Let Superstition Cease: Investigating Anti-Pagan Violence in Late Antique Rome

Research output: ThesisDoctoral thesis 1 (Research UU / Graduation UU)


This dissertation investigates Christian attitudes towards Greco-Roman religions in late antique Rome. The Introduction discusses the revisionist position, that these attitudes were essentially peaceful. This idealizing view is at odds with the generalizing observation of sociologists of religion, that religion tends to promote hostility toward outgroups. These two frameworks are put to the test by analysing a broad variety of different types of sources.
Chapter One is concerned with the physical end of the Mithraea of Rome. Many Mithraea appear to have been violently destroyed by Christians in the period of 390–450. This is contextualized by a historical narrative, arguing that, whereas pagans and Christians had initially coexisted peacefully, the wholesale Christianization of senators left Mithraea vulnerable to attack.
Chapter Two examines the conversion of temples into churches. It shows that, contrary to popular belief, these conversions were sporadic and late. Moreover, in contrast to the destruction of Mithraea, these conversions visibly preserved the architectural remains of ancient temple buildings. The temple conversions in Rome cannot be viewed as examples of anti-pagan triumphalism.
Chapter Three explores the effectiveness of anti-pagan legislation. By analysing the laws from a combined legal and historical perspective, it demonstrates that they were highly effective. Furthermore, it argues that, by penalizing judges and governors, these laws triggered the Christianization of the senatorial aristocracy.
Chapter Four addresses the question of Christian attitudes by comparing the characters and writings of Damasus and Jerome. Damasus maintained a cordial working relationship with the pagan leaders of Rome, while beautifying martyrs’ graves with heroic epigrams. He made Christianity salonfähig, facilitating the Christianization of the senatorial aristocracy. Jerome called for the conversion of pagans, rejoiced over the death of the pagan consul designate, and applauded the destruction of Mithraea, contributing to anti-pagan sentiments.
Chapter Five revisits the destruction of Mithraic monuments and explains the underlying anti-pagan sentiments from the conflict generated by the ideology of martyrdom. Stories of persecution and martyrdom were perceived to legitimize violence against pagans and pagan property. Whereas the previous chapters explained why Christians could destroy Mithraea and glorify their destruction, this last chapter explains why Christians might actually go ahead and destroy a Mithraeum.
The general pattern that emerges is, therefore, that, whereas the relationship between Christians and pagans in the fourth century had been one of coexistence and even cooperation, the alignment of State and newly unified Church on issues of anti-paganism and Christian orthodoxy radically shifted the balance of power. Under Theodosius, catholic Christianity unequivocally became the dominant force in the empire and, because of its exclusivism, it required the systematic depaganization of the empire at every level. Because the triumph of Christianity was defined to be a zero-sum game, the only way Christianity could succeed was for other religions to be reduced to social irrelevance. The demand for exclusivism simply left no room for meaningful positive-sum engagements. Coexistence and cooperation therefore gave way to conflict and coercion.
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • Utrecht University
  • Rutgers, Leonard, Primary supervisor
Award date16 Jun 2017
Publication statusPublished - 16 Jun 2017


  • religion
  • violence
  • late antiquity
  • Christianity
  • paganism
  • Mithras
  • temples
  • legislation
  • polemic
  • martyrdom


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