Christian Violence in the Roman Empire


By Bart D. EhrmanThe University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill

The Danish scholar of classical antiquity, Troels Myrup Kristensen, recounts numerous instances of Christian violence against pagan sites and objects. Throughout the Roman empire, during Theodosius’s reign, cultic sites were destroyed, and pagan statues were disfigured. It’s particularly interesting that statues were often not destroyed but mutilated. In a sense, they were mutilations meant to fulfill the biblical censure of pagan gods.

The Holy Bible with a sword leaned on it
Some Christians believed the violent acts they were committing were something like tough love. (Image: Dream Perfection/Shutterstock)

Mocking Pagans in the Bible

In several places of the bible, pagan idolatry is mocked by Israelites who believed that pagan gods were just pieces of wood or metal. From Psalm 135: “Who have mouths but cannot speak, eyes but cannot see, ears but cannot hear, nor is there any breath in their mouths”.

Bust of Aphrodite but the chin and forehead are defaced
Christians disfigured and mutilated statues and destroyed pagan shrines one after another. (Image: Tetraktys/National Archaeological Museum of Athens/Public Domain)

Many times, the pagan statues were not destroyed or mutilated but simply desacralized, taken from their sacred locations, and redeployed as works of art, either to be admired for their aesthetic quality or mocked as objects of outdated religion.

Christian Violence Committed by Monks

A particularly telling instance occurs in the writings of the great pagan scholar Libanius, who addresses his complaint to Emperor Theodosius himself against passionate Christians engaged in mob acts of destruction of all things pagan. In his words: “This black-robed tribe, who eat more than elephants, and by the quantities of drink they consume, weary those that accompany their drinking with the singing of hymns; these hasten to attack the temples with sticks and stones and bars of iron and, in some cases disdaining these with hands and feet.

“Then utter desolation follows with the stripping of roofs, demolition of walls, tearing down of statues, and the overthrow of altars, and the priests must either keep quiet or die. After demolishing one, they scurry to another, and a third and trophy is piled on trophy in contravention of the law.”

The monks did more than destroy property. He goes on to say, “I forbear to mention the numbers they have murdered in their rioting in utter disregard of the name they share.” But the, major damage was done to sacred sites. “In a state after a state, shrine after shrine has been wiped out by their insolence, violence, greed and deliberate lack of self-control.”

There’s no reason to doubt, these reports are true. The riots were not everywhere, but they were starting to happen, pagan cults were under attack. They had fewer and fewer adherents. Their funds were drying up, and there were physical destructions and even personal violence, all in the name of Jesus.

This article comes directly from content in the video series The Triumph of ChristianityWatch it now, on Wondrium.

Why Were Christians So Intolerant?

It may be hard to understand these acts of Christian intolerance: Isn’t Christianity a religion of love, not just love of one’s neighbor, but also love of one’s enemy?

How are we to explain acts of violence against others? One may be tempted to claim that it’s all because of Christian exclusivism; it’s claimed that it’s right and all other religions are wrong and so had to be opposed with violence if necessary. There may be something in this claim, but it certainly cannot be the entire story. Even non-exclusive pagans who were open to a multitude of various cults could be completely intolerant of Christians and persecute them.

On the other hand, there have always been Christians who believed that even though they were exclusively right, it was nonetheless important to adopt a live and let live policy toward followers of other traditions. And so, exclusivism does not necessarily lead to intolerance, and intolerance does not necessarily lead to physical violence. So, why did it do so in the 4th and 5th Christian centuries?

Eternal Consequences

One factor is to consider that Christians were not only exclusive with respect to themselves, insisting that they would never worship other gods, but with respect to the very matter of truth and eternal life. Everyone else needed to follow their path as well. Everyone had to become a Christian. This is what some of the Christians said. Those who did not do so could not be right with God, and this would lead to eternal consequences. 

Anyone who did not turn from their other religions and accept Christ and live accordingly would be damned forever. And so some Christians adopted a stance of what they undoubtedly would have seen as hard love, where the best way to help another was to coerce them to accept the Christian faith even by means of violence if necessary.

The Race to God

An example comes in the words of a famous pagan rhetorician named Themistius, who played a prominent role in Roman government for more than 30 years, almost entirely under Christian emperors up to and including Theodosius. In his writings, Themistius points out that a ruler “Cannot compel his subjects in everything, but there are some matters which have escaped compulsion.” 

In his view, you cannot successfully legislate virtue or religious beliefs; not even torture works to make someone want to behave or believe in certain ways. Themistius believed in tolerance; for him, there was not one path to the truth. Instead, all religions are like a race in which people are allowed to go off in different directions, taking different routes in order to reach the same goal. There may be one divine being that everyone is heading for, but there’s not one road leading to him. 

Many, many Christians agreed with Themistius; others disagreed and took violent action accordingly, There’s no concrete evidence to suggest that occasional violence like this succeeded in winning converts, but surely it upset the pagans who sincerely held true to their own religious traditions. Even so, converts were coming in in Droves, making the 4th century possibly the most transformative period in the history of the West.

Common Questions about Christian Violence in the Roman Empire

Q: What were some of the violent acts committed against pagan statues under the reign of Theodosius I?

At the time, many statues and cultural sites which were considered sacred to pagans were destroyed and mutilated. These acts were meant to symbolize the biblical censure of pagan gods.

Q: Why did Christian violence suddenly rise in the 4th and 5th centuries?

One reason for the rise in Christian violence may have been exclusivity. It claims that it’s right and all other religions are wrong, increasing the chance of using force to guide everybody to Christianity.

Q: What was Themistius’s view on changing people’s minds on religion?

Themistius wrote about believing in tolerance. He thought that all religions were trying to reach the same divine being but using different paths.

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