Question about early saints and persecution of pagans

A (non Christian) friend of mine asked me a question to which I can’t find an answer to. She talked about the persecution and killing of pagans during the early centuries of the Church, and understands that there was a lot of killing done on both sides, and that not all Christians behave as they ought etc.

But then she named a few saints, St Cyril of Alexandria, St Ambrose, St Theophilus, St Constantine the Great, and asked why they are revered and honoured as saints even today in the Church even though they were involved in the persecution and killing of pagans.

I’ve got to be honest - I’ve never even heard of this before, and I couldn’t find anything on Catholic Answers about it, which puzzles me - usually I can find lots about Church history if I’m looking for information on something. I want to answer something like, being recognised as a saint doesn’t mean you’ve lived a perfect life, just that you died in friendship with God and contributed something valuable to the Church.

But I think I need more of an answer for her, and I’m kind of stumped. I don’t know whether the allegations made about these saints are true, and what the ramifications are if they are true. If they’re true, then I don’t know why I’ve never heard them before, and why the Church wouldn’t do more to distance herself from the saints (e.g. more openly recognising “Ambrose made great contributions to the Church, but remember that all saints have sinned and some have sinned greatly” and so on).

Thank you in advance. I know there are some more historically-knowledgeable people on the forums than me, so I’d be grateful for any light you can shed on this all.

It was pagan rome who persecuted, not the other way around.

The first thing to do in handling this question is to require that your friend provide documentation that these saints did, in fact, persecute and kill pagans.

Pax Christi.

They did not persecute.

And Constantine is not a canonized saint. He was baptized on his deathbed and was no example for us all.

He was Great, but not Holy.

God bless.

Yeah, no.

Proof please.

Yes, it is always difficult to find information on things that never happened.

And Constantine is not a canonized saint. He was baptized on his deathbed and was no example for us all.

Ah, that’d be the first red flag then :slight_smile:

I don’t know, I’m not exactly sure what she was trying to say. I don’t think she was trying to argue that those saints had actually killed people themselves or persecuted them, just that they supported it. She also mentioned the name Hypatia as someone who was killed by a Christian mob, and said that apparently St Cyril of Alexandria had something to do with it. But I can’t find anything that supports that.

Eh, it’s not looking good for her claims, I guess. I just wanted to ask around, see if anyone knew anything about it.

Hypatia was indeed killed by a Christian mob, but not because of her paganism, but because of political tensions in Alexandria between St Cyril, and the Christian prefect of the city, Orestes. And there is no strong evidence that St Cyril really ordered the murder. It’s possible, but we can’t really now. And even if he did, it’s not relevant. A saint is not a perfect and sinless person, event St Paul, the greatest of the apostles after St Peter, was indeed a murderer before his conversion.

About the murder of Hypatia, we have one contemporary account, that of Socrates Scholasticus. (chapters 13 to 15)

You can read these two articles, they’re really interesting too :

(Written by an atheist, so no risk of bias :slight_smile: )

Constantine is venerated as a saint in the Eastern Catholic Churches.


The author says he is:
“As an atheist, I’m clearly no fan of fundamentalism…”

Very perceptive closure in the author’s last paragraph & sentence.

Re: St. Cyril of Alexandria - Good explanation already given. Feel free to annoy people by pointing out that A) there’s no evidence that Hypatia wasn’t Christian as well as Neo-Platonist, since we know one of her most prominent students went on to become a Christian bishop (he was drafted by his town), and B) at that time, Neo-Platonist meant “I teach people how to have strange powers and do magic, as well as philosophy and hating matter and math,” which is why a lot of the surviving stories about Hypatia talk about her clairvoyance.

There are lots of surviving primary sources about the Neo-Platonists of that point; the Life of Plotinus is one of them. We also have some letters where Plotinus complains about all the non-Neo-Platonists and Christians attending classes despite not believing his philosophy, and instead following “haireses” (our word “heresies” came from their word for branchings-off of philosophy).

As for St. Ambrose, he didn’t do anything personally to pagans. He did lobby the emperors (who were Christian by then, and had been for several emperors) to stop giving state support money to the pagan priesthoods and the vestal virgins, which they were doing out of the old Roman fear that “bad things will happen if we don’t give the gods their stuff, and they get angry at us.” Ambrose had a lot of fish to fry, and he was too busy to persecute anybody (he was too busy telling off the emperors whenever they slaughtered the citizenry out of anger).

Emperor Theodosius I basically tried to iron things out (in a Roman sort of way): he declared that orthodox non-Arian Catholic Christianity was the only religion you could legally call “Catholic,” that everybody in the Empire who was already Catholic should know and believe in Catholicism, and that heretics would be called heretics - and be subject to possible Imperial punishment for misrepresenting Christianity. That’s pretty much it.

However, when it came to paganism, Theodosius I did make it known that cities would have to sort out on their own what happened to pagan religion or to abandoned pagan temples; the Empire wouldn’t do anything about it, and wouldn’t prevent anybody doing stuff to rip down pagan temples. Problems showed up when Christians went after non-abandoned temples, or when pagans who never actually supported their temples suddenly decided that they were upset about redevelopment. The most notorious case, the Serapeum in Alexandria, had been abandoned for years and was lived in only by animals (its library had been removed long ago to save it from nibbles), and even the giant statue of Serapis was infested with rats. Its major use was as an occasional hideout for bandits on the run. So yes, it shouldn’t have been destroyed by a mob; but probably the city would have destroyed it eventually, as a dangerous eyesore - like having a giant crackhouse on the skyline of a city today.

Emperor Constantine, who is indeed counted as a saint by the Eastern churches, didn’t persecute anybody. He just declared Christianity legal, that’s all.

The closest thing he did to persecuting anybody was to declare (after the Council of Nicaea, which he sponsored and attended as an observer) that if Arius was a heretic who didn’t teach real Christianity, obviously his books teaching Arianism should be burned.

I’m not real clear on Constantine’s reasoning here. The ancient pagan Romans did include the burning of books in their legal system. Usually they burned books of alleged prophecy or divination which predicted stuff about the future of the Roman state or the emperor (which was a big crime under the heading of treason).

The only permitted books of prophecy about this topic were the Sybilline Books, which were kept in a big chest and accessed only by a committee of Roman senators who were also priests. They had to ask the Senate for permission to consult the Sybilline Books. At one point, the Sybilline Books were burned in a fire, and had to be recreated from the memory of the priests who were still alive and had read the books, and from the few known authentic quotations in history books.

(Naturally there were tons of alleged copies of Sybilline prophecies in circulation, including ones allegedly predicting that Christ would come. So all the burning of Sybilline literature didn’t actually work.)

The other category of book burning was also for reasons of treason: books or other works advocating the death of the emperor or the destruction of the Empire. It was usually philosophers and historians who ran afoul of this, although comedians, poets, and playwrights also had to watch out for it. Emperor Augustus was particularly sensitive about anybody saying his rule was illegal or stupid. (And no wonder, since he and his uncle Julius Caesar had made up the whole emperor thing, and it was totally against all of Roman law and tradition.)

So the only thing most historians can figure is that Emperor Constantine was upset because the argument between orthodoxy and Arianism was causing unrest throughout the Empire (and of course it was causing riots in Alexandria, because everything caused riots in Alexandria). Causing unrest was treasonous, so Arius’ books were treasonous. The End.

Of course, what this meant in practice was that from then on, both orthodox and heretical bishops were constantly getting exiled or having their books burned, depending on who the current emperor thought was the one to blame for causing unrest. And this is why you don’t necessarily want the state butting into religion.

Re: “St. Theophilus,” I have no idea whom your friend is even talking about.

I’m pretty sure it’s not the Theophilus to whom Luke addressed his Gospel and the Acts of the Apostles.

I’m pretty sure it’s not St. Theophilus of Adana, whom legend said sold his soul to the devil but then took it back, with help from the Virgin Mary.

I’m pretty sure it’s not Admiral St. Theophilus, who was with the Byzantine Navy and defended Cyprus against an invading Muslim fleet. He was captured in battle and spent a year as a POW, and then was martyred because he refused to convert to Islam.

St. Theophilus of Bulgaria was a monk who got beaten up, imprisoned, and exiled by Emperor Leo the Isaurian for saying that icons were okay.

St. Theophilus of Libya was martyred by being burned in a furnace by pagans.

St. Theophilus of Caesarea Maritima was martyred in the pagan Emperor Decius’ persecution of Christians. He was a teacher of St. Clement of Alexandria, and he was known for arguing against Christians celebrating Passover on 14 Nisan. He certainly didn’t persecute anybody.

St. Theophilus of Alexandria was martyred at the hands of a pagan mob, together with St. Amon, St. Neoterrus, and a bunch of other Christians.

St. Theophilus of Egypt was one of four young monks living out in the desert whom St. Onuphrius and St. Paphnutius ran into. An angel brought them all Communion while they were visiting and praying together. (Hard to say who they’d be persecuting, while living alone in a tiny oasis!)

St. Theophilus of Corte was just a Franciscan guy who did Italian evangelism work in the early 1700’s. No persecution there.

Please have your friend tell you who the heck this St. Theophilus is, and when he lived.

What is it about Catholicism that makes the fringes of Christianity spread so many lies? Envy?
What happened to the commandment “You shall not bear false witness”???

I wondered about that, too.

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