Athanasius In Rome

athanasius soon broadcast to the world his version of his expulsion from Alexandria by means of an Encyclical Letter sent to a large number of bishops. He began with a salutation to 'his fellow ministers in every place' and drew their attention to his 'dreadful and insupportable sufferings' (1.1). Athanasius compared his expulsion to the rape of the Levite's wife by the sons of Belial (Judges 19.22-30), and he urged Christians everywhere to bestir themselves and to lend aid with no less eagerness than the ancient tribes of Israel had of old, so that the affront to the dignity and honor of the church might be avenged. The Encyclical Letter promises to give a brief factual account of recent events, which the bearers of the letter can amplify. It will show how the outrage perpetrated in Alexandria in the spring of 339 surpasses any outrage ever inflicted on the church—even when the Roman state persecuted it (1.2-1.9).1 Athanasius' account of recent events in Alexandria is predictably tendentious, and either anger or calculation has made him depart from strict chronological order in his professedly straightforward narrative.2

The bishop of Alexandria explains that he was occupied in peaceful worship as usual, his congregation was rejoicing at the services and making progress in godly living, and all the bishops of Egypt were abiding in perfect peace and harmony, when the prefect suddenly and unexpectedly published an edict declaring that a certain Gregory, a Cappadocian, was coming from court to replace Athanasius as bishop (2.1). The Christians of Alexandria protested that the deposition of Athanasius was uncanonical, the result of Arian machinations, and they assembled in order to resist. Philagrius, the Arian prefect and fellow countryman of Gregory, set out to install the new bishop by means of bribery and violence. He promised large rewards to gangs of pagans, Jews, and ruffians; armed them with swords and clubs; and set them to attack the Christians in their churches. These thugs perpetrated atrocities worse than any Greek tragedian had ever depicted: a church and its baptistery were set on fire; holy virgins were stripped and raped; monks were beaten and trampled, even killed; altars were desecrated by pagan sacrifice; the scriptures were burned; Jews and pagans bathed naked in the holy baptistery and tried to make virgins and ascetics deny their Lord. Then, while Gregory made a wonderful and glorious entry into the city, the prefect's gangs were permitted, as their reward, to plunder the church. On a Friday in Lent he went into a church with the prefect and pagans: when he saw that the congregation was disgusted with his violent entry, he induced the prefect in a single hour to whip and imprison thirty-four virgins, matrons, and well-born men (2.2-4.5).

Gregory and his supporters next seized the other main church of Alexandria, where Athanasius was staying, hoping to capture and kill him. Athanasius, however mindful of the precept 'If they pursue you in this city, flee to another' (Matthew 10.23), removed himself. His enemies showed no respect even for Easter Sunday, but imprisoned Christians on the very day when Christ had liberated mankind. By means of such violence, Philagrius seized the churches of Alexandria and handed them over to Gregory and the Arian madmen, so that the people of God and the catholic clergy were now compelled either to participate in the impiety of the Arian heretics or not to attend church at all. Gregory, moreover, acting through the prefect, scourged and tortured sailors—clearly, though Athanasius does not admit it, either in an attempt to prevent the escape of Athanasius or in revenge for it. Gregory also persuaded his savage ally the prefect to send Constantius a decree, purporting to come from the people of Alexandria, which condemned Athanasius in outspoken language: it was drafted by an apostate, and its signatories are pagans, the votaries of idols and Arians (5.1-6). In short, Athanasius protests again and again, the church is being persecuted as it has never been persecuted before.

The Encyclical Letter was not written as mere propaganda, nor primarily as apologia. Athanasius had a very practical end in view—to persuade the bishops who received the letter not to recognise his successor as bishop of Alexandria. Gregory is an Arian, a bishop of Arians alone, a substitute for the unfortunate Pistus, whom everyone had earlier rejected after Athanasius wrote about him (2.3/4, 3.1, 4.1, 6.1/2). When he entered Alexandria, Gregory behaved in every way like Caiaphas before Pilate (4.3). The attempt to place him on the bishop's throne in Alexandria is a ploy of the Eusebians that threatens every bishop. If it succeeds, then no bishop can feel confident that a successor will not suddenly arrive to replace him by imperial fiat (6.1-7). Accordingly, all bishops who wish to preserve the true faith must show solidarity and refuse to recognise Gregory as the bishop of Alexandria, even if he swears that he is no Arian (7.1-8).

The Encyclical Letter pursues its practical aim fiercely in its final chapters of passionate pleading. Athanasius knew that the bishop of Rome would not recognise Gregory, since Julius had proposed the previous year that a council be held to consider the case of Athanasius, presumably when he received the letter of the Council of Alexandria (7.2, cf. Apol. c. Ar. 24.2/3). But how many other bishops would follow Julius' lead? Even if the western episcopate did, the majority of eastern bishops needed persuasion, and hence the Encyclical Letter addresses itself primarily to eastern bishops who had taken no part in Athanasius' deposition. There must have been many bishops with no direct stake in the conflicts within the Egyptian church who doubted whether the supersession of Athanasius really did endanger the canons and the faith of the whole church. It was for their benefit that Athanasius emphasised that Eusebius and his associates belonged to the heresy of the 'Arian madmen' whom they had so often repudiated and condemned.

The Encyclical Letter is not history, and it would be perverse to complain that Athanasius' account of h:s replacement as bishop of Alexandria lacks both precision and objectivity. Nevertheless, the nature of the work must be borne in mind continually if it is to be used as evidence for what happened in Alexandria in the spring of 339. On the whole, Athanasius is rather vague about precisely what happened at which church in the city. He does not name 'the church and the holy baptistery' which were set on fire (3.3), nor the church which was plundered (4.2), though he strongly implies that it was the same edifice in both cases, and he writes as if the church in which he was residing were the only other important church in the city (5.1). Nor does the Encyclical Letter supply a precise date for most of the events it describes. Athanasius slides swiftly from a Friday during Lent (4.4), which the Festal Index implies to be Friday, 23 March, the day on which Gregory entered Alexandria (Index ll),3 to 'the-Sunday of the holy festival' (5.3), that is, Easter Sunday, 15 April, the day before Athanasius escaped from the city. It appears that Athanasius' narrative in fact refers to three buildings: the church which was burned and plundered was the Church of Dionysius,4 the church where Athanasius resided was the Church of Theonas (Index 11), and the church where violence was used on Easter Sunday was the Church of Quirinus (Hist. Ar. 10.1).

It is a much more serious matter that Athanasius suppresses the fact that there was violence on both sides. It is not necessary to believe Athanasius' enemies when they later charged him with hiring pagans to burn the Church of Dionysius and defile its altar.5 But it is highly improbable that his partisans failed to resist the imposition of a new bishop with all the force that they could muster. The most significant falsification, however, concerns the author of the Encyclical Letter himself. Athanasius depicts himself as a peaceable pastor of his flock against whom no one bore a grudge or voiced a complaint, an innocent ejected from his see by emperor and governor suddenly, unexpectedly, and without warning (2.1). The Melitians and their long-standing complaints are thus conveniently forgotten, and in his carefully written account of his actual expulsion, Athanasius avoids any mention of his successful struggle against the attempt to oust him a year earlier.6 The presentation is deliberately slanted and selective. Constantius was indeed present at the Council of Antioch which appointed Grc-

gory bishop of Alexandria in place of Athanasius. Hence Athanasius' allegation that Gregory came 'from the court* does not entirely lack plausibility (2.1). But his implicit suggestion that Gregory was actually appointed by the emperor is totally misleading. Athanasius had been deposed and Gregory was appointed in his place by a council of bishops convened and conducted according to due form. Athanasius was never willing to admit that: the central tenet of his repeated apologias on his own behalf was to dispute the validity of his successive depositions, not only in 335 and twice after his return from Trier, but on all other occasions during the next two decades.

When Athanasius left Alexandria, he betook himself to Rome, probably without delay. In order to avoid arrest he needed to escape from the territory of Constantius with all haste, and he knew that Julius, the bishop of Rome, was a firm supporter. Athanasius, therefore, may be believed when he wrote nearly twenty years later that 'he sailed to Rome' (Hist. Ar. 11.1), even though his enemies in 343 predictably complained about the secrecy of his departure and his destination.7

Although no explicit evidence directly attests the date at which Athanasius arrived in Rome, and it has often been supposed that he reached the city late in 339,8 the indirect evidence that he arrived in early summer is strong. That is the date which Athanasius assumes in the account of his dealings with Constans which he composed for Constantius in 353 (Apol. ad Const. 4.1-3). It is also the date implied by the long letter which Julius wrote in 341 on behalf of Athanasius (Apol. c. Ar. 21-35). In this letter answering a letter from the 'Dedication Council' of Antioch, which met in January 341,9 Julius ridicules the council's accusation that he has infringed canon law by being in communion with Athanasius (27.1-29.1). He protests that he is perfectly entitled to communicate with a bishop whose deposition appears to be questionable. Then he turns to the significance of Athanasius' presence in Rome:

In addition to all this, he stayed here for a year and six months waiting for your presence or the presence of those who wished to come. By his presence he provided a refutation of [you] all, because he would not have been here had he not been fully confident. For he did not come of his own accord, but after being summoned and receiving a letter from me like the one which I wrote to you. (29.2)10

In the context, the period of eighteen months to which Julius refers can hardly be anything other than the time which elapsed between Athanasius' arrival in Rome and the letter which Julius is controverting.11 Since the 'Dedication Council' met in January 341, it follows that Athanasius reached Rome in June or July 339.

It was doubtless in Rome immediately after his arrival that Athanasius wrote the Encyclical Letter.;12 But that was not the only letter he wrote during the sum mer of 339 in quest of political support. A disingenuous passage of the Defense before Constantius unintentionally discloses that in 339 Athanasius wrote a letter which soon became politically embarrassing:

After departing from Alexandria, I did not go to the court of your brother, nor to any others, only to Rome. Entrusting my cause to the church (for I was concerned for this alone), 1 spent my time in public worship. 1 did not write to your brother except [on the occasions] when the Eusebians wrote to him against me and I was compelled to defend myself while I was still in Alexandria, and when, at his command that I prepare copies of the holy scriptures, I produced and sent them. [I say this because] in my defense I must tell the truth to your piety. So, after three years had passed, in the fourth year... (4.1-3)

This passage requires very careful exegesis. Athanasius is here giving an account of his dealings with Constans between his departure from Alexandria in April 339 and his first audience with the western emperor, which occurred more than three full years either after he left Alexandria or after he arrived in Rome. (The passage can be interpreted in either of these two ways—though not in any way which makes Athanasius count the three years from his first letter to Constans in 338.)13 Defending himself against the charge of treasonable communication with Constans, Athanasius considers separately his audiences and his correspondence with the western emperors. In 339 there were two: Constantinus resided in Trier and ruled Gaul, Spain, and Britain, while Constans ruled Africa, Italy, and most of the Balkans and resided in Illyricum.14 The logic of the passage quoted ineluctably implies that Athanasius wrote to Constantinus as well as to Constans.

On his own presentation, when he left Alexandria in 339, Athanasius went to Rome and there devoted himself to the worship of God. (When Athanasius states that he entrusted his case to the church, he alludes to Julius, the bishop of Rome, but he refrains from naming him, presumably for reasons of tact.) Athanasius proclaims emphatically that he did not go to the court of Constans or 'to any others.' Who are these 'others' whom Athanasius did not approach? The answer is clear from the context and from the official propaganda of the 340s. In the spring of 340, Constantinus invaded Italy and was killed near Aquileia. There followed a purge of his supporters, in which his praetorian prefect Ambrosius, the father of the future bishop of Milan, appears to have perished.15 After the death of Constantinus, his memory was abolished. The defeated and disgraced Augustus became an 'unperson' who had officially never existed. Already on 29 April 340 Constans coldly instructed the praetorian prefect Marcellinus to cancel the immunities from taxation granted by 'the enemy of the state and of ourself.'16 In the East, however, Constantius did not abolish the memory of his dead brother at once, since the preface to the so-called Itinerarium Alexandri expresses the wish that the emperor, about to invade Per sian territory, may surpass the successes of the maxirni Constantini, his father and brother.17 But when he abolished it, he did so effectively: the name of Constantinus was erased from public inscriptions in Asia as well as in the provinces ruled by Constans, and even on coins already in circulation.18

Libanius* panegyric on Constantius and Constans (probably composed in 344/5) faithfully reflects the official line that Constantine had only ever had two sons—who are now ruling the empire jointly in harmony and concord.19 The Defense before Constantius consistently adopts the same line: whatever Athanasius really thought of Constantinus, he was obliged, if he wished to persuade Constantius, to pretend that Constans was his one and only brother. His phrase 'any others' is a generalising plural of the type commonly found in literary works of the fourth century: it designates solely and precisely Constantinus. This part of Athanasius' defense is thus both straightforward and factually correct: in 339 he went to Rome and did not travel to the court of either of the two emperors then ruling in the West.

Athanasius continues, however, by protesting that he did nor even write to Constans except on two occasions. The first was in 338 when he sent him a copy of the synodical letter of the Council of Alexandria (Apol. c. Ar. 3-19)—and this passage of the Defense before Constantius discloses in passing that it was indeed Athanasius himself who composed that letter.20 On the second occasion, he sent Constans copies of the Bible which the emperor had requested him to prepare, presumably when he replied to Athanasius' first letter. Neither from the context nor from external probability can it be deduced with certainty whether Athanasius wrote this second letter before or after he left Alexandria. But there is something significant which Athanasius does not say. He does not protest that he did not write either to Constans or to 'any others.' Now Athanasius certainly wrote to Constantinus at least once, since he sent him too a copy of the synodical letter of the Council of Alexandria in 338. Moreover, Constantinus had befriended him during his exile in Trier, and he wrote a personal letter recommending him to his Alexandrian congregation to take with him as he returned from exile in 337 (Apol c. Ar. 87.4-7). Hence it may be deduced with certainty that Athanasius wrote to Constantinus when he arrived in Rome.

When Constantinus invaded Italy in the spring of 340, Athanasius* letter came to be construed as something less innocent than an exiled bishop's plea for assistance. It was alleged that Athanasius had encouraged Constantinus to attack his brother.21 The allegation may have been completely untme, yet it was plausible. Constantinus was the only son of Constantine whom Athanasius knew personally. This friendship, so helpful in 337, became a political liability when the emperor of Gaul attempted to remove his brother from power. Athanasius' association with Constantinus must surely be one of the reasons why more than three years elapsed before Constans showed any interest in his cause.

In Rome, despite his claim to have spent all his time in public and private devotions while entrusting his case to the church, Athanasius did not fail to use his opportunities to seek lay as well as clerical support. Again, the only specific and trustworthy evidence comes from Athanasius himself. His Defense before Constantius reveals that certain prominent personages in Rome bestowed on him 'favors,' whose nature he declines to specify. Defending himself against the charge of treasonable correspondence with Magnentius in 350, Athanasius dismisses as preposterous the idea that he could ever have written a letter to the usurper:

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 1 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, the emperor's aunt of blessed memory, the aptly named Eutropia, Abuerius that noble man, the faithful Sperantius, and many other good men'? (6.5)

Abuerius and Sperantius are otherwise unknown,22 but Eutropia, the daughter of Constantius (emperor from 293 to 306) and Theodora, was the wife of Virius Nepotianus, consul in 336, and the mother of Julius Nepotianus, who was proclaimed Augustus at Rome in June 350.23 She was doubtless killed when the generals of Magnentius suppressed her son's short-lived rebellion. As an imperial relative, Eutropia was presumably capable of soliciting emperors on Athanasius' behalf. It must be suspected that between 339 and 342 Athanasius approached many other prominent figures at Rome besides the trio whom the Defense before Constantius names. He names Eutropia, Abuerius, and Sperantius only because they were later killed on the orders of Magnentius. By the early fifth century it could be asserted that while in Rome Athanasius told aristocratic ladies of the city about the monks of Egypt and thereby gave an initial impetus to the beginnings of monasticism in the West.24

It was not enough for Athanasius to publicise his expulsion from Alexandria in 339, to write to the emperors Constantinus and Constans, and to seek support from prominent Christians in the Roman aristocracy. He saw that political activity alone would probably never suffice to restore him to his see. He needed to elevate his struggle to the ideological plane. In his Encyclical Letter he claimed that his deposition represented an attack on the doctrinal orthodoxy of the whole church (1.6-8,7.3). It was necessary to prove that claim at the theological level. The bishop of Rome had supported him in 338 and welcomed him when he arrived in Italy in 339: he could clearly be relied upon to continue to uphold his cause.23 But Athanasius realised that ultimate success in his own struggle depended on producing proof that more was at stake than the restitution of a single proud prelate. It seems highly probable that he pursued this aim by means of his Orations against the Avians, which he began to compose c. 340.26

Athanasius' three Orations against the Arians, though separate speeches according to their title, form a substantial theological treatise with a continuous, though largely non-cumulative, argument from beginning to end.27 An introduction stresses the importance of the undertaking (1.1-10). Arius may be dead, but the heresy which he sired is alive and flourishing. Athanasius sets out the main features of Arius' theology: he quotes the first seven lines of Arius' Thalia, drawing attention to and ridiculing his use of the Sotadean metre, and gives a sketch of Arius' theology which repeats the letter of Alexander of Alexandria denouncing Arius and his doctrines which Athanasius himself had composed many years before. Athanasius poses the general issue as a dilemma: which of the two theologies, Christian or Arian, sets forth Jesus Christ as truly God and Son of the Father? There follows a long discussion of the nature of Christ's sonship. But the bulk of the work concentrates on expounding the biblical texts which Arius and others had adduced to support their theological positions (especially Proverbs 8.22-25, which contains the favorite proof text: 'the Lord created me the beginning of his ways'). The Arian heresy, Athanasius proclaims, is crafty and deceitful when it pretends to have the support of the scriptures (1.1). He argues at length that each passage adduced by the Arians, when it is correctly interpreted, supports orthodox, not heretical, beliefs.

Biblical exegesis thus provides both the connecting thread of the arguments of the Orations against the Arians and their substance. Athanasius throughout contrasts two firmly defined sets of views about the relationship between God the Father, God the Son or Logos, and the Holy Spirit.28 The Arians espouse the false view that the three persons of the Trinity are totally unlike one another (1.6), that the Son is unlike the Father and alien to him, foreign to the Father with respect to essence, 'foreign to the essence of the Father' (1.6, 1.9, 1.17, 2.43, 3.14). In contrast Athanasius presents orthodox Christology as holding that the Son is like the Father (1.21, 1.44, 1.52, 2.17, 3.10, 3.11, 3.20), indeed like him in all things (1.21, 1.40, 2.18). That appears to prefigure the ultimate rapprochement in 359/60 between Athanasius and the 'theological conservatives' of Asia Minor29—and may suggest that he composed the Orations against the Arians with a view to convincing the bishops of Asia Minor in the 340s that, whatever the personal merits of his own case, they were aligning themselves with a party which embraced a fundamentally false theology.

Although the introduction presents the Arian heresy as the last of all 'which has now emerged as the precursor of the Antichrist' (1.1, cf. 1.7), the Orations against the Arians have no explicit indication of their date beyond references to Arius as dead (1.3) and Constantius as living and reigning (1.10, 3.25). This merely establishes that the work was written between 337 and 361, and a date between 356 and 360 has sometimes been advocated.30 But the Orations conspicuously fail to defend the term homoousiosy which became the theological watchword of Athanasius and his allies in the early 350s.31 The named targets of the Orations are Arius himself, Eusebius of Nicomedia (1.22,37), and Asterius, the sophist and sacrificer (1.32, 3.2, 3.60). Moreover, Athanasius seems to treat this trio as if they were the only Arians rash enough ever to have committed their opinions to writing (2.24). That fits the circumstances of 339 or 340 excellently, when Athanasius had an obvious motive for establishing himself as the theological champion of orthodoxy against the Arian heretics who had expelled him from Alexandria. When he decries the followers of Arius as deriving their perverse doctrine from the teaching of Eusebius (1.27), he probably names his main political adversary.

A further indication that Athanasius was writing in Rome in 339 or 340 can be deduced from his method of attacking his theological enemies. Me appears to quote Arius' Thalia from memory—the first seven lines verbatim followed by a rather vague and probably not very accurate summary based on the old letter of Alexander, which he himself had composed in the bishop's name (1.5/6).32 On the other hand, Athanasius quotes nine extracts from Asterius as if taking them from a complete text.33 The contrast is easily explicable if Athanasius was indeed writing in Rome in 339 or 340. His fellow exile Marcellus of Ancyra surely brought a copy of Asterius with him to Rome: he had been deposed and exiled in 336 for injudicious remarks made in a long attack on Arius and 'Arians' such as Eusebius of Caesarea and Narcissus of Neronias, which pilloried the treatise of Asterius which the Orations against the Arians quote.34

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  • cassidy fleming
    What did athanasius do in rome?
    5 months ago

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