FROM CONSTANTIUS TO THEODOSIUS
During his visit to Rome in 357, Constantius II ordered the altar of Victory removed from the senate house. Christian senators had understandably been distressed at having to watch while their pagan peers burned incense before senatorial meetings. Yet during that same visit Constantius walked around Rome admiring the ancient temples, and even filled vacancies in the pontifical colleges, evidently in his capacity as pontifex maximus.1 The pious emperor may not have performed these duties enthusiastically, but no doubt saw them as a necessary quid pro quo. If he was going to grant a request from Christian senators, it was tactful to grant a parallel request from pagan senators. Though usually treated as a turning point in Christian intolerance, when viewed in context what this episode really illustrates is the policy of compromise even the most seemingly intolerant of Christian emperors pursued whenever possible.
Many Christians undoubtedly urged Constantius to go much further. Firmicus Maternus is one vivid and notably intemperate surviving illustration (Ch. 5. 1). But emperors were reluctant to offend the rich and powerful. Churchmen might put spiritual values first, but emperors faced more pressing priorities. The reason Constantius was in the West at all was a civil war, and while a few prominent Roman aristocrats had rallied to Magnentius (notably Proculus, prefect of Rome under Magnentius in 351–52), many others had left Rome to join Constantius (notably Adelphius, prefect of Rome from June to December 351). As it happens, Proculus was a pagan and Adelphius a Christian, but there is no evidence that allegiance during the war turned on religious sympathy. Even if it had, that was still an argument for conciliating powerful pagans as far as could be done without offending Christian opinion. It was no doubt explained to Constantius that Roman priesthoods were social prizes rather than religious vocations (Ch. 4), and that the pontiffs and augurs themselves never touched a knife or a sacrificial victim.
The altar of Victory was back in the senate house by 382, no doubt the result of an appeal to Julian on Constantius’s death. Inevitably, Christian senators are bound to have renewed their demand for its removal on Julian’s death. Some have argued that
1. Amm. xvi. 10. 4–12; Symm. Rel. 3. 7; Rüpke 2008, 58, implausibly claims that this “had nothing to do with the role of pontifex maximus, but must be seen in respect of the emperor’s participation in senatorial appointments.”