17

EASTERN CHRISTIANITY AND THE EMERGENCE OF THE BYZANTINE EMPIRE, 395–600

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In 395 the Roman empire was formally divided into two parts, each under a son of Theodosius: Arcadius in the east and Honorius, still only aged ten, in the west. The boundary was drawn so that the west was predominantly Latin speaking and the east Greek. The two parts were never reunited and were to have very different fates. While the east managed to consolidate its territory around Constantinople and so develop into the Byzantine empire, which lasted until its final overthrow by the Ottoman Turks in 1453, the western empire disintegrated. This had profound implications for Christianity, which from now on would develop within two different linguistic cultures, each with its own political context. Whatever doctrinal differences are proposed to mark the eventual divorce of the Roman Catholic and Orthodox Churches, the split was rooted in the political and linguistic division of 395. While in the Byzantine empire state and church were closely bound, so that the emperor represented God on earth and the church remained ultimately subservient to him, in the west the bishops, above all the bishop of Rome, eventually regained their independence and were able to negotiate new roles within society. Christianity was to be humbled by successful Islamic invasions in the seventh and eighth centuries, as a result of which both parts of the empire lost extensive territories, including the Holy Land, the great Christian cities of Antioch and Alexandria and the vigorous north African Christian communities.

During the fourth century the emperor had consolidated his position as absolute ruler; intrinsic to this had been an elaboration of his quasi-divine status. Diocletian had perfected the process of the elevation of the emperor above his subjects, linking himself to a favoured pagan god, Jupiter. For Constantine that god was Christian; in his Life of Constantine Eusebius describes the ideal of the Christian monarch, the mirror of God on earth (there are again shades of Platonism here). When Eusebius described the great banquet given by Constantine after the Council of Nicaea, for instance, it was as “an imaginary representation of the kingdom of Christ.” 1 Eusebius gave the emperors the role of upholding Christian law and worship even if in Constantine’s specific case Eusebius seems to distort history to make his case (as with his assertion, for instance, that Constantinople was founded as a Christian city).2 Some forty years later the Roman Ambrosiaster (whose name derives from the mistaken belief that his commentary on Paul was written by Ambrose) commented that “the King [emperor] bears the image of God, just as the bishop bears the image of Christ,” 3 while the orator Themistius proclaimed that “the emperor is an emanation of that divine nature; he is providence nearer the earth; he looks toward God from all directions, aiming at imitation of Him in every way.”4 In Theodosius II’s Law Code of 438, the imperial palace, even its stables, were declared to be “sacred,” as if they were the precincts of a temple.5 As we have already seen, representations of heaven in Christian mosaics were modelled on the imperial court, and when John Chrysostom searched for imagery to describe the second coming he chose to describe Christ as like an emperor arriving in the full glory of his office, weighted with gold and precious stones. While the theologians argued that there was an impassable gulf between the Creator and the created, in practice images of the world of God and that of the emperor blurred. 6

The image of the emperor was matched by his power. The office had always been formidable, but under Diocletian its powers had been centralized and made more coherent. As leader of the armies, controller of all foreign relations and with absolute powers of life and death, an emperor had enormous destructive force at his disposal. During the riots in Antioch in 387 over tax demands, images of the emperor Theodosius I were defaced (an awesome offence in that statues of the emperor were to be honoured as if they were the emperor in person). As the mood calmed in the city, the terrible realization struck the citizens of just how mighty the wrath of the emperor could be, and rumours even spread that Antioch might be razed to the ground. Many fled to the hills. The bishop of the city, Flavian, set out to plead with the emperor, and John Chrysostom, the city’s most popular preacher, told his congregations that they now had to throw themselves on the mercy not only of the emperor but of God. This was how the last judgment would be.7 In the event the city was treated relatively leniently, although, as we have seen, three years later in Thessalonika Theodosius was not to be so restrained. A hundred and fifty years later Constantinople suffered an even worse fate. The emperor Justinian, faced by similar riots, the Nika revolt of 532, was encouraged by his wife, Theodora, to send in troops. Between 30,000 and 50,000 citizens are believed to have been massacred. It was the arbitrary exercise of this absolute power which was most unsettling; the fact that Justinian supposed himself to be a quintessentially Christian monarch made no difference. It was, after all, fully accepted that God might act punitively, and there were dozens of Old Testament texts to back the point, so why should his representative on earth be different? In any case, as the contemporary historian Procopius put it in another context, “Justinian did not see it as murder if the victims did not share his own beliefs.” 8

The Byzantine empire had always to be preoccupied with survival. This meant raising resources, in men and taxes, for defence while maintaining some sort of order among the burdened subjects of the empire. Christianity was increasingly interwoven with the authority of the state in that both church and state defined themselves as embattled by numerous enemies, and so, despite the very different contexts in which their fears of the outside world had evolved, they were natural allies. In legislation, the laws against Jews (“the madness of the Jewish impiety”) reached a new coherence and severity, as did those against polytheists (“the error and insanity of stupid paganism”) and non-orthodox Christians (“all heresies, all perfidies and schisms”). A law of Theodosius II of 438 speaks of “the thousand terrors” of the laws “that defend the boundless claim to honour” of the Church.9Punishments were harsh, including, for example, capital punishment for the making of a sacrifice. For the first time in the history of the Roman empire, correct religious adherence became a requirement for the full enjoyment of the benefits of Roman society. There remained, however, an immense gap between the legislations and its implementation. The empire was vast, many of its territories were outside effective imperial control and local elites jealously maintained their independence. There is little evidence, for instance, that the penalties for sacrifice were imposed, and Judaism, far from being eradicated, seems to have enjoyed fresh vigour in Palestine in the fifth century.10 An edict from the same code quoted earlier (p. 212) suggests Jews and pagans were not to be molested by Christians if they remained law-abiding.

For the leaders of Christianity life was still seen as it had always been since the days of Paul, predominantly as a battle between the Christian way of life and a corrupt world. The mentality of Christian “weakness” persisted even when the church had in truth achieved strength. Through the life of John Chrysostom, John of “the Golden Mouth,” we can build up a picture of the tensions that beset the church in the late fourth and early fifth century, not least in the conflict between the roles of bishop as Christian leader and as imperial servant.11

John Chrysostom, born c. 347, the son of a civil servant from Antioch, one of the great cities of the eastern empire, was another of those Christians who had been educated traditionally in rhetoric (under the influential pagan teacher Libanius), and he seemed set for a career in the courts until he converted to Christianity as a young man. Like so many others in this period, he spent several years as an ascetic, and he always retained his abhorrence of sex. His treatise Virginity relied heavily on Paul but interpreted the Apostle’s writings in the most gloomy and grudging way. The original intention of God, John claimed, was to create Adam and Eve as an asexual couple—it was their fall which corrupted them and released the “dangers” of sex on the world. Like his contemporary Augustine, John was to take Paul as his mentor.

Whenever I hear the epistles of Paul read out in the liturgy, I am filled with joy . . . If I’m regarded as a learned man, it’s not because I’m brainy. It’s simply because I have such a love for Paul that I have never left off reading him. He has taught me all I know. And I want you to listen to what he has to teach you. You don’t need to do anything else [sic]. 12

John’s ascetic experience permanently damaged his health, but he was eventually ordained a priest and threw himself into pastoral life in his native city. The clarity of his language, the emotional power of his rhetoric and his concentration on the everyday challenges of life quickly made him the most popular and influential preacher in Antioch. His sermons are full of vivid denunciations, of the wealthy women, even those consecrated to virginity, who come to church flaunting their pearls and luxurious dresses, and men, obsessed with chariot races, pantomimes and banquet delicacies, who recline on ornate couches while dancers and flautists (the flute, as opposed to the lyre, was always a traditional symbol of abandonment) cavort round them. In contrast are the beggars, freezing in the winter cold, who even blind their own children to earn more money, and the city’s prisoners lying in rags and chains, the open wounds of their latest scourgings still oozing blood. “Do you pay such honour to your excrements,” one congregation was told, “as to receive them in a silver chamber pot when another man made in the image of God is perishing of cold?” 13

Less happily, John also employed his considerable powers of invective against the Jews. It is possible from his eight surviving sermons Against the Jews to reconstruct a Jewish community in Antioch which, far from being abashed by the rise of Christianity, still celebrated its festivals openly and attracted Christians to them. John was furious, and his fury perhaps reflects Christian frustration at the obstinacy of the Jews in maintaining their ancestral religion when so many pagans were rejecting theirs for Christianity. How, he queried, could a Christian consort with those who had shed the blood of Christ and then come to a church and partake of that same blood at the Eucharist? Much worse was to follow. John was never restrained in his language, and he now resorted to scurrilous invective. The status of Jews was that of dogs. Their festivals were full of sensuality, their processions made up of “perverts and tarts,” their synagogues the equivalent of brothels. They should be shunned as if they were a plague threatening the whole world. Quite unabashed in doing so, John employed Old Testament verses taken out of context, as well as those New Testament texts (such as Matthew’s “His blood be upon us and our children”) that had expressed early Christian anti-Judaism, to consolidate his argument. In later sermons he becomes more directly theological—the supreme proof that Christ was truly God lay in his prediction, fulfilled in A.D. 70, that Jerusalem would be captured and the Temple destroyed. As a result of their rhetorical power, these sermons were translated into Latin and became as much part of the western Christian tradition as of the eastern. Their influence persisted long after their composition. 14

In 398, unexpectedly, John was asked to become bishop of Constantinople. For the right man this would have been an important promotion. Constantinople was an imperial city, wealthy and confident of its new status, and a sociable and politically astute bishop had the chance of enjoying considerable influence within the court and thus the empire. It was important to cultivate this influence, as the bishop was vulnerable to the intrigues of the bishops of Alexandria, who remained embittered at their demotion within the church hierarchy after the elevation of Constantinople in 381. In no other bishopric was paideia, the ancient art of courtesy, more essential. John was hopelessly unsuited for the post. He failed to grasp that in Constantinople more than anywhere else the church was subservient to the state—his own view that “the one appointed to the priesthood is a more responsible guardian of the earth and what transpires on it than one who wears the purple” was incompatible with his new position. Moreover, he preferred eating alone, was made uneasy by the luxury of the court (at one point referring to the empress Eudoxia as a Jezebel) and unceasing in his criticism of his clergy for their supposed laxities. He aroused enormous resentment when he inveighed against clergy who shared their homes with professed virgins in what he termed “the pretence of living together as brothers and sisters,” and monks who ventured out of their monasteries onto the streets. He also weakened his position in the wider church by taking a tour of Asia Minor, where, probably overreaching his powers of jurisdiction, he deposed several bishops. 15 His only power base lay with the people, many of whom relished his populist sermons.

So when the bishop of Alexandria, Theophilus, set out to challenge John’s position, John was vulnerable. Theophilus, in order to strengthen his own position in Egypt, had condemned Origen for preaching that God was without human attributes. As a result of the subsequent witch hunt against Origenists, a group of some fifty monastic refugees, known as the Tall Brothers after their four tall leaders, arrived in Constantinople (probably in the autumn of 401) and sought the assistance of its bishop. The “correct” stance for John would have been to support Theophilus’ ban; John did not allow them to attend communion but he did offer them hospitality. They then appealed to the emperor, and the young and still inexperienced Arcadius, concerned at their ill-treatment, summoned Theophilus to explain the situation. Theophilus knew he would be undermined if the emperor supported John and the Tall Brothers, and he set out for Constantinople with some foreboding. As his luck would have it, a sermon preached by John on the vanities of women, a favourite subject of his, had been interpreted as a veiled attack on the empress Eudoxia, and she was outraged. Rather than being judged for his mistreatment of the Tall Brothers, Theophilus was able to install himself near Constantinople with several supportive bishops from Egypt and gather charges against John. Most were trivial, dredged up by two deacons whom John had dismissed, but when John refused to come and answer them (at what is known as the Synod of the Oak), he was deposed by Theophilus, a deposition at first supported by the court (403). John was arrested and exiled. Hardly had he left, however, than some misfortune “in the imperial bedchamber,” possibly a miscarriage, was taken by Eudoxia to be a sign of God’s wrath for the expulsion, and he was ordered to return. At this a group of monks, hostile to John after his harsh and insensitive treatment of them, rioted, and order had to be restored by the imperial troops aided by the civilian population who still supported John.

John did not last long after his return. There was never any likelihood that he could forge a stable relationship with the court, and Eudoxia was soon furious with him again over another sermon she, and most of John’s congregation, assumed to be an attack on her. John’s status remained unclear. The decree of the Synod of the Oak was declared invalid, but this did not lead to a formal reinstatement of John as bishop. He was acutely vulnerable, he had too many enemies around and near the court, few friends among the clergy and his primary supporters, in the crowd, were too volatile to help his cause. When he was finally expelled from the city in June 404, a popular revolt led to the great church of Hagia Sophia being burnt down (Justinian was to rebuild it in its present magnificence in the next century), along with Constantinople’s Senate house. John died in exile, in 407 in Pontus (in Asia Minor).16

It is instructive to contrast John’s unhappy term of office with that of his contemporary Ambrose in Milan. Ambrose had the immense advantage that he knew the intricacies of imperial administration, but he also realized the importance of keeping local bishops and clergy (so long as they supported the Nicene Creed) on his side. As a result, he was never as isolated as John. When Ambrose used crowds it was in an organized way and with clear objectives—it is even possible that he was sufficiently in control to manipulate them. In John’s case the masses were ready to riot in his support, but unrestrained disorder did nothing to help his cause. John had the added problem of the rivalry of Theophilus (in contrast, the bishops of Rome, who might have resented Ambrose’s dominance, were no match for him), but here, in allowing himself to be outmanoeuvred, he threw away the advantage he had as the man closest to the imperial court.

The rivalry between Constantinople and Alexandria erupted again in the debate that dominated the first half of the fifth century over the true nature of Jesus while he was on earth. By incorporating Jesus fully into the Godhead, the Nicene Creed had created a new Christological controversy. 17In the traditional, pre-Nicene, formulations, the logos as Christ was something less than the Godhead; as there was no precedent for an incarnated logos (the idea was inconceivable to Platonists, who also made the point that if the logos could be incarnated in one man, then why not more than one?), it was possible simply to take the Gospel depictions of Jesus as they were. The logos was not God, and while incarnated in Jesus did not have to show the attributes of an impassible God; so, for instance, there was no difficulty in accepting a Jesus/logos suffering on the cross. However, the Nicene formulation, in which Jesus was always part of the Godhead and remained so while on earth, raised new difficulties as to how he could be human at the same time. The gulf between man and God was so wide that any form of unity seemed conceptually impossible. Then there remained the old problem that if the logos really was part of the Godhead, consubstantial with it, then the logos could not suffer any more than God could. Yet Jesus in the Gospel accounts did appear to suffer. So in what ways could he be classified as human while at the same time being fully God?

Once again the diversity of sources and the tendency of the Greek mind to speculate had spawned a range of different solutions. Despite Nicaea, there could still be found those, the Adoptionists, who insisted that Jesus was fully human and only “adopted” by God as his Son. Augustine himself has heard Jesus described as “a man [sic] of extraordinary wisdom, whom none could equal.”18 At the other extreme was Doceticism, which taught that Jesus only gave the appearance of being human (dokeo, “I seem”) but was, in fact, completely divine and unable to suffer. Other groups, such as the Apollinarians, named after Apollinarius, bishop of Laodicea (c. 310–90), argued that Christ had a human body but that his soul and his mind remained divine. Apollinarius was declared a heretic for these views, but his followers kept his memory alive by the ingenious device of pretending his writings were by the highly orthodox Athanasius. Some, such as Cyril of Alexandria, were completely caught out by this ruse. Then there was Theodore, bishop of Mopsuestia in Asia Minor, who argued that Jesus had been conceived twice, once in a divine form and once in a human form, the so-called Two Sons formula. In contrast to Apollinarius, however, Theodore did not believe these natures were divided between body and soul but somehow united in one person. Each attempted resolution simply raised more issues. If Jesus was fully man when he suffered, was he still man when he worked a miracle, or was he then acting in his divine role? What form of humanity did he take—man as before the fall, man as now lost in sin or man as he would be when redeemed? If Jesus was created as a perfect man, what did Luke mean when he wrote (2:52) that “Jesus increased in wisdom, stature and in favour with God and men”? Surely an “increase” implied that he was at some point an undeveloped human being, but was this possible? It could be assumed that he was not man in any way before the Incarnation, but after his resurrection did he revert to being only God, or did he retain some of his humanity? (Hilary of Poitiers argued that he remained both perfect man, fully human but without sin, and perfect God.) Connected to these debates was the status of the Virgin Mary. She was now the object of growing personal devotion, and her status rested on her role as the mother of Jesus. Yet was she the bearer of God (Theotokos ) or of a man (Anthropotokos)?

The person around whom the debate was to crystallize was Nestorius, appointed bishop of Constantinople in 428. Nestorius had shown concern at the use of the title of Theotokos for Mary. He felt that this title denied the human nature of Jesus altogether and would have preferred to see Mary as Anthropotokos, though he was prepared to compromise on Christotokos, “bearer of Christ.” After all, Mary had given birth as a human being to a man who was capable of suffering and dying, although he was, of course, the divine logos as well. Calling Mary Theotokos risked falling into the heresy of denying Jesus’ humanity. Where Nestorius, like everyone else, experienced difficulty was in finding a formula which could explain how Jesus’ two natures, human and divine, could co-exist. He favoured the term “conjunction” rather than “union,” but his theological fumblings made him vulnerable to the new bishop of Alexandria, Theophilus’ nephew Cyril. Cyril championed the Theotokos formula, and he saw the issue as one through which he could undermine Nestorius and humble the see of Constantinople. He prepared his ground carefully. He circulated a pastoral letter to his local bishops explaining that since the promulgation of the Nicene Creed as orthodoxy the only possible title for Mary was “bearer of God,” and he then persuaded the bishop of Rome, Celestine, a natural supporter of Alexandria against Constantinople, to agree to this formulation. Next he won over Pulcheria, the powerful elder sister of the young emperor Theodosius (who had succeeded Arcadius in 408). Pulcheria, who ruled as Theodosius’ regent, had a personal devotion to Mary, and Nestorius had offended her by refusing to allow her to take communion alongside the clergy in the sanctuary of his church. (A similar standoff took place between Theodosius and Ambrose in Milan.) Having thus isolated Nestorius, Cyril began writing provocative letters to him, accusing him of undermining orthodoxy and causing dissension. Nestorius at first replied with reasoned defences of his position, relying on the scriptural accounts of Jesus’ humanity, but Cyril’s letters became increasingly virulent, demanding complete submission. Eventually he issued twelve devastating anathemas containing a full denunciation of Nestorianism, although in the process Cyril himself came close to denying Jesus’ human nature altogether. If Christ as logos was now, as the Nicene Creed insisted, fully part of the Godhead, then he was beyond all suffering, yet Cyril claimed in the Twelfth Anathema that the logos itself could indeed suffer “in the flesh.” This formulation made it difficult to see why Jesus needed to take on a human nature at all! The anathemas simply inflamed the debate. In fact, Cyril was no more able than Nestorius to explain with any clarity how the two natures could co-exist. A divine Jesus, he put it in one formulation, “inconceivably and in a way that is inexpressible, united to himself a body ensouled with a rational soul.” Much of the attack on Nestorius depended on distorting Nestorius’ views to the point of caricature by overemphasizing his stress on the humanity of Jesus, even to the extent of accusing him of Adoptionism.

Muddled by these vague formulas and distortions, the debate degenerated into a power struggle, and it was here that the determined Cyril triumphed over the less politically adept Nestorius. At the Council of Ephesus, called in 431 by the emperor Theodosius II to settle the mat-ter, Cyril arrived early with a large group of strong men (they were euphemistically referred to as “hospital attendants”), overawed the imperial commissioner sent by Theodosius to preside, completed the business before the supporters of Nestorius had even assembled and then used massive bribery to keep Theodosius and his court on his side. Nestorius was condemned as a heretic. Theodosius was stunned by the controversy and bargained with the Alexandrians that the divisive anathemas be withdrawn from the debate in return for his condemnation of Nestorius, whose works were ordered by imperial decree to be burned in 435. The council left much bitterness in its wake. Cyril was applauded by his supporters and condemned by those he had outmanoeuvred. When he died in 444, one opponent suggested that a heavy stone be placed on his grave to prevent his soul from returning to the world when the inmates of hell threw it out as too evil even for there!

In 449 another attempt at solving the controversy aroused even greater anger. A second council at Ephesus was dominated by Cyril’s successor as bishop of Alexandria, Dioscorus. Dioscorus drew on those aspects of Cyril’s theology that implied that the human nature of Jesus was subordinate to the divine. He had imperial support and even used armed guards to bully his way ferociously into control of the council and push through sweeping condemnations of any bishops who could be associated with Nestorianism. The condemnations included charges of usury, sorcery, blasphemy and sodomy and were passed with the help of massive intimidation. Bishops were forced to sign their names to blank pieces of paper and one of the casualties was another bishop of Constantinople, Flavian, who suffered so harshly either at the council or in its aftermath that he died of his injuries. Dioscorus even excommunicated Leo, the bishop of Rome, whose Tome, a statement setting out a formula for the two natures of Christ in one person, was condemned. Leo, in retaliation, gave the council the name by which it is still known to historians, “the robber council.”19

The emperors had learned their lesson. Doctrine could not be settled when personal and institutional rivalries were allowed to swamp debate. Once again imperial control, so crucial in establishing the Nicene orthodoxy, had to be reasserted. Theodosius had died in 450, and Pulcheria had maintained her position in the court by marrying an elderly soldier, Marcian (emperor in the east 450–57). A new council had been scheduled to meet at Nicaea, but it was now relocated to Chalcedon, close to Constantinople and therefore to imperial supervision. Marcian and Pulcheria were even to attend one session, to acclamations as “the new Constantine and the new Helena.” As the council assembled the local governor was ordered to expel “riotous clergy” from the surrounding territory. A large group of imperial administrators was assembled to run the proceedings, and they insisted that the issues be presented in writing and debated as if they were legal documents. Even after all these preparations, many of the council’s sessions were chaotic. “Popular acclamations are not suitable for bishops,” the harassed organizers announced after one tumultuous session. Much of the business of the council was concerned with bringing the church to order. It was now that the canon banning monks from church business was passed (see p. 249), and the opportunity was taken to further enhance the prestige of Constantinople by giving the see greater authority in the surrounding territories. The furious response of Rome (in an angry letter sent by Leo to Pulcheria) went unheeded. Doctrinally Leo fared better. A sensible solution to the debilitating debate over the nature of Christ was eventually reached in that Leo’s Tome was accepted (a significant moment in church history as “the first time Rome took a determining role in the definition of Christian dogma”), and Cyril’s writings were ingeniously interpreted so that they did not conflict with Leo’s formula. It was a stage-managed compromise that Marcian hoped, as he expressed it in an imperial edict issued after the council, would bring division to an end. It was declared that after the Incarnation Christ was “at all times fully God and fully human, with two natures, without confusion, without change, without division, without separation.” The council was followed by an imperial law that made any discussion disagreeing with the council’s conclusions punishable.20

As far as the east was concerned, Marcian’s hopes for peace were misplaced. The debate had gone on for so long and had spawned so many different solutions that it could not so easily be subdued. Nestorius, now about seventy, had read Leo’s Tome and felt that it represented his position fairly, although he died soon afterwards, and it is not known whether he heard that it had been accepted, and his own approach vindicated, at Chalcedon. However, what Nestorius had actually said was no longer as important as what his opponents had said that he had said. Nestorianism was now the name of a heresy that emphasized Christ’s human nature much more than Nestorius had ever done; it was, in fact, closer to the teachings of Theodore of Mopsuestia, and as such it enjoyed considerable success in the far east of the empire and Persia.

On the other side of the debate, the Monophysites (who believed that Christ had a single nature, albeit one in which there were both divine and human elements) acclaimed Dioscorus as their inspiration even though he had been condemned at Chalcedon for his disgraceful behaviour at Ephesus—“Cast out Dioscorus the murderer” had been the cry of one group of bishops at the council. The Monophysites drew comfort from the fact that Dioscorus had not actually been declared a heretic, and they too set up independent churches (the Coptic Church in Egypt and the Jacobite Church in Syria among them), but even between the Monophysites there was acute dissension. Many felt that the declaration of Jesus’ separate human nature compromised the concept of the Trinity. Once again the masses developed a sophisticated understanding of every nuance in the debate. In the 490s there were riots in Constantinople when the news spread that a phrase suggesting Monophysitism had been added to the liturgy of the church of Hagia Sophia. The emperors shifted their ground in an attempt to find a consensus. A new declaration by the emperor Zeno in 482 stressed that “the Trinity remains the Trinity even after one of the Trinity, God the logos, becomes flesh.” Christ, it was ingeniously suggested, was “homoousios with the Father according to his divinity and homoousios with us according to his humanity” while remaining one Son. The emperor Justinian made a further condemnation of the Nestorian position at a council of Constantinople in 553. In truth, it was probably impossible to make any satisfactory reconciliation between the doctrine of the Trinity and the doctrine of a Christ with two natures, and once again the state had to declare a compromise formula that was then enforced by law.

Because the writings of John Chrysostom, Ambrose, Jerome and Augustine were preserved and given such status, and because the church and its teachings became so deeply embedded in the legal and political system, it is easy to regard Christianity as much more powerful at this stage than it really was. Yet the fulminations of the preachers against the wickedness of the world arose partly because the mass of citizens continued to live within their traditional cultures. While in the legislation of the period one sees an intensification of the Christian state, this did not necessarily mean that the subjects of the empire became orthodox Christians—or even Christians at all. Recent studies have probed behind the triumphalist writings of church leaders to suggest that there was a much more fluid pattern of relationships between Christian and non-Christian, and there was certainly no clear demarcation between an advancing Christian wave and an ever-diminishing and engulfed pagan minority. The sheer breadth of the empire, the need for the remaining pagan elites to be wooed rather than alienated by the embattled emperors and the diversity and remoteness of many of its communities meant that much remained untouched. The traditional approach to the late empire by Christian historians, which suggests that paganism had somehow lost its force and “deserved” to succumb, underestimates its depth and resilience.

If we turn from the intense debates between theologians over doctrine to Christianity as it appeared “on the ground,” we find that the boundaries between orthodox and heretic and even between Christian and non-Christian remained indistinct. The true commitment of Christians to their faith came with baptism, but many lingered for years as catechumens, in effect living in a no-man’s-land in which they would continue to attend pagan festivals. In north Africa Augustine worked hard to quell the wine drinking and dancing that had always been part of traditional festivals, but when he rebuked a crowd of catechumens who were enjoying a local celebration in Bulla Regia in 411, he received the reply that they, as mere catechumens, did not have to avoid such festivities, unlike the bishops and clergy! Even if, after 381, Christ and the Holy Spirit were fully incorporated into the Godhead, Christianity could provide a mass of figures who had some form of “divine” status in the afterlife as companions of God, such as the Virgin Mary, the saints and the martyrs. Then there were the angels and demons whose combined presence filled the Christian world with as many supernatural presences as there had been in earlier times. It needs to be remembered that Christians continued to believe in the existence of the pagan gods—as demons. None of this would have been alien to pagans. G. W. Bowersock describes a number of instances, from Syria and Mesopotamia in particular, of gods being worshipped in groups of three.21

So a conversion to Christianity need not have been abrupt. Often pagans compromised with Christianity by linking a particular martyr with an existing pagan festival so that celebrations and rituals could continue as before. Paulinus, bishop of Nola in Campania, whose poetry and correspondence are a major source for local customs in the early fifth century, recorded how he offered the first shaving of his beard to the shrine of the Christian saint Felix and how the peasants in his diocese would bring pigs to the shrine to be slaughtered as if making a sacrifice of old. He mentions that good weather, fertility, safe childbirth and escape from enemies have become the concerns of local martyrs.22 As Ramsay MacMullen has put it, “The principal business of the martyrs by far [by the late fourth century], as for a thousand years to come, was to restore fertility, straighten limbs, clear the sight, or untwist the mind.” In other words, the same roles that the pagan gods such as Asclepius had fulfilled for centuries.23 The authorities helped the process either by acquiescence or direct initiative. Jerome was rebuked by one earnest Christian for allowing a martyr’s tomb to be surrounded by a mountain of candles even in daylight, as the tomb of a pagan deity might be. Jerome replied lamely that the candles were to provide light for all-night vigils, but “what used to be done for idols, and is therefore detestable, is [now] done for martyrs, and on that account is acceptable.”24 Candles are still, of course, to be found before the images of saints in both Catholic and Orthodox churches. Cyril of Alexandria, aware that many locals were still attending a shrine of Isis at a nearby town and recognizing that “these districts were in need of medical services from God,” promoted two local martyrs, John and Cyrus, to fulfill the role, creating a new shrine in their honour for the sick to attend. Gregory the Great showed the same shrewdness during the conversion of the Angles. He ordered the idols to be taken from the existing British temples, holy water sprinkled over the shrines to purify them, then altars built and relics put in place “so that the Angles have to change from the worship of the demons to that of the true God” without having to change their places of worship.25 When Augustine was confronted by a inquirer who said that while he was happy to accept the Christian God as a bringer of eternal life, he wished to keep with the everyday gods for day to day living, Augustine promised that God cared about everything and would even “see to the salvation of your hen.”26

From the other side of the divide one finds pagans actually treating Christian shrines as another manifestation of the divine, not necessarily of greater or less significance than any other spiritual site. There is a story of a pagan lady from Seleucia who broke her leg and travelled first to Jewish magical healers, then to the supposed tomb of Sarpedon, a mythical hero from the Trojan war, and then to the shrine of the Christian saint Thecla in search of a cure. Bowersock shows how pagan cults, far from being curtailed or overwhelmed by Christianity, even adopted Christian images. In a series of mosaics found in the 1980s in New Paphos in Cyprus, Dionysus presides in tableaux that start with him as a baby sitting “very much like the child on the lap of the Virgin” on the lap of Hermes and ending with him portrayed in triumph.27 Often, of course, pagans simply adapted their activities so as to avoid breaking the law. The pagan rhetorician Libanius talks of pagans sending out invitations for feasts in the name of a presiding deity, meeting together outside rather than inside a temple sanctuary, killing beasts and then eating and singing hymns to the deity together as if nothing had changed. Libanius cannot see how this can be against the law, although more wide-ranging laws passed in the early fifth century aimed at “any solemn ceremony” may have made it so.28

Yet, however much assimilation and sharing took place, the church was bound to fit awkwardly with the surrounding cultures. Its very theology was deeply rooted in, and shaped by, rejections of Judaism, of paganism and, since the emperor had imposed an orthodox creed on the empire that was backed by law, of other “heretical” Christian groups. Now, with its new status as representative of the state in religious affairs, the church could take the initiative against its enemies. What strikes the modern reader is the passion and conviction with which Christians laid into their adversaries. Powerful imagery of heaven and hell, a range of supportive texts from the Bible and the urgings of church leaders gave intensity to their onslaughts. Much of this must have been rooted in the tensions of the age, the insecurities of continual warfare, high taxation and the brutality of the regime expressed in a religious formulation, but it probably reflects tensions with the increasingly authoritarian churches as well. Attacks against Jews, especially their synagogues, were now tolerated, or even, in extreme circumstances, seen as a badge of Christian commitment. In one instance recounted in the Letter of Severus (written by the bishop of Mahon in Minorca in 415), the bishop describes how he overawed the local Jewish community by bringing in Christians from neighbouring communities and demanding a public meeting with the Jews on their Sabbath. When they refused and began barricading their synagogue in self-defence, Severus ordered that the interior should be burnt out. As Severus triumphantly records, the Jews were forced into making their peace.29 Violence and intimidation at this level and anti-Jewish legislation at state level cold-shouldered the Jews into, in the words of Nicholas de Lange, “a long period of desolation.” 30

However, Judaism survived. It was not, in this period at least, subject to a coherent campaign of elimination, unlike the Christian Donatists in north Africa, who were made subject to laws as wide ranging in scope as those used in the persecutions of Diocletian. Nor were synagogues subject to quite the same level of destruction as many pagan shrines. The Old Testament (and, of course, Paul) gave support for the overthrow of idolatrous worship. “Ye shall destroy their altars, break down their images, and cut down their groves . . . for the Lord, whose name is Jealous, is a Jealous God” (Exodus 34:13). Destruction was now urged with some vigour. “Abolish, abolish in confidence the ornaments of temples,” the emperors were petitioned by one enthusiast in 346. “Upon, you most holy emperors, necessity enjoins the avenging and punishing of this evil . . . so that your Severities [sic] persecute root and branch the crime of idol worship.” 31 The impetus was maintained by arguing that the pagan gods’ failure to retaliate would show that they had no power: the more statues and temples were destroyed, the more strongly the point would be made to pagans. Of course, this could backfire as it did in Rome, where, after the sack of 410, pagans argued that the disaster was the revenge of the gods on those who had destroyed them. In the early fifth century laws were passed transferring the income from properties owned by temples to the church, which thereby consolidated its economic position. By the end of the century gifts or bequests to temples were forbidden altogether, resulting in a natural atrophy as buildings fell into disrepair. The process was hastened by deliberate destruction. The archaeologist finds signs of Christian iconoclasm everywhere: the cutting out of phalluses of Amun on Egyptian temples, the carving of crosses on pagan statues, the erasure of the inscriptions of gods’ names, bathhouses that have lost their function (bathing naked was condemned) and have a cross at the door or have been converted into churches, the breaking up or melting down of statues. The quality of what was destroyed can sometimes be gauged only by what little has survived—the magnificent bronze statue of Marcus Aurelius on horse-back (which long stood on the Capitoline Hill in Rome until it was removed to the neighbouring Capitoline Museum to escape pollution), for instance, which remained intact only because it was mistakenly believed to be of Constantine. (Note its presence in the fresco of Thomas Aquinas with which this book opened.)

The process of destruction was revolutionary in that the very fabric of city life, its rituals, its very sense of community, had grown around the sacred precincts over centuries. It was the equivalent of razing to the ground the medieval parish churches of England; the impact of the destruction would have resonated far beyond their congregations. This impact was recognized at the time. As the pagan orator Libanius wrote to Theodosius I: “temples are the soul of the countryside; and the property that suffers thus [through their destruction] is destroyed along with the zeal of their peasantry, for they believe that their labours will be in vain, being deprived of the gods that direct those labours towards their needs.”32 The elimination of paganism was accompanied by a dampening-down of emotions, dance and song so effective that we still lower our voices when we enter a church. Plato would have approved. The voices of the dispossessed, like most losers in history, have seldom survived, but in a rare text of pagan feeling from the early sixth century an Athenian philosopher describes Christians as “a race dissolved in every passion, destroyed by controlled self-indulgence, cringing and womanish in its thinking, close to cowardice, wallowing in all swinishness, debased, content with servitude in security.” 33

Others would suffer as a result of conflicts between the religious and secular authorities. When Cyril became bishop of Alexandria in 412, he asserted himself with some energy. His “shock troops,” the parabalani, were viewed with such terror that the emperor himself had to ask that their numbers be limited to 500. Virtually every tension in the city was exacerbated by Cyril’s intrusions. The city prefect Orestes, who was attempting to resist the encroachment on his secular powers, was injured by a mob of monks, Jewish synagogues were seized, but most shocking of all was the murder by a Christian mob of Hypatia, a philosopher and mathematician (who had written commentaries, now lost, on Diophantus and Apollonius). She was attacked on the streets and her body pulled to pieces. This was more than the death of a respected intellectual: for the historian of mathematics Morris Kline, “the fate of Hypatia symbolises the end of the era of Greek mathematics,” and Edward Gibbon makes her death a set piece in his Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire.34

It was, however, only under Justinian, emperor 527–65, that the full weight of the law was enforced against paganism. One of his laws of the 530s signals the end of the imperial toleration extended to all religions by Constantine in 313:

All those who have not yet been baptised must come forward, whether they reside in the capital or in the provinces, and go to the very holy churches with their wives, their children, and their households, to be instructed in the true faith of Christianity. And once thus instructed and having sincerely renounced their former error, let them be judged worthy of redemptive baptism. Should they disobey, let them know that they will be excluded from the state and will no longer have any rights of possession, neither goods nor property; stripped of everything, they will be reduced to penury, without prejudice to the appropriate punishments that will be imposed on them.35

The death penalty was decreed for those who practised pagan cults. Pagan teachers (who included, of course, philosophers) were banned and their licence, parrhesia, to instruct others was withdrawn. The term parrhesia had been used for a thousand years to denote “freedom of speech.” Justinian was not content with empire-wide bans, which could easily be evaded by local elites, but aimed at specific centres of paganism. So it was now that after 900 years of teaching Plato’s Academy was closed in Athens in 529 (the displaced philosophers sought refuge in Persia), and the last of the functioning Egyptian temples, that to Isis on the island of Philae in southern Egypt, was shut down in 526.

Yet even then paganism continued to flourish. There is a vivid account from John, bishop of Ephesus, that records how in 542 he went inland into the mountains and found thousands of pagans still worshipping at traditional temples with pagan sacrifices. The main temple near the town of Thralles claimed that it had jurisdiction over 1,500 other shrines. This testimony, which was discovered only by chance in a manuscript found in an Egyptian monastery in the nineteenth century and now in the British Museum, shows that we should be very hesitant in talking of “the triumph” of Christianity. Even among Christians, archaeological evidence (in the shape of inscriptions) from Anatolia suggests that in many parts of Asia Minor groups known to be heretics and schismatics were in the majority.36 While eventually the Byzantine empire does present itself as Christian in its very essence, in vast areas of the former eastern empire spiritual allegiances were to change with the ebb and flow of history. So it is that in 515 at Zoara, south of the Dead Sea, a local god, Theandrites, was replaced by St. George and his temple reconstituted as a church with the inscription “God has his dwelling where there was once a hostel of demons; redeeming light now shines where once darkness spread its veil; where once sacrifices were made to idols, angels now dance.”37 (Note the presence of either demons or angels.) Yet just over 100 years later another spiritual transition took place as the Arabs swept through the Holy Land, Syria, Egypt and beyond. Now at the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem a different faith proclaims itself:

O you people of the Book, overstep not bounds in your religion, and of God speak only the truth. The Messiah, Jesus, son of Mary, is only an apostle of God, and his Word which he conveyed unto Mary, and a Spirit proceeding from him. Believe therefore in God and the apostles, and say not Three. It will be better for you. God is only one God. Far be it from his glory that he should have a son.38

It is worth remembering in this context the statement made by the sophist Maximus in A.D. 390 that nobody denies that “the supreme God” is “without offspring.” So, while Byzantium survived as a Christian theocratic state, around it other pieces of the puzzle that still define world politics in the twenty-first century were being put in place.

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