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2. Arianism |
Victim becomes victor in the ancient world

Arianism is drawn from Chapter Two, beginning on page 39, of Volume Four, Darkness Descends of the twelve-volume historical series The Christians: Their First Two Thousand Years. If you would like to order this book please visit

The whole world groaned to discover itself Arian, Jerome laments–but in their hour of triumph Nicea’s foes are foiled by doctrinal feuds

Arianism - Victim becomes victor in the ancient world’s biggest-ever manhunt

Arianism - Victim becomes victor in the ancient world’s biggest-ever manhunt
Constantius II was determined that the Rimini decisions would write the final chapter on Athanasian opposition to Arianism. He sent soldiers to every bishop in the eastern empire with orders to secure, under threat if necessary, the signature of each. Bishops were forced to sign wherever they were found, even if that meant being rousted from bed.

The year was 356. Christianity could now be considered Arian. The emperor, Constantius II, was Arian, and he ran the church. The bishop of Rome had been compelled under duress to sign an Arian creed, or so the jubilant Arians contended. Nearly all the other bishops in the west had been thrashed into line. Any who refused had been banished to the wilderness, and more intellectually sophisticated clergy named in their place. Most of the bishops in the east were in line already. Only the Egyptian hierarchs were still holding out, and once they were converted or removed, Christians would no longer believe that Jesus Christ, the man whom John’s Gospel called “the Word made flesh,” was actually of the same “substance” or “essence” as God.

Beyond its pragmatic and political advantages, Arianism had something else in its favor, less tangible, but more potent. It accorded with the spirit of the age. It was trendy–what twentieth-century Americans would call the “in thing.” Fashionable people in Constantinople were Arian Christians; the senior imperial bureaucracy was Arian, as were the most distinguished preachers and the educated elite–in short, the inner circle of both government and church. Arianism, writes the twentieth-century Christian apologist C. S. Lewis, “was one of those ‘sensible synthetic’ religions which are so strongly recommended today and which, then as now, included among their devotees many highly cultivated clergymen.”

These attributes lent it a quality of inevitability. It was going to happen anyway, so what was the point of resisting? “An atmosphere of resignation and heavy defeatism reigned over the entire western church,” writes the historian Victor de Clercq in his biography of Hosius of Cordoba, “and communicated itself even to those few courageous men who had chosen exile above dishonor.”

Bringing the recalcitrant Egyptian Christians into line, however, did entail one last task: capturing and silencing their patriarch, the bishop of Alexandria, the troublesome Athanasius. He had somehow escaped the massive military raid on St. Theonas Church, and would no doubt be trying to get out of the city. However, Duke Syrianus had five thousand men under his immediate command, and every road was blocked, every wagon searched, every departing vessel ransacked. Athanasius’s leading supporters were rounded up, beaten and ferociously questioned. Yet nobody seemed to know where he was.

He was in fact hiding, as one might have expected, in the desert monasteries. But which one? By now, in no small measure due to his ministry, there were scores of monasteries. The monks revered him. He was a particular favorite of the sainted Anthony, who now lay near death. Athanasius knew the monks would never betray him. Among them, he demonstrated that he could live as frugally as they, as much at home in their self-imposed poverty as he was in the courts of kings.

Moreover, in the desert he had time to write, and this was bad news for his pursuers. Every communication from him represented a triumph in itself, signifying that officialdom had not silenced him, and his letters and treatises were copied and copied again. They circulated everywhere, clandestinely passing from Christian to Christian. The magnificence of his prose stirred the hearts of the faithful, while his lethal logic cast doubt on both the learning of the ostensibly learned and the authority of the ostensibly authoritative.

People wondered: Were these exalted imperial pronouncements, these enunciations from what Lewis would call “highly cultivated clergymen,” as sound as they made themselves out to be? To the unlettered laity, they seemed unnecessary. Was it all that preposterous to believe in a God who suffered and died? And if the Word was God, as the Gospels had said, would he not share the “substance” or “essence” of God, as the Creed of Nicea declared?

Athanasius’s first letter in this, his third exile, was to the emperor himself. Constantius, he was sure, would never have authorized the outrages being perpetrated by Syrianus in Alexandria. After all, Constantius had pledged his support for Athanasius, and the emperor was assuredly an honorable man. “I know your long-suffering goodness,” Athanasius wrote. “These men earnestly wish that I should suffer death. . . . You will be astonished, Augustus, most beloved of God, when you hear it.”

But the emperor was not astonished, as Athanasius soon learned, for the sole and simple reason that he had authorized the persecution. A letter from the augustus to the citizens of Alexandria disabused Athanasius of all confidence in–and respect for–Constantius. Not only did the letter command his arrest and declare all who continued to support him “enemies of the emperor,” it also pronounced him dethroned as bishop–and named his successor.

More blows kept falling. The Arians said that the bishop of Rome had gone over to them. Even ancient Hosius, one of the central architects of the Nicene Creed, and champion of Athanasius’s cause since the beginning, had at one point briefly capitulated. Apart from a few loyal bishops, all in exile, and his huge flock in Alexandria and the Nile Delta, Athanasius seemed to be standing largely alone. It was Athanasius contra mundum–“Athanasius against the world”–a saying that would live on for untold centuries, inspiring countless crusaders for any number of causes to defy supposedly authoritative opposition in defense of what they believed to be true.

Meanwhile, the search for him raged across the desert. Monastery after monastery was ransacked by the troops, the monks beaten to make them talk. Their meager food supplies were confiscated, their buildings were destroyed, some were burned alive. They spirited him from place to place; not a single monk betrayed him. He lived in caves, tracked the desert by night, and hid with the hermits. “I endured everything,” he later wrote. “I even dwelt among wild beasts.” That he was more than sixty years old at the time, he did not mention.

His successor arrived in Alexandria on February 24, 357, with an army detachment assigned to reinforce ecclesiastical orders. This man, known as George the Cappadocian, had somewhat unusual qualifications for the leadership of the second biggest pastorate in Christendom. He had never been a priest or deacon, but he had a well-established reputation (or so his many adversaries later attested) for greed, dishonesty, cruelty and brutality. He had been, in fact, a Constantinople meat broker with a contract to supply pork to the army, and he possessed a notorious temper. But he was a zealous Arian, and had been sent to Alexandria for one purpose only: to bash the stubborn Alexandrians into conformity.

Bishop George’s first act was to turn all the churches over to Arian clergy, and forbid the faithful to meet anywhere else. Protests followed immediately, particularly from St. Theonas Church, scene of two attempts to arrest Athanasius. For the task of terrorizing St. Theonas, the new bishop recruited a gang of pagan youths, and turned them loose on the congregation. The gang arrived after most of the worshipers had departed, only a few women and older men remaining behind. Athanasius writes in his History of the Arians:

A piteous spectacle ensued. The women had just risen from prayer and had sat down, and the youths, stripped naked, suddenly came upon them with stones and clubs. The godless wretches stoned some of them to death. They lashed the holy virgins, tore off their veils and exposed their heads. When they resisted this insult, the cowards kicked them with their feet.

This was dreadful, exceeding dreadful, but what ensued was worse, more intolerable than any outrage. Knowing the holy character of the virgins, and that their ears were unaccustomed to any pollution, and that they were better able to bear stones and swords than any obscenity, they assailed them with such language. This, the Arians had suggested to the young men, and laughed at all they said and did; while the holy virgins and other godly women fled from such words as they would from the bite of snakes.

After this, that they might fully execute the orders they had received, they seized upon the seats and throne and the table that was of wood, and the curtains of the church, and carried them out and burnt them before the doors in the great street, and cast frankincense upon the flame.

One young pillager, Athanasius notes with undisguised satisfaction, suffered God’s vengeance on the spot. After seating himself on the bishop’s throne and singing obscene songs, he tried to pull the throne out to the fire. It toppled over and killed him.

Soon afterwards, another group of holy women, denied access to their churches, met for worship in a cemetery. A large contingent of soldiers under a commander named Sebastian, known for his fierce temperament, descended upon them and demanded that they forthwith embrace Arianism. When they refused, he had them stripped and beaten so severely that some died, and then denied them a Christian burial.

A new governor, Cataphronius, then appeared, and sixteen bishops were sent into exile in the desert, the hope being, says Athanasius, that many would be unable to survive the conditions and would perish, as some no doubt did. This was followed by the banishment of thirty more bishops and the arrest and impoverishment of any leading laity suspected of supporting Athanasius. From his hideout, Athanasius poured scorn on the crackdown. He wrote:

Where is there a house that they did not ravage? Where is there a family they did not plunder on pretense of searching for their opponents? Where is there a garden they did not trample under foot? What tomb did they not open, pretending they were seeking for Athanasius? How many men’s houses were sealed up? The contents of how many persons’ lodgings did they give away to the soldiers who assisted them?

All this and more was laid to the ministrations of Bishop George, whom contemporary historians denounced with fervor. Epiphanius, for example, describes him as steeped in vice, scrupling at nothing violent or disgraceful, robbing people of their inheritance and endowing himself with monopoly control over the sale of papyrus (the antecedent of paper), fertilizer and salt. Most galling of all, George ordered that all burials be made in high-priced coffins of his own manufacture.

People bitterly recalled the letter from the emperor Constantius that had commended this man to them. He had placed them “under the guidance of the most venerable George,” the emperor had written, “than whom no man is more perfectly instructed.” Under George “you will continue to have good expectations, respecting the future life, and will pass your time in this present world in rest and quietness.”

Constantius was to be disillusioned. Soldiers or no soldiers, eighteen months after George arrived he was mobbed by an infuriated crowd and rescued only “with difficulty.” He soon departed from the diocese on an extended leave. Immediately, the faithful reclaimed their churches. But the return of Sebastian with the main body of troops, after a fruitless search for Athanasius in the desert, quickly restored the churches to Arian control.

The same process was going on all over the empire. At Milan, the Arian Auxentius of Cappadocia was arbitrarily appointed, and the Nicene bishop Dionysius exiled. At Nicomedia, the Arian Cecropius was made bishop. At Sirmium, Arles and Lisbon, the story was the same. At Trier, Toulouse, Vercelli and Cordoba, bishops were deported and their sees left vacant. An Arian bishop was dispatched even to distant Ethiopia. At Alexandria, laments Athanasius, “profligate heathen youths” were being made bishops to supplant those banished to the desert.

In 357, when Leontius, the bishop of Antioch died, the fervent Arian Eudoxius was installed in his place, putting Antioch firmly into Arian hands. Three years later, when Eudoxius became bishop of Constantinople, his successor at Antioch, Ananias, displayed theological ideas dangerously close to the Niceans. He was promptly banished in favor of someone more reliably Arian. When this man likewise proved to be too orthodox, he also was deposed, and the Arian Euzoius brought in. Euzoius’s Arianism proved sufficiently dependable to keep him in office for the next seventeen years. At Constantinople, says the historian Socrates, people who refused to take communion from Arian clergy were persuaded otherwise by propping their mouths open with pieces of wood and forcing it down their throats.

Unable to find Athanasius, the authorities decided to discredit him by declaring him a coward. How, they asked, could he justify abandoning his flock to the horrors they were enduring on his account? Why would he not come forward like an honorable man and surrender? He delivered his answer in another historic missive, Defense of His Flight, and it, too, spread everywhere.

Jesus himself had at one point escaped his persecutors (John 8:59), Athanasius writes, as had both Peter (Acts 12:7—10) and Paul (Acts 21:35—40). In each instance, no good purpose would have been served by their surrender, and this was true of his own case. When the time came, Jesus faced death and endured it, as did the apostles. He must do the same, if and when the time came. He made two other points: The real reason his pursuers sought his voluntary surrender was their humiliation over failing to find him. Moreover, if flight from persecution is cowardice, then what of the conducting of persecution? That would be diabolical, he writes, but his foes were doing it all over the empire.

Gone by now is all condescension to the emperor. In Athanasius’s new perspective, Constantius is worse than Saul, Ahab or Pilate. He is a man who slays his uncles and cousins, who breaks his oaths, who sends old bishops to perish in the wilderness, who has no sympathy even for his own suffering kinsmen. After two military victories, Constantius had formally declared himself “eternal,” sneers Athanasius, and adds, “Those who refuse to allow eternity to the Son (of God) have the boldness to declare it for the emperor.”

It was now the year 358, and soon Constantius would have ruled as sole emperor for ten years. Like heads of state both before and after him, he leaned toward government by anniversary. How magnificent it would be if he could mark the decennial by announcing that he had persuaded the bishops of the Christian church to cease their interminable wrangling over the identity of Jesus Christ and finally to come together in unity. He, Constantius, would have achieved what his legendary father had notably failed to do.

Apart from the Athanasius problem, however, another was rapidly emerging, though Constantius was slow to recognize it. It arose out of one of the sad certainties of human experience, namely that the negative case is easier to make than the positive one. It is always easier to attack a belief than to defend one, and consensus among the opposition survives only until the enemy falls and the rebels themselves get to take charge. Then they disintegrate.

As long as the central task was to attack the Nicene Creed, agreement among Arians was relatively easy. But when it came to proposing an alternative creed, cracks began appearing–cracks which developed first into crevasses and then into canyons. Over the next six years, the Arians would produce some eighteen new creeds, or variations of creeds, not one of which could even begin to gain sincere and wide acceptance.

The first such attempt had been the Creed of Sirmium, described in the last chapter. Far from producing unity, however, the “Blasphemous Creed,” as even the moderate opponents of Nicea termed it, inflamed the eastern bishops into opposition. Most grouped themselves around the brilliant and acerbic Basil of Ancyra. They became known as the “semi-Arians,” and adopted the term homoiousion, declaring the Second Person to be “of like substance” with the Father, rather than homoousion, “of the same substance,” as declared in the Nicene Creed. The letter “i” (in Greek iota) in the middle of the word made a difference, enunciating their belief that the Word, whom John’s Gospel said “was God,” was a “like thing” to God, but not the “same” thing.

Swiftly from the desert came the message that Athanasius regarded these as “brothers in the faith.” He described them as “those who accept everything else that was defined at Nicea and doubt only about homoousion.” These “must not be treated as enemies,” he said. “Nor do we attack them as ‘Ariomaniacs,’ nor as opponents of the Father, but we discuss the matter with them as brother with brothers, who mean what we mean, and dispute only about the word.”1

The semi-Arians had signed the creed at Nicea, but only reluctantly, because they considered the homoousion clause suggestive of the Sabellian heresy.2 When the rebellion against Nicea broke out, they had joined it, though they were far more anti-Sabellian than they were pro-Arian. The historian B. J. Kidd in A History of the Church (Oxford, 1922) describes them as “a party of high motives and conscientious scruples, very nearly orthodox.” The nineteenth-century British scholar Archibald Robertson, who remained for the entire twentieth century the most widely read translator of Athanasius, was less generous. They shared “the empirical conservatism of men whose own principles are vague and ill-assorted and who fail to follow the keener sight which distinguishes the higher conservatism from the lower,” he writes. However, they had the numbers. Vague they might be, but they represented the views of most eastern bishops.

At the opposite end of the spectrum stood the extreme Arians, like the notorious George of Cappadocia, Athanasius’s arbitrarily appointed replacement. Whatever the Bible called him, they held, Jesus was in the end a mere creature and nothing more. In other words, God did not die on a cross. Theologically, these people were known as the Anomoeans.3 Their leader in the west was Bishop Valens of Mursa, a pupil of Arius himself, and who from Nicea onward had been the archenemy of Athanasius. His reputation was that of the complete ecclesiastical politician, entirely capable of repudiating today a position that he had taken yesterday, if it furthered his ultimate goal–which was the destruction of both Athanasius and the Nicene Creed.

By far the most formidable Anomoean spokesman was of a very different stripe, however. Aetius was not by profession a clergyman; he was a philosopher, an authority on Aristotle. Nor was he what a much later generation would call “smooth.” Self-made and self-confident, he did not equivocate, and under the future emperor Julian, he would be made a bishop. “His loud voice and clear-cut logic,” writes Robertson, “lost none of their effect by fear of offending the religious sensibilities of others.” This inclination served Athanasius well, if only because Aetius’s brash assertions horrified the moderate semi-Arians, to whom he was simply “godless.”

Between these two groups stood what Robertson calls “the political Arians.” Their leader was Acacius, bishop of Caesarea. Their party was named for him, the Acacians. “In the main,” writes Robertson, “he had a rooted dislike of principle of any kind,” though he was sure of one thing, namely “the union of all parties of the church in subservience to the state.” The Acacian objective was to hold together the rapidly fragmenting Arian movement long enough for Constantius to proclaim at his decennial that the Christian church was at last united. To accomplish this, they must somehow gain universal approval for a creed whose language was so unspecific that it would adroitly avoid all the issues, while resolving none of them.

This was certainly not the Creed of Sirmium, which had caused the uproar that in turn produced the whole semi-Arian phenomenon. The Acacian leader, Basil of Ancyra, therefore boldly approached the emperor with a better idea. Why not have another council, another Nicea, which would correct the shortcomings of the original creed? To Basil’s astonishment, Constantius heartily agreed. Basil found himself suddenly basking in the imperial favor, which he swiftly exploited by securing the ouster of several Anomoean bishops.

These developments quickly activated the political Arians, along with the devious Valens. In one huge council, they feared, an accord could develop between Basil’s semi-Arians and those still tacitly in favor of the Nicene Creed, resulting in the, to them, ghastly possibility of Nicea’s reaffirmation. To divorce Constantius from his infatuation with Basil’s ideas, they proposed instead that there be two councils, one in the east and one in the west. The western would be held at Rimini in Italy (then known as Ariminum) on the Adriatic, east of Rome and twenty miles south of Ravenna.

The eastern meeting proved more problematic. Hold it at Nicea, some suggested. No, that would tend to confuse the old creed with the projected new one. Better to choose Nicomedia, capital of Bithynia, at the eastern end of the Sea of Marmara, seventy-five miles from Constantinople: Invitations were sent out, the eastern bishops embarked, and then nature intervened. Nicomedia was wrecked by an earthquake.4 The site finally settled on was Seleucia (modern Silifke, Turkey), a mountain fortress with a reassuring concentration of troops, in case the bishops got out of hand.

But first, the new creed must be prepared. Drawn up with fastidious care, it was presented first to the Council of Rimini, where more than four hundred western bishops assembled in the summer of 359.5 It not only eliminated the word homoousion (of the same substance) but also denounced it as “something the fathers used in their simplicity,” and which “has become a cause of scandal.” Instead, it proclaimed the Son to be “like the Father.” But how like him? Everything was like him to a degree, some argued, since everything was made by him. The wording had to be more specific. Some wanted “like him in all respects.” Others objected that this merely affirmed Nicea.

The proposed preamble also made many uneasy, since it suggested the emperor must authorize the creed of the church. It read: “The Catholic Faith has been set forth in presence of our master, the most pious and triumphant Emperor Constantius Augustus, eternal and venerable.” Accompanying it was the emperor’s order to the bishops to sign the creed, which became known as the “Dated Creed” because it was on this date that the Christians, under orders from the emperor, finally declared what they believed. Or so it was supposed.

Events shortly proved otherwise. Like most compromises intended to please everybody, observes the historian J. R. Palanque in The Church in the Christian Roman Empire (Paris, 1949) the Dated Creed pleased nobody. Worse still, it soon became obvious–to the horror of Valens and the emperor–that despite all their efforts at “cleansing” the episcopate, only about eighty of the four hundred assembled bishops were fully Arian. Real disaster, from their point of view, then followed. This episcopal majority, still harboring a loyalty to Nicea, took over the council, excommunicated Valens and other Anomoean extremists, and sent a delegation to Constantius to inform him of what they had done. Valens immediately followed, at the head of an opposing delegation of Arians.

Constantius refused to see the former, but warmly welcomed the latter and ordered them to talk the rival delegation around. Meanwhile, the remaining three hundred and more bishops awaited word at hot and humid Rimini, while the living conditions grew intolerable and the food began running out. Under pressure of argument and threat, the delegates finally surrendered to Valens’s wishes and signed. Constantius then informed the main body back at Rimini that they must remain there until they, too, acquiesced. With the food supply by now very low indeed, they finally gave in, and thus did the Dated Creed become the creed of the western church. The Acacians, the political Arians, had triumphed.

They did not triumph at Seleucia, however. Here 150 eastern bishops met under the watchful eyes of a representative of the emperor. It immediately became plain that about 90 percent of those present were semi-Arians, firmly opposed to the Dated Creed and the emperor’s plans. On the first day, they proposed adoption of the old creed formulated twenty years before at Antioch, which they saw as best representing their viewpoint. One hundred and five bishops promptly signed it, in effect resolving the debate before it got started.

Acacius and eighteen of his fellow political Arians walked out, returning two days later with another creed, similar to the one soon to be forced on the western bishops at Rimini. The defiant semi-Arians refused even to discuss it. “If the strengthening of the faith consists in allowing everyone to put forward a particular opinion every day,” declared their new leader, Sophronius of Pompeiopolis, “there can be no more certainty as to the truth.”

At that, the political Arians, accompanied by the emperor’s representative, hastened to Constantinople to confer with Constantius. The remaining bishops, carrying on with the meeting, excommunicated and deposed eight radical Arian bishops, George of Alexandria among them. They also consecrated a new bishop for Antioch (who was seized by the army and banished before he could take office). Finally, they appointed a ten-man delegation to report their decisions to the emperor.

The situation had now reversed. The western bishops, the supposed champions of Nicea, had been browbeaten and starved into signing a creed repulsive to them. The eastern bishops, the supposed opponents of Nicea, had brazenly defied the imperial authority in its favor. This was too much for the outspoken Hilary of Poitiers, Athanasius’s firm supporter in the west, who in a ringing indictment denounced his fellow western bishops for disloyalty:

A slave–not even a particularly good slave, but an ordinary one–will not support an injury to his master. He avenges it, if he can do so. A soldier defends his king, even at the peril of his life, and even making a rampart of his own body. A dog barks at the slightest alarm, and leaps forward at the slightest suspicion. But you hear it said that the Christ, the true Son of God, is not God, yet you remain silent. Your silence is an adhesion to this blasphemy. In fact you even protest against those who do cry out, and join in with those who try to stifle them.

Even the easterners, however, finally caved in–or anyhow, their ten-man delegation did. These unfortunates were put under every form of pressure–promises, threats, intrigue–in a race against the deadline of December 31, 359, the eve of the year of Constantius’s decennial. The tenth signature was wrested from the final reluctant signatory in the middle of the last night.

It was still necessary, however, for something resembling a new eastern council to ratify what its delegates had accepted on its behalf. This was arranged for the following week at Constantinople, and consisted of a gathering of bishops from nearby Thrace and Bithynia who were considered reliable. Its business moved briskly. The Dated Creed, adopted at Rimini, was ratified as a replacement for the Nicene. Various bishops were deposed, particularly the semi-Arians who had proved so hostile at Seleucia. The radical Arians known as the Anomoeans were likewise deposed as troublemakers, and the fiery Aetius deposed from the diaconate and told to quit writing books and articles. George of Alexandria was reprimanded, but recalled to office.

Imperial officers then spread out across the eastern empire to secure the signature of every bishop, always with the same ultimatum: Sign or be banished. Most eventually did sign, although some few stubbornly refused and accepted exile. With that, Constantius declared the church united, the Nicene Creed supplanted, and the new faith established. “The world groaned to find itself Arian,” Jerome would later write. Still, one very significant bishop had emphatically not become Arian, and had not been caught either: Athanasius remained at large. His powerfully reasoned denunciation of the imperially ordained creed soon appeared, to be clandestinely spread far and wide by sympathizers.

By now, it was April of the fateful year 360, and once again overwhelming political and military events suddenly dictated the affairs of the Christian church. Two young nephews of Constantine the Great had survived the bloodbath of the year 337. Gallus, the elder, had been about eleven years old when the soldiers arrived to execute his father and elder brother. Gallus may have been spared because he was a sickly child, expected to die shortly anyway; his younger half brother Julian was only six. Julian’s mother had died soon after her son’s birth. The two boys were raised thereafter in highly guarded isolation, lest they be seized by some ambitious military usurper and used to figurehead a revolt.

Each responded differently to these traumatic events. They left Gallus depraved, ferocious and utterly unstable. They left Julian with a rooted hatred of everything associated with his cousin Constantius, whom he regarded as the murderer of his family. He despised the man, and also the eunuchs and sycophant bishops who surrounded him. But most of all, he distrusted Constantius’s religion, Christianity, whether Arian, Nicene or any other variety. This eventually led him back to paganism, a fact he long kept secret. Constantius, either unaware of these facts about his cousins, or compelled to disregard them, would vest each in turn with enormous responsibilities, and he also gave one of his sisters to each of them as a wife.6

Constantius’s civil war against the usurper Magnentius, with its toll of fifty-four thousand Roman troops killed, had dangerously weakened the whole Rhine-Danube frontier. The barbarians, largely inactive since their “pacification” by Constantine the Great, resumed their raids across the Rhine and Danube with greater success than ever. Constantius, up to then preoccupied with the Persian front, had to turn his attention westward. But who could replace him in the east? It was time to see what his cousin Gallus was made of. On March 15, 351, Constantius named him caesar of the east.

Gallus’s new wife, Constantina, who was Constantius’s sister, was the widow of another cousin, Hannibalian, who was also a victim of the bloodbath of 337. She was a “fury in human shape,” writes the historian Ammianus, and she exacerbated Gallus’s worst tendencies. The consequence was a regime of brutality conducted from their palace at Antioch, a place British historian Edward Gibbon describes as a “house of horrors.” “Judicial procedure was disregarded and informers honored. Men were condemned to death without trial, and members of the city council imprisoned,” writes Norman H. Baynes in the Cambridge Medieval History. Both husband and wife exhibited “a brutal lust for a naked display of unrestrained authority.”

When the praetorian prefect sent word of all this to Constantius, Gallus had the prefect imprisoned and set the mob against him. They broke into the prison and tore him to pieces. Exasperated at last, Constantius summoned his caesar-cousin to appear before him in Milan. En route west, Gallus’s wife Constantina was seized and murdered. Constantius, that is, must have ordered his own sister put to death. Gallus became the prisoner of his guards, and as the journey continued, was stripped of the imperial purple robes. In Italy, he was presented before a commission headed by Eusebius, the emperor’s chief eunuch and administrator, who formally examined his record in imperial office and pronounced the death penalty. Gallus was beheaded in the Italian town of Polo, a place of ill memory in the Constantinian family. It was here that Crispus, eldest son of Constantine the Great, had been executed on his father’s orders twenty-eight years earlier.

By now, the situation on the Rhine-Danube front had grown much worse, with one barbarian horde after another wreaking ruin on the Roman towns. In the north, the Salian Franks had taken full possession of a vast tract of Gaul. The Alamanni had overrun much of central Gaul, and captured Strasbourg, Worms and Mainz. The Franks had captured Cologne. Some forty-five Roman towns in the Rhine Valley had been pillaged and burned, and barbarians had formed settlements as much as fifty miles west of the river. Meanwhile, soldiers who had supported the usurper Magnentius had formed themselves into gangs and ravaged far and wide.

Constantius faced a dilemma. If a victorious general were assigned to subdue the tribes, and succeeded, he might become another Magnentius, and once again create civil war. Yet Constantius could not personally direct the defense of all three fronts–the Rhine, the Danube and the Euphrates. He was driven therefore to turn to the last surviving nephew of Constantine: Julian, now thirty years old. This, too, was dangerous, of course, since a triumphant Julian could also proclaim himself a rival augustus. But this seemed unlikely; the young man had become a philosopher, buried in his books.

Whatever the risk, Constantius had no alternative. On November 6, 355, he proclaimed his cousin caesar in the west, gave his sister Helena to him in marriage, and assigned him to the Rhine frontier. Julian, although dreading the job, surrendered to the will of the gods. He secretly had himself inducted into Mithraism, the pagan religion of the Roman army, served briefly under another general, and then launched a military career that within the next five years would rival that of his renowned grandfather, the great Constantine.

Julian’s victories followed one upon the other in quick succession. A brilliant defense of the fortress of Sens won him the loyalty of his troops. Then Cologne was recovered. Next, the Franks were smashed in a stunning series of defeats at and around Strasbourg, and their king was sent as a prisoner to Constantius. After a further drubbing the following spring, they too made peace, which put the whole lower Rhine back in Roman hands.

In the following summer, Julian completed the reconquest of the upper Rhine, and used his barbarian prisoners to rebuild the Roman forts there. He reopened the supply of British grain to Roman towns, and forced the barbarians to yield up twenty thousand prisoners and slaves they had taken while they had free rein in Gaul. He restored the civil administration, refused military pressure to raise taxes, fired crooked tax collectors and replaced them with his own men, and reduced special tax breaks for the wealthy.

Constantius had meanwhile subdued the tribes on the Danube, but on the Euphrates had met with failure. Sapor II, the Persian king, aware of Rome’s problems in the west, suddenly required that the Romans vacate all of Mesopotamia and turn Christian Armenia over to Zoroastrian Persia. It was an outrageous demand, which Constantius rejected outright. Sapor’s invasion promptly followed, thwarted initially by a heroic seventy-three-day Roman defense of Amida in Mesopotamia. When the town finally surrendered, Sapor murdered or enslaved the entire population, but he had lost thirty thousand men in the siege, and had to withdraw and regroup for a second attack the next year.

Constantius knew he could not hold the Persian front without reinforcements from the legions on the Rhine. He sent his own general to lead them to the east, rather than entrust the task to Julian, but the troops balked. Fearing that their departure would set the barbarians on the warpath again, thus endangering their own families, they rose in rebellion and proclaimed Julian as augustus. Julian, knowing that if he refused they would probably kill him and choose another, donned the purple robes and prepared to march on Constantinople and have it out with his cousin. But fate intervened. Constantius was disheartened, desperate and so stricken with fever that he accepted baptism from an Arian bishop at Mopsuestia (now Misis in Turkey) and died the next day, November 3, 361.

The unfortunate George, as it happened, had chosen that very month to return to his duties as bishop of Alexandria. Scarcely had he arrived when the faithful heard of Constantius’s death. They clapped Bishop George smartly into irons and conducted him to prison. One morning, about three weeks later, they dragged him out again, executed him and paraded his body through the streets on the back of a camel, with the corpse of his latest military enforcer dragging through the dirt behind him. That afternoon, they burned both bodies.

Julian, meanwhile, issued orders that all banished bishops were to be returned to their cities. Athanasius, as if out of nowhere, appeared unannounced at an evening service in one of his churches, causing a sensation. Where had he been? How could he have returned so soon from the desert? The explanation then came out. He had been for some time under the care of a very devout virgin, a woman so beautiful (writes the Christian historian Sozomen) “that men of gravity and reflection kept aloof from her, for fear of giving rise to slander, or of exciting disadvantageous reports.” That a bishop should live in her home seemed so preposterous, not only to the Christians but the Roman authorities as well, that in perfect safety she was able to provide him with shelter, food and writing materials.

Restored to office for the third time, Athanasius acted quickly. He called a council of his bishops at Alexandria, and set forth one simple basis for the restoration of church unity: acceptance of the Nicene Creed. Those who had departed from it, or signed other creeds, the council decided, must be instantly forgiven–once they had made that acceptance. When his old friends, the monks, attacked the semi-Arians, he told them to show charity and they did. When his longtime supporter, Lucifer of Calaris, created a new schism at Antioch by taking a harder line, Athanasius repudiated him. Long regarded as the chief troublemaker, Athanasius became the chief pacifier overnight.

Far and wide, east and west, Christians answered his call. Arianism, so recently perceived as inescapable, had suddenly become very escapable indeed. Apparently, it could prevail only so long as it had something to attack. Having gained the ascendancy, it fatally fragmented. The battle was not over, for much of the imperial circle and high-ranking clergy remained Arian, but Christians everywhere, both lay and clerical, were uniting behind Nicea. The struggle came to resemble the old conflict of imperial officialdom against the Christians, especially in view of a new factor.

Julian, who now succeeded Constantius, made his paganism public as soon as he knew he was in charge. Neither Arian nor Nicene, he was opposed to them all. When he learned what the tireless Athanasius, now about sixty-five years old, was doing at Alexandria, he wrote in wrath to the prefect of Egypt:

Even though you do not write to me on other matters, you ought at least to have written about that enemy of the gods, Athanasius, especially since, for a long time past, you have known my just decrees. I swear by mighty Serapis that, if Athanasius the enemy of the gods does not depart from that city [Alexandria], or rather from all Egypt, before the December kalends, I shall fine the cohort which you command a hundred pounds of gold. And you know that, though I am slow to condemn, I am even much slower to remit when I have once condemned.

[The remainder is added in the emperor’s own hand.] It vexes me greatly that my orders are neglected. By all the gods, there is nothing I should be so glad to see, or rather hear reported as achieved by you, as that Athanasius has been expelled beyond the frontiers of Egypt. Infamous man! He has the audacity to baptize Greek women of rank during my reign! Let him be driven forth!

He then wrote to the people of Alexandria, calling Athanasius “a meddlesome man, unfit by nature to be a leader of the people,” and warning them that he wanted Athanasius out of the city. So their bishop was banished again. His sojourn in Alexandria this time had lasted eight months, but that was enough to set the restoration of Nicea in motion. “Be of good cheer,” he told his weeping flock, as he prepared to leave the city. “This is a cloud that will very soon blow away.” His prophecy was to prove altogether correct.

At that, Athanasius vanished from the city for the fourth time, as usual narrowly dodging plans to arrest him, but on this occasion, with comic consequences. For a change, he headed up the Nile by boat; when warned that imperial authorities were following him in another vessel, he came about and sailed back downstream. Soon his pursuers came in sight, and hailed his crew with an urgent question: Had they seen Athanasius? Indeed they had, the bishop’s men shouted back, “and he’s not far from here.” At that, the authorities redoubled their upstream efforts. After they returned without him, Athanasius secretly ascended the Nile once again, and spent the next eighteen months visiting the ancient cities of the Pharaohs and the monasteries that were appearing all around the lower valley.

One scene on that voyage particularly moved him. As his vessel tracked along the bank by night near Hermopolis, about midway between Thebes and Memphis, he came upon an assembly of hundreds of monks, clergy and bishops, standing under torchlight to greet him. He came ashore, mounted a donkey and made his way among them. “Who are these,” he intoned, echoing Isaiah (60:8) “that fly like a cloud, and as doves to their windows?” Then he answered the question. It was not the bishops like him, but these men of prayer, humility and obedience, who carry the cross in their own being. These, he said, are the real “fathers of the church.”

Something else happened to him on that journey. He became obsessed with what he foresaw as his own impending martyrdom, and found himself dreading it. The monks again took him into hiding, but could do nothing to allay his horror. Finally, the abbot Theodore came to him and said he had no cause for fear. But the emperor was clearly determined to execute him, Athanasius argued. Not so, said Theodore, because the emperor, Julian I, had been killed in battle on the Persian front. Quietly back to Alexandria came its weary bishop, now about sixty-seven and restored to his see for the fourth time.

But the death of Julian in 363 ended the era of the Constantinian family. Since no kindred claimant remained, the army searched its own senior officer corps for a successor. One candidate turned down the job, pleading that he was too old. Attention then focused on a certain Jovian, the thirty-two-year-old commander of Julian’s bodyguard. The son and son-in-law of two accomplished officers, he himself had done nothing of note except advance on the merits of his family connections. He was, however, Christian.

Jovian had immediate and urgent problems. Julian’s death had left the Roman army trapped on the eastern frontier, in imminent danger of total destruction by Persian forces. Sapor offered crushing terms to free them. Rome must abandon the five provinces east of the Tigris that it had gained under Diocletian, and must give up three frontier fortresses, and half of Armenia as well. Jovian had to agree, so that the bedraggled legions, the Christian symbol now back on their shields, could begin the grueling trek back to Antioch.

Meanwhile, Athanasius and rival bishops representing the various Christian parties hastened thence to meet the new emperor. “The highways of the east were crowded with Homoousion and Arian, and semi-Arian and Anomoean bishops,” sneers the skeptic Gibbon. These all “struggled to outstrip each other in the holy race; the apartments of the palace resounded with their clamors, and the ears of the prince were assaulted, and perhaps astonished, by the singular mixture of metaphysical argument and passionate invective.” However, Athanasius had come at the specific invitation of the emperor, and the rest were soon informed of Jovian’s position. His Christianity was defined by the Nicene Creed, he said. Athanasius returned triumphant to Alexandria, bishop once again.

But not for long. Jovian made speed for the capital where he knew his reign was in imminent danger, if only because of the catastrophic treaty with the Persians. At a little-known town called Dadastana, however, on the boundary between the provinces of Bithynia and Galatia, he was found dead in his bed one morning. He had been poisoned either by fumes from newly laid plaster, or possibly by eating mushrooms, or by overeating and drinking the night before. Murder was, of course, rumored, although no strong case for it was ever made. His reign had lasted eight months.

The popular choice of the army now fell on another officer, Valentinian, age forty-three, an accomplished general of commanding presence who had distinguished himself in the service of both Julian and Jovian. He, in turn, named his brother Valens, seven years his junior, as augustus for the east. Valens had in no way distinguished himself, however, and could speak no Greek, the language of the empire he was to govern.

Both brothers rapidly established a reputation for brutal authoritarianism, enforced by the swift beheading, burning or clubbing to death of any suspected conspirator or malefactor. Some few, it was said, were torn to pieces by bears caged in Valentinian’s bedroom, to amuse him as he fell asleep. In his more refined moments, however, inspired by his Christian moral principles, he introduced a remarkable social program. This provided child medical care, prohibited the killing of unwanted infants by abandoning them to the elements, and laid the foundations of a public school system. In addition, Valentinian restored Constantine the Great’s policy of toleration for all non-Christian religions except those involving criminal practices, and the Nicene Creed was soon well-re-established in the western churches.

Things were otherwise in the east, however, where younger brother Valens was chronically fearful for his own safety, both spiritual and physical, and especially of the horrors of continuing warfare against the barbarians. He therefore had himself instructed and baptized by the bishop of Constantinople, who persuaded him to become a committed and determined Arian. Thereafter, Arian bishops continued to gain the major eastern sees, often through rigged elections.

This conflict frequently became violent, even homicidal. When some forty-eight Nicene clergy (one historian puts the number at ninety) sought an audience with Valens, he provided them with transport by sea. No sooner was the vessel well off shore than fire engulfed it. The crew all reportedly escaped, which suggests the blaze was deliberately set, quite likely on the emperor’s orders. The clergy all perished.

At Alexandria, political fortune once again turned against the aging Athanasius. In 365, Valens ordered all the clergy who had been banished under Constantius to be banished again. For the fifth and final time, Athanasius was ordered out, occasioning the usual hairbreadth escape. The imperial prefect assured him that the deportation order would be appealed and he should wait and see, but Athanasius did not believe him. He immediately departed. Next day, the prefect and troops ransacked his church in vain.

However, this time the faithful had had enough. The fifth eviction of their bishop set off a riot in the city. Valens, just then confronted with a usurpation attempt and also with major problems on the Danube, had no stomach for another rebellion in Alexandria. He relented, and four months after Athanasius’s disappearance, a written order arrived from the emperor, restoring him to his see. This time, though, Athanasius had not even left town. He had hidden himself in the family crypt in a suburb of Alexandria.

He had seven years left to live, and they were rewarding ones. Notwithstanding continued loyalty to Arianism in high places, it was becoming apparent that even in the east the Arian cause was in sharp decline. In 365, the semi-Arians agreed to sign the Nicene Creed, thereby uniting with Athanasius. The following year, Acacius died, and the “political Arians” began to fragment and dissolve. In 369, a council at Alexandria confirmed the decision of another council at Rome to excommunicate the bishops Valens and Ursacius, who headed the Arian cause in the west. Aetius, leader of the radical Arians known as Anomoeans, died in or about 370, leaving no effective successor.

However, the greatest encouragement for Athanasius came from Cappadocia, the same region that had produced the deplorable George. Basil, a relatively young man, became bishop of Cappadocian Caesarea, and rapidly established himself as the new and extremely effective champion of the Nicene Creed. Basil’s defense of it was rooted in the principles that Athanasius had battled to preserve, and Basil could pursue them with the vigor of youth.

To Basil, the old man became, even while still living, a “father of the church,” and Basil urged him to continue working, in whatever time he had left, to restore the church’s shattered unity. “The more the disorders of the church increase, the more do we turn toward your perfection,” Basil wrote to Athanasius, describing his advice as “safer from error, both by virtue of your age and experience in affairs, and also because you have the guidance of the Spirit beyond other men.”

Athanasius had indeed become a champion of unity, steadfastly insisting that anyone who could now ascribe to the Nicene Creed, whatever his previous errors, must be welcomed back as fully Christian. There must be no penalties for past mistakes. Consequently, people were returning to the Nicene fold in ever-greater numbers. Athanasius’s life came to a tranquil end in 373, at his little house in Alexandria, nearly half a century after Nicea, probably on May 2. He “ended his life in a holy old age,” writes Gregory of Nazianzus, “and went to keep company with his fathers, the patriarchs, prophets, apostles and martyrs, who had fought valiantly for the truth, as he had done.”

Not everyone viewed Athanasius so fondly, of course, then or later. In some respects, he would remain almost as controversial in the view of future generations as he was in his own. For example, Paul Johnson’s History of Christianity (New York, 1976) cites against him assorted charges of violence, with no effort to refute them. One document that came to light in 1922 would certainly support Johnson’s charge. A letter from a Meletian Christian, the schismatic group that broke away from the Alexandrian church in the previous century, charges Athanasius with either conducting, or at least countenancing, a crackdown in which some were beaten up and others imprisoned. If so, he was clearly capable of violence himself.

University of Toronto historian Timothy D. Barnes, in his Athanasius and Constantius (Cambridge Massachusetts, 1993), goes farther. He accuses Athanasius of being such “a subtle and skillful liar” that for generations he held historians in thrall. On the other hand, Barnes notes, the skeptical Edward Gibbon in his classic anti-Christian polemic, The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, unaccountably presents a virtual panegyric on Athanasius. But Athanasius, says Barnes, “could not have cut such an impressive figure had he not been conspicuously lacking in the Christian virtues of meekness and humility.” However, the same could be said, and was said, of Jesus himself.

Critics of Athanasius find less to deplore in what he did than in how he did it. He was deeply convinced that in the Arian controversy, the central message of Christianity was under attack. In its defense, he was brazen, fearless, confident, and unimpressed by established authority, and very possibly did not on occasion shrink from violence either.

Such unshakable certainty evokes disgust in some people but admiration in others, which explains why the fault line on Athanasius does not lie along the Catholic-Protestant divide. He is a hero to both Protestants and Catholics, writes his biographer R. Wheeler Bush–although he should have said to some Protestants and some Catholics. Johnson, who is critical in almost every reference, is Roman Catholic; Bush himself, whose attitude is close to adulation, was an Anglican clergyman. Perhaps the most perceptive summation of Athanasius’s accomplishment comes from Mark Noll, professor of history at Wheaton College, Illinois:

Athanasius did not consider Arius’s arguments as philosophical curiosities. Rather, he viewed them as daggers aimed at the very heart of the Christian message. His memorable treatise, On the Incarnation . . . summarized the case he would continue to make for the rest of his life: If Christ were not truly God, he could not bestow life on the repentant, and free them from sin and death. Yet this work of salvation is at the heart of the biblical picture of Christ, and it has anchored the church’s life since the beginning. What Athanasius saw clearly was that unless Christ was truly God, humanity would lose the hope that Paul expressed in 2 Corinthians 5:21, “that in Christ we might become the righteousness of God.” (From: Turning Points: Decisive Moments in the History of Christianity, Grand Rapids, 1997.)

But whatever his virtues and faults, few would deny that Athanasius was the chief barrier to the Arian heresy. When Catholic, Orthodox, Anglican, Lutheran and many other Christians recite the Nicene Creed, they can properly thank God for the stubborn, cantankerous and heroic bishop of Alexandria, and his astute realization that the alternative to the Nicene Creed was a downward slide in the content of the Christian faith, with each concession calculated to widen its intellectual appeal, eventually to the point where there remained scarcely anything to believe at all.

Athanasius could die satisfied that Arianism would soon die, too–which it did, though not gently. In fact, his death set off a new round of persecution, first in Alexandria, then elsewhere in the east. To assure the continuity of the Nicene cause in Egypt, he had nominated his longtime supporter Peter to succeed him. But the Arians had already chosen a candidate for the see, and before Peter could be consecrated, they once again invaded St. Theonas Church, with a gang of pagan ruffians who offered the usual displays of obscenity.

The historian Theodoret preserves Peter’s account of what followed. The holy women were “insulted, assassinated, violated and led naked through the town.” A young man, painted and dressed as a woman, danced on the altar, while another, stark naked, delivered crudities as a homily from the bishop’s chair. In the midst of these festivities, says Theodoret, the Arian candidate was led into the venerable old church to be proclaimed bishop. Executions and banishments of Nicene supporters followed, along with confiscation of their property. Peter sought refuge in Rome, just as Athanasius had done thirty-four years earlier.

The source of this latest anti-Nicene fury was never in doubt. The emperor Valens, who early in his reign had survived one usurpation attempt, remained ever alert to the dangers of another. He saw those Christians loyal to Nicea as one of two likely sources. His other and even more acute fear was any whiff of the magic and divination aspect of paganism. Discovering that some pagans at Antioch had concluded from a mystical Delphic rite that the name of the next emperor would begin with Theo, and that others by a different magical formula had come to the same conclusion, he unleashed a slaughter of every conceivably eligible candidate unfortunate enough to possess such a name. Ammianus says the purge was conducted “with the utmost ferocity,” and the tortures and executions resembled the slaughter of animals. Valens himself so enjoyed these spectacles, Ammianus adds, that he became a connoisseur of torture, and would be visibly saddened when the victim escaped it by dying.

His brother Valentinian had another failing, an uncontrollable temper. On November 17, 375, he became so enraged at what he considered the cocky arrogance of a delegation of barbarians admitted to his presence, that he collapsed in a fit of apoplexy and died before doctors could calm him down. His heirs in the west were two juveniles: his sons Gratian, sixteen, and Valentinian II, four. The effect was to bolster the power of Valens as senior augustus, and the confidence of the phalanx of Arian bishops he had installed throughout the east.

But this power was soon to prove a facade. Led by the skillful Basil and two Cappadocian colleagues (see sidebar, page 60), the rank and file of the Christian church, along with almost all its younger clergy, saw Arianism only as an unworkable attempt to avoid the unavoidable. Either Jesus the Word was substantially and essentially God, or as Augustine was about to declare, he was “not a good man.” Arianism and all the other “in-between” expedients could not be rationally, historically or theologically sustained. Valens’s successor, whose name incidentally would indeed begin with Theo, would before very long call the church into formal council and declare Arianism dead. Only among the barbarian nations would it long survive, and even there it would gradually perish over the next two hundred years.

As for Valens, he too was about to perish, in a battle that many historians view as the greatest catastrophe ever suffered by the army of the Roman Empire.

This is the end of the Arianism category article drawn from Chapter Two, beginning on page 39, of Volume Four, Darkness Descends. To continue reading more about Arianism from The Christians, Their First Two Thousand Years we suggest experiencing the rest of the book, complete with hundreds of magnificent illustrations, by ordering it at