The ancient religion of the Gentiles did not disappear at a single stroke. The Orient was quickly converted; but in the Occident there were few Christians outside the cities, and even there many continued to worship idols. The first Christian emperors did not wish to break with the ancient imperial religion; they simultaneously protected the bishops of the Christians and the priests of the gods; they presided over councils and yet remained pontifex maximus. One of them, Julian (surnamed the Apostate), openly returned to the ancient religion. The emperor Gratian in 384 was the first to refuse the insignia of the pontifex maximus. But as intolerance was general in this century, as soon as the Roman religion ceased to be official, men began to persecute it. The sacred fire of Rome that had burned for eleven centuries was extinguished, the Vestals were removed, the Olympian games were celebrated for the last time in 394. Then the monks of Egypt issued from their deserts to destroy the altars of the false gods and to establish relics in the temples of Anubis and Serapis. Marcellus, a bishop of Syria, at the head of a band of soldiers and gladiators sacked the temple of Jupiter at Aparnæa and set himself to scour the country for the destruction of the sanctuaries; he was killed by the peasants and raised by the church to the honor of a saint.
Soon idolatry persisted only in the rural districts where it escaped detection; the idolaters were peasants who continued to adore sacred trees and fountains and to assemble in proscribed sanctuaries. The Christians commenced to call "pagans" (the peasants) those whom up to this time they had called Gentiles. And this name has still clung to them. Paganism thus led an obscure existence in Italy, in Gaul, and in Spain down to the end of the sixth century.