Ward-Perkins, Bryan: The Impact of Christianity

But while the religious debates of the fourth century were sometimes conducted on the streets, they took place for the most part in peoples’ minds. The different fortunes of the various religions and sects were slowly reflected in the changing religious topography of the empire’s cities. Towards the end of our period, in all cities of the empire, the temples were required by law to be closed, and during the fourth and early fifth centuries many were demolished or adapted to new purposes; but, unsurprisingly, the stages whereby this change was achieved varied from region to region and from city to city, according to circumstance.

As we have seen, in the case of some of the great temples of the east the destruction was both sudden and violent. However, in the western provinces they seem rather to have been allowed to rot away, to be reused for other purposes or to be despoiled for their building materials only when they had already ceased functioning.(52) Augustine, writing in the 390s to the decurions of Madauros in Africa Proconsularis, suggests that, although cult-statues were deliberately destroyed, the temples themselves were much more gradually transformed or allowed to decay: ‘you have, of course, seen how some temples of the idols have collapsed for lack of repair, some are ruinous, some closed, and some adapted for other uses. The idols themselves have either been broken up, or burnt, or locked away, or otherwise destroyed.'(53) This process had begun before the imperial ban on pagan worship in 391, since an inscription of 379/83 from the same city of Madauros refers to a temple of Fortune that was already being used for another purpose, probably as a market building.(54)

In one special case, Rome, many of the temple buildings were inextricably entwined with Roman pride and the Romans’ sense of their own past. The temple of Jupiter Capitolinus, protected by Juno’s sacred geese against the Gauls in 390 B.C. and the culmination of every republican and imperial triumph until Constantine, or the temple of Castor and Pollux in the Forum, where the heavenly twins appeared after the Roman victory at Lake Regillus, could hardly be wilfully destroyed, even when their divine protectors were no longer needed. As late as Ostrogothic times, in 510/11, efforts were made to protect the temple buildings of Rome alongside its other classical monuments; according to an anecdote recorded by Procopius, the temple of Janus in the Forum was still standing in 537 with its valuable bronze doors and, even more surprising, its bronze cult-statue still in place. Lesser temples were almost certainly allowed to be destroyed, but the great historic temples of Rome’s past survived and must have presented an extraordinary sight in their solitude. ‘The gilded Capitol is covered in filth, and all the temples of Rome are coated in dust and spiders’ webs’ – for Jerome this was a triumphant statement of the power of Christianity, but we can enjoy a moment of romantic regret at the powerful image of decaying grandeur that his words conjure up.(55)

While the temples decayed, or were violently destroyed, churches were slowly being built in the cities of the empire. Again the pace of change must have varied greatly according to circumstance, and, unfortunately, only very seldom can we accurately date the building of the first substantial churches. It is likely that in most cities the organization and funds for such a major enterprise did not exist until the late fourth century or into the fifth. At Gerasa Jerash), in modern Jordan, it is possible that the undated first church of the cathedral complex may be of the late fourth century. But, of the remaining fourteen churches now known from the site, none of the twelve that are datable was built before the year 464. In Gerasa the main effort of church-building was undoubtedly in the later fifth century and the sixth century.(56) At the other end of the empire, in Roman Britain, archaeologists have so far discovered remarkably little evidence of urban church-¬building, and the absence of churches must in part reflect the slow pace of Christian building, which was here overtaken, even before it was substantially under way, by the disasters of the early fifth century.(57)

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