The Eleusinian Mysteries under the Christians

Following Constantine’s conversion to Christianity in AD 312, the Roman world underwent a profound religious change. The Mysteries at Eleusis were closed and the Telesterion ceased to exist at least three generations before the Parthenon. We hear of the end of Eleusis from one of our last pagan voices, Eunapius writing in the first years of the fifth century.

Julian the Apostate briefly revived pagan religions during his reign, having been initiated into the Eleusinian Mysteries in AD 355 when he was studying philosophy at Athens. Athens had by then long ceased to be anything more than a university town: the sanctuary at Eleusis had fallen into disrepair, and Julian funded some basic rebuilding. Paganism and philosophy were inseparable to him, even though this went against the orthodoxy at court. The hierophant of the day was a Neo-Platonist Julian respected, and he may have studied philosophy with. The same hierophant initiated Eunapius; although he remains anonymous, we know that his grandson was Plutarchus, one of the last heads of the Platonic Academy situated at the foot of the Acropolis. By then the pagan world was a very small one, and pagans moved in ever decreasing circles. He was also the last ever hierophant at Eleusis, and the sanctuary permanently closed during his lifetime.

Alaric’s Goths passed by Eleusis in AD 396 and are generally held responsible for the destruction of the sanctuary, although no ancient source confirms this. The excavated remains suggest a slow, deliberate dismantling of the buildings, more likely the result of an Imperial order to demolish and close the sanctuary, rather than a quick barbarian sack. The Telesterion’s final destruction was partly caused by another fire – ironic but not surprising, given the role fire played in its secret rituals. Some cults housed an undying flame, and this may well have been the case at Eleusis, given the number of times it was suffered as a result of fires.

This Roman funerary altar of Paulina also gives us evidence of her husband, Vettius Agorius Praetextatus, who was an initiate at Eleusis. The altar is firmly dated to A.D. 384, so he was amongst the last people initiated that we know of, probably during the time of Julian the Apostate. The Mysteries were closed down soon after.

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