European Pagan Memory Day

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The Theodosian Code (Codex Theodosianus) is certainly one of the most important sources about the violent end of paganism in the late ancient world. But what is the Theodosian Code and when was it compiled?

The Theodosian Code is a body of laws whose name comes from the name of the Emperor who wanted it to be compiled, Theodosius II, during the 5th century c.e. According to the original project, there should be two Codes, one collecting all the laws issued by the Emperors from Costantine on, faithfully transcribed, and the other collecting only laws in force and some passages of the most important works by Roman jurists. Later, the project was modified and a unique code was compiled, collecting laws issued from Constantine on, grouped according to their matter but not necessarily transcribed with the original text: in order to “make them clearer”, the commission which had been charged with this task, got the permission of deleting or adding words to the laws’ original text. And this wasn’t a “innocent” operation, if we think that a law issued by Valentinian II aiming to grant freedom of gathering to Arian groups, appears, in the code chapter entitled de his, qui super religion contendunt (about those who discuss about religion), as a law protecting a catholic right against heretics!

From the point of view of the European Pagan Memory Day, the part of the Theodosian Code (finally issued in 435 c.e.) we are most interested in is the book 16th, the one collecting laws about religion. When the code was issued about a century had passed since the Edict of Milan and half a century since Theodosius’ edict proclaiming Christianity as state religion, so obviously the Theodosian Code is strongly willing to protect by any means Christian religion against other religions.

The task with which the Emperor charges himself is that of keeping an eye on the orthodoxy of his subjects, even though the decision on what is or isn’t orthodoxy belongs to the bishop council. This happens because, as Theodosius himself says in the letter summoning the Ephesian council, the good of the Empire depended on religion so the Emperor had to act as a servant of the providence and assured that all the subject followed the right way. He didn’t intervene in ecclesiastical problems, but kept an eye on the application of the solutions approved by the Council, so assuring religious peace to the Empire. But this peace, as in the style of the most strict monotheism, was achieved by enforcing very heavy punishments, like death penalty, exile, confiscations, deprivation of civil rights, to all those who somehow dissented from the approved religious line. In this way is enforced the concept that heresy or choice of a different religion are somehow similar to politic dissent, so heresy or choice of a different religion became a crime of high treason, and this concept is the basis of persecution of heretics and witches from Middle Ages on.

In the Theodosian Code, only Judaism got some kind of protection because it was considered some sort of "ancestor" of Christianity, so assuring the antiquity of this one; but this was allowed only under payment of a high price: Judaism had in fact to consider itself as and to behave as a religion projected on the past, without will of expanding itself in the present or in the future.

The 16th book of the Theodosian Code is divided into titles, which are:

Of course, what we are more interested in and what we are going to deal with during the series of articles about the Theodosian Code is the title 16.10, which collects several laws aiming to forbid every manifestation of pagan cults.


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