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Script


  • Hello and welcome to the History of the Copts. Episode 19. Fourth Century Alexandria.
  • Last week we stopped with Pope Peter the second passing away
  • He was succeeded by his brother, Pope Timothy the Poor
  • Did you catch that? Pope Timothy was Pope Peter the second actual brother
  • I forget to mention that they were brothers last week, having back to back Popes that are brothers is a rare thing and is worth mentioning for those who are planning a Coptic Pope trivia anytime soon
  • In Constantinople, Maximus attempt have failed and Gregory was the officially recognized bishop
  • In addition to disagreement about the exact wording to describe the relationship of the Son and the Father in trinity, there was also disagreements about how to describe the relationship between the Holy spirit and the Father
  • Thus, Emperor Theodosius ordered that a council to be assembled in the capital to unite the empire behind one creed, --- Ideally, the Nicaean creed
  • Since Theodosius position was clear and he made it obvious that he will enforce his will, the council split in factions around personalities rather than actual theological positions
  • One personality was Ambrose of Milan who distrusted the Eastern bishops including Gregory
  • Another was Timothy the Poor and his Egyptian delegation, who was an unknown figure in the internation scene and was running late to the Council, thus initially, he was a non-factor
  • The last, was Gregory himself, who had a cordial relationship with the bishop of Antioch who happened to be the Council president—Thus, initially at least, was the most influential member of the Council
  • The First issue to be handled was putting to rest Maximus claims on the see of Constantinople
  • And as the Egyptians bishops didn’t arrive yet, it was easily decided that his ordination is invalid and Gregory is the actual bishop, despite some mild protests from Ambrose of Milan
  • The Egyptians bishops eventually arrived but not until the council president, and the bishop of Antioch have died unexpectedly
  • Gregory was the natural next choice to lead the Council, but he was opposed vehemently by the Egyptian delegation and many of the western bishops
  • Their claim rested that Gregory violated the church cannon by transferring from one see to another and thus he can’t be the Council’s president
  • Gregory, as a prototypical theologian also refused to compromise with some of the bishops who he considered heretics, thus, a significant coalition formed against him
  • Physically exhausted and facing long odds, he surprised everyone by pulling a move that cemented his legacy as a holy man of God
  • Gregory stood up and gave a moving speech and announced his retirement.. In Gregory’s words “Let me be as the Prophet Jonah! I was responsible for the storm, but I would sacrifice myself for the salvation of the ship. Seize me and throw me... I was not happy when I ascended the throne, and gladly would I descend it.”
  • Theodosius was impressed, he accepted Gregory resignation and saw the opportunity for assigning a close ally as the Council president and took full advantage of it
  • The new bishop of Constantinople and the council president was an unbaptized Senator who was close to Theodosius
  • He was not only a capable administrator, but also, loyal to the Emperor, thus Theodosius can rest knowing that the Church of Constantinople was in a good but more importantly, loyal hand
  • Once baptized and ordained a bishop, he went about enforcing Theodosius’ will
  • First, all the various forms of Arianism were made illegal including the relatively new innovations about the Holy Spirit, and the Nicean creed was confirmed and a new addition about the Holy Spirit was added
  • Second, and this is where it gets good.. Bishops were only allowed to interfere in the civil administration of their own diocese, not anywhere else
  • As a rider to the that second Cannon, the territory of those sees had to be defined, and, the actions of bishop of Alexandria were to be reprimanded
  • And that’s where the third Cannon comes in, to quote the text “ The bishop of Constantinople, however, shall have the prerogative of honor after the Bishop of Rome, because Constantinople is New Rome”
  • Now, at the time, this was clearly directed against The Coptic Church and Alexandria leading position with Antioch being hit as well as an innocent bystander
  • Rome had to be invoked to -- one --  avoid a situation where the western bishops and the Egyptian ones both oppose the cannon
  • And – two -- to find a theological justification for Constantinople new position
  • Either way, once the Council finished, the Roman church rather than rejoice at being number 1, they put serious opposition to that third Cannon.. The phrase new Rome and the ease of which a new Rome could be assigned was very problematic
  • Clearly, Alexandria have lost in this battle, but that was just one of many battles to come
  • It does seem, other than playing a role in getting Gregory to resign, Pope Timothy was completely irrelevant with very little influence on the final outcomes of the Council
  • Theodosius on the other hand, have essentially gotten all what he wanted and even better
  • An acceptable creed that he can go about enforcing, a friendly bishop in Constantinople, and a boost in legitimacy as a Christian emperor doing the work of God
  • To wrap up the story, Gregory went back to his original city in Cappadocia and stayed there informally as the bishop for a couple of years when a new bishop, at his own request, was appointed,
  • Then he retired in seclusion to spend the last six months of his life writing and producing theological works at dizzying pace
  • Timothy the Poor went back to Egypt, where he composed several biographies of saints and monks and passed away within 4 years in 385 AD
  • He was succeeded by the twenty third Patriarch of Alexandria, Pope Theophilus.
  • Now- Let’s take a deep breath before talking about Pope Theophilus, probably the most controversial of the Coptic Popes
  • Edward Gibbon writes of Theophilus, as, and I am quoting here "the perpetual enemy of peace and virtue, a bold bad man, whose hands were alternately polluted with gold and with blood”
  • Ouch! Gibbon can be quite vindictive
  • Pope Theophilus story is interesting to say the least and at times, it can be a bit maddening, but I think he is a bit more complicated than he is usually painted as
  • John Of Nikiu, a Coptic bishop and a historian writing in the 7th century retells a story of how, Theophilus and his sister were the orphans of Christian parents from Memphis
  • Entrusted to a slave once their parents have died, she took them to a pagan temple not knowing any better
  • But once Theophilus and his sisters entered, the idols fell down and were destroyed
  • John Of Nikiu is writing about 400 years after the facts, so, it is hard to tell what really happened versus what is a legend
  • But he goes on telling how Theophilus came under the patronage of St. Athanasius and went through the ranks of the Church until he became St. Athanasius’ assistant and secretary
  • Obviously, linking Pope Theophilus to St. Athanasius is useful in establishing his authority, but given there was a gap of about 12 years and two Popes between them – the link between them is questionable
  • Nonetheless, Pope Theophilus was in his late 20’s when St. Athanasius have died, so he could have been close to him
  • Further supporting that position is that in 385 AD when he became the Coptic Pope, the transition was smooth and he was accepted readily as the bishop of Alexandria  from all stakeholders
  • Now, before going any further and to fully appreciate his story, I think it would be helpful if we examine life in Alexandria in 385 AD, at least from the perspective of the Christian populace
  • Alexandria at this point had a populace of about 200 thousand, most of which, were Christians, but it was by no means an overwhelming majority
  • The City had at least 14 churches, significant of which are the Church of St. Dionysius, St. Theonas, and the Great church, formerly the Ceaserum that was finished by St. Athanasius
  • Serving those churches were about 23 priests, and a slew of deacons and clerics
  • Those men formed the group that chose the Coptic Pope, usually from among themselves, with little input from the rest of Egypt
  • The bishop of Alexandria was a powerful man, that power was mainly due to his control over a network of bishops that extended from Libya to Ethiopia
  • And those bishops at this point effectively replaced the role that town and city councils have played.
  • They policed some of the problematic behavior of their flock, resolved disputes, represented their populace, and generally made governing Egypt possible
  • In 385 AD, there were almost a hundred bishops under Pope Theophilus. Fifty three from the Delta and Middle Egypt, nineteen from upper Egypt, and Twenty three from Libya
  • While those bishops were generally chosen by the local clergy, it was ultimately up to the Coptic Pope to ordain them and they owed their elevation to him
  • Through the work of St. Athanasius, the Egyptians bishops were a solid block and usually voted unanimously behind the bishop of Alexandria in Church Councils
  • Thus, as you can imagine, a simple letter from the bishop of Alexandria can easily make or break an imperial directive
  • Despite this tremendous power, the Coptic Church by the late 4th century had very little direct institutional wealth
  • A Papyrus from that time reveals some meager holdings, but that’s about it
  • Bishops were picked from the elite and were expected to support themselves and their churches from their personal wealth
  • Lastly, Monasticism was flourishing and Monasteries filled the desert landscape. As monasticism became more popular, it attracted Monks from vastly different social and economic background
  • While before, at the time of St. Antony and St. Athanasius,, it mainly attracted well-to do Egyptians who left their worldly material wealth to get closer to God, now, it still attracted this group, but also, it attracted the group that formed the vast majority of Egypt, simple men and women who had no material wealth or formal education to speak of
  • In this background of tremendous political power, institutional poverty, Monastic evolution  and a paganism vs. Christianity tensions enters Theophilus and Theodosius
  • Early in Theophilus’ reign, multiple riots broke out in Alexandria between Pagans and Christians, but the imperial troops mostly intervened to keep the peace, rather than support a side
  • Riots was something of a constant feature of Alexandria, they simply evolved over the years
  • In the beginning of this Podcast, it was Greeks v. Jews, then it was Pagan v. Christian, then Pagan and Orthodox v. Arian, then Christian v. Pagan again
  • I am happy to report that riots will continue to evolve, so if you like riots, stick around
  • Think of it as the Alexandrians exercising Democracy in their own unique way
  • The imperial policy of keeping the peace between Christians and Pagans at this point was mostly due to Theodosius shaky hold in power and geopolitical distractions that kept him from enforcing his religious policy of promoting Christian Orthodoxy
  • Those distractions went from the Gothic problem where he had just finished settling them to Civil war
  • A general named Magnus Maximus, the military commander in Britain was declared Augustus by his troops, and quickly crossed to mainland Europe where local units joined him
  • Graitian, who was in charge of the West, took his army and went to confront the rebel
  • They met around Paris in July 383 AD and Maximus, an experienced, charismatic general was able to induce many units of Graitian army to join him and abandon their emperor
  • Realizing that his odds of winning are slim, Graitian tried to retreat back to the relative safety of Italy, but was betrayed and executed
  • Upon his death, the Empire had three Augusti with their own base of power
  • Maximus established his court in Trier, Germany – Valentian the second, the 12 years old brother of Graitian in Milan, Italy – and Theodosius, in Constantinople
  • Maximus as the perceived usurper with the least legitimacy moved first to consolidate his position. He offered Valentinian peace, so long as the boy moves with him to Trier under his protection and guidance
  • He also tried to get Theodosius to accept him as an equal colleague ruling the West.
  • But the Court at Milan tactfully delayed until they can make preparation to defend Italy and then rejected the offer and Theodosius didn’t reply, and made minor diplomatic moves to hint at his support to the Court of Milan
  • For the next 5 years, Theodosius consolidated his power in the East, made formal peace with Persia to ensure his flank is covered in case Maximus decides to increase his holdings and slowly increased his influence over the government in Milan
  • Briefly, as this is slightly off topic for this Podcast, Milan had the imposing figure of St. Ambrose who was a devout Orthodox.. But it also had Valentinian widow, Justina, who were Arian
  • Supporting the two camps, was the mostly barbarian Arian garrison for Justina and the mostly Orthodox populace for St. Ambrose
  • Both Maximus and Theodosius used religious rhetoric as devout Orthodox Christians to increase their influence over Milan, through St. Ambrose
  • But as Maximus was the murderer of Valentianian’s older brother, Theodosius found a more receptive audience
  • In those 5 years of divided rule, Theodosius have outlawed heresy, completely driven out Arians from positions of power based on their faith, and obedience to the Church became a matter of the State
  • Pagans were still okay though, he needed them if civil war broke out, as the majority of the Aristocratic class in Rome were still pagans
  • Now, the concept of heresy was relatively new, and the legal persecution of those heretics was even newer, and a more radical step
  • It wouldn’t take much for politically astute men to weaponize that concept and use it to advance their political goals
  • So, keep that in mind as we move further into the 4th and the 5th century
  • For now, this heresy discourse wasn’t much of a factor of Alexandria, where Arianism was long dead but the struggle was with Paganism
  • It did raise the profile of Theophilus as a devout Orthodox though and the highly symbolic Easter dating was being decided in Alexandria,
  • In time, Theophilus will also yield this weapon of heresy to enforce his will, but for now, things were somewhat peaceful in Alexandria
  • They were curious anti-Theodosius, pro-Maximus riots – Probably as a result of increased taxation, but nothing too serious.   
  • The expected civil war finally broke out in 387 AD, two years into Theophillus reign
  • Maximus have finally decided to invade Italy, and he prepared extremely well
  • Moving in the Autumn of 387 AD, where it would be too late in the campaigning season for Theodosius to mobilize his forces, Maximus blitzed his way into Italy and the young emperor and his court had to escape to the East under Theodosius’ protection
  • Now, Theodosius didn’t necessarily feel strongly about fighting Maximus for the West, but a political deal was struck where he gets to marry Valentinian’s sister, thereby getting a strong incentive to reclaim the West for his new brother in-law
  • Theodosius have prepared well in the years preceding the civil war, and knew he may have to face Maximus at somepoint
  • Thus, in the spring of 388 AD, Theodoisus moved on Italy with a Naval force, and the traditional army from two different directions
  • Maximus, despite his best efforts, was outmaneuvered and then defeated by Theodosius by August 388 AD
  • Now, a couple of ancient historians who had an axe to grind against Pope Theophilus retell a story of how he sent one of his associates named Isidore with two different letters, one congratulating Maximus and one congratulating Theodosius, with the correct one to be delivered to whoever had won
  • But, one of Isidore companions slipped and mentioned the existing two letters, thus Isidore had to return to Alexandria
  • The episode lacks plausibility, this same Isidore was a controversial figure, and will come back to our narrative
  • In a bit, he will be a candidate for the bishop of Constantinople, which would have never happened if he was caught with treasonable letters
  • Anyway, Theodosius wraps up the civil war and proceeds to consolidate his power on the West
  • At this point, his interaction with St. Ambrose starts to take a whole new level
  • Their first interaction was during a routine matter where zealous Christians have destroyed a synagogue, somewhere in Modern Iraq
  • Theodosius naturally didn’t punish them, but simply ordered the bishop of the area, to repay from his own pocket the cost to rebuilt the synagogue
  • Upon hearing of his order, St. Ambrose sharply criticized Theodosius and refused to administer communion to him until he revoked the order
  • Now, Theodosius was in a tough spot.. If he goes against St. Ambrose, the consolidation of power in the West will be much more difficult, plus more importantly, he risked his eternal soul
  • If he was to relent and change his order, well, that will set a whole new precedent with dangerous consequences
  • In the end of the day, Theodosius the Christian won over the Theodosius the Emperor and he revoked his order
  • It was a minor shift and by no means the Empire turned into an intolerant Christian state overnight
  • Theodosius still went to Rome and made a conscious effort to befriend the Pagan aristocratic class
  • He appointed a pagan prefect for Italy and kept St. Ambrose at a comfortable distance
  • The synagogue incidence could have been easily forgotten about and business would have went on as usual
  • Christianity is to be favored, but Paganism will be tolerated
  • Alas, the minor shift turned into a major policy change by 390 AD
  • In Thassolonica, a major city of the Empire, a Gothic commander of the city garrison arrested a popular charioteer for homosexual rape  
  • Now, at this point of History, Chariot racing in the Empire was a huge deal, and riots broke out regularly because of it
  • As such, a riot broke in Thassolonica with clear dangerous anti-Gothic sentiments and the commander and several leading officers were killed by the mob
  • A riot that kills an officer is a bad enough, but one that threatens the fragile peace Theodosius have achieved with the Gothic settlers is the last thing the empire needed
  • Theodosius in an a fit of anger sent a new garrison with orders to massacre the populace as punishment
  • Accordingly, on a certain day when the people assembled to watch another chariot race, the gates were closed. and the troops proceeded for several hours to massacre the masses indiscriminately
  • Men, women, old, young, Christian, Pagans, it didn’t matter. The slaughter was shocking to everyone
  • Apparently, Theodosius calmed down, and sent another message to revoke the earlier order, but it came too late
  • Either way, once the massacre news reached St. Ambrose, he left Milan, where the emperor was staying and refused to hold Mass or administer communion until Theodosius repents
  • Now, Theodosius clearly felt guilty about the whole episode and over eight months, offered genuine, public repentance
  • To quote a modern historian take on the whole episode “ the astonished people beheld an extraordinary spectacle as the Ever-Victorious, Sacred, Eternal Augustus, Lord of the World put aside his gorgeous imperial regalia, and for several months wept and groaned as a humble, prostrate penitent in the cathedral of Milan.”
  • Eventually, his repentance was accepted and St. Ambrose readmitted him to the Church
  • But, a major shift has taken place. Now, Theodosius would turn his attention on exterminating paganism, and promoting Christianity as the only acceptable religion of the Empire 
  • A shift that would be felt in Alexandria and will be pressed to its fullest extent by Pope Theophilus
  • Who, in next week episode, will take on the most visible symbol of Egyptian paganism, Serapis, the Patron god of Alexandria and its supposed protector since the time of Alexander the Great.
  • It was a good run Serapis – But, the world has changed, and now it’s time to fade away.
  • 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)
  • Theophilus of Alexandria and the First Origenist Controversy by" Krastu Banev
  • Theophilus of Alexandria by" Norman Russell
  • Theodosius: The Empire at Bay by" Stephen Williams, Gerard Friell
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