Ancient History & Civilisation

Religious Identities

The church had never been a homogeneous body before Constantine. The numerous separate Christian communities, each led by a bishop, had developed their own traditions and patterns of worship.46 Although the intellectual climate of Christianity was changed by the enormous and challenging output of Origen in the early third century, for most Christians there was little systematic theology beyond the simple affirmations of their belief in Christ's resurrection and of man's prospective redemption.

Matters changed after Constantine became sole emperor in 324. It became the object of imperial policy to create a single unified church, and to ensure that the largest possible number of the empire's inhabitants belonged to this church. The reasons for this were both practical and ideological. In practical terms, members of the church, especially clergy, immediately began to receive favors and privileges from the emperor, and bishops even began to exercise judicial authority on the state's behalf. It was essential to know who were entitled to these rights, and choices had to be made between Christian groups which competed for the emperor's recognition. Ideological unity was even more important. The Roman Empire was an autocratic monarchy (although in practice supreme power was sometimes shared between two or more emperors), and it was explicitly recognized that the political system should be supported by an equally monolithic religious framework. Constantine himself made this clear when he became involved in the controversy about the theological ideas of the Alexandrian priest Arius, which were to divide eastern bishops for much of the fourth century:

On the subject of divine Providence therefore let there be one faith among you, one understanding, one agreement about the Supreme; the precise details about these minimal disputes among yourselves, even if you cannot bring yourselves to a single point of view, ought to remain in the mind, guarded in the hidden recesses of thought. (Eusebius, VC 2.71.7, trans. Cameron and Hall)

Christians themselves also began to form into larger ideological groups than before. The initial impetus for this came in their responses to the persecutions. There were different views as to how resistance or compliance with the authorities' demands should subsequently be handled. In the wake of the Decian persecution, the Roman priest Novatus (or Novatianus) had become leader of an immensely influential schismatic community whose leaders argued that only God could forgive the sin of apostasy, thus denying that the churches' own bishops or other leaders could provide absolution. The circumstances which led to this split existed only in the aftermath of persecution, yet the ideas which underpinned the Novatian schism remained vigorous and alive in Constantinople and Asia Minor into the fifth century AD. The events of 303–13 revived the issue that had brought Novatianism into being, and the Novatian Church gathered strength in Constantinople and in the interior of Asia Minor, where it had many supporters up to the middle of the fifth century.47 There is a famous anecdote from the Council of Nicaea, recalling an interview between Constantine and the Novatian bishop Acesius. The bishop explained his church's unbending view that only God could forgive the sins of those who had compromised their religion; thus Novatians could not join the Catholic Church, although there were no doctrinal differences between them. The bemused emperor replied that Acesius should take his ladder and climb up into heaven.48 The Novatians managed to avoid violent open conflict with the mainstream Catholic Church for most of its existence, but this may be due to the fact that much of our evidence for it comes from the church historian Socrates, who may even have been a Novatian himself, and who produced a highly eirenic view of ecclesiastical history in support of his overall argument that under Theodosius II church and state flourished in harmony under the guidance of their pious emperor (see p. 117).49 Even so, Constantius II, urged on by Arian bishops, had occasion to send four regiments of soldiers against the Novatians of rural Paphlagonia. According to a peasant from the region who claimed to recall these events, they were slaughtered by the local inhabitants wielding scythes and axes (Socrates, HE 2.38; Sozomen 4.21).

Another separate movement formed in the communities of the Egyptian Delta around bishop Melitius. He and his followers had refused to acknowledge the authority of Peter, bishop of Alexandria, because he had failed to keep open places of Christian worship during the persecutions, surrendered scriptures, and adopted a lenient line with compromised clergy after he returned to Alexandria (Sozomen 1.24; Athanasius, Apology against the Arians 71). A church council held at Ancyra under the rule of Licinius before 319 had dealt with similar issues in Asia Minor, and proposed a series of compromises, which allowed persons who had sacrificed to be re-admitted to communion, and even appointed to the priesthood, provided it was clear that they had acted under duress.50 In Egypt the Melitians had simply formed their own rival church, in defiance of the authority of the bishop of Alexandria. At the Council of Nicaea a settlement was reached in the same spirit of reconciliation that had been extended to the Novatians: Alexandria would recognize Melitian clergy provided that the clergy acknowledged the authority of Alexandria. Melitius submitted for approval a register of twenty-nine bishops, seven priests and deacons in Alexandria, and a rural priest. Coexistence, however, was not tolerable to the next bishop of Alexandria, the formidable Athanasius, who had no intention of sharing power with any schismatic group in his region, especially as the Council of Nicaea had recognized Alexandrian control over all the bishoprics of Libya, Egypt, and the Pentapolis (Nicaea, can. 6). He went into battle against them in word and deed:

The Melitians, on whatever grounds (for it is not necessary to mention the reason) were received. Five months, however, had not passed when, the blessed Alexander having died, the Melitians, who ought to have remained quiet, and to have been grateful that they were received on any terms, like dogs unable to forget their vomit, began to trouble the churches. (Athanasius, Apology against the Arians 59, trans. Stevenson)

The bishop, supported by extremist ascetics, conducted a campaign of violent intimidation against the Melitians, a tactic which anticipated the goings-on in Syria in the 380s orchestrated by Cynegius Maternus (see p. 268). The Melitians responded with an elaborate menu of charges against Athanasius.51 They alleged that he had ordered the smashing of the Eucharistic chalice of Ischyras, a Melitian priest, that he had perpetrated further acts of violence against Ischyras and others, and that he was responsible for the murder of a respected confessor, Arsenius, whose severed arm was then used for magical purposes. The murder charge was dropped after Arsenius was discovered by Athanasius' men alive and well, but the broader charges of violence are indirectly confirmed by a papyrus letter, which records that some of Athanasius' men, assisted by a group of off-duty Roman soldiers, had kidnapped or beaten up various Melitian followers, and that Athanasius himself had confined leading members of the Melitian clergy respectively to the meat market, the camp prison, and the main military prison of Alexandria.52 Athanasius was summoned to account for himself at a council held in Tyre in 335, which, after sending a far from impartial commission of enquiry to Egypt to establish the facts of the case, deposed him.53 Athanasius escaped in a dinghy from Tyre and took ship to Constantinople, where he accosted a dumbstruck emperor, who was riding outside the city.54 Constantine heard his case with sympathy, and sent a summons to the bishops at Tyre to reconvene at Constantinople. At that moment five leading opponents of Athanasius, led by Eusebius of Nicomedia, appeared after a headlong overland journey and played their trump card: they alleged that Athanasius had conspired to prevent the sailing of the freighters which brought the corn supply from Alexandria to Constantinople. Constantine, without formally deposing him, promptly banished Athanasius to Trier, at the opposite end of the empire.55

The most important separatist movement to be born out of the persecutions were the Donatists in North Africa. Serious divisions existed between Numidian Christians and the church in Carthage before Diocletian's edict of persecution, but the so-called Donatist movement took definitive shape in the prison at Carthage in 304, where Christians who had been arrested, condemned the behavior of those who had handed over scriptures to the authorities, the traditores.56 They were above all incensed at the behavior of the bishop of Carthage, Mensurius, who not only condemned the confessors and would-be martyrs, but sent his deacon Caecilian to prevent family members and supporters from visiting the prisoners and bringing them food. Caecilian, who had already quarreled bitterly with Lucilla, a leading figure in Numidia, for her practice of ostentatiously kissing a supposed martyr's bone before taking communion, had used extreme violence in carrying out his instructions.57 In 311, with the support of seventy Numidian bishops, this group objected to the appointment of Caecilian as bishop of Carthage, on the grounds that he had been ordained by a traditor, Felix of Aptunga, and appointed their own man, Majorinus, in his place. The dispute was referred by the proconsul of Africa to Constantine, who had ordered that benefits be given to the church in Africa. Constantine in turn referred the dispute to be decided by councils of bishops, the first chaired by Miltiades in Rome in 313, then, at the Donatists' request, by a conclave at Arles in Gaul in the following year. This set an important precedent for later procedures whereby emperors empowered church councils to resolve issues of ecclesiastical or theological significance, but it was a logical move for Constantine at a time when regional councils of bishops were dealing with issues raised by the end of the persecutions throughout the empire.

The rulings of these councils, supported by the emperor and eventually backed up by force, found for Caecilian and against the rigorists. Majorian had been succeeded by the Numidian bishop of Casae Nigrae, Donatus, who was to lead them until 355. Its opponents gave the name “Donatist” to the movement, but the Donatists naturally regarded themselves as representatives of the legitimate Catholic Church. They proved to be stronger and more effectively organized than their opponents. Constantine, motivated by his search for ideological unity especially during the conflict with Licinius, abandoned attempts at outright repression in 321. A decade later, he avoided a confrontation when the Donatists commandeered the main basilica at Constantina, by providing the Catholics with funds to build their own (Optatus, On the Schism of the Donatists, app. 10, trans. Stephenson, A New Eusebius, 312 no. 271).58

The African churches made up the strongest and most numerous Christian communities in the western Roman Empire before Constantine. They had produced leading Christian figures including Tertullian and Cyprian; Carthage was one of the largest Christian cities; and there was a dense network of small communities, led by bishops, across the hinterland of Africa Proconsularis and Numidia. The Donatists, whose strength was in the small towns and cities of Numidia, could claim to be the authentic representatives of African Christianity, and it is appropriate to re-label them, with Brent Shaw, as African Christians. In 336 they were strong enough to convene a regional council of 270 bishops, effectively one for every city of North Africa. It is doubtful whether their opponents, whose position rested on the official support they received from the state, could match this. The Donatist position was strengthened immeasurably by Julian's edict, which re-instated exiled clergy, and they surely were the driving force in the region for the rest of the fourth century. When Augustine was appointed bishop of Hippo in 395, the greatest challenge he faced was from this regional African religious movement. There were temperamental and religious differences between the two sides. The African Christians, deriving strength from the mythology of persecution and martyrdom, identified themselves as defenders of the church's integrity against compromise. The Catholics meanwhile had evolved a cosmopolitan tradition of inclusiveness.59 The Roman state was irrevocably committed to the Catholic side. Donatists had been implicated and repressed during the regional rebellions in Mauretania led by Firmus in the 370s,60 and in 397 by his brother Gildo.61

The conflict between the imperial and the regional church came to a head in 411. In October 410 Honorius wrote to his tribune and notarius Marcellinus with a curt order:

Greeting! We abolish the new superstition and we command that the regulations in regard to Catholic law shall be preserved unimpaired and inviolate. (CTh. 16.11.3)

A council was summoned at Carthage in 411, and met in the largest building of the city, the baths of Gargilius.62 Both sides turned out in full strength, 286 Catholic bishops against 285 put out by their African opponents. A roll was taken and the rival bishops identified themselves and their rivals, and were called to account one by one to match their signatures. Both sides provided teams of shorthand writers and secretaries, who checked the record word for word, and took down the proceedings, which lasted three days. They have survived virtually entire, the fullest documentation of any meeting that has come down from antiquity.63 The two sides glared at each other across the aisle. The Donatists refused to sit, literally standing their ground, while their spokesman Petillianus truculently affirmed their real identity when their opponents declared them to be Donatists:

We are simply bishops of the truth of Christ, our Lord – so we call ourselves and so it is usually noted in the public records. As for Donatus of holy memory, a man of a martyr's glory, although he is our predecessor and an embellishment of the Church of this city, we only accord him the sort of honour and status he deserves. (Gesta Coll. Carth. 2.10)

In the confrontation both sides strained to display their strength. Of the Catholics, Augustine reported that

So many bishops were gathered from all of Africa and entered Carthage with great pomp and ceremony in a magnificent parade, that they turned the eyes and attention of the city's inhabitants upon themselves. (Augustine, Ad Donatistas post Collationem 25, 43)

The Donatists too had marched solemnly into the baths so as to impress their supporters with their numbers and their moral superiority (Gest Coll. Carth. 1.14.7–11, 29.2–4). Similar ostentatious tactics were employed by rival Arians and orthodox Christians in Constantinople at this period (Socrates, HE 6.8).

The council concluded as the emperor had intended, by refuting the claims of the Donatists on the central legal point. It relied on the simple fact that Constantine's rulings had found for Caecilian and his followers almost a century before. All the supplementary argument presented by Petillianus and his fellows was regarded as special pleading.

The Donatist struggle had begun with obscure quarrels among African communities which had escalated under the pressure of the persecutions. The supporters of the African church derived their moral strength from stories of martyrdom and their opponents' betrayals, and a rallying point in their indignation at the ordination of Caecilian. This was the kernel around which they had created their regional identity. They drew their strength from local roots, not from empire-wide diplomacy and alliances, and played little part in the doctrinal controversies of the fourth century. The rival group, against which they matched themselves, was a mirror organization, the Catholic Church, created and supported by the state. Although Donatist clergy were implicated in regional uprisings and some may have directly supported them, this was not a political movement directed against the empire, but an attempt to assert their role as the rightful church. After 411 the movement gradually faded from view. It is not plausible that this is due to the repressive measures taken against them after the Council of Carthage. State power had failed before, and had little impact beyond the major cities where troops and violence could be used. Nor did the moral force of the Donatist message dissipate. More convincing is Brent Shaw's subtler explanation, that Donatism, or African Christianity, ceased to be identified as such later in the fifth century because its counterpart, state-sponsored Catholicism, was also forced into retreat and marginalized by the Vandal invasion of the 430s. As the Germanic invaders imposed their own Arian orthodoxy, the Roman Empire lost its authority over the church in Africa and Catholics were persecuted. No doubt many of those who suffered for their doctrinal views at the hands of the Vandals were in fact former Donatists, but there were now no authorities to give them this label. In Arian eyes African Christians and their rivals were all simply the Catholics that they claimed to be.64

Christianity played a major role in the formation of community identities in the empire at large, not merely at a regional level. In the midst of the Donatist dispute Constantine was drawn into an abstract doctrinal argument about the nature of Christ and his relationship to God the Father, which affected the entire Christian community in the eastern empire and spread thereafter to the West. The Arian question took its name from the Libyan priest Arius, whose arguments that Christ was subordinate to God provided the starting point of the controversy.65 However, the label is also a misleading one. Arius certainly drew attention to a central matter of doctrine in the years leading up to the Council of Nicaea in 325, but the issues were not new in themselves and continued to be debated with increasing intensity across the eastern Christian world. The term “Arianism” and the label “Arian” were in any case mostly used in a pejorative sense by opposing churchmen, above all by Athanasius, who denounced their rivals as heretics. The argument was concerned with the central core of Christian belief, the nature of God, and the way in which his divinity was embodied in Christ.66

Arius' own views have to be reconstructed from three surviving letters quoted by hostile sources, and by verses from a poem called the Thalia (The Banquet), composed in the meter of the popular songs of sailors, mill workers, and muleteers, which were written after he was expelled from Alexandria by his bishop (Philostorgius, HE 2.2). According to one of his letters, quoted by the mid-fifth-century historian Theodoret, he taught

that the son is not unbegotten, nor in any way part of the unbegotten; nor from any lower essence; but that by (the Father's) will and counsel he has subsisted before time, and before ages as fully God, only-begotten and unchangeable. And that, before he was begotten, or created, or defined, or established, he was not. For he was not unbegotten. We are persecuted because we say “the Son has a beginning, but God is without beginning.” We are also persecuted for this reason, that we say that he is from nothing. And we say this because he is neither part of God, nor of any lower essence. (Theodoret, HE 1.5.1–4; trans. adapted from Stevenson, New Eusebius, 324–5 no. 283)

Arius argued for the primacy, and therefore the superiority, of the Father to the Son. The Son was a “creature,” created or made, the product of the will of the creator, not part of the substance of God. As the Son in human form possessed free will he was capable of virtue or vice. Socrates summarized Arius' position succinctly in his Church History: “If the Father begat the Son, he that was begotten has a beginning of existence. From this it is clear that there was (a state) when the Son was not. It therefore necessarily follows that He had his essence from the non-existent” (Socrates I.5; trans. Stevenson, New Eusebius no. 280).

Arius' opponents, led initially by Alexander, bishop of Alexandria, argued for the identity of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, “One in Three,” and that the Son was consubstantial and co-eternal with the Father, that the Son was the Lord's true Word and Wisdom, not one of his works and creatures. Alexander summoned a synod of bishops to establish which view was correct, and this concluded by banishing Arius from Alexandria and excommunicating his followers.67 This had the effect of spreading rather than restricting the controversy. Arius was a senior and respected theologian. His subordinationist view of Christ's divinity had a highly respectable pedigree, traceable to the greatest Christian thinker of the third century, Origen, and also appealed on grounds of plain common sense. It is no surprise that he won important support from many eastern bishops, most notably from Eusebius, who was promoted from being bishop of Berytus to bishop of Nicomedia, and Eusebius of Caesarea, the writer of the Ecclesiastical History.

The split in the eastern church became apparent after 319, and conflicted with Constantine's drive to achieve church unity. The emperor wrote a lengthy letter admonishing both Arius and Alexander. He dispatched Ossius to reconcile them in Alexandria in 324 but failed to achieve a resolution (Eusebius, VC 2.63–72). Ossius (often reproduced in Greek sources as Hosius) then presided over a council in Antioch in April 325, and drafted a résumé of the outcome which is preserved in a Syriac version. The introductory paragraphs of this letter indicate that the issue was extremely serious in theological terms.

Since the holding of a synod of bishops had been hindered in these parts, our first care was to investigate a topic that is most important of all and surpasses all others – in fact it comprises the whole mystery of the faith that is in us – I mean what concerns the Saviour of us all, the Son of the Living God. (Opitz, Urkunde 18, 36–41; trans. Stevenson, New Eusebius, 334–5 no. 288)

Antioch was a prelude to the great Council of Nicaea, held three months later in the presence of Constantine himself, and attended by nearly 300 bishops from the eastern and Danubian provinces, as well as by two deputies of the bishop of Rome. Constantine, who had specifically refused to travel to the East from Nicomedia as long as the controversy raged, had probably hoped that the doctrinal issues could have been cleared up at Antioch, in order that the gathering at Nicaea might concentrate on matters which more closely matched his own priorities: church unity, agreement on the date of Easter, and the hierarchy of authority within the church. As it was, the theological issue took precedence, and the issue had to be settled. Famously the bishops agreed a wording for the creed which placed Arius' views beyond the pale: Christ was begotten from the substance of the Father, not created from that which was not. Hosius and his associates insisted on the insertion of the key word homoousios, “consubstantial,” which Arius and his followers had always repudiated, as for them it implied that God's essential nature was in some way divisible and diminished. The pressure for unity and the presence of the emperor achieved their purpose, and all but two Libyan bishops, who were exiled, signed up to the creed. A letter written by Eusebius of Caesarea to his church shows how he, like other sympathizers with Arius, reconciled themselves to the wording by the different senses they applied to its key terms.68

Despite Constantine's best efforts the decisions at Nicaea failed to resolve the dogmatic issues about the nature of Christian belief. During the final phase of Constantine's reign we enter an almost impenetrable thicket of ecclesiastical controversy, which was to extend up to the reign of Theodosius, when the issues were resolved, again by imperial fiat, at the Council of Constantinople in 381. The supporters of Arius remained numerous and influential, and their views were well rooted in a strong intellectual tradition. As early as September 325 Eusebius of Nicomedia and his associate Theognis of Nicaea had slipped into apostasy and were exiled by the emperor. However, within two years they were re-instated and Arius prepared a personal credal statement which persuaded Constantine that he too could be brought back into the fold.69

Let us summarize the main features of this formative period in the evolution of a universal church.70 The argument about doctrine which flared up between an Alexandrian priest and his bishop provided the setting for the first attempt by the church as a whole to define its core beliefs. The debate led churchmen to expound a range of views about the relationship of the Son to the Father. At one extreme was the Sabellianism of Paul of Samosata or Marcellus of Ancyra, which denied the Son any significant independence from the Father. This exaggerated monotheism could also be seen as a form of Christianity strongly influenced by Jewish theology. At the opposite end of the scale were the views of the Anomoeans, who argued that the Son was dissimilar to the Father and therefore did not share in his divinity. The doctrinal issue which occupied the Council of Nicaea, that is the choice between the theology of Arius and the creed that was imposed by Hosius and Constantine, in fact fell between these two extreme positions. Arius asserted that the Son was begotten to the Father, and thus subordinate to Him, the product of an act of creation where previously there had been nothing. The Nicenes, in contrast, asserted that he was of the same substance as the Father and had existed with him for all eternity. After the death of Constantine, the party led by Eusebius of Nicomedia, which had taken its cue from Arius' ideas, and which was supported by Constantius in the East, united around the formula that the Son was “like in substance,” homoiousios, to the Father, a position which was sufficiently close to the Nicene homoousios, for Hilary of Poitiers, a western bishop who was exiled to Asia Minor in 358, to argue at length that there was no important difference between these positions.71

It is unnecessary in this context to trace the dispute about the “Christian doctrine of God” in detail through the convolutions of fourth-century church politics. However, the imperial quest for church unity led inevitably to the consequence that much of the controversy was driven not by theology but by politics. Constantine, as far as we can judge from the admiring portrait of Eusebius in his panegyrical life, was genuinely prepared to let his bishops formulate their own views and reach their own decisions. Much confusion resulted during the 330s.

The dominating personality among the churchmen was the bishop of Alexandria, Athanasius, whose vigorous Nicene views and uncompromising tactics provoked extreme reactions both from his supporters and his opponents.72 After he was banished to the West following the Council of Tyre in 335 much of the argument between the eastern and western church simply concerned whether or not he should be restored to the See of Alexandria. In 339 Athanasius took refuge in Rome, and the conflict within the church assumed a new dimension as the western bishops became embroiled for the first time on a large scale. Under the leadership of Julius, bishop of Rome, they espoused the cause both of Athanasius and of Marcellus, the former bishop of Ancyra, who had been one of the most unbending champions of Nicaea and had been exiled by a council at Antioch in 340 on a charge of Sabellianism, the heretical view that the Son was not only in substance indistinguishable from the Father but subsumed within him. They had the support of the emperor Constans, who had ousted his elder brother Constantine II in 340. The eastern bishops were broadly championed by Constantius, now resident for long periods at Antioch as he campaigned against the Persians on the eastern frontier. In the hope of avoiding a schism the two emperors summoned the bishops of East and West to a council at Serdica, modern Sofia. However, the two sides never met under one roof. The westerners refused to accede to the easterners' demand that they exclude Athanasius and his associates from the council, and their opponents withdrew to Philippopolis (Plovdiv), where they held their own conclave. The two groups formulated contrasting Nicene and Arianizing creeds and anathematized one another. The conflict was more about the eastern refusal to take back Athanasius and the western championing of Marcellus of Ancyra than the technicalities of dogma. As if to emphasize this, the western bishops, under the veteran chairmanship of Hosius of Cordoba, produced a series of canons which curbed the powers of individual bishops, in particular by restricting their movements and influence outside their own dioceses, but also asserted the authority of the bishop of Rome, the apostolic See of St Peter, over the rest of the church. This included the assertion that he had the power to reinstate clergy who had been deposed by a provincial council.73 The eastern church rejected this out of hand. The emperors Constantius and Constans supported the causes of their respective bishops, and according to later church historians practically committed themselves to a civil war over the issue of restoring Athanasius in 345.74 The bishops of Rome, following the lead of Julius at the Council of Serdica, who tried to claim the role of supreme arbiter in the church's affairs, became much more aware of their own importance.

Constantius intervened more actively in religious affairs than his father had done. As he relentlessly pursued the aim of achieving a unified church during the 350s, one of his victims was the aged Ossius of Cordoba, who wrote a vain letter of protest to the emperor in 356:

Cease, then, these proceedings, I ask you, and remember that you are a mortal man. Be afraid of the day of judgement, and keep yourself pure against that day. Do not intrude into ecclesiastical matters, and do not give commands to us concerning them; but learn them from us. God has put into your hands the kingdom; to us he has entrusted the affairs of the Church; and, as he who should steal the empire from you would resist the ordinance of God, so fear on your part lest, by taking upon yourself the government of the Church, you become guilty of a great offence. It is written, Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar's, and unto God the things that are God's. Neither, therefore, is it permitted us to exercise an earthly rule, nor have you, Sir, any authority to burn incense. (Athanasius, History of the Arians, 44; trans. Stevenson, Creeds, Councils and Controversies, 35–37 no. 24)

Ossius was neither the first nor the last bishop to make this complaint, more or less in the same words. When he emerged in the 350s as sole Augustus, Constantius was as eager as Constantine had been to create a single united church in the whole empire, and during the 350s he personally attended a sequence of councils, which aimed to win over the western church to the homoean views held by most of the eastern bishops. He finally succeeded in this aim through the twin councils of Ariminum and Seleuceia, held in 359 (which were the equivalent of an ecumenical council, but staged in separate western and eastern sessions), whose decisions were consolidated at the first Council of Constantinople in 360. Jerome was later to comment about the outcome of these gatherings, “that the whole world groaned to find itself Arian,” but in fact the compromise formula was not far from the Nicene one.

The drive towards religious unity which was the central feature of the religious policies of Constantine and his sons was interrupted for twenty years by the attempted pagan restoration of Julian and then by the permissive tolerance of Valentinian and Valens. Valens has the reputation of being an Arian emperor, like Constantius before him, but this is an exaggerated view, supported by little more than the fact that most of the eastern bishops around him tended to hold homoean views, and he made no moves against the more extreme anomoeans or dissimilarian theologians, who argued that God's majesty was diminished by any admission that the Son derived any of his character and substance from the Father.75

The change of emphasis which followed the accession of Theodosius I was very marked. The new emperor came from a western Spanish background, and he and his associates were noted both for their piety and for their staunch adherence to Nicene views, which were universally adopted by the Latin churches.76 Whereas the western Christians, dominated by the already powerful figure of Ambrose at Milan, were united and recognized the authority of Damasus, the bishop of Rome, the simmering ecclesiastical controversy in the East is graphically illustrated by the state of the great bishoprics around 380. There were two contenders for the See of Antioch, Paulinus, whose views were dangerously Sabellian, and the aging Meletius. A third claimant, the Arian Euzoius, had only disappeared from the scene a few years before. At Constantinople the Arian Demophilus had resigned, anticipating imminent dismissal by Theodosius, and been replaced by the orthodox Cappadocian theologian Gregory of Nazianzus. However, Meletius died in 381, during the early stages of the ecumenical council which Theodosius had summoned to Constantinople in 381, and Gregory resigned amid a storm of controversy, when he proposed that Paulinus be re-instated to succeed him.

In this atmosphere it is no surprise that Theodosius should have taken a more brusque line with the disputing factions than his imperial predecessors. Theodosius' pronouncement of the cunctos populos edict soon after his accession (see p. 265–7) left the bishops with no illusions that they were under instructions to re-affirm the Nicene Creed as a universal article of faith. The ground had been prepared in the East by the Cappadocian fathers, especially Basil of Caesarea, whose writings on the Trinity explained the doctrine of a single divine essence (ousia) which was represented in three substances (hypostaseis), one in three and three in one. The object of the Council was not in this case to formulate a creed, as at Nicaea, but to impose it. This is evident from the beginning of the letter which the council addressed to Theodosius on concluding its business:

Having then assembled at Constantinople according to the letter of your Piety, we in the first place renewed our mutual regard for each other, and then pronounced some short definitions, ratifying the faith of the Nicene fathers, and anathematizing the heresies which have sprung up contrary to it. In addition to this we have established certain canons for the right ordering of the Churches, all of which we have subjoined to this our letter. We pray therefore your Clemency, that the decree may be confirmed by the letter of your Piety, that as you have honoured the Church by the letters calling us together, so also you may ratify the conclusion of what has been decreed. (trans. Stevenson, Creeds, Councils and Controversies, 115–16 no. 91)

The dominant rival theological views which had made headway over the previous forty years were duly named and condemned as heretical. The hierarchical organization of the church and the new status of Constantinople was given special emphasis (see p. 296). Moreover the new bishop of Constantinople was effectively a political appointment, Nectarius, a palace official, who was rushed through all the stages of the priesthood (as Ambrose had been in Milan seven years earlier) to take charge of the second place in the hierarchy of Christendom.

The Council of Constantinople thus set the seal on the imperial search for a single Christian identity. The settlement was imposed, not agreed by consensus, and was not immune to controversy, which was to re-ignite during the fifth century. However, the Nicene Creed, as expanded at Constantinople, remained the touchstone of Roman Christianity at the Council of Chalcedon in 451 and in the sixth century under Justinian.

There was another dynamic behind the drive to establish Nicene Catholicism as the religion of the Roman state. Nicene orthodoxy was distinguished from the Arian faith of the barbarians. In 376 the Gothic tribe of the Tervingi had negotiated an agreement with Valens to be allowed to cross the Danube and settle in the administrative diocese of Thrace (see pp. 88–91 and 209–10). Christianity had first been introduced to the Goths by Ulfila, who had taken part in an embassy to Constantinople either in 336 or in 341 and had been consecrated as bishop in partibus by Eusebius of Nicomedia (Philostorgius, HE 2.5).77 The Christian Goths were driven out by their pagan compatriots in the late 340s, and settled at Nicopolis in Lower Moesia, where Ulfila became an influential church leader. It was doubtless here that he devised a new alphabet and transformed Gothic from an oral into a written language, into which the Bible could be translated (Philostorgius, HE 2.5). In 376 he is said to have acted as a spokesman for the Goths in the negotiations that led to the Tervingi being allowed to cross the Danube at the time of the Hunnic incursions. An added motive for Ulfila's intervention would have been recent persecution of Christians among the Goths themselves.78 The Tervingi were obliged to declare themselves to be Christian before they entered the empire. Christian priests on the Gothic side later acted as go-betweens between the Goths before the battle of Adrianople and the Romans (Ammianus 31.12; 31.15).79 The church historians Socrates and Theodoret indicate that it was at this moment, under the influence of Eudoxius, the Arian bishop of Constantinople, that the Goths firmly took on Arian theological doctrines, concordant with those of the emperor Valens (Theodoret, HE 4.37, Socrates 4.33.5; cf. Sozomen 6.37.7), but Sozomen indicates that Ulfila, whose spiritual mentor was the Arianizing bishop Eusebius of Nicomedia, already espoused a primitivist, gospel-based form of Christianity and was hostile to the non-biblical Nicene formula of the homoousion (Sozomen 6.37.8–11).

Theodosius was fully cognizant of the religious difference between the Goths and the Romans as he campaigned in Illyricum in the aftermath of the debacle at Adrianople. The canons of the Council of Constantinople made a deliberate exception for the Goths to follow a creed which conformed with their simple adherence to a pre-Nicene apostolic church:

The Churches of God which are among the barbarians must be administered according to the usage of the Fathers which has prevailed. (Stevenson, Creeds, Councils and Controversies, 116 no. 91, can. 2)

This must also have been acknowledged in the foedus of 382, which was to remain the basis of the compact between Goths and Romans within the imperial boundaries. Both sides may have been conscious of, but did not emphasize, the fact that the Goths henceforth adhered to the Arian belief of the emperor Valens, whom they had defeated in 378, while Theodosius and his Roman subjects were now neo-Nicene Catholics.

After 381 Arian beliefs ceased to play a significant role in the internal Christological controversies of the Roman Church, but they remained of fundamental importance for distinguishing the federal Germanic peoples (see p. 219).80 Gothic Christianity was not made welcome in the cities of the empire. Ambrose of Milan drew on all his political resources to resist attempts by Justina, Valens' widow and mother of Valentinian II, to take over one of Milan's churches to hold an Arian Easter liturgy in 385 and 386. It is evident that Gothic troops were among those pressing for a church to be made available to them.81 In Constantinople around 400 John Chrysostom banned Goths from conducting an Arian liturgy within the city, and their church was located outside the walls. A city church was designated for them where the Catholic mass was offered by Gothic-speaking clergy, and he himself preached there with the aid of an interpreter (Theodoret, HE 5.30). Socrates has a vivid description of the Arian and orthodox communities competing with one another in their processions through the city.

As often therefore as the festal days occurred – I mean Saturday and Lord's day – in each week, on which assemblies are usually held in the churches, they congregated within the city gates about the public squares, and sang responsive verses adapted to the Arian heresy. This they did during the greater part of the night: and again in the morning, chanting the same songs which they called responsive, they paraded through the midst of the city, and so passed out of the gates to go to their places of assembly. (Socrates 6.8)

Arianism among the Germanic kingdoms was deliberately maintained to mark the distinction between Romans and barbarians in the western empire through the fifth century, long after the Arian controversy had ceased to be an issue in internal church politics. Orthodoxy was thus not merely equated with being Christian, but with being Roman. Conversely, the barbarians were fully aware of the importance of their Arian identity in constructing their own ethnic cohesion. The Vandals strongly emphasized their Arianism, and used it not only as an active form of nation building, but accentuated their credentials by persecuting the Catholic provincial population in Africa. Another test case is provided by the Burgundians, whose leaders deliberately identified themselves more closely with the Romans than other barbarian groups in Gaul. Many of them turned to Catholicism (see p. 224).

Roman writers have deliberately little to say about the nature of Christianity in the barbarian kingdoms. Sidonius Apollinaris described the daily routine of the Visigothic king Theoderic as a matter of routine rather than conviction (ep. 1.2.4; see p. 221). Catholic Romans were anxious to belittle this barbarian Arian form of Christianity. The monuments tell a different story. Theoderic, the Ostrogothic king, erected buildings in Ravenna, above all the great basilica of S. Apollonare Nuovo, that are as evocative of his Arian piety as the later Church of S. Vitale attests the Catholicism of the age of Justinian.

The struggle to achieve a single form of Roman–Christian identity continued to be the hallmark of imperial religious policy through the fifth and sixth centuries. Under the pious rulership of Theodosius II the impetus came not from the emperor himself, who was anxious to promote an ideology of reconciliation between rival doctrines and interpretations of scripture, but from the theological arguments advanced by highly polemical bishops. Nestorius, who became bishop of Constantinople in 428, advanced the view that there were two natures, both man and God, in Christ. This was a development of the theories of Theodore of Mopsuhestia. Both were representatives of the Antiochene school which was strongly opposed by the Alexandrian tradition of the one nature of Christ, that stemmed from Athanasius, but was now powerfully advocated by Cyril, who had been bishop of Alexandria since 415. Confined to Antioch, these views were an irritant to Alexandria, but from the mouth of the bishop of Constantinople, who now outranked him, they were an outright provocation. Moreover, Nestorius, at least in the eyes of his enemies, was a naïve and unsophisticated preacher, described as illiterate and ignorant by the church historian Socrates (7.32.10).

Much of the argument about the nature of Christ was abstruse, but it stirred passions when Nestorius drew the conclusion that the Virgin Mary could not be called “Theotokos,” mother of God, but at best “Christotokos,” mother of Christ, for she had only given birth to Jesus in his human incarnation, not to Jesus the divine word of God. This was the crucial point from which Cyril chose to attack Nestorius' position. Cyril then began to construct a theological alliance in which the crucial figures were the bishop of Rome, Celestinus, and the bishop of Jerusalem, Juvenal. Further arguments were developed to demonstrate that Cyril's view of the unified nature of Christ corresponded with the doctrine of Nicaea, which had been confirmed as the lynch-pin of orthodoxy at the Council of Constantinople in 381. The arguments were put to the test at another ecumenical council, which met in Ephesus in 431. Cyril left little to chance. A flotilla of ships from Alexandria carried not only the bishops of Egypt and Libya with their attendant clergy, but six hundred of the paramilitary parabalani, who were the bishop's enforcers in Alexandria (see pp. 298 and 345–6). Cyril is reported to have bribed members of the imperial court in Constantinople to the tune of 2,500 pounds of gold. Nestorius' supporters were outnumbered and divided. Many of the bishops of Asia Minor, on whose territory the council was held, threw their weight behind Cyril. John, the bishop of Antioch, was delayed in his overland journey across Anatolia, and arrived only after the council had condemned Nestorius as a new Judas and stripped him of clerical rank. Cyril triumphantly wrote that the Nicene Creed was re-affirmed, that out of two natures a union was made in Christ, and that the Virgin Mary was confirmed as Mother of God (Cyril, ep. 39, 105c–106c, trans. in Stevenson, Creeds, Councils and Controversies, 313–17 no. 226).82 The Nestorians were hounded from power and from the empire. Many communities fled to Persia and took refuge within the more tolerant religious environment of the Sassanid Empire (see p. 131).

The debate was far from over, and fueled two further ecumenical councils in the middle of the fifth century which polarized the views of the established church around the question of the nature of Christ and involved state intervention at the highest level. Cyril died in 444 and was succeeded at Alexandria by Dioscorus. Meanwhile the Antiochene theologians returned to their arguments about the two natures of Christ, led by Theodoret of Cyrrhus. Councils were called in rapid succession to address the issue of Christ's nature, at Ephesus in 449 and at Chalcedon in 451. This theological crisis claimed major victims including Dioscurus, the bishop of Alexandria, who pushed Cyril's views with an unscrupulousness that outmatched his predecessor, and Flavian, bishop of Constantinople, who was deposed by the Monophysite monks at the Robber Council of Ephesus. The bishop of Rome, Leo, played a decisive part by submitting the view of the western churches in the Tome of Leo. This contained a ponderous assertion that the distinctive character of each nature and substance remained unimpaired, but came together in the one person of Christ. As mediator between man and God, Christ was capable of death in one nature but not in the other. Thus in the whole and perfect nature of true manhood, one God is born (trans. in Stevenson, Creeds, Councils and Controversies, 336–44 no. 241, 3). The bishops who assembled at Chalcedon in 451, under extreme imperial pressure, agreed to a formula along similar lines:

We all with one voice confess Lord Jesus Christ to be one and the same Son, the same perfect in Godhead, the same perfect in Manhood, truly God and truly man, the same consisting of a reasonable soul and a body, of one substance with the Father as touching the Godhead, the same of one substance with us as touching the Manhood, like us in all things apart from sin. (Stevenson, Creeds, Councils and Controversies, 350–54 no. 246, 4)

Chalcedon redefined orthodoxy in terms that were intended to bring a halt to the disputes of the Alexandrians and the Antiochenes. The emperor Marcian issued the optimistic and self-deluding edict that

Controversy about the orthodox religious law (lex) of the Christians has been put away; remedies at length have been found for culpable error, and diversity of opinion among the peoples has issued in common consent and concord. From the different provinces the most religious bishops have come to Chalcedon in accordance with our commands, and have taught by clear definition what ought to be observed in the matter of religion. Therefore let profane wrangling cease. (Trans. in Stevenson, Creeds, Councils and Controversies, 364–5 no. 250)

The official doctrine of the Roman Church was thus that Christ possessed two natures in one person. The theologians and common people of Alexandria were appalled. As they saw it, the facile and internally contradictory doctrine of Leo and of the Council of Chalcedon hardly differed from the heretical views of Nestorius himself. Nestorius, from exile in the Great Oasis, made the point in his Book of Heracleides (Stevenson, Creeds, Councils and Controversies, 349 no. 245). Doctrinal unity was achieved by imperial decree, but resulted in the permanent alienation of the Monophysite movement in the eastern empire.

The Council of Chalcedon created a gulf that was never bridged between the predominantly Monophysite regions of Syria and Egypt, and the orthodoxy which had been imposed from Constantinople and which was favored above all by the Christian West. The opponents of Chalcedon achieved a significant success in the early 470s during the interregnum of the usurper Basiliscus. Timothy, the bishop of Alexandria, supported by Peter the Fuller, bishop of Antioch, had persuaded Basiliscus to issue an encyclical letter. In terms of doctrine this insisted on adherence to the Nicene Creed of 325, and to the revised formulae that had been agreed at the Council of Constantinople in 381, and also accepted the conclusions reached at the two councils of Ephesus in 431 and 449. However, the encyclical anathematized the tome of Leo and the decisions of the Council of Chalcedon (Evagrius, HE 3.4). The central issue raised by this decision was more a matter of ecclesiastical politics than of doctrine. The Council of Chalcedon had underlined the leading position in the eastern church of the patriarchal bishop of Constantinople. Acacius, the patriarch of Constantinople, organized a vigorous lobby, supported by the monks of the capital, to have the encyclical reversed, and Basiliscus duly recanted. The revised statement deliberately avoided making any pronouncements about doctrine, but restored the authority of Constantinople

For, on this account, we also enjoin that whatever has occurred during our reign, whether as encyclicals, or in other forms, or indeed anything else whatsoever concerned with faith and ecclesiastical organization, be null and void, while we anathematize Nestorius and Eutyches, and every other heresy, and all who hold the same opinions; and that there will be no synod or other investigation concerning this subject, but these matters will be unbroken and unshaken; and that the provinces, whose ordination the see of this imperial and glorious city controlled, should be returned to the most devout and most holy patriarch and archbishop, Acacius. (Evagrius, HE 3.7, trans. Whitby)

In 482 Acacius, the patriarch of Constantinople, prepared a new statement of belief designed to reconcile the two sides, which was labeled the Henotikon, the affirmation of Union. His main concern was to reconcile the imperial church and the views of Constantinople with the Monophysite theology propounded at Alexandria. The formula was an old-fashioned statement of Trinitarian belief, but avoided any direct assertion about the one or two natures of Christ: “For the Trinity has remained a Trinity even after one of the Trinity, God the Word, was made flesh” (Evagrius, HE 3.14). The Henotikon approved the anathemas of Cyril of Alexandria, but condemned heresies of all sorts, whether promulgated at Chalcedon or anywhere else. This document won the support of the bishops of Alexandria and Antioch, without persuading more extreme Monophysites.83

More seriously, the fact that Acacius had unambiguously entered into communion with the Monophysites provoked the wrath of Rome. In 484 the bishop of Rome excommunicated Acacius, initiating a split between the western church and Constantinople which was to last until the accession of Justin I in 519. In effect, instead of creating unity, the tolerant policy which lay behind the Henotikon led the separate churches to pursue their own forms of worship. Evagrius emphasizes the resulting confusion:

There were very many divisions both in the East and in the western regions and in Libya since the eastern bishops were not on terms with those in the West or in Libya, nor in turn were the latter with those in the East. The situation became even more absurd. For the prelates in the East were not even in communion with one another. (Evagrius, HE 3.30, trans. Whitby)

The obduracy of the East is fully explicable within the broader political context. The western empire had collapsed as a political entity a few years earlier, and however imposing the pope's ecclesiastical authority, it was more important for the East to strive for internal coherence and unity. This was especially urgent as the eastern provinces had now become war zones for the first time during the fifth century. The emergence of the Isaurians had caused widespread violence and civil war in the center and south of Asia Minor, there was serious tension with Sassanid Persia after the mid-480s, and hostilities on the eastern front were to break out in the middle years of the emperor Anastasius (see pp. 128 and 130–1).

Anastasius' own beliefs showed strong Monophysite tendencies and appealed to the majority of the population of Syria and Egypt, but provoked opposition in the capital. Religious tension at Constantinople reached a climax in 512 when the emperor approved the addition of the words “who was crucified for us,” to the Chalcedonian formula of the trishagion, “Holy God, Holy Mighty, Holy Immortal, have mercy on us!”84 The Chalcedonians, fully in control of the church at Constantinople, interpreted this as implying that God himself was crucified, which was not a belief that could be reconciled with their two natures' theology. Opposition led by the monks of the city caused riotous demonstrations; much of the center of the city was burnt; a Syrian monk, who was held responsible for introducing the Monophysite formula to the trishagion, was beheaded, and his head paraded on a pole. A move was even made to promote Areobindus, a grandson of Aspar who was married to a descendant of Theodosius II, to replace the emperor. In this crisis Anastasius confronted the crowd in the Hippodrome and demonstratively laid aside his diadem. This was one of the great stage-managed political moments of the later empire. His address challenged them to face reality – the empire could not be ruled by the mob but only by a single ruler. The mob was manipulated into compliance. The emperor, now aged eighty-three, certainly did not rely exclusively on his own rhetoric and arguments. The rebellion was extinguished by arrests and executions (Malalas 16.19, 406.22–408.11).

The division between East and West, the Acacian schism, was brought to an end in 518 by the death of Anastasius. Anastasius' successor Justin, was a Chalcedonian, and immediately after his accession a delegation from Hormisdas, the bishop of Rome, formally put an end to the breach between the western church and Constantinople. Imperial religious policy was now actively controlled by Justin's nephew, the future emperor Justinian, and the new policies of the regime led to many Monophysite bishops in Syria, notably Severus the bishop of Antioch, being removed from their sees.

Justinian's personal influence now became the dominating factor in ecclesiastical politics. To a greater degree than any of his predecessors, he envisaged his own role as emperor in religious terms. Imperial policies were explicitly presented as an expression of God's will. “We continuously commit ourselves to all plans and actions in the name of Jesus Christ” (CJust. 1.27.2 preface). Moreover, the theological nature of Christian doctrine was a matter of passionate personal concern to him, especially in the later part of his reign. Procopius condemned him for spending long hours debating theological issues in the palace with clerics, to the detriment of his secular responsibilities (Procopius, Bell. Goth. 7.32.39). More than any other emperor, he spared nothing and no one in the quest for religious unity:

For in his eagerness to gather all men into one belief as to Christ, he kept destroying the rest of mankind in senseless fashion, and that too while acting with a pretence of piety. For it did not seem to him murder if the victims chanced not to be of his own creed. (Procopius, Secret History 13.7, trans. Dewing)

At the heart of Justinian's own Christianity was his commitment to the so-called theopaschite formula, that one member of the Trinity had truly suffered on the cross. In essence this was closely associated with the Monophysite supplement to the trishagion, which had stirred up Chalcedonian opposition to Anastasius, and it was initially rejected by the bishop of Rome and the western church. However, negotiations during the 530s, which culminated at a council held in Constantinople in 536, produced a paradoxical resolution. Rome acknowledged the formula as an acceptable extension of Chalcedonian dogma, provided that Rome's own status as the supreme Church of Christendom was recognized by the great bishoprics of the East. Indeed the enhanced significance of the city of Rome at the head of the church was a major incentive for Justinian to undertake his war against the Gothic kingdom in Italy, thereby bringing secular as well as religious unity to the universal church. This created the appearance of the Roman Christian world united in its adherence to the orthodox doctrine of Chalcedon. The political context of these developments is important. Imperial politics after 532, when a peace treaty with Persia had been signed, were focused on the West, and the search for religious unity was an urgent concern for Constantinople and Rome (see pp. 149–57). Alexandria was another matter. The emperor was obliged to depose its Monophysite bishop Theodosius in 538, and replace him with Chalcedonian candidates, who were supported by military force. The people of Egypt were mostly unmoved from their Monophysite convictions and continued to regard Theodosius as the true patriarch of Alexandria until his death in 566.

However, there was doctrinal confusion in Justinian's religious politics, including the potentially fatal flaw that the new Chalcedonianism in fact contained crucial ingredients of Monophysitism. It is symptomatic of the ambiguity that the emperor's own wife Theodora was well known for her Monophysite sympathies, and had several occasions to support and encourage Monophysite churchmen. It is also revealing that Justinian himself brought a completely different approach to religious politics than that of earlier emperors. Whereas his predecessors rarely played an active role in theological debate, but mustered state authority, and on occasion brute force, to enforce the decisions of church councils, Justinian preferred to engage in debate himself and enforce compliance through persuasion and argument.

In 553 Justinian convened a fifth ecumenical council to try and win over the dissident Monophysite East. The council agreed to retain the main dogma of Chalcedon, but condemned three crucial dogmatic works that expounded two-nature theology, written more than a century earlier by Theodoret of Cyrrhus, Ibas of Edessa and Theodore of Mopsuhestia. The attempted compromise was no more successful than the Henotikon had been. In the later stages of his reign Justinian was prepared to use force where persuasion failed. Vigilius, the bishop of Rome, had been literally kidnapped and brought to Constantinople, but refused to participate in the discussions. The remnants of the Roman Church in Italy effectively refused to acknowledge the council's authority. Meanwhile the Monophysites of Syria regarded the outcome as a half-way measure, which had failed to remove the objectionable features of Chalcedonian theology. Their conclusion was surreptitiously to declare their independence of Constantinople. Jacob Baradaeus (Bar-Addai), the bishop of Edessa from 542 to 578, identifying himself with the monks, hermits, and holy men of Syria and Mesopotamia, began the task of ordaining an entire alternative clergy to create the Jacobite Church of Syria. The result was a region split very much as fourth-century Africa had been by the Donatist controversy, between Monophysites, who were largely based in the country, drawing their strength from local holy men and the Syriac-speaking population, and Chalcedonian clergy, who had been appointed in the cities with the blessing of Constantinople.85

The aim of successive emperors since Constantine had been to achieve a unified Christendom within the Roman Empire. More than any other ruler Justinian attempted to make real what was proclaimed in his propaganda, that to be truly Roman was to be a Chalcedonian Christian.86

The failure of this imperial mission was sealed by the Monophysite schism in the eastern frontier provinces of Syria and Mesopotamia, which had forged a new religious identity of their own.87 It was not an accident that this should have coincided with the failure of the empire itself to provide protection for these provinces against the invasions of Khusro I. The religious authority of Constantinople over the Near East stretched no further than the now waning might of its armies.

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