Episode Detail

Script


  • Hello and Welcome to the History of the Copts. Episode 17. Two swords and a spear.
  • Last week we stopped with Julian the Apostate becoming an emperor and St. Athanasius escaping Alexandria for the 4th time
  • The whole episode of returning from exile and then leaving again took place between February 362 AD and October 362 AD, less than a year overall, yet, it became another badge of honor, possibly even more prestigious than the previous exiles as he was persecuted by a Pagan emperor
  • So, in the heartland of Egypt he was more or less going around openly, performing public prayers prayers and dedicating churches
  • At some point though, he received a warning from his friends that imperial agents are coming after him with a vengeance, so he took a boat and planned to disappear for a while
  • In the boat, the wind was against them, and it was painfully slow, so St. Athanasius decided to take a corner and pray while the monks accompanying him were rowing
  • When he finished, he turned to his companions and started to dictate his last wishes if he died, but the monks just smiled at him
  • Apparently the monks have received a vision while he is praying that Julian has died
  • But that wasn’t even the most famous or most commonly told vision that was going around in Egypt then
  • Basil, the bishop of Ceaserea have run afoul of Julian and was asked to pay a large sum as a fine and a contribution to Julian’s war with Persia
  • Basil was having trouble collecting the money, so he want to sleep with the matter on his mind and praying about the issue
  • He dreamt that the heavens was opened and heard Jesus Christ commanding a legendary saint named Philobateer  Mercurius to go forth and kill Julian.
  • In the Coptic tradition, an icon of Philobateer Mercurius changed as well when he disappeared from the picture and then came back again with a bloodied spear
  • Now, Philobateer Mercurius was a Christian Soldier who was martyred in the persecution of Decius, almost a 100 years earlier
  • As a soldier, he was represented by two sword, one given to him by the Army, and one given to him by Arch-angel Michael as a tool of divine justice
  • But, after the incidence with Julian - now, he is got two swords and a spear and became hugely popular in Egypt, no doubt helped by the appreciation of his intervention by St. Athanasius
  • I have put a medieval version of his icon up in the Podcast website from the historical hanging church in Egypt
  • And that’s how a some-what unknown saint from Asia Minor became one of the most famous saints for the Copts in Egypt where countless churches and monasteries are dedicated to him
  • But, visions aside, let’s step back and see the geopolitics of how Julian died and how his death, shaped the Copts
  • Within a year or so of Julian becoming an emperor, he embarked on a serious project
  • Either out of a desire to achieve glory, or to put the soldiers to good use he decided to invade Persia
  • Now- for students of Roman history, you could see the folly of this, as Romans emperors have tried to invade Persia since the time of Marc Antony and Cleopatra and have repeatedly came short
  • Supply routes was always an issue, and the farther you went from the meditreanen, the hardest it became to hold territory
  • Nonetheless, Julian decided that he can succeed where other have failed and made a reasonable plan to solve the supply route issue and reach the Persian capital with limited loss of life
  • His plan was to have a massive fleet to accompany the army up the Euphrates to feed the army through the hostile territory, and then he used the Euphrates and the Tigris and various canals in a brilliant way to reached the Persian capital with a remarkable speed  
  • The plan seemed to be working up until he reached the capital. Heavily fortified and essentially impregnable, Julian didn’t know what to do then. He didn’t plan for a lengthy siege, and wasn’t super confident about meeting the large Persian army in a hostile territory, and then still have to do the siege anyway
  • Faced with grim prospects, he decided to burn the ships so the Persians wouldn’t use them and move deeper into heartland of Persia
  • Which was a fateful decision, as the Persian army constantly harassed their advance and at some point, an undeceive battle occurred and Julian decided to rush to the battle without his full armor
  • Then during the chaos, he got hit with a spear, and while not fatal immediately, he died within two days
  • Thus was the end of the last pagan Emperor of the Romans and in an ironic twist, the last male member of the family of Constantine, the first Christian Emperor
  • Now, for an average person in Egypt during this time, it surely seemed that Julian’s death was another sign that God intervened to protect the true faith and its Champion, St. Athanasius
  • And as such, St. Athanasius set out to meet the new emperor with fate on his side
  • Speaking of the new emperor, Following Julian’s death, the Roman Army in Persia named the head of his bodyguards as an emperor, a man named Jovian as the new Augustus
  • Jovian got the Army out of Persia after giving up territories in a peace treaty and as soon as he arrived to Antioch, he was met with St. Athanasius requesting to be returned to his seat
  • Now – Jovian at this point was in a really tricky spot, his hold on power was shaky to say the least and quite unpopular because of the humiliating treaty he signed with the Persians and the loss of territory
  • Athanasius petition was a gift for him to get some legitimacy and popularity
  • As such, not only he restored St. Athanasius, he showered him with praise and raised his profile even larger
  • He also restored the favorable position of Christianity and it did seem, at least for the moment, he was keeping the theological problems at bay
  • To be fair to Jovian though, his high regard to St. Athanasius seemed to be genuine and irrespective of the political convenience, going as far as formally requesting from him a statement of faith that could serve as his religious policy
  • To which St. Athanasius responded by the form of a council letter from the bishops of Egypt emphasizing the important of the creed drawn in the Council of Nicea
  • And even when one of George’s entourage, a priest named Lucius got ordained as a bishop and recognized as the bishop of Alexandria by a few bishops outside of Egypt, Jovian refused to acknowledge him or even grant him an official audience
  • Too bad he didn’t last for long, he left Antioch within 6 month of his arrival to go to his capital Constantinople and his way there, he died in mysterious circumstances
  • Another general followed him named Valentinian, who in a move from the Constantian family playbook, appointed his brother Valens as a co-Augustus and divided the empire in two halfs.. East and West
  • Valentian got the West, and Valens got the East and Egypt
  • One of Valens first acts was to restore the semi-Arian creed as the official faith statement of the East, a position that was obviously antagonistic to St. Athanasius
  • But learning from Con-stan-atious’ mistakes, he announced that bishops who wish to keep their seats don’t have to accept it, just to merely not attack it
  • Valentinian for his part, took great pains not to get involved and even when pressured, he responded that he is a layman, thus he can’t give an opinion
  • So, the old fault lines of East and West appeared again.. Semi-Arians dominated the Eastern Churches, and Orthodox dominated the Western Churches and Egypt
  • Yet, no one was satisfied at this arrangement and new battles over specific bishops were happening everyday
  • Until Valens finally intervened with an edict to exile the bishops the Con-stantious have exiled and Julian restored to make sure that there is a unified position in his territory
  • Now, St. Athanasius was in a gray area, since he was exiled by Constantius,  restored, and then exiled again  by Julian, and finally returned again by Jovian
  • Technically, the order in strictest legal sense, didn’t apply to him, but everyone knew that it did apply to him
  • The prefect tried to diplomatically ask him to leave Alexandria, to which a group of citizens defended St. Athanasius and claimed the edict doesn’t apply to him
  • The city was getting on edge, and the Prefect promised that he will write to the emperor for clarification
  • Four months later, either with the clarification, or on his own initiative, the prefect and the dux of Egypt led a group of soldiers to try and arrest St. Athanasius
  • But, as usual, St. Athanasius was out of Alexandria before they started moving and again, he was in hiding with the monks
  • Well, maybe not entirely out of Alexandria, at this point, he probably could have went anywhere and will find enough supporters to hide him
  • His 5th exile lasted only for 4 months, a distant relative of Julian was proclaimed emperor in Constantinople and for a second, Valens was seriously concerned about his rule
  • Getting the province of Egypt in his pocket became a priority, and as such, he tried to win over the Egyptian by restoring St. Athanasius
  • So on February 1st, 366 AD, St. Athansius was welcomed back to the Alexandria for the 5th and final time where he enjoyed the last few years in his reign free of imperial hostility and a solid grip on the whole of Egypt
  • Well, it wasn’t really completely free of trouble, within 6 month a massive pagan riot occurred that completely destroyed the church of the Ceaserum
  • Before the end of the year, the Arian bishop, Lucius, foolishly goes to Alexandria to set up a rival church, but as soon as his arrival became known the crowds goes after him and he takes refuge in his mom’s house
  • . St. Athanasius grip was that strong.. He couldn’t find anyone to shelter him but his mom
  • He had to be rescued by the garrison and escorted away from Egypt under armed guard – But, he will come back to our narrative, so don’t forget about him
  • Other than that, Valens left St. Athanasius alone and St. Athanasius more or less stayed away from the charged imperial theological controversies so long as they left the Church of Egypt alone
  • By 368 AD, St. Athanasius celebrated 40th years on the throne of St. Mark having outlasted Constantine, his sons, Julian, Jovian, and Valens with the scars of 5 exiles, endless councils that condemned him, and countless bishops that abandoned him
  • On the occasion, he commissioned a history of the Church of Alexandria and published and revised all his defenses, letters, and books that he wrote during his struggles
  • Outside of Egypt, while extremely caution about picking his battles, his opinion carried a great weight and he was regarded as a symbol of the true faith and unyielding resistance
  • In April 373 AD, St. Athanasius picked his successor and then died 4 days later leaving a legacy of resistance that will shape the Copts to this day
  • Even his fiercest critics give him that he never compromised on what he regarded as the true faith
  • In his resistance, he taught the Copts many lessons that are worth remembering as they will come again and again in our narrative
  • The first and I think most important is the mantra of unyielding theological resistance
  • The Coptic Pope, at least until the Arabs arrived, but I would argue even to this day, once identified or sponsored a theological position, they stuck with it and they didn’t compromise much
  • The political situation, imperial policy, or even fellow archbishops positions didn’t matter.. The only thing that mattered is whether it the right position or not.. And the distinction between right and wrong laid solely with the Egyptian bishops as a local matter with the Coptic Pope as their spiritual leader, as a first among equals
  • Athanasius was the model and his example will be followed to the letter time and time again
  • For those reading ahead, The Council of Chalcedon in 451 AD was a watershed moment for the history of the Copts and it is precisely for that unyielding resistance that it became such an important milestone
  • The Coptic Cathedral in Cairo today have the remains of two Popes.. St. Mark and St. Athanasius. The symbolism shouldn’t be lost. St. Mark died a martyr, and St. Athanasius fought to the end of his life to protect the faith
  • Martyrdom and Unyielding theological resistance are the foundation which the Coptic identity and history is built on
  • A fiery Coptic historian once remarked that the Copts generally, told the whole world what they believed, and, when the world refuses to listen, they walk out.  
  • The second lesson he left is the important of Monasticism as a fortress to maintain the independence of the Coptic Church
  • Monks, generally speaking are extremely difficult to pressure or force into politically convenient positions
  • As such, cultivating a relationship between the official church hierarchy and the monastic one is extremely important for the bishop of Alexandria
  • In a perfect world, the Bishop of Alexandria would have the People, the Government, and the Monks behind him. But really, when it comes down to it, the Monks will suffice
  • Following that line, being a monk in time will become a requirement for the office of a bishop or a Coptic Pope
  • Now – the Monks tried and mostly succeeded to retain a degree of independence and as such as we will see in our narrative, sometimes they resisted the Coptic Pope and bishops on specific theological points and instead of serving as a fortress, they served as a thorn in his side
  • Athanasius not only left a model for Egypt for Monasticism, his written “Life of St. Antony” became an ancient best-sellers and in time, Monasteries will be all over Europe and Asia Minor
  • The development of monasteries inside and outside of Egypt will not be the same for various reasons, most prominent of which the isolation of the Copts once the Arabs invade – But the basic idea will stay the same
  • Athanasius was also the first bishop to offer a vehicle for the expression of an Egyptian national identity through the Christian religion
  • Now, I don’t mean by that any kind of 19th century nationalism, but rather that by painting Gregory and George- His replacement bishops – as Foreign heretical bishops, he attacked their theological beliefs as well as the fact that they were foreigners coming to take charge of the Egyptian church
  • Religion have always been a prominent issue in the history of Egypt and increasingly, Christianity will take place of Serapis and the Apis bull as the expression of a national identity
  • I am not going to go as far as some historians who see the various theological controversies of the 4th and 5th century as purely national resistance of the Egyptians against their imperial masters
  • But, there were definitely an element of desiring to maintain local control and the Coptic Church served as a vehicle for resisting imperial rule for the Egyptians
  • Athanasius legacy looms large for all Christians and specifically the Copts. His writings have influenced every single theologian since his death. From Augustine to C.S Lewis, his ideas formed the foundation of what we think of today as Christianity
  • He wasn’t a perfect man, no one is.. He was strong-headed and especially while younger used all means necessary, including political and physical pressure to make sure that his church and his flock fall in line behind him and Orthodoxy and for that some historians see him as a feisty political figure in the garments of a priest.
  • but I would strongly argue that he was a man of God forced to play the role of a politician and he played it as any true man of God would.. not compromising on his faith
  • When he died, the battle for the soul of the empire was still ongoing and despite assigning a successor, the semi-Arians would make a serious attempt in gaining Egypt and would find a receptive audience with Valens
  • Athanasius assigned a priest named Peter to follow him and the citizens and the clergy of Alexandria accepted Peter readily
  • Unfortunately, the imperial government and the Prefect wanted a say in the matter, and as such, shortly after his election, the Church of Theonas where he was residing was surrounded by the garrison and the newly enthroned Pope Peter was arrested
  • Somehow he escaped, and just like his mentor Athanasius, he immediately made his way to Rome
  • The bishop of Rome at this point was Damasus who was newly elected in a highly contentious election, nonetheless he supported Pope Peter and allowed him to form a base of resistance from exile
  • Now, Lucius, the Arian bishop became the natural imperial candidate but he was thoroughly rejected by the populace
  • And as such, extensive, systemic, and brutal violence was used in one of the best documented episodes of systemic violence by the imperial government against the Egyptians
  • The prefect was a pagan, possibly a left-over from the reign of Julian, but either way, Lucius found a willing partner in enforcing his will
  • A display of naked force was accomplished by having those killed in the riot accompanying Lucius entry into Alexandria stay unburied on the streets as a warning to the populace
  • Then, the leading clergy of the city were then gathered up, imprisoned and then possibly tortured to support Lucius. When that failed, they were exiled to Lebanon
  • When a crowd gathered in the harbor to their goodbyes to the clergy and express their support, the Prefect arrested them and send them to the mines
  • A deacon sent from Rome with words of comfort from Peter and Damasus was also arrested and sent to the mines
  • Then, the persecution extended to the heartland of Egypt. Eleven bishops were arrested and exiled
  • Finally, they arrived at the last and most formidable stronghold of Egyptian Christianity, the Monks
  • A three thousand strong force went to scetis with the stated mission to bring the monks into line
  • But, perhaps realizing that they will probably have to massacre all the monks to impose their will, a tactful decision was taken to arrest and exile their leaders.. Two monks that are both named Macarius
  • They were sent to the Island of Philae in the Nile, the southern-most point in its borders and the last pagan stronghold of Egypt
  • In a legendary episode, when the two monks arrived to the island, the pagan priest daughter fell into a trance shouting at the monks “Why have you come here to cast us out”
  • And then had a seizure.. Then the monks comforted her and eventually Christianity took a foothold in the island
  • The pagan temple stayed open though under the protection of the southern neighbors of Egypt until the time of the Emperor Justianian.. The temple of Philae would be the last pagan temple to close in Egypt
  • The monks never fell in line, and the two Macarius were returned from exile quickly
  • The situation in Alexandria was quite similar to the early days of St. Athanasius and Gregory
  • A bishop preferred by the government in Alexandria, and a bishop preferred by the people in exile
  • Pope Peter was safe in Rome where it was in Valententian’s domain. Valentenian have consistently shown himself unwilling to intervene in Church matter and refused to take sides, and thus.. The situation stayed the same for about 5 years until the political situation changed in 378 AD in one legendary battle in Adrianople
  • The battle of Adrianople was a watershed moment for the Roman Empire that ushered a new age but that would be for next week, where the Emperor Theodosius will appear, Pope Peter will return, The Bedouin Arabs will get a queen and a bishop, and Pope Peter will attempt to extend the Coptic church influence to Constantinople itself, but fails with significant consequences.  
  • Farewell, and until next week.

References


  • The Early Coptic Papacy: The Egyptian Church and Its Leadership in Late Antiquity by" Stephen J. Davis
  • The Coptic Synaxarium by" unknown
  • The Coptic Encyclopedia by" Aziz S. Atiya (editor)
  • Alexandria in Late Antiquity: Topography and Social Conflict by" Christopher Haas
  • Athanasius and Constantius: Theology and Politics in the Constantinian Empire by" Timothy D. Barnes
  • The Story of the Church of Egypt by" E. L. Butcher
  • Festal letters of St. Athanasius by" Athanasius
All episodes

Comments



Must be logged in to comment. Log in or Sign up.