Bishops And Society

There exist excellent studies of many aspects of the general historical context against which the career of Athanasius must be viewed, such as imperial legislation relating to Christianity, the place of the church in the Later Roman Empire, and the Christian bishop in Late Antique society.1 Modern historians have also produced fine studies which illuminate Athanasius* immediate background, such as the spread of Christianity in the Egyptian countryside, the organisation of the church in Egypt, the early days of Egyptian monasticism,2 the wealth of the Christian church in Egypt,3 the economic activities of the bishop of Alexandria,4 the role of the bishop of Alexandria in ecclesiastical politics,5 and the role of Athanasius himself as the leader of the Egyptian church.6 And there are two recent surveys concentrating, respectively, on state, church, and dynasty at the death of Constantine, and on church, law, and society in the reign of Constantius.7

There would be no point in attempting here to cover the same ground again or to reduplicate any of these or similar studies. It may be useful, however; to emphasise certain features of the position of the Christian bishop in the East between 324 and 361 which help to explain Athanasius' political role in the Roman Empire of his day. His personal character cannot provide an adequate explanation of how or why he became an important political figure. The prominence of Athanasius and later bishops of Alexandria derives rather from changes in the political structure of the Roman Empire consequent upon the conversion of Constantine in 312 and his establishment in 324 of Christianity as the official religion of the Roman government.8 The period between Constantine's defeat of Licinius and the death of Constantius as he prepared to fight Julian has unique characteristics of its own and cannot be understood or reconstructed by extrapolation from the better-documented periods which precede and follow it. In 324/5 the Christian bishops of the eastern Roman Empire suddenly acquired an extremely privileged position in society, which they lost with equal suddenness in 361/2—and which after 363 they recovered only gradually and incompletely.

In the three and a half decades after 324, eastern Christians showed themselves militant and aggressive as they eagerly exploited the opportunities which Constantine gave them. The Roman Empire was now officially Christian, and the performance of the traditional rites of sacrifice was illegal: as in the English reformation of the sixteenth century, there must have been many individuals who consciously set out to profit from the disestablishment of the old religion. In the winter of 361/2, as soon as Constantius was dead, Julian declared the empire officially pagan again and canceled all the privileges which Constantine and his sons had lavished on the church.9 Although Julian ruled as a pagan emperor for a mere twenty months, his Christian successors did not fully restore the privileges he had abolished. Theodoretus reports that when Jovian reinstated Christian financial and fiscal privileges, he fixed them at one-third of their level under Constantine, and that this reduced level of support had not been increased by his own day, eighty years later.10

When Constantine exempted the Christian clergy from public liturgies and initiated a policy of systematic donations to the Christian church from imperial funds, he did so in a way which gave bishops the power to decide in both cases which individuals should benefit." His letter to the proconsul of Africa in the winter of 312/3 declares:

It is my wish that those persons who, in the province entrusted to you, provide their personal service in this holy worship within the catholic church, over which Caecilianus presides, whom they are accustomed to call 'clerics,' should once and for all be made absolutely free of the obligation to perform public liturgies, so that they may not be drawn away from the worship owed to the divinity by any error or sacrilegious fault, but may rather serve their own law without any hindrance.12

Constantine thus defined the catholic church of Carthage, to which he granted exemption from civic liturgies, by reference to its bishop—who of course determined who became a priest or deacon by his control of ordinations within his own diocese. Similarly, shortly after October 324, when Constantine wrote to eastern bishops to encourage them to build churches, he wrote in these terms:

Concerning the churches over which you yourself preside, or know others who preside in such places, whether bishops, priests, or deacons—remind them to be active in the building of churches, either restoring or enlarging existing buildings or constructing new ones where need requires. You may yourself request, and the rest may request through you, what is needed from governors and the prefect's office. For these have been given instructions that they are to lend their assistance to communications from your holiness with all eagerness.13

Again, Constantine channels his generosity to the church as an institution through the local bishop (or possibly, in this case, the metropolitan bishop of the province).14

Imperial subsidies to the Egyptian church had already been established before Athanasius was elected bishop of Alexandria. Since ecclesiastical organisation tended to copy imperial administration, such subsidies were automatically channeled by the governor of the province and by imperial financial officials through the bishop of the capital city of each province. In Egypt, the Council of Nicaea had decreed that the bishop of Alexandria should retain his traditional authority as metropolitan not merely over the reduced Diocletianic province of Aegyptus, but over the whole of Egypt and Libya.15 The practical effects can be clearly seen in the handling of Constantine's grant of food for the widows and poor in Egypt as tendentiously described in 338 by Athanasius himself:

Grain was given by the father of the emperors for distribution to widows, separately in the Libyas and to certain [bishopsj from Egypt. All the bishops have received this until now, with Athanasius getting no benefit therefrom, except the trouble of helping them. But now, even though they receive it, have made no complaint, and acknowledge that they receive it, Athanasius has been falsely accused of selling all the supply of grain and embezzling the proceeds. (Apol. c. Ar. 18.2)

Whether true or false, the accusation assumes that Athanasius in some way controlled the supply of grain for widows throughout the Egyptian provinces.16 It is hard to believe that bishops failed to see the opportunities for patronage inherent in such a situation.

Imperial subsidies channeled through the bishop of Alexandria provide the background to the mysterious affair of the linen tunics. According to Athanasius, the first charge ever concocted against him was an accusation by Ision, Eudaemon, and Callinicus concerning linen tunics, to the effect that I had imposed a requisition on the Egyptians, and demanded it from them. {Apol. c. Ar. 60.2)

This is not a tax on linen tunics (as has sometimes been supposed), but a demand that tunics be supplied to Athanasius for distribution to the poor and needy, or else for liturgical use. The charge presupposes an imperial grant of supplies in kind to the church, a grant whose terms permitted the bishop of Alexandria to ask individuals to give him tunics to discharge what was, in strict legality, an obligation to the state or the emperor.17 The same background illuminates the charge which made Constantine lose his temper and send Athanasius to Trier in

335. His enemies accused Athanasius of "threatening to prevent the grain from being sent from Alexandria to Constantinople* (Apol. c. Ar. 87.1). Athanasius had legitimate access to the Egyptian grain-supply for charitable purposes. But Egypt was one of the main sources of supply for Constantinople: Athanasius was being accused, in part, of wishing to divert to his own purposes grain needed to prevent riots in the imperial city. The exiles of Athanasius made no difference to the institutional arrangements; they merely changed the identity of the bishop who controlled the supplies and their distribution. The History of the Arians notes, as a predictable and commonplace occurrence, that after the Councils of Aries and Milan, instructions were sent to the prefect of Egypt that 'the grain be taken away from Athanasius and given to those who hold thcViews of Arius' (31.2).

In the traditional societies of the Roman Empire in which Christianity originated, grew, expanded, and eventually attained dominance, religious authority was vested in local political élites who normally also forpied the wealthiest group in their city. Political and religious authority were indissolubly bound together at all levels, from the emperor as pont if ex maximus down to the priests and magistrates of small provincial towns.18 Hence, as Christians became prominent in local society in the course of the third century, they automatically began to hold local magistracies, local priesthoods, and even the provincial priesthood of the imperial cult: the Council of Elvira implicitly sanctioned the practise before the Diocletianic persecution by excluding Christian flamines only during the term of their annual office,19 while Constantine so denuded the imperial cult of what he called 'the contagion of disgusting superstition* that he sanctioned the construction of a temple of the Gens Flavia at Hispcllum in Umbria,20 and the imperial cult continued to function as a focus for the public expression of political loyalty into the fifth century.21

The Constantinian reformation severed this immemorial nexus of religious authority, social status, and political power. It thereby created a new type of patron in a society where, outside the family, patronage was the primary form of both political and social relationships between individuals.22 The officially recognised and designated mediators between the human and the divine were now the Christian bishop and the Christian holy man. The positions of the two categories, however, were structurally different. The holy man acquired status individually through miracles, prophecies, or asceticism, and he typically operated on the margins of society as a patron of poor villagers or as a mediator of conflict in or close to a large metropolis.23 The Christian bishop, on the other hand, possessed ascribed status, his authority was inherent in his office, and he was at the centre of a web of local patronage. His position thus conferred on him a very real political power which enabled a man who knew how to exploit it to defy the emperor who in theory ruled the Roman Empire. Athanasius of Alexandria is the earliest and most spectacular example of this phenomenon.

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