When did the Christians start to reuse the temples?

From archaeologist Rodolfo Amedeo Lanciani, The destruction of ancient Rome: a sketch of the history of the monuments, p. 36 f. (here):

To what use the temples were put immediately after the expulsion of their gods, we do not know; but it is certain that they were not occupied by Christians, nor turned into places of Christian worship. This change was only to take place two centuries later, when the scruples about the propriety of worshipping the true God in heathen temples had been overcome. In the year 600, Pope Boniface IV asked the Emperor Phocas for the temple which was called Pantheon, and turned it into a church of Mary the Virgin ever blessed.” Two periods, then, may be distinguished in the converting of pagan edifices into places of Christian worship, one anterior to the year 609, the other following that date. During the first, civil edifices alone were transformed, partially or completely, into churches; such were the Record Office, which became the church of SS. Cosmas and Damian, and the round market on the Caelian Hill, now S. Stefano Rotondo. After 609 almost every available building, whether secular or sacred, was made into a church or chapel, until the places of worship seemed to outnumber the houses.

This view, expressed by a 19th century archaeologist, is interesting.  But is it true?


16 thoughts on “When did the Christians start to reuse the temples?

  1. I don’t think it is an accurate reflection of what happened in Alexandria. I think a number of pagan buildings were re-used as churches even in Athanasius’ time. The transformation of the Caesarion to the Great Church of Alexandria in the mid fourth century stands out in my mind:


  2. I remember an article in one of the humanities journals of the University of Chicago on how a particular temple in Alexandria was opened as a tavern in order to degrade it.

  3. It should be noted as well that a likely reason why many other pagan shrines were not immediately transformed into churches was because there were still a great number of pagans in the city. Alexandria is a particularly complex urban landscape. I don’t know how representative it was of other cities in the Empire.

  4. The archaeological of Tongeren suggests that Servatius, the bishop, reused an older existing building (mid-fourth century); the evidence, however, is not unambiguous.

  5. My impression is that Theodosius I (379-395 AD) was the one who ordered pagan temples to be used as churches whenever the number of pagans dwindled in a place. I remember the year 395 AD as the year he announced that. From that time on I believe the Caesarion was converted into church by imperial order. But from Egyptian Church history we know that not all pagan temples were converted into churches until sometime after that. This is particularly true in Upper Egypt because, in some cases, f still lingering superstitions – I quote the story of the Archimandrite St. Shenouda of Atripe (near Akhmim)(344-466 AD)who destroyed a pagan shrine of a pagan temple himself which his subordinates were scared of touching. Although some pagans still existed in the area, I believe that the destroyed temple had already fallen out of use by the pagans in that particular area. The last temple to exist in Egypt was the Temple of Philae which was closed down by Justinian in the 6th century (527-565 AD).

  6. If Theodosius ordered this, then an edict must exist. But I thought he merely ordered the closure of the temples, an order that (like most late edicts) was largely ignored.

    I wish we had the Theodosian code online in English. It would make it easier to resolve this sort of question.

  7. A good book, The Establishment of Christianity and the Proscription of paganism by Maude Aline Huttman (1914), [to be found here: http://www.archive.org/stream/cu31924029227654#page/n9/mode/2up%5D, does cover several of the laws against paganism, particularly in its Part Two: laws against paganism in Roman codes (pp. 127-250), Part One being mainly about edicts of toleration of Christianity.

    The following project is meant to translate the Theodosian Code into all European languages:

  8. The book is interesting and contains a number of translations of the laws. I didn’t see one by Theodosius transferring property, tho.

    The “pagan” project does discuss the code, but I didn’t see any mention of a project to translate it.

  9. Apparently, much of the Codex Theodosianus is available in Clyde Pharr,The Theodosian Code and Novels and the Sirmondian Constitutions: A Translation with Commentary, Glossary, and Bibliography (New York, 1952).

    A recent (2009) translation in French, which is said to dwarf Pharr’s book made by S Crogiez-Petrequin et al. ISBN 978-2-503-51722-3. A review of it by Simon Corcoran from the University College London is to be found here: http://www.romanlegaltradition.org/contents/2009/RLT5-CORCORAN.PDF

  10. Pharr’s book is a complete translation. It’s actually a very big book, physically — over a foot tall and several inches thick.

    I hadn’t known that the French translation existed — thank you!

  11. Linder, Jews in the Legal Sources went through all of the Roman and Byzantine legal decrees as they related to Jews (and often Samaritans and Christian heretics too). As I remember there were rules about the confiscation of houses of worship for breaking certain rules (circumcising slaves etc.). I also seem to recall that Samaritans, heretics that denied the Creator and pagans had really no legal rights of any kind, especially in the later period. This might make it difficult to track down any specific decrees about confiscation of places of worship.

    The church of St. Procopius was build on the Samaritan holy mountain of Gerizim in 475 AD and Samaritans were banned from going anywhere near their sacred mountain. This led to a disastrous attempt by the Samaritans to recapture the place that their Torah proscribes as the only place of worship. Tens of thousands of Samaritans were enslaved and their religion was declared as illegal under Justinian.

    The Jewish people actually fared a lot better as Linder’s evidence shows. Still there was always the threat of confiscation of houses of worship for breaking rules related to their relations with Christians.

  12. Roger, most of Pharr’s book is online being googled:

    I find two things amazing:
    1. Such an important topic (The Theodosian Code – I mean the one of Theodosius I, d. 395 AD) does not seem to have received an important place in English. I initially thought that it had never been translated to English at all. Only after a specific search that I found that it was actually translated into English in 1952.
    2. Even though it was translated in 1925 into English, the translation remained hidden and forgotten, and as if it had never been translated!

    If possible, if you could make a copy of it in your documents’ site it would be very helpful to a lot of people.

    Dioscorus Boles

  13. Now that is very interesting. The preview does seem extensive. It does make clear that the website to which I referred is only a few excerpts of book 16.

    What few people realise is that the lawyers need translations of Roman legal texts for their studies. Consequently there is a whole class of translations which few people tend to know about, because they are made by lawyers, not classicists. This is one of them. I agree that it is profoundly obscure.

    I can’t do much about texts in copyright, I’m afraid! I’ll see what can be done from other sources.

  14. Was this question prompted by the 2009 Hypatia movie, Agora? The film features the Christians (the bad guys) seizing the Caesarion and the Library of Alexandria from the pagans (the good guys) and not only worshipping on the premises, but also leaving in place what seem to be a couple of dozen outsized statues of Osirus and Co. It’s just one of the jarring images in this violent and shoddy melodrama. At the movie’s climax, naked Hypatia, not looking a day over 30, is asphyxiated in said Caesarion. Authenticity is not this movie’s strength. The film website says the main historical adviser was a Mr Justin Pollard.

  15. Thanks for this note. Demonisation of the Christians is so common that I barely notice any more — and all because of “do not commit adultery”, eh?! I’ve not seen the film, but possibly some of those shouting this idea had.

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