Return To Alexandria

The synodical letter of the western council of serdica was taken to Antioch by the bishops Vincentius of Capua and Euphrates of Cologne, who also carried the council's request to Constantius to allow the exiled eastern bishops to return and a letter from Constans commending the exiles to his brother. They reached Syria toward Easter 344, which in this year fell on 15 April. For reasons which remain obscure, Stephanus, the bishop of Antioch, attempted to discredit the two envoys. Using priests as intermediaries, he hired a prostitute to spend the night with Euphrates. The plan misfired when the woman saw that her intended bedmate was an elderly bishop calmly asleep and totally unaware of what was happening: instead of making the false accusation which Stephanus' agents expected, she began to shout and complain of violence. By daybreak the matter was public knowledge in the city, a crowd gathered, and officials from the imperial palace needed to intervene. During the investigation, the brothel-keeper identified the priests who had hired the woman's services from him, and they implicated Stephanus. As a result, Stephanus was deposed and Leontius became bishop in his place.

Such is Athanasius' account of the immediate diplomatic sequel to the Council of Serdica (Hist. Ar. 20.2-5). It is both incomplete and tendentious. Theodoretus has a more detailed narrative full of specific detail, combining fictitious elaboration of the same original story with authentic local tradition, which has supplied him with some basic facts about the episode which Athanasius glosses over.1 Theodoretus reports that the two bishops were accompanied by the general Salianus, who must be the Flavius Salia attested by papyri as magister equitum and ordinary consul in 348.2 Moreover, since a bishop could be deposed and replaced only by a council of bishops, Theodoretus must be correct in stating that Stephanus was condemned and deposed by a council of bishops: since this council met at Antioch not long after Easter 344, it seems likely, on chronological grounds, that it is identical with the Council of Antioch which met in the summer of 344 and adopted the so-called long creed (Syw. 26).3

This 'long creed' reflects the political circumstances of its composition, and its tone has aptly been characterised as one which 'breathed the spirit of appeasement.'4 The document comprises the creed and anathemas adopted by the eastern bishops at Serdica, followed by eight explanatory paragraphs designed to assuage a western audience. These paragraphs carefully avoid the term ousia and deny that the Son is of a different hypostasis from the Father: although the persons of the Trinity are admitted to be three prosopa and three objects (pragtnata), the strongest emphasis is laid on the unity of the godhead. The eastern bishops proclaim that the Son is 'like the Father in all things,' and set out to be conciliatory on the main theological issues. Or. the other hand, they criticise at length and with outspoken frankness both Marcellus of Ancyra and his pupil Photinus, who had recently been elected bishop of Sirmium—his name deformed to 'Scotinus,' the dark and shadowy one instead of the light-bringer.5 Not long after the council met, probably in September 344, Constantius too made a conciliatory gesture: he ordered the release of the Alexandrian clergy exiled to Armenia and sent instructions that the clergy and laity in Alexandria loyal to Athanasius no longer be harassed {Hist. Ar. 21.2, cf. Index 16).

The Council of Antioch sent four bishops to convey its synodical letter to the West: Demophilus, Eudoxius, Martyrius, and Macedonius from Cilicia (Syn. 26.1). But some delay intervened, perhaps not unconnected with the attempt of Paul to reestablish himself as bishop of Constantinople in the second half of 344.6 Moreover, the bishops may have been accompanied by the conies Thalassius, who came to the court of Constans while the emperor was at Poetovio—an event which caused Athanasius, the only ancient writer who mentions it, some embarrassment when he defended himself against the charge of fomenting hostility between Constans and his brother (Apol. ad Const. 3.3).7 The eastern bishops received an answer from their western colleagues at the Council of Milan, which met in the early months of 345, while Constans was cither present or at least close at hand.8

The proceedings of this council are not at all well documented. The lack of information is admittedly not unusual at this period, but the Council of Milan was more interesting and significant than most councils, because it witnessed important changes of theological attitude and personal allegiance. The western bishops condemned Photinus, and although they refrained from condemning Marcellus, they ceased to support him as they had hitherto. Athanasius himself had withdrawn from communion with Marcellus before the council; Marcellus prudently declined to force the issue and absented himself from the council.9 The Pannonian bishops Ursacius and Valens, whose sees lay in the territory of Constans, denounced the Arian heresy and requested to be accepted into communion by the western bishops. The political advantages of such a change of allegiance were obvious, and Ursacius and Valens were allowed to make their peace with the western church. The eastern envoys, however, did not like the manner in which the council performed the ritual denunciation of Arius and his heresy: they refused to assent to the document which it drew up and angrily stormed out.10 The fragmentary reports of the Council of Milan (it will be observed) contain no reference at all to the reinstatement of Athanasius.

Constans now intervened with decisive effect. He had written to Athanasius while the latter was still in Naissus, and Athanasius implies both that Constans granted him an audience in Aquileia and that he and Constans were both in Aquileia at an Easter (Apol. ad Const. 4.5, 15.4). Constans, therefore, interviewed Athanasius at Aquileia in the spring of 345, when Easter fell on 7 April, cither shortly before or shortly after the Council of Milan." Moreover, he wrote a letter which contained an explicit threat of civil war:

Athanasius and Paul are here with me. From questioning them I have discovered that they are being persecuted for the sake of piety. Accordingly, if you undertake to restore them to their episcopal thrones, expelling those who are vainly clinging to them, I shall send the men to you. But if you were to refuse to take this action, be assured that I will come in person and restore them to the thrones which are theirs, even against your will.

Such is the extract quoted by Socrates:12 the letter from which he quotes was known to the other ecclesiastical historians of the fifth century and should not be dismissed as a forgery.13

Rufinus, presumably here translating Gelasius of Caesarea, produces a paraphrase of the same extract which makes three significant changes to the original: Paul of Constantinople has disappeared, the diplomatic language has been made harsher, and a threat to punish Athanasius* enemies has been added.14 Both Philostorgius and Theodoretus report that Constans wrote to his brother in very similar tones.15 Admittedly, Theodoretus may be mistaken when he states that the general Salia and the bishops Vincentius and Euphrates brought a threatening letter to Antioch early in 344.16 But Constans wrote to his brother immediately after the Council of Serdica {Hist. Ar. 20.2) as well as in 345, and the earlier letter was milder in tone than the later. Sozomenus specifically records two letters, the first requesting Constantius to restore Athanasius and Paul, the second telling him 'either to receive the men or prepare for war.'17 If Theodoretus has confused the milder letter of 343/4 with the later and more hostile letter of early 345, that in no way impugns the authenticity of Socrates' quotation. Moreover, though Philostorgius too reports a letter which demanded the return of Athanasius alone,18 he supplies a detail which strongly suggests that he is paraphrasing the same letter as the one from which Socrates quotes: it was taken to Constantius by the comes rei privatae Eustathius—who is attested in that office on 15 May 345.19

Athanasius himself provides unwitting and unwilling confirmation that the letter from which Socrates quotes is authentic. His Defense before Constantius refers allusively and with obvious embarrassment to an occasion when 'the embassy of Thalassius came to Poetovio' while he was in Aquileia (Apol. ad Const. 3.4). No other writer or surviving document explicitly mentions this embassy. But Athanasius' presence in Aquileia fixes the date as lying between the summer of 344 and the following summer, and the fact that the Defense before Constantius refers to the embassy in a context where Athanasius is defending himself against the charge that he had fostered discord between the dead Constans and his brother indicates clearly, albeit indirectly, that Constans gave Thalassius a truculent answer. The interlocking details provided separately by Athanasius, Socrates, and Philostorgius suggest that Eustathius took the letter of which Socrates quotes a part to the eastern emperor together with the synodical letter of the Council of Milan.

Constantius yielded. Fortune (or the hand of God) provided the decisive argument. Gregory, who had replaced Athanasius as bishop of Alexandria in 339, died on 26 June 345 (Hist. Ar. 21.1/2; Index 18). Since the normal procedure of an episcopal election in Alexandria would have produced no result other than the reelection of Athanasius, the emperor bowed to necessity. He wrote from Edessa to Constans, and also to Athanasius, who was still at Aquileia (Apol. ad Const. 4.5), in the following terms:

The generosity of our gentleness has not allowed you to be buffeted and tossed as if by the wild waves of the sea for long. Our unwearying piety has not abandoned you while you have been deprived of your ancestral hearth and stripped of your belongings and wander in savage wildernesses. Even if I have for a long time deferred communicating the purport of my intentions, because I expected you to appear before us of your own accord and to ask for relief from your toils, nevertheless, since fear has perhaps prevented the fulfilling of your intention, we have accordingly dispatched to your gravity letters full of bounty, so that you may hasten without fear to provide your presence speedily to our sight, in order to obtain your desire, to experience our generosity, and to be restored to your home. For this purpose I have on your behalf requested my lord and brother Constans, the victorious Augustus, to give you permission to come, so that you may be restored to your homeland with the consent of us both, receiving this as a pledge of our favor. (Apol. c. Ar. 51.2-4)

That is the language of diplomacy which veils, though it does not quite conceal, the emperor's insincerity. When it suited him, Athanasius could quote the letter as evidence of Constantius' respect, even affection, for him (Hist. Ar. 22/3). But he can have had no illusions about the emperor's true feelings, for he knew how Constantius' new expression of sympathy for his sufferings contrasted with his actual policy towards him since 339. Whether it was sincere or devious, however, the letter of Constantius unconditionally promised Athanasius that he could return to Alexandria. It must be assumed that Paul of Constantinople received a letter couched in similar terms, even though nothing precise is known about the date of his return.

Athanasius returned during the summer and autumn of 346, a full year after Constantius' first letter permitting him to do so. Why the delay? Either Athanasius did not trust Constantius and asked for guarantees, or else there was dispute and negotiation about the terms of his return. Constantius wrote two further letters urging Athanasius to come to his court. The first requested him to come with all speed by means of the cursus publicus, without worry for himself, without distrust and fear, so that the emperor could send him to Alexandria (Apol c. Ar. 51.5). The second lamented Athanasius' slowness in responding to his original letter written a year earlier, and it reiterated his request for the bishop to come to him. Constantius sent it by the deacon Achitas, who added his own exhortation {Apol. c. Ar. 51.6-8). Various high officials seconded the emperor's request by writing too: Athanasius names the comités Polemius, Datianus, Bardio, Thalassius, Taurus, and Florentius, adding that he was readier to believe their assurances of friendship than to believe those of the emperor (Hist. Ar. 22.1).20 Confirmation that matters were not quickly settled between the imperial brothers comes from the consular fasti. The two halves of the Roman Empire had different consuls for 346: in the East Constantius proclaimed himself (for the fourth time) and Constans (for the third time), but there is no good evidence that this imperial consulate was accepted in the West, at least until very late in the year.21

During the autumn of 345, Athanasius was summoned by Constans to the court at Trier (Apol. ad Const. 4.5).22 It would be worth knowing exactly why Constans required his presence, or how his visit impinged on negotiations between the two emperors. But the diplomatic exchanges of 345/6 will always remain shrouded in secrecy. Athanasius preferred to emphasize the public stages of his triumphant return.

From Trier; Athanasius probably returned to Aquileia. When his return to Alexandria was finally agreed upon, he went to Rome, where Julius provided him with an eloquent testimonial to take to the church at Alexandria (Apol. c. Ar. 52/3),23 and where he presumably did not fail to renew his contacts with sympathetic Christians in the Roman aristocracy. From Rome Athanasius went to Syria, where he presented himself before Constantius. He will have traveled mainly or entirely by sea, either via Brundisium, Greece, and the south coast of Asia Minor or through the Straits of Messina to Cyprus.24 When Athanasius reached Antioch, according to the History of the Ariansy the emperor promised, under an oath and with God as witness, never again to listen to slanderous accusations against him {Hist. Ar. 22.2, cf. Apol. ad Const. 4.5). Whether that is true or not, Constantius certainly rescinded all existing measures against the bishop of Alexandria.

The emperor wrote to Nestorius, the prefect of Egypt, and to the dux of the province to ask for the return of all letters in their offices pertaining to Athanasius (Apol. c. Ar. 56.1; Hist. Ar. 23.3). The decurio Eusebius retrieved the documents—and presumably supplied copies to Athanasius on his return. In letters to the prefect of Egypt and to the praesides of the provinces of Augustamnica, Thebais, and the two Libyas, Constantius restored freedom from civic liturgies to the clergy loyal to Athanasius without removing that privilege from other clerics (Apol. c. Ar. 56.2/3). He wrote a circular letter to the bishops and priests of the catholic church everywhere announcing the pardon of Athanasius and the restoration of full privileges to the clergy loyal to him: after 'a brief season' of 'the trials inherent in the human condition,' the bishop has obtained release 'by the will of the Supreme Power' (Apol. c. Ar. 54.2-5). Constantius also furnished Athanasius with a letter of commendation to the Christians of Alexandria which encouraged them to respect the unanimity and peace of the church and discreetly warned them against disturbance and sedition (Apol. c. Ar. 55).

In Antioch Athanasius pointedly rebuffed Leontius and celebrated services with the Eustathians in private houses.25 Then he traveled south through Syria, Phoenice, and Palestine. In Laodicea he met and formed a friendship with the priest Apollinaris, who thus earned the hostility of George, the bishop of his city.26 In Jerusalem Maximus convened a provincial council which welcomed him and sent him on his way with yet another impressive testimonial (Apol. c. Ar. 57). As Athanasius approached Alexandria, people flocked out of the city to greet him. On 21 October 346 he received a warm welcome from 'the people and all those in authority' fully one hundred miles outside Alexandria (Hist. ac. 1.2; Index 18). He was escorted to the city in honor and glory, and his triumphant progress into Alexandria resembled less the return of an exiled bishop than the adventus of a Roman emperor.27

In stark contrast to Athanasius' restoration and resumption of power in his native city stands the fate of Marcellus, once his partner in misfortune and close ally.28 Marcellus too had been rehabilitated at Serdica in 343, but thereafter his western supporters gradually came to accept the eastern view that his doctrines were, by the standards now applicable, irretrievably heretical—and Marcellus himself refrained from contesting the point in any way which might embarrass Athanasius.29 It is unlikely that he returned to Ancyra after the Council of Serdica, as Socrates and Sozomenus allege.30 Moreover, the fact that Marcellus' erstwhile supporters failed to defend him at Milan in 345 implies that Constans did not insist upon his return to the East with Paul and Athanasius in 346. After 349 a return was out of the question until the winter of 361/2, when Julian restored all eastern bishops exiled under Constantius.31 Presumably Marcellus availed himself of the opportunity, since a conventicle of his supporters in Ancyra submitted a creed to Athanasius in 371, in which they described them selves as 'the clerics and others in Ancyra of Galatia who assemble for worship with our father Marcellus.'32

Marcellus cut a pathetic figure as he dragged out his existence until he died at the age of ninety or more, sixty years after his first attestation as a bishop in 314.33 Perhaps he was already suffering from senility when the western bishops dropped him in 345. Marcellus seems to have occupied the last thirty years of his life in futile attempts to clear himself of the stigma of heresy.34 All to no avail, for he was formally condemned at the Council of Constantinople in 381.3S To his credit, Athanasius refused to join in the chorus of condemnation, even though Basil of Caesarea requested him to do so.36 When the young and zealous Epiphanius asked Athanasius about Marcellus, he neither defended him nor showed any hostility, but merely 'revealed by the smile on his face that he was close to wickedness, but that he treated him as having acquitted himself.'37 Athanasius' smile may have had a personal rather than theological significance.

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