In this Mediterranean world of the fourth century, where the state depended so much on religion, ecclesiastical affairs were in such turmoil that government felt called upon to interfere even in the mysteries of theology. The great debate between Athanasius and Arius had not ended with the Council of Nicaea (325). Many bishops—in the East a majority9—still openly or secretly sided with Arius; i.e., they considered Christ the Son of God, but neither consubstantial nor coeternal with the Father. Constantine himself, after accepting the Council’s decree, and banishing Arius, invited him to a personal conference (331), could find no heresy in him, and recommended the restoration of Arius and the Arians to their churches, Athanasius protested; a council of Eastern bishops at Tyre deposed him from his Alexandrian see (335); and for two years he lived as an exile in Gaul. Arius again visited Constantine, and professed adherence to the Nicene Creed, with subtle reservations that an emperor could not be expected to understand. Constantine believed him, and bade Alexander, Patriarch of Constantinople, receive him into communion. The ecclesiastical historian Socrates here tells a painful tale:
It was then Saturday, and Arius was expecting to assemble with the congregation on the day following; but Divine retribution overtook his daring criminality. For going out from the imperial palace … and approaching the porphyry pillar in the Forum of Constantine, a terror seized him, accompanied by violent relaxation of his bowels. … Together with the evacuations his bowels protruded, followed by a copious hemorrhage, and the descent of the smaller intestine; moreover, portions of his spleen and his liver were eliminated in the effusion of blood, so that he almost immediately died.10
Hearing of this timely purge, Constantine began to wonder whether Arius had not been a heretic after all. But when the Emperor himself died, in the following year, he received the rites of baptism from his friend and counselor Eusebius, Bishop of Nicomedia, an Arian.
Constantius took theology more seriously than his father. He made his own inquiry into the paternity of Jesus, adopted the Arian view, and felt a moral obligation to enforce it upon all Christendom. Athanasius, who had returned to his see after Constantine’s death, was again expelled (339); church councils, called and dominated by the new Emperor, affirmed merely the likeness, not the consubstantiality, of Christ with the Father; ecclesiastics loyal to the Nicene Creed were removed from their churches, sometimes by the violence of mobs; for half a century it seemed that Christianity would be Unitarian, and abandon the divinity of Christ. In those bitter days Athanasius spoke of himself as solus contra mundum; all the powers of the state were opposed to him, and even his Alexandrian congregation turned against him. Five times he fled from his see, often in peril of his life, and wandered in alien lands; through half a century (323–73) he fought with patient diplomacy and eloquent vituperation for the creed as it had been defined under his leadership at Nicaea; he stood firm even when Pope Liberius gave in. To him, above all, the Church owes her doctrine of the Trinity.
Athanasius laid his case before Pope Julius I (340). Julius restored him to his see; but a council of Eastern bishops at Antioch (341) denied the Pope’s jurisdiction, and named Gregory, an Arian, as bishop of Alexandria. When Gregory reached the city the rival factions broke into murderous riots, killing many; and Athanasius, to end the bloodshed, withdrew (342).11 In Constantinople a similar contest raged; when Constantius ordered the replacement of the orthodox patriot Paul by the Arian Macedonius, a crowd of Paul’s supporters resisted the soldiery, and three thousand persons lost their lives. Probably more Christians were slaughtered by Christians in these two years (342–3) than by all the persecutions of Christians by pagans in the history of Rome.
Christians divided on almost every point but one—that the pagan temples should be closed, their property confiscated, and the same weapons of the state used against them and their worshipers that had formerly assailed Christianity.12 Constantine had discouraged, but not forbidden, pagan sacrifices and ceremonies; Constans forbade them on pain of death; Constantius ordered all pagan temples in the Empire closed, and all pagan rituals to cease. Those who disobeyed were to forfeit their property and their lives; and these penalties were extended to provincial governors neglecting to enforce the decree.13 Nevertheless, pagan isles remained in the spreading Christian sea. The older cities—Athens, Antioch, Smyrna, Alexandria, Rome—had a large sprinkling of pagans, above all among the aristocracy and in the schools. In Olympia the games continued till Theodosius I (379–95); in Eleusis the Mysteries were celebrated till Alaric destroyed the temple there in 396; and the schools of Athens continued to transmit, with mollifying interpretations, the doctrines of Plato, Aristotle, and Zeno. (Epicurus was outlawed, and became a synonym for atheist.) Constantine and his son continued the salaries of the scholarchs and professors who loosely constituted the University of Athens; lawyers and orators still flocked there to learn the tricks of rhetoric; and pagan sophists—teachers of wisdom—offered their wares to any who could pay. All Athens was fond and proud of Prohaeresius, who had come there as a poor youth, had shared one bed and cloak with another student, had risen to the official chair of rhetoric, and at eighty-seven was still so handsome, vigorous, and eloquent that his pupil Eunapius regarded him as “an ageless and immortal god.”14
But the leading sophist of the fourth century was Libanius. Born at Antioch (314), he had torn himself away from a fond mother to go and study at Athens; offered a rich heiress as wife if he would stay, he declared that he would decline the hand of a goddess just to see the smoke of Athens.15 He used his teachers there as stimuli, not oracles; and amid a maze of professors and schools he educated himself. After lecturing for a time at Constantinople and Nicomedia, he returned to Antioch (354), and set up a school that for forty years was the most frequented and renowned in the Empire; his fame (he assures us) was so great that his exordiums were sung in the streets.16 Ammianus Marcellinus, St. John Chrysostom, and St. Basil were among his pupils. He enjoyed the favor of Christian princes, though he spoke and wrote in defense of paganism and offered sacrifice in the temples. When the bakers of Antioch went on strike he was chosen by both sides as arbitrator; when Antioch revolted against Theodosius I he was named by the chastened city to plead its cause before the Emperor.17 He survived by almost a generation the assassination of his friend Julian, and the collapse of the pagan revival.
Fourth-century paganism took many forms: Mithraism, Neoplatonism, Stoicism, Cynicism, and the local cults of municipal or rustic gods. Mithraism had lost ground, but Neoplatonism was still a power in religion and philosophy. Those doctrines to which Plotinus had given a shadowy form—of a triune spirit binding all reality, of a Logos or intermediary deity who had done the work of creation, of soul as divine and matter as flesh and evil, of spheres of existence along whose invisible stairs the soul had fallen from God to man and might ascend from man to God—these mystic ideas left their mark on the apostles Paul and John, had many imitators among the Christians, and molded many Christian heresies.18 In Iamblichus of Syrian Chalcis miracle was added to mystery in Neoplatonic philosophy: the mystic not only saw things unseen by sense, but—by touching God in ecstasy—he acquired divine powers of magic and divination. Iamblichus’ disciple, Maximus of Tyre, combined the claim to mystic faculties with a devout and eloquent paganism that conquered Julian. Said Maximus, defending against Christian scorn the use of idols in pagan worship,
God the father and the fashioner of all that is, older than the sun or sky, greater than time and eternity and all the flow of being, is unnamable by any lawgiver, unutterable by any voice, not to be seen by any eye. But we, being unable to apprehend His essence, use the help of sounds and names and pictures, of beaten gold and ivory and silver, of plants and rivers, torrents and mountain peaks, yearning for the knowledge of Him, and in our weakness naming after His nature all that is beautiful in this world. … If a Greek is stirred to the remembrance of God by the art of Pheidias, or an Egyptian by worshiping animals, or another man by a river or a fire, I have no anger for their divergences; only let them note, let them remember, let them love.19
It was in part the eloquence of Libanius and Maximus that won Julian from Christianity to paganism. When their pupil reached the throne Maximus rushed to Constantinople, and Libanius raised in Antioch a song of triumph and joy: “Behold us verily restored to life; a breath of happiness passes over all the earth, while a veritable god, under the appearance of a man, governs the world.”20