Hello and welcome to the History of the Copts. Episode 12. The First Exile.
Last time, we conveniently stopped on day 1 of St. Athanasius patriarchy in 328 AD and with several fires to be put away
The first was the council of Nicomedia decision to reinstate Arius and Constantine’s blessing of that Council
The second is the Meletian bishops and the bishop of Alexandria that they elected.
The Meletian bishops sent a delegation to Nicomedia to convince Constantine of their case and there, they were welcomed by the leading Arian bishop Eusebius of Nicomedia who as we mentioned before, was the main religious adviser in Constantine’s court and the actual political power behind Arius
And, as both shared the same enmity toward Athanasius, a powerful alliance was created.
Athanasius for his part was active as well. In the first two years of his reign, for the most part, he was touring Egypt, building relationships and vitally, cultivating monastic support.
Politically at Constantine’s court, two important developments occurred. The first, not long after the Council of Nicae, Constantine went through his darkest chapters.
His oldest son from a prior marriage, Crispus was blossoming into a capable and effective leader and was looked to as the heir apparent
But, Constantine’s current wife, Fausta, had children of her own, and naturally desired that one of them or all, inherit Constantine’s throne
Thus in 326 AD, Constantine ordered the execution of Crispus through the machination of Fausta
Two months later, either out of guilt, or a realization that he was tricked by Fausta, he ordered her execution as well.
We don’t really know what were their crimes or how Constantine was tricked or if he was even tricked as both of their memories were damned and their names were wiped out from histories and naturally, no first-hand accounts were written down.
And here you have it, our great Christian emperor have killed his most-capable son and wife and left us a complicated legacy and 3 incompetent, possibly traumatized sons that will follow him in a few years
We should be careful in judging him too much though, this was a violent time and by the nature of the job, men who rose to be emperors didn’t have mix feelings about murder. If you weren’t willing to chop a head every now and then, you probably should be in a different line of work
So, throw the first stone if you wish, but I am not.
Anyway, historians speculate that the prolonged pilgrimages of Helena in the Holy lands, the widespread church-building, and the postponement of the Emperor's baptism until the last few days of his life, were all parts his efforts to atone for these dark pages in his life.
The second important political development is the dedication of the City of Constantinople in May 330 AD.
Constantinople became the new capital and in time grew to be a magnificent city and a cultural center. Its Patriarch would also grow in influence and play a very important role in church politics
For more on the city and how it transformed the Roman Empire, I recommend listening to the History of Byzantium Podcast
But as far as the Egyptians were concerned, the grain that used to go to Rome, now went to Constantinople and allowed the city to prosper and grow
So as you can imagine, in the early stages of transforming Constantinople to an imperial capital The Egyptian grain was a touchy subject that could easily trigger Constantine and then his sons.
Interrupt the grain, and their beloved project fails. So, let’s keep that in mind as it will be an important factor in the story of St. Athanasius
Who, by 330 AD was finishing up his tour and on his way back to Alexandria – where, during a stop in nearby Mareotis, a curious incident happened that became a focal point of contention for the next 40 years
The incident had roots prior to St. Athanasius become the bishop of Alexandria, where probably at some point during the waning year of the persecution, or shortly after, another Alexandrian Priest named Colluthus started ordaining other priests, a highly unusual act that in effect meant that he is considering himself a bishop
He actions were limited and unlike Arius he wasn’t very popular or politically connected, so it didn’t generate a lot of controversy when he was condemned by a local council in Alexandria, and his ordinations were invalidated
Nonetheless, Egypt is a big place and in the 4th century, no one was keeping track of who is clergy and who is not.. So, probably outside of Alexandria, those priests continued operating as clergy as nothing happened… It is doubtful if they even knew that there ordination was invalidated as it is not like someone can send them a mass email telling them to reapply for the job as they were a mix up in HR
Anyway, one of those priests was a man named Ischyras was who was the priest for a house-church in a small hamlet in Mareotis
In his was back to Alexandria, St. Athanasius sent one of his priests and assistants named Macarius to Ischyras house-church to summon him for a talk but Ischyras was sick in bed, so Macarius told him to no longer act as a priest
Ischyras was then not happy, and when he got better, he reached out to the meletians and falsely accused St. Athanasius of sending Macarius to beat him up and wreck his house-church. A serious charge that the meletians and the Arians used to repeatedly attack St. Athanasius
When St. Athanasius wrote down his defense, some years later after the incident, he included a written apology and a confession from Ischyras that he made false allegations, and adds that either way, legally Ischyras wasn’t a priest, and his house wasn’t a church
That’s the side of the story if one decides to take St. Athanasius own words as the source of truth
But, some modern historians speculate that the confession was obtained by violence, and paint St. Athanasius in negative terms because even though legally speaking, the act wasn’t violence against clergy or a church, it is still violence
Now, this will be a good time to remind everyone the relationship between religious and civil authority in the 4th century Roman empire as for some listeners with clear ideas about separation of church and state, it can be hard to imagine
Religious authorities were not only allowed, but expected to use the instruments of Roman civil law such as imprisonment, confiscation of property, and exile to keep the peace of the church and the empire
The precedence was set by Constantine himself early in his reign, when he intervened in a church schism in North Africa in what came to be known as the Donatists
So, while to our modern ears a bishop employing strong-arm tactics is unusual and questionable, in the 4th century that’s normal operating procedures
The fact that St. Athanasius took the matter seriously and bothered to leave a detailed defense for future generations is a sign of his greatness and vision as a historical figure
It would be like George Washington leaving a justification on why he owned slaves
Athanasius supporters at his time would more likely to fault him for not using violence to break up an illegal church operation, than the other way around
But anyway, with that said, let’s go back to our story where Eusebius of Nicomedia used the incident of Ischyras to lodge a formal complaint against Athanasius to Constantine and for good measure added that Athanasius imposed a tax of linen garments on the Egyptians without the authority of the imperial government and was a part of conspiracy to assassinate the emperor. The Meletians also contended that St. Athanasius was below the canonical age of 30 when he was elected bishop, and as such, his election is invalid.
As a result, in early 332 AD, Constantine summoned St. Athanasius to the palace for a formal trial
After listening to both sides and seeing the evidence, Constantine cleared St. Athanasius of all wrongdoing and St. Athanasius returned to Alexandria in Easter 332 AD to a hero’s welcome who is victorious once again over the Arians
Then he travelled to Pentapolis in Libya, an Arian stronghold and consolidated the church authority there which incensed both Arius and Eusebius of Nicomedia and a new plan was hatched to get rid of him
The plan was simple, they enlisted a dissenting bishop named Aresenius and instructed him to disappear while in the same time, the Meletians would write again to Constantine accusing St. Athanasius of murdering him and to kick things up a notch, then using his dead body as part of witchcraft
Constantine, tired of their quarrelling, kicked the matter to his half-brother and governor of the East who was residing in Antioch, Syria
Then, probably through the machination of Eusebius of Nicomedia, a decision was taken that the matter should investigated by a council of bishops rather than the civil government and the Council location was to be Caeserea, where the other Eusebius was in charge
Eusebius of Caeserea was an Arian as well, and a Council in Caeserae would be very receptive to condemning St. Athanasius
So what does St. Athanasius do? He ignores the summon to the Council and sends a deacon to track down Arsenius and eventually finds out that he left Egypt and is hiding in Palestine
Athanasius then writes to Constantine his findings, and Constantine cancels the Council and vindicates Athanasius once more
You have to give it to them, the Arian coalition was persistent, and Athanasius was the biggest obstacle that stood in their way to normalize there theology
Now, you may be wondering, what’s the big deal? Just let Arius do his thing and you believe whatever you want to believe
And that would be 100% feasible if they were living in our western mostly secular world today, but not when your emperor right to govern is given by God and religion starting to dominate all aspects of daily life
Not to mention, try and think like a theologian or a Christian missionary for a minute. If deep down in your heart, you believe in a fundamental truth, you will fight for this truth with all your being
To demonstrate the point, St. Athanasius in his writings described how he brought a garment and divided into pieces, proclaiming by the end, that this what Arius was doing to the body of Christ, I.E the church
No doubt the Arians felt the same as well. That their theology was correct, and Athanasius was the problem
Either way, as I said in the prior episode, Theologians don’t compromise, especially Coptic ones. So, something had to give
In a great show of persistence, The Meletians in Egypt with the political support of the Arians in Constantine’s court wrote to him complaining about St. Athanasius tactics to keep them away from the church, and then wrote again, and again, and again until finally, tired of the pestering – in 335 AD Constantine orders that another Council be held in Tyre, in Modern day Lebanon. This time, he explicitly orders St. Athanasius to attend and appoints a former governor, a civilian, to supervise the council to ensure some level of neutrality
So, St. Athanasius went with 48 of his bishops. None of the charges were really new, and nothing really stuck against St. Athanasius except the Ischyras incident where it was agreed upon that a commission of inquiry be sent to Maretiots to investigate the matter and then send a report to the Council for a decision
That was a strategic mistake from St. Athanasius and his bishops. You see, they were slightly outnumbered by their Arians opponents and when it came to picking who should be in the commission, all six members were known Arians with some of them being converted to Christianity by Arius himself
So despite strong hints from the civilian supervisor of the council to proceed with fairness, the commission with Arian sympathies went ahead and travelled to Egypt to investigate the matter
The same bishops in the council then travelled to the relatively nearby Jerusalem and dedicated the newly built magnificent church of the resurrection or holy sepulcher, where Jesus’ tomb is presumably at
By the time they returned from Jerusalem, the commission also returned from Egypt with their report
As expected by everyone including St. Athanasius, the commission found St. Athanasius guilty of ordering the beating of Aresenius, and the destruction of his house church. The council then moved to depose him as bishop, admit Arius back to the church, and assign a new bishop to Alexandria
Unknown to them, in the middle of the night, St. Athanasius left Tyre and was on his was to Constantinople to talk directly to Constantine
The name of the new bishop haven’t survived, but some historians speculate that he could have been John Archaph, the meletian leader since Meleitus have died and the disputed bishop of Memphis, the old Egyptian Capital
Upon realization that St. Athanasius have left, Eusebius of Nicomedia quickly concluded that he was going to Constantine, so he took 5 other leading bishops and tried to get there first
Athanasius got there first though but he had two big obstacles, the first, Constantine wasn’t in the city, the second, even if he was, it’s not like you can show up and meet the emperor anytime you like. Even if you are the bishop of Alexandria
Fortunately, Constantine was back within a week, and upon hearing the news. Athanasius went to him while Constantine was riding his horse not bothering to go through the necessary protocols
Due to the highly irregular nature of the meeting, Constantine refused to hear him, but St. Athanasius persisted
So when Constantine finally broke in, St. Athanasius asked him to be tried in front of him instead of a biased church council
Constantine agreed, and within a few hours. Eusebius of Nicomedia shows up and realizes that Constantine just annulled the council decision and will try St. Athanasius personally instead
What happens next was a brilliant Machiavellian move on the part of Eusebius, knowing that Constantine have heard all the council accusations before and have cleared St. Athanasius, he threw them out of the window and came up with a completely new charge that he knew would move Constantine to action
So, here we are for the third time and final time, Constantine on his throne, on one side is Athanasius and a few of his bishops, and in the other Eusebius and a few of his bishops
Athanasius is readying himself for the usual accusations of violence and strong-arm tactics, but Eusebius mentions nothing of that sort and calmly proclaims that St. Athanasius is conspiring to stop the Egyptian grain fleet from Alexandria and repel against Constantine’s rule
Constantine who is known for his fits of anger, get triggered by the mention of interruption of grain and goes on a tirade of all the horrible things that he would do to St. Athanasius
Athanasius is shocked by the accusation and tries to reason with Constantine that even if he wanted to interrupt the grain, he is just a private citizen and wouldn’t be able to do it
But Constantine was too far gone.. So, St. Athanasius ends his defense by telling Constantine that God will ultimately judge between them
Constantine then banishes St. Athanasius to Trier, Germany at the court of his oldest son
The exile was very unusual and unprecedented that some modern historians don’t consider an exile in the proper sense, more like suspension pending investigation
Usually, when a bishop is found guilty of a moral or a political crime, he is deposed from his seat, replaced by a new bishop, and exiled to a backwater where his influence is limited and he eventually would disappear quietly
But St. Athanasius wasn’t deposed from his seat, Constantine didn’t approve a replacement for him, and he was banished to a large city with a population more than 100,000 and the court to one of the heir of the throne
In Alexandria riots broke out demanding that St. Athanasius be back, the by now famous St. Anthony, wrote to Constantine asking him to recall St. Athanasius
Constantine was a savvy politician though, in a letter to the Church of Alexandria and St. Anthony he explains that St. Athanasius was condemned by a church council and that he couldn’t go against a church council based on his wishes
But he also invalidated many of the Meletian bishops’ appointment by the Council of Tyre and exiled their leader John Archaph. In other word, he went against the same church council that he just said he couldn’t go against.
Constantine primary objectives were always to consolidate power and maintain the peace of the empire
By banishing St. Athanasius, he acted to maintain the peace by removing a polarizing figure that invited constant complaints
But, he wouldn’t allow his enemies to fill the power vacuum, because they are just as polarizing and bound to create serious riots from the population
Thus, up until Constantine death. The situation for the Copts was highly ambiguous. St. Athanasius was still bishop of Alexandria but wasn’t allowed into Egypt
The Meletian influence was also checked by Constantine, and the Arian bishops were slowly legitimizing their position and influencing imperial policy for their favor, but weren’t there yet
Politically, Constantine had a firm grip, but the succession plan was just messy. Constantine has appointed five different Caesars. The three sons of Fausta, and two close relatives.
It would be a shame if he were to die suddenly and leave that religious and political mess to be sorted out.
Next week. Constantine would die and leave a political and religious mess to be sorted out, and after a long and illustrious career, he finally gets baptized by none other than the most famous Arian bishop, Eusebius of Nicomedia on his deathbed.
I like Constantine; I would like to have a chat with him in the afterlife, so I hope his baptism counts, and I live a good life, so someday, we can put this whole banishment of the Copt’s most beloved hero thing behind us.
And with that Farewell, and until next week.
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