A novel from the Theodosian Code

The emperor Theodosius II drew up a legal code in the 430’s AD, which reduced Roman law to a manageable proportion.  Further enactments were known as “novels”, and were added on the end.  This one caught my eye, while browsing the English translation by Pharr.

Notice how the emperor blames those he intends to persecute for his own actions.  Notice also what he says about the destruction of the economy caused by over-taxation and the stripping of the soil to provide food for the dole-fed mobs in Rome and Constantinople.

The list of heresies is also interesting, containing not just Manichaeans — perceived as a security risk for their links to Persia — but also various flavours of Montanists.   The Priscillianists were a rigorist group from the west.  The Borborites were a gnostic group of filthy morals.


Emperors Theodosius and Valentinian Augustuses to Florentius, Praetorian Prefect.

Among the other anxieties which Our love for the State has imposed upon Us for Our ever watchful consideration, We perceive that an especial responsibility of Our Imperial Majesty is the pursuit of the true religion. If We shall be able to hold fast to the worship of this true religion, We shall open the way to prosperity in human undertakings. This We have learned by the experience of Our long life, and by the decision of Our pious mind We decree that the ceremonies of sanctity shall be established by a law of perpetual duration, even to posterity.

1. For who is so demented, so damned by the enormity of strange savagery, that, when he sees the heavens with incredible swiftness define the measures of time within their spaces under the sway of the divine guidance, when he sees the movements of the stars which control the benefits of life, the earth richly endowed with the harvests, the waters of the sea, and the vastness of this immense achievement confined within the boundaries of the natural world, he does not seek the author of so great a mystery, of so mighty a handiwork? We learn that the Jews, with blinded senses, the Samaritans, the pagans, and the other breeds of heretical monsters dare to do this. If We should attempt by a remedial law to recall them to the sanity of an excellent mind, they themselves will be blameworthy for Our severity, since they leave no place for pardon by the obstinate wickedness of their unyielding arrogance.

2. Wherefore, since according to the ancient maxim no cure must be employed for hopeless diseases, in order that these deadly sects, oblivious of Our age, may not spread too wantonly into the life of Our people like an indistinguishable confusion, We finally sanction by this law destined to live in all ages, that no Jew, no Samaritan, who does not rely on either law shall enter upon any honors or dignities; to none of them shall the administration of a civil duty be available, nor shall they perform even the duties of a defender. Indeed We believe that it is wrong that persons hostile to the Supernal Majesty and to the Roman laws should be considered the avengers of Our laws under the protection of a surreptitious jurisdiction; that they should be protected by the authority of a dignity thus acquired; that they should have the power to judge or to pronounce whatever sentence they may wish against the Christians and very often against the bishops themselves of the holy religion, as if they were insulting Our faith.

3. With an equally reasonable consideration also, We prohibit any synagogue to arise as a new building, but license is granted to strengthen the ancient synagogues which threaten immediately to fall in ruin.

4. To these regulations We add the provision that if any person should seduce a slave or a freeborn person, against his will or by punishable persuasion, from the worship of the Christian religion to an impious sect or ritual, he shall suffer capital punishment, together with the forfeiture of his fortune.

5. If any person of these sects, therefore, has assumed the insignia of office, he shall not possess the dignities which he has acquired, and if he has erected a synagogue, he shall know that he has labored for the profit of the Catholic Church. Furthermore, if any of these persons has stolen into a position of honor, he shall be considered, as previously, of the lowest condition, even though he should have obtained an honorary dignity. If anyone of them should begin the building of a synagogue, not with the desire merely to repair it, in addition to the loss of fifty pounds of gold, he shall be deprived of his audacious undertaking. Besides, he shall perceive that his goods are proscribed and that he himself shall immediately be destined to the death penalty, if he should overthrow the faith of another by his perverted doctrine.

6. Since it behooves Our Imperial Majesty to embrace all contingencies in such a provision that the public welfare may not be injured in any way, We decree that the decurions of all municipalities and also the gubernatorial apparitors, shall be bound to their onerous duties, even those of the imperial service, or to the various obligations of their resources and the duties of their personal compulsory services, and they shall adhere to their own orders, of whatsoever sect they may be. Thus We shall not appear on account of the contumely of corrupt solicitation to grant the favor of exemption to men who are execrable, since it is Our will that they shall be condemned by the authority of this constitution.

7. The following exception shall be observed, namely, that apparitors who are members of the aforesaid sects shall execute the sentences of judges only in private suits, and they shall not be in charge of the custody of prisons, lest Christians, as customarily happens, may at times be thrust into prison by the hatred of their guards and thus suffer a second imprisonment, when it is not certain that they appear to have been rightfully imprisoned.

8. Hence Our Clemency perceives that We must exercise watchfulness over the pagans also and their heathen enormities, since with their natural insanity and stubborn insolence they depart from the path of the true religion. They disdain in any way to practice the nefarious rites of their sacrifices and the false doctrines of their deadly superstition in the hidden solitudes, unless their crimes are made public by the nature of their profession, to the outrage of the Supernal Majesty and to the contempt of Our times. A thousand terrors of the laws that have been promulgated, the penalty of exile that has been threatened, do not restrain them, whereby, if they cannot be reformed, at least they might learn to abstain from their mass of crimes and from the corruption of their sacrifices. But straightway they sin with such audacious madness and Our patience is so assailed by the attempts of these impious persons that even if We desired to forget them, We could not disregard them. Therefore, although the love of religion can never be secure, although their pagan madness demands the harshness of all kinds of punishments, nevertheless We are mindful of the clemency that is innate in Us, and We decree by an unshakable order that if any person of polluted and contaminated mind should be apprehended in making a sacrifice in any place whatsoever, Our wrath shall rise up against his fortunes, against his life. For We must give this better victim, and the altar of Christianity shall be kept inviolate. Shall we endure longer that the succession of the seasons be changed, and the temper of the heavens be stirred to anger, since the embittered perfidy of the pagans does not know how to preserve these balances of nature? For why has the spring renounced its accustomed charm? Why has the summer, barren of its harvest, deprived the laboring farmer of his hope of a grain harvest? Why has the intemperate ferocity of winter with its piercing cold doomed the fertility of the lands with the disaster of sterility? Why all these things, unless nature has transgressed the decree of its own law to avenge such impiety? In order that we may not hereafter be compelled to sustain such circumstances, by a peaceful vengeance, as We have said, the venerable majesty of the Supernal Divinity must be appeased.

9. It remains to be said, O Florentius, dearest and most beloved Father, that all inaction shall cease and that the regulations shall be put into swift execution which have been issued in innumerable constitutions against the Manichaeans, always odious to God, against the Eunomians, authors of heretical folly, against the Montanists, the Phrygians, the Photinians, the Priscillianists, the Ascodrogians, the Hydroparastatae, the Borboritae, and the Ophitans.

10. Therefore, since it is dear to your heart to exercise implicit obedience to both the divine and the imperial commands, Your Illustrious and Magnificent Authority, by duly posting edicts of Your Excellency shall cause to come to the knowledge of all that which We have decreed for the insatiable honor of the Catholic religion. You shall also direct that these commands shall be announced to the governors of the provinces, so that by their like solicitude they may make known to all the municipalities and provinces what We have necessarily sanctioned.

Given on the day before the kalends of February at Constantinople in the year of the sixteenth consulship of Our Lord Theodosius Augustus and the consulship of the one who is to be announced. 19 January 31, 438.

INTERPRETATION: This law specifically orders that no Jew and no Samaritan can attain any honor of the imperial service or of an administrative office. In no manner can they undertake the office of defender or be guards of a prison, lest perchance under the pretext of any duty they may dare to harass with outrages on some occasion the Christians or even their priests, or lest the above mentioned persons who are enemies of Our law might presume to condemn or to judge some person by Our own laws. They shall not dare to construct a synagogue anew. For if they should do this, they shall know that this structure will profit the Catholic Church and that the authors of the construction must be fined fifty pounds of gold. But they shall know that the concession is made to them that they must repair the ruins of their synagogues. The regulation is also specifically included in this law that no Jew shall dare to convert a Christian, either slave or freeborn, to his own religion by any persuasion whatsoever. If he should commit this offense, he shall forfeit his resources and suffer capital punishment. As for the remainder, this law condemns the sects whose names are listed and contained in the law.

15 thoughts on “A novel from the Theodosian Code

  1. They’re blaming the pagans for the failure of the crops and so on. The idea is that the rain and the climate are all under the control of God, and therefore that the problems mean that God is angry with the empire. The reason supposed is the presence of unbelievers in the empire. The whole line of thinking is borrowed (without adequate reason) from Old Testament prophets.

    The real cause of the climate problems was the ruin of agriculture caused by the policies of the imperial government itself. But it’s far easier to blame people you find inconvenient!

  2. Thanks for the clarification. If I may ask: is this kind of reasoning unique in the early Christian empire? In my opinion, it sounds more pagan than OT.

  3. What I find interesting about this fifth century document isn’t that it mentions so many nonsensical sects that never existed – the (T)ascodrogians(!) the people that put pegs on their noses while they preyed (Epiphanius 48,14) or the Borboritae (there were no Christians ever that baptized themselves in filth), and the Ophitans are another red herring (in Hebrew the word snake na’as and mashiach, messiah, have the same numerological value 358). Indeed it would be impossible to really be guilty of being a Borborite. It was instead a convenient term that sounds scientific and could be used to convict people when there was no real evidence to find them guilty of heresy any other way.

    What I find so fascinating is the lack of any specific mention of Marcionites. They certainly existed at this time especially in Syria and the eastern provinces. Yet they are not named in the document. One could argue that the Marcionites were lumped together with the Manichaeans but texts like the Acts of Archelaus IMO make absolutely clear the two communities were hostile to one another.

    I think it demonstrates how little effort was actually put into determining the actual constitution of ‘heretical sects’ in the period. The only sects that the Empire feared were the Manichaean religion (as you said because of its perceived connection with Persia) and the Jews and Samaritans. The fear of the Jews and Samaritans was borne out of course because they ultimately helped the Muslims with their conquest of the Empire.

    The Copts likely also helped the Muslim invaders overthrow their Byzantine persecutors. Islam was initially welcomed by the native populace of the eastern portion of the Empire. This is undeniable. Things changed certainly after those who did not convert to the ‘religion of peace’ found out what life was like under the new rulers. But things were pretty bad under the Byzantines too.

  4. Re: Islam, this actually sounds very similar to later Islamic laws against unbelievers. I wondered where they got some of that. Sigh. Sow the wind, reap the whirlwind.

    Re: crop failure and storm and earthquake and epidemic, the pagan Romans were very big into blaming them on Christians and Jews’ impiety. Standard reason for pagan Roman common people to go nuts and form mobs, actually.

    And of course it was equally standard all over the world to blame the gods’ anger at leaders’ behavior for crop failures et al. A sign that you’d lost the “mandate of Heaven”, that sort of thing. A leader not trying to have kids was setting a bad example for the land and the cows, even. So this wasn’t really a specifically Jewish or Christian idea in any way, but rather something very standard to the thinking of most of humanity.

  5. Re: baptismal habits, I’m surprised that anybody on the Internet would ever say that sort of thing would never happen. Check Facebook before you make any rash judgments. 😉

    You did get some Gnostic groups that really seemed to like the idea that everything earthy was nasty, or who felt an obligation to delve into every possible sort of human experience starting with the nasty bits. This was probably not so much about religion as decadent boredom or trying to be edgy. When you get into this kind of occult or decadent stuff, all sorts of substances start being used for purposes they wouldn’t seem intended for.

    Also, dung and all sorts of bodily fluids were part of the Roman and Greek medicine, under the theories of sympathy, antipathy, and the humors. Heck, there’s some guy in India today doing Vedic medicine that involves ingestion of horse and cow waste products, and there’s some very odd massage materials in Vedic medicine as well. (They made one of the foodie guys on a travel channel suffer this regime on camera, even.)

    So if people were having some kind of weird anointing or bathing ceremonies, and tying it into the fashionable religious trend of baptism… I wouldn’t be surprised.

  6. The borborites are described by Epiphanius of Salamis, who knew some personally when he was young.

    Yes, I thought that the Islamic stuff might well derive from the same idea expressed here. What goes around comes around.

  7. Connecting the modern habits on the internet to ancient baptismal practices of Christian sects that Epiphanius wrote about is a hopelessly flawed argument. Yes, there are modern people that engaging in disgusting acts. Yes, there were ancient people who engaged in similar disgusting acts. But to argue that because Epiphanius says that something exists it existed is like arguing for the existence of unicorns based on the existence of a popular Irish Rovers song.

    As Daniel Plooij aptly noted some time ago “I think Epiphanius ought to be the last witness we should trust uncontrolled, especially in his testimonies on heretics and heretical writings. He combines all kinds of notices, rumours, and calumnies into abracadabra often completely incomprehensible.” [A Primitive Text of the Diatessaron p. 78]

    So if it were some other Church Father who witnessed some other sect I might believe it. But Epiphanius witness on anything should be scrutinized and only taken as a last resort.

    In my opinion, Epiphanius already tips his hat as to where he arrived at the name Borborites. He says elsewhere in the report that:

    “But I am afraid of revealing the whole of this potent poison-like the face of a serpent’s basilisk-to the reader’s harm rather then his correction. For it does no pollute the ears, the blasphemous assembly with its great audacity, its gathering and description of its dirt, the filthy (borborodes) ill-will of its scummy obscenity. Thus some actually call them “Borborians.” but others call them Koddians “qodda” means “dish” or “bowel” in Aramaic-because no one can eat with them. Food is served to them separately in their defilement, and no one can eat even bread with them because of the pollution.

    And this is why their fellow alien reisdents, who consider them distinct from themselvs, have named them Kodians. But in Egypt the same people are known as Stratiotics and Phibionites, as I said earlier. But some call them Zacchaeans, others, Barbelites.” (Book I Section 26, 3,5-3,7: page 85 in Wlliams trans.) [The Panarion of Epiphanius of Salamis Book I (sects 1-46) Translated by Frank Williams, Leiden E.J. Brill, 1987, =
    ISBN 90 04 079262]

    If only there were more than a handful of Patristic scholars who spoke passable Aramaic the origin of the ‘filth’ epithet would be obvious.

    The sect obviously identified themselves as ‘Zacchaean’ from the Aramaic zakkai which means ‘pure, clean or clear’ BUT – and here is the part where Sprachgefühl is needed – zakkai is almost always used in Jewish Aramaic texts where zedek or related words are used to denote ‘righteousness.’

    The point is that – like most of the descriptions of the enemies of the Church – this report is developed as a REFUTATION of the claims of the community – i.e. that their baptism rendered them RITUALLY PURE presumably to a Jewish or Samaritan sectarian understanding of kosher mikvah.

    In other words, the Borborites were certainly a so-called ‘Jewish Christian sect.’

    No one should believe that any Christian sects were baptizing themselves in filth any more than the reports circulating among pagans that Christians were engaging in homosexual orgies or that Jews or Christians were eating babies, sacrificing babies or drawing their blood with needles.

    Again no one should take anything Epiphanius says serious ESPECIALLY if it sounds as outlandish as this.

  8. This is all speculation, tho, Stephan. We can’t discard definite testimony by someone who knew them in favour of theories about what he “really” meant.

    Let’s keep a bit closer to the texts.

  9. Chaqu’un son gout I guess. I don’t see why we have to accept the most insulting and most outlandish epithets stand unquestioned when Epiphanius gives us a number of more plausible alternatives. But live and let live is my motto

  10. I apologize for my insistence, but let me ask again: do we have knowledge of any other Christian (imperial) authority of the 4th-6th centuries making this kind of argument? Namely, that the balance of nature had been interfered with by the lack of Christian faith of entire swaths of population? And the Christian God had to be appeased by drastic remedial solutions, including the decimation of the unfaithful?

  11. Something sort of like this is found in Pionius’s Life of Polycarp. While the population isn’t presumed to be Christian they are suffering from a severe drought and Polycarp manages to turn this around (from memory) by showing them the power of Christian prayer. Most people assign the description of life in the age of Polycarp so the lesson would be that right belief and attention to prayer leads to beneficial changes in nature. Hope that is what you were looking for

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