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.

Hosius |
Birth of a great Christian nation

Hosius is drawn from Chapter One, beginning on page 16, of Volume Three, By This Sign of the twelve-volume historical series The Christians: Their First Two Thousand Years. If you would like to order this book please visit

By the 300s, Spanish Christianity is booming, but its revered champion of orthodoxy dismays the faithful by becoming a heretic near the age of 100

Hosius - Birth of a great Christian nation

Hosius - Birth of a great Christian nation
Since the ninth century, Spanish Christians have claimed that the site of the inspiring cathedral of Santiago de Compostela marks the tomb of the apostle James “the Great.” The twelfth-century shrine was a favorite goal of pilgrims in the Middle Ages.

Although Spain would play a major and often decisive role in Christian history, surprisingly little is known of the faith’s early years in that land. It is clear enough, however, that Christian evangelists reached Spain fairly quickly; the first of them was quite possibly Paul himself. Not only is there an enduring legend of a voyage to Spain by Paul, but Spanish Christians have long cherished the story of a visit to their land by the apostle James, with many communities named after him (Santiago or San Diego in Spanish). By the end of the second century, the Christian community on the Spanish peninsula appears to be so far-flung and well established that its roots must have been nourished by many decades of successful gospel preaching.

The evidence is, admittedly, scattered. Christian inscriptions in Spain are rare before the fourth century, and classical writers provide us with little help. As the historian H. V. Livermore observes, those writers “treat of Rome in the Iberian Peninsula rather than of the peninsula under Roman rule.” By the time a chronicler who is interested in Spain itself arrives on the scene, in the person of Bishop Hydatius, it is the fifth century, and the barbarians are pouring into Spain from the north.

Nevertheless, in the early years of the third century, Tertullian wrote that “all the confines of Spain . . . have submitted themselves to Christ”–a vague but comprehensive description of Christianity’s reach. Tertullian’s report is confirmed in detail in the mid-third century, when Cyprian catalogs Christian communities in a variety of distant cities and includes north-central Leon, Merida in the west, and Saragossa in the northeast. Christianity was still the religion of a decided minority, of course, but in those areas that were most thoroughly Romanized–notably the Spanish south–it was a growing part of urban life.

Spain at this time was not quite the dank backwater that its distance from the great imperial cities would suggest. Roman troops invaded the peninsula some two hundred years before Christ, and more or less completed this conquest during Augustus’s reign. In the first and second centuries, the city of Cordoba was considered a cosmopolitan “little Rome” that boasted resident communities of Greeks, Syrians, Egyptians, and Jews. It was also, in historian Victor C. de Clercq’s phrase, “a much-desired assignment for proconsuls.” The peninsula produced emperors (Trajan, Hadrian), literary giants (Seneca, Lucan, Quintillian), and first-rate exports such as olive oil. Given the times, it also produced its share of Christian martyrs, although details of their final tests of faith, including some dates, are often impossible to pin down.

The great Spanish Christian poet Prudentius, writing in the fourth century, contends that Spain boasted martyrs during every Roman persecution, and recounts the traditions of many of them. Among the most inspiring stories is that of Fructuosus, bishop of Tarragona, who perished during a persecution in 259, and whose composure and words of reassurance, as he was led to the amphitheater to be burnt alive, were noted with admiration by Augustine.

Twelve-year-old Eulalia of Merida was tortured and killed after refusing, probably in 304, to obey Diocletian’s edicts to offer sacrifice to pagan gods. Vincent of Saragossa, another victim of the Diocletian crackdown, showed such legendary strength and serenity during his ordeal over a flaming gridiron that his fame rapidly spread far beyond his home peninsula.

Perhaps the most telling sign of Christianity’s vitality in Roman Spain was the Council of Elvira, an early fourth-century gathering of bishops from around the peninsula in a now ruined town near Granada. Unfortunately, inscriptions on some of the surviving copies of the eighty-one canons approved at Elvira indicate the year 324–a wholly improbable date, according to the experts. For one thing, Bishop Hosius of Cordoba, who was certainly present at the council, was out of the country during that year. As a result, historians marshal a variety of arguments for a much earlier date–300 to 309, not long before or after the climax of the Diocletian persecution in Hispania.

The council’s decisions address a staggering host of issues that illuminate early Christian life in Spain. They govern baptism, marriage, and the treatment of a variety of sexual transgressions (five years of penance for a first-time adulterer, for example). They lay out rules on fasting and usury; they stipulate prohibitions against idolatry and even toward such gambling games as thimbles. Most famously, the council approved the oldest command of its kind, that clergy abstain from sex. In their heavy emphasis on disciplinary matters, the acts reveal a community whose ethos appears, from a modern point of view, somewhat confining, but also one that took very seriously the all-encompassing nature of a Christian life.

This seriousness extended to contemporary struggles with heresies such as Arianism and Donatism. It was in the fight against them that Spain’s Bishop Hosius rose to become the most influential champion of orthodoxy in the West. For a time, he exercised this influence from an enviable perch–as ecclesiastical adviser to Constantine the Great after that emperor’s conversion to the faith. It was Hosius who reportedly presided at the Council of Nicea in 325, which began the development of the famous Nicene Creed.

Hosius maintained his impressive fidelity to orthodoxy during most of a life that spanned more than one hundred years (c. 256 to 358). Even after Constantine’s son and successor, Constantius, embraced the heretical Arian view, Hosius remained steadfast in the face of imperial pressure. “Remember that you are a mortal man,” he thundered in a bracing rebuke of the emperor. “Fear the day of judgment. . . . Do not interfere in ecclesiastical affairs, or dictate anything about them to us, but rather learn from us what you ought to believe concerning them.”

Then, incredibly, Hosius capitulated. In his nineties and still under official pressure, Hosius signed his own name to heresy, forever sullying the reputation of one of the great Western defenders of the faith. It seems that he simply had lived too long; at least that is how many Christians have interpreted it, although according to Athanasius, he did return to orthodoxy just before his death.

It wasn’t long, however, before the faithful in Spain had much more alarming events to cope with than an apostate bishop. The barbarians were on the march; the Suevi were the first of the pagans into Spain, a mere three years after they crashed the borders of the empire on the last day of 406. An era was ending; and at the time, Christianity’s future on the peninsula seemed doubtful. Instead, when the dust had finally settled more than a century later, the barbarian kingdoms would become some of the greatest champions of the faith the world has ever known.

This is the end of the Hosius category article drawn from Chapter One, beginning on page 16, of Volume Three, By This Sign. To continue reading more about Hosius 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