Christian History Project. This site contains the text of 12 volumes on the history of mankind over the last 2,000 years written from a 'collectively-denominational' Christian perspective.

1. Athanasius |
The man who stood against the world

Athanasius is drawn from Chapter One, beginning on page 12, 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

Defying emperors, bishops, officialdom, fire and sword, Athanasius fights alone to save the creed Christians would recite for the next sixteen hundred years

Athanasius - The man who stood against the world

Athanasius - The man who stood against the world
In this detail from a stained glass window in St. Athanasius Episcopal Church in Brunswick, Georgia, artist Jon Erickson captures the iron resolution that made Athanasius of Alexandria an enduring model for lone crusades against entrenched authority. The saying Athanasius contra-mundrum (Athanasius against the world) would become their lasting watchword.

In the intimate inner circles of the burgeoning new Christian capital of Constantinople, the operative word was metaschematizo. It meant change. But not merely surface change; it meant to rearrange the entire form of something. The year was 337 and in the last two decades much had changed. Constantinople was becoming the new Rome. More than that, though, it was becoming the capital of a whole new kind of empire, one whose senior officialdom increasingly spoke Greek rather than Latin. And at the center of the new empire was a new religion, Christianity–new, anyway, to official favor. But most important of all, declared those widely regarded as in touch with the times, Christianity itself must change. There must be a new Christianity.

Everyone close to the levers of power, those who considered themselves realistic and knowledgeable, regarded this as self-evident. The old literalist superstition of a god that died on a cross must go, they said. Cultured people, informed people–people like themselves–could not be expected to accept it. Whoever the man Jesus might be, the Christians must not claim he was of the same “essence” or “substance” as the Divine God, if they were to be taken seriously by serious-minded people. That this claim be unalterably repudiated, they were convinced, was the most important change of all.

Such, for example, was the view of the icily pragmatic Eusebius, bishop of Nicomedia, who stood for what he considered “realism.” And along with this critical theological change, he believed, the old order of church governance would also have to go. The bishop of Rome, of course, must still represent a certain spiritual presence, but it would be largely a symbolic thing. Real ecclesiastical power, Eusebius was sure, must henceforth lie with the Christian emperor at Constantinople, who in turn would be advised by the Christian archbishop of Constantinople, a post to which Eusebius himself aspired, and which he would soon fill.

Naturally, there were problems. Chief among them was the massive church council that had been held twelve years ago at nearby Nicea.1 There, the literalists, the urban traditionalists and the backcountry rubes, as Eusebius regarded them, led by old Alexander, archbishop of Alexandria, at a crucial juncture had somehow gained the ear of the newly Christian emperor Constantine. In an appalling backward step, they had most dubiously inserted a detestable clause into the church’s official statement of belief. Jesus Christ, it said, was homoousion–“of one substance”–with the Father, meaning with God. The unregenerate old guard was now advancing this preposterous Nicene declaration as the formal “creed” of Christianity.

In adopting the clause, the Nicene council had rejected what had come to be called Arianism, named for the man who first espoused it. The Arian case was essentially negative. It said what Jesus was not, that he was not of the same essence as the Father. What he was instead, the Arians were not altogether clear about. But in the view of Eusebius and those in Constantinople’s inner circle, the Arian cause was in no sense lost. They were sure that if they could make the right appointments, get rid of the old-liners, put sound, modern-thinking people in as bishops and dispose of the troublemakers who hewed to the old, dead theologies, then the Nicene decision could be reversed. Christianity, too, could then undergo metaschematizo and become the new faith for the new order, stripped of its central mythology–and intellectually respectable.

One major obstruction to their plan, they knew, was a singularly obstinate individual, the undoubted chief of the troublemakers. He was, in the Constantinople view, a sinister, clever and most objectionable man, dangerously facile with words, a hero of the mob, violent, defiant of proper imperial and ecclesiastical authority and a troublemaker born to the role. He could pour out prose, persuasive to the unedified masses, in torrents. It seemed to spread all over the empire, entrenching the old superstitions and impeding theological advance. His name was Athanasius.

His enemies derided him as a cocky little upstart, who as a deacon had got himself made secretary to old Alexander and doubtless had helped pull the strings that caused the setback at Nicea. With Alexander dead, this Athanasius had contrived to have himself elected archbishop of Alexandria and metropolitan of Egypt and Libya. 2

In the view of officialdom, therefore, every effort must be made to repudiate his election to such a high office. For that purpose, a council of dependably enlightened bishops had been convened at Tyre on the Mediterranean coast of Palestine, but he had walked out when he found it loaded against him. There had been a commission of inquiry into charges that he had murdered a priest and that one of his people had desecrated a church. This, too, had gone badly when he produced before the hearing the supposed murder victim, fully alive, and persuasively demonstrated that the desecrated property wasn’t a church and wasn’t desecrated. In the end, in his typical grandstand fashion, he had personally taken his case before the emperor, who, soft on him as he always was, had sent him into exile at beautiful Trier, a city that would one day advertise itself as the oldest metropolis in Germany. Some exile, scoffed his enemies. The place was a resort town, where the emperor himself often holidayed.

Trier was also, in fact, the permanent residence of the eldest of the emperor’s three surviving sons, also named Constantine, whom the irrepressible Athanasius came to know well, thereby strengthening the prince’s commitment to the Nicene Creed. An occasional visitor was the emperor’s youngest son, Constans, who likewise fell under Athanasius’s spell. Both sons lived and ruled as caesars in the far less populous west, where most Christians were conventionally Nicene anyway.

Meanwhile, the middle son, Constantius, as caesar in the powerful east, lived near Constantinople. His theology had been moving in a different direction. Eusebius of Nicomedia had seen to it that this young man was relieved of what Eusebius considered the baleful influence of the past, and that his mind was broadened into the thoroughgoing Arianism that was taking hold in major eastern cities, except in Alexandria.

As long as Constantine lived, however, the east’s Arianism must remain covert. To the old emperor, universal acceptance of the Nicene Creed was essential to the unity of the whole empire. Any bishop departing from it risked immediate banishment. Many held their noses and signed the Nicene Creed anyway, confident that when the old emperor died they could become overtly Arian and Christian theology could be brought into step with the times.

On May 22, 337, that event occurred. Constantine the Great–whose ascent to power as the first Christian emperor had provided the opportunity for all this metaschematizo–died, having been baptized on his deathbed by Eusebius of Nicomedia. The city he had declared as the new capital of the Roman Empire, which would bear his name for the next 1,116 years, was still very much under construction. And so, in the opinion of the ecclesiastics who had surrounded him, was Christianity.

However, the emperor’s death had created a profoundly unsatisfactory situation that the army proceeded to eliminate–with a bloodbath. Shrewd though Constantine had certainly been in other respects, his plan for the succession invited real trouble. He had actually left five imperial heirs–his own three sons and two grown nephews.3 The great emperor was scarcely buried before a spurious document was produced in which the now-dead emperor complained that his two half brothers had poisoned him. This was on the face of it absurd, but it was enough to spur the army, fiercely loyal to Constantine, to execute without hesitation both of his half brothers, along with the two nephews and several other high officials. Only the two youngest sons of his half brother Julius Constantius, both still children, were spared. For an ostensibly Christian regime, it was an inauspicious start, but arguably preferable to the civil war which often followed in such circumstances.

With that problem cleared up, Constantine’s three sons met fifteen weeks later at Viminacium (now Widin, Bulgaria) near the Danube, to determine who would rule what. The older brother, Constantine II, aged twenty-one, became augustus of the west, except for Italy and part of Illyricum, which were conferred on the youngest brother Constans, aged fourteen. The middle brother Constantius, at twenty years of age, became augustus of the east. Since this included Alexandria, it gave Constantius immediate responsibility for the Athanasius problem.

Before Constantius could act on that case, however, his oldest brother Constantine had already ordered his good friend Athanasius sent home to resume his post as bishop. But first, to persuade his brother of the fairness and sanity of this move, Constantine brought Athanasius to Viminacium, so that Constantius could meet the bishop himself. Athanasius was certainly impressive, though not physically. A slight man, his hair auburn, his face bearded, he walked with a noticeable stoop, or so the only surviving physical description of him records. What won him such wide support, however, was his command of the Greek language. He could phrase his arguments for the God who died on a cross with a telling simplicity and lucidity, so that simple Christian laymen could grasp them, and unlettered men convincingly echo them, much to the discomfort of the more learned.

Constantius appears to have been convinced, but not for long. Even as the three emperors conferred, Eusebius and other Arian bishops complained that the man the emperors had just restored to Alexandria had in fact been deposed by the Council of Tyre. Moreover, they had a new charge against him. Supplies of grain, allocated by the late emperor Constantine for poor widows in Egypt and Libya, had been commandeered by Athanasius, they said. And even as cheering crowds greeted the returning bishop at Alexandria, his foes were assembling in yet another council at Antioch, reasserting the old charges of church desecration, and declaring him no longer Alexandria’s bishop. Instead, they named one Pistus to take over the job and dispatched him to Alexandria, sending a notification of their decision to Julius, the bishop of Rome.

But Athanasius, dexterous as usual, could call councils of his supportive bishops at Alexandria as fast as Eusebius could assemble them elsewhere. His Alexandria council met, voted overwhelmingly to affirm him as bishop and dispatched this decision to Julius to counter the one from Antioch. It included a postscript. They had conclusive evidence, they said, that Pistus had been an Arian priest, ordained by an Arian bishop. So it was now up to Bishop Julius of Rome to decide.

At about this point, Athanasius received a formidable endorsement from an old friend whom he had visited as a young man at his wilderness hideaway. This was Anthony, the desert ascetic revered by both Coptic and Greek Egyptians, whose visit to the city during the Galerian persecution nearly three decades before had inspired Christians to sustain their faith. The Arians had apparently been circulating the report that Anthony himself was an Arian, an assertion that brought this determined old man, now close to ninety, into the city to denounce Arianism, and declare his support for Athanasius. Anthony’s action had a profound effect, permanently uniting the general Christian populace to Athanasius.

In the meantime, Eusebius gave up on the would-be bishop Pistus, called yet another council at Antioch, and this time named a certain Gregory, from the province of Cappadocia in Asia Minor, to the see of Alexandria. The council had help from the emperor Constantius, who, surrounded as he was by Arian advisers, had come to regard Athanasius as something akin to an ecclesiastical disease. He had already been irked, in fact enraged, a year before, when he returned to the capital from the three-brother conference at Viminacium. He had discovered that the Alexandrian bishop had taken part in the restoration of one Paul, notably orthodox, as bishop of the capital city itself and had failed to have Paul’s election ratified by other local bishops. Back in the capital, Constantius called another council and this one ordered Paul banished. Unsurprisingly, the emperor named the diligent Eusebius as bishop of the capital city instead. Paul, meanwhile, took his case to Rome.

In any event, by March of 339, the time was at hand to deal with the obstreperous Athanasius on his home turf. Gregory, newly appointed to the Alexandrian see, was well aware that opinion in Alexandria ran strongly in Athanasius’s favor, and that Alexandrians were renowned for backing their religious inclinations with violence–there had indeed been bloodshed and riots with the city’s minority Arian group when Athanasius first came home. So, as the new shepherd of the Alexandrian flock, Gregory prepared resolutely to head south and bring the wayward sheep under control. Ahead of him by several weeks went a new governor, Philagrius, and five thousand troops. Philagrius, an ex-Christian reverted to paganism, had been chosen by Constantius to succeed an appointee of his father’s, who, it was decided, had been far too sympathetic and lenient with Athanasius.

Governor Philagrius wasted no time. After lining up a gang of hoodlums and vagrants from the surrounding district, he announced to the churches that Gregory had been chosen as their new bishop. He knew there would be protest and outrage, since Alexandrians had been accustomed for some two hundred years to electing their own bishops. So Philagrius didn’t have long to wait, and in response, he unleashed a mob crackdown on one church and its congregation, as luridly described by Athanasius:

The church and the holy baptistery were set on fire and straightway groans, shrieks and lamentations were heard through the city, while the citizens in their indignation at these enormities cried shame upon the governor and protested the violence used against them. For holy and undefiled virgins were being stripped naked and suffering treatment that is not to be named. If they resisted, they were in danger of their lives. Monks were being trampled underfoot and perishing; some were being hurled headlong; others were being destroyed with swords and clubs; others were being wounded and beaten.

And oh, what deeds of impiety and iniquity have been committed on the Holy Table. They were offering birds and pinecones4 in sacrifice, singing praises of their idols and blaspheming even in the very churches our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, Son of the living God.

Athanasius goes on to recount “impious men” burning the Scriptures, removing their clothes, “and acting such a disgraceful part, even by word and deed, as one is too ashamed to relate.” Is his description an exaggeration? Probably not. That mob frenzy should lead men into behavior exceeding in violence and depravity anything they might indulge individually is unhappily a common occurrence in human history. As the centuries would unfold, too often those mobs would be Christian. Some theologians attribute this phenomenon to the diabolical. Crowds, they say, can become devil-possessed, a peril for which Christians are far from ineligible.

When Gregory arrived, he intensified the crackdown. Churches were turned over to Arian clergy, and all Christians were obliged to receive the sacraments from them. Those who refused were deprived of their property, whipped and imprisoned. Virgins were ordered to appear with heads scandalously uncovered. Members of the clergy loyal to Athanasius were fired, banished or imprisoned.

Meanwhile, Athanasius waited in the Church of St. Theonas for his own inevitable arrest and probable execution. Philagrius, the determined governor, didn’t entrust this job to a mob. He surrounded the church with a contingent of troops in full battle order. Since a service was in progress, they decided to await its conclusion before moving in. Toward the end of the service, the main doors opened and the congregation emerged, devoutly chanting a psalm in procession. Respectfully, the soldiers let it pass, then entered the building. The bishop was gone. He had left in the midst of the procession.

Soon Athanasius was en route to Rome, exiled for a second time. But while he might be deprived of his see, he could not be deprived of his pen, and the encyclical letter he wrote to the bishops of east and west, describing the misdeeds of Gregory and Philagrius at Alexandria, soon reached every corner of the empire, further garnering support for his cause and inflaming the determination of his enemies to stop him.

Led by Eusebius, those enemies were concentrated almost entirely in the east, though the barbarian German tribes that constantly threatened the northern frontier were becoming Arian as well, having been converted by a very brave Arian missionary. (See earlier volume in this series, By This Sign, chapter 10.) Arianism, in other words, was more than a mere hypocrisy, a cloak of religiosity that one donned to ingratiate oneself with those in authority. However opportunistic the Arianism of the court, there were sincere Arians too, who rejected the Nicene Creed as fervently as Athanasius embraced it.

Moreover, not all the east was Arian. Some eastern bishops firmly accepted the Nicene formula and suffered growing official disfavor from Constantinople for doing so. Others agreed with the Arians in rejecting Nicea, because they did not believe that God the Son and God the Father shared the same quality or essence or substance of Divinity. But they rejected the Arian thesis as well, because they did not believe that Jesus was a mere creature of the Father. After all, they said, in the opening verse of his Gospel, John had declared Jesus both “God” and “with God.” The west, meanwhile, remained almost solidly and immovably Nicene, scornful of Constantinople for intellectual arrogance and scorned by Constantinople as intellectual simpletons.

As in most theological controversies, human passions and pride soon fed the flames. The issue often seemed lost in the midst of all the strategies, schemes, plots, ploys and manipulations of ecclesiastical politics. But to Athanasius, the issue remained clear. He saw the Nicene Creed as defining the central tenets of Christianity for the ages to come. Preserving that creed, therefore, meant preserving the faith that Jesus of Nazareth had bequeathed to the world. Whatever might happen, this was his task, a task that was usually bitter. For most of the next thirty years, nearly all the news was bad, and the first of it came just before Athanasius set sail for Rome.

Constantine II, his chief advocate in the imperial circle, had died under circumstances that challenged belief. Possessed with the conviction that he hadn’t been given a fair share of the territories seized from his murdered cousins, he opened negotiations with his youngest brother Constans for a better arrangement, lost his temper during the discussions and in a fit of fury, ordered an invasion of Constans’s holdings in Illyricum.5 Though still only seventeen years old, Constans had better generals than Constantine II. Feigning retreat, they lured the older brother and a small body of his troops into a trap, cut him down and dumped his body in a creek. He was later buried with full imperial honors, but young Constans now held the larger part of the empire. He too would become a staunch supporter of Athanasius, but he had only ten years left to live.

At Rome, Athanasius found himself in the company of two other prominent deportees from the east–Bishop Paul, banished by Eusebius from the see of Constantinople, and Marcellus, ousted by Eusebius as bishop of Ancyra (the future capital of Turkey). All three took their case before Julius, bishop of Rome and here they found a sympathetic ear.6 Julius had already disposed of the case of Pistus, who had first been advanced as Athanasius’s replacement. Eusebius had sent Pistus’s credentials to Julius by special envoy. But Athanasius’s refuting evidence, demonstrating Pistus to be an undoubted heretic, was so conclusive that after hearing it, the envoy left in the middle of the night and went home without even saying goodbye.

Julius then assembled a council of western bishops at Rome that deemed Athanasius innocent, cleared him of the charges made against him at Tyre and declared that he should be restored forthwith as bishop of Alexandria. Marcellus was similarly ordered restored at Ancyra. (Bishop Paul’s case was apparently not dealt with.) The noted twentieth-century British church historian W. H. C. Frend discerns a major precedent here. “Julius took up Athanasius’s cause,” he writes, “with a self-assertion and confidence suggesting a see which was used to having its orders obeyed. . . . Moreover, though nominally reporting a decision of a Roman council, Julius speaks from his own episcopal position. He took no serious account of the findings of the Council of Tyre. Thus, while the rest of Christendom was accepting a council of bishops, judicial or otherwise, as the voice of the Holy Spirit, the papacy was staking its claim to speak to colleagues on the authority of Peter and nothing else.”

Julius’s accompanying letter, preserved by Athanasius, made his emphasis clearer still: “Why was nothing written to us,” he demanded, “concerning the church of the Alexandrians? Are you ignorant that the custom has been for word to be written first to us [i.e., to the bishop of Rome], and then for a just sentence to be passed from this place? . . . What I write is for the common good. What we have received from the blessed apostle Peter, that I signify to you.”

This communication reduced the eastern bishops to a state of apoplexy. Rarely had the see of Rome invoked such authority over the eastern church. It was now August of 341 and since they were assembling anyway for the formal dedication of the Church of the Golden Dome at Antioch, which had been started by Constantine the Great, they used the occasion to hold a counter-council. This Council of Antioch told Julius that it was “novel and unheard of” for eastern bishops to be judged by westerners. In the past, the east had respected disciplinary and doctrinal decisions made in the west, such as the condemnation of the heresies of Novatian (see earlier volume in this series, By This Sign, pages 48 and 49), while the west had respected similar decisions made in the east, such as the condemnation of Paul of Samosata. (See By This Sign, pages 217 and 218.) If peace were to return between east and west, they said, Julius must reverse himself and condemn those bishops the east had expelled, meaning Athanasius and Marcellus.

Moreover, the eastern bishops announced, they were further refining the Christian faith and appending the first of four new creeds they would develop over the next few years. Though repudiating Arianism, all four failed to uphold Nicea. Finally, they sent Julius a letter, which, he announced, was too abusive to be read in public.

The emperor Constantius, who himself had presided over the Antioch council, eagerly took up the cause of the eastern bishops and endorsed a further crackdown on Athanasius’s supporters at Alexandria. Bishop Potamon was ordered lashed, and later died of the wounds. Bishop Sarapammon was banished. Both had vociferously backed Athanasius. Laymen who endorsed Athanasius were deprived of their property and jailed.

By now, the Arian controversy had escalated gravely. Not only had it become poisonously personal between Eusebius and Athanasius, but it concerned a central belief of Christianity and it was threatening to split the eastern church from the western. In this, there was a certain irony. The Council of Nicea, which adopted the Nicene Creed, had been attended by some 310 eastern bishops, and only about eight from the west (though one of the eight, Hosius of Cordoba, was a leading participant). The bishop of Rome had not attended at all; he was represented by two priests. Yet by 340, only fifteen years later, the west, led by the bishop of Rome, had become the champion of the creed, while the east found itself championing the creed’s revision, if not its rejection.7

Meanwhile, Athanasius plunged into the challenges posed by Rome–learning Latin, charming the emperor’s household and rapidly winning the respect of the Italian bishops. He brought with him two desert monks, a species of Christian that the faithful in the old capital knew little about, and what they did know they didn’t like. Though the concept of self-imposed disciplines for spiritual benefit was far from unknown to the Roman senatorial class, the notion of isolation in the wilderness, living in a state of semi-starvation, refusing even to wash, did not strike them as the sort of life Jesus had in mind for his disciples. Yet the tranquil demeanor of the two monks and the benevolent light they seemed to exude, enraptured the Roman Christians. One of the two, Isidore of Alexandria, endeared himself to many senators and their wives. His companion, Ammonius, showed no interest whatever in all the great buildings of Rome, save one that he called the Church of Saints Peter and Paul.8

The monks made a larger impression on the city than anyone could have imagined at the time. Spurred by their example and by Athanasius’s biography of their mentor Anthony, the idea of monasticism would take hold all over Europe in the coming centuries and would provide a central Christian practice for the entire Middle Ages.

At the same time, Athanasius renewed his acquaintance with the Spaniard Hosius of Cordoba, the activist at Nicea. Now in his late eighties, Hosius eagerly took up Athanasius’s cause in the west. More crucial still, Athanasius fortified another connection. In 343, he returned to his old place of exile, beautiful Trier, and there met again with Constans. The young emperor had been a baptized Christian since infancy, whereas his brother Constantius in the east, like his father, was putting off baptism until his last hours.9

Soon afterwards, Athanasius received a mysterious summons from the emperor Constans to appear before him in Milan. He left immediately for the northern Italian city, which, far more than Rome, was the administrative capital of the western empire. There, Constans gave him the news. He had written to his brother, proposing a major church council at Serdica (now Sofia, capital of Bulgaria), on the border between the eastern and western empires. His brother had agreed; the eastern bishops were coming and at last Athanasius could gain a fair hearing on the charges that had been made against him.

In July of 343, about eighty eastern bishops arrived at Serdica, moved into the Sofia Palace that had been reserved for them and heard something they considered outrageous. Athanasius and Marcellus were both to attend the council, they learned. Moreover, Athanasius had brought to Serdica several specimen victims, maimed for life by the attentions of Gregory and Philagrius at Alexandria, who would testify before the council about the treatment accorded anti-Arian Christians in the east. In his Defense Against the Arians, Athanasius sums up these complaints: “Calumnies, imprisonments, murders, wounds, conspiracies by means of false letters, outrages, stripping of virgins, banishments, destruction of the churches, burnings . . . and above all the raising of the ill-famed Arian heresy by these means against the orthodox faith.”

The easterners exploded. How could two men, who (in their view) were no longer bishops, possibly attend a council of bishops? The very presence of the two in effect decided the case in advance, they contended. After a lengthy and acrimonious exchange, nearly all the easterners declared they would not attend the meeting unless the two were removed. But how could the two make their case, came the reply, if they weren’t allowed to be there? At that, the eastern bishops denounced the whole council, declared that they were needed to celebrate Constantius’s victory on the Persian front, packed their bags and headed for home. Serdica had failed.

But they didn’t quite go home. They stopped at Philippopolis (now Plovdiv, Bulgaria) on the Constantinople road, where they drew up what the nineteenth-century Oxford historian Archibald Robertson calls “a long and extremely wild and angry statement,” deposing all the western bishops active at Serdica from Julius down, affirming the deposition of Athanasius and declaring Marcellus a heretic. The next stop on their return journey was Adrianople (now Edime in Turkey), 140 miles west of Constantinople, apparently a hotbed of anti-Arian sentiment. Hearing that they had boycotted the Serdica council, the bishop there, Lucius, refused them communion. They complained to Constantius. In consequence, reports Athanasius in his History of the Arians, six laymen were beheaded, two priests and three deacons banished and Bishop Lucius, with iron chains on his neck and hands, was sent into exile where he would soon die.

In response, the ninety-odd western bishops continued meeting at Serdica, affirmed Athanasius and Marcellus as bishops of Alexandria and Ancyra and excommunicated Eusebius of Nicomedia for heresy, along with ten of his closest supporters.

The east-west split now seemed irreconcilable,10 but that was not quite so. The first break in the deadlock began insignificantly. It concerned Athanasius’s fellow exile Marcellus, whose popularity was as universal in Ancyra as was Athanasius’s in Alexandria. Though Marcellus vigorously supported Athanasius’s opposition to Arianism, his theology went much farther than did Athanasius’s, or that of the Nicene Creed. Marcellus taught, says the authoritative Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church, that “in the Unity of the Godhead, the Son and the Spirit only emerged as independent entities for the purposes of Creation and Redemption. After the redemptive work is achieved, they would be resumed into the Divine Unity and God will be all in all.” This meant that the kingdom of the Trinitarian God was transitory, and would one day come to an end. A clause declaring “whose kingdom shall have no end” was later inserted into the Nicene Creed, specifically to combat Marcellus’s teaching.

Since Marcellus had been removed for this teaching, Julius had implicitly affirmed it when he directed that Marcellus be restored to his see. This alienated a great many eastern bishops, who, while opposing Arianism, were not prepared to rush into the opposite heresy either, particularly Marcellus’s formulation, which viewed all three persons of the Trinity as mere “modes” of the same Person. At a little-publicized meeting of a few eastern and western bishops at Milan two years after Serdica, the westerners agreed that Marcellus’s teaching was flawed. When word of that concession reached the east, the basis of a reconciliation was laid, but it would take nearly forty more years to be concluded.

All this ecclesiastical strife soon spurred political strife. Angered that his efforts as Christian peacemaker had so lamentably failed, the young emperor Constans now took matters a step farther. He warned his brother that unless Athanasius were restored to his see at Alexandria, Constans would send him there himself, along with enough soldiers to make sure he stayed.

This would surely have alarmed Constantius, distracted as he was with an endless Persian war. But three other developments also encouraged him to put an end to the controversy. For one, Eusebius of Constantinople, the main push behind the Arian cause for the last twenty years, had died in 341, leaving the Arians leaderless unless Constantius himself took on the job. Then, in 345, he received the news that Gregory, the man who was sent to resolve all the problems in Alexandria, had died after a lengthy illness, so that now Athanasius could be restored without ousting Gregory. Finally, and very upsetting to Constantius, was a scandal most embarrassing to the Arian cause, which had developed in Antioch.

Still keen for the restoration of Athanasius and Marcellus, the western bishops, with Constans’s support, sent a three-man delegation to Constantius, asking him to reconsider the eastern position. The delegates, two bishops and an army officer, arrived at Antioch, and immediately became targets of a plot instigated by Stephanus, the Arian bishop of Antioch.

In order to wholly discredit the delegation, two of Stephanus’s priests hired a prostitute, led her to the apartment where one of the two bishops was staying, had her undress and instructed her to go in and seduce the man she would find lying in bed there. She was expecting, she said, a young man. When she found an old one sound asleep and the apparel of a bishop beside the bed, she realized what was taking place and began to howl and yell that she was being made party to a plot. This created a public scene and a resulting inquiry, at which the girl’s master testified that he had been approached by several clergymen who wanted to use the girl for an assignation. In the outcome, Stephanus was ousted, and another, less venturesome Arian bishop named in his place.

Thus, in 344, Constantius wrote three successive letters to Athanasius, asking him to return to his see, and vowing full imperial support for him there. Instantly suspicious, Athanasius refused to go–until, that is, Constans prevailed upon him to do so. In the spring of 346 he appeared before Constantius at Antioch and was received joyously. Would the emperor now allow him to confront his enemies over the accusations they made against him? asked Athanasius. “No,” Athanasius quotes the emperor as replying. “But God knows I will never again credit such accusations, and all records of past charges will be erased.” Would Athanasius permit the Arians to use one church in Alexandria, asked the emperor? Certainly, replied Athanasius, provided the Arians allowed the orthodox to use one church in Antioch. The Arian clergy said that would be impossible, so the deal fell through.

Thereupon, Athanasius returned to his city. Crowds traveled as many as a hundred miles up the road to greet him, and the faithful, cheering and weeping, welcomed the beginning of what became known as his “Golden Decade.” However, much of it certainly wasn’t golden. For three years, at most, he lived in relative peace, writing a careful refutation of Arianism, an explanation of Nicene theology, numerous pastoral letters–one on Christian duty to a monk named Draconius, who had fled in horror after hearing he had been elected a bishop–and finally a defense of the orthodoxy of his third-century predecessor, Dionysius (see previous volume, By This Sign, page 30), who was being cited by the Arians as theologically on their side. Very satisfactory to him also was the fevered enthusiasm his return engendered for the monastic life. Monastic communities of men and of women were springing up in the Nile Valley and the surrounding desert, all of their members passionate supporters of the Nicene cause.

Finally, old foes were recanting their Arian allegiance, declaring their support for Nicea and formally begging Athanasius’s forgiveness. Two of these no doubt startled him, notably Valens and Ursacius. They had been raised as Arians from youth, and had risen to become bishops in Illyricum. They had helped make the first case against Athanasius at the Council of Tyre, and had had a leading role in the Arian cause ever since. Now they recanted their Arianism before bishop Julius of Rome. They admitted that the evidence against Athanasius at the Council of Tyre had been faked. Since Valens and Ursacius were the only two Arian bishops in the territories controlled by Athanasius’s firm ally Constans, their recantation, however sincere, was also politic.

But Athanasius was not destined to remain long in imperial favor. Once again, officialdom suddenly and radically changed. The pagan historian Zosimus tells the story. Constans, while a devoutly orthodox Christian, was also a sexual deviate. He “bought, or had as hostages around him, handsome barbarians,” writes Zosimus. “He permitted them to do anything they liked to his subjects, provided they allowed him to corrupt their young people. Thus all his dominions were reduced to extreme misery.” Finally, Magnentius, the commander of the Joviani and Herculiani Legions, aided by one Marcellinus, the imperial treasurer (not to be confused with the accused heretic Marcellus), plotted Constans’s downfall. Zosimus continues:

Marcellinus declared he would celebrate his son’s birthday and invited to the feast many prominent officers. When the banquet lasted until midnight, Magnentius rose from the table, as if from necessity, and leaving the guests for a short time, reappeared clothed in imperial garb as if in a play. All the guests acclaimed him emperor, and likewise all the inhabitants of Augustodunum [now Autun in southeastern France] where this happened. When the report of this went around the country, people flocked into the city, and some Illyrian cavalry, dispatched to reinforce the legions in Gaul, joined the conspirators.

To tell the truth, when the officers of the army met together and heard the leaders of the conspiracy shout out, they scarcely knew what was happening, but everyone cried out and saluted Magnentius as augustus. When he learned of this, Constans tried to flee to a small town called Helena, situated near the Pyrenees, but he was taken by Gaiso, who was sent for this purpose with some picked men. Without anyone to assist him, Constans was killed.

The implications for Athanasius of Constans’s murder were obvious. His chief advocate in the imperial circle was now gone. Of the religious leanings of the usurper Magnentius, he probably knew nothing. If Constantius remained loyal to the undertaking he had made, he and the Nicene Creed were safe. If the Arians who still surrounded him could bend Constantius’s ear, both were at risk. However, so long as the usurper prevailed in the west, Constantius was unlikely to launch a new persecution of the orthodox believers, because he would need all the friends he could get. So Athanasius ordered his churches to offer prayers for the emperor Constantius, rejected overtures from the would-be augustus in the west, Magnentius, and waited on events.

He didn’t have long to wait. Constantius moved the legions west into Illyricum. When they confronted the army of Magnentius near Mursa (now Osijek in Croatia) on September 28, 351, Constantius stood by at the home of the local bishop for news of the outcome. And who was the local bishop? It was none other than Valens, the former zealous Arian, lately recanted. He had seen angels, said Valens. They told him that Constantius had decisively triumphed, and Magnentius had fled from the field alone. What Valens had actually seen, Athanasius later wrote, was a message from a courier he had posted behind the lines to bring first news of the outcome.11

But to Constantius, any man who saw angels had the power of God behind him. Then Valens suddenly had another revelation. Arianism had been right after all. He had repudiated it only because he was terrified of Constans. So he forthwith recanted his recantation and became leader of the Arian cause in the west. “Like dogs,” sneered Athanasius, “they return to their own vomit.” The fleeing Magnentius was tracked down at Lyon in Gaul, where he committed suicide. Constantius was now sole emperor. The time had come at last, he decided, to put an end to the antiquated Nicene Creed, and to the pestilent Athanasius of Alexandria as well. The year was 351. The “Golden Decade” was over. It had lasted five years.

The fate of both the empire, and in his own view anyway, the Christian church, now fell into the hands of the sole surviving son of Constantine the Great. In the opinion of most modern historians, Constantius was the brightest and best of the three. Still, according to A. H. M. Jones (The Later Roman Empire, Oxford, 1964 and The Decline of the Ancient World, London, 1966), he was “a well-meaning and conscientious man, but weak, timid and suspicious” who merely followed the lead of his father in attempting to direct the church, but was unfortunate enough to have advisers (i.e., Arians) whose views were not destined to prevail. Oxford historian B. J. Kidd is marginally more generous. “He was pure in life, sober in habits, a good soldier, by no means wanting in statecraft. . . . But he was essentially a little man. Small in stature, with short and crooked legs, his mental capacity was small, too. Vacillating as a reed, he swallowed flattery wholesale, was timorous and therefore cruel, and adept at plotting, but himself the prey of scheming and unworthy favorites.” To Athanasius in his History of the Arians, Constantius was a pitiable creature: “In the name of freedom, he is the slave of those who drag him on to gratify their own impious pleasures.”

Many of Constantius’s advisers and aides, so offensive to his critics both ancient and modern, shared a single curious quality. They were eunuchs, a phenomenon almost unknown to the courts of the early empire, and particularly odious to the vituperative eighteenth-century historian Edward Gibbon. Constantius allowed power “to gravitate into the hands of eunuchs, a species of creature Constantinople gradually adopted from the east. . . . The eunuchs, the women and the bishops governed the feeble mind of the emperor.”12 The “women” in this case were led by the emperor’s wife, a passionate Arian whose influence over her husband was great and whose female attendants strongly influenced the imperial guards. The bishops had been headed, of course, by Eusebius until his death and thereafter by Bishop Valens of Mursa and Bishop Acacius of Caesarea, who led the extreme Arian wing known as the Homoeans.

But these two bishops were not the leaders of what rapidly became the Arian ascendancy. That role was fulfilled by the emperor himself. With empire-wide appointments, banishments, imprisonments and even executions, Constantius launched a personal campaign to unite the church and empire under an Arian creed. He conceived himself as a competent theologian and enjoyed debate over “theological minutiae,” wrote the contemporary pagan historian Ammianus Marcellinus. In other words, he took his religious responsibilities very seriously.

For Athanasius, once again at the top of the emperor’s black list, this opened a second quarrel between them. Not only was the emperor an Arian, but he had now asserted the final authority of the state over that of the church. “Where is there a canon [i. e., a church law] that a bishop should be appointed from the [royal] court?” demanded Athanasius. “Where is there a canon that permits soldiers to invade churches? What tradition is there allowing counts and ignorant eunuchs to exercise authority in ecclesiastical matters?”

His hand now free of his inhibiting younger brother, Constantius moved swiftly. He called a council at Arles in Gaul, then another at Milan in 355. Bishops from all over the western empire were summoned, confronted with a resolution to depose Athanasius at Alexandria, and told they would be deposed themselves if they didn’t sign. Nearly all did, though there were holdouts–like Dionysius of Milan, Eusebius of Vercelli, Hilary of Poitiers, Paulinus of Trier, Maximus of Naples and Lucifer of Cagliari.13 Old Hosius of Cordoba, now ninety-nine years of age, accompanied his refusal with a declaration that Athanasius would preserve for posterity. He told the emperor:

Cease these proceedings, I beseech you, and remember you are a mortal man. Be afraid of the Day of Judgment, and keep yourself pure thereunto. Intrude not yourself into ecclesiastical matters, neither give commands unto us concerning them; but learn from us. God has put into your hands the kingdom; to us he has entrusted the affairs of his church; and he who would steal the empire from you would resist the ordinance of God, so likewise fear on your part lest by taking upon yourself the government of the Church, you become guilty of a great offense. It is written, “Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and unto God the things that are God’s.” Neither therefore is it permitted unto us to exercise an earthly rule, nor have you, Sire, any authority to burn incense [i.e., act as a cleric].

This pronouncement, writes Frend, made by a man fewer than twelve months short of his one hundredth birthday, enunciated what became known as the Doctrine of the Two Swords. Upon it, western teaching on church-state relations would be based for the next twelve hundred years.

In a rage, Constantius brandished his sword, then sent the holdouts into exile. The next victim was equally significant. Liberius, who had been chosen bishop of Rome upon the death of Julius in 352, likewise defied Constantius in a fiery showdown before the Milan council. Three hundred western bishops were in attendance (“dragged there,” according to Athanasius), along with a vast crowd of onlookers. When the emperor’s letter demanding the deposition of Athanasius was read, such a clamor broke out that the meeting had to be adjourned to the imperial palace. There, Constantius himself stood up. “I myself am the accuser of Athanasius,” declared the emperor. That was enough to cow most of the bishops, but not Liberius, who walked out and returned to Rome. There, he was arrested by imperial officers and hauled back to Milan.

“I give you three days,” said the emperor, “to make up your mind. Unless within that time you comply, you must be prepared to go where I may send you.”

“Three days or three months will make no difference with me,” replied Liberius. “So send me where you please.”

He was dispatched to Beroea, in Thrace,14 spirited out of the city under guard at night, says the historian Ammianus, because in daylight the crowds would have mobbed the soldiers. Constantius, ever generous, sent him a purse containing five hundred pieces of gold. Liberius sent them back. “Tell him to give it to his flatterers and players,” he said. “They’re always in want because of their insatiable cupidity.”

Contemporary accounts say that Constantius then chose a deacon named Felix as bishop of Rome. When the Roman crowds wouldn’t let Felix into any church to be consecrated bishop, Constantius moved the ceremony to the palace, where three acquiescent bishops performed the rite and three eunuchs stood in for the people.

However, Liberius’s resolve seems to have flagged two years later. Under continuing pressure from the emperor, he appears to have relented and was returned to his see. The case becomes historically significant because of three letters in which he agrees to accept a heretical creed. This would make Liberius one of the few bishops of Rome ever to have ascribed to a heresy. And though a strong case can be made that the letters were forgeries, Athanasius accepts Liberius’s lapse as a fact and forgives him. He yielded under threat, says Athanasius. In an effort at compromise, Constantius made Liberius and Felix joint bishops of Rome. However, such an arrangement soon became so absurd as to be untenable and Liberius once more reigned alone.

Even the venerable Hosius briefly relented. In a third council, this one held in 357 at Sirmium (now Mitrovica in Serbia), the old man was persuaded to sign the creed that Constantius was advancing for acceptance by the whole church. This Creed of Sirmium, the one that Liberius was also accused of accepting, was termed the “Blasphemy of Sirmium” by the orthodox. It represented the extreme Arian position, omitting any reference to the “essence” or “substance” of the Godhead, and therefore leaving the relationship of Father and Son to whatever anybody wanted to make it. Ancient Hosius put his name to this, though he still stubbornly refused to acquiesce in the denunciation of Athanasius.

He relented on the creed, notes Athanasius, after intense pressure, denunciation from the Arian bishops around him, and the free use of the lash. Athanasius writes:

For although for a little while, through fear of the threats of Constantius, he seemed to resist them, yet the great violence and tyrannical power exercised by Constantius, and the many insults and stripes [i.e., strokes of the lash] proved that it was not because he gave up my cause, but through the weakness of old age, being unable to bear the stripes, that he yielded to them for a season.

It was a short season. The old man, now in his one hundred and third year, returned to his Spanish diocese, and with his dying breaths urged all faithful Christians to stand by the Nicene Creed. However, because of his concession at Sirmium, Hosius of Cordoba was never made a saint.

With the western church thrashed into line and the eastern church already dominated by Arianism, the time had come to finally put an end to Athanasius, the emperor’s arch foe at Alexandria. There was, of course, the incidental pledge of the emperor not to oppose him again. Obviously, some new grounds for disciplinary action must be found.

It was then discovered that Alexandria’s bishop had used an unconsecrated building for an Easter service, because the existing Cathedral of St. Mark was dangerously overcrowded. The chosen substitute site had once been the pagan Temple of Hadrian, and had been rebuilt as a church, though it had not yet been consecrated. This was a distinct violation of church protocol, said the Arian authorities, a breach of “ecclesiastical discipline” and the “royal prerogative.” Moreover, they said, Athanasius had conspired to turn the late emperor Constans against Constantius and had communicated with the usurper Magnentius.

Athanasius vehemently defended the use of the unconsecrated church, given the situation at the cathedral. He flatly denied he had urged the emperor’s brother against him, and was particularly offended at the suggestion he had conspired with the usurper Magnentius. “Could I have said,” he asked, “‘You have done well to murder the man who honored me’? Or ‘I approve of your conduct in destroying our Christian friends’? Or ‘I approve of your proceedings in butchering those who so kindly entertained me at Rome’?”

On May 19, 353, a delegation representing Athanasius left Alexandria to see the emperor, currently in Milan, presumably to provide the bishop’s response to these charges. Four days after the delegates sailed, another ship arrived bearing one Montanus, an imperial emissary with a message from the emperor. Since Athanasius had requested an audience, he would be pleased to see him. But Athanasius, who had sought no such audience, became instantly suspicious and said he would come immediately–if he received an imperial summons. He later discovered it was indeed a plot to get him away from Alexandria so that he could be arrested without incident. Since it didn’t work, Montanus departed for home.

Then the imperial authorities ordered that the distribution of free grain, previously administered by orthodox clergy, would henceforth be handled by Arian clergy. Moreover, the Arians were given formal authority to publicly criticize the bishop of Alexandria. In August of 355 came another visitor, this time an imperial notary named Diogenes, who, with threats of violence, ordered Athanasius to Milan. Diogenes was thwarted, however, by the local magistrates and the common people, who prevented their bishop’s arrest. Athanasius showed him letters from the emperor that had been written when Constantius had vowed his support for him. Did Diogenes have the emperor’s written order that he come? No, Diogenes did not. So he, too, sailed for home without success.

However, Athanasius now knew it was only a matter of time until the real crackdown came. It arrived on January 6, 356, in the person of a military commander, the duke Syrianus, who began summoning into the city units of all the legions stationed in Egypt and Libya, until they numbered five thousand. But when he attempted an arrest on January 18, he too was initially foiled by the imperial letters that Athanasius held. He would have to wait, Syrianus said, until an arrest order arrived from the emperor.

He waited exactly twenty-one days. On the night of February 8, Athanasius was presiding at a vigil, again in St. Theonas Church. Outside, the worshipers heard troops assembling around the building. Athanasius ordered the deacon to chant the 136th Psalm, the worshipers making the reply to each verse, “And his mercy endureth forever.”15 In the midst of the psalm, the doors were suddenly smashed down and troops poured in at every entrance. They beat and slashed the congregation, wounding some fatally. A letter, which Athanasius attributes to “the people of Alexandria,” describes the scene:

Suddenly about midnight, the most illustrious Duke Syrianus attacked us and the Church with many legions of soldiers armed with naked swords and javelins and other warlike instruments and wearing helmets on their heads; and actually while we were praying and while the lessons were being read, they broke down the doors. And when the doors were burst open by the violence of the multitude, he gave command and some of them were . . . shouting, their arms rattling and their swords flashing in the light of the lamps.

Forthwith virgins were being slain, many men trampled down and falling over one another as the soldiers came upon them, and several were pierced with arrows and perished. Some of the soldiers also were betaking themselves to plunder, and were stripping the virgins, who were more afraid of being even touched by them than they were of death.

The Bishop continued sitting upon his throne and exhorted all to pray. The Duke led on the attack. . . . The Bishop was seized and barely escaped being torn to pieces; and having fallen into a state of insensibility and appearing as one dead, he disappeared from among them. . . . They were eager to kill him. And when they saw that many had perished, they gave orders to the soldiers to remove out of sight the bodies of the dead.

But the most holy virgins who were left behind were buried in the tombs, having attained the glory of martyrdom in the times of the most religious Constantius. Deacons also were beaten with stripes even in the Lord’s house and were shut up there.

In another account, Athanasius says he did not want to leave the building until most of the people were out. Then, in the midst of the bedlam, monks and other clergy were able to spirit him away. But he regards his escape as miraculous: “Truth is my witness, while some of the soldiers stood about the sanctuary and others were going round the church, we passed through under the Lord’s guidance and with his protection withdrew without observation.”

Athanasius headed immediately for the desert and one of the great manhunts of the ancient world began.

This is the end of the Athanasius category article drawn from Chapter One, beginning on page 12, of Volume Four, Darkness Descends. To continue reading more about Athanasius 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