Episode Detail

Script


  • Hello and welcome to the History of the Copts. Episode 26. Pillar of faith.
  • Before we go back to the narrative of The Coptic Papacy and the events in Egypt. I would like to quickly go over some big events happening in the Empire
  • Last time we looked at the Empire, Theodosius the First have died in 395 AD and his two Son Arcadius in the East and Honorius in the West inherited the two empires
  • The real power though rested with a barbarian general in the West named Stilicho, and various palace officials and Eunuchs in the East
  • To get the messy part our first. The West half of the Empire was in trouble.
  • Stilicho was constantly putting out fires between internal revolts, raids against Italy from the Goths who were living in the empire, and Germanic tribes that were displaced by the Huns and decided to take whatever they can carry and make a new home for them in Roman territory
  • To cut a long story short by 408 AD, a massive horde of tribes have moved across Spain and France, Stilicho was executed by a palace coup, and the Roman Army in Britain abandoned it to rebel against the Emperor instead
  • So basically, the Western Roman Empire became just Italy, and even there, it was a shaky hold on power
  • Important to us on the big picture are two groups.
  • The first are the Franks. These guys were settled in North-Western France by Constantine the great for exchange of troops, and there, they basically kept their head down, avoided direct conflict with Rome and gradually filled the power vacuum that were left once the dust kicked up by the Huns and the migration of the Germanic tribes settled
  • We will go back to them in about 6 centuries from now when we talk about the Crusades
  • The second group that is slightly more important on the short term, are the Vandals
  • The Vandals, as in the people that the word Vandalism came from were the most successful tribe in the migration, they -- will vandalize Rome in a bit
  • For now though, they were cutting across France and Spain, then crossing over to modern-day Morocco
  • By the time of the Council of Ephesus in 431 AD, they have made it all the way to North Africa. Besieged a city named Hippo, famous for housing St. Augustine of Hippo
  • Augustine ended up dying in the siege, technically naturally, but you can argue that the lack of food and supplies played a part
  • Then, they took Carthage and set-up a kingdom just a short sea voyage across from Rome and a doable but difficult desert trip away from Alexandria
  • The vandals were devout Arian Christians which distinguished them culturally from the Empire and they were a thorn in the side of the Eastern court for the next 150 years.. Both as a geopolitical threat, as their piracy made the meditreanen maritime trade and communication network difficult and as an ideological threat as a rival Christian kingdom
  • Another significant consequence of the disintegration of the Western half of the Empire, is the growing power of the Roman Papacy
  • Unable to guarantee the safety of the Emperor, Stilicho have moved Honorius to a city named Ravenna, an isolated city surrounded by marshlands that makes it difficult for an Army to approach
  • What that meant practically is that the Pope in Rome had a wide degree of political independence
  • So, when in a few years, Attila the Hun will threaten Rome.. It would be Pope Leo negotiating to save Rome, not the emperor or his representative
  • We will get to Attila the Hun and Pope Leo in more details in future episodes, but for now, knowing that the Pope in Rome was a religious and a political leader will suffice
  • In the East, Ardacius was also more or less a figure head, with his wife Euodxia pulling the strings
  • Both him and his wife died shortly after exiling John Chrysostom, and their son, Theodosius the Second took the purple in 408 AD
  • Other than the religious issues we talked about in the last couple of episodes, Theodosius reign was notable for a couple of things
  • The first, was the Theodosian law code. An ambitious project of collecting all the imperial edicts and laws since Constantine in one place to serve as a law code
  • It was bulky, unorganized, with many laws contraindicated each other, not to mention in was done in Latin while the language of the East was Greek
  • Nonetheless, it was a huge achievement when it was finished in 438 AD. It will serve as the source of the law codes of Justianian which is a watershed moment in the history of legal studies
  • Equally impressive to the law book was the Theodsians walls of Constantinople, a double set of walls that will stand against all comers for almost a thousand years
  • It will take gun powder and the biggest cannon ever made at the time to bring them down in the 15th century
  • For now though, they made Constantinople invincible which was needed because the Eastern half had to fight wars on multiple fronts
  • The earliest of those wars was in 421-22 AD with the Persians over the issue of the persecution of Christianity in Persia
  • The war was essentially a limited win, The Persians promised toleration of Christianity and no territory exchanged hand
  • This war was the first time that specific Arab tribes were used as a part of the Armies of both Persia and Constantinople
  • Generally speaking, the pagan Lakhmid tribe supported the Persians and the Christian tribe of the Ghassends supported the Romans
  • The military cooperation between Arabs and Romans would continue to increase and the know-how of army organization and the local geography will trickle down to the rest of the tribes aiding them when they run over both the Persians and Romans in about 200 years from now
  • Anyway, The Huns who thus far were more interested in consolidating their power over Germanic tribes outside of the Empire than direct conflict with Rome saw an opportunity for easy loot and raided, The European part of the Eastern Empire when the Eastern army was away in Persia
  • Theodosius managed to get them to withdraw for a yearly payment of tribute, which worked to keep the peace until Attila the Hun took charge
  • This brings us to about 433 AD. The overall situation was, A western half barely surviving and just in Italy with the Roman Pope increasingly accumulating power
  • A hostile Arian Vandal kingdom in North Africa that threatened the control of the mediatreanen and uneasy peace with Attila the Hun and the Persians
  • A map is posted on the Podcast website
  • Both the Eastern and Western half managed to get a campaign going against the Vandals in 440 AD, but both Persia and Attila took advantage and attacked the Eastern half causing the campaign against the Vandals to fail
  • In the process of fighting the Huns, The Eastern Armies basically lost a good bulk of their manpower and resources.. Attila also managed to get 2100 pounds of gold as annual tribute for him to withdraw his forces
  • So, looking at the big picture, the Empire was falling on tough times and clearly, for the 5th Century policy makers, God was showing his displeasure
  • I mean, how else can you explain the pagan Huns destroying not one, but two Roman armies?
  • Nothing sums up the mood in the time than Nestorius proclaiming on his first sermon, if only the Empire got rid of heretics, that will solve the Persian problem
  • So, if you are wondering why everyone was so obsessed about heretics, that should give you an idea
  • Anyway, speaking of Nestorius. Last time we left him, he had seen the tide turning against him and had asked the Emperor to return to his monastery in the wider Syria
  • The Emperor granted him his request, and rather than an exile to the middle of nowhere as it is typical for heretics, he was to be returned to his monastery as a respected monk
  • In there, he kept the pressure on John of Antioch who was trying to reconcile with Pope Cyril as we discussed last week
  • When John and Pope Cyril reconciled in 433 AD, both of them had to make theological compromises which saw Nestorious and his theology be branded as unredeemable heretic and opened up the debate about the Nature or natures of Christ
  • Not happy about this development, Nestorius made John’s life very difficult in Antioch by agitating against the reunion
  • So, John asked the Emperor to exile Nestorius and the Emperor was happy to fulfill the request
  • Nestorius was exiled to the Great Oasis in the Western desert of Egypt, both in Pope Cyril domain and in the middle of nowhere
  • Unfortunately for Nestorius, as soon as he arrived to the Oasis, it was raided by the Blemmys, a Nubian tribe
  • For whatever reason though, they released him and he had to travel across the barren desert in Egypt to reach the Nile valley
  • Now, this trip was tough and probably brought Nestorius close to dying, but he managed to make to the Nile
  • There, out of all the places he could have ended up, he ended close to Shenouta the Archemendtrite
  • A legendary meeting then took place
  • Nestorius, realizing the end of is near, asks Shenouta to distribute his money to the poor
  • Shenouta then demands that he acknowledged that St. Mary is the mother of God
  • Nestorius refuses and Shenouta walks away telling him he can keep his money
  • The story is from Coptic sources and not confirmed anywhere else though, we do know from other sources that Nesturius ended up coming to the Nile Valley and close to where Shenouta was
  • He outlived both Pope Cyril and The Council of Chalcedon in 451 AD, so he lived for a while in Egypt
  • His cause was never abandoned, and several bishops in and around Antioch kept up advocating for him
  • Eventually, they will be pushed out of the Empire into Persia, who was now tolerating Christianity thanks to Theodosius brief war
  • In time, the Christians in Persia will form their own independent Church dubbed the Church of the East, where Pope Cyril was the heretic, and Nestorius is the saint
  • They will reach their height under the Mongols in the 13th Century, where many historians fully believe, that have the Mongols defeated the Mamluks in Egypt. Nestorian Christianity would have dominated the Middle East rather than Islam
  • The Church of the East has survived in a different form to this day. As far as I can tell, Nestorian there is still hailed as a Saint, and Pope Cyril as a heretic
  • As far as Pope Cyril go, for the last decade in his life, he had his work cut out for him
  • John of Antioch was appeasing the hard-core of his supporters by telling them that Pope Cyril have accepted that Christ had two natures
  • And, Pope Cyril for his part was walking a fine line between appeasing those in Egypt who rejected anything that had to do with two natures and keeping the union with Antioch
  • His semi-official line in private letters to bishops who reached out to him was that the phrases used in the reunion formula was necessary to ally Antiochene fears but his thoughts on the matter haven’t changed
  • By 438 AD, the relationship between Emperor and Pope was good enough that Theodosius asked Pope Cyril to accompany his wife in a trip to the Holy Land
  • Now, The Empress was took the name Eudocia once she married, didn’t get along with her sister in law, the Augusta Pulcharia.
  • Funny enough, like all things in the Eastern Court, their general dislike to each other and competition over influencing Theodosius took on a theological tone
  • We will get back to them and how their personal rivalry took part on the Christology debates ongoing, just remember. Eudocia, Emperor wife and Pulcharia, Emperor sister didn’t like each other
  • And thus, once one supports a specific theological formula, you can pretty much guarantee the other would support the opposite
  • Out of the trip of the Holy land, Pope Cyril saw clearly that the theological discussions are still in center stage and there are plenty of different Christlogical theories and that the Council of Ephesus haven’t ended the discussion
  • So, he continued writing, although, his focus shifted a bit
  • First, he wrote works against two Syrians long-dead bishops who may have influenced Nestorius, one named Theodore, and the other Diodore of Tarsus, and as they were long-dead, they couldn’t really write back
  • His writings against them will be used by the emperor Justinian in about 100 years from now in another Church Council further cementing Pope Cyril’s legacy as the theological standard to which all other is measured by
  • Another easy target was the long-dead emperor Julian the Apostate and his version of intellectual paganism
  • Julian have written a book attacking Christianity, Against the Galilaeans
  • Pope Cyril then decided to refute his argument in his own book, Against Julian
  • The book was obviously a hit and copies of were sent to all the major cities of the Empire
  • The literary output in both quality and quantity of Pope Cyril was impressive, thus, the name given to him by the Copts, Pope Cyril, the Pillar of Faith
  • In Egypt, like his uncle before him, he managed to keep everyone in line, but much more diplomatically
  • There is a nice story in the book, sayings of the Fathers, an ancient source - on how, when a monk started preaching about Melchizedek, a shadowy old-testament figure, being the Son of God
  • Pope Cyril, very diplomatically, sent him a letter asking the monk, to help him figure out the issue
  • Now, since humility an d obedience is the biggest virtues in monastic thinking, the expected response from the monk would be, how can I a simple monk, help the bishop decide a theological issue
  • Anything other than that would seriously damage his reputation as a monk.. Anyway, the monk responded that he saw a vision, and now admitted that he was wrong
  • He also kept the pressure on Paganism and was quick to transform pagan shrines to churches when the opportunity arose
  • John of Antioch died in 441 AD and he was succeeded by his nephew, Domnus
  • Pope Cyril passed away on June 27th, 444 AD at the age of 66 after 32 years on the throne of St. Mark
  • He was a man of iron will and a formidable politician but this was not to overshadow his legacy as a writer and a theologian
  • Like St. Athanasius and Origen before him, his theology penetrated deep into the ages and many of ideas are still relevant to Christianity today
  • Administratively, in the 59 years between the start of Pope Theophilus’ reign and the end of Pope Cyril’s, the Egyptian Church reached its political peak inside and outside Egypt
  • Two bishops of Constantinople were deposed under them - John Chrysostom, and then Nestorius, Paganism in Egypt practically died out, and the Church was on its way to be one of the biggest landholders and wealthiest institution in Egypt  
  • The bishop of Alexandria was the de facto Christian leader in the East and with a tremendous political power inside Egypt
  • But that de facto leadership was on shaky grounds.
  • First, The bishop of Rome was starting to adopt the position of primacy over all sees, as the political influence of Rome weakened over western Europe, it became necessary to use the religious position of Rome to keep the hope of a resurrected, cultural intact western Empire alive
  • And the bishop of Constantinople for his part hang dearly to the title of “new Rome” given by the Council of Constantinople in the face of intervention by Alexandria and the Palace
  • And did I mention that there were deep divisions about the nature of Christ with Antioch that Pope Cyril barely managed to hold the two churches together?
  • Carthage was lost to the Vandals, and thus ceased to be part of the theological dialogue in the Empire and Jerusalem was important symbolically, but with none of the material and intellectual resources of Alexandria, Constantinople, Antioch, and Rome
  • Juvenal, the Bishop of Jerusalem have been and will continue to lobby to make Jerusalem equal to Antioch and Alexandria
  • He played his part in Ephesus and will continue to be influential in the next few episodes
  • Whoever followed Pope Cyril, if he wished to keep Alexandria’s leading position, needs to be politically intelligent, diplomatic, and adopt a certain level of theological pragmatism as Pope Cyril did with the whole one nature v, two nature debate
  • Not to mention, a continuation of imperial policy would help a lot, so none of that the emperor dying suddenly in a freak accident and messing up your plans
  • That next Pope would be Pope Dioscorus, an enigmatic figure to be sure. We will jump into his story in two weeks, when we get back to the narrative
  • Next week would be the special episode, life in Byzantine Egypt. I may be able to squeeze additional questions that you may have had, but make sure you reach out as soon as possible. So far, the plan is to talk about Economy, government structure, cultural output outside of Alexandria and Christianity, and Christian Coptic literature with Shenouta the Archimandrite as the focus
  • Farewell, and until next week

References


  • The Early Coptic Papacy: The Egyptian Church and Its Leadership in Late Antiquity by" Stephen J. Davis
  • The History of the Patriarchs by" multiple
  • The Coptic Encyclopedia by" Aziz S. Atiya (editor)
  • The Story of the Church of Egypt by" E. L. Butcher
  • Cyril of Alexandria. Norman Russell by" Norman Russell
  • Cyril of Alexandria and the Nestorian controversy: The making of a Saint and of a Heretic by" Susan Wessel
  • A Greek Roman Empire: Power and Belief under Theodosius II by" Fergus Miller
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