Hello, and welcome to the history of the Copts. Episode 8. The beginning.
Last week we talked about how the emerging Coptic leadership dealt with external threats, I.E prosecution as the Coptic church was on its way to represent the inhabitants of Egypt
Pope Dionysius, skillfully managed to survive and lead his flock, while in the same time exult martyrdom.
In this, he equipped the Copts with the ideology necessary to survive their greatest threat thus far. Diocletian and Galerius –
The Copts in those formative years, dealt with two problems. External threats - that is prosecution.
And internal divisions, that is, heresies. Those two issues shaped the Copts as no other issues will ever do.
As taxation without representation, and the struggle against tyranny gave rise to America, then social and religious prosecution gave rise to the Copts
The Copts since their beginnings have raised the banner of holy suffering as part of their identity and even until now, it is raised high
But, if holy suffering is how to deal with the prosecution, then how would one deal with heresies and internal divisions?
Well, let’s see, what happened with Paul of Samosata, the corrupt, and heretic bishop of Antioch in Syria
The story starts around 260 AD with Pope Dionysius at the end of his reign, and with Valerian and the Romans facing war on every front
To deal with the situation, Valerian decided to handle the problems in the East with the war with the Persians and leave to his son, Gallienus the problems in the west
Valerian was then soundly defeated and captured alive by the Persians, which was a huge psychological blow to the Empire but a blessing to the church as his prosecution ended with his capture
To make matter worse for the empire, Gallienus, was putting away so many fires in the same time, that he essentially abandoned the East and left his father to whatever fate awaited him
However, in leaving the east to fend for themselves, Gallienus left a power vacuum, that was after sometime, filled with the nominally friendly, yet still independent city-state of Palmyria in the deserts of Syria
The same also happened in western Europe, while Gallienus was busy defending Italy and Central Europe from invading tribes, a governor repelled and proclaimed himself emperor and ruled modern day France, England, and Spain
A prefect of Egypt tried to proclaim independence in 262 AD as well, but he failed, and Egypt for the time being, stayed under Gallienus but with the Palmyrians standing close by ready to take over at the next opportune moment
And just before Pope Dionysius died in 264 AD, the bishop of Antioch, Paul of Samosata exploited the power afforded by the church, and the anarchy of the political situation and became extremely corrupt, rich, and despised among the other bishops and the Christian laity
Paul has gotten close to the Palmyrian queen Zenopia, and in return she supported him as a bishop
So despite a Synod in Antioch which had the full support of the Coptic Church, and the Church in Rome deposing him as a bishop, he stayed on with the armies of Palmyria as his protector, and benefactor
With the protection of the civil government, there was nothing that the universal church could do to remove Paul
So, perhaps for the first time, the church in the East and the Romans found themselves in the same boat against the Palmyrians
It was only after the Romans took control of the government in the East that Paul was removed, and he was removed because he was an agent of a rival government and for political reasons, not because of his faulty theology
In this we find the beginning of a symbiotic relationship between church and state.
If the church wished to keep its Orthodoxy, a friendly civil government sympathic for its cause can be extremely helpful and when Constantine comes in our narrative, the state would also realize how beneficial it is to have the church and its followers on its side
So, the archbishops of the empire quickly learned, that the first, and probably easiest way to get a heretic, problematic bishop out of his seat is to use the civil government
After of course, forming a unified, legitimate opposition and going through the necessary councils and synods
It will work wonderfully for most of the empire, most of the time, until, a persistent, and defiant Coptic archbishop by the name of Athanasios upends the rules and gives rise to the Coptic ideology of theological resistance
But we will have much more things to say about St. Athanasios, “he who is against the world”, when we get there
For now, just take in that the relationship between Church and State is complex and dynamic.
In the anarchy of the third century, one day the emperor is rounding up the Christians for mass murder, and the next day, they are appealing to him to remove a problematic bishop, and he agrees.
And it wasn’t like the world was split between pagans and Christians either.
Around the same time, a prophet named Mani appeared in Iran, preaching a combination of gnostic Christianity and other eastern religions.
Manichaeism, as the religion of Mani came to be known, spread and gained followers quickly with a decent support base in Egypt
So with this backdrop of political, and religious anarchy, Pope Maximus followed Pope Dionysius and reigned for 18 years of upheaval from 264 to 282 AD
Not much is known about Pope Maximus other than his strong opposition to Paul of Samosata and Mani
Gallienus, was eventually assassinated, and was followed by one of his generals, Claudius, the 2nd.
The transition of power, presented the perfect opportunity for Queen Zenopia Of Palmyra to take hold of Egypt, which she dutifully did but after fighting several intense battles with the Roman garrison
After spending two years putting down a non-ending stream of Germanic tribes and losing Egypt in the process, Claudius died of the plague
He was followed by Aurelian, an efficient, and a ruthless general who will finally be able to defeat the Palmyrians and in the process drive out Paul of Samosata
In the battles between Zenopia and Aurelian, the civilians in Egypt were under intense pressure.
In upper Egypt, desert tribes, especially a tribe called the Blemmys, were essentially either raiding or extracting tributes from the entire area
In the Delta, estimated seventy thousand soldiers from Palmyria had to be supported and fed at least twice in their battles with the Romans
Alexandria was plundered at least twice, the first, when the prefect under Gallinus decided to declare independence and failed, and a second time under Aurelian when he was battling the Palmyrians for control
It is estimated, that the population of Egypt fell around this time by two thirds. Possibly from around 6 million or so to 2 million. The lowest it has been since the time of Augustus.
To make matters worse, even after the Palmyrians were defeated, a native, rich, Egyptian merchant named Firmus rebelled and used the desert tribes and the remnant of the Palmyerian army to advance his own cause
Aurelian then returned, defeated him, and raised taxes for the whole country as a punishment
But in fairness, despite the bleak situation in Egypt, Aurelian should be given much credit for his ability to unify the empire once more, and start some meager, but badly needed reforms
Aurelian was assassinated after 5 years of mostly victories years of war
And after the usual back and forth power plays and a brief reign of two emperors ending with a civil war
Which at its conclusion, the general in charge of Egypt, Probus, became the new emperor
The biggest desert tribe, the Blemmyes, at this point, effectively controlled upper Egypt, and the Romans under Probus battled them for control with mixed results essentially over his entire reign
In 282 AD, both Pope Maximus and Probus die. Pope Maxiumus from natural causes and, can you guess how did Probus die?
Yea, he was assassinated too. And I hope, that at this point, It wouldn’t be much of a surprise when I tell you that he was followed by an emperor who only last a couple of years and was assassinated as well.
Out of these endless back and forth betrayals, civil wars, and assassinations came ---Gaius Aurelius Valerius Diocletian, known to us, as Diocletian.
In 284 AD, Diocletian, the commander of the Emperor bodyguard, probably stood by as the emperor father in-law, Aper, assassinated him.
Then as righteous avenger, he condemned Aper to death and became the emperor.
With this, the Era of Martyrs has started.
The Coptic Church has chosen this year, 284 AD, the year Diocletian became emperor, as year 1, in the Coptic Calendar.
The decision was taken centuries later, but for a variety of reason, it has stuck even until now.
In the beginning, the was dubbed the Era of Diocletian, and was used by the pagan priests in Egypt who didn’t wish to use the name of Christian emperors
But, eventually, it was Christianized and adopted by the church as a convenient historical marker
Only in the 9th century while the Copts were under intense pressure from the Muslim rulers of Egypt, it was transformed to the Era of martyrs as a way for the prosecuted Copts to celebrate their collective history and emphasize their ever-prosecuted identity
Dicoletian first order of business was to consolidate his rule over the entire empire by defeating a couple of claimants to throne in Europe.
But, he quickly realized there were too many problems for one man to handle, so he picked a trusted general, Maximian and named him a junior colleague. I.E, Caesar, and then later a full colleague equal in honors and powers, I.E, an Augustus
Maximian generally handled the west, while Diocletian handled the East.
Now, this will be a good time to specify exactly what west and east means in terms of the geography of the Roman Empire as from this point onward, the differences will only get bigger
The west was essentially continental Europe and Britain with the northern border being what is roughly now Germany for Europe, and Scotland for Britain
The East compromised of modern day Turkey, or Anatolia, Syria, and Egypt
North Africa is usually, but no always fell under the western half
There is a map posted on podcast Facebook page if you are interested further
The East was more prosperous and mainly Greek speaking, while the West was Latin speaking
Christianity was making inroads in both halves of the empire, but at this point, it has penetrated the East much more than the west
In the first few years in their joint reign, Maximian and Diocletian were fighting wars on multiple fronts and for the most part successful, but they were unable to hold on to Britain.
In those early years, Pope Theonas was also shepherding the Copts in relative peace before the famous events of the Great Prosecution took place as Diocletian was occupied by the non-stop war with Germanic tribes
Around 293 AD, Diocletian assessed the situation, and realized that the job was too big even for two emperors, so he decided to appoint two more as Caesars, I.E junior partners
Maximian appointed his son-in-law, Cons-tan-nius, while Diocletian appointed Galerius
Now, I would like to stop for a second, and introduce you to the family of the future emperor Constantine, the Great.
He is called “the great”, because among many things, he was the first Christian emperor, and he issued the famous edict of Milan which formally legalized Christianity
Cons-tan-nius, the newly appointed Caesar was Constantine father; he has married an inn keeper daughter named Helena and together they had Constantine.
When Cons-tan-nius began rising up the ranks, he divorced Helena and married Maximian step-daughter, but crucially, still supported and sponsored his son from Helena, Constantine. Soon after his new marriage, he became a Caesar, a part of what came to be known as the tetrarchy. Which means, the rule of four.
We will go much more to talk about Constantine and his family in the upcoming episodes, but now we at least, how his road to the top started.
Galerius, the last member of the tetrarchy, was an anti-Christian general, he also married Diocletian’s daughter and had tremendous power in the East with disastrous results, especially in Egypt
The troubles in Egypt began right after the formation of the tetrarchy and continued throughout the reign of Diocletian
The first problem was a massive rebellion in Coptos
Coptos, was the wealthiest and most powerful city of upper Egypt at this point, between modern day Nag Hammadi and Luxor, it was the main city that connected the eastern trading routes with the rest of the empire
although we don’t have enough evidence to figure out what was their aspirations or the exact events that led to the rebellion, we do know that it was important enough to lead to a quick response from Galerius
Galerius travelled to Upper Egypt, and completely razed the city to the ground. It was in a strategic location, so eventually it was rebuilt and settled, but its rebellion and complete destruction was a sign of things to come
Galerius then rushed to Syria to deal with a Persian invasion leaving Egypt not completely pacified
While he was in the middle of his war, the Alexandrians raised a local officer as their own emperor with the support of the rest of Egypt
That rebellion required the personal attention of Diocletian himself who left the Persian front and came to Egypt around 297 AD
He then besieged Alexandria for 8 months starving its inhabitants but unable to win a quick victory
When he finally took the city, he ordered that it should be burned and its inhabitants killed but a legend recorded by a 5th century historian records that while Diocletian was mounted on his horse, which was stepping on the corpses that lay on the ground, he ordered one of his officers not to stop the slaughter until the blood of the slain reached the knee of his horse.
Immediately then, the horse trips over the corpse of a man, and falls down with its knee covered in blood
The officers then promptly stops the slaughter with Diocletian blessing as he took it as a sign from the gods
The legend then goes on, that in gratitude for the horse, the Alexandrian built him a statue on the spot
If you are a Copt listening, you may have heard a similar story about Diocletian’s horse saving a Christian town during his great Christian prosecution which will come in our narrative soon, but the story is likely confused with revolt in Alexandria as historically, Diocletian wouldn’t be physically present in Egypt during the great prosecution
Anyway, after the destruction of Alexandria, Diocletian travelled through the length of Egypt where he probably split Egypt into three provinces and enforced a series of reforms that we will talk about in length next week
He also found a solution to the Blemmys and the wandering desert tribes that were menacing upper Egypt
His solution was to abandon territory south of Syene, modern day Aswan, and settle a tribe called the Nobatee there to counter the power of the Blemmys
He also sent yearly food subsidies to the Blemmys and the Nobatee to keep them from raiding Egypt
During his travels he probably noticed the spread of Christianity and Maniechism in Egypt, and wasn’t very happy about either
His problem with Manichieism was its Persian origin, especially that he was in the middle of a war with Persia and they were looked on with suspicion
Not to mention, Diocletian firmly believed in the Roman gods, and presented himself as their representative and agent on Earth, therefore refusing to sacrifice to the gods and the emperor was treason
He issued an edict either during or shortly after his travels in Egypt to prosecute the manicheans. The order came to confiscate their property, burn their books, and burn alive their leaders
It was for the most part effective, it didn’t completely wipe them out of Egypt as there are some evidence that they persisted until the 6th century, but it significantly weakened the movement
For the Christians, for now, he ordered a purge of all Christians out of the Army. And depending on the local enforcement, they were either discharged, or tortured to the point of death to give up their faith.
For those familiar with the Coptic Martyr literature, it is at this point that presumably many of the military famous saints such St. Mina, and St. George were martyred. There is also a story about an entire Christian unit from Thebes that was martyred.
But at least, if you were a civilian Christian, for now, you were left at peace.
With the conclusion of the revolt in Egypt, and Galerius victory over the Persians. The empire, for the first time in close to 100 years, enjoyed peace.
The year 300 AD was significant, the war was Persia was over with favorable peace, Britain was back to the Empire, returned by Constantine’s father, rebellions in the Balkans, Egypt, and North Africa were all suppressed successfully
Sure, Egypt’s wealthiest two cities Alexandria, and Coptos were seriously damaged, but at least the tetrarchy was working well, and the Economy and trade was starting to flourish again
In the year 300 AD, Pope Theonas dies as well, and he is followed by his charismatic and popular disciple, Pope Peter, known as the seal of Martyrs.
I hope the name doesn’t give our story for next week away. When Pope Peter will lead the Copts in one of their darkest chapters, the Copts will face their first serious internal division when a bishop will break from the fold, and forms a rival Egyptian church to the one in Alexandria.
farewell and until next week!
From Byzantine to Islamic Egypt: Religion, Identity and Politics after the Arab Conquest by" Maged S. A. Mikhail
The Early Coptic Papacy: The Egyptian Church and Its Leadership in Late Antiquity by" Stephen J. Davis
A History of Egypt under Roman Rule by" Joseph Grafton Milne
The History of the Patriarchs by" multiple
The Coptic Encyclopedia by" Aziz S. Atiya (editor)
The Roman Empire from Severus to Constantine by" Pat Southern
Constantine and the Christian Empire by" Charles Odahl
Galerius and the Will of Diocletian by" Bill Leadbetter
The Story of the Church of Egypt by" E. L. Butcher