The pagans at Constantinople in the time of Justinian

Vivian Nutton’s paper From Galen to Alexander, Aspects of Medicine and Medical Practice in Late Antiquity,1 continues to give interesting pieces of information.  On page 6 he discusses the relationship of antique medicine to Christianity at the opening of the Byzantine period, and tells us:

… John of Ephesus denounced in the persecutions of Justinian an indiscriminate collection of grammarians, sophists, lawyers and, finally, doctors. 

The reference is to the Revue de l’Orient Chretien vol. 2 (1897) p.481 f.  Fortunately this very valuable series was digitised and made available, thanks to the generosity of George Kiraz of Gorgias Press, so we can consult it at Archive.org.

The article begins on p.455, and is by Francois Nau, Analyse de la seconde partie inedite de l’histoire ecclesiastique de Jean d’Asie, patriarche jacobite de Constantinople (d. 585).  This consists of material from the Chronicle of Zuqnin, book 3, which is mainly derived from the lost second book of John of Ephesus.  The article comes with portions of the Syriac text and a French translation of them.  Here is the French, and an English translation of that.

(Folio 200v) En ce temps, on découvrit des Manichéens à Constantinople et on les brûla.

A cette époque un grand nombre d’hommes adhérérent à l’erreur funeste des Manichéens; ils se réunissaient dans des maisons et écoutaient les mystères impurs de cet enseignement. Quand ils eurent été pris, l’empereur les fit comparaître devant lui; il espérait les convertir et les ramener de leur pernicieuse erreur; il disputa avec eux, les instruisit, leur démontra par l’Écriture qu’ils adhéraient à une doctrine païenne, mais ils ne se laissèrent pas persuader; avec une ténacité satanique, ils criaient devant l’empereur sans aucune crainte, disaient qu’ils étaient prêts à affronter le bûcher pour l’enseignement de Manès et à supporter tous les supplices et toutes les souffrances pour ne pas le changer.

Alors l’empereur ordonna d’accomplir leur désir, de les jeter [Syriac] et de les brûler dans la mer afin qu’ils fussent ensevelis dans les flots, et de confisquer leurs biens, car il y avait parmi eux des femmes illustres, des nobles et des sénateurs. C’est ainsi que beaucoup de Manichéens périrent par le feu et ne voulurent pas quitter leurs erreurs.

Des paiens que l’on découvrit à Constantinople sous l’empereur Justinien.

La dix-neuvième année de l’empereur Justinien (546), on s’occupa, grâce à mon zèle, de l’affaire des païens que l’on découvrit à Constantinople. C’étaient des hommes illustres et nobles avec une foule de grammairiens, de sophistes, de scholastiques et de médecins. Quand ils furent découverts et que, grâce aux tortures, ils se furent dénoncés, on les saisit, on les flagella, on les emprisonna, on les donna aux Églises pour qu’ils y apprissent
la foi chrétienne comme il convient aux païens.

Il y avait parmi eux des patrices et des nobles. Ainsi un païen puissant et riche nomme Phocas, qui était patrice, voyant l’âpreté de l’inquisition et sachant que ceux qui étaient arrêtés l’avaient dénoncé comme païen et qu’un jugement sévère avait été rendu contre lui à cause du zèle de l’empereur, prit de nuit un poison mortel et quitta ainsi cette vie terrestre. Quand l’empereur l’apprit, il ordonna avec justice qu’on l’enterrât comme un âne, qu’il n’y eût aucun cortège pour lui ni aucune prière. Ainsi sa famille le mit durant la nuit sur une litière, l’emporta, fit ouvrir un tombeau et l’y jeta comme un animal mort. Grâce à cela les païens craignirent pour quelque temps.

En 853 (542), la bonté de Dieu visita l’Asie, la Carie, la Lydie et la Phrygie, grâce au zéle du victorieux Justinien et par l’opération de son humble serviteur (c’est-à-dire de Jean d’Asie). Aussi par la vertu du Saint-Esprit, 70,000 âmes furent instruites et quittèrent les erreurs du paganisme, l’adoration des idoles et les temples des démons pour la connaissance de la vérité. Tous se convertirent, renièrent les erreurs de leurs ancêtres, furent baptisés au nom de Notre-Seigneur Jésus-Christ, et furent ajoutés au nombre des chrétiens. Le victorieux (Justinien) paya les dépenses et les habits du baptême; il eut soin aussi de donner un trimi/tion (1) à chacun d’eux.

Quand Dieu eut ouvert leurs esprits et leur eut fait connaître la vérité, ils nous aidaient de leurs mains à détruire leurs temples, à renverser leurs idoles, â extirpir les sacrifices que l’on offrait partoùt, à abattre leurs autels souillés par le sang des sacrifices offerts aux démons et à couper les innombrables arbres qu’ils adoraient, car ils s’éloignaient de toutes les erreurs de leurs ancêtres.

Le signe salutaire de la croix fut planté partout chez eux, et des églises  de Dieu furent fondées en tout lieu. Elles furent bâties et édifiées, jusqu’au nombre de quatre-vingt-seize, avec grande diligence et grand zèle dans les montagnes hautes et escarpées et dans les plaines, dans tous les lieux qui portérent le paganisme. Douze monastères (2) furent aussi fondés dans ces lieux qui portérent le paganisme et où le nom de chrétien ne fut jamais entendu depuis le commencement du monde jusqu’à cette époque. Cinquante-cinq églises furent fondées aux frais du trésor public et quarante et une aux frais des nouveaux chrétiens. Le victorieux empereur leur donna volontiers par nos mains les vases sacrés, les vêtements, les livres et l’airain (3).

In English:

At that time, Manichaeans were discovered at Constantinople and burned.

At that time many men adhered to the fatal error of the Manichaeans; they gathered in houses and listened to the impure mysteries of this teaching. When they were taken, the emperor summoned them before him; he hoped to convert them and bring them back from their pernicious errors; he disputed with them, instructed them, showed them from Scripture that they were adhering to a pagan doctrine, but they would not allow themselves to be persuaded; with satanic tenacity, they cried out before the emperor without any fear, said they were ready to face the stake for teaching of Manes and to bear every agony and suffering rather than change.

Then the emperor ordered that their desire should be fulfilled, and to throw them [Syriac] and to burn them in the sea that they might be buried in the waves, and to confiscate their property, because there were among them illustrious women, nobles and senators. Thus many of the Manicheans perished by fire and would not leave their errors.

Of the pagans that were discovered at Constantinople under the Emperor Justinian.

In the nineteenth year of the Emperor Justinian (546), they were busy, thanks to my zeal, with the matter of  the pagans who were discovered in Constantinople. These were illustrious and noble men, with a host of grammarians, sophists, scholastics and physicians. When they were discovered and, thanks to torture, denounced themselves, they were seized, flogged, imprisoned, and sent to the churches so that they might learn the Christian faith as was appropriate for pagans.

There were among them patricians and nobles.  Then a powerful and wealthy pagan named Phocas, who was a patrician, saw the harshness of the inquisition and knowing that those arrested had denounced him as a pagan, and that a severe sentence had been given against him because of the zeal of the emperor, that night took deadly poison and so left this earthly life. When the emperor heard this, he ordered with justice that he should be interred like an ass, that there should be no cortege or prayer for him. So his family during the night put him on a litter, carried him, made an open grave and threw him in it like a dead animal. Thanks to this the pagans were afraid for some time.

In 853 (542), the goodness of God visited Asia, Caria, Lydia and Phrygia, thanks to the zeal of the victorious Justinian and by the efforts of his humble servant [i.e. John of Ephesus himself].  So by the power of the Holy Spirit, 70,000 souls were instructed, and left behind the errors of paganism, the worship of idols and the temples of the demons for the knowledge of the truth. All were converted, disavowed the errors of their ancestors, were baptized in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, and were added to the number of Christians.  The victorious (Justinian) paid the expenses and clothing for baptism; he also took care to give a τριμίτιον (1) to each of them.

When God had opened their minds and had made known the truth, they helped us with their own hands to destroy their temples, to overthrow their idols, to extirpate the sacrifices that were offered everywhere, to cut down their altars, soiled with the blood of sacrifices offered to demons, and to cut down countless trees that they worshipped because they were leaving all the errors of their ancestors.

The salutary sign of the cross was planted everywhere among them, and churches of God were founded everywhere.  They were built and erected, to the number of eighty-six, with great diligence and zeal, in the high mountains and steep and in the plains, in all the places where there was paganism.  Twelve monasteries were also founded in places which were pagan, and where the name of Christian name had never been heard from the beginning of the world until this time. Fifty-five churches were founded at public expense and forty-one at the expense of the new Christians.  The victorious emperor gave them willingly, by our hands, the sacred vessels, clothes, books and brass items.

(1) The dictionary gives three gold pieces.

We are so accustomed to Christians being persecuted, that it is right to remember that the name of Christ has been used to justify horrible persecution.  John of Ephesus, it seems clear, was a persecutor.  He ended his life in exile, however, when the tide in Constantinople changed and the monophysites received the treatment that he had handed out as a young man.  It’s sad, sobering stuff.  Note how Justinian didn’t want to say “I am persecuting you” but took refuge in the “I am giving you your desire”.  Such are the tricks that men play on themselves, when they are doing something they know to be wrong, yet doing it anyway.

But an interesting fact is that even in the middle of the 5th century, there were substantial areas of Asia Minor where “the name of Christian had not been heard from the beginning of the world to this time.”

The article mainly summarises what is on each page of the manuscript.  On fol. 238v, we find the statement that in 861 AG (550 AD), John of Ephesus burned the bones of Montanus, Maximilla, and Priscilla, as well as the temples of their adherents.  It is a pity that he does not translate this section. 

2 Responses to “The pagans at Constantinople in the time of Justinian”


  1. ikokki

    Paganism was uprooted in the Greek Balkan mainland (though at the time we are referring to the main core of Hellenism was in Asia Minor) only in the 8th century. The neopagans we have in Athens and are blocking engineering work at the Metro for superstitious reasons are Neo pagans, no continuation with the ancient pagans

  2. Roger Pearse

    Modern pagans are just hippies who would call themselves anything, so long as they fancied the idea.