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Christianity and Paganism in Byzantium Essay

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Updated: Aug 28th, 2021


Byzantine culture that inherited ancients Greece legacy has its uniqueness in various aspects like art, education and law. Rome had its’ contribution to the Byzantine culture that had experienced a heavy Christianity influence. Byzantine exercised a stable government and its legal system that was codified by emperor Justinian served as a model in the west. It also refers to the eastern Roman Empire and the time that came before the fall of the Western Roman Empire1.

Christianity and Paganism

Several accusations were made about Christians during the rule of Emperor Trajan in Bithania. Pliny did not understand much about Christianity and Trajan even had even less knowledge of it. The Roman citizens were facing accusations and Pliny’s concern was what should have been done. He thought that proper encouragement would make people to be prepared to give up Christianity. With his ignorance of what to do, he wrote to Emperor Trajan on the different kind of punishments that should be imposed on the Christians. He felt concerned that the number of people being brought to trial was increasing and thus more persons were endangered and could face executions. He held the opinion that it was not just the towns but even the rural districts and the villages that were being influenced by the wretched cult.

Emperor Trojans response was one of the expected types as he stipulated the punishments to be taken. He talked of punishment to those people who proclaim to be Christians and pardon to those who repented from being Christians. Christians would sometimes prefer death to renouncing their faith. In the mid of third century, imperial administrators were involved more in resolving accusations put against Christians since there wasn’t an imperial edict that mandated a general persecutions of Christians.

Reign of Diocletian gave the Roman state a new phase on the way it dealt with the Christians. Active persecution was made an official policy where Christians were required to reject their faith and instead worship the Roman Gods. This time serves a special Christian memory characterized with hardships and relief was only experienced when Emperor Constantine came into power. In the nineteenth year when Diocletian was reigning in Dystrus and Saviors’ passion feast was near, royal edicts publications commanded that all churches be set a blaze, scriptures to be destroyed, those in honor be demoted and if the household servants persisted with their Christian profession, be denied their liberty.

Later on the Emperor gave out the command of having the church rulers jailed and then forced to sacrifice to the Roman gods. As the pressure to torment those who refused to denounce their Christian faith increased, more martyrs were born in all the provinces. When Urbanus was the governor, the war against the Christians increased as it was a command for everybody to sacrifice and worship idol gods. By the third year, Heralds were going through Caesaream city following the governors’ order to summon men, children and women into the idol temples.

Romes’ decay was attributed to the Empires’ transfer but history had shown that powers within the government were more divided than removed. Globes savage nations remained to be the civilized society enemies and the common question was if Europe was under the same threat that could result to occurrence of calamities that formerly oppressed institutions and arms of Rome 2.

In the year 64, Emperor Nero was accused of being the force behind the fire that swept Rome and caused great damage. This was so because he had the tendency of destroying and rebuilding monuments for his honor. In order to avoid the blame, Nero eventually used Christians as the scapegoats. This resulted into a serious disaster that touched the Caelian and Palatine hills. At that time, Rome which had fourteen regions had three of its regions grounded while four of the others remained intact. To avoid the blame, Nero punished a group of men who styled as Christians.

There were many emperors that followed the Tetrarchy’s collapse3. Constantine was one of them who came after Diocletian resigned in the year 305. Britain being his starting point, he conquered the Roman Empire and started supporting the Christians and got himself baptized. Eusebius, a Caesarea bishop in Palestine wrote the celebrated memories Christians had under the Roman Empire. He composed Emperors Constantine’s biography after his death that described his victory over emperor Maxentius in the year 312.

There are theological controversies associated with Constantine which included Arianism (named after Arius who was a priest at Alexandria and at some point disagreed with Alexander, a bishop based at Alexandria), his council of Nicaea participation, his association with the bishops and the army, and his eventual death as well as burial which took place at Constantinople.

Paganism formed a fairly allowed code that differed in emphasis from that of the Christians. Its theology could not be described beyond the Neoplatonic philosophy as well as the various cults’ myths that were highly imperfectly synthesized. Paganism was practiced in the villages, cities as well as in the societies. Julian and Maxiatin felt it as a weakness and thus appointed high priests in each city analogous to the bishops and a high priest who was of superior order in each province. Egypt was an exception as laymen took on the roles of priesthood since professional clergy were missing4.

Paganism had its strength drawn out from the philosophy of all things for all men. Its myths as well as rituals were associated with the great heritage of Rome and Greece that was dear to the well known Roman state traditions and to the educated men. It didn’t qualify to be a heroic religion since there were few pagans who gave out a fight for the temples as most of them opted to either bribe the local authorities or worship secretly.

Pagans still had hope that their old gods had a chance not only under the rule of Julian (361-63) but also under the rule of Eugenius (392-94) in the western part as well as during Zeno’s reign (484) in the eastern part that was characterized by a strong rebellion of the Illus. Christians on the other hand had their fears that the struggles of the pagans might be a reality and this resulted into a Christianity-paganism relapse5.

Christians cherished memories of their holy men in particular the martyrs. They venerated the tombs of the martyrs and through special services commemorated their anniversaries. The dawn of the fourth century saw chapels built over the martyrs’ tombs and their anniversaries became common festivals. It later on came to be accepted that they had the power to answer petitions and soon they got the worship of minor gods. With their bodies believed to be having magical powers, a large number of miracles took place at their graves.

Moral Christian codes were severe. As Christianity prohibited fornication and adultery, pagans tolerated fornication which they argued was legal when involved with a registered prostitute. Homosexual was condemned by both the pagans and the Christian but the more controversial debate of divorce found favor of acceptance with the pagans and the civil law a practice that was strongly opposed by the Christians. Some Christian teachers held against keeping a concubine, an issue that did not have a universal favor.

Some emperors had their preference of Arianism versions although the council of Nicaea had rejected it in 325. Athanasius who was a bishop of Alexandria in the year 328 to 373 had his support for Nicene Christianity. On several occasions, he had to leave in exile and in one of the instances he came up with a treatise that was entitled “On the birth” where he explained the importance of God being man. The problem that rose because of Christianity during the Roman Empire and the change brought out by paganism had been there for two centuries.

From the time Constantine had Byzantium as his capital and then founded Constantinople, this new city rose as a challenge to Rome. It soon was under the patronage of its Christian rulers and was elevated the level of ecclesiastical primacy in 381 during the Constantinople council. It was declared as the “New Rome” as it was second after Rome. The authority of Rome as well as that of “New Rome” was recognized by the Emperors in the ecclesiastical matters who also reinforced their laws in the decisions that were taken by the prelates6.


Christianity was shown to have some influence more on to the decline and eventual fall of the Roman Empire. As the clergy preached on the virtues of patience as well as pusillanimity, the more active virtues of society were discouraged. Both private and public wealth got concentrated onto financing acts of charity, devotion and soldiers pay. Zeal, faith curiosity as well as passions of ambition and malice characterized the theological discord where the state as well as the church got distracted by the religious factions that sometimes resulted into bloody conflicts. This resulted in the emperors’ attention from the camps to the synods.

The secret enemies of the Roman world emerged from the persecuted sects as the Roman world experienced oppression from a newer type of tyranny. From eighteen hundred pulpits, the bishops managed to inculcate the duties associated with passive obedience of the orthodox sovereign. The genuine as well as pure influences Christianity had could be traced on the beneficial although imperfect effects on to the Barbarian proselytes in the North. Roman Empires decline could have been hastened by Constantine conversion to a victorious religion.

Paul contributed to the spread of Christianity in the Roman Empire. From the “Acts of the Apostles”, he was a Jew from Tarsus, a Greek town. He got Roman citizenship and after he became a Christian, he traveled through the Greek world between the late 40s to 50s A.D. 7 Tradition has it that he later died as a martyr in Rome when Nero was reigning. His works included consolidating the churches as he traveled through Syria to CiJjcia. It’s also said that he traveled together with Timothy, a disciple in Derbe and Lystra to Samothrace, Neapolis, and then to Philipp which was a Roman colony and a principal city of the Macedonia district.

Paul’s struggle to spread Christianity was not without opposition. As he was preaching with Timothy and Erastus, a serious problem broke out perpetuated by a silversmith, Demetrius. He felt that Paul’s gospel of God-man threatened not only to cut their trade but also to reduce goddess Diana sanctuary to one of unimportance.

Reign of Emperor Julian

Emperor Julian reigned for a period of two years and two months. It was during this time that he wrote a lot as he travelled. During this period, he failed to bring a successful end of the incursions of Roman army into the Persian Empire territories. History has placed a lot of emphasis on him as he was the last pagan Emperor of Rome with an exception to the Spain Muslim rulers, kings of Dark Age Scandinavia and the lords of Eastern Europe. Julians’ appearance is mostly clear during his ‘Byzantine’. Although he was brought up as a Christian, he turned into a pagan in his early teen. His odd lifestyle made it easier for him to rule Roman Empire more effectively.

Emperor Constantines’ nephew who was educated as a Christian openly converted into paganism. His two years rule was a real threat to the Christians as he threatened to bring to an end to Christianity dominance. He struggled to bring back the practice of paganism and held on the opinion that the pagan fortunes could be boosted if the practices of charity by the Christians were imitated. He made orders that prohibited the Christians from teaching the Hellenic “Classics”. He found no favor with the bishops who saw him as the only major threat that Christianity had after it gained its stand during the rule of Constantine. He served as the first totalitarian leader in the antique world.


Augustine of Hippo is nearly recognized universally as one of the most profound and greatest thinker in the early medieval and late Roman period. He had moved to Milan from his native land, North Africa in search of a career with the cities’ imperial court. His hearing of St. Antony’s’ monasticism and the encounters he had with Ambrose, drove his Christian faith deeper. He wrote the City of God that compared the “earthly” and “heavenly” cities8.

Romans and Barbarians

There was a great contrast between the Romans government habits and the barbarians’ customs. Tacitus, a historian in the second early century recorded the Germans institutions manners and compared them to those of Empires to the disadvantage of the latter. This was a practice that originated from Greek historiography especially from Herodotus who has his ethnographic descriptions regarded by scholars as an indirect criticism of the Greek society.

A Christian cleric Salvian, in the fifth century argued out in his book of God’s Government, that the Roman misfortunes could be punishments that were divinely sanctioned. His argument was that it was the people’s corruption and wickedness that caused the suffering upon the Romans people Empire. Due to their moral depravity, their superior civilization was rendered impotent in the face of the barbarian.

Sidonius and the Visigoths

Sidonius was emperor Avitius nephew who served as Rome’s prefect in the year 468. He became a bishop when he returned to his native Clermont in the year around 470. He remained a great Roman aristocrat example. On entering the church, he compensated for the Roman armies retreat from the territories where he lived. As a bishop, he was faced with the challenge of dealing with barbarian kingdoms which had replaced Roman authority in Gaul. His main concern however that was the Visigoths had expanded much of their influence and had issued Aquitaine which was their original settlement area. Sidonius response to the declining Roman political authority was by trying to turn deeper the veneration and study of Latin literature classics. 9

Nicetius of Trier

He was a bishop of Trier during the Justinian time, mid of the sixth century. He faced a difficult state in which he struggled to maintain an influential position. Among his struggles include writing to a Frankish princess to try and convince her to get converted and further wrote to Justinian, the Eastern Emperor with an aim to rectify his theology. Reconquest of the west from the barbarian hands was Justinian major goal that demanded rebellion and domestic crisis balance.

Bede, a Wearmouth monastery monk and a Jarrow in the northern England died when Iconoclasm was gaining grounds in the Byzantine east. During his time, England had been kicked out of the Roman world and with the Whitby council in 664, Anglo Saxon Kings submitted to Rome’s authority. They could not face Irish Christianity which played an important role in bringing Christianity to the North of England. During his time he composed Ecclesiastical History of the English People. Although classical culture was a preserve in the Mediterranean, the world culture was changing as a monk was regarded as the most educated in the Northern England.

The Byzantine Empire and Eastern Europe

It was during the sixth century that those dramatic changes occurred in the eastern Romans world10. In the west, frontiers collapsed and let in the Germanic tribes that later settled in the Roman lands. It was in this century when Justinian was reigning that Slavs broke Byzantine defenses. They were then soon followed by the Bulgars and the Avars. Emperors put in place another trial of diplomacy and mixed policies to fight back. In gesture of those policies, Justin II accepted an embassy call from Avars in Constantinople in his palace.

The eastern empires got divided on the debate of icons use within a religious setting during the eighth century. Constantinople Emperors pushed for the Iconoclast, although this did not work in the favor of monastic circles and some parts of the population that opposed the move. Resistance continued long after iconoclast council of 754 and the western churches found it wise not to sanction the council’s results. John of Damascus a Jerusalem monk in the safe Islamic territory was a strong intellectual force that stood in icons favor.


Byzantium was to be the future city of Constantinople that was founded 27 BC during the Roman Empire rise. Constantine had the Empires seat moved and religious and civil constitution changed. With Constantine on the rule, Christianity was not only the entire exclusive religion but it enjoyed preference as it received emperors’ support with enormous privileges. This was a time of celebration for the Christians as clerics got exempted from taxation and personal services.

Christians got preference for the available administrative posts as judicial responsibilities were entrusted to the bishops. To further support Christians, Constantine Emperors were ordered not to settle doctrinal questions but rather enquire clarifications and answers from ecclesiastical councils. He also managed to convene the council of Arles and was mentioned as the head of the church by First council of Nicaea.

Justinian had a view of Byzantine as it was expanding into the former territories of Rome. His legislative work made him famous and he severally collided with the pagans, Jews, and even Christian sects due to the ecclesiastical policies that he upheld. He struggled to eradicate paganism and in this fight he ordered for the closure of philosophic schools based in Athens.

The church got a greater assurance of continuity with the Eastern Empires survival as they exercised active role in the church affairs. The religious administrative routines from the pagans inherited by the Byzantine were used in their Christian churches. The Byzantines held the Emperor as a messenger or representative of Christ following Eusebius of Caesarea pattern. Even at this time, the imperial role in church’s affairs didn’t grow into a legally fixed system.


  1. Byzantium misunderstood? (Course pack 1), 1.
  2. The Fate of Cities During the Fourth Century (Course pack 1), 48.
  3. Christian emperors and Christian theology (Course pack, 2), 33.
  4. The Byzantine Empire and Eastern Europe (Course pack, 4), 25.
  5. Classical Culture and Education (Course pack 2), 42.
  6. Classical Culture and Education (Course pack 2), 42.
  7. Christianity: “Acts of the Apostles” (Course pack 1), 13.
  8. The sack of Rome through Augustine’s Eyes (Course pack 3) 14.
  9. Sidonius and the Visigoths (Course pack 3), 21.
  10. The Byzantine Empire and Eastern Europe (Course pack 4), 25.
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