Major pagan temples still operating in the Eastern Roman Empire in the 5-6th century?

The edicts of Theodosius I which closed all the temples and made offering sacrifice, in public or private, a crime of high treason were, of course, not enforced.  The code that transmits these edicts to us, the Theodosian code, itself bears witness that late emperors found the greatest difficulty in getting their edicts put into effect.  A far-reaching edict, affecting the lives of half the empire, could not have any effect unless a programme of enforcement was also created.  There is no evidence that one was.  The edicts were, therefore, a gesture.  Like some of the religious laws of Charles II, they were, in the words of Bishop Burnet, intended to terrorise rather than to be enforced.  They created a legal structure of mild but definite legal discrimination, rather like those of modern days where anyone may be denounced for thought crimes by any member of a favoured minority.  But most of the time nothing much happened.

An interesting statement came to my attention this morning:

Imperial toleration is suggested by the fact that the prohibition of sacrifices was widely disobeyed in the fifth and sixth centuries. Ancient shrines such Heliopolis (Baalbek) and Carrhae (Harran) are reported to have operated throughout the fifth and sixth centuries despite repeated imperial efforts to suppress these cults. Even in most Christian Edessa, “the blessed city”, organized communities of pagans were still sacrificing to Zeus-Hadad in the last quarter of the sixth century.[1]

Let’s have a look at the references for this.

First, Baalbek, ancient Heliopolis, in what is today Lebanon.  The Chronicon Pascale states for the year 379:[2]

The huge and celebrated temple of Baal at the city of Heliopolis, constructed of three stones of marble, he [Theodosius I] turned into a church.

Well and good, although one may ask how reliable this information is.  It certainly indicates some form of rescript by Theodosius.  But we have already discussed how effective imperial letters were.

We then move to the time of Justinian, when a lightning bolt struck the temple.  The Syriac Chronicle of ps.Zacharias Rhetor[3] tells us that this was in 836 A.Gr. (=525 AD):

…the temple of Solomon in the city of Heliopolis in the forest of Lebanon, as to which Scripture mentions that Solomon built it and stored arms in it [was burnt]. And to the south of it are three wonderful stones, on which nothing is built, but they stand by themselves, joined and united together and touching one another; and all three are distinguished by effigies, and they are very large. And in a mystical sense they are set, as it were, to represent the temple of the knowledge of the faith in the adorable Trinity, the calling of the nations by the preaching of the gospel tidings. There came down lightning from heaven, while the rain fell in small quantities: it struck the temple and reduced its stones to powder by the heat, and overthrew its pillars, and broke it to pieces and destroyed it. But the three stones it did not touch, but they remain perfect; and now a house of prayer has been built there, dedicated to Mary the Holy Virgin, the Theotokos.

The destruction of the temple is confirmed by John of Ephesus, found in ps.Dionysius of Tell-Mahre, for the year 866[4], which gives the following description of the temple:

In this town of Baalbek there was a grand and opulent temple of the idols.  It is said that it was one of the important constructions by Solomon.  Its length was 150 cubits and its width 65.  It was built with stones of immense size, each up to 15-20 cubits long, 10 cubits high, and 4 cubits deep in the inside of the temple.  Its columns were high, massive and amazing to see.  The roof, made from great cedars from Lebanon, was covered with lead everywhere.  Its doors were of bronze.  Rams’ heads made of bronze, three cubits tall, which one could see from the interior, were placed under each timber of the roof. The other ornaments were so remarkable that this temple, by its splendour everywhere, held the pagans to their error.  Sacrifices, vows and burned offerings to demons were offered in the temple unceasingly, and nobody was able to discredit it.

So the temple was plainly still in operation.  The discrepancy of dates is interesting, however.

Later still Michael the Syrian writes, that in the 7th year of Justin:[5]

South of the temple of Solomon at Baalbek, a city of wooden houses in Lebanon, mentioned in Scripture which says that Solomon built and adorned it (1 Kings 7), are found three enormous stones on which nothing is built.  They stood together by themselves and were linked together.  They were remarkable for their apppearance and all three were very large.  They were placed there as a symbol of the Trinity.  However in this year the thunder fell and destroyed the entire temple and pulverised its stones, but did no  harm to these.  Now a temple of the Mother of God has been built in this place by the efforts of the emperor.

Soon afterwards, Michael the Syrian tells us:[6]

At this time [Tiberius II, year 2] the pagans who were at the town of Heliopolis attacked the Christians and  tried to destroy them by the edge of the sword.  Learning this Tiberius Caesar sent  Theophilus with an army.  He captured, crucified and put to death a great number of them.

Second, Carrhae (Harran).  Theodoret records (IV, 15), at the reign of Valens:[7]

On the quieting of the tempest and restoration of complete calm, they were ordered to return home, and were escorted by all the people, wailing and weeping, and specially by the bishop of the church, who was now deprived of their husbandry. When they reached home, the great Barses had been removed to the life that knows no pain, and the divine Eulogius was entrusted with the rudder of the church which he had piloted; and to the excellent Protogenes was assigned the husbandry of Charrae, a barren spot full of the thorns of heathendom and needing abundant labour. But these events happened after peace was restored to the churches.

Procopius tells us that, during the reign of Justinian, the invading Persian king Chosroes treated Harran with special favour[8]:

Therefore Chosroes moved forward, taking with him all the captives. And the citizens of Carrhae met him holding out to him great sums of money; but he said that it did not belong to him because the most of them are not Christians but are of the old faith.

Michael the Syrian witnesses to paganism in Harran in the time of Justinian here:[9]

Then a human hand was sent from Sebaste, in the country of the Samaritans, as being that of John the Baptist.  It raised questions in many, because it was sent by Marinus of Harran, a man pagan in name and in deed.  However the emperor, with all the city, received it with great pomp and venerated it.  It was placed in a reliquary of gold.

Finally Edessa.  The reference given for this from Michael the Syrian actually relates to Heliopolis.[10]  This leaves us with the following references, neither of which I can access: “John of Ephesus, Historia ecclesiastica, iii.3.28 (ed. and trans. E. W. Brooks, Historiae ecclesiasticae pars tertia, Corpus scriptorum christ. orient. [hereafter C.S.C.O.], Script. Syr., iii. 3, Louvain, 1935-6, pp. 115-16); cf. J. B. Segal, Edessa, “the Blessed City” (Oxford, 1970), pp. 106-8)”.

Does all this actually justify the claim originally made, I wonder?  It shows that there were numbers of pagans still in the east.  The temple at Heliopolis, despite the rescript of Theodosius, had clearly continued in being.  But we can’t really say that there was no disruption, that there was continuity at major shrines.  Rather there was imperial negligence, interrupted by periodic enforcement of the ban on paganism in response to local events.

  1. [1]K. W. Harl, “Sacrifice and Pagan Belief in Fifth- and Sixth-Century Byzantium”, Past and Present 128 (1990) 7-27, esp. p.14. JSTOR.
  2. [2]Ed. L. A. Dindorf, 2 vols., Corpus scriptorum historiae Byzantinae [C.S.H.B.], Bonn, 1832, i, p. 561.  Online here.
  3. [3]Zacharias of Mytilene, Chronicon, viii.4 (trans. F. J. Hamilton and E. W. Brooks, The Syriac Chronicle known as that of Zachariah of Mytilene, London, 1899, pp. 204-5.  Online here and here.
  4. [4]F. Nau, “Analyse de la seconde partie inedite de l’histoire ecclesiastique de Jean d’Asie, patriarche jacobite de Constantinople (+585)”, Revue de l’orient chretien, 2 (1897), pp. 490-1.  Online here.
  5. [5]Michael the Syrian, Chronicon, ix. 16.  Ed. J.-B. Chabot, Le chronique de Michel le Syrien . . . 1166- 1199, 4 vols., Paris, 1899-1910, ii, p. 179.  Online here.
  6. [6]Michael the Syrian, Chronicon, x.12. Ed. Chabot, ii, p. 318. Here.
  7. [7]Theodoret, Historia ecclesiastica, iv. 18 here.
  8. [8]Procopius, De bello Persico, ii.13.7.  Here.
  9. [9]Michael the Syrian, Chronicon, ix.33.  Ed. Chabot, ii, p. 270. Online here.
  10. [10]Michael the Syrian, Chronicon, x.12 (ed. Chabot, ii, p. 318).  See above.

6 thoughts on “Major pagan temples still operating in the Eastern Roman Empire in the 5-6th century?

  1. A couple of months ago I read that the Christian rituals of the common people of Mediaeval Europe were distinctly “paganized”, that an immaculate liturgy was not even practiced in every church. (I have no further knowledge, however, having read it in an interview with a German historian, I believe.) But if it’s true, it would be safe to assume that pagan elements (or cults) also existed hundreds of years earlier, beside Christianity. But anyway, classical culture didn’t just vanish in the 5th century, neither in the East nor the West. It continued to exist, and that would include certain pagan elements, or even complete cults. To me it seems that a clear line can’t really be drawn, and that it was more like a gradual shift, from paganism to Christianity, from classical culture to Mediaeval Europe, faster in the West (especially due to the continual war of Islam against the kuffar), slower in the East (due to the strength of the Byzantine Empire).

    Btw: Your post reminded me of something I had read a couple of years ago in the 1899 book “The Worship of Caesar Augustus” by Alexander del Mar. (It’s at archive(dot)org). You must always take del Mar with a big grain of salt, but he wrote something interesting on page 307 sq., namely that the imperial cult of Divus Julius (the deified Julius Caesar) was only abolished in the 6th century under the reign of “Anastasius Silentiarius”, by which he surely means Anastasius I (Dicorus). Del Mar only mentions the author Onuphrius Panvinius (Onofrio Panvinio) as the (secondary) source, but he neither mentions the title of Onuphrius’ work nor the primary source, from which Onuphrius allegedly got this information. This has bugged me for years, because I could never find anything. I even contacted a professor emeritus in Paris, who is a kind of Onuphrius expert, but he never wrote back.

  2. PS: It might also be that either Onuphrius or del Mar simply misread their respective source. Anastasius I was the last divus of the imperial cult, so maybe all the original source stated, was that the cult of Caesar (= the emperor) was abolished, not the cult of Julius Caesar.

  3. I would tend to regard any statement so vague from such a source with the deepest suspicion. I did try to see what I could find on Panvinio but it went nowhere.

  4. I did spend a little time trying to find a (seemingly non-existent) work by Onofio Panvinio, De Romanorum antiqua religione, listed in Wikipedia (!) but nowhere else. I felt that this would probably be our baby. But in truth it is fairly hopeless trying to track something as vague as that down from a source like that. I think the way to do it would be to start from the other end; find a modern study of the imperial cult, and see what the last primary source references given in it are. I suspect that this is a mare’s nest anyway; I rather doubt that the Christian emperors of the late 4th century would have wanted divine honours; and “divus” comes to mean “dead”!

    The question of how the transition from paganism occurred must be a fertile field for monographs. My own approach would be deep scepticism of everything. I think it would be best to assemble a dossier of all the relevant ancient testimonia, and then see what they say. Note that a complication in the west is the Roman collapse; when someone talks about worshipping Jupiter, but that someone is a Goth or other Germanic person, do they mean Jupiter in the classical sense, or are we really talking about Thor?! That is, paganism that is Germanic importation, rather than classical survival?

    Allegations that Catholicism involves paganism were a staple of Protestant anti-Papist polemic for centuries. I would be wary – I am not a Catholic – until I saw *all* the sources. The attitude of Gregory the Great in his famous letter to Augustine of Canterbury is not one of assimilating pagan elements but of extirpating them more effectively. This was even more so in the Greek east where the very word “Hellene” came to mean “dirty pagan (spit)” until the renaissance.

  5. If you research it, most of the stuff that people think is pagan turns out to be recent in origin and piously Christian in intent. (Or just silly Christians doing silly things, at worst.) It’s very common for urban people to think country stuff is pagan (or vice versa), or for people from Ethnic Group A to think Ethnic Group B is doing something pagan (and vice versa).

    The prime example is little kid Halloween costumes and trick or treat, which are extremely recent and localized in origin (the 1930’s in the US) and were intended to stamp out the custom of firing guns on Halloween and playing pranks on the neighbors (basically by getting lots of disapproving parents out on the streets, and by making it a night for wittle kids only). It probably caught on more because costume festivals like German Martinmas are conducted on a day that’s way too freaking cold in most of the US.

    Nobody remembers the gunfire thing (except the people in Detroit who keep up their 17th century French Canadian Devil’s Night customs) or the pranks. Nope, not anymore. But suddenly the costumes are supposed to be Ancient Pagan Survivals and outright demon worship; and now that there are adult costumes and they’ve gotten naughty, suddenly it will become an Ancient Pagan Fertility Ritual Survival.

  6. Heh. Yes, the credulity that is displayed (particularly by general journalists) in this regard always strikes me as strange. But the answer must always be to obtain the primary sources (if any).

    No claim that is undocumented in antiquity need be taken seriously. Too much paleobabble.

    Interesting to hear about trick or treat, tho; I had no idea.

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