Christianity

The Persecution of Christians in Eusebius

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Koenig wrote that “Religious tolerance is something we should all practice; however, there has been more persecution and atrocities committed in the name of religion and religious freedom than anything else.” This post will look at the persecution of Christians through Eusebius’ Historica Ecclesiastica and other primary and secondary sources.  

It is difficult to apportion blame for this persecution, or whether individuals can even be held responsible, for truly the greatest contributors to persecution are those who do nothing when they have power to make a difference.  Eusebius like Lactantius implies that blame lies with Galerius though his implication does not directly name him; instead addressing Galerius as the long accepted “prime mover in the calamitous persecution.”[1] Lactantius agrees with this claim announcing that, due to his mother’s conceived hatred against the Christians for not following her ways, she instigated Galerius to destroy them.[2]  Why would Eusebius make the suggestion that Galerius was responsible? Barnes asserts that Eusebius was a prime supporter of Constantine and wrote in his reign.[3] His support for Constantine suggests that he could not offend those related to the Emperor, such as Constantius who reigned during the same period as Galerius as he would be indirectly offending Constantine himself.  It is also possible that Eusebius had a personal vendetta against Galerius, blaming him for the persecution of his fellow Christians.

Eusebius’ account also suggests that divine judgement was responsible for the persecution of Christians.  Eusebius expresses that “increasing freedom transformed our character to arrogance and sloth.”[4] Eusebius goes on to explain that divine judgement, God himself, gradually began to order things and the persecution began with the Christians in the army.  This indicates that Eusebius thought the Christians brought the persecution upon themselves for ignoring sins and abusing their own freedom. Eusebius’ suggestion of divine judgement further indicates that he was attempting to put a positive spin on the circumstances, making it appear that persecution was part of God’s ultimate plans, God being infallible. Barnes asserts that the purpose for this suggestion was to strengthen the belief that “God intervenes in history to ensure that the Christian Church shall prosper.”[5] This indicates that Eusebius may have even been suggesting that the persecution had its benefits in the prosperity of Christianity by laying the blame of the persecution in divine hands.

The account by Eusebius and other scholars shows that the persecution affected different areas with varying intensities, some greater than others. For instance, Eusebius describes the persecution at Thebais where people were subject to wild animals and other horrendous tortures.[6]  An analysis of Eusebius’ account of Thebais, Antioch and Nicomedia among others gives us the impression that though the Christians suffered horribly, there was always a faith that could not be taken from them, that there was a “most wonderful eagerness…in those who had put their trust in Christ.”[7] This gives us the impression that many Christians saw the persecution as a chance to prove their loyalty to God.

 The place where the persecutions appear to be carried out with the greatest intensity according to Eusebius and Lactantius was not a location in the geographical sense.  Eusebius highlights that the army was a key target and starting point of the persecution.[8]  An assessment of the army being central to the persecution suggests that there was an aim to strengthen the loyalty of military powers.  Eusebius also asserts that Nicomedia was a focus point.[9]  From this account we gain the impression that the intensity in Nicomedia was to primarily strengthen imperial powers. 

Other areas where we see an intensity of persecution as told by Eusebius were Antioch and Tyre.  ‘Historica Ecclesiastica’ recounts the “ordeal of the Egyptians who championed the faith so gloriously at Tyre.”[10]  Eusebius also indicates the great intensity in Egypt and Syria, stating that “we should feel equal admiration for those of them [Egyptians] who were martyred in their own country.”[11]  This statement also suggests that the persecution was wide spread.

Religion is more apparent in history than any other reason for persecution.  The persecution of the Christians under Diocletian is one such example where the persecution had varying consequences to the population and church even with the introduction of an edict of toleration.[12] The edict of toleration would have provided the majority of the Christians with a sense of relief.   Though, the sheer number of volunteer martyrs mentioned by Eusebius and Lactantius implicate that for the few the edict removed their chance to show their devotion.  Momigliano asserts that one such response is that some Christians voiced resentment in light of those who “survived in fear”[13] through the persecution rather than in physical pain. An analysis of this suggests that there may have been some resentment for the minority who appeared to seek the persecution.[14]  

The edict also created consequences in relation to ‘conscience’ and the unification of the church.  Chadwick assesses that there were many problems of conscience as a result of the persecution and that one such response was the rise of certain militant extremist groups such as the Donatists.[15]  The Donatists counted even the smallest of physical punishments as a worthy martyrdom and saw those who denied their faith, as traitors.  This suggests that militant ideas forced a widening division focusing on the legitimacy of certain clergy members. Chadwick assesses that these problems of ‘conscience’ in light of the persecution led to many adaptations of the law to meet particular cases. [16] 

Eusebius explains another ramification of the edict’s responses was that it set bishops against each other due to certain cleric’s militant ideologies.[17]  In achieving this, the church was further divided even though Constantine appears to be looking for a means of unification.  An evaluation of the responses to the edict suggest that it created a new though less severe bout of persecution, this time between the various factions of the Christian population.

The persecution of Christians under Diocletian is one example of the many religious conflicts throughout history.  Through primary and secondary sources we see where the blame of this persecution is aimed and that the persecution looked towards securing military and imperial power.  The persecution had several ramifications, showing us that even with an edict of toleration the church lay divided.  We do however see one continuing theme; that even in the face of extreme controversy and persecution, faith stood tall in the hearts of many even in the face of death.


[1]: Eusebius, Historica Ecclesiastica, Book 8 (Eusebius, The History of the Church, Penguin (London 1989), p.280 – Eusebius addresses Galerius as “the author of this edict” rather than by name.  Further reference to Galerius as the prime instigator of the persecution is found on p.281 as the man whom Eusebius wrote of on the previous page.

Eusebius’ Ecclesiastical History was rewritten at least twice in light of the persecution, Eusebius wishing to leave a permanent account of the martyrs of his day

[2] Lactanius, De Mortibus Persecutorum,, 11-13 in Stevenson, J., A New Eusebius: Documents Illustrating the History of the Church to AD337 (London 1987), p.271 – Lactantius recounts the nature of Galerius’ mother in regards to the Christian religion not agreeing with her own and how she made sure her hatred continued in her equally superstitious son.

[3] Barnes, T.D., Constantine and Eusebius (London 1981), p.150

[4] Eusebius, op.cit, p.257

[5] Barnes, op.cit., p.162

[6] Eusebius, op.cit., p.265

[7] Ibid., p.265

[8] Ibid., p. 260 – primary attack on the army as an example as well as a means to secure military power on the part of the Arian persecutors

Lactanius, De Mortibus Persecutorum, 31.1-52.5 (Creed, J.L. (trans.), (Oxford, 1984), p.49

[9] Eusebius, op.cit., p.261 – significant centre of imperial power in the period, by securing the power of the imperial forces you secure more significantly the population which they rule over

[10] Ibid., p.264

[11] Ibid., p.264

[12] Barnes op.cit., p.159

[13] Momigliano, A., The Conflict Between Paganism and Christianity in the Fourth Century (Oxford, 1963), p.80

[14] Cameron, A., The Later Roman Empire: AD 284-430 (Glasgow. 1993), p.66 – provided a link to the apostles

[15] Chadwick, H., Studies on Ancient Christianity (Hampshire, 1984), p.XX47

[16] Ibid., p.XX47

[17] Eusebius, Vita Constantini, 22.1-61.1, Cameron, A. & Hall, S.G. (trans.), Eusebius, Life of Constantine (Oxford, 1999), p.115, book II 61.2-62

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Pliny and Trajan on the Judgment of Christians by the Roman State

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Pliny the Younger’s question in his letter from Book X 96-97 is centrally what is considered punishable? This suggests that what crime is actually something that eludes Pliny.  He has several ideas with associated questions which he presents to Trajan but his personal opinions appear obscured. Pliny states that he does ‘not know what offenses it is practice to punish or investigate, and to what extent.’[1] He examines the nature by which he himself has punished Christians and determines that he has more questions than answers for ‘What Crime were the Christians guilty of?’ For one thing though Pliny says he has no doubt that, whatever the nature of their creed, stubbornness and inflexible obstinacy surely deserve to be punished.[2]  But is this the answer? In Pliny’s opinion, were the Christians simply guilty of stubbornness and obstinacy and was this enough of a crime to warrant persecution?

English: Denarius featuring emperor Trajan
English: Denarius featuring emperor Trajan

Pliny however does not appear to believe that Christians constituted a threat to the security of the state as ‘he found nothing more than a malignant and immoderate superstition’,[3] which he does not consider to be a crime.  Pliny’s enquiries suggest that the Christians were plainly guilty of being Christians.  But, in his opinion the Christians bind themselves by oath and not to some crime.[4] Pliny asks ‘Whether it is the name itself…or only the offenses associated with the name that is to be punished.’[5] Which cements Pliny’s perplexity as to what type of punishment should be inflicted if their crime is only the name they bear.

The first thing that comes to mind in reading Trajan’s reply is that Trajan’s view on the treatment of Christians appears rather different to many throughout subsequent periods.  It almost appears to be a case of innocent until proven guilty; stating that denouncing others is a sort of thing that is a dangerous type of precedent and out of keeping with the spirit of the age.[6] Trajan’s reply has been determined problematic by scholars.  Firstly, it does not answer all of the questions that Pliny prescribes and only assures Pliny that his actions are correct. Secondly, there is no reference to Pliny’s question regarding distinctions on the basis of age.  These suggest that persecution of Christians is already quite common; is Trajan simply following established precedents?

In relation to the subsequent treatment of Christians, Trajan’s reply also brings up a number of other questions.  For instance; does this treatment of Christians apply only to problems in Pontus, or is it a kind of general edict? This idea of a general edict has been discussed by a number of scholars.[7]  But there is no evidence of such an enactment.  Is Keresztes right, and presupposed here is an edict previously propagated by Nero?[8]  Trajan states that it is not possible to lay down any general rule.[9]  This is indicative that there is no general edict proscribing Christians.

In examining Trajan’s Rescript it seems that the state and imperial rule were not convinced that Christianity posed a political threat and they had no intention of indiscriminate application of anti-Christian legislation going unchecked.[10]  This appears almost tolerant of Christianity, an idea which would become more pronounced in subsequent dealings.  However, Trajan appears anxious not to upset public opinion by vetoing the right to take the Christians to trial.[11]

The Imperial cult is very relevant to the situation, as the centre of upholding a unified empire, which the Christians and their faith detracted from.[12]  There was also conflict as an oath to the Emperor constituted the basis of business transactions within the empire.  This was an issue to the Christians and the other involved parties as how could they accept in good faith? Eusebius states that during the period there was no open persecution but partial attacks in various provinces… notably…establishment of the imperial cult had taken two centuries in which time the Graeco-Roman world had become more unified in a common loyalty to the imperial idea.  Frend assesses that in becoming so it stood increasingly on its guard against rival ideology.[13]  This is relevant as a basis for persecution of the Christians in Pontus-Bithynia.[14]

The idea that the Christians were persecuted by name alone is viable, as to be associated with Christianity was itself a crime because Christians were seen as the culprits who brought divine retribution through their rejection of traditional forms of religion such as the imperial cult.  Sardi puts it, the Pax Decorum had been undermined and the pagan masses demanded some decisive action on the part of the state in order to restore it.[15]  The imperial cult is also very relevant to the situation based on Pliny’s location.[16]  With a centre of the imperial ideals so close, Christians were seen as potential dangers.

Christianity can also be seen as a threat to imperial rulership with the imposing idea of a Lord God, bringing up questions regarding ‘Lord Caesar vs Lord Christ’.[17]  More specifically it is relevant in the line of questioning that Pliny takes as to why the Christians are being persecuted, is it due to name alone? Does this wider idea of a threat to the traditional by association constitute a crime by the individual?

Bibliography

Dundas, G.S., Pharaoh, Basileus and Imperator: The Roman Imperial Cult in Egypt (Michigan, 1993)

Fishwick, D., The Imperial Cult in the Latin West: Studies in the Ruler Cult of the Western Provinces of the Roman Empire (New York, 1987), pp.97-149

Frend, W.H.C., Martyrdom and Persecution in the Early Church (Oxford, 1967), pp. 155-172, 461-466

Hazlett, I., Early Christianity: Origins and Evolution to AD 600 (Nashville, 1991), pp.52-64

Keresztes, P., The Imperial Roman Government and the Christian Church, I: From Nero to the Severi, in ANRW II 23.1, pp.247-315

Lane Fox, R., The Spread of Christianity: Pagans and Christians (Canada, 2006), pp.428

Macmullen, R., and Lane, E.N., Paganism and Christianity 100-425CE: A Sourcebook (Minneapolis, 1992), pp.74-78

Macmullen, R., Christianizing the Roman Empire (A.D. 100-400) (London, 1984), pp.25-42, 132-138

Momigliano, A., The Conflict Between Paganism and Christianity in the Fourth Century (Oxford, 1963), pp.17-37

Pliny, Letters, Book X, 96-97 (Trans. Melmoth, W., Harvard Classics Series, reproduced from: Internet Medieval Source-Book, ed. P.Halsall [www.fordham.edu/halsall/sbook.html])

Sherwin White, A.N., The Letters of Pliny: A Historical and Social Commentary (Oxford, 1966)

Sordi, M., The Christians and the Roman Empire (London, 1986), pp.57-60

Wilken, R., Pliny: A Roman Gentleman, in idem., The Christians as the Romans Saw Them (New Haven, 1984), pp.1-30


[1] Pliny, Letters, Book X, 96-97 (Trans. Melmoth, W., Harvard Classics Series, reproduced from: Internet Medieval Source-Book, ed. P.Halsall [www.fordham.edu/halsall/sbook.html]), 96

[2] Ibid., 96

[3] Ibid., 96

[4] Ibid., 96 – …not to commit fraud or adultery or the falsifying of trust

[5] Ibid., 96

[6] Ibid., 97 – Trajan’s reply to Pliny

[7] Keresztes, P., The Imperial Roman Government and the Christian Church, I: From Nero to the Severi, in ANRW II 23.1, p.279

[8] Keresztes, op.cit., p.279

[9] Pliny, op.cit., 97

[10] Sordi, M., The Christians and the Roman Empire (London, 1986)., p.58

[11] Ibid., p.58

[12] Lane Fox, R., The Spread of Christianity: Pagans and Christians (Canada, 2006), p.428

[13] Frend, W.H.C., Martyrdom and Persecution in the Early Church (Oxford, 1967), p.156

[14] Ibid., p.162 – The area at the time had fallen into serious financial and administrative difficulties and these difficulties were blamed on the Christians and their contention to the imperial cult so causing chaos rather than the unity which the imperial powers had set out to encourage.  This idea is seen elsewhere in the empire, for instance Christians were blamed for natural disasters such as the famine of 92/93 in Pisidion Antioch.

[15] Sordi, M., op.cit., p.57

[16] Frend, W.H.C., op.cit., p.164 – Amastris in the eastern part of the province where Pliny appears to have come across the majority of the Christians after passing Amisus also was where the provincial council and priest of the imperial cult were situated. 

[17] Ibid., p.155

An Outline of the Persecution of Christians in Eusebius

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Koenig wrote that “Religious tolerance is something we should all practice; however, there has been more persecution and atrocities committed in the name of religion and religious freedom than anything else.” This post will look at the persecution of Christians through EusebiusHistorica Ecclesiastica.

It is difficult to apportion blame for this persecution,  for some of the greatest contributors to persecution are those who do nothing when they have power to make a difference.  Eusebius like Lactantius implies that blame lies with Galerius though his implication does not directly name him; instead addressing Galerius as the long accepted “prime mover in the calamitous persecution.”[1] Lactantius agrees with this claim announcing that, due to his mother’s conceived hatred against the Christians for not following her ways, she instigated Galerius to destroy them.[2]  Why would Eusebius make the suggestion that Galerius was responsible? Barnes asserts that Eusebius was a prime supporter of Constantine and wrote in his reign.[3] His support for Constantine suggests that he could not offend those related to the Emperor, such as Constantius who reigned during the same period as Galerius as he would be indirectly offending Constantine himself.  It is also possible that Eusebius had a personal vendetta against Galerius, blaming him for the persecution of his fellow Christians.

Icon depicting the First Council of Nicaea.
Icon depicting the First Council of Nicaea.

Eusebius’ account suggests that divine judgement was responsible for the persecution of Christians.  Eusebius expresses that “increasing freedom transformed our character to arrogance and sloth.”[4] Eusebius goes on to explain that divine judgement, God himself, gradually began to order things and the persecution began with the Christians in the army.  This indicates that Eusebius thought the Christians brought the persecution upon themselves for ignoring sins and abusing their own freedom. Eusebius’ suggestion of divine judgement further indicates that he was attempting to put a positive spin on the circumstances, making it appear that persecution was part of God’s ultimate plans, God being infallible. Barnes asserts that the purpose for this suggestion was to strengthen the belief that “God intervenes in history to ensure that the Christian Church shall prosper.”[5] This indicates that Eusebius may have even been suggesting that the persecution had its benefits in the prosperity of Christianity by laying the blame of the persecution in divine hands.

The account by Eusebius and other scholars shows that the persecution affected different areas with varying intensities, some greater than others. For instance, Eusebius describes the persecution at Thebais where people were subject to wild animals and other horrendous tortures.[6]  An analysis of Eusebius’ account of Thebais, Antioch and Nicomedia among others gives us the impression that though the Christians suffered horribly, there was always a faith that could not be taken from them, that there was a “most wonderful eagerness…in those who had put their trust in Christ.”[7] This gives us the impression that many Christians saw the persecution as a chance to prove their loyalty to God.

The place where the persecutions appear to be carried out with the greatest intensity according to Eusebius and Lactantius was not a location in the geographical sense.  Eusebius highlights that the army was a key target and starting point of the persecution.[8]  An assessment of the army being central to the persecution suggests that there was an aim to strengthen the loyalty of military powers.  Eusebius also asserts that Nicomedia was a focus point.[9]  From this account we gain the impression that the intensity in Nicomedia was to primarily strengthen imperial powers.

Other areas where we see an intensity of persecution as told by Eusebius were Antioch and Tyre.  ‘Historica Ecclesiastica’ recounts the “ordeal of the Egyptians who championed the faith so gloriously at Tyre.”[10]  Eusebius also indicates the great intensity in Egypt and Syria, stating that “we should feel equal admiration for those of them [Egyptians] who were martyred in their own country.”[11]  This statement also suggests that the persecution was wide spread.

The Baptism of Constantine (1520-24) Fresco St...
The Baptism of Constantine (1520-24) Fresco Stanza di Constantino, Palazzi Pontifici, Vatican

Religion is more apparent in history than any other reason for persecution.  The persecution of the Christians under Diocletian is one such example where the persecution had varying consequences to the population and church even with the introduction of an edict of toleration.[12] The edict of toleration would have provided the majority of the Christians with a sense of relief.   Though, the sheer number of volunteer martyrs mentioned by Eusebius and Lactantius implicate that for the few the edict removed their chance to show their devotion.  Momigliano asserts that one such response is that some Christians voiced resentment in light of those who “survived in fear”[13] through the persecution rather than in physical pain. An analysis of this suggests that there may have been some resentment for the minority who appeared to seek the persecution.[14]

The edict also created consequences in relation to ‘conscience’ and the unification of the church.  Chadwick assesses that there were many problems of conscience as a result of the persecution and that one such response was the rise of certain militant extremist groups such as the Donatists.[15]  The Donatists counted even the smallest of physical punishments as a worthy martyrdom and saw those who denied their faith, as traitors.  This suggests that militant ideas forced a widening division focusing on the legitimacy of certain clergy members. Chadwick assesses that these problems of ‘conscience’ in light of the persecution led to many adaptations of the law to meet particular cases. [16]

Eusebius explains another ramification of the edict’s responses was that it set bishops against each other due to certain cleric’s militant ideologies.[17]  In achieving this, the church was further divided even though Constantine appears to be looking for a means of unification.  An evaluation of the responses to the edict suggest that it created a new though less severe bout of persecution, this time between the various factions of the Christian population.

The persecution of Christians under Diocletian is one example of the many religious conflicts throughout history.  Through primary and secondary sources we see where the blame of this persecution is aimed and that the persecution looked towards securing military and imperial power.  The persecution had several ramifications, showing us that even with an edict of toleration the church lay divided.  We do however see one continuing theme; that even in the face of extreme controversy and persecution, faith stood tall in the hearts of many even in the face of death.

Bibliography

Barnes, T.D., Constantine and Eusebius (London 1981), pp.148-163

Eusebius, Historica Ecclesiastica, Book 8 (Eusebius, The History of the Church, Penguin (London 1989), pp.256-81

Cameron, A., The Later Roman Empire: AD 284-430 (Glasgow. 1993), pp.66-84

Chadwick, H., Studies on Ancient Christianity (Hampshire, 1984), pp.XX47-51

Stevenson, J., A New Eusebius: Documents Illustrating the History of the Church to AD337 (London 1987), pp.269-275

Momigliano, A., The Conflict Between Paganism and Christianity in the Fourth Century (Oxford, 1963),

Croke, B. & Harries, J. (eds), Religious Conflict in Fourth-Century Rome (Sydney, 1981), pp.14-19

Laistner, M.L.W., Christianity and Pagan Culture in the Later Roman Empire (New York, 1951), pp.4, 131-138

Greenslade, S., Church and State from Constantine to Theodosius (London, 1976), pp.30-35

Lactanius, De Mortibus Persecutorum, 31.1-52.5 (Creed, J.L. (trans.), (Oxford, 1984), pp.48-79 & 113-25

Eusebius, Vita Constantini, 22.1-61.1, Cameron, A. & Hall, S.G. (trans.), Eusebius, Life of Constantine (Oxford, 1999), pp.78-115

Watson, A., Aurelian and the Third Century (London, 1999), pp.1-20

Lactanius, De Mortibus Persecutorum,, 11-13 in Stevenson, J., A New Eusebius: Documents Illustrating the History of the Church to AD337 (London 1987), pp.271-272


[1]: Eusebius, Historica Ecclesiastica, Book 8 (Eusebius, The History of the Church, Penguin (London 1989), p.280 – Eusebius addresses Galerius as “the author of this edict” rather than by name.  Further reference to Galerius as the prime instigator of the persecution is found on p.281 as the man whom Eusebius wrote of on the previous page.

Eusebius’ Ecclesiastical History was rewritten at least twice in light of the persecution, Eusebius wishing to leave a permanent account of the martyrs of his day

[2] Lactanius, De Mortibus Persecutorum,, 11-13 in Stevenson, J., A New Eusebius: Documents Illustrating the History of the Church to AD337 (London 1987), p.271 – Lactantius recounts the nature of Galerius’ mother in regards to the Christian religion not agreeing with her own and how she made sure her hatred continued in her equally superstitious son.

[3] Barnes, T.D., Constantine and Eusebius (London 1981), p.150

[4] Eusebius, op.cit, p.257

[5] Barnes, op.cit., p.162

[6] Eusebius, op.cit., p.265

[7] Ibid., p.265

[8] Ibid., p. 260 – primary attack on the army as an example as well as a means to secure military power on the part of the Arian persecutors

Lactanius, De Mortibus Persecutorum, 31.1-52.5 (Creed, J.L. (trans.), (Oxford, 1984), p.49

[9] Eusebius, op.cit., p.261 – significant centre of imperial power in the period, by securing the power of the imperial forces you secure more significantly the population which they rule over

[10] Ibid., p.264

[11] Ibid., p.264

[12] Barnes op.cit., p.159

[13] Momigliano, A., The Conflict Between Paganism and Christianity in the Fourth Century (Oxford, 1963), p.80

[14] Cameron, A., The Later Roman Empire: AD 284-430 (Glasgow. 1993), p.66 – provided a link to the apostles

[15] Chadwick, H., Studies on Ancient Christianity (Hampshire, 1984), p.XX47

[16] Ibid., p.XX47

[17] Eusebius, Vita Constantini, 22.1-61.1, Cameron, A. & Hall, S.G. (trans.), Eusebius, Life of Constantine (Oxford, 1999), p.115, book II 61.2-62

Julian’s Religious Approach and Resemblance to pre-Constantinian Pagan Practices

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A bronze coin from Antioch depicting the emper...
A bronze coin from Antioch depicting the emperor Julian. Note the pointed beard.

The paganism of the Emperor Julian both resembled and differed from pre-Constantinian pagan religious practices and organisation.  Julian’s paganism to a great extent differed from pre-Constantinian pagan religious practices in relation to organisation. Like Maximin II, Julian attempted to ‘foster’ the virtues he admired and envied in the new faith into his own reformed paganism.  Julian grew up in an environment based on the teachings of Christianity, and his wish to found an essentially ‘pagan church’[1] suggests that this environment and his education influenced his religious reformation.[2]  This influence on Julian’s youth included that of his strictly Galilean mother and her and his tutor Mardonius.  Even though Mardonius is said to have loved Hellenism and taught Julian Homer and Hesiod, he taught Julian in light of the Galilean faith.  Browning asserts that Julian broke completely away from Christianity[3] but Ammianus disagrees with this, suggesting that though Julian had an inclination towards paganism, his Christian background greatly influenced his later interpretations of Pagan beliefs.[4]  Julian kept up the pretence of a Christian until the time of his rise to Augustus and it is unreasonable to think that his Christian conditioning did not influence his later views of religion in some way or another.

Frend assesses that Julian attempted to imitate the ways of the Christian church in terms of structure and organisation.[5] Julian wished to establish a pagan priesthood of high moral standing which was properly organised under regional high priests with authority over lesser priests who all were under himself as pontifex maximus.  Even with the introduction of common ideas such as the grafting of Christian virtues on a pagan base, there was no common religious allegiance which could have held the pagan cults united under Julian.[6]

Many of Julian’s reforms were praised by the Pagan population but they also saw fault in his religious approach and design. The reorganisation of the Pagan priesthood may have been an effective means of establishing a priesthood which rivalled that of the Christian faith but it did not cultivate well in the “old soil”[7] of the Pagan faith. The Emperor Julian was not just content to revive the Pagan faith and cults as they had been before the establishment of Christianity under Constantine.[8]  Downey explains that the pre-Constantinian Pagan priesthood greatly contrasted to the Christian one in terms of its casual nature.  This suggests that the grafting of hierarchy and structure that Julian tries to force on the Pagans would not have sat well as it took over from a traditional and fundamental part of the Pagan format.  This new structure and Christian influence is also a point of contrast between pre-Constantinian Paganism and Julian’s paganism.

The Emperor Julian’s religious approach was rather extreme in the eyes of many of the Pagans of the period.  People regarded Julian’s continual sacrificing as wasteful and ridiculous earning him the titles of ‘bull-burner’ and ‘slaughter’.[9]  Libanius states that on one occasion in Daphne, for instance, Julian sacrificed one thousand white birds, one hundred bulls and four hundred cows to Cybele.[10]  This over the top attitude of Julian in his keenness for animal slaughter was seen, even in the eyes of the pagans, to be in poor taste and creating a blacker reputation of the pagan faith.

Mosaics in the Hagia Sophia, section: Maria as...
Mosaics in the Hagia Sophia, section: Maria as patron saint of Istanbul, detail: Emperor Constantine I with a model of the city.

Ammianus criticizes that the victims whose blood Julian drenched the altars with were too numerous.[11] The point that even devoutly pagan scholars saw his behaviour as unreasonable indicates that this posed as a problem to them in relation to Julian’s religious reforms and approach.  Cameron assesses that, though Ammianus fails to admit it, Julian’s extremist behaviour essentially alienated his own side when they failed to share in his enthusiasm.[12]  This would have created ill feelings within the pagan population on top of their inhibitions concerning Julian’s approach to sacrifice.

The accounts of scholars such as Libanius, Ammianus and Priscus illustrate that though Julian may have overdone many aspects of pagan worship, his paganism did, to a large extent, resemble pre-Constantinian pagan religious practices in relation to cult worship and sacrifice.  With the introduction and establishment of Christianity, many of the pagan ways were diminished: sacrifice was seen as barbaric, pagan mysteries and rituals were seen as heresy and persecution reigned free. But, as Frend explains, Julian not only restored the lands of the pagans, but also reopened and restored many temples and in doing so the practices and cults that they were associated with.[13]  For instance, Julian revived practices such as the consultation of oracles and the examination of entrails.[14]

Another problem that many, especially educated, pagans had with Julian’s approach to the reestablishment of Paganism was his banning of Christians from teaching Classics.  Julian regarded this edict, created in 362, as the most important edict of his reign.  Pagan scholars such as Priscus disagreed with this approach to enforcing paganism, criticising that a line should not be drawn between the old gods and the Christian god or else all would be absorbed by the general atheism of the period.[15] Cameron asserts that through this approach, Julian annoyed not only the Christians but also the educated Pagans who recognised that at least half the good teachers at the universities were Christians and were vital to the continuation of the Classical teaching on which much of the Pagan ideology was based.[16] It appears that Julian was blind to the overlap between traditional ideas and Christian teachings in relation to the ethical insights that are brought across in the Classics.[17] It made sense in the eyes of Julian that it would have been a disgrace for a Christian to teach and instruct a tradition that they rejected, but Julian fails to see the importance of these traditional ideas throughout both religious ideologies.  Educated pagans may well have had a problem with this part of Julian’s religious approach as it demonstrates his ignorance in relation to the survival of pagan traditional ideologies.

The issues with the structure that Julian planned for paganism also coincided with problems that the pagan population had concerning Julian’s high expectations and desire of control.  This approach to paganism caused issues such as those seen with population of Antioch. Maxwell describes how Julian was disappointed by the Antiochenes lack of enthusiasm for the traditional rituals, complaining that their enthusiasm was not directed at the Gods.[18] An assessment of Julian’s attitude and his reactions indicates that he alienated his own side which caused problems between the pagans and Julian. This alienation is seen in Julian’s constant lecturing of the pagans causing considerable annoyance as his expectations were unrealistic.  Cameron asserts that this problem that the pagans had with Julian’s religious approach was the result of many separate situations that exemplify Julian’s expectations.[19]  One such example of this occurred when Julian was incensed at the lack of preparation by the city when he worshipped at Daphne’s shrine of Apollo and the local pagans demonstrated unwillingness to share in his enthusiasm.

Julian revived many cult rituals and practices from pre-Constantinian times, but Julian’s paganism also publicised many rituals and mysteries that in the pre-Constantinian periods had been primarily private.  Julian’s unrestricted show of previously private rituals indicates that his views of Paganism to an extent differed from previously accepted views.  Bradbury states that the contemporary pagans felt uneasy with Julian’s attempt to “make the gods live again in the public consciousness.”[20]  One such example of this difference is that Julian made the private rituals of Cybele more public.  Ammianus explains that with the vast increase of ceremonial rites, Julian allowed anyone who professed knowledge of divination “whether qualified or not” to attend and consult oracles.[21]  This open attitude of Julian to rituals and mysteries is further criticised by Ammianus, stating that this lack of restriction was without any observance to the prescribed rules.[22]  The uneasiness that was felt by the pagans because of this change in traditional rules and ways created further issues between the pagan population and the emperor Julian.

Julian’s paganism may have differed to pre-Constantinian religious practices but there were also similarities between Julian’s revival of Paganism and pre-Constantine. Julian was not content to just revive pagan cults as they were previously but this did not mean that all aspects of the pre-Constantinian paganism were disregarded in his new design.  Frend assesses that, power was handed back to the “traditional representation of the cities and their gods.”[23] This demonstrates a return to polytheism and the idea of polis heroes and gods that were a major part of pre-Constantinian pagan practices and rituals. Julian desired to return to the Homeric ideals and the mutual obligation between man and the gods, while creating paganism that catered to his religious approach and beliefs.  McKechnie also expresses the idea that, though the changes of Constantine’s conversion were never completely reversed, Julian tried to bring back the polytheistic believes and practices but due to his short reign made limited progress.[24]

Julian also orchestrated a revival of pagan cults, as with his thought to reopen the prophetic springs of the Castalian Fount,[25] in an attempt to preserve the pagan philosophy and practices, as well as to cater for Julian’s personal purposes in relation to the advancing war with Persia.[26] Even though Julian wished to reorganise paganism, he also included similarities to pre-Constantinian paganism including its revival of cult worship.  This meant that traditional local cults flourished, such as the cult of Mithras, the sun god, of which Browning explains Julian himself was an initiate.[27] With the revival of public sacrifices and cults, a feeling of confidence was felt among many pagan intellectuals.  This indicates that to more than a fair extent Julian’s paganism resembled pre-Constantinian paganism in relation to the reestablishment of the pagan cult practices.

Julian appears to show a desire in many ways to promote religious tolerance but it seems that Julian’s religious approach resembled pre-Constantinian practice in the persecution of Christians.  Ammianus tells that Julian preferred to make an example by the punishment of the few to show the many,[28] but analysis of several of the events in his reign suggest that he was not always as tolerance of religious difference as he is often made out to be.  For instance, Julian made a point of blaming the Christians for the burning of the temple of Apollo at Daphne.  Even though it was told that the fire had been caused by a fellow pagan individual accidentally, Julian believed strongly that the fire was set by the Christians as an act of spite.[29]  Julian also replaced a significant amount of Christian high officials with his own fellow pagans, blatantly disregarding the idea of using the best men for the jobs.[30]  This intolerance for the Christian faith indicates that this is one such similarity between pre-Constantinian paganism and Julian’s paganism, even if he desired for it to be thought otherwise.

Polytheism was a major attribute of pre-Constantinian pagan worship.  The pagans worshipped many gods for many separate purposes and occasions.  As previously discussed, Julian did bring about a revival of polytheism, but in comparison to pre-Constantinian ideologies, polytheism took a back seat in Julian’s understanding of the pagan gods.  Julian’s understanding of paganism included a sense of monotheism in relation to the traditional Hellenic background.  Mattingly asserts that while both classical and Julian’s paganism answered the question of the “one and the many,” the classical/pre-Constantinian ideas stressed ‘the many’ while Julian stressed the idea of ‘the one.’[31] Julian from an early time appears to accept Helios as the one god.  It is from Julian’s stressing of Helios as an aspect of the one god that we see that Julian’s paganism was more monotheistic than Classical paganism as it took focus away from the traditional ideologies.  

The points of similarity between the two pagan ideologies appear to be fewer in number than the differences, but an assessment of these points suggests that the points of similarity were of greater importance.  The extent to which the paganism of Julian resembled pre-Constantinian paganism can also be seen in the relation of pagan worship to tradition and economic factors.  Mattingly asserts that pre-Constantinian pagan worship did not solely rest on tradition, but also on economic and personal factors.[32]  These factors continue in Julian’s paganism to an extent as with the revival of sacrificial worship, the old ways of using the meat for economic purposes to stock the meat market. The revival of paganism also triggered an increased interest in household deities and gods of daily life.  Julian may have triggered these factors, but personally he appears to care little for the economic side of paganism and focused on his own obsessive worship and understandings.

To a great extent Julian’s paganism did resemble pre-Constantinian paganism in terms of the foundations of the faith being resurrected.  These included the revival of polytheistic attitudes, cult worship and sacrifices, economic and personal links to paganism and the continuation of religious intolerance.  Julian’s paganism, however, also differed to a significant extent as Julian’s interpretation of aspects of pagan practices and his plans to adapt them revealed contrasts to Classical undertakings and interpretations.  These differences caused uneasiness within much of the pagan population and several criticisms of Julian himself.  Differences consisted of Julian’s plans to create a ‘PaganChurch’, his ban on Christians from teaching Classics, publicisation of private practices, excessive sacrificing and unrealistic expectations on the pagans, and a move towards monotheism.  Problems arose from these factors concerning alienation, reputation, expectations and a concern for the traditional ideologies and their survival.  From these points we see that pagans had some issues with Julian’s paganism as praise of him was mixed with blame, but to the majority, Julian was still their hero.  As Ammianus tells Julian was to be reckoned as a man of “heroic stature, conspicuous for his glorious deeds and his innate majesty.”[33]

Bibliography

Armstrong, A.H., The Way and the Ways: Religious Tolerance and Intolerance in the Fourth Century AD, in Vigiliae Christianae, Vol.38, No.1 (March, 1984), pp.1-17

Bradbury, S., Julian’s Pagan Revival and the Decline of Blood Sacrifice in Phoenix, Vol.49, No.4 (Winter, 1995), pp.331-356

Browning, The Emperor Julian (Los Angeles, 1978), pp.109-176

Cameron, A., The Later Roman Empire: AD 284-430 (London, 1993), pp.14-92

Downey, G., Education in the Christian Roman Empire: Christian and Pagan Theories under Constantine and His Successors, in Speculum, Vol.32, No.1 (Jan, 1957), pp.48-61

Downey, G., Julian and Justinian and the Unity of Faith and Culture, in Church History, Vol.28, No.4 (Dec.1959), pp.339-349

Downey, G., Julian the Apostate as Antioch, in Church History, Vol.8, No.4 (Dec., 1939), pp.303-315

Frend, W.H.C. Religion Popular and Unpopular in the Early Christian Centuries (London, 1976)

Frend, W.H.C., The Rise Of Christianity (Philadelphia, 1984), pp.600-610

Gilliard, F.D., Notes on the Coinage of Julian the Apostate, in The Journal of Roman Studies, Vol.54, Parts 1 and 2, (1964), pp.135-141

Grant, M., The Ancient Historians (London, 1970)

Hazlett, I., Early Christianity: Origins and Evolution to A.D.600 (London, 1991), pp.9-10, 240-264

Kaegi, W.E., Byzantium and the Decline of Rome (New Jersey, 1968)

Lieu, S.N.C., The Emperor Julia: Panegyric and Ploemic (Second Edition) (Liverpool, 1982)

Mattingly, H., The Later Paganism, in The Harvard Theological Review, Vol.35, No.3, (July, 1942), pp.171-179

Maxwell, J.L., Christianization and Communication in Late Antiquity (Cambridge, 2006), pp.29-59

McKechnie, P., The First Christian Centuries (Leicester, 2001), pp.238-240

Moore, C.H., The Pagan Reaction in the Late Fourth Century, in Transactions and Proceedings of the American Philological Association, Vol.50 (1919), pp.122-134

Taylor, T., Against the Christians: The Arguments of the Emperor Julian Against the Christians as Preserved in the Fragments of the Lost Emperor Translated from the Greek (Chicago, 1930)

Ammianus Macellinus, Res Gestae, 25.3-7, 21.16 (Ammianus Marcellinus, The Later Roman Empire, Penguin Translation

Ephrem Syrus, Hymni Contra Julianum II. 15-22, 27, III.1-17 (Dodgeon, M.H. & Lieu, S.N.C., The Roman Eastern Frontier and the Persian Wars (London, 1994), pp.240-5

Gregory Zazianzenus, Oratio V, Second Invective Against Julian

Libanius, Oration XVII, The Lament over Julian (Libanius, Selected Works Vol 1, Loeb Classical Library (Cambridge, Mass., 1987), pp.253-75


[1] Downey, G., Julian and Justinian and the Unity of Faith and Culture, in Church History, Vol.28, No.4 (Dec.1959), p.342

[2] Influence of youth based on Julian’s Galilean mother and the tutor Mardonius creates a Christian influence on his later ideology, even though Mardonius is said to have loved Hellenism and taught Homer and Hesiod, he was a ‘Galilean’ and taught Julian’s strictly Galilean mother and Julian the Christian faith.

[3] Browning, p.109

[4] Ammianus Macellinus, Res Gestae, 25.3-7, 21.16 (Ammianus Marcellinus, The Later Roman Empire, Penguin Translation, p.238 – tells that Julian had an inclination towards pagan practices and gods from a young age but kept up the pretence that he was a Christian for survivals sake.  Julian did not publicly express his paganism until he was emperor, before this he kept the fact within a small circle of pagan friends including Orbanius.

[5] Frend, W.H.C., The Rise Of Christianity (Philadelphia, 1984), p.601 – Frend makes a good comparison as he compares surviving paganism in the 360s to a number of sand castles – some big, some small – but all facing erosion and destruction by the advancing tide

[6] Ibid., p.601

[7] Hazlett, I., Early Christianity: Origins and Evolution to A.D.600 (London, 1991), p.178

[8] Julian instead wanted to merge the structure of the Christian faith with the old cults and establish a professional priesthood and hierarchical system with a chief priest in each province.

[9] Frend, op.cit., p.606

[10] Libanius. Libanius taught rhetoric in his native city and was by the 360s recognised as one of the most distinguished men of letters in the Greek world

[11] Ammianus, op.cit., p.248 – Julian’s extensive sacrifice made even the pagans uneasy, Ammianus’ criticism as a pagan scholar illustrates this uneasiness

[12] Cameron, A., The Later Roman Empire: AD 284-430 (London, 1993), p.93

The image to the right of the page suggests that Julian’s reputation concerning his excessive sacrificing was remembered well and depicted after his reign, as the manuscript is dated to the ninth century, two hundred years after Julian’s reign.

[13] Frend, op.cit., p.603

[14] Ammianus, op.cit., 249 – Ammianus praises these aspects of revival, but with these praises is an air of criticism as Julian took his paganism to a new level based on his own interpretations

[15] Priscus

[16] Cameron, A., op.cit., p.92

[17] It made sense in the eyes of Julian that it would have been a disgrace for Christians to instruct in a tradition which they rejected, – Frend, op.cit., p.604

[18] Maxwell, J.L., Christianization and Communication in Late Antiquity (Cambridge, 2006), p.49

[19] Cameron, op.cit., p.92

[20] Bradbury, S., Julian’s Pagan Revival and the Decline of Blood Sacrifice in Phoenix, Vol.49, No.4 (Winter, 1995), p.331

[21] Ammianus, op.cit., p.249 –Ammianus does praise Julian but as Grant points out, this praise was mixed with words of blame – Grant, M., The Ancient Historians (London, 1970), p.374

[22] Ibid., p.249

[23] Frend, op.cit., p.602

[24] McKechnie, P., The First Christian Centuries (Leicester, 2001), p.239

[25] Ammianus, op.cit., p.249 – this was not only in relation to reviving old pagan ways but also a preparation by Julian for the war with Persia as a new mode of inquiry about the outcome and campaign.  The springs of the Castalian Fount are said to have been blocked up by Julius Caesar who received the prophecy from them that he would be Emperor and wished for no other to receive the same prophecy.

[26]Downey, op.cit., p.342

[27] Browning, p.138

[28] Ammianus, op.cit, p.297

[29] Ibid., p.249

[30] This act of Julian can be understood though through the idea that the Christians were Constantius men and that their loyalty may remain to the Christian emperor even after his demise

[31] Mattingly, H., The Later Paganism, in The Harvard Theological Review, Vol.35, No.3, (July, 1942), p.172

[32] Ibid., p.178

[33] Ammianus, op.cit, p.295

Research Resources and Ideas for the Ancient History Enthusiast/Student

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This page provides resources concerning Ancient Texts, New Testament Studies, Inscription Resources, Papyri Resources, Dictionaries and Lexicons, and Modern Texts.

Ancient Texts

New Testament Studies

Inscription Resources

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Dictionaries and Lexicons

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The Archaeology of Doctor Who: The Terror of the Zygons

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Terror of the Zygons
Terror of the Zygons

Being a major Doctor Who fan I today spent one of many many days of my life rewatching episodes from the classic series. In this case they included the Terror of the Zygons from the Tom Baker days season 13. It always strikes me how much kids probably learn about history from first watching this show. I know it certainly made me think when I was growing up. And so here is the first of a random new series on the archaeology and history connected to our favourite Sci Fi shows.

The Terror of the Zygons is in the majority set in the area of Loch Ness. A place many people have undoubtedly heard of due to its so-called monster but few realise the richness of its archaeology and history.

Loch Ness has been an area of significance for military, political and commercial reasons for the majority of its association with humanity, with archaeology showing that it has had settlers along its banks for at least 4000 years.

During the first millennium after Christ the area was populated by Pictish tribes who were later converted to Christianity following the pilgrimages of Christian saints and figures such as St Columba in the sixth century. In excavations in the 1980s a silver chain dating to around the sixth century was found belonging to this early Christian era. There is also evidence for a church established by early Celtic monks on St Michael’s Mount in the area close to the river leading to the Loch.

Following the first millennium  its colourful history is still evident in the castles and archaeological sites that dot its banks. Urquhart Castle was the site of turmoil as revolts against the monarchy lost the castle to the English and then later reverted back to the Scottish with the coronation of Robert the Bruce in 1306. During the following centuries the castle fell through several hands including to the Clan MacDonald and then was eventually abandoned in the 1600s but remains standing in part as a reminder of the centuries of colourful history it saw and was a part of.

Monument at Culloden Battlefield, Scotland
Monument at Culloden Battlefield, Scotland (Photo credit: DanieVDM)

Even during more recent centuries, and even decades, Loch Ness has been a site of significant historical importance which has nothing to do with any monsters. During WW2, a Wellington Bomber (part of which currently sits mounted on my bedroom wall…) was forced to ditch into the Loch. Forty years after the event it was recovered in surprisingly good condition and restored. The spectacle of its recovery provided much public interest and after restoration it was moved to a museum where it can still be visited.

Inverness at the mouth of the river into Loch Ness is also a site of interest to historians. There are several other sites of old Early Christian churches and the Inverness castle is thought to have been established by Malcolm III of Scotland after he destroyed a previous castle at that point which had been built by MacBeth. This is based on literary evidence but the castle itself remains an impressive high point in the city and monument to the city’s medieval past. Culloden moor, the site of the Battle of Culloden in 1746, is also nearby. The Battle of Culloden ended the Jacobite Rising of 1745-6.

So forget about the monster when you are outside the realms of Doctor Who, when you think about Loch Ness’ history and archaeology. Real life stories of the Loch are just as interesting, just in a different way. This area dates back as far as the Bronze Age if not further. The Clava cairns for example, to the East of Inverness is the site of some amazing archaeology that really gets your imagination going. The site contains several of the around 50 cairns of this type in the area. Corbelled passage graves still containing burial remains. Okay the monster might be more interesting to conspiracy nuts but this is an area which can certainly be appreciated for its established history and archaeology.

Philology: Introduction to the Significance of Language Analysis

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When you first enter an ancient history or archaeology degree you are introduced to several sets of material evidence. Notably, the archaeology, material evidence, and philological evidence. But the philological side is more often than not rarely mentioned again. This is quite a shame considering some of the most interesting and revealing information comes from the ancient written sources. People generally fall into the trap of ignoring the writing in favour of the archaeology and artefacts and frankly you can’t really blame them because humans are naturally attracted to pretty visual things. I see this every day with the likes and shares on my Facebook page. But philology is all important too and if students can learn even a little about ancient writing and textual criticism, a whole new side to history and analysis opens up to them as it should.

DSCN0428BB - Clay Tablets with Liner B Script
DSCN0428BB – Clay Tablets with Liner B Script (Photo credit: archer10 (Dennis))

Philology is derived from the Greek terms φίλος (love) and λόγος (word, reason) and literally means a ‘love of words’. It is the study of language in literary sources and is a combination of literary studies, history and linguistics. Philology is generally associated with Greek and Classical Latin, in which it is termed philologia. The study of philology originated in European Renaissance Humanism in regards to Classical Philology but this has since been combined to include in its definition the study of both European and non-European languages. The idea of philology has been carried through the Greek and Latin literature into the English language around the sixteenth century through the French term philologie meaning also a ‘love of literature’ from the same word roots.

Generally philology has a focus on historical development. It helps establish the authenticity of literary texts and their original form and with this the determination of their meaning. It is a branch of knowledge that deals with the structure, historical development and relationships of a language or languages. This makes it all the more significant to study as language is one of the main building blocks of civilisation.

There are several branches of philological studies that can also be undertaken:

Comparative philology is a branch of philology which analyses the relationship or correspondences between languages. For instance, the commonalities between Latin and Etruscan or further flung languages of Asian or African provinces. It uses pre-determined techniques to discover whether languages hold common ancestors or influences. It uses comparison of grammar and spelling which was first deemed useful in the 19th century and has developed ever since. The study of comparative philology was originally defined by Sir William Jones‘ discovery in 1786 that Sanskrit was related to Greek and German as well as Latin.

Cognitive philology studies written and oral texts in consideration of the human mental processes. It uses science to compare the results of research using psychological and artificial systems.

Reconstruction of the missing Greek text on th...
Reconstruction of the missing Greek text on the Rosetta Stone

Decipherment is another branch of philology which looks at resurrecting dead languages and previously unread texts such as done and achieved by Jean-Francois Champollion in the decipherment of Hieroglyphs with the use of the Rosetta Stone. And more recently by Michael Ventris in the decipherment of Linear B. Decipherment would be key to the understanding of still little understood languages such as Linear A. Decipherment uses known languages, grammatical tools and vocabulary to find and apply comparisons within an unread text. By doing so more of the text can be read gradually as similarities and grammatical forms become better understood. The remaining text can then be filled in through further comparison, analysis, and elimination of incorrect solutions.

Textual philology editing is yet another branch of philology with includes the study of texts and their history in a sense including textual criticism. This branch was created in relation to the long traditions of Biblical studies; in particular with the variations of manuscripts. It looks at the authorship, date and provenance of the text to place it in its historical context and to produce ‘critical editions’ of the texts.

Significant Examples:

The importance of philology is exhibited in its use and achievements. Without philology the bible translation would be even more wrong, trust me read it in the original Greek. We would not be able to translate hieroglyphs, Linear B, Linear A, Sanskrit, any ancient language. Our entire written past would be blank, we would not have the information we have now on mathematics, social structure, philosophy, science, medicine, civilisation, transport, engineering, marketing, accounting, well anything really, knowledge would not have been rediscovered or passed on without the ability to study texts and language. Understand the love of words.