Saturday 11 January 2014

The Man Who Abolished Classics

Theodosius I
Everyone interested in history or Classics needs to be able to drop the name ‘Theodosius I.’   It’s the 1,667th anniversary of his birth today, but I’ve been meaning to share my grudge against him for a while. If we want to identify an individual responsible for abolishing pagan antiquity, Theodosius is a prime candidate. His portrait needs to glower at the reader from the last page of any history of the classical world.
Without this bug-eyed emperor’s edicts of 380-91 AD, the Delphic oracle would still be in operation, the Olympics would not have had to be reinvented in the 19th century, you could still hire a diviner to read your sheep’s entrails, and the Vestals would still be preserving their virginity in Rome. 

Pagan libraries might still be open, having taken better care than the Byzantines to preserve more than e.g. a miserable seven masterpieces by Sophocles, who wrote ten times that amount. If Theodosius hadn’t banned worship of statues there would be a lot more with complete heads and arms for classical art historians to discuss. 

Theodosius also banned conversion from Christianity to paganism, which was still happening---it wasn’t only Julian ‘the Apostate’, the last pagan emperor in the 360s, who was brought up Christian but fell in love with the Olympian gods.

Pagan rites did rumble on for a while. As late as the sixth century, some Greeks were still worshipping their bloodthirsty Artemis on the south coast of Turkey under her resonant title ‘Artemis of Freedom’. But it was Theodosius who ensured that the ‘ancient Greeks’ were now running their last lap.  Just to be sure, he invented feudal theocracy by submitting to the orders of Bishop Ambrose rather than insisting that as Emperor he do anything he pleased. The world today might have been very different if Theodosius I had lightened up.


  1. Replies
    1. is this an ontological query or an epistemological one?

  2. Where does one start with this ? It is good to know you have a date for the closure of the Delphic Oracle - please could you share the evidence. 4th century Constantinople was stiff with pre-Christian statuary (try the recent work of Sarah Bassett) - indeed one surviving item (the Obelisk in the Hippodrome) was erected by Theodosius the Great. Byzantines cared lovingly for the masterpieces of the Outer Learning - you might want to take a look at the Vienna Dioscorides or the Clarke Plato, not to mention the Bibliotheca of the Patriarch Photius. S. Ambrose was in no position to order Theodosius to do anything - he simply told Theodosius that he could not receive Holy Communion if he did not repent of ordering the massacre of several thousand people in the Circus at Thessalonica. It is good to see that Classicists stand up for arbitrary imperial rule (not that that was what Later Roman emperors exercized) when the Church was able to moderate it both as an alternative focus for loyalty and as a witness for the lovingkindness of God. Finally, name one convert TO 'paganism' (whatever that might be), other than Julian's fellow-travellers (e.g. the bishop of Troy) who regressed briefly during his brief reign.

    1. I am so sorry that my flippant tone and any perceived disrespect to Byzantinists!
      Must try harder.
      On the final question, Porphyry would surely count.

  3. Thank you for reminding me of this evil man. re-blogged...

  4. I seem to recall from my reading of Eusebius of Caesarea that the oracles were pretty much ignored in his day, and his panegyrics of Constantine probably set more precedent than Theodosius did for feudal theocracy. It also seems that his edicts were more bark than bite ( I agree that the edicts should not have been promulgated.

  5. You are undoubtedly correct about the importance of Constantine. I am afraid that I was being a bit more flippant than a lot of people realised!

  6. Well, he wasn't exactly a barrel of laughs!

  7. I'm not sure, but didn't we replace oracles by science?