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  • Hello, and welcome to the History of the Copts. Episode 9. The last martyr.
  • Before we start, I have a small announcement. I have written an article about my vision for this Podcast and the Coptic identity. It can be found on Copticvoiceus.com
  • I also wrote about what I am trying to do and more importantly what I am trying to avoid throughout this Journey. I think it’s a good read to orient you to the Podcast, especially if you consider yourself a Coptic Voice also has a lot of excellent materials on all things Copt.
  • So, with this out of this way, as a reminder last time we stopped just before Diocletian famous edict in 303 AD that started the Great prosecution
  • For those who are not familiar with the Coptic cultural heritage, Diocletian in the Coptic conscious is a great villain who intended to exterminate Christianity and murdered thousands of innocents with a particular zeal
  • On the other hand, for most modern historian, Diocletian is a great emperor and a reformer who pulled the Roman Empire from the brink of disaster
  • So, now you are asking, which one is he?
  • Well, he is kinda of both. His actions were ultimately meant to stabilize an increasing difficult to govern empire, but in doing so, it was necessary to try to exterminate all other forms of alternative institutions
  • So last week, the revolts of Coptos and Alexandria were simply a result of powerful, rich cities with a degree of autonomy who didn’t welcome his reforms that was meant to centralize control and reduce their independence

8- But in addition to those cities, perhaps the biggest alternative institution to the palace was the Church, which at this point had a well-defined hierarchy with increasingly influential members

9- A massive church in front of the Emperor palace in Nicomedia served as a daily reminder on the growing power of the church and probably annoyed Diocletian to no end

9- The threat of the church as an alternative power structure to the emperor wasn’t the only reason Diocletian prosecuted the Christians though

10- Diocletian was a religious man, he believed in the Roman gods. He believed that if he advocated for them and restored their glory they will bring him victory

11- He also was a classic autocrat, which meant that he aimed to regulate and unify how things should be done and preferred that a central government run from his palace be in charge of everything including religion

12- From setting a list of maximum prices that should be charged on everything that you could think of to deciding who can marry who. If Diocletian could regulate something, he did it.

13- As an interesting side note, we can thank Diocletian for banning sibling marriage in Egypt which up until this point of history was something that is acceptable socially and legally, but frowned upon among Christians and Jews

14- That zeal for religious uniformity and control was seen last week when the Manicheans were eliminated as a significant movement within the empire

15- The big move for Christianity happened in 303 AD, when Diocletian and Galerius were both residing in an imperial palace in Nicomedia in modern day, Turkey

16- Early Christian sources recounts how Galerius and Diocletian held counsel, where Galerius, pushed hard for decisive action against the Christians, but Diocletian was much more reserved and preferred a purge of the Christians from the civil government instead of Galerius proposed mass murder

17- They then decided to consult the oracle of Apollo, and the oracle replied that "an enemy of the divine religion". I.E – the Christians prevented him from giving consul   

18- In response, Diocletian published the first of many edicts targeting the Christians

19- On February 23rd, 303 AD. The feast day of a pagan god, Diocletian ordered that the church of Nicomedia as well as all churches of the empire be razed, Christian scripture to be burned, and Christians to be purged from the civil government

20- As the year went on, the edicts kept coming. Next, the Christian clergy were to be arrested and forced to sacrifice using torture, then the same order was extended to all Christians 

21- By the end of 303 AD, Diocletian became very ill, and Galerius assumed more power and the prosecution enforcements became more and more brutal

22- Galerius was especially a fan of burning people alive, and it became increasingly the default method of execution

23- Things were especially dire in Egypt, where Diocletian have appointed a well-known anti-Christian prefect who enforced the edicts strictly

24-Even though the Great Prosecution was intended to be enforced in the empire as a whole in the same way, it was really left to the local administration on how to strictly apply it      

25- So in the west, Constantine’s father essentially ignored it, and the other senior Augustus, Maximian, enforced it half-heartedly

26- But as Diocletian and Galerius were mainly based in the East, the persecution kept going with variable intensity for close to 10 years

27- In Egypt, the church leadership with Pope Peter responded the same way when the Decian prosecution happened 50 years earlier

28- Pope Peter fled Alexandria, and eventually Egypt altogether. He was constantly on the run between Syria and Palestine

29- Nonetheless, the church leadership suffered greatly, as four bishops were imprisoned and eventually died

30- As you can imagine, questions were raised about Pope Peter absence while bishops and lay Christians were being imprisoned and tortured

31- and unlike Pope Dionysius, he wasn’t saved from being arrested in a miraculous way – Yet, as we will see shortly, those questions will be answered in a dramatic way that will enshrine his name in the Coptic conscious as one of its great heroes

32- But for now, due to his long absence and the imprisonment of the four bishops, the bishop of Lycopolis, near modern day Asiuyt in Upper Egypt took matter into his own hands and ordained 4 new bishops to replace those who were imprisoned

33- Now, this was a big deal. Never before have a bishop other than the bishop of Alexandria ordained bishops in Egypt. As far as the four imprisoned bishops and Pope Peter are concerned, this action crossed the line and required a stern response

34- A response that formed the first major schism in the Coptic Church.

35- Bishop Mellitus of Lycopolis was excommunicated by Pope Peter when word got out that he travelled to Alexandria and even ordained bishops there to care for the church while Pope Peter was absent

36- To make matters worse, Mellitus ordained imprisoned Christians – I.E confessors- which was a popular move, and took a hard line against readmitting to the church those who denied the faith under prosecution. They still could get readmitted, but after long periods of penance which naturally appealed to hard-line elements of the church 

37- Pope Peter on the other hand, published the first cannons of the Coptic churches, which went on to form a foundation for the other Eastern Churches specifically dealing with what to do to those who seek to be readmitted to the church. He was generally, much more lenient.

38- Thus, the initial power struggle about who can ordain bishops turned into a theological feud. Both sides were entrenched in their position and claimed the other a heretic. Communication between the factions became hostile, and a rival church was established. A pattern that would be worth remembering.

39- Pope Peter position eventually grew stronger, especially after his dramatic death but the church founded by Mellitus would be present in Egypt and will play a major role when Arius and St. Athanasius battle for the theological soul of the empire

40- The feud with Melitius is what will lead Pope Peter to return to Alexandria in 311 AD and it started the chain of events that led to the story of St. Peter, the Last Martyr.

41-To get from the Great Prosecution to the last Martyr there is a few important stops on the way of our story though

42- First, almost out of nowhere, Diocletian abdicates his throne in 305 AD and quit politics and retires in a secluded villa. It was a bizarre turn of events, historians explain the events on a range from Galerius made him do it to he was a noble, and a Just emperor who always planned to abdicate. And of course, he was very sick just prior, so maybe that also has to do something with it.

43- Either way, he left absolute power behind and started a game of thrones that will end with Constantine riding his figurative dragon and taking over as the sole ruler of the empire

44- During Diocletian’s reign, Egypt and the empire as a whole transformed in a major way that is perhaps comparable to when Augustus took over Egypt when the podcast started

45- Very briefly, the currency was changed and Egypt no longer had its own currency but was incorporated into the empire

46- Egypt was no longer one province, but several. Government moved from a bare-bone model to a full-fledged bureaucracy

47- Your profession was legally restricted to what your father did through highly regulated guilds

48- And finally, the emperor was transformed into an absolute monarch who given his right to rule by the gods

49- In the transition between Diocletian and Constantine, Egypt is transformed from what is called “Roman Egypt” to “Byzantine Egypt”. Obviously, those are superficial labels, but nonetheless they are useful historical markers

49- If you are interested in more details, I.E - life and government in Byzantine Egypt type of episode reach out to me and I will make one. It will be similar to the “conquest 101”episode in style.

50- Anyway, when Diocletian abdicated, he made his colleague in the west Maximian retire as well and raised the Ceasers to the rank Augustus

51- Two new ceasers were adopted. And a new tetrarchy was formed. I am not going to spend much on the game of thrones that followed, even though it’s fascinating. I recommend Mike Duncan’s History of Rome for those interested. For this podcast, I will concentrate on events in Egypt for this week, and the rise of Constantine next week. 

51- Galerius essentially took the position of Diocletian in the East with his nephew Daza as his junior colleague and prosecutions in Egypt was kicked up a notch

52- The pressure on Christianity continued until 310 AD, when Galerius contracted unpleasant, protracted and agonizing disease that was killing him very slowly

53- Perhaps due to his agonizing disease, and the failure of the prosecution to eliminate Christianity after 7 years, on his deathbed Galerius issued an edict to end the prosecution

54- It was his last act before his death in 311AD. If you want to see divine intervention in this story, now would be a good time, but it wouldn’t be the last. 

55- His edict of toleration was a surprising event, but in the superstitious world of the 4th century – All what Galerius saw was the successes of his rivals who tolerated Christianity and agonizing death and failures for him and his allies who kept the prosecution

56- It won’t take much for him to conclude the power of the Christian God and cease his assault. It won’t take much for Constantine to take notice as well and advocate for that Christian God – But, we are keeping that for next week

57- The text of the edict survives, and miraculously, Galerius not only stops the prosecution but instructs that churches be returned, and that the Christians pray on his behalf and that of the empire.

57- Anyway, with Galerius’ death, the situation in Egypt improved briefly and Pope Peter returns to Alexandria and starts to consolidate the church leadership

58- But, the peace won’t last for long. The person, who immediately inherited Galerius power in Egypt, was his nephew Daza. Who within six months of assuming power renewed the prosecution once more.

59- This time, Pope Peter won’t flee. He could have escaped, if he wanted to.. but he didn’t. He still had the support and the means in Alexandria to slip through but after a decade of death and torture for his fellow Christians, he wanted the crown of martyrdom – as it is referred to by the Copts even until today

60- The story in its general outline is confirmed by various historical sources with generally no contraindications, but the level of details varies

61- The Coptic history of the Patriarchs provides the most detailed telling. I plan to use a summary of that version, not necessarily because it is the most accurate in the historical sense, but rather because it is the one who shaped the Coptic ideology of holy suffering.

62- Pope Peter was arrested in Alexandria when Daza renewed the prosecution. He was in jail for some time and during his imprisonment he was allowed visitors and two leading men visited him. Achilles and Alexander. 

63- In his conversation with them he went to great lengths to warn them from accepting an excommunicated Alexandrian priest by the name of Arius, and appointed his successors, Achilles first, and then Alexander to follow Achilles.

64- He also charged his flock to beware of Melitus, the bishop of lycopolis and expressed to the world his thoughts on martyrdom – Which he exulted and made it known that he desires to receive it

65- A short time after, the people of the city gathered in front of the prison to break him free and the soldiers were getting ready to respond violently

66- But Pope Peter to avoid the bloodshed, told the soldiers to come to the back of the prison, where there was a hole in the wall, which they opened up and went in and beheaded him.

67- In another version of the events recorded. Pope Peter doesn’t die in the prison, but requests that he goes to the church in Bucalia – The site where St. Mark was martyred and he is beheaded there.

68- However, before he is beheaded, he prays that he becomes the Last Martyr. Shortly after his death, Daza is defeated as part of the ongoing tetrarchy civil war and the Edict of Milan recognizing Christianity is signed – fulfilling his wish, at least until Islam comes around. 

69- We will have more to say about the Edict of Milan and that civil war next week.

70- But as you can imagine, after the martyrdom of Pope Peter, he became a hero in the Coptic Conscious. The ideal shepherd and a type of figurative Christ, dying to save his people.

71- That representation of the ideal martyr bishop added another foundation the social construct of the Coptic Church. Not only its founder, St. Mark have been martyred, but also, now, one of its patriarchs.

72- The call for holy suffering is no longer a hallow ideology, but backed and supported by St. Peter, the Seal of Martyrs blood.

73- After Pope Peter’s death. He was followed by Pope Achilles, who despite the warning from Pope Peter, readmitted Arius to the church with major consequences for the entire empire. Arius will be a major player in the Copts story for the next century or though   

74- Shortly after readmitting Arius, Pope Achilles dies and is followed by Pope Alexander. The second student of Pope Peter who also had visited him in prison.

75- Now, before going on to story of Constantine, St. Athanasius, and Arius. I would like to briefly go over the state of Egypt’s religious identity in the period just prior to Constantine.. Specifically answering questions like how many of the Egyptians were Christians, when paganism disappeared, and how did the average pagan Egyptian feel about the prosecution.

76- To get specific figures on how many Christians were in Egypt in the early 4th century is essentially a matter of educated guesses and speculations, but good arguments have been made that the figure was about 50% of the whole population, and essentially rose to something like 90% by the end of the 4th century.

77- But just because Christianity was making inroads, it didn’t necessarily mean that paganism died in the fourth century. The last pagan temple in Egypt was destroyed in 535 AD, about 200 years after Christianity became the official religion of the empire

78- In fairness though, that temple was opened for a long time because of Nubian protection and support, not necessarily because it had native Egyptian support. The Egyptians gods have been dying slowly since the Romans annexed Egypt and by the time St. Athansious was the bishop of Alexandria, we can safely say that he  was seen as a leading figure by the vast majority of Egyptians

79- Lastly, the Egyptians dislike of Diocletian and Galerius went beyond religion and was multi-factorial. They hated the new tax system devised by Diocletian, they hated the brutal suppression of revolts, and they hated the loss of whatever limited local autonomy that they had.

80- There is several accounts recorded of pagan Egyptians protecting and hiding their Christian neighbors. Either just to despite Diocletian, or more likely out of common decency and solidarity

81- Now, the big question is naturally how many Copts have died in the Great Prosecution? Well, no one was really keeping track, but the Coptic Synexrium mentions a number of 840,000, which would be about 25% or so of Egypt’s whole population at this point, which is a huge estimate. On the other hand, the history of the patriarchs in the story of Pope Peter, mentions six hundred and sixty martyrs, which is a very low number and probably was for Alexandria and for this specific year only. So, the best answer next to we don’t really know is that it is somewhere between six hundred and sixty and 840,000.

82- I will end this week by mentioning that in 311 AD, the year Pope Peter was martyred, a man who has been living in seclusion in an abandoned Roman fort for 20 years by now, came to Alexandria confessing his Christianity and wanted to be martyred but due to his obscurity or perhaps waning enforcement with Daza busy in his civil war, he was left alone. This man was St. Anthony, the father of monasticism.

83- His fame will eventually grow and his story will reach all corners of the empire. He will start a powerful movement that is vital to the Coptic identity and our story, monasticism.

84- I plan to make a bonus episode at some point on the early monks of Egypt and their influence of the development of monasticism.

85- Speaking of bonus episodes. At some point during this week, the first bonus episode recounting the flight of the Holy Family into Egypt and the significance of the event will be published. I am aiming for Wednesday.

84- Next time, it will be a whole new chapter in the history of the Copts.  A golden age of sorts, where the influence of the Coptic Church will reach its peak inside and outside, but before we get there, we will give Constantine his due and see how he changed the empire.

85- Thank you for listening, 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 Synaxarium by" unknown
  • The Coptic Encyclopedia by" Aziz S. Atiya (editor)
  • The Roman Empire from Severus to Constantine by" Pat Southern
  • Galerius and the Will of Diocletian by" Bill Leadbetter
  • Religious Conversion and Onomastic Change in Early Byzantine Egypt (Academic paper) by" Roger S. Bagnall
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