In today’s mailbag I deal with an interesting question about when, exactly, Christianity became the state religion of Rome and the traditional pagan religions were outlawed.   Was it during the reign of Constantine (as is popularly imagined?)?  Later?   At the end of the fourth century?   Here’s the question.



I was listening to The Great Courses lectures on Early Middle Ages by professor Philip Daileader and he mentions that Christianity was made the official state religion of the Roman Empire and that pagan rituals and practices HAD been made illegal BEFORE the reign of Julian the Apostate and that Theodosius only made it illegal AGAIN to practice paganism in 391-392 !?! I always thought (and taught…) that Christianity became the state religion and that paganism was outlawed in 392 for the first time. Since you have been working on this period recently, I would love to know your stand on that matter



I need to say at the outset that I have not listened to this course by Prof. Daileader and so can not vouch for this summary of what he says in it.  So I will not be addressing the question of whether *he* is right (since I’m not sure exactly what he said) but whether this summary is right.  In my view it is wrong.

I *suspect* (but do not know) that Prof. Daileader (assuming he did make this argument) means that pagan religion was outlawed already during the reign of Constantine.  I think that is almost certainly incorrect.  Here is what I say about the matter in my book The Triumph of Christianity.


In contrast to those scholars who have argued that if Constantine were a “real” Christian, he would have been even more avid, some modern experts have argued that Constantine was so thoroughly committed to the Christian cause that his ultimate goal was to convert the entire Empire. That is almost certainly not the case, however.  Even if he himself was firmly committed to the Christian God, Constantine had imperial reasons for not forcing the issue or compelling his subjects.  He had seen well enough what would come of coercion.  He had lived through the Great Persecution, observing it up close as a member of the courts of both Diocletian and Galerius.  It did not work.   Constantine obviously was heavy-handed when he felt a need to be, as with the bishops at Nicaea.  He was not, however, inclined to compel the religious preferences, or even practices, of his predominantly pagan empire.

In the next chapter we will see that some of Constantine’s successors did not share his commitment to tolerance:  by the end of the fourth century serious legislation issued from the imperial throne banning pagan practices altogether on pain of severe judicial penalty.  One particularly thorny historical question involves Constantine’s tolerance of traditional cultic practices, or his lack of it.   Did he try to shut down pagan religious activities by criminalizing animal sacrifice? There is no doubt about his personal views.  He despised animal sacrifice: the blood, the gore, the stench, and, in fact, the entire practice.  He repeatedly said so.  The historical issue is whether this is one instance in which he forced his views on all others by disallowing sacrifice throughout his empire.

Some prominent experts have claimed …

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