How pagan temples became Christian churches in the Middle Ages – part one

I was in Rome last month and saw evidence of pagan temples converted into Christian churches – either by being converted for new use or rebuilt using materials from the old temple.

The front of the Pantheon
The front of the Pantheon

When the Roman emperor Constantine embraced Christianity, he set in train a process that would last centuries – of pagan temples being systematically demolished, plundered or converted to use as churches. The most dramatic example is the Pantheon – a huge rotunda with a still existing dome made of concrete, completed in CE126 under the Emperor Hadrian. Originally, the Pantheon was a temple to all the gods but after Constantine the clock was ticking against the images of deities like Mars and Venus.

Under the Byzantine emperor Phocas – who held sway over Rome and the papacy – the Pantheon was donated by the emperor in CE609 to the church. The Pantheon was consecrated as a place of worship to Mary and the Martyrs. This probably saved the building from demolition though as late as the 17th century, pope Urban VIII stripped bronze away from the portico.

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Paganism in Europe at the time of the Templars

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Ancient Roman anti-Christian graffiti depicting Jesus as a crucified donkey

We imagine that at the time of the Knights Templar, the whole of Europe was long converted to Christianity. Well, think again. Paganism was persistent for centuries after the Romans adopted the cross under the Emperor Constantine in the year 313.

When Constantine embraced Christianity, it’s estimated about 10% of the population of the empire were on board with the new religion. Many of those were among the elite with local peasant populations holding fast to the old beliefs.

The first century of legalisation saw Christians at each other’s throats over what their faith really meant. Was Jesus truly human? Was he purely spiritual? Could the son really be equal and co-existent with the father? Was there a god of good and a god of evil? Was Jesus a Jew come to fulfil prophecy and the law or something completely new who spoke to gentile and Jew alike?

Blood was spilt over these questions.

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Jupiter – didn’t go quietly

But worse for the new religion was the pagans were not prepared to give up quietly. There’s often the impression given that Romans switched peacefully and totally from paganism to Christianity overnight. Simply not true.

The state had to cajole, coerce and threaten capital punishment to bring over the population across the empire. There were even tax breaks for becoming a priest and career opportunities if you just signed on the dotted line!

By the end of the fourth century, an impatient and pious (some might say bigoted) emperor Theodosius began a full-blown programme of temple demolition to enforce Christianity. And not just any old version of the faith. He and successive emperors were determined to root out both non-orthodox variants of Christianity and to stamp out the still very prevalent paganism.

And pagans were not just ignorant rustics. There were aristocrats in Rome and philosophers in Athens and Alexandria who found Christianity vapid, illogical and vulgar. Conservative opinion wanted to retain allegiance to the gods that had brought victory to Rome. They lobbied the emperor strenuously to retain the statue of Victory in the Roman senate.

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Justinian

So resilient was paganism that by the sixth century after Christ, the emperor Justinian was still trying to stamp out non-belief in his court and empire. He threatened both non-orthodox Christians and pagans with capital punishment. And it was Justinian who shut down the famous Athenian academy that had produced the greatest philosophers humanity has ever known.

Eventually, most of western and southern Europe, north Africa and the near Middle East converted – until the arrival of Islam changed the religious dynamic again. But pockets of pagans continued to worship old gods – not least in the Baltics and what is now Russia.

ironlordIron Lord is a Russian movie that depicts Christian conversion in Russia as the Prince of Rostov takes on a pagan cult based around a violent bear!  He kills the bear and the tribe converts.  They convert to what one pagan calls the ‘Greek God’ – namely the version of Christianity that was being promoted by the Byzantine empire, what we now call the eastern orthodox church.

But astonishingly, in the early 13th century, the ‘Old Prussians’ of what is now northern Poland and the Baltic state of Lithuania had still not converted.  Indeed they held out so vigorously that the papacy mounted a full crusade against them, spearheaded by the Teutonic knights – an order not entirely dissimilar to the Templars.

The Teutonic Knights also turned their attention to the Russians, who had adopted the Byzantine version of Christianity, much to the pope’s disgust. However – the knights came a cropper in what is called the Battle of the Ice where the Russians let the ice do the talking.

So, in spite of what you might have thought before, it took nearly a thousand years from the conversion of the Emperor Constantine to finally bring Europe under Christian domination.  And not everybody bowed willingly to the cross.

Top Ten Martyred Saints!

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Diocletian – last Roman emperor to persecute the Christians

The Templars loved to worship saints who had given up their lives in name of Christ so here’s a list of top ten martyred saints the knights would have known and possible revered. Many of them were martyred during the reigns of two Roman emperors – Trajan Decius and Diocletian. As a rule, the Romans didn’t ban religions outright. The only criteria for clamping down was disloyalty to the state and sedition.

 

But as the empire, under increasing attack from stronger enemies, became more unstable – it sought greater unity. These two emperors demanded pledges of loyalty from all citizens and while some Christians went along with this and made the dutiful sacrifice to the emperors at a local temple, others did not. Under the emperor Diocletian in particular, this resulted in a nasty end. Ironically, Diocletian was the last pagan emperor with his successor Constantine embracing Christianity.

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    Saint Agatha – in some accounts her breasts were cut off, which she carries on a tray in many paintings!

    AGATHA – died 251 CE – during the reign of the Roman emperor Decius who had outlawed Christianity, Agatha was tortured very brutally including being rolled over broken tiles, cut in various places and burning coals applied to her flesh. The incorrupt body was apparently sent to Constantinople centuries later but then parts of Agatha ended up in Catania.

  • ALBAN – died 304 CE (disputed) – an Englishman and a pagan by birth. He hid a priest from the Roman authorities and then to protect him, dressed as the priest when soldiers arrived at his house. The local governor new Alban and asked him to return to the state religion. He refused. After being scourged he was taken to be beheaded but supportive crowds blocked the way and a river had to be crossed. Alban caused the waters to part so he could be martyred for Christ. The executioner was so impressed that he converted on the spot. Both men were then beheaded.
  • EUPLIUS – died 304 CE – like so many of the early martyred saints, this is another one under the reign of Diocletian. He was found reading the gospels and was led to the place of execution with the sacred texts hung round his neck. He had been brutally tortured and beheading was apparently a sweet release.
  • FEBRONIA – early fourth century – like many other young female martyrs of this time, she was said to be exceedingly beautiful and a virgin. She refused to renounce her faith and was roasted on a gridiron, had her teeth knocked out and breasts cut off. Then she was executed. Out of remorse, the uncle of the local Roman prefect was said to have dashed his own brains out.
  • GENESIUS – died 285 CE – yet another Diocletian purge victim. This time starting out in life as a pagan comedian who mocked the Christians but then suddenly realising the error of his ways, converted. The praetorian prefect Plautian reacted by having Genesius stretched on a rack and torn at with hooks before the inevitable beheading.
  • GORDIUS – early fourth century – a Roman soldier who became a Christian. In the town of Caesaria, he was told there were to be games in honour of the god Mars. When Gordius showed up, both pagans and Christians were queueing up for the festivities and entertainment in the arena. So he began insulting Mars and was dragged before the governor who offered him riches to recant. But he wouldn’t. So it was off to the torturer and when that didn’t work, he was burned to death.
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    Lucy and her eyes

    LUCY – died 304 CE – one of the most revered female saints from very early on in the church’s history. Martyred at Syracuse in Sicily, she was reputed to have either gouged out her own eyes to put off a potential suitor (bit extreme!) or they were gouged out by the Romans during her torture. As a result, she is patron saint to the blind.

  • POLYCARP – died 155 – the Knights Templar believed they had the head of Saint Polycarp. He was said to have been a disciple of the apostle Saint John. Polycarp was made bishop of Smyrna before John was banished to the island of Patmos, from where he wrote the Book of Revelation. It’s claimed he was martyred during a persecution by the emperor and stoic philosopher Marcus Aurelius. That is the emperor played by the actor Richard Harris in the movie Gladiator.
  • QUIRINUS – early fourth century – Diocletian abdicated as emperor but his co-emperor Galerius continued the policy of purging Christians. Quirinus was a bishop who was ordered to sacrifice to Jupiter and refused. He was tied to a millstone and chucked in the river. But miraculously, the millstone and Quirinus floated to the top and he continued to preach for a while to the huge crowds. Then he sank and died.
  • VITALIS – first or second century – an early Christian martyr. A similar tale to the above with a refusal to renounce Christ and accept the state gods leading to his execution. What distinguishes this story is that his wife Valeria was then set upon by the pagans and died of her injuries. She was subsequently canonised too. One of the statues in St Peter’s square in Rome is of Vitalis and the Byzantines built a octagonal basilica to him at Ravenna that can still be seen today. It includes a mosaic of the emperor Justinian, a Christian and a Roman ruler.

Couple of things to note.

Many Christians did not wish to be martyred and so sacrificed to the gods. This caused an early division within Christianity where some of the faithful refused to associate with those who had chickened out of martyrdom. These die-hard Christians were called Donatists and held sway in parts of north Africa. Their view did not prevail and even though the martyrs were lauded, those Christians who had chosen the path of compromise prevailed.

Also – just to reiterate that the Roman state was largely disinterested in theology.  It was more focussed on the correct practice of religion and loyalty to the emperor than what the Christians actually stood for. There is an enduring myth that when Rome became Christian, slavery, brutal capital punishment and the games disappeared. They did not. Christians and pagans shared many social values including the holding of slaves and the need for executions to maintain order. In fact, Christians introduced new capital crimes related to moral failing – for example executing slaves who assisted their owners in committing adultery.