Ancient History & Civilisation

The Church Historians

In addition to the secular histories, late antiquity saw the birth of the new genre of church history, created by Eusebius of Caesarea at the beginning of the fourth century. Eusebius conceived his task as that of chronicling the Christians as a nation. Christianity, he believed, had always been the archetypal and primeval religion, but its truth was obscured until the birth of Christ, God's son. This coincided with the reign of the emperor Augustus, so for Eusebius the Roman Empire had brought about conditions which allowed the full truth of Christianity to be revealed. He outlined the subject-matter of Christian history in his opening paragraph: the achievements of the heirs of the holy apostles since Christ's day, important matters in the history of the church, the doings of its leaders and the preachings and writings of those who had spread God's word, including those who introduced error into doctrine. He was also concerned with the disasters that befell the Jews who had conspired against the Savior, the struggles of Christians against the gentiles, and the trials of martyrdom that Christians suffered in their cause (Eusebius, HE I.1.1–2). The closest model for this program came from the Jewish writer Josephus, whose two great works on the Antiquities and Wars of the Jews adopted a similar approach in presenting the history of a religious movement as a type of national history. Eusebius also took further a very important feature of Josephus' historical writing, which was not part of the secular historical tradition. This was the practice of incorporating verbatim transcripts and citations of relevant documents. The appeal to the ipsissima verba of written evidence was a natural one for writers whose faith involved belief in the authority of holy books, and the practice remains characteristic of much Christian and Jewish historical writing today. In a few cases versions of documents quoted by Eusebius have survived independently as papyri or inscriptions, and they confirm the authenticity of the record he preserved.38 The Church History was the subject of revision and expansion as history itself unfolded in the first decades of the fourth century. A major issue is the question of when Eusebius wrote his first version. T. D. Barnes has argued that books 1–7 were completed before 300. This would imply that the church had established a confident foothold in the mainstream of social and religious activity before the Great Persecution and the conversion of Constantine. A later date of composition harmonizes better with the opposing view, that Christianity remained relatively insignificant as a political and social force until 312.39

Eusebius' Church History was edited and brought up-to-date by Rufinus, who published a Latin translation with two additional books in 402,40 but his most important successors were the Greek writers Socrates, Sozomen, and Theodoret, who published a trio of surviving church histories between 439 and the early 450s. Socrates' first book replicates some of the ground covered by the last section of Eusebius' work in order to include additional documents and further discussion of the origins of the Arian heresy and the split in the church which followed the Council of Nicaea. These writers share much material in common, but were, to some extent, written from different cultural perspectives. Socrates and Sozomen had received training as lawyers in Constantinople, and wrote as committed laymen, not as clerics. Sozomen preserves information and insights related to his place of origin, Gaza in Palestine. Theodoret, by contrast, was born in Syrian Antioch and became bishop of Cyrrhus in northern Syria. He also published a series of short biographical sketches of Syrian holy men, and an extensive correspondence, much of it devoted to petitioning the imperial authorities on behalf of his community. All these writers, but most of all Socrates, reflected the eirenic ideals of Theodosius II's religious policies. Socrates condemns violent conflicts in the church. While supporting the orthodox theology which was the touchstone of imperial religious policy after the Council of Constantinople in 381, he treats the views of schismatics, notably the Novatian Church, about which he was well informed, and even those of heretics, with sympathy. Socrates' work served as the main, but not the only source for Sozomen, who wrote in a more elaborate rhetorical style and laid greater emphasis on the growth of asceticism and the monastic movement. All three authors incorporated references to secular affairs in their account of church affairs, and Sozomen in particular quoted at length from Olympiodorus' history of the first quarter of the fifth century. This tendency was not simply a matter of authorial choice, but an inevitable reflection of the increasing fusion of church and secular matters in the Theodosian period.

The universal History Against the Pagans of Orosius, written in the 420s and dedicated to St Augustine, represents a different tradition of Christian historiography. Like the compilers of Christian chronicles, Orosius made a major effort to integrate secular classical history with the chronologies of other world empires and with Christian chronology. Unlike the chronicles, however, his work was conceived on a large scale and was designed to demonstrate that disasters, above all the sack of Rome in 410, had not come into the world through the fault of the Christians and due to neglect of the old gods. On the contrary Roman history before Constantine was replete with disaster and oppression. The fall of Rome itself was appropriate punishment for the sins of its leaders, who had espoused paganism too readily, and mitigated by the fact that the city's conqueror, Alaric, was himself a Christian.41 The seventh book covered the period from the time of Augustus and the life of Christ up to Orosius' own day, and is valuable for his observations on events and episodes in the western provinces, as they were being overrun by the Visigoths and the Vandals. The work reached the paradoxical conclusion that Rome was now equipped by the Christian Church to recover from the disasters which had previously beset its history.42

Three church histories survive from the sixth century. The Monophysite Zacharias followed a legal career in Constantinople before becoming bishop of Mytilene in 527. His history covered the period from c.450 to 491. Only books 3–6 survive in a Syriac version. This forms part of a larger historical compilation, put together by an anonymous author, known to modern scholarship as Pseudo-Zachariah, and published in 568/9. This added accounts of the reigns of Anastasius, Justin, and Justinian up to 554.43 John of Ephesus wrote an ecclesiastical history during the reign of Maurice, which also survives in a Syriac version. Evagrius of Antioch began at an earlier date and continued beyond Zacharias up to the twelfth year of the emperor Maurice in 593. After brief preliminaries, which identified the six books as a sequel to the work of Eusebius and the Theodosian trio of writers, Evagrius began in earnest with an account of the Council of Ephesus of 431. This introduced the fundamental controversy concerning the one or two natures of Christ, which was to divide the eastern church throughout the rest of antiquity. The early part of his history is dominated by long summaries of the proceedings of the church councils at Ephesus in 431 and 449 and at Chalcedon in 451, where this matter dominated the doctrinal agenda. The first two books contain extensive excerpts from the documents of these Councils, which are also independently preserved. The later books contain a much higher proportion of non-ecclesiastical material. They effectively provide a narrative thread through the political and external history after the mid-fifth century, while paying particular attention to major religious initiatives, such as Zeno's attempt to unify the Monophysite and Chalcedonian branches of the church with his Henotikon, and the Monophysite tendencies of Anastasius. Evagrius is also a major source for events in Antioch and in Syria, especially during the Persian invasions of the sixth century. He made extensive use of secular sources, including Procopius' Wars, and his work, like that of John of Ephesus, is not only valuable for church history.

On a less ambitious scale there were numerous chronicles and digests of historical events. These took the Creation of the World as their starting point, and began with rapid chronological summaries of Biblical history which were cross referenced, as far as possible, with secular events, and thus served to illustrate the workings of divine providence in human affairs. The seventh-century Chronicon Paschale was a summary account of the events of world history told from a Constantinopolitan viewpoint. It contains invaluable, but also limited, information about episodes in the eastern capital, and is especially important for the reign of Heraclius. The haphazard Chronicle of John Malalas of Antioch is full of incoherent and poorly organized information, much of it wholly unreliable. A recent study argues persuasively that much of it, including most of its supposed sources, rests on invention. The only verifiable source used by the author was the now lost two-book work of another Antiochene, Eustathius, called the Chronological Epitome, which also provided much of the material for the Chronological History of the monk John of Antioch, which itself was completed after AD 610.44 Chronicles were written in a terse, non-rhetorical style with few literary pretensions, but it appears that in their original form many of these chronicles were supplied with illustrations, which will have enhanced their popular appeal.45 These eastern compilations were matched by Latin authors, and partly overlap with them. Hydatius from Gallaecia in northwest Spain wrote a continuation of Eusebius' chronicle, beginning in 379, and the account is particularly valuable for its record of the major barbarian groups that ravaged and dominated the western empire in the fifth century, the Goths, the Suevi, and the Vandals.46Marcellinus comes, a native of Illyricum who was based in Constantinople, took the same starting point and wrote a chronicle, organized by consular years, which provided brief notices of events between 379 and 534, culminating in Justinian's reconquest of Africa. It largely focuses on events in the eastern empire.47 The chronicles are an invaluable source of information for the chronology of events in late antiquity, and often preserve notice of events and episodes for which we have no other information, but they rarely provide a context for their historical interpretation. The Chronographia of Theophanes, a Constantinopolitan work in this genre, deserves to be mentioned, even though it was written in the early ninth century, since it preserves important detail about the campaigns of Heraclius in the 620s, and is thus one of the critical sources of information about this momentous decade (see pp. 451–5).48

You can support our site by clicking on this link and watching the advertisement.

If you find an error or have any questions, please email us at Thank you!