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  • Hello, and Welcome to the History of Copts. Episode 13. The Second Exile.
  • Before we start, I have an exciting announcement. The Podcast now have its own website historyofthecopts.com. In addition to the Episodes, I am maintaining an active blog there, as a sort of opinion pieces regarding all things Copts. I also started using the Podcast twitter more actively. So, make sure to check them out, as I said in my introduction episode, this project is my labor of love toward preserving and enhancing the Coptic culture and identity, and Twitter and the website is the natural extension of that mission
  • Anyway - last week we ended with Constantine’s banishment of St. Athanasius in 335 AD but crucially, he didn’t formally remove him from his seat or appoint a replacement, thereby keeping things from getting out of hand in Egypt where St. Athanasius was a popular figure among the populace and the monks
  • Before going any further, I would like to take a small detour on a trip to Ethiopia, where just prior to the first exile of St. Athanasius, the Coptic church put down some roots and built a link that would be extremely important in Medieval Egypt   
  • Ethiopia was connected to Egypt via the maritime trading route to India. Basically, a ship departs from India, hugs the Arabian Peninsula Coast and goes through a narrow strait between the Arabian Peninsula and Ethiopia. The ships then unload on one of Egypt’s red sea ports such as Berenice and travels as a caravan through the well-maintained desert Roman roads to the Nile
  • Then the cargo gets loaded into ship again on the Nile, where it travels to Alexandria and onward to the rest of the empire via the Mediterranean
  • Depending on the geopolitical situation, the Arabian Peninsula and Ethiopia were either middle men, a stop during the route for additional trading, or a launch point for piracy
  • A Jewish community settled there as well, and there is a biblical account of an Ethiopian Eunuch being converted in the book of Acts
  • So in time Christianity was making small progress, but the big breakthrough happened around 330 AD with involvement of St. Athanasius
  • The story goes, that a Christian philosopher with commercial aspirations from Tyre in Lebanon set out in a trip to reach India
  • With him, he took two young boys whom he was a guardian off. Then at a stop in Ethiopia, they were attacked and the young boys enslaved and eventually were sold to the local King of the area
  • Eventually, the boys grew up and became part of the king close circle of advisers and when he died, they became part of the ruling council watching over a young king who didn’t yet come of age
  • Edesius and Frumentius as they were named promoted Christianity and given their position, they were successful. Edesius, eventually went back to Tyre and became a priest
  • But, Frumentius, went to St. Athanasius in Egypt and asked for a bishop to be ordained for Ethiopia to organize the Church
  • Athanasius duly ordained Frumentius himself as the bishop of Ethiopia and established Ethiopia as part of the responsibilities of the Patriarch of Alexandria
  • Edesius, the other boy who became a priest in Tyre, told the story to Rufinus, a Christian historian who lived in the end of the 4th century who then wrote it down for us as an important historical record
  • Ethiopia was part of the Patriarchate of Alexandria until the 20th century, where the Church in Ethiopia became an independent body
  • The story is important as the Christian kingdom in Ethiopia will be geopolitically significant as we move on in our narrative
  • Anyway, our trip to Ethiopia is over for now, and time to head back to Constantinople and the events post the Council of Tyre in 335 AD where in addition to the exile of St. Athanasius, Arius was readmitted to the church

The Story of the Coptic Church

  • Constantine then invited Arius to come to his court, either to ensure that his views are compatible with the creed agreed on in the Council of Nicea or it was simply the machination of Eusebius of Nicomedia to show the world that Arian views are now in fashion and accepted by the emperor
  • The invite was protested by Alexander, the Bishop pf Constantinople, but his protests were in vain and arrangement were made to receive Arius as a victorious hero in a march from the imperial palace to the newly built magnificent church of the Apostles on a Sunday where everyone who mattered in Constantinople would be in the Church of the Apostles for liturgy. The ceremony would then end in Arius receiving communion, possibly from the bishop himself, giving a clear message to all attendees of his newly held high-esteem.
  • But alas, fate or divine justice as the ancient historians saw it intervened on the day before the event was planned. To quote one of them “It was then Saturday, and Arius was expecting to assemble with the church on the day following: but divine retribution overtook his daring criminalities. For going out of the imperial palace, attended by a crowd of Eusebian partisans like guards, he paraded proudly through the midst of the city, attracting the notice of all the people. As he approached the place called Constantine’s Forum, where the column of porphyry is erected, a terror arising from the remorse of conscience seized Arius, and with the terror a violent relaxation of the bowels: he therefore enquired whether there was a convenient place near, and being directed to the back of Constantine’s Forum, he hastened thither. Soon after a faintness came over him, and together with the evacuations -- his bowels protruded, followed by a copious hemorrhage, and the descent of the smaller intestines: moreover portions of his spleen and liver were brought off in the effusion of blood, so that he almost immediately died. “
  • Ouch --- Not a good way to go! Arius was probably around 80 by the time though which is pretty good by the 4th century standards
  • So, Arius dies in 336 AD and the Persians who have been quiet for a while now start making moves in Christian Armenia
  • Constantine then sends a letter to the Persian king informing him that he sees himself as the protector of all Christians and therefore, attacks on Christian Armenia would be retaliated against
  • The Persians then send delegates to Constantinople to try to avert war, but they were rebuffed by Constantine who is about 65 years old by this point, but in an excellent physical and mental health, and preparations for war starts by both sides
  • But it wasn’t meant to be, Not yet anyway -- Constantine shortly after Easter of 337 AD became sick, and by the Feast of the Pentecost, he dies getting baptized at the last few days of his life by Eusebius of Nicomedia
  • Constantine left an impressive legacy and a long list of achievements. He deserves many of the admirations and honorific titles he receives, such as equal to the apostles, the Great, and Saint Constantine, but he was by no means perfect. In addition to the incident with Crispus and Fausta, he transformed the Roman Army to be mostly made of non-Roman barbarian troops which some would argue led to the fall of the western half of the empire
  • He also let politics and theology intermingle freely, by his political skills and charisma he was able to keep things somewhat reasonable during his reign. But things will quickly get out of hand for the emperors who will follow him, and theological divisions will plague the empire for the next few centuries
  • Lastly, he failed to see that his sons are just like him in their dislike in sharing power. Only a lot more impatient and less politically savvy.
  • His succession plan consisted of dividing the Empire into 4 parts with Persia which he was planning to conquer, the 5th.
  • As such, he created 4 Caesars – His three sons and his half-brother, and a 5th newly created position – the King of Mesopotamia and Persia – Only a title at this point, as no conquest have taken place
  • And then, he expected all of them to get along with the rest of their extended family and govern peacefully and live happily ever after
  • Sorry Constantine, I have to break it you, the only people who live happily ever after stay as far away as possible from the trappings of absolute power
  • Constantine’s second son, Cons-ta-na-tious, was defending the empire borders from Persian raids when he heard the his father have died
  • As the closest son to Constantinople, he rushed there where he buried his father in a lavish ceremony in the Church of the Apostles and shortly afterwards, just to make sure everyone on the same page on who is the new emperor, he ordered a massacre of the entire Constantinian extended family
  • Sharing with his brothers was tolerable for now, but extended family had to go. Transitions of power are tricky affairs, especially if you are not planning to share. So, quickly the numbers of Caesers fell from 5 to 3.
  • The only survivors from the massacre was a teenager named Gallus who was sick and supposedly dying at the time, and a child named Julian, who was supposedly saved by a Christian bishop. Julian will grow up and come back to our story, so keep him in the back of your mind as the child who survived the massacre of his entire family.
  • The oldest son, Constantine the second, was in Trier, Germany with St. Athanasius in his court. The youngest son, Constans, was not legally an adult yet, so he was under the guardianship of Constantine the second
  • The three sons met in the Balkans in Central Europe to divide the Empire. Constantine II took the West, Constans the central provinces and Italy, and Constantius became the Emperor of Egypt and the East
  • While they agreed to divide the empire, their relationship was shaky to say the least. Cons-ta-n-tius was an Arian Christian but Constantine the second, and Constans were not.
  • Constantine the second assumed as the guardian of Constans, he would rule his brother’s provinces, but Constans saw himself as an equal partner
  • And above all, all three at some point will covet each other territory. So, long-lasting peace wasn’t in the horizon.
  • In June 337 AD, shortly before they officially met and divided the Empire, an imperial edict restored all exiled bishops to their sees. The edict probably originated from Trier with the influence of St. Athanasius but it was published as a joint action from all the Caesars and no one at the time objected to the good-will gesture
  • Athanasius then left Trier immediately to return to Alexandria, but rather than jump on a ship and be there in 2-3 weeks, he took a long road with many stops
  • Most people in his place would have returned to Alexandria, kept a low profile while the political situation worked itself out and tried not to get stuck between the imperial brothers quarrels but they didn’t call him Athanasius contra mundum for nothing
  • Athanasius took the opportunity in his way through Europe to restore exiled Orthodox bishops, ordain Orthodoxy clergy, and build a relationship with the European bishops who shared his Orthodox views
  • He also met with Cons-ta-na-tius who was the emperor in charge of Egypt and as far as we can tell, the meeting went fine and St. Athanasius was allowed to continue on his trip
  • Cons-ta-n-tius either didn’t realize how much resistance St. Athanasius would present to the Arian cause or was worried about the Persian conflict that he inherited from his father and didn’t want to get involved in theological issues at the moment
  • Either way, St. Athanasius eventually made it to Constantinople, where Alexander, the Orthodox bishop who held the see for twenty-three years had just died and a contest between an Orthodox priest named Paul and an elder Arian deacon was taking place
  • Athanasius supported Paul, and eventually Paul was elected as the bishop of Constantinople. The bishop of Constantinople was an important battleground for Arians, and the election of Paul was very problematic and couldn’t be accepted
  • As such, Cons-ta-n-tius, who was not in Constantinople at the time of the election, immediately exiled Paul when he returned and replaced him by none other than Eusebius of Nicomedia. A highly controversial choice, as the transfer of bishops was uncanonical and frowned upon in church circles.
  • Now, don’t forget about Paul. Paul is important; he will show up again in our narrative. But
  • Perhaps at this moment, Eusebius and Cons-ta-n-tius realized the danger of St. Athanasius, and a plan was being formulated to depose him as well
  • For his part, St. Athanasius continued through Syria and Palestine where he restored the Orthodox bishop of Gaza to his seat and generally supported the elevation of Orthodox clergy
  • Finally, he made it to Alexandria in the end of November 337 AD, six month after the edict to restore the exiled bishop was published
  • In those six months, he managed to enrage Eusebius and Cons-ta-na-tius and become public enemy number one for the Arians
  • Within a month of his entry, Eusebius organized a council in Antioch where the Emperor was staying in account of his war with Persia and using the same old charges. The Council of Antioch deposed St. Athansius and replaced him by a man named Pistus
  • Athanasius responded by organizing his own council in Alexandria, which cleared him of all wrongdoing
  • And in a brilliant diplomatic move, not only the bishops of the council of Alexandria defended St. Athanasius in the legal sense; they also questioned the legitimacy of the councils that condemned him. The Council of Tyre was questionable because it was headed by a layman and not a bishop, and the Council of Antioch, was headed by Eusebius who in his uncanonical transfer to Constantinople forfeited his position as a bishop
  • The audience in questioning the legitimacy of the Councils wasn’t the emperor who ordered them to take place and had a hand in choosing who heads the council, but the rest of the bishops of the empire and the monks in Egypt
  • In a way, they framed the conflict in the terms of theological legitimacy to hedge against hostile imperial policy
  • And in another helpful move, they send the findings of the Council of Alexandria to all three emperors knowing that Con---stan-ious may not want to publicly contradict his brothers at this juncture
  • And their strategy worked. Constans replied by asking St. Athanasius for the bible as a symbolic move of supporting him.
  • And the bishop of Rome, Pope Julius convinced of the legitimacy of St. Athanasius and illegitimacy of the Councils that deposed him took a hard line against Pistus his replacement on the grounds that he was ordained as a priest by one of the three Arian bishops excommunicated in the Council of Nicea. Therefore, his ordination is not valid.  
  • Thus, nothing came out of that council of Antioch, and Pistus never went to Alexandria. Nonetheless, Con---stant-ious asked Athanasius to meet him and defend himself in person
  • At this point, it’s around Easter 338 AD, and St. Athanasius writes down a beautiful festal letter that perfectly sums up his feelings about the constant attacks from his enemies.. I am going to read a part of it, as it expresses the foundation of the theological resistance of the Copts that shaped them over the centuries. St. Athanasius writes
  • Perhaps realizing that St. Athanasius has won this battle, or preferring to wait for a more convenient time to exile him, nothing comes out of the meeting with Con---stan-ious and St. Athanasius returns to a hero’s welcome to Alexandria
  • On his return. St. Antony leaves his desert cell and comes to Alexandria for three days where he denounced Arians, converted pagans, and cast out demons. By this point, St. Athanasius was extremely popular among the populace and the monks in Egypt and have effectively won the hearts and minds of the Egyptians
  • But, this battle is won, but the war is still going. Eusebius have learned from his mistakes and will try again
  • First, get a Prefect of Egypt that can impose your will and doesn’t let St. Athanasius convene councils and conduct diplomatic missions freely
  • Second, convene a second council with new charges
  • Third, find a replacement for St. Athanasius that will not generate opposition
  • So, naturally, by the end of 338 AD, a new prefect was assigned in Egypt, , then at early 339 AD a new council of Antioch was convened with the new charge that the edict that returned Athanasius was not valid, as it was from the civil government but he was deposed by a council of bishops and therefore can only be returned by a council of bishops
  • The Council then picked a man named Gregory who was close to the prefect, as their cooperation would be necessary to depose St. Athanasius.
  • By March 339 AD, Gregory the Cappadocian was in Alexandria and an imperial order to arrest St. Athanasius was out
  • Athanasius quietly slipped out of Alexandria and was on his way out of Egypt by April, 339 AD
  • Thus, St. Athanasius was exiled for the second time. This time, he chose the destination and it was none other than Rome
  • Where his friend Pope Julius was there and it fell under the territory of Constans away from the imperial orders of Cons—tan-ious
  • The transition of power in Alexandria as you can imagine wasn’t very peaceful.
  • Gregory was a native of Cappadocia, but he had been educated in Alexandria, nonetheless he was painted as a bishop sent from the imperial palace, a foreigner.
  • And while he wasn’t officially excommunicated for Arianism, the man he appointed as his secretary has been excommunicated by Pope Alexander himself for Arianism and was well-known in Alexandria as an Arian 
  • Thus, Gregory’s appointment was the signal for popular riots in Alexandria.
  • Athanasius wrote in one of his letters how the Prefect responded to the riots by violence. Churches were burned, monks were beaten, and women were scourged.
  • To make matters worse, Gregory entry happened to be on Good Friday, and as a result of being insulted by the populace, the prefect rounded up the leading Christians in the city and publicly whipped 34 of them. Talk about bad optics!
  • In a way, the installment of Gregory and the resulting riots was a foreshadow of a long struggle between the will of the Emperor in Constantinople and the will of the Copts in Egypt over the bishop of Alexandria
  • And with that, we are going to end this week’s episode. St. Athanasius is exiled for the second time in Rome and his situation can’t be summed up in the words of St. Paul the Apostle; We are hard-pressed on every side, yet not crushed; we are perplexed, but not in despair; 9 persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed.
  • Before we go, I have a request. The Podcast thus far have been much more successful than I have ever imagined, and as a result, I am really working hard to increase visibility, so would please give the Podcast a review on Itunes? It will help a lot.
  • Thank you and farewell, and until next week!

References


  • The Early Coptic Papacy: The Egyptian Church and Its Leadership in Late Antiquity by" Stephen J. Davis
  • The Oxford Handbook of Roman Egypt by" Christina Riggs (Editor)
  • The History of the Patriarchs by" multiple
  • The Coptic Encyclopedia by" Aziz S. Atiya (editor)
  • Constantine and the Christian Empire by" Charles Odahl
  • 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
  • Socrates, Sozomenus: Church Histories by" Philip Schaff (Author), Henry Wace (Editor)
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