ATHANASJUS CUTS AN IMPRESSIVE HISTORICAL FIGURE. ALTHOUGH HE lived in an age whose emperors, thinkers, and ascetics often appear larger than life, there is something particularly heroic about a man who could face the threats of Roman emperors totally uncowed and unafraid even when he stood apparently alone as 'Athanasius contra mundum.' But what precisely was the nature of Athanasius' greatness? Although he owed his political standing to the fact that between 328 and 373 he was the bishop of Alexandria and hence the metropolitan bishop of Egypt in the newly Christian Roman Empire, he could not have cut such an impressive figure had he not been conspicuously lacking in the Christian virtues of meekness and humility.
It is no paradox that the most penetrating and most admired portrait of Athanasius ever delineated in modern times comes from the pen of a man who detested Christianity. Edward Gibbon discerned in Athanasius 'a superiority of character and abilities which would have qualified him, far better than the degenerate sons of Constantine, for the government of a great monarchy.' Gibbon's hostility toward Christianity and religious fanaticism led him to emphasise precisely those qualities which most set Athanasius apart from his more polished and urbane contemporaries—above all, his will-power and determination, that 'force of a single mind, when it is inflexibly applied to the pursuit of a single object,' which Athanasius combined with an unerring political instinct, an unfailing judgement in knowing when to resist the emperor and when to yield for future advantage.1
Unfortunately, for all its vividness, Gibbon's picture of Athanasius is highly misleading. For once, Gibbon let his critical guard drop and relaxed his general scepticism about the motives for human actions. He informs the reader that 'the diligence of Tillemont and of the Benedictine editors has collected every fact and examined every difficulty' relevant to Athanasius' career, and that 'we should enjoy and improve the advantage of drawing our most authentic materials from the rich fund of his own epistles and apologies/ That is mistaken on two quite different levels. Tillemont and the Benedictine editor Montfaucon labored in ignorance of the ancient account of Athanasius' later career which Scipione Maffei gave to the world in 1738:2 Gibbon inexplicably overlooked this new evidence in his main account of Athanasius and his career, although he refers to it later when he reaches the reigns of Julian and Jovian. Moreover since Gibbon never owned a text of Athanasius, a suspicion inevitably arises that Tillemont may be the main source of Gibbon's knowledge of Athanasius' career. More serious, Gibbon shirked the task of asking whether Athanasius' pleas on his own behalf can be treated as 'authentic materials.' He presents Athanasius as a model of propriety and honesty, as a high-minded and prudent leader of genius constantly assailed by the false accusations and ignoble machinations of dishonest and mean-spirited adversaries, and he asserts that Athanasius 4never lost the confidence of his friends or the esteem of his enemies.' The last claim is patently false. The synodical letter of the eastern bishops at Serdica in 343 (published as early as 1598) both denounces Athanasius in derogatory and vituperative language and makes several specific charges that he employed violence and intimidation against those who opposed him.
An impartial historian cannot simply pin his faith on the utter veracity of Athanasius or dismiss the testimony of his enemies without due consideration. This study starts from the presumption that Athanasius consistently misrepresented central facts about his ecclesiastical career, in particular about his relationship with the emperor Constantine and his three sons, who ruled the Roman Empire after their father's death in 337, and about his own standing within the Christian church in the eastern half of the empire, which Constantius ruled from 337 to 361. At some levels, therefore, it has a certain logical affinity with two books about modern figures with whom Athanasius has little in common, namely, A. J. A. Symons' biographical study of Frederick Rolfe and Hugh Trevor-Roper's investigation of the colorful career of Sir Edmund Backhouse.3 Not that Athanasius was a deceiver or forger on the level of a Rolfe or the 'hermit of Peking,' nor alas! that a similar historical or biographical expose can be built up against Athanasius from original documents. It was with a far nobler motivation, and far more enduring success, that Athanasius imposed his version of events and his verdicts about individuals on contemporaries and on posterity.
The first modern scholar to approach the career of Athanasius critically was Eduard Schwartz, who, in his seven studies 'on the history of Athanasius,' published between 1904 and 1911 in the proceedings of the Gottingen Society of Sciences, tried to reconstruct the history of the Melitian schism and the Arian controversy primarily from original documents quoted by Athanasius and other ancient writers or preserved in medieval collections.4 Those studies still remain indispensable for anyone who wishes to understand the nature of the problems posed by our evidence for Athanasius' career. Here as elsewhere, however,
Schwartz pronounced rather than argued: his verdicts are too often both peremptory and arbitrary, and his scholarship is not always impeccable.5 Schwartz made no real effort to understand Athanasius either as a man or as a writer. Instead, he denounced him as a power-hungry politician concerned with nothing more noble than his own status, and dismissed him as an unscrupulous pamphleteer with no regard for the truth, as 'a politician through and through who could not narrate the facts, only polemicise,' and 'a prince of the church who as a good politician knew the power of propaganda.'6
Athanasius may often disregard or pervert the truth, but he is a subtler and more skilful liar than Schwartz realised. Paradoxically, Schwartz built much of his own interpretation of the fourth century upon Athanasius' largest and most successful perversion of the facts—his misrepresentation of how emperors treated the decisions of church councils.7 Hence the enduring value of Schwartz's studies lies less in the historical reconstruction which he proposed than in his determination to seek out the best evidence, to edit it critically, and to make it the basis for a dispassionate and objective account of ecclesiastical politics in the fourth century.
Schwartz's example inspired the critical edition of Athanasius' works which Hans-Georg Opitz commenced in the 1930s but left incomplete at his death in 1941.8 Regrettably, historical study of Athanasius has until recently progressed little beyond Schwartz, whose dogmatic and ex parte assertions have too often been repeated as if they were fully demonstrated conclusions. In particular; a book which hotly contested the view that Constantius was an 'Arian' emperor tamely and often uncritically accepted what Schwartz laid down as the course of events even where he is demonstrably in error, declaring that it was impossible either to set forth a connected account of the relevant events or properly to investigate the factual basis of the historical judgements made.9 The brilliance of Schwartz has eclipsed some other modern work which ought to receive due credit—most notably Archibald Robertson's careful and detailed prolegomena to Athanasius' political writings,10 some characteristically acute observations by Norman Baynes,11 and Paul Peeters' masterly elucidation of the circumstances of Athanasius' first exile.12
The reconstruction of Athanasius' career which this study seeks to establish inevitably owes most to Schwartz's seven classic papers (or at least to the five reprinted in full in his collected scholarly writings),13 but it seeks to build on whatever valid results have been achieved by earlier scholars who have written about Athanasius and his contemporaries.14 However, since it proceeds from a particular interpretation of Constantine, it makes certain assumptions which some readers will find controversial.15 In partial justification, it may be claimed that the reconstruction of the career of Athanasius offered here tends to confirm rather than weaken these controversial theses.
The basic chronological framework for reconstructing the career of Athanasius is provided by two documents originally composed in Alexandria not long after his death and recently edited together in a single volume by A. Martin and M. Albert: they are the so-called Historia acephala, which derives its name from the title which Scipione Maffei invented when he published it in 1738 as Historia acephala ad Athattasium potissimum ac res Alexandrinas pertinens> and the Festal Index, which prefaces the collected edition of Athanasius* Festal Letters.16 Both documents incorporate or draw on archival material from the archiépiscopal records of the see of Alexandria, and both survive only in translation and only in a unique manuscript: neither document is infallible, and each poses distinctive problems of its own.
The Historia acephala survives as part of a collection of documents apparently put together by a deacon named Theodosius and now preserved in a Latin manuscript of c. 700 in the cathedral library at Verona (Biblioteca Capitolare LX [58), fols. 37-126, on fols. 105-112).17 The investigations of several scholars, particularly C. H. Turner, Schwartz himself, W. Telfer, and now A. Martin, have established that the Historia acephala in its present form probably represents an original document drawn up in Athanasius* lifetime which has undergone three major alterations.18 The four main stages in the genesis of the document that survives can be schematised as follows:
(1) In 368, on the occasion of the fortieth anniversary of Athanasius* election as bishop, an account was composed in Greek in Alexandria which summarised the history of the see of Alexandria since the beginning of the Melitian schism in 306, concentrating on the vicissitudes of Athanasius* career.
(2) Each year until 372 someone added to the computation of Athanasius' forty years as bishop on 8 June 368 the consular dates of successive anniversaries and finally in 373 the date of Athanasius* death (5.10).
(3) Shortly after Athanasius' death, probably between 385 and 412, this account was expanded by the inclusion of passages dealing with the churches of Constantinople (1.4-7; 4.5/6) and Antioch (2.7), and by the addition of a chronological postscript (5.14).
(4) C. 420 the existing text was abbreviated, combined with other documents which accompany it in the Verona manuscript, and sent from Alexandria to Carthage, where it was translated into Latin.
Several critical editions of the Historia acephala have been published, the most recent by A. Martin with a long introduction, French translation, and copious commentary.19 Martin's introduction and commentary should be consulted for all historical problems in the Historia acephala which are not fully discussed in this book, but there is still much of value in the systematic analysis by G. R. Sievers in a long paper published shortly after his death more than a century and a quarter ago.20
The Festal Index was composed to serve as the introduction to a collected edition of the Festal Letters which Athanasius wrote for each Easter between 329 and 373, presumably by the same man who arranged, numbered, edited, and published the Letters as a collection or corpus in Alexandria shortly after Athanasius' death.21 This editor described the document as an index of the months of each year, and of the days, and of the indic-tions, and of the consulates, and of the governors in Alexandria, and of all the epacts, and of those [days] which are named 'of the gods,' and the reason [a letter) was not sent, and the returns from exile.22
But he also appended to the chronological data of many entries other information about Athanasius' activities during the year preceding the relevant Easter.23 The Festal Index survives only as the introduction to the Syriac translation made in the sixth or seventh century of a second, non-Alexandrian corpus of the Festal Letters, and this translation itself survives only in a single manuscript which is probably to be dated to the tenth century (British Library, Add. ms. 14569).2i Fortunately, the historical value of the Festal Index is largely independent of the complicated problem of the chronology of the Festal Letters themselves.25
Apart from the framework provided by the Historia acephala and the Festal Index, there is no systematic and reliable ancient account of Athanasius' career. It must accordingly be reconstructed from materials which are all partial and unsatisfactory. Least problematical are contemporary documents of which the originals survive. The most important and directly relevant are two letters in which opponents of Athanasius in Alexandria refer to the forthcoming church council of Caesarea in 334 (which never in fact met) and describe events which occurred in the Egyptian metropolis in 335 shortly before the Council of Tyre.26 More difficult to evaluate are documents preserved in collections (such as two letters of Athanasius in the manuscript which preserves the Historia acephala) or quoted by contemporary or later writers. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries there was lively and sometimes acrimonious debate over the genuineness of many of these documents. The controversy has largely subsided in recent decades: hence this study accepts the basic authenticity of all relevant documents preserved in manuscript collections or quoted by authors of the fourth and fifth centuries, confining substantive discussion of the genuineness of a document to those cases where there seems to be real reason to doubt whether what survives accurately represents what was written or said on the relevant occasion.
The next place, in any hierarchy of sources, must be occupied by non-documentary evidence from the middle decades of the fourth century, principally the partisan writings of Athanasius and his contemporaries. Athanasius was a prolific author and this study makes no attempt to do justice to his doctrinal, homiletic, ascetical, and exegetical writings. The centre of attention will be those works which are sometimes called Athanasius' 'historical writings,' but which show a closer resemblance to political pamphlets.27 These were collected together after Athanasius' death:28 the titles which they bear in the manuscripts do not come from Athanasius' own hand, and the date of composition is in some cases disputed. The following list states the English title employed here for each of the most important polemical tracts and treatises which Athanasius wrote during the reign of Constantius, together with its conventional Latin title or titles and an indication of its date:
(1) Encyclical Letter (Epistula encyclica or Epistula ad episcopos), written shortly after 26 March 339;29
(2) Defense against the Arians (Apologia contra Arianos or Apologia secunda)y probably composed in its present form in 349 and subsequently retouched, though never published or circulated during Athanasius' lifetime;30
(3) On the Council of Nicaea (Epistula de decretis Nicaenae synodi or De decretis Nicaenae synodi or; more briefly still, De decretis}, probably written in 352 in response to a letter from Liberius, the bishop of Rome, and addressed to him;51
(4) Defense before Constantius (Apologia ad Constantium), probably composed in two stages, in early 353 and 357;32
(5) Letter to the Bishops of Egypt and Libya (Epistula ad episcopos Aegypti et Libyae), written in the spring of 356;33
(6) Defense of His Flight (Apologia de fuga sua or De fuga)y written in 357;34
(7) History of the Arians (Historia Arianorum), probably also written in 357;35
(8) On the Councils of Arimimtm and Seleucia (Epistula de synodis Arimini et Seleuciae or De synodis), written in late 359, with some later additions.36
Among Athanasius* contemporaries, the most important writers for the reconstruction of his career are Lucifer, bishop of Caralis in Sardinia, and Hilary, bishop of Poitiers in Gaul. Unfortunately, the violent and often hysterical diatribes of Lucifer contain distressingly little of real historical value that is not known from other sources, though that little is sometimes highly significant.37 Hilary, on the other hand, is a crucial and independent figure, whose place in the theological kaleidoscope of the later 350s has been investigated by H. C. Brennecke in a brilliant (even if ultimately mistaken) monograph.38 The fragments of Hilary's historical-apologetical work directed against the bishops Ursacius of Singidunum and Valens of Mursa preserve many indispensable documents which would otherwise be completely lost, above all the long and revealing letter of the eastern bishops who attended the Council of Serdica in 343.39 But the panegyric which Gregory of Nazianzus delivered :n Constantinople in the year 380 contains regrettably little specific detail about Athanasius' career.40
The standard ecclesiastical histories of the fifth century present a picture of the Christian church under Constantine and his sons which not only owes a great deal to Athanasius himself, but appears largely to derive from a tendentious and often inaccurate account composed in the reign of Theodosius. In 40273
Rufinus of Aquileia published a Latin Ecclesiastical History in eleven books. While the first nine books are and profess to be a translation, with certain omissions and some additions, of the edition of his Ecclesiastical History which Eusebius of Caesarea published c. 325, the last two books were composed, according to Rufinus, 'partly from the traditions of an earlier generation, partly from what our own memory had committed to mind.'41 It now seems probable that much of Rufinus' account of the fourth century is more of a translation than he appears to admit and that, at least as far as the reign of Julian, it follows closely the lost Ecclesiastical History which Gelasius of Caesarea composed in the reign of Theodosius.42 Rufinus' originality (it seems) lay not in constructing a basic narrative history of the Christian church under Constantine and his successors, but in incorporating into a framework taken from Gelasius additional material such as the stories of the evangelisation of the kingdoms of Iberia and Axum.43 Yet it does not matter much whether it was Gelasius or Rufinus (or some other writer) who created the basic picture of the Arian heresy and of Athanasius' struggle against it which reappears in the works of later writers. The important fact is that the narrative framework which the later ecclesiastical historians share with Rufinus is demonstrably flawed.44 One striking example from the reign of Constantine illustrates how badly this narrative framework can go awry: neither Rufinus nor any of his successors is aware that after his condemnation at Nicaea in 325 Arius was pronounced orthodox by church councils on two separate occasions several years apart—in 327/8 and again in 335/6.45
The scholasticus Socrates, who continued Eusebius and wrote a history of the church from 306 to 439, which he published in 439 itself or the following year, put out two editions of the first two books of his Ecclesiastical History. In the first edition, Socrates confesses, he had too slavishly followed Rufinus, who committed gross errors of fact and chronology: when he discovered the writings of Athanasius himself, he realised the deficiencies of what he had written and composed a second edition quoting documents freely from Eusebius, from Athanasius, and from the collection of documents which Sabinus, the bishop of Heraclea, compiled c. 370.4* Since the works of Eusebius and Athanasius which Socrates consulted survive, the value of many of his quotations is merely textual. In his youth, however, Socrates had lived in Constantinople and had conversed with one Auxanon, a Novatianist priest, who could remember snippets of information from the days of Constantine, such as what the emperor said to the Novatianist Acesius at the Council of Nicaea.47 Hence Socrates provides circumstantial accounts of important episodes in the troubled ecclesiastical history of the church of Constantinople in the 330s and 340s, which enable the turbulent career of the bishop Paul, an ally of Athanasius, to be reconstructed in detail.48 Moreover, Socrates often reproduces a lost source which gave precise and usually accurate dates for imperial events,49 and he quotes some documents which survive nowhere else, for example, a letter of the emperor Julian to the city of Alexandria.50
Theodoretus, bishop of Cyrrhus in northern Syria, composed his Ecclesiastical History some years later, but, though he appears to have completed the work c. 448, he prudently brought his narrative to a close in the late 420s, so that he avoided any obligation to write about living bishops and theologians. The main value of Theodoretus' History for the fourth century is twofold: it provides abundant quotations and includes important documents not preserved elsewhere; and, as a Syrian and native Syriac-speaket; Theodoretus was able to draw on local knowledge and Syrian traditions to give a much fuller account of events concerning the church of Antioch than his predecessors.51
Sozomenus, a schclasticus like Socrates, was a native of Palestine who traveled, perhaps widely, before settling in Constantinople. He prefaced his Ecclesiastical History with a dedication to the emperor Theodosius the younger, which promises a history of the church from 324 to 439—which is precisely the point at which Socrates' work ends. Sozomenus' History is unfinished: the ninth and last book, which appears to have been composed in the first half of the year 450, shows obvious signs of incompleteness (it peters out in 425) and lack of stylistic polish. The first eight books, in contrast, are both finished and highly polished: Sozomenus uses Socrates throughout, but he has turned Socrates' simple factual prose into a grandiloquent rhetorical exposition close to the style of traditional historiography, and he supplements Socrates from many other sources, particularly ones of a legal nature.52 As a result, Sozomenus not infrequently reports the contents of important documents whose actual text has failed to survive: these include the formal verdict of the Council of Tyre which condemned and deposed Athanasius in 335, and the letter of a council held at Antioch which deposed Athanasius again shortly before the death of Constans.53
Philostorgius, whose Ecclesiastical History closed with events of 425, stands apart from Rufinus, Socrates, Theodoretus, and Sozomenus. For Philostorgius was a Eunomian who defended the good name and orthodoxy of Arius.54 The original text of Philostorgius' work has perished, but both a brief summary and fuller excerpts from the pen of Photius in the ninth century have permitted the identification of extensive fragments and paraphrases in a variety of Byzantine texts,55 especially the Passio Artemii, long ascribed to one John of Rhodes, but recently attributed to John of Damascus and edited among his works.56
One of Philostorgius' lost sources is of the greatest importance—the so-called Arian historiographer of the middle of the fourth century identified by P. Batiffol,57 whose fragments, derived from authors as diverse as Jerome and Michael the Syrian, Joseph Bidez printed as a separate appendix.58 The precise vantage-point of this lost historian can be defined quite closely: H. M. Gwatkin noted long ago that he was a homoean and that both Theodoretus and the Paschal Chronicle appear to have used him extensively for their accounts of the persecution under Julian, while H. C. Brennecke has recently built on Gwatkin's observations to construct a strong case for dating him to the late 360s and regarding him as the first known continuator of Eusebius' Ecclesiastical History.s9
Such are the principal sources for reconstructing the career of Athanasius. Yet many other writers besides those already named preserve items of reliable information, and all the relevant evidence needs to be assessed on its merits, whatever its date. The political and military narrative of the history of the Roman Empire between 353 and 378 by Ammianus Marcellinus includes notices of the arrest in 355 of Liberius, the bishop of Rome, for supporting Athanasius, and of the death of his rival George in Alexandria in 361.60 Around 400, Sulpicius Severus found space in his brief chronicle of world history for accounts of both Athanasius and Hilary of Poitiers, which supply the basic narrative of the Council of Ariminum in 359 and many valuable details concerning the ecclesiastical history of the previous decade.61
Unfortunately, the hagiography of Athanasius appears to be virtually worthless as historical evidence for his career.62 On the other hand, two ninth-century sources make explicit statements about the 340s which deserve to be accepted as reliable, even though found in no earlier extant texts—namely, that the sophist Asterius attended the 'Dedication Council* of Antioch in 341, and that Ossius held a council in Corduba to confirm the decisions of the Council of Serdica.63
The subject of this investigation is the political career of Athanasius and its historical context. It will be argued that his career is a unique phenomenon which could have taken the course it did only in the Constantinian empire—between the Council of Nicaea and the accession of Theodosius. Of set purpose, no attempt is made to tackle the complex and intricate problems posed by many of the theological, ascetical, and hagiographical writings transmitted under the name of Athanasius except insofar as they are directly relevant to his career or to his standing within the church of his own day. It may be hoped, however, that a new reconstruction of Athanasius4 career will lead to a deeper understanding of his personality, thought, and theology.64
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