Ancient History & Civilisation

Politics and Christianity

The alliance of church and state pervaded the history of the later empire. After Constantine the hierarchical organization of the church was calqued on the Roman provincial system. Each city had its own bishop, whose diocese included all the villages and smaller settlements of the city's territory. He was responsible for the appointment of village priests. In parts of central Asia Minor there were also country bishops, chorepiscopi, who were responsible for large areas of landed estates where there were no cities. At the head of the church in each province was the metropolitan bishop. According to the rulings of the Council of Antioch in 341 he was responsible for convening twice-yearly meetings of the bishops subordinate to him to regulate church affairs. Bishops possessed substantial authority. They were, by definition, senior churchmen, who had held lower positions in the ecclesiastical hierarchy before obtaining office. At least in theory they were chosen by a procedure which took account of the views both of the common people and of senior clergy. A candidate would be acclaimed by his congregation and the appointment confirmed by his fellow bishops, usually at one of the regular provincial councils.29 It is important to draw a distinction between the nature of support available to a bishop and that enjoyed by laymen. In addition to relying on the usual network of connections, derived from aristocratic intermarriage, shared culture, and ties of mutual obligation, the bonds of favors owed and repaid,30 bishops enjoyed strong local support from the common people. The church acted as an effective patron, especially to the poor, and bishops were able to call on huge crowds of supporters in times of need. The massed congregation, besieged in the main basilica of Milan, enabled Ambrose to prevail over the forces of Valentinian II and his mother Justina in 386.31 The workers in the armaments factory and the women in the weaving mills of Caesarea in Cappadocia supported Basil in his struggle with Valens and Modestus, the praetorian prefect.32 The close-knit fabric of personal power, which had been inherited and developed over centuries, was beginning to give ground to a rawer and cruder form of politics. The Church now commanded growing resources; bishops had loyal support thanks to the protection that they could offer to their people.33 In addition, evidently but importantly, bishops were religious leaders who owed not only their standing and authority, but also their behavioral disposition to what may generically be termed their holiness. This fact was repeatedly emphasized by both parties in the often tense Church–state relations of the fourth century, and was embodied in the activities of their office: the conduct of the liturgy, the organization of alms-giving to the poor, their spiritual authority and the example of ascetic Christian behavior that they presented to their community. This core of holiness did not, of course, preclude a bishop from engaging in secular politics or offering community leadership outside the bounds of the Church. On the contrary, it lent strength to a bishop's position.34

The power of individual bishops closely correlated to the cities where they officiated. Traditionally, the most important figure in the western church was the bishop of Rome, the See of St Peter. Throughout late antiquity the authority of the bishop of Rome as the leading western ecclesiastical leader was scarcely challenged. The only period at which he was put in the shade was during the quarter century between 374 and 397 when Ambrose became bishop of Milan. Ambrose was a devout orthodox Christian, but his appointment was a political one and he had been transferred from a secular career, as provincial governor of Aemilia and Liguria, to succeed the Arian bishop of Milan, Auxentius.35 Milan during this period became the main western imperial residence, and Ambrose's tenure coincided with a period when the western empire was ruled by the very young Gratian and the child Valentinian II. This gave him unprecedented political leverage, which he exploited to the full. In the mid-380s he successfully intervened to neutralize the Arian influence of Valentinian's mother Justina, and was also closely involved in the negotiations between the court and the usurper Magnus Maximus. The position he had built up enabled him to impose his will even on Theodosius over two critical decisions, the affair of Callinicum and the massacre of 7,000 civilians at Thessalonica. Ambrose, however, was a quite exceptional figure who exploited unusual circumstances, and his career should not be seen as creating a precedent for other bishops.

Carthage, the other leading western bishopric, presented a different case. Christianity had laid down deeper roots in Africa than anywhere else in the western empire. Many of the country towns of Africa Proconsularis, Numidia, and Byzacena had acquired their own bishops during the third century. The African church evolved its own distinctive traditions, including the particular respect that was paid to age and length of tenure. Carthage was the key diocese. However, in the wider Mediterranean context Africa always punched beneath its weight, and the bishop of Carthage never wielded the influence of his counterparts at Rome, Constantinople, Antioch, or Alexandria. The reason was that Christian allegiance in Africa was split down the middle between the strictly African church of the Donatists, representing local traditions, and the Catholic Church, who were aligned with the interests of the Roman state (see pp. 302–5). In 429 Africa was invaded by the Arian Vandals, who took Carthage itself in 439. This nullified the influence of the Catholic Church, whose members suffered serious persecution especially under the Vandal king Huneric from 477 to 484.36 Until and beyond the Justinianic reconquest of Africa the region played no further significant part in wider church affairs.

In the East the two main bishoprics at the time of the Council of Nicaea in 325 were Antioch and Alexandria. The canons of Nicaea recognized the special authority which the bishop of Alexandria exercised over the other bishops of Egypt, Libya, and the Pentapolis (Nicaea can. 6). This authority was amply demonstrated through the long, but interrupted, career of Athanasius, who championed Nicene orthodoxy over fifty years against the diverse challenges of the Arians and in defiance of the emperor Constantius. The bishop of Antioch had influence throughout the whole administrative diocese of Oriens, which included most of the Levant and eastern Asia Minor. Antioch was chosen for a succession of major regional councils, in 325, 341, and 379, which prepared the ground for the major ecumenical councils of 325 and 381. Nicomedia was briefly prominent as an important see from the time of the great persecution until the death of Constantine, largely because the city was an imperial residence for much of this period, but its position was rapidly overtaken by the new foundation, Constantinople. When Theodosius I convened the worldwide Council of Constantinople in 381 the question of the powers of the great bishoprics was a central part of the agenda. The council resolved that the metropolitans should not be permitted to exert influence beyond their traditional boundaries:

The bishop of Alexandria must have the administration of the affairs of Egypt only, and the bishops of Oriens must administer Oriens only, the privileges which were assigned to the Church at Antioch by the canons of Nicaea being preserved; and the bishops of the Asian diocese must administer the affairs of the Asian diocese only; and those of the Pontic diocese of the Pontic diocese only; and those of Thrace the affairs of Thrace only. Moreover bishops may not without being invited go beyond the bounds of their diocese for the purpose of ordaining or any other ecclesiastical function. (Council of Constantinople, can. 2, trans. Stevenson)

However, the most provocative ruling concerned the new eastern capital: “the bishop of Constantinople shall have primacy of honor after the bishop of Rome, because Constantinople is the new Rome” (Council of Constantinople, can. 3; see discussion in chapter 7). This resolution was a major affront to Alexandria, and sowed the seeds of contention that were to last through the fifth and sixth centuries. The doctrinal split between the Chalcedonians and the Monophysites after 450 found its political expression in the rivalry between the Monophysite bishops of Alexandria and their Chalcedonian counterparts at Constantinople.

The rivalry between Constantinople and Alexandria was overshadowed by an even more significant division. The supremacy of Rome was acknowledged in the East until the mid-fifth century, and the orthodox theological views of the bishop of Rome Leo, formulated in the Tome of Leo, helped to shape the doctrine of the two natures of Christ which was adopted at Chalcedon in 451. However, a major division began to appear as a consequence of canon 28 of the Council of Chalcedon, which placed Constantinople, not unreasonably, on a par with Rome, on the grounds that both were imperial cities. The bishops of Rome became more conscious of their political influence in the second half of the fifth century as the power of the western empire collapsed. They also took serious issue both with the emperor Zeno and with Bishop Acacius of Constantinople, when the former issued the letter known as the Henotikon which aimed to heal the split between the Chalcedonians and the Monophysites in the East. The Roman Church was opposed to any rapprochement with Alexandria, and excommunicated Acacius in July 484, producing what is known to history as the Acacian schism. This was exacerbated through the reign of Anastasius by the emperor's Monophysite views. In correspondence with the emperor, Gelasius, the bishop of Rome, articulated his objections to the Henotikon, that it was an attempt by the emperor, a secular authority, to lay down the law in a religious matter, over which he had no jurisdiction:

There are in fact two powers, emperor, by which the world is governed by a sovereign ruler; the consecrated authority of the bishops and royal power. Of these the responsibility of the bishops is more weighty, since even the rulers of men will have to give account at the judgement seat of God. (Letter of Gelasius, Epistulae Romanorum Pontificum I no. 12)

The rift was not healed until Justin replaced Anastasius in 519. However, the distinction between secular and sacred responsibilities, to which the pope appealed, was effectively annulled by the principle that guided Justinian, that the emperor should wield power in all matters as God's agent.

It is evident from countless sources that individual bishops, especially those in charge of major sees, often became prominent political figures.37 Certain clear distinctions need to be made between the political roles played by bishops in the later empire. It is obvious that almost all bishops became involved in the politics of the church itself. They attended provincial, regional, or ecumenical councils, which dealt with matters of doctrine and ecclesiastical discipline. Throughout the great doctrinal controversies of late antiquity, between the Arians and champions of Nicene orthodoxy in the fourth century, and among Nestorians, Monophysites, and Chalcedonians in the fifth and sixth centuries, bishops became embroiled in political struggles in which no holds were barred. Church councils witnessed scenes of political chicanery and often of outright violence, while the imperial authorities intervened in the great ecumenical councils to impose decisions that were seen to be in the state's interest.

How far did bishops become seriously involved in secular matters? As long as civic government was still handled by municipal magistrates, and the councilors of cities retained a significant measure of local authority, it was unusual for bishops to intervene in civic administration. In the Latin-speaking provinces of Africa Proconsularis, Byzacena, and Numidia, secular and ecclesiastical administration remained distinct from one another until the first quarter of the fifth century. It is particularly striking that, although there are almost no traces of surviving pagan cults detectable in public building projects or in fourth-century civic inscriptions, these were not replaced by references to Christianity. The office of flamen, the priesthood of the municipal imperial cult, continued to be filled, but it was an office now devoid of religious content. Fourth-century municipal government in Africa was deliberately and self-consciously secular.

However, wherever municipal government was weak there was an opportunity for religious leaders, in particular for bishops, to take a leading role in local politics. The bishop of Alexandria, a city which had never been allowed to develop autonomous civic government, had always wielded immense power locally. This was demonstrated most vividly in the climax of the campaign against the pagans under Theodosius I, the destruction probably in 391 of the Serapeum in Alexandria. The bishop Theophilus called on violent Christian supporters to fight pitched battles with the pagans defending the sanctuary. Twenty-five years later Theophilus' nephew Cyril took these violent tactics to new levels in confrontations with the Jewish community in Alexandria (414), and with a residue of pagan intellectuals led by the philosopher Hypatia (415), who was torn limb from limb by the bishop's supporters. The hard core of these were his parabalani, supposedly teams of paramedics, who were organized into a virtual regiment of vigilantes. These prevailed in riots and stand-offs with Roman troops, and were hardly curbed by imperial legislation in 416 and 418.38 In 431 Cyril took a posse of parabalani to intimidate other bishops at the Council of Ephesus, who helped him to impose his will in the deposition of Nestorius, bishop of Constantinople.

In Cappadocia in the later fourth century, where civic traditions were also very weak, church leaders assumed an active role in secular politics. This is demonstrated by the career of Basil, bishop of Caesarea from 370 to 378. He was prominent in sending petitions to provincial and imperial authorities, pleading for tax exemptions and other favors for members of his community. As the most important bishop of the whole area between Antioch and Constantinople, he was also the main mouthpiece of local objections to the decision of the emperor Valens to divide western Cappadocia into two provinces.39 Basil's influence in Cappadocia was not only due to his position in the church, but also to the fact that he was from one of the wealthiest landed families of eastern Asia Minor, and had profited from an education which made him one of the intellectual elite of the empire. In this he may be compared with Synesius, a wealthy, well-connected, and highly educated landowner from Cyrenaica, who had been one of the leading men of the province and had undertaken important embassies to Constantinople, before he was made bishop of Ptolemais two years before he died in 413. The most serious issues faced by the people of Cyrenaica in this period were concerned with their security from the incursions of native tribesmen, and as bishop in 412 Synesius organized the pickets that defended his city (see p. 475–6).40

In Illyricum bishops were exposed on the front line. At a moment of high tension in the 440s, when violence erupted between the Huns and the Romans at the emporium of Margus, the city's bishop was accused of having looted treasure from Hunnic royal tombs. The Huns, as well as their central demand for the restitution of fugitives (see p. 215), demanded the return of the treasure and launched a campaign in support of their claims which led to the fall of Viminacium. To avoid further losses, Roman opinion now swung towards handing over the bishop of Margus directly to the Huns. The bishop anticipated the decision, crossed over to the enemy, and secured safe conduct for himself at the price of guiding a large Hunnic force back to take over his city, which was duly despoiled.41Fortunately most bishops played a more edifying part. In the 470s Sidonius Apollinaris, having previously been the most prominent figure in the educated aristocracy of southern Gaul, had an even more active role to play, attempting, eventually to no avail, to secure his city, Clermont-Ferrand, against the Visigoths.42 In the fourth and fifth centuries bishops in the areas exposed to barbarian raids and incursions were regularly called upon to use the wealth of the church to pay ransom demands to secure the release of prisoners.43Theodoret, bishop of Cyrrhus in Syria in the 430s and 440s, a period when the province was generally secure and at peace, actively championed his community by sending petitions to the authorities in Constantinople, pleading for tax remissions and other favors.44 A century later it was the bishops of the cities of Syria who were mainly responsible for local leadership when the Persian forces invaded the province. They organized local military resistance, undertook embassies to the enemy, or collected money to buy immunity from attack and plundering. Inscriptions from Mesopotamia and Syria show that they were also responsible for building city fortifications.45

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