Status of Pagans in Roman Empire in the 380s CE on Oration of Libanius ‘For the Temples’

Keywords: late Roman Empire, Libanius, Theodosius I, paganism, Christianity


The position of pagans in the Roman Empire after its Christianization is a relevant topic in modern historical science, arousing lively discussions and debates. The goal of this paper is to analyze the status of pagans in the late Roman Empire on the basis of Libanius’s oration ‘For the Temples’ (Pro templis). Among the objectives of the paper are the following: to determine the official attitude of the authorities to the old cults at the time when the oration was written; to study the main appeals of pagans to the authorities and their arguments for appeals’ implementation; to analyze the local relationship between Christians and pagans.

The oration was written in the reign of Emperor Theodosius I, who at the beginning of his reign pursued a dual policy towards the pagans. On the one hand, the emperor did not practice global persecutions. On the other hand, the laws against pagans, passed in the 4th century, were still in force. In such a situation, the persecution of pagans could take place on the private initiative of local officials. Such a situation was with the praetorian prefect of the East, Cynegius (384-388), who began to destroy pagan temples, giving as a reason the fact that forbidden sacrifices continued to be performed there. Such actions infuriated pagans, including the rhetorician from Antioch, Libanius. He himself was a tolerant pagan who advocated a dialogue between religions.

The oration ‘For the Temples’ was a kind of protest against the actions of Cynegius, and its main purpose was to stop the policy of temples destruction. The principal argument of Libanius could be formulated as follows: if the emperor wanted to ban paganism – he would have done it. But that did not happen, just certain rituals, such as sacrifices, were forbidden. In that situation, pagans followed such logic: everything that was not forbidden was allowed. Pagans, in particular, were still free to declare their religious beliefs, hold traditional holidays, and worship home deities. Libanius mentioned the examples of legal public pagan rites in Rome and Alexandria. The oration suggested a compromise between the old and the new religion. Thus, pagan temples were proposed to be used as treasuries, if only not to destroy them. At the same time, Libanius harshly criticized active Christians (especially monks) who were involved in the destruction of temples. The historical document ‘For the Temples’ presents the last period of more or less free pagans confession of their cults in the Roman Empire. The period ended in 391-392 when Theodosius I set down a number of strict laws against polytheists.


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How to Cite
Pukhovets, D. (2020). Status of Pagans in Roman Empire in the 380s CE on Oration of Libanius ‘For the Temples’. Eminak: Scientific Quarterly Journal, (3(31), 189-198.
World History and International Relations