The destruction of temples in Late Antiquity has long conjured images of fanatical Christians destroying pagan temples and violently ending traditional, urban and monumental religious practices. Even in antiquity, this view of Christianity carried some prestige with texts like the Life of Porphyry of Gaza depicting the violent destruction of the great temple of Zeus in that city. The vivid descriptions in texts like this seemed ripe for generalization, and the destruction of temples became a fixture in how many scholars understood archaeological evidence from around the Roman world.
Scholarship over the last 40 years has challenged this long-held view and hinted that pagan practices were not static but constantly changing and that practices associated with monumental temples was in abeyance or decline. In other words, we might see Christian “attacks” on pagan temples as salvage operations for building materials rather than efforts to destroy thriving pagan worship sites. The challenge associated with unpacking the final days of these temples is that the early excavation dates, complex urban histories, and underdeveloped ceramic typologies compromised our ability to make sense of the archaeological evidence from these buildings.
David Walsh’s recent article in the American Journal of Archaeology offers a serious attempt to marshal the evidence from temples in Noricum and Panonia on the Roman Empire’s northern frontiers. He argues that by the late-3rd-century and into the 4th-century, the building and maintenance of urban temples declined. Since most temples were the product of public benefaction, their construction and upkeep depended upon their continued centrality to social and religious life of the communities. By the time of the Tetrarchy, he suggested that energies shifted to building walls and fortifications to protect communities from the destabilization of Rome’s northern frontier, and this contributed to a changing culture in these provinces away from monumental public religious practices and toward smaller, private temples. Walsh noted that the increased use of spolia in both public buildings and fortifications in the 4th century reflects the abandonment monumental temples.
In Noricum and Panonia, then, the rise of monumental Christianity was likely a separate from and unrelated phenomenon to the decline in urban paganism. The rise of both Christian communities and their construction of monumental buildings in urban space. This offers a distinct context for the rise of Christianity in the 5th and 6th century. Rather than representing the replacement of monumental urban paganism with a monumental, urban Christianity, churches competed with public buildings in transformed urban landscapes of the Mediterranean. It also means that it drew resources away from public buildings (baths, basilicas, et c.) which often served non religious or civic functions for their communities. This shift not only makes manifest the growing authority of the church in religious, social, and formally civic terms, but also offers an opportunity to consider the ways in which the emergence of monumental Christianity encouraged a change in social practices in the community. For example, with resources being drawn to larger, Christian buildings in the urban core, the construction and maintenance of large bathing establishments suffered, and this might explain the tendency for bath houses to be smaller in the 6th and 7th century and the eventual decline of baths as important social places in Late Antique and Early Byzantine urban space.