Episode Detail

Script


  • Hello and welcome to the History of The Copts. Episode 16. It’s a riot!
  • Last week ended with the dramatic attempt at arresting St. Athanasius at Church during the Mid-nights praises and his escape from Alexandria to the heartland of Egypt
  • For the next six years, St. Athanasius travelled throughout Egypt and Alexandria spending his time among the desert monks and in writing multiple theological works against the Arians
  • While on the run he abandoned his usually diplomatic language and wrote several forceful works and letters, where he was no longer appealing to Con-stan-atious, but condemning him as a heretic and an anti-Christ
  • Also, naturally he never stopped communicating to his clergy and laymen and it showed in their response to his replacement. George the Cappadocian.
  • Even before George’s arrival, the citizen of Alexandria were up in arms about raiding the church in the middle of the night and they wrote a long, formal protest against the officials that attempted to arrest St. Athanasius to the Prefect of Egypt
  • Their protest is preserved and tells the events that followed the attempted arrest.
  • Per the formal protest, when St. Athanasius left the church, a door to door search commenced, followed by plundering of the Churches and the houses’ searched and occasional violence when the citizens resisted
  • The protest also nicely sums up the feeling of the Alexandrians toward the whole matter and their loyalty to St. Athanasius, to quote the text “if an order has been given that we should be persecuted we are all ready to suffer martyrdom. But if it is not by order of Augustus, we desire Maximus the Prefect of Egypt and all the city magistrates to request of him that they may not again be suffered thus to assail us. And we desire also that this our petition may be presented to him, that they may not attempt to bring in hither any other Bishop: for we have resisted unto death , desiring to have the most Reverend Athanasius, whom God gave us at the beginning, according to the succession of our fathers; whom also the most religious Augustus Constantius himself sent to us with letters and oaths. And we believe that when his Piety is informed of what has taken place, he will be greatly displeased, and will do nothing contrary to his oaths, but will again give orders that our Bishop Athanasius shall remain with us.”   
  • Naturally, due to their strong feeling, the churches of Alexandria stayed in the hands of the Orthodox clergy loyal St. Athanasius for about 6 months until a new Prefect came to Egypt with specific ordered to install George as the new bishop and hand him the control of the Churches
  • And the new prefect did just that, using violence when necessary, Churches were transferred to men who would be loyal to George
  • The Ceaserum, the great church used by St. Athanasius before being dedicated formally a few years earlier was the center of a notorious riot by the pagan community in Alexandria
  • It is hard to tell whether the riot was spontaneous or encouraged by the newly installed prefect as a way to ensure his control of the Church
  • Either way, George arrived 2 months later, and 8 months after St. Athanasius left to a city that was on edge
  • George was a smart and a learned man, but almost from the start he had an impossible job.
  • He employed a three-pronged strategy to take control of Egypt; The stick, the carrot, and the common enemy
  • The stick was shown first, with the most hard-core of St. Athanasius supporters being eliminated quickly
  • As such, almost immediately, 17 bishops were exiled and by the end of his reign, the number have risen to 26
  • In Alexandria when St. Athanasius supporters decided instead of celebrating Easter with George in the Church, they will go and pray in the cemetery, a group of soldiers were sent to attack them and they were beaten and then banished to the great Oasis in the western desert
  • Next, was the Carrot,
  • Using the church wealth and the government, George was able to obtain a monopoly on lucrative trade of the nitrite salt, papyrus production, and the all-important job of burying of the dead
  • Thus, supporting him could mean a lucrative job and a salary
  • In addition, the free grain dole was withheld from the lower-class supporters of St. Athanasius and the Wealthy supporters not only had their property confiscated but, in some cases, their houses were destroyed
  • Lastly, the common enemy was naturally the pagans, whom he persecuted with particular zeal to try and win over the Christians
  • With the support of the garrison, he attempted to prohibit pagan sacrifices and was the force behind Con-stant-tious decision to eliminate tax exemption of pagan temples
  • But perhaps his most audacious attack on the pagan community was the looting of valuables from the temple of Serapis, the patron god of Alexandria who was thus far, an untouchable object in Alexandria
  • His strategy may have worked if St. Athanasius was arrested or even if he kept a low profile on his run, but St. Athanasius was constantly active, writing to bishops and clergy instructing them to offer resistance to George and the Arian theology
  • Monks were even instructed not to receive Arians guests or share a meal with them and a group of Monks in Thebes went as far as to write that Arians are not welcome here on the wall of their monastery  
  • So instead of winning over the Christians of the city who were unmovable in their support to St. Athanasius, he became a hated figure for both the pagans and the Christians
  • His stick became evidence for tyranny and his carrot was the proof of his greed and exploitation of the poor and under the banners of holy suffering and unyielding theological resistance, The Copts rejected him
  • Thus, within 18 months, while praying the church of Dionysius, a riot broke out and the crowd was intent on lynching him and he barely escaped with his life
  • His plan failed to have anything resembling control in Egypt failed, and in the words of the great Mike Tyson, everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth
  • And George figuratively and quite possibly literally was punched pretty hard
  • Realizing that staying in Egypt is problematic at this point of time, he left a month later and stayed away from Egypt for probably the next 3 years
  • During his absence, St. Athanasius supporters were able to get the churches back and St. Athanasius made a brief public appearance in Alexandria
  • But then the garrison and the prefect intervened and got the churches back to George’s entourage
  • Con-stan-atious for his part tried hard to sell the Egyptians on George, but for the most part was unsuccessful
  • He even sent embassies to Ethiopia and asked them to send Frumetius to Alexandria to be interviewed by George and to reject the teaching of St. Athanasius
  • As far as we can tell, nothing came out of his overtures to Ethiopia other than additional neat historical evidence further cementing the role St. Athanasius played in the birth of the Ethiopian Church

(The story of Church of Egypt, Constantius and Athanasius, http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/28158.htm , Alexandria in Late antiquity)

  • Despite the tremendous support St. Athanasius had in Egypt, he was becoming increasingly isolated outside of Egypt
  • In 357 AD, Ossius of Cordova under intense pressure signed on to an Arian creed
  • By 358 AD, the Bishop of Rome Liberius also gave up, condemned Athanasius  and made peace with Constanatious
  • By 360 AD three different new councils have condemned St. Athanasius and not a single bishop outside of Egypt was sympathetic to his plight
  • In any other province of the Empire, a problematic bishop that lost the support of his fellow bishops and the emperor would have no chance of surviving long
  • But Egypt had something that no one had yet. Monks!
  • Antony, who was an ardent supporter of St. Athanasius had died in 356 AD, but had left an impressive legacy
  • Briefly, as I am planning a special episode dedicated to that topic, the Coptic monks would live as they are dead to the world
  • Either completely alone, or in a highly organized communities with strict rules they would dedicate they lives to prayers and meditation
  • Dead to the world obviously meant rejecting material wealth and a vow of celibacy
  • Highly religious, independent, and with a significant spiritual influence on the local community they usually served as a fortress for the Coptic Patriarchs when the imperial policy was hostile
  • I mean, what can the Emperor do to a group of men who sold their possessions and went to live in seclusion?
  • In theory at least, promises of wealth and power or threats of punishment and death is completely ineffective
  • Thus, St. Athanasius hid in his fortress and only sharpened his theological dialogue as his audience now were the Monks
  • On the other hand, without a strong theological leader, the Arian coalition by the late 350’s AD started to fight among themselves
  • Now – I kind try to avoid diving deep into theology in this Podcast, that’s why I have been using the convenient label “Arians”, but it’s not a super accurate label at this point of history
  • Thus far, anyone who felt that the Nicene creed wasn’t good enough got slapped with that label
  • And as that group generally opposed St. Athanasius and he is the focus of the narrative, that label was sufficient description of their political motives, but it’s not a good one to describe their theological views
  • The late 350’s AD was full of intrigue, shifting alliances, and a heightened level of theological conflict
  • To simplify things, the Arian coalition was now split into two main camps, one that advocates that the Father is of a similar nature of the son, and a more radical wing that their nature is dissimilar
  • And as a reminder, St. Athanasius’ view was that of the council of Nicea, which is that the Son is of the same nature of the son.
  • So, we have three camps describing the nature of the son and the father
  • Those who use the word “same”, I am calling those Orthodox. That’s where St. Athanasius is.
  • Those who use the word “similar”, I am going to call those semi-Arians. These bishops are the old guard of the Churches of the East.
  • And finally, those who use the word “dissimilar”, and I am going to call those neo-arians. These bishops are more or less, new at the scene.
  • Now, I am really over-simplifying here and if there is an actual historian or a theologian listening they would be up in arms about the term neo-Arian and semi-Arian, but I have to give them a label and I don’t want to use Greek terminology, so that’s the label I am going to use.
  • Anyway, the split in the Arian group played out in 3 different councils during the exile of St. Athanasius and had 2 major consequences
  • The first, in his effort to obtain unity, Con-stanatious interferes in the theological issues with a heavy hand and turns a significant portion of the western bishops against him
  • The second, the semi-Arians bishops warm up to the idea of accepting the Nicean creed as is, to avoid constantly defending new innovations and ideas such as the word “dissimilar”
  • That second point had the effect of gradually increasing the prestige of St. Athanasius as the most visible pro-Nicene bishop left, but its full effect will come in a little bit, for now the change slow and subtle  
  • So while Constanatious was losing the western bishops and the population due to his heavy hand in the theological debate, Julian, his appointed Ceasar was doing a great job defending the empire from barbarians and gaining new fans by the day
  • In Early 360 AD, the Persians once again attacked the empire, and Con-stan-atious went to regain his lost territory
  • As part of his preparation, he ordered a significant portion of the troops attached Julian to go with him
  • They refused to leave their homes in the west and rebelled proclaiming Julian as their Augustus
  • Slowly, methodically, and diplomatically – Julian consolidated his power over the west and civil war was imminent
  • As a pagan ruling an increasingly Christian empire, you would expect some resistance to ascension as an Augustus
  • But he was by all means a capable emperor and as mentioned before the Western bishops were not happy with Con-stan-atious heavy hand
  • Thus, he received enough support to be able to directly challenge Con-stan-atious who couldn’t force the matter immediately due to the war with Persia
  • But just before their head to head showdown, Con-stan-atious dies in November 361 AD, aged 44 from likely an infectious disease, leaving Julian as the undisputed master of the Empire
  • Con-stana-tious’ legacy is extremely complicated. He is painted as a heretical, inefficient, and a cruel ruler by many ancient historians. St. Athanasius and several Christian historians go as far as comparing him to the anti-Christ
  • Even pagan historians were not super kind to him, one of them remarks on his rule by saying “The Christian religion is plain and simple, but Constantius confounded it with senile superstition. He roused many differences by curious inquiries, instead of reconciling them by his authority; and when these had spread in all directions, he propagated them by verbal disputes. He utterly ruined the postal service by allowing the use of the horses to troops of bishops, who were constantly galloping hither and thither to the various synods, as they call them, in the endeavour to enforce uniformity for their own opinions.”
  • Just like his Father, he was eager to involve the imperial authority in church matter, but unlike his father, he didn’t have a light touch. His hand was heavy and rather than being invested in relative peace, he was invested in a specific ideology.
  • Despite those failings, he was successful on a couple of fronts. For one, for the most part, he was successful militarily. And he also mastered the art of palace intrigue, emerging as the sole rules of the empire from a complicated succession plan and multiple revolts ending his career dying naturally. Quite a feat for the usually dangerous office of the Emperor.
  • Anyway, with his death, Julian ascends the throne and becomes the sole ruler of the empire
  • He started his reign by proclaiming a narrative of religious freedom which not only meant the freedom of pagans to worship, but also, the different groups of Christianity, and the Jews
  • As a result of this policy, he issued an edict in 360 AD before the death of Constantious allowing the return of the exiled bishops to their cities
  • His intention was obviously to destabilize Constantious domain and to subdue any potential hostility toward him as a pagan from those bishops
  • Nonetheless, the prefect of Egypt didn’t publish the edict until well-after the death of Con-stan-atious and George in 362 AD knowing that publishing an edict to return St. Athanasius during a civil war is a bad idea
  • Once he felt his hold on power secure, he started to reverse all the policies of Constantine that favored Christianity and slowly was creating a world where a Christian would have significant hurdles for social and economic advancement, but not outright persecuted
  • He also went about strengthening the organization of the different pagan cults and create a solid hierarchy, similar to the Church to serve as a competing institution
  • You have to give it to him, Julian knew what he was doing… He took great pains not to give the church new martyrs knowing that this will only increase the resistance
  • If it wasn’t for a random spear flying in the air or the intervention of a certain legendary saint if you prefer to see it this way, our world today may have been completely different, but more on that in next week
  • Now, let’s take a step back to see the events in Egypt during the transition
  • George of Cappodecia have decided to finally come back to Alexandria in late November 361 AD.. Which was quite serendipitous, as it was 4 days before Con-stan-atius’s death
  • Apparently, as soon as he returned, he went to a neglected pagan temple that was given to him by Constantius to be repurposed as a church
  • While surveying the temple, many pagan artifacts were discovered and George, sensing an opportunity to gain the favor of the Christians, decided to take the artifacts and parade them through the streets in a mocking manner
  • The pagans were clearly offended and a crowd started to gather to see what’s going on
  • Then, a ship arrived with the news that Con-stana-tious have died and the news travelled like wild fire in Alexandria and a huge riot started directed all their energies on George and two Christian men of his entourage that also offended the Pagan community
  • Notable citizens then intervened and rescued them but still put them in prison, promising the crowd a trial for their offences by the new Emperor Julian
  • But the growing strength of pagan feeling could no longer be restrained, and a month later on Christmas Eve. The prison was attacked by a mob where the three men were dragged out, beaten with sticks, kicked, and as Julian himself describes it, * the people actually tore George in pieces, as if they had been dogs.' The body of George or what is left of it was thrown upon the back of a camel, and paraded through the streets as he has done with the pagan artifacts
  • and finally, to not give him the all-important proper burial, the crowd burnt the body and then cast the ashes into the sea
  • The same probably also happened to the two men who were imprisoned with him
  • Now – As a cool historical trivia, Edward Gibbons, the “8 volume history of Rome guy” used that event to link this George to the legendary saint George, the patron saint of the kingdom of England and a beloved saint for the Copts, but later historians came and more or less debunked his theory
  • So if you even hear this George confused with the other George, go ahead and blame Gibbons and nicely point out that they are two different people
  • Also, for fairness sake, as mentioned before, George was a hated figure for all Alexandrians, pagan and Christians, so probably some Christians participated in his lynching but all official historical documentation point to a distinctively pagan nature of the riot
  • Julian for his part, wasn’t about to punish pagans for lynching a Christian bishop, so he let the whole episode go with a mild warning, urging the Alexandrians to remember their old Greek and Pagan heritage
  • By February 362 AD, 2 months after the death of George, the Edict to return all exiled bishops were published in Alexandria
  • Twelve days later, St. Athanasius publicly appears in the city to take charge of his see
  • Things were clearly in disarray, his most loyal bishops were exiled and many of them died in the journey
  • Many of the bishops left were forced into accepting a semi-arian position and some of them condemned St. Athanasius  
  • So by the spring of 362 AD, St. Athanasius convened a council in Alexandria where his diplomatic skills have really shined
  • The decision of the council was to accept any bishop, regardless of past statements or actions who accepts the basic tenets of the council of Nicea
  • It doesn’t matter if they condemned St. Athanasius before, were known as Arians, or were his public enemies. He is ready to make peace with all, especially the semi-arians so long as they make the small jump from “similar” nature to “same” nature.
  • He also made serious effort to reconcile different factions in the Church of Antioch, but failed
  • Despite the failure in Antioch, the message of the council reached a receptive audience in the West and a movement started around the reconciliation around accepting the Council of Nicea as is
  • Julian predictably wasn’t very happy about this development, returning the exiled bishops didn’t increase the divisions, but made the church a more unified institution
  • His letter to the prefect of Egypt on the occasion nicely sums up his feelings toward St. Athanasius. Julian writes: “Though you neglect to write to me on any other subject, at least it is your duty to inform me of your conduct towards Athanasius, the enemy of the gods. My intentions have been long since communicated to you. I swear, by the great Serapis, that unless on the first of December Athanasius has departed from Alexandria—nay, from Egypt—the officers of your Government shall pay a fine of 100 pounds of gold. I am slow to condemn, but I am still slower to forgive.”
  • But, the local senate of Alexandria intended to petition Julian for St. Athanasius to stay and word reached Julian that St. Athanasius have baptized some prominent pagans, thus another strongly worded letter followed, “
  • The words reach St. Athanasius via his friends and he decided to leave Alexandria quietly to avoid massive riots and loss of life
  • He was travelling by boat through the Nile, but before he had gone very far, he realized that government agents are following him either to arrest him and exile him out of Egypt, or for a quiet execution
  • So, once he was out of their sight briefly owing to a bend in the river. He ordered his boat to be turned around toward the direction of the Government boat
  • The agents pursuing him in shouted as they passed by his boat if they had seen Athanasius.
  • To which his calmly answered, ' He is not far off,'. Then he landed and made his way by land to Memphis, whence he wrote his Festal letter, and then once more took refuge with the Monks.
  • Next week, Julian would die in a curious way and his attempt to restore paganism would die with him. We do have quite a bit left in the story of St. Athanasius.
  • 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)
  • 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
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