Constantius II’s Rise and His Legislations against Paganism


By Bart D. Ehrman, The University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill

Roman Emperor Constantine, the first to convert to Christianity, died on May 22, 337. And, the nasty and brutal events that happened within the imperial household following his death are important not only for understanding the secular course of Roman history but also for religious affairs within the Christian church.

Being an ardent supporter of the Church, Constantius II passed laws that abolished pagan practices. (Image: Dmitry Sedakov/Shutterstock)


Political power and concerns about imperial succession had their all too familiar horrible effects in Rome. In the wake of Constantine’s death came a bloodbath known as the Massacre of the Princes.

Constantine had earlier ordered his eldest son and heir, Crispus executed. Three sons were left: Constantius II, Constans, and Constantine II. This was not a peaceful and close-knit family committed to the endearing expression of Christian familial love.

In addition to the three sons, there were 11 other male relatives of Constantine in the line of succession. Following a long tradition of Roman imperial tyranny, though now taking it to an extreme, Constantine’s sons, or at least one of them, arranged for nine of the 11 relatives to be slaughtered in cold blood right off the bat.

The only two who were spared were young cousins, Gallus and Julian, who, as they were just boys and appeared to pose no threat. Much later, as an adult, Julian claimed that it was Constantius II who had ordered the murders, and he was probably right.

Division of the Empire

When Constantius II learned of his father’s death, he was the first of the brothers to arrive in Constantinople, the capital city that Constantine had earlier built when he moved the imperial apparatus out of Rome for strategic reasons. Constantius probably gave the instructions for the massacre to his military commanders. This was to eliminate any possible contenders to the throne.

With no serious rivals remaining, the three sons of Constantine divided the empire among themselves. But none of them was particularly satisfied with the arrangement. Who wants to share the rule when in theory, you can have it for yourself?

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Constantius’s Ascension to the Throne

Tensions rose significantly. Three years after the division of power, Constantine II attempted to seize control of Italy from his younger brother Constans, but he died in battle. A decade later, in 350 CE, Constans was murdered by a usurper.

The remaining brother, Constantius II took out the usurper. And so, he was the last man standing, the sole ruler of the empire in 350 CE.

By this time, the two younger cousins had grown, and Constantius elevated the elder, Gallus, to be a major administrative figure in general. But when the emperor suspected that Gallus had an eye on the throne, he had him executed. All of this is to say, that by 354 CE, there are only two remaining of the original 14 male relatives of Constantine, the emperor Constantius II, and his young cousin, Julian.

Constantius’s Mission against Paganism

One might think that these murderous acts would compromise the Christian mission. But as it turns out, imperial support for the church grew as the blood flowed.

Constantius II was a passionately committed Christian. Although ironically, he supported and promoted the Arian understanding of the faith that had been condemned at the Council of Nicaea.

Constantius II was the first emperor to begin passing legislation directed specifically against pagan cults. This legislation was in direct contrast to the irenic Edict of Milan from four decades earlier which legislated complete freedom of religion on all sides, specifying that Christians and practitioners of all the traditional cults, “Everyone may have permission to choose and practice whatever religion he wishes.”

But now, Christianity was thriving at an increasing rate and the emperor wanted to encourage it. The laws he passed forbade pagan sacrifices and ordered the closing of temples.

Forbidding Pagan Sacrifices

A law issued in 341 CE stated, “Superstition shall cease, the madness of sacrifices shall be abolished. In accordance with the law of the Sainted Emperor, our father, anyone who performs sacrifices shall suffer the infliction of a suitable punishment and the effect of an immediate sentence.”

In the law of 346 CE, the penalties are specified, “Temples, in all places and in all cities are to be immediately closed and access to them forbidden.” No one may perform a sacrifice. “Anyone who does shall be struck down with the avenging sword and his property shall be confiscated.” Any governor who failed to avenge such crimes was to be similarly punished.

a desolate temple
Although the new legislation abolished pagan temples, there was little or no imperial follow-up. (Image: Nastya Smirnova RF/Shutterstock)

Perhaps even more drastically, later in Constantius’ reign in 356, “Anyone who sacrifices or worships images shall be executed.”

Anti-pagan Stance

Christian intellectuals in earlier centuries had pled with pagan authorities simply to leave them alone. They should have the freedom to worship however they choose. Now, that the Christians had started to acquire the upper hand, they ignored the pleas for freedom of religion and tried to enforce their own views on others, persecuting those who would not obey.

With that said, it’s important to stress two points about these relatively early laws opposing pagan practices. First, the orders were always directed to specific locals. They were never meant to be taken to be directives for the entire empire. And second, there were no enforcement clauses or means of enforcement. And there’s no hard evidence that there was any imperial follow-up. Nevertheless, the precedent of anti-pagan legislation was set. It was to have an ugly legacy in later decades.

Common Questions about Constantius II’s Rise and His Legislations against Paganism

Q: What happened at the imperial household after Constantine’s death?

Political power and concerns about imperial succession had their all too familiar horrible effects on the family. In the wake of Constantine’s death came a bloodbath known as the Massacre of the Princes.

Q: What is the Massacre of the Princes?

Constantine‘s sons, or at least one of them, arranged for nine of the 11 contenders for the throne to be slaughtered in cold blood. The only two who were spared were young cousins who appeared to pose no threat, Gallus and Julian.

Q: What were the religious legislations that Constantius II passed?

Constantius II passed anti-pagan legislation that forbade pagan sacrifices and ordered the closing of temples.

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Who Was Constantine, the First Emperor to Convert to Christianity?