The savior who failed

By Leonard Hitchcock

He was born into a distinguished Roman family — so distinguished that several of his not-too-distant relatives were emperors. His own life was far from easy. His father was killed by one of those emperors as part of a purge of potential rivals for the purple robe, and he and his brothers were raised in exile. Eventually both of those brothers were suspected of aspirations to the imperial throne and were murdered as well.

As a youth he was instructed in the state-decreed religion, undergoing years of tutoring in its doctrines and the proper performance of its required ceremonies. But it was later revealed that he had, even during those years, been drawn to another religion, one that was outlawed by an imperial decree. Secretly, he read the sacred texts of that faith, and managed to meet with, and learn from, some of its adherents. His commitment to that faith deepened but he could not publicly avow it, for those who did so were persecuted by the Roman courts. As a member of a noble family, his punishment for practicing the forbidden faith would be especially severe.

Surprisingly, the affairs of the empire unfolded in such a way that this young man was recalled from exile and given a position in the Roman army. He excelled as a military leader and eventually rose to such popularity that the troops under his command declared him to be their Caesar and urged him to seek to be the Augustus, i.e. the emperor himself. A war for control of the empire loomed when, suddenly, the existing emperor (he who had murdered our young man’s father and brothers) died and willed his crown to the cousin he had exiled. Suddenly, our outcast was the ruler of the empire and no longer needed to hide his religious commitments. He soon issued an edict which ended the persecution of his fellow believers by requiring the toleration of all religious beliefs and practices.

The young man of whom I’ve been speaking was named Julian, and he was a half-nephew of the Emperor Constantine. The emperor who exiled Julian and killed his brothers was one of Constantine’s sons, Constantius II. The religion in which Julian had been reared was Christianity. The faith to which Julian had been attracted as a youth was paganism. And the tolerance that Julian restored to the empire upon becoming Augustus was tolerance of pagan worship.

Remember that Constantine, after his famous conversion to Christianity, halted his predecessors’ persecution of Christians with an edict proclaiming the freedom of all Roman citizens, including Christians, to worship as they saw fit. During his thirty-year reign, he clearly favored Christianity, but did little to inhibit paganism. The vast majority of his subjects were, after all, pagans.

The Christianity that Constantine oversaw was, however, a constant disturber of the Pax Romana that the emperor sought to establish. Christians bickered with one another over doctrinal issues and riots and urban warfare between congregations occurred all over the empire. It was the great age of “heresies,” (def.: if your opinions regarding the nature of God and the proper way to worship Him differ from mine, yours are heretical). Constantine tried to resolve the famous Arian controversy (Arianism is essentially the view that Jesus was the son of God, and divine, but not God himself) and failed. Scholars now estimate that the number of Christians killed by other Christians due to doctrinal squabbles during this period exceeds the number of Christians killed during all the Roman persecutions prior to Constantine’s reign.

Constantine’s sons and heirs, who were all Christians, eventually revoked the imperial tolerance of paganism. Constantine died in 337; in 341 appeared the first imperial edict that criminalized pagan rites and rituals. That ushered in centuries of persecution, interrupted only by the brief reign of Julian. Pagan temples were dismantled and their holy objects desecrated and destroyed. Pagans who were discovered practicing their rituals were arrested and often tortured, burned, flayed, torn asunder by beasts or crucified.

The savagery of the persecution made manifest a characteristic of Christianity that had shocked pagans from the beginning: its intolerance of other beliefs. Pagan gods, in all their multiplicity, got along with one another. Their human devotees were largely unconcerned with the gods’ comparative power or status. The Christian god, on the other hand, was a jealous god (Exodus 20: 1-5). Christians believed that the pagan gods were not just false, but demonic. Those gods (and, if necessary, their adherents), had to be exterminated.

The emperor Julian ruled for a mere 18 months. His efforts to restore paganism’s tradition of religious tolerance were cut short by his battlefield death while protecting the empire’s borders against the encroaching Persians. His determination to thwart the triumph of Christianity seems, now, to have been quixotic and hopeless. The emperors who followed him renewed the persecution of paganism and, within a few centuries, had largely succeeded in crushing it. To them we owe the fact that western civilization’s religious attitudes have been shaped by the Christian tradition of bigotry and sectarian squabbling, rather than the tolerance and open-mindedness of paganism.

Leonard Hitchcock of Pocatello is a professor emeritus at Idaho State University.