The Pocession: Leighton

The Altar of Victory and the
Establishment of Church Temporal Authority

Jessika Lucas, R.O., IHSM, M.A.


"At the far end of the Roman Senate House (Curia) is a low platform on which stood an altar and a golden statue of Victory, placed there by Octavius to celebrate Rome's victory over Antony and Cleopatra at Actium two years before (31 BC) and decorated, says Cassius Dio (LI.22), with spoils from Egypt. There, too, relates Suetonius (XXXV), Augustus provided that incense and wine be offered at the altar. In ridiculing the notion of a woman who "passes as a bird, a great vulture and a goddess both in one," the Christian poet Prudentius provides a description of how the statue of Victory actually may have looked. The bronze image of Victory illustrated left, which dates from the first-century AD, also suggests her appearance.

The statue, itself, was taken from Tarentum, which had been abandoned by Phyrrus and captured by the Romans in 272 BC. About the same time, the Romans struck a new type of coin: one with a portrait of Roma on one side and the figure of Victory on the other. One of the most common virtues represented on the reverse of Roman coins, Victoria (from vincere, to conquer) was personified as a winged figure, usually holding a palm and descending with flowing robes as a messenger of the gods to bestow a laurel wreath on the victorious.

Together with Victoriola, a small cult statue of Victory standing on a globe and extending a wreath, she symbolized the gift of victory and the renown it conferred. The image continued to appear on the coinage long after other pagan deities had been excluded, an evocative symbol of Rome's triumph, although as a personification only and no longer divine. By the fourth century, the winged Victory, its idolatrous association beginning to fade, had been transformed into the figure of an angel, the intermediary and attendant of God, and the palm branch, a symbol of victory over death and the church triumphant." *

A number of events led to the establishment of the Christian Church as the most powerful influence in Europe during the Middle Ages. Central to this occurrence was the Roman Altar of Victory Dispute. It was the initial turning point in both religious and political history for all of the Western World, the resolution of which led to the establishment of the Christian Church as the sole state religion during the last years of the Roman Empire. The events which led to the establishment of the Church as the predominant authority are corroborated by legal documents in the records of successive emperors of the late Roman Empire and detailed in historical writings of the period from many points of view.

The Altar of Victory was the ultimate symbol of Roman supremacy. The Altar was a "majestic female standing on a globe, with expanded wings, and a crown of laurel in her outstretched hand." The senators of Rome were solemnly sworn on this altar to observe the laws of the emperor and the empire. According to Gibbon a dignified "offering of wine and incense was the ordinary prelude of the public deliberations." The statue had been transported from the city of Tarentum in the boot of southern Italy by Julius Ceaser, placed in the Roman Curia and was later decorated by Augustus with spoils from Egypt.

The Architect: William BlakeThe political strength of Christianity as a competing religion and political faction by the fourth century is symbolized by the political controversy in the surrounding the existence of the Altar of Victory. It was first removed from the Roman Senate house in 357 A.D. by Emperor Constantatius. Emperor Julian, a confirmed pagan restored it in the same year in celebration of his military triumph over Magnentius. Julian reopened the temples, ordered that sacrifices should be brought to the altars and demanded that the worship of the old gods be restored. But in 382 A.D. the Altar of Victory was again removed from the Senate house, by the boy Emperor Gratian, "a fervent Nicene Christian," and also the first emperor to refuse the title and duties of Pontifex Maximus. Gratian cut off all financial aid to the state cults which had coexisted with Christianity since the reign of Constantine and "expropriated the immense wealth of the temple of Vesta and its chosen virgins for the benefit of the imperial treasury."

During the period from 356 to 381 A.D. no law existed against the practice of Roman pagan rites, but the evolution of the Theodosian Code in the next decade sealed the fate of pagan religions finally. The precedent for the code was first established in 384 A.D., when Symmachus, a pagan champion and prefect of the City of Rome, appealed to Emperor Valentinian in a letter, to again restore the altar and reestablish financial support for the state cults. He claimed that the lack of respect for the Gods had caused a famine. Symmachus' letter was sent by Valentinian to Ambrose, the Bishop of Milan who responded in part, that paganism had not protected the city from the likes of Hannibal. "Hannibal reviled the sacred objects of the Romans for a longtime," however, "the conqueror reached the city walls." Ambrose admonished Valentinian to "learn of the heavenly warfare," and "raise an altar to Christ." An example of the power of the church in this period is evident, for as a result of his letter, Symmachus, the prefect of Rome and chief of the pagan party at the time, "was hurried from the imperial presence and set down at the hundredth milestone from Milan."

The Theodosian Code was first published in 391 A.D., in the year of the consulship of Symmachus. It began with the curt commands that superstition "shall cease" and "the insanity of sacrificial rites shall be abolished." The document included twenty-five edicts against the practice of paganism. However, for a time, the feasts of Magna Mater were still attended and the Vestal Virgins continued to attend the eternal flame. A last attempt to reestablish the Roman religion was made again by Symmachus in 392, but the Emperor Valentinian refused even against the wishes of the senate. A comprehensive law passed in the same year absolutely forbid visits to the pagan temples and sacrifices to the ancient gods. Private worship of household gods, by incense, lights or garlands was also interdicted. The law applied to all citizens of the empire, no matter how highly placed including the senators. All governors, defensors, and curials were bound to obey it under the threat of heavy penalties.

For a time the pagan party remained strong for in spite of the interdictions, there were transgressions. In the same year a votary to Mithra, a competing religion of ancient Iranian origin, was instituted in Rome and in spite of the fact that the enactments of the code included the withdrawal of inheritance and the rights of bequest in punishment for those who profaned their baptism and faith in Christ, persons of high rank deserted the Christian fold, and lapsed into Jewish, Manichaean, and other non-Judeo-Christian religions of the region. During the time of Julian, "fear of the consequences had kept the emperor from practicing pagan rites, "except in the greatest possible secrecy." But the murder of Valentinian II and the elevation of Ugenius allowed Flavinus a governor from the country and a favorite of the court, who held a "burning hatred" for the Christians to once more succeed in having the Altar of Victory restored and supported by the treasury of the State for a short time. During this period an oracle was circulated predicting the demise of Christianity.

Rubens?The election of the pagan Flavinus to consul of 394 A.D., led to the celebration of the festivals of Isis and Magna Mater within the pagan party. A civil war ensued for control of the empire between the pagan Eugenius and the Christian Theodosius in which the latter was victorious. In triumph, Theodosius marched to Rome, convened the senate, installed his son Honorius as emperor, and delivered a speech in which he admonished the Senators to recant their "error. . . . But none were willing to give up the rites, which had been passed from generation to generation since the city's founding, in favor of an absurd belief."

In spite of codes and laws Theodosius, ultimately failed in abolishing cults completely, and according to Zosimus, a fifth century historian, the empire gradually diminished due to the division between the factions. The last short lived reaction to Christian dominance occurred, when the Visigoth King Alaric, invaded Rome and donned the royal purple with the approval of the senate. Alaric set up Attilus, a military tribune, under the leadership of Lampadius, an avowed believer in divination, as a rival emperor to Honorius. Along with Tertullius who had hopes of consular appointment by the senate and Jovious, a freethinker of "fluid convictions," they presented a picture of a reunited empire of both east and west. They proposed a restoration of the temples and festivals in an oratory to the senate. But, in a few months time, Attilus met his death and was secretly buried. Zozimus wrote regarding this period,

Other things which had been handed down from other times lay neglected . . . .The empire of the Romans. . .became a domicile of barbarians - or rather, having lost its former inhabitants, it was ultimately reduced to a shape in which not even the places where the cities lay situate were recognizable.

St. Jerome and St. Augustine "exult[ed] over the ruins of the temples of the false gods," however successive emperors were well aware that the factional division between the pagans and the Christians among Roman citizens was at an unrecoverable cost to the greatness of the empire. Many works of ancient pagan art had been buried or forgotten and in the ensuing wars and barbarian invasions, especially by Alaric, who had invaded Rome itself, untold significant pagan artifacts of gold and silver were carried away.

Ecumenical Council: Salvador DaliFrom 395 to 408 factional parties, included on the one side Christian Bishops, and the great nobles and officers of Theodosius and on the pagan side, the senatorial class, Arians, Jews, Manicheans and freethinkers. These tore the empire apart intellectually. Accordingly, "Every fluctuation of fortune was seized upon, and skillfully used, to glorify Jupiter or Christ." Radagaisus, another barbarian king, invaded Rome from the Alps with 200,000 strong in this period. He and his people worshiped strange northern gods and revived the pagan belief that the invasion was allowed by the Roman gods because Rome no longer worshiped them.

Stillicho, a half-barbarian Vandal general was left by Theodosius (395 A.D.) guardian of the young emperors Arcadius (age seventeen) who was to rule the East and Honorius (age ten) who was to rule the West. Following invasion by Alaric, Stillicho was blamed by the Christians for loosing the hordes of barbarianism on the Empire. Stillico established peace with Alaric in order to prevent Alaric from aggressing onwards to the eastern part of the Empire, but it was thought by the Christian factions that his purpose was to reestablish paganism. He was charged with slackness and perfidy in his campaigns against Alaric, and the victory of the barbarians at Pollentia was attributed to supernatural aid. Stillico's death was soon masterminded by a competitor Olympius, who replaced Stillico at court. He rose to power for a brief time with the blessings of the church.

The period of invasions deprived Rome of some of her best officers, but also allowed an interval of clemency for the Christian faction, who of course took advantage of the opportunity to gain greater power. The remaining vestiges of the old religion almost completely disappeared as the last of the pagan images were pulled down. Temple lands were confiscated and the temples and buildings converted or destroyed. Banquets and games where pagan rituals were a part of the event were prohibited and abolished.

It was during this period that the bishops of the church were given civil jurisdictional powers. A part of their duty was to enforce the laws; civil judgments were deemed the prerogative of the bishops. As a result they began to appropriate real political power. Since the pagan faiths had been innately bound with economic, political and social institutions, their disappearance and the rise of the Christian bishops to power caused profound changes in other aspects of life. That they vanished so completely is due to the vast changes in the civilization and the culture to which they were associated. Christianity became a major factor in the destruction of the ancient pagan world, and as its clergy rose to power politically also effected the evolution of the church.

As the intellectual life, literature and language of the Christians rapidly evolved it produced a mixed effect. A widespread distrust of pagan philosophy developed and became a binding force of the Empire. Paganism became equated with the rival party and as the Christians became politically stronger, paganism diminished to an equivalent degree. There was also a neglect of the sciences.

And while many of the new Christians were students of ancient philosophy, they adapted their arguments for Christianity in philosophical disguise. They influenced the educated classes to turn to Christianity as the successive philosophy to the teachings of the Greco-Roman world. The writings of both Clement and Origen, two of the early church fathers were especially discussed amongst the upper classes. This Christian theology, influenced by Greco-Roman thought, notably Platonism and Neo-Platonism made Christianity worthy of consideration in the minds of the intellectuals. In this time period Christianity was introduced as a philosophy not incomparable to that of Aristotle's Metaphysics and Plato's Timaeus both of which rested on a cyclical theory of the rise and fall of the arts and civilizations. Christianity became accepted as the next wave.

The bloodless sacrifice of the Eucharist required altars and thus buildings to enclose them while the initiatory rites gave rise to baptisteries. Christian mores also affected moral reforms and a new sense of humanitarianism. Christianity required monogamy, continence before marriage, abhorred "sexual irregularities," and adultery, abortion, infanticide, and exposure of children. Augustine preached equal salvation for men and women and although monasticism propagated the idea that women were temptations, the church advocated marriage as an institution worthy of the blessing of the church. Although the church did not take a stand against slavery an institution in effect even in Judaic times, it did teach that slaves should be properly treated. Manumissions or freeing of slaves was apparently voluntary, but in many cases became a part of celebrations on festival days as a means of expiating sins. Slaves were granted religious equality and in some cases were even allowed to hold the office of bishop.

The new Christians did not condemn wealth, however they did universally hold the opinion that wealth should be used to freely assist the needy, particularly those in the faith. Voluntary contributions were used to fund acts of benevolence and charity. The Emperors especially became benefactors, financing schools, libraries, temples, baths, theaters, markets, public works games, public amusements, hospitals and orphanages. In the early years Christians abstained from military service and gladiatorial games, horse races and the theater, but in later times became more involved with the trappings of government. Overtime the Christian calendar of festivals and holy days were contrived to replace the pagan.

Madonna of Ligat: Salvador DaliThe Christian religion also had its effect on the law codes. Marriage laws, and punishments for theft, prostitution and murder were later adapted to reflect more equality of punishment and increasingly came to disregard class distinctions. Many acts that had been legal under the pagan system became offenses and were made punishable by law. As their power grew in various localities bishops in many cases became more powerful than the emperors; in fact the emperors became subject to the church as time wore on. History records that Theodosius was denied admittance to the Cathedral by Ambrose until he made a public confession and penance for a wanton slaughter of a number of people in one of the cities.

While Christianity was not the main cause of the fall of the Roman Empire it was certainly was a significant factor if not the decisive factor in the disintegration process. As Christianity grew it undermined the power and unity of the senate. Christianity promulgated a new culture that if not perfected replaced many barbaric practices with a fresh philosophy and theology that advocated a more humanitarian and benevolent approach. However, the more advanced pagan religions holding similar principles of humanitarianism and benevolence were forced underground.


Bibliography: Sorry these sources will have to suffice. Notes lost in antique computer.

Frend, W.H.C. The Rise of Christianity. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1984.

Chadwick, H. The Early Church. Grand Rapids:Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1969.
Gibbon Edward. The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire.(Chapter 28)