expense moves them. We have increased
through loss, through want, through punishment; they do not believe that
their rites can continue without contribution.
11. Let the vestal virgins, he says, retain their privileges. Let those
speak thus who are unable to believe that virginity can exist without
reward, let those who do not trust virtue, encourage it by gain. But how
many virgins have their promised rewards gained for them? Hardly are seven
vestal virgins received. See the whole number whom the fillet and chaplets
for the head, the robes of purple dye, the pomp of the litter surrounded
by a company of attendants, the greatest privileges, immense profits, and
a prescribed time for virginity have gathered together.
12. Let them lift up the eyes of soul and body, let them look upon a
people of modesty, a people of purity, an assembly of virginity. Not
fillets are the ornament of their heads, but a veil common in use but
ennobled by chastity; the enticement of beauty not sought out, but laid
aside; none of those purple insignia, no delicious luxuries, but the
practice of fasts; no privileges, no gains; all other things, in fine, of
such a kind that one would think them restrained from desire whilst
practising their duties. But whilst the duty is being practised the desire
for it is aroused. Chastity is increased by its own sacrifice. That is not
virginity which is bought with a price, and not kept through a desire for
virtue; that is not purity which is bought by auction for money or which
is bid for a time.
16. No one has denied gifts to shrines and legacies to soothsayers; their
land only has been taken away, because they did not use religiously that
which they claimed in right of religion. Why did not they who allege our
example practise what we did? The Church has no possessions of her own
except the faith. Hence are her returns, her increase. The possessions of
the Church are the maintenance of the poor. Let them count up how many
captives the temples have ransomed, what food they have contributed for
the poor, to what exiles they have supplied the means of living. Their
lands, then, have been taken away, but not their rights.
23. He says the rites of our ancestors ought to be retained. But why,
seeing that all things have made a progress toward what is better? The
day shines not at the beginning, but as time proceeds it is bright with
increase of light and grows warm with increase of heat.
27. We, too, inexperienced in age, have an infancy of our senses, but,
changing as years go by, lay aside the rudimentary conditions of our
28. Let them say, then, that all things ought to have remained in their
first dark beginnings; that the world covered with darkness is now
displeasing because it has brightened with the rising of the sun. And how
much more pleasant is it to have dispelled the darkness of the mind than
that of the body, and that the rays of faith should have shone than that
of the sun. So, then, the primeval state of the world, as of all things,
has passed away that the venerable old age of hoary faith might follow.
30. If the old rites pleased, why did Rome also take up foreign ones? I
pass over the ground hidden with costly buildings, and shepherds' cottages
glittering with degenerate gold. Why, that I may reply to the very matter
which they complain of, have they eagerly received the images of captured
cities, and conquered gods, and the foreign rites of alien superstition?
Whence, then, is the pattern of Cybele washing her chariots in a stream
counterfeiting the Almo? Whence were the Phrygian prophets and the deities
of unjust Carthage, always hateful to the Romans? And he whom the Africans
worship as Celestis, the Persians as Mithra, and the greater number as
Venus, according to a difference of name, not a variety of deities?
31. They ask to have her altar erected in the Senate House of the city of
Rome, that is where the majority who meet together are Christians! There
are altars in all the temples, and an altar also in the Temple of Victory.
Since they delight in numbers, they celebrate their sacrifices everywhere.
To claim a sacrifice on this one altar, what is it but to insult the
faith? Is it to be borne that a heathen should sacrifice and a Christian
be present? Shall there not be a common lot in that common assembly? The
faithful portion of the Senate will be bound by the voices of those who
call upon the gods, by the oaths of those who swear by them. If they
oppose they will seem to exhibit their falsehood, if they acquiesce, to
acknowledge what is a sacrilege.
(f) Codex Theodosianus, XVI, 10, 12; A. D. 392.
Decree of Theodosius prohibiting heathen worship as a crime of the
same character as treason.
The following decree may be said to have permanently forbidden
heathenism, at least in the East, though as a matter of fact many
heathen not only continued to practise their rites in defiance of
the law or with the connivance of the authorities, but also
received appointments at the court and elsewhere. The law was
never repealed. In course of time heathenism disappeared as a
XVI, 10, 12. Hereafter no one of whatever race or dignity, whether placed
in office or discharged therefrom with honor, powerful by birth or humble
in condition and fortune, shall in any place or in any city sacrifice an
innocent victim to a senseless image, venerate with fire the household
deity by a more private offering, as it were the genius of the house, or
the Penates, and burn lights, place incense, or hang up garlands. If any
one undertakes by way of sacrifice to slay a victim or to consult the
smoking entrails, let him, as guilty of lese-majesty, receive the
appropriate sentence, having been accused by a lawful indictment, even
though he shall not have sought anything against the safety of the princes
or concerning their welfare. It constitutes a crime of this nature to wish
to repeal the laws, to spy into unlawful things, to reveal secrets, or to
attempt things forbidden, to seek the end of another's welfare, or to
promise the hope of another's ruin. If any one by placing incense
venerates either images made by mortal labor, or those which are enduring,
or if any one in ridiculous fashion forthwith venerates what he has
represented, either by a tree encircled with garlands or an altar of cut
turfs, though the advantage of such service is small, the injury to
religion is complete, let him as guilty of sacrilege be punished by the
loss of that house or possession in which he worshipped according to the
heathen superstition. For all places which shall smoke with incense, if
they shall be proved to belong to those who burn the incense, shall be
confiscated. But if in temples or public sanctuaries or buildings and
fields belonging to another, any one should venture this sort of
sacrifice, if it shall appear that the acts were performed without the
knowledge of the owner, let him be compelled to pay a fine of twenty-five
pounds of gold, and let the same penalty apply to those who connive at
this crime as well as those who sacrifice. We will, also, that this
command be observed by judges, defensors, and curials of each and every
city, to the effect that those things noted by them be reported to the
court, and by them the acts charged may be punished. But if they believe
anything is to be overlooked by favor or allowed to pass through
negligence, they will lie under a judicial warning. And when they have
been warned, if by any negligence they fail to punish they will be fined
thirty pounds of gold, and the members of their court are to be subjected
to a like punishment.
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