Episode Detail

Script


  • Hello, and Welcome to the History of the Copts. Episode 15. His Mercy Endures forever!
  • You may have noticed that the intro this week is different; I think you will appreciate it by the end of the Episode.
  • The recording is from the monks in St. Anthony Monastery in California, it is from the Coptic Mid-night praises, a tradition that as we will see, stretches to the time of St. Athanasius.
  • Last time, we ended our story around 350 AD with St. Athanasius enjoying a brief respite in Egypt from his constant battles.
  • He was in his 50’s now and battle-worn after close to 20 years on the throne of St. Mark.
  • So I hope you are as impressed as I am when you find out that he still has many battles left, three more exiles and a few more emperors before he finally emerges victorious as the elder statesman of the Roman Empire and Christianity
  • So hold on, it’s going to be quiet a ride!
  • In January 350 AD, the political situation and the peace St. Athanasius was enjoying Egypt was upended when a general named Magnentius rebels against Constans rule and kills him
  • Constans wasn’t really a great emperor and the longer he ruled, the more he alienated the soldiers and the civilian bureaucracy
  • So despite having all the necessary legitimacy and resources to be a great emperor, he failed to do anything of value other than support Orthodoxy for political gain and thus indirectly possibly shape Christianity to what it is today
  • And to that I say, Good job Constans!
  • Anyway, just because you kill the emperor, it doesn’t means you can automatically take his place, the Roman empire was a sophisticated place, things like legitimacy, rule of law, and political norms existed
  • So, Magnentius immediately found himself on the defensive. He first tried to get some legitimacy by appealing to Con-stan-atious to recognize him as a junior colleague, which naturally failed quickly. Then, he married a girl named Justina, who allegedly was a great-granddaughter of Constantine. But that didn’t convince anyone either.
  • He issues coins proclaiming him as the restorer of liberty and the defender of Rome, he used the Rho Chi symbol, and he even tried to appeal to the Pagans aristocrats of Rome by relaxing the prohibition on pagan sacrifices
  • More important to our story however, is his attempts to communicate the dissident bishops in the East
  • Paul of Constantinople was the first victim
  • Paul was tricked by one of the imperial officers to let his guard down and then was imprisoned and exiled as soon as Constans died
  • Either out of actual communication between Paul and Magnentius or just hedging against such communication, Paul was locked into a cell and left for 6 days to starve to death
  • Then, when the guards walked in expecting him to be dead, to their surprise he was still alive. So, they strangled him
  • and thus was the end of the Orthodox bishop of Constantinople
  • Well, I shouldn’t say end, he ended up becoming a famous saint in a few years and a great church was built to house his remains. He is now known as St. Paul the Confessor.
  • So good job Paul! You made it to sainthood!
  • The word quickly reached St. Athanasius and it did seem for a second that he was next.
  • Magnentius has secured North Africa and Libya thus there was a land link between Alexandria and Magnentius.
  • If St. Athanasius were to defect, he is more than likely to pull the population toward Magnentius as well and give him a huge advantage as far as the province of Egypt is concerned
  • Con-stan-stious for his part was in a tough spot. If he was to do nothing, he would risk the defection of St. Athanasius. If he was to attempt the same thing he did with Paul, well, then Egypt for sure will turn against him and toward Magnentius
  • So, he found himself in the unthinkable position of having to try and win over St. Athanasius.
  • Oh, how the tides have turned. He shouldn’t have worried too much though.
  • Athanasius was in the words of Constantine the great “a man of God”
  • while he at times he was caught up in the politics, it was only to stop Arian thought from invading his church
  • I know it’s hard to imagine for the modern listeners, but this mantra is still well and alive today within the Copts and their bishops
  • Politics is best avoided, unless it’s going to mess up the faith, then its fair game. At least, that’s my observation anyway.
  • So he had no interest in the purely secular show-down between Magnentius and Con-stan-atious
  • As such, when a delegation from Magnentius was passing through Alexandria on their way to Antioch, he made sure to offer a public prayers for the safety and the victory of the legitimate emperor Con-stan-atious
  • Athanasius will be later accused of treason and writing a private letter to Magnentius on this occasion, to which St. Athanasius maintain that the letter is a forgery and he never contacted Magnentius. Similar to the Ischyras incident, this letter will be one of these things that’s extremely hard to figure out what really happened
  • I am leaning toward taking St. Athanasius for his word about the letter though, he was an intelligent and experienced man, so even if he was to attempt to contact Magnentius, putting his words in writing rather than verbally though the delegates is a rookie mistake
  • Not to mention, Con-stan-atious was doing everything in his power to win over St. Athanasius, including starting to address him as quote “beloved Father”
  • Adding to Con-stan-atious tricky position that he had no sons and no solid succession plans and his was still fighting the Persians on and off
  • So, to solidify his position, he appointed the two relatives who survived from the massacre early at his reign as Caesars. Gallus and Julian. Remember Julian? The baby who survived the massacre of his entire family? Well, he is all grown up and going to be a Caesar shortly.
  • Eusebius of Nicomedia ended up taking care of the two boys who lived in quiet existence away from the Palace until Eusebius died
  • Then, they were entrusted to a man named George. This George is known to history as George the Cappadocian. In time, he will become the Arian bishop of Alexandria, but for now he was doing his best to take care of Gallus and Julian
  • Initially, Gallus was appointed Caesar and lived in Antioch administering the East, while Julian semi-exile was lifted and he was free to travel the empire as a part of the imperial family, but not a Caesar yet
  • Then, Con-stan-atious and Magnentius went to battle in Central Europe and Italy. It was a very close affair and it took close to 3 years to settle the civil war, but eventually Con-stan-atious emerged victorious and Magnentius committed suicide in August 353 AD
  • Magnentius did everything that he could possibly do to survive, but the legacy that Constantine left was too recent of a memory that it was close impossible that anyone outside of his family be accepted as an emperor
  • So, I like to remember Magnentius as one who has done his best and came close to succeed yet still failed. And to that I say, Good Job Magnentius!
  • In the meantime, Gallus have conducted himself a little bit too assertively in Antioch thinking himself to be an equal emperor to Con-stan-tious
  • Now, if only Gallus was around now, he could have listened to my Podcast and quickly concluded that Con-stan-atious, like his father before him, really didn’t like to share, and as such its best to lay low and don’t push his buttons too much. Or at least, if you really want to assert yourself, then watch your back and prepare for a civil war
  • But alas, he did neither, so Con-stan-tious invites him to the West to celebrate what a fine job he was doing, then as soon as he arrived, he was arrested, tried for treason, and executed
  • So, to keep a streak going, Good job Gallus! Well, not really, Gallus did a terrible job, but I am still sticking to my line
  • Anyway, the problem of a succession plan appeared again, and at this point, the only male relative left from the Constantinian family was Julian, so, he was appointed a Caesar in 355 AD and was sent to Gaul to help govern the West.
  • Julian was an interesting figure. At 5 years old, he witnessed the massacre of his entire family
  • A little bit after, he was excluded from public life and received a Christian education by Eusebius
  • Then, he met George, who introduced him to Philosophy and Classical Greek writings
  • By the age of 19, he rejected Christianity and deepened his studies of Paganism and Philosophy
  • By all means he was an intelligent and well read. In addition to hanging out with Pagan philosophers, he also was in the company of men like Gregory, and Basil the Great who ended up becoming Christian theological giants
  • It would be interesting to see what would happened when an openly pagan emperor tries his hand at governing a Christian empire
  • But before we get there we have a few years left with Con-stan-atious and St. Athanasius
  • In 351 AD while Con-stan-atious was gaining the upper hand in the conflict with Magnentius, a small Council assembled at Sirmium where he was residing to look into the case of another bishop named Photinus. That bishop was excommunicated and as usual with council assembled close-by the imperial court, St. Athanasius was condemned as well
  • The Council then send the finding to Pope Julius of Rome but after a fruitful career and a very important role in shaping the Orthodoxy of Christianity, Pope Julius died in 352 AD before receiving the letter
  • I do wonder what would have been the fate of St. Athanasius without the support of Pope Julius, it was a rare moment of religious cooperation between Rome and Alexandria, and for that, I have to say
  • Good Job Pope Julius!
  • Athanasius for his part gathered the Egyptians bishops who outnumbered those assembled in Sirmium and again, as usual he was cleared of wrongdoings
  • Con-Stan-atious at this point while laying the groundwork for removing St. Athanasius when the political situation improves, he didn’t show any overt signs of hostility toward him yet
  • Curiously, Pope Julius successor Liberius, responded by the Council of Sirmium by asking St. Athanasius to go to Rome to present his case in person
  • Under pressure from Constantious, he would later claim that he threatened St. Athanasius with excommunication if he didn’t come. Although, Historian Timothy D. Barnes thinks that Liberius more or less misrepresented his communication with St. Athanasius and the invite was a friendly outreach to St. Athanasius
  • Regardless of the nature of communication between Rome and Alexandria, St. Athanasius didn’t leave Alexandria
  • Seeing both Paul and Gallus tricked out of their position of strength and then executed, he wasn’t going to go anywhere outside of Egypt
  • and as a keen observer of the situation, as soon as Magnentious died in 353 AD, St. Athanasius sent a delegation to Con-stan-atious to plead his case in front of the emperor personally
  • But with Magnentious out of the picture, Con-stan-atious attitude toward St. Athanasius changed, so it does seem that the delegation failed in its mission
  • As a result of the two opposing local councils and St. Athanasius refusal to leave Alexandria, the western bishops requested that a larger council be assembled to look into the matter
  • Which was just perfect for Con-stana-tious, who just finished his civil war and wanted to consolidate his power over the Western church, and the council will present an excellent opportunity
  • Athanasius was accused of 3 charges, the first that he committed treason by fermenting hostility between Constans and Con-stan-atious, the second was that he communicated with Magnentious, and the third was by using the imperial Caeserium in Alexandria as a Church without it being officially dedicated
  • For the last charge, apparently during the Lent of 354, the Alexandrian churches became so overcrowded and the people complained
  • Athanasius was therefore entreated by the citizens to hold the Easter services in the great church of the Caesareum, which was a barely finished building, and as yet undedicated.
  • The building was still the private property of the Emperor, since it had not yet been formally handed over to the Church. It would be therefore an act of discourtesy to the emperor to appropriate the church before it was formally given
  • Athanasius defense for the charges can be summarized as such,
    1. One, he has never spoken ill of Con-stan-tious during his meetings with Constans which was always in the presence of other bishops and witnesses
    2. Second, I am going to quote St. Athanasius here making a case against contacting Magnentious, as I enjoyed seeing this side of him and wanted to share it with all of you

““What sort of opening would I affix to my letter if I had written to him? ‘Congratulations on murdering the one who honored me, whose favors I can never forget? ‘ I welcome your killing of my friends who were very firm and devoted Christians’? ‘We admire your slaughter of those who received us nobly in Rome’?”

  1. Third, he cited multiple times where unfinished church was used for service with no issues , and given the crowd size, he acted only out concern for his flock
  • The council eventually was assembled in Arles and as expected, it confirmed the result of the Council of Sirmium, but it was more or less boycotted by many western bishops and as a result, an imperial edict was issued that any bishop who refuses to subscribe to the condemnation of St. Athanasius be exiled
  • The Bishop of Rome didn’t go, but sent two delegates. One of them accepted the Council and one refused and as such was exiled
  • Officials went with the letter from the Council of Arles and travelled throughout Europe asking bishops to either sign and agree to the condemnation of St. Athanasius or be exiled
  • The bishop of Rome didn’t sign which emboldened some other bishops to demand another Council which ended up taking place in 355 AD in Milan
  • The Council of Milan was a mess, Con-stan-atious wanted his demands approved and the bishops pushed back.. In a legendary exchange with questionable historical accuracy
  • Some of the bishops present protested to him that “As a bishop,' ' Athanasius must be judged by bishops, not by the Emperor. Do not confuse the canons with Imperial decrees.'
  • To which the furious Emperor replied. ' Canons! What I wish, that is a canon !”
  • Liberius, the bishop of Rome wanted nothing to do with the Council of Milan and decided to skip it
  • But Con-stan-atious was a determined man, so he arrested him and forced him to go to Milan and after a testy exchange, Liberius was exiled to Thrace and a deacon named Felix appointed in his place, but Felix also frustrated Con-stan-atious and refused to accept any theological formula than the one agreed on Nicea
  • At this point, Con-stanatious has had enough, and decided to arrest and execute St. Athanasius anyway without waiting for the Council decisions
  • By August 355 AD, an imperial officer appeared in Alexandria and tried to use political pressure to force St. Athanasius out, but St. Athanasius had a firm grip in Egypt and no backhanded politics was going to get him out, so after 4 months he gave up and left
  • Next, another officer appeared, and this time with a large contingent of troops but St. Athanasius asked if he has any official orders to arrest him and the officer didn’t
  • It’s hard to determine whether Con-stantious was sloppy when he sent an officer with no arrest warrant, or it was just his way of hedging against the church hierarchy turning against him when they find out that he ordered the arrest of St. Athanasius while they were still deliberating his case
  • So in front of the prefect, the clergy, and large group of Alexandrians , St. Athanasius proclaimed that he will be happy to go with them once they produce official orders
  • Now at the point, The dux or the military officer had two choices. Either attempt to arrest St. Athanasius anyway where the populace would rise up and subsequently many lives would be lost, possibly including his own or agree to wait for official orders knowing that they may never come and risk the wrath of Con-stan-atious
  • Thankfully for the inhabitants of Alexandria, the dux was a smart man. He swore a public oath to not take any actions until official orders arrived and the situation was defused and everyone went on to their business
  • Then, three weeks later, when everyone have started to forget the whole episode and St. Athanasius was during a mid-night service that until this day is a unique part of the Coptic Church
  • The dux took his troops and moved on the Church of St. Theonas where St. Athanasius was praying
  • Knowing that if he didn’t intervene, the attendees would attempt to defend him and get massacred in the process, he asked one of the deacons to read Psalm 136 and to have the congregation respond with “ For his Mercy endure forever”, and then once he finishes, ask the congregation to go home  
  • So the soldiers rushed through the darkness and were attempting to break through the church doors While the deacon and the congregation inside are singing the beautiful Psalm 136, proclaiming “o give thanks to the Lord, for he is good and his mercy endures forever”
  • The doors are eventually forced open the doors and the soldiers rush with their swords drawn shining in the dim light provided by the lit candles
  • Athanasius stands up and tell the people to escape, and in the rush out, the soldiers passage is barred and many are slain and trampled upon
  • The clergy urges St. Athanasius to escape, but he refuses, knowing well that as so long as he was in sight the soldiers, they would pursue him and let the congregation go
  • In his words “ I said I would not do so until they had all got away safe. So I stood up, and called for prayer, and desired all to go out before me. . . . And when the greater part were gone, the monks who were there and some of the clergy came up and carried me away.”
  • In the darkness and the Chaos, St. Athanasius manages to escape and initially intends to reach Con-stan-atious, but news reaches him of the exile of the bishop of Rome and many of the bishops that supported him
  • Now, it seemed like the whole world is against him.. So he decides to stay home in Egypt among the monks in the deserts and Egypt will take care of him
  • For six years after the events in Alexandria, St. Athanasius stays in Egypt, moving from one place to another. Even for a bit appearing publicly in Alexandria. So, despite being a high profile fugitive with imperial agents constantly after him, he was never betrayed and throughout his absence, the Egyptian populace was royal and fought his replacement every step of the way
  • Speaking of his replacement, as mentioned before, it ended up being George the Cappadocian, the tutor of the future pagan emperor Julian, and oh man, what a tough job he got. But that will have to wait for next week
  • To round up this week episode, seeing St. Athanasius leave his seat in Alexandria, Liberius the bishop of Rome softened his rhetoric enough to allow Con-stan-atious to bring him back to Rome, where the populace refused Felix and were pushing for the return of Liberius
  • While Con-stan-atious was alive, Liberius never brought up the issue of St. Athanasius again
  • Outside of Egypt, St. Athanasius was truly alone; Con-stan-atious have successfully removed or pressured all the bishops who supported him.
  • But what does it matter? To St. Athanasius, God was on his side, and God is good and his mercy endures forever!
  • 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
  • Festal letters of St. Athanasius by" Athanasius
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