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.
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:
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 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, 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:
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:
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:
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:
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:
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. 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.
- K. W. Harl, “Sacrifice and Pagan Belief in Fifth- and Sixth-Century Byzantium”, Past and Present 128 (1990) 7-27, esp. p.14. JSTOR.↩
- Ed. L. A. Dindorf, 2 vols., Corpus scriptorum historiae Byzantinae [C.S.H.B.], Bonn, 1832, i, p. 561. Online here.↩
- 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.↩
- 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.↩
- 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.↩
- Michael the Syrian, Chronicon, x.12. Ed. Chabot, ii, p. 318. Here.↩
- Theodoret, Historia ecclesiastica, iv. 18 here.↩
- Procopius, De bello Persico, ii.13.7. Here.↩
- Michael the Syrian, Chronicon, ix.33. Ed. Chabot, ii, p. 270. Online here.↩
- Michael the Syrian, Chronicon, x.12 (ed. Chabot, ii, p. 318). See above.↩