“ENRICHED BY THE GIFTS OF MATRONS” Bishops and Society in the Fourth Century


He [the emperor] does not bring you liberty by casting you in prison, but treats you with respect within his palace and thus makes you his slave.


As the edicts of Diocletian, each one more punitive and wide-ranging than the last, were promulgated across the empire in the early fourth century, bishops lived in fear. And yet only a very few years later, in 325, the emperor Constantine, having concluded his business at Nicaea, welcomed the assembled bishops to a magnificent banquet where he celebrated what he termed “a great victory.”2 The emperor’s desire to bring the bishops into the fabric of the state involved a dramatic reversal of their status. Enormous patronage became available to those bishops ready to accept the emperor’s position on doctrine, and those who took advantage of it came to have access to vast wealth and social prestige. No less than a quarter of the income of the estates left to the Church in Rome was earmarked for the bishop’s household,3 so that by the end of the fourth century Ammianus Marcellinus was able to describe the extravagant lifestyle of the bishops of Rome: “Enriched by the gifts of matrons, they ride in carriages, dress splendidly and outdo kings in the lavishness of their table.” 4 This was not the whole story, as Ammianus himself recognized. As we shall see, many Christians were sufficiently repelled by the new wealth of the Church to be drawn to asceticism; even if they did not make for the desert themselves, many bishops turned to austerity and gave their wealth to the poor to reinforce their Christian authority. Whether they succumbed to the financial temptations or not, however, bishops were now men with a stake in good order, and when the traditional city elites and, in the west, the structure of government itself collapsed, it was to be they who took control. One of the results of the fourth-century revolution (and it seems appropriate to call it this) was the association of the churches with wealth, conservatism and the traditional structures of society, an association that was to endure in European Christianity well into the twentieth century. By the time of the Domesday Book in 1086, a fifth of England’s resources were under the control of the Church; in the sixteenth century Cranmer, the first Protestant Archbishop of Canterbury, had seven major palaces for his personal use, at least until the new Head of the Church, Henry VIII, appropriated the finest for himself.

The bishops had always been based in the cities. (The derogatory word “pagan” has the connotation of one who lives in the country.) After Constantine’s reign the hierarchy of bishops began to mirror the political hierarchy. The capital city of each province, the seat of the provincial governor, became the seat of the metropolitan bishop, who exercised some authority over the other bishops of the province, calling synods, approving appointments and overseeing the activities of “his” bishops when they were outside their sees. The original idea of giving status to a bishopric because of its association with Jesus’ ministry or the Apostles was eclipsed. If any one city deserved primacy in the Christian world, it was (as the Irish St. Columban was claiming as late as the seventh century) Jerusalem, the site of the crucifixion and resurrection. Yet the bishopric of Caesarea, where the governor lived (as he had done in Jesus’ time), was given authority as metropolitan over the bishopric of Jerusalem, an authority underlined by the practice of calling Jerusalem by its Roman name (derived from the family name of its Roman founder, Hadrian), Aelia, a recognition that it was now formally a Roman colony. For many Christians the shame of the crucifixion appears to have tainted it as the city of Christ’s killers. It was not until the Council of Chalcedon in 451 that Jerusalem was accorded a place of honour with its own patriarch.5

Other bishoprics were given special prominence. Rome claimed primacy over all others as the site of the martyrdom of Peter, who by tradition was its first bishop. As Rome’s political significance waned, however, the influence of the city’s bishops remained limited. Like all other bishops they were vulnerable to the whim or convictions of the emperor. So it was that Liberius, bishop from 352 to 366, was deposed by Constantius and restored only when he accepted a Homoean creed. After his death there was a particularly violent election in which the eventual victor, Damasus, called upon the fossores, the catacomb diggers, to defend his cause. Over a hundred are known to have died in the turmoil, and Damasus’ authority was weakened for much of his reign. The bishops of Rome did not even attend the two councils at which the Nicene Creed was formulated. Whatever lip service was given to the primacy of the bishops of Rome, in practice they were too far from the main centres of the Christian church to have any substantive impact on the development of doctrine. In the city itself they were marginal figures so long as power lay in the hands of the pagan senatorial aristocracy, as it continued to do until the early fifth century.

In the east Antioch and Alexandria were the great Christian cities, and Alexandria maintained its prominence over the whole of Egypt, even after the country was divided into smaller provinces. However, just how closely the power of the church mirrored that of the state can be seen in the decision of the Council of Constantinople in 381 to elevate the bishop of the city “next after the bishop of Rome because Constantinople is the new Rome.” Constantinople had no links to the early church at all—it was still only a minor bishopric when Constantine began rebuilding the city. Its new ecclesiastical prominence simply highlighted the extent to which the church had become a political institution. Both Damasus in Rome and the bishops of Alexandria were furious at the promotion—in retaliation Damasus claimed, apparently for the first time, that the primacy of the bishops of Rome rested on their status as successors of Peter—and a new rivalry entered the relationships of the eastern church. The bishops of Constantinople proved highly vulnerable to intrigues backed by Alexandria, in turn usually supported by Rome, as two of them, John Chrysostom, deposed in 403, and Nestorius, deposed in 431, were to find to their cost. The resentment was all the more intensely felt because of the added status and influence enjoyed by a bishop with direct access to the emperor.

The authority of the bishops within the state was consolidated by tying them into the structure of the legal system. Constantine had extended to bishops the longstanding right of all magistrates to free slaves. They could also hear civil cases if both sides agreed. Naturally, they also had power to uphold the laws, initiated by the state, supporting Nicene orthodoxy. This included establishing the suitability of those coming forward for ordination. In 407 the emperor Honorius gave bishops the specific right to ban pagan funeral rites, and in the same legislation their right to enforce the laws aimed at Jews, pagans and heretics was reaffirmed. In the following year bishops were given equal status to the praetorian prefects in that there was no appeal from their judgments. Sitting in the courts now became a major part of a bishop’s life. Augustine would complain that he had so many cases he often had to sit through the whole morning and into the siesta. His time was filled with property disputes, cases of adultery, inheritance cases and the enforcement of laws against pagans and Donatists.

One indication of how tightly Christianity was now bound into the traditional structures of society can be seen in its attitude to slavery. While there are Christian exhortations (similar to those found among Stoics) to treat slaves well as fellow human beings, the concept of slavery itself was not challenged. In fact it has been argued, somewhat provocatively perhaps, that Christianity reinforced slavery by, from the earliest times, defining Christians as slaves of Christ and exhorting actual slaves to work hard because by doing so they will be fulfilling the will of God.6 As the author of Ephesians, probably written about A.D. 90, puts it (6:5–7):

Slaves, be obedient to the men who are called your masters in the world, with deep respect and sincere loyalty as you are obedient to Christ: not only when you are under their eye, as if you only had to please men, but because you are slaves of Christ and wholeheartedly do the will of God . . . Work hard and willingly . . . but do it for the sake of the Lord.

Examples from the Church Fathers and other sources show that Christians accepted slavery as part of normal life, and wealthier Christians owned slaves themselves. In the rules laid down by Basil of Caesarea for admission to monasteries, escaped slaves who craved admittance had to be returned to their masters unless the masters were exceptionally cruel; in the requirements laid down by Leo, bishop of Rome, slaves were ineligible for ordination. Augustine, who was always conservative in social affairs, took matters further in asserting that slavery is God’s punishment for evil. He wrote: “The primary cause of slavery, then, is sin . . . and this can only be by a judgment of God, in whom there is no unrighteousness, and who knows how to assign divers punishments according to the deserts of the sinners.”7

The aura of a bishopric in the empire’s larger cities was enhanced by the buildings it had at its disposal. It was an ancient tradition that a city should glorify itself through its temples. Aristotle suggested in his Politics that a quarter of the revenues of a city’s territory ought to be dedicated to the gods; others proposed as much as a third.8 Since Hellenistic times kings and emperors had showered their patronage on favoured cities. Many temples were crammed with gold and silver statues, and imperial patronage was a means of raising support for the gods. A panegyric to Maximian makes the point: “You have heaped the gods with altars and statues, temples and offerings, which you dedicated with your own name and your own image whose sanctity is increased by the example you set, of veneration for the gods.”9 Constantine followed in this tradition and concentrated his patronage on the building and adornment of churches. As, unlike pagan temples, which were primarily designed to house cult statues, churches needed to house congregations, Constantine adopted the basilica as the most appropriate form. Yet as basilicas were now also used as the audience halls of the emperors (that surviving at Trier, although stripped of its original opulent decoration, gives some idea of the model), it is arguable that Constantine was stressing in yet another way the close links between the state and Christianity.

It is hard for us to grasp the sheer scale of this imperial patronage. It was so lavish that Constantine had to strip resources from temples to fund it. Some calculations of the monies involved have been from the Liber Pontificalis, an account of the early popes. One of Constantine’s early foundations in Rome was a church to Christ the Redeemer, whose apse was to be coated in gold. This demanded some 500 pounds of it at a cost of some 36,000 solidi. This could have supported around 12,000 poor people for a year, and has been equated to around £60 million today. 10 This was for the decoration of the apse alone—another 22,200 solidi worth of silver (3,700 pounds) was required for light fittings and another 400 pounds of gold for fifty gold vessels. The costs of lighting were to be met by estates specifically granted for the purpose, which brought in 4,390 solidi a year. Everything in these new churches had to be of the highest quality. While early Christian decoration, in the catacombs or house churches, for instance, had consisted of painted walls, now nothing less than mosaic was appropriate. In order to make the effect more brilliant, the materials of the mosaic—gold, silver or precious stones—were set within glass. This was an enormously delicate and costly business. Studies of the original floor mosaics at the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, one of Constantine’s foundations in the Holy Land, show the care lavished on decoration. While the high-quality mosaics in Palestine usually had about 150 tesserae per ten-centimetre square, those in the nave of the Church of the Nativity have 200, those of the Octagon at the end of the nave some 400.11

Adapting to this newfound opulence was a major challenge to the church. While Acts 17:24 said, “The God who made the world and everything in it, being the Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in shrines made by man,” such “shrines” could hardly be avoided; instances where bishops refused the patronage of emperors were very rare, although Martin, bishop of Tours, did decline an offer from Valentinian I. There was little support from the Gospels for the display of wealth. Jesus had clearly disdained it (although commentators noted that the appropriate gifts for the baby Jesus had been gold, frankincense and myrrh), but in the Old Testament there were plenty of references to gold and silver and, in the Book of Revelation in the New Testament, to the heavenly city founded on precious stones. In Ezekiel the Lord is described as a mixture of gold and silver. In the Song of Solomon 5:11 the “beloved” (interpreted by Christians as Christ) has a head of the finest gold. So it could be argued that heaven was a place crammed with treasure, and that precious metals on earth, if used in the service of the church, became sacred by association. “What is meant by gold which surpasses all other metals, but surpassing holiness,” as Gregory the Great put it.12 If heaven is so rich in treasure, then a basilica can be seen as a symbol of heaven on earth and as worthy of similar decoration. “The solemn liturgy, the blaze of lights, the shimmering mosaics and the brightly coloured curtains of a Late Antique church were there to be appreciated in their entirety . . . Taken together they provided a glimpse of paradise.”13 Thus was a powerful visual rhetoric created. Once again Platonism was exploited to provide a philosophical rationale. For the Christian Platonist philosopher known as Pseudo-Dionysius, an image on earth could be the starting point for contemplation of immaterial things beyond. The gold of churches was necessary to give the believer a stepping stone to a full appreciation of the glories of heaven. 14

Once a rationale had been created to divert the most precious of materials and the finest of buildings to Christian use, the old reservations were largely dissolved. In fact, the desire to create opulence came to condition the shape of architecture. The basilica was the most economical building type for a large congregation, but churches with central domes appeared with the dome reaching up to the sky, as if providing a representation of heaven itself. Domed churches provided no extra space for the congregation but were much more expensive to build; there was not only the construction and decoration of the dome itself to consider, but the walls also had to be strengthened to support its weight. The “Golden Octagon” of Antioch, consecrated in 341, was a magnificent early example; the dome of Hagia Sophia in Constantinople, described by the historian Procopius as appearing to be suspended from heaven, and still intact in its glory today, was perhaps the greatest. In Byzantine art the dome became ubiquitous, with God the Creator watching over the faithful from its centre. Byzantine services became a series of dramatic liturgical moments that the congregation, crammed in under the dome and separated from the sanctuary by the iconostasis, could experience rather than see.

If a church had now become a symbol of heaven, how were figures to be shown? The answer was to model them on the imperial court, the closest model for heaven on earth. An early example of the adoption of imperial themes for Christian iconography can be found on the sarcophagus of Junius Bassus, a Roman aristocrat who had served as city prefect and consul and had converted on his deathbed. His sarcophagus (of 359) was buried under the floor of St. Peter’s (and is now in the Vatican Museum). On the central lower panel of its elaborately carved facade, Christ is shown entering Jerusalem as if he was an emperor entering a city, and above this image he is shown sitting in glory on an imperial throne set above a representation of heaven. Sabine MacCormack notes how once Christ was represented with such imperial imagery the emperors ceased to make use of it: “Once an image of majesty had been applied to Christ it was impossible to apply it again to the emperor.” So the process by which Christ becomes integrated into the iconography of imperial government continued.15

In the mosaiced figures of the apses and walls of the churches of the subsequent centuries God, Christ, the Virgin Mary, the disciples and saints and martyrs are dressed as emperors or members of the imperial court. In the church of S. Apollinare Nuovo in Ravenna, Christ appears dressed in imperial purple, and the archangels Michael and Gabriel are depicted in court dress. The court itself (in the days of the Byzantine emperor Justinian and his wife, Theodora) is shown in the famous mosaics in San Vitale in Ravenna, and the Virgin Mary in the great basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore in Rome is dressed similarly to the attendants of the empress. 16 The martyr who challenged the Roman empire and was extinguished by it now appears in mosaic as if he were one of its own grand officials. The point could not have been made better than in the case of St. Agnes, martyred in Rome after she resisted the advances of a praetor’s son. According to Prudentius, she trampled on all the vanities of the world, pomp, gold, silver garments, dwellings, anger, fear and paganism through the acceptance of her martyrdom. Her reward, in the depiction of her against a gold background in the apse of her basilica on the outskirts of Rome, is to become an empress draped with gems in heaven. Having rejected treasures on earth, she finds them with Christ.17 Just as the martyrs are transformed through their sanctification, so are the symbols of Christianity. A cross is now presented encrusted with gold, as in the magnificent apse mosaic in S. Apollinare in Classe, Ravenna, or above the figure of Christ “the emperor” at S. Pudenziana. The Gospels are encased in jewelled covers as every aspect of church decoration is embellished with treasure.

While it was the emperors who initiated the massive patronage required to build these churches, it soon became a badge of faith for wealthy Christians to contribute. The most famous lay patron was Melania the Younger. Her annual income at the time of her marriage in 397 was said to be 120,000 solidi, perhaps equivalent to over £200 million. This was wealth on the scale of the most successful entrepreneurs of today (although it was, of course, income from land), yet Melania gave much of it away to the church, including a donation for the foundation of a monastery on the Mount of Olives in Jerusalem. In the same period in Constantinople, an aristocratic widow, Olympias, devoted immense riches to the church in Constantinople, while the empress Pulcheria gave a large jewelled chest to the church as a symbol of her commitment to virginity. In Rome it seems to have become the custom for each new bishop to make a foundation in his name that would be supported either by his own resources or those of a wealthy patron. So in the fifth century many of Rome’s greatest churches, including S. Sabina, S. Maria Maggiore and SS. Giovanni e Paolo, were first established. One act of patronage encouraged another. Melania the Younger gave to the local church at Thagaste “revenues as well as offerings of gold and silver treasures, and valuable curtains, so that this church which formerly had been so poor, now stirred up envy on the part of other bishops of the provinces.” 18 In Ravenna, the seat of government of the Goth, and hence Homoean, Theodoric the Ostrogoth, Homoeans and Nicenes struggled to outdo each other in the decoration of their churches. S. Apollinare Nuovo was one of Theodoric’s foundations (c. 494–526) and shows that Goths could be no less lavish than “Roman” Christians. An exquisite “Homoean” Gospel book, the Codex Argenteus, survives from these years. It is clear too that church building was now also a matter of civic pride. “Other benefactions contribute to the decor of a city, while outlays on a church combine beauty with a city’s renown for godliness . . . for wealth that flows out for holy purposes becomes an ever-running stream for its possessors,” as one proud Christian put it.19

The allure of churches was further enhanced by the practice of bringing martyrs’ bones and other relics to them, or, as in the case of St. Peter’s in Rome, of building churches over their supposed burial places. As the age of martyrs slipped into the past, so the martyrs themselves tightened their hold on the Christian imagination. In facing death, the martyrs had reached perfection, and their very bones became sacred, able to perform miracles. There was a rush to the Holy Land to find relics of the life of Jesus himself. By the end of the fourth century, the legend of Helena’s finding of the “True Cross” while on her pilgrimage to Jerusalem was fully established, and an improbably large number of churches around the Mediterranean claimed to have fragments of it. The opportune discovery of bones believed to be those of St. Stephen, Christianity’s first martyr, near Jerusalem in 415 aroused enormous enthusiasm, and they were paraded through north Africa and the western empire. Even Augustine, who had been sceptical of the power of relics, was won over on their arrival at Hippo. It was reported that they proclaimed themselves genuine through emitting a sweet smell. Most martyrs, of course, were the local casualties of the third- and early-fourth-century persecutions, and they were buried in cemeteries outside the city walls. The translation of their bones to a church inside the city (thus breaking ancient taboos against burial within the walls) was a highly significant moment in the definition of a Christian community. When the state condemned (in a law of 386, for instance) the unseemly practice of breaking up and distributing parts of dead bodies, Christians took no notice. It was argued that each part of a martyr’s body, however small, retained the sacred potency of the whole. The major shrines, particularly those of early Christianity, now attracted worshippers from far afield, and so the great pilgrimage routes of the Mediterranean became established. An early record of pilgrimage survives by Egeria, a Spanish-born nun, who reached the Holy Land in 384, recording her trip in a diary.

The finest churches were those of the great cities, particularly those with links to the court or early Christianity. There were many dioceses beyond the reach of patronage where Christians had to make do with converted temples or bathhouses for churches, but within an empire under increasing financial stress the church held a privileged position. It enjoyed exemption from tax on any of its estates and property, and the growth of asceticism led, paradoxically perhaps, to a massive renunciation of private wealth in its favour, much of which went into further building projects. Inevitably the concerns of the bishops were enlarged. John Chrysostom complained that they were now more like merchants and shopkeepers than guardians of men’s souls and protectors of the poor. Their estates, properties, churches and institutions transformed them into estate managers and financial overlords as well as major employers. The staff of one church alone, the great Hagia Sophia in Constantinople, numbered some 500 in the middle of the sixth century.20 There are reports that bishoprics in Asia Minor could be bought.21

Although bishops exercised authority alongside the provincial governors, their status and influence made them major figures in their own right. They held office often for life (in comparison, a provincial governor may have stayed in post for only two or three years), and they had direct access to their congregation week by week in the pulpit. Inevitably, the more effective bishops absorbed the traditional responsibilities now increasingly evaded by the city elites. There are even cases of bishops— Synesius of Cyrene is a good example—securing the removal of an unpopular local governor. When riots broke out in Antioch in 387 and statues of the emperor were torn from their pedestals, the elderly Bishop Flavian interceded with the imperial commissioners who came to investigate the sacrilege and then hurried to Constantinople himself to plead, successfully as it turned out, with Theodosius for mercy on his city. Now that the church was free from all taxation, a key episcopal role was mediating with local government to extend the exemptions (not only from tax but also from military service) as widely as possible. Basil of Caesarea, for instance, fought against attempts by the imperial government to limit the number of clergy in a diocese who could claim tax exemption, arguing that the church should have an absolute right to decide for itself who should and should not be clergy. The largest group of his letters consists of pleas to local officials for relief from taxation or military service—in this he was exercising the traditional role of the city elite in which personal status depended heavily on the ability to create a network of satisfied clients through representing their cases with the imperial administration. Soon bishops were drawn into keeping law and order themselves. A later bishop of Antioch excused his late arrival at the Council of Ephesus in 431 on the grounds that he had been suppressing riots; another bishop wrote to a colleague, “It is the duty of bishops like you to cut short and to restrain any unregulated movements of the mob.” 22 Synesius organized the defence of Cyrene and its surrounding estates from the incursions of desert nomads, and sometimes bishops even had to quell bands of enthusiastic monks who had come to desecrate pagan temples. As always in the empire, the desire for good order was more important than the condoning of Christian iconoclasm. There is vivid recognition of this in an edict preserved in the Theodosian Code of 438: “We especially command those persons who are truly Christians that they shall not abuse the authority of religion and dare to lay violent hands on Jews and pagans, who are living quietly and attempting nothing disorderly or contrary to the law. For if such Christians should be violent against people living in security or should plunder their goods they shall be compelled to restore triple or quadruple that amount which they robbed.”

The men who could perform such roles were necessarily drawn from the traditional elites, and it was accepted that they would already be land-owning men of authority and education. “The cultural and social milieu which nurtured the urban upper classes of late antiquity did not distinguish future bishops from future bureaucrats,” as one scholar puts it, a point that could equally be made of eighteenth-century French bishops and nineteenth-century English bishops, so enduring was the transformation of the bishop’s status. 23 Even as early as 343 a council of western bishops meeting at Serdica agreed that bishops should be allowed time away from their sees if they needed to visit property they held as individuals outside them. Peter Brown has described how bishops acquired or absorbed paideia, “the exquisite condensation of hard won skills of social living . . . Paideia offered ancient almost proverbial guidance . . . on courtesy, on the prudent administration of friendship, on the control of anger, on poise and persuasive skill when faced by official violence.”24 Well might Gregory of Nyssa complain that the Church’s leaders were consuls, generals and prefects, distinguished in rhetoric and philosophy, and no longer the ordinary men who had been Christ’s disciples.25

As we have seen, the leaders of the second sophistic (see p. 62) had shown the uses of rhetoric in maintaining the status of the city elites. Most bishops were skilled speakers and knew how to play on emotions and rouse a crowd in their support. Ambrose of Milan was a master of oratory, and his most significant convert, Augustine, had first arrived in Milan from north Africa as the official city orator. A more subtle use of a congregation was to use it to pass a message to the imperial authorities. When the empress Eudoxia visited Jerusalem, she was met by a Christian congregation that had been coached by a local monk, Barsauma, to chant anti-Jewish slogans. “ ‘The cross conquered,’ went the chant, and the voice of the people spread and roared for a long time like the great noise of the waves of the sea, so that the inhabitants of the city trembled because of the noise of the shouting . . . And the events were announced [presumably by Eudoxia and her retinue] to the emperor Theodosius [II].”26

The poor had always been of concern in large cities due to their propensity to riot at times of famine; the larger cities, such as Rome, had long made use of “bread and circuses” programmes in place to placate them. In offering help to the poor, a bishop was thus sustaining a traditional “pagan” role while at the same time acting as a pastor to his flock. This was recognized by Constantine, who distributed largesse for the poor of major cities through the bishops. Those entitled to help were entered on poor lists kept by the church and only through a licence given by the bishop could anyone beg. This was one of the ways that he used the bishops for state ends.27 However, many bishops went far beyond any political needs in their active response to the poor. While in earlier centuries the giving of patronage had raised the status of the giver in this life, now the motivating force was redemption in the next. The contrast is vividly shown in an anecdote recounted by Ammianus Marcellinus of a Christian prefect of Rome, Lampadius, in 365.

When this man during his praetorship gave magnificent games and very abundant largesse and yet could not endure the taunts of the common people continually shouting that a mass of gifts should be given to persons unworthy to receive them, to show his generosity and contempt for them he summoned some of the destitute from the Vatican and presented them with valuable gifts.

Lampadius was turning conventional notions of patronage on their head; in this he was echoed by many bishops. Basil of Caesarea (in Cappadocia) urged his congregation, “As a great river flows by a thousand channels through a fertile country, so let your wealth run through many conduits to the houses of the poor. Wells that are drawn from flow better, left unused they go foul.” 28 Basil is recorded as providing a great complex of hospitals and a leper colony, appropriately called Basileia. For the first time in classical literature, we see accurate descriptions of the homeless poor, disfigured by disease, living as if they were animals, huddled under the grand colonnades or corners of the agora. While we have no means of knowing what proportion of the church’s growing wealth was diverted to the poor, it was already adopting its medieval role as provider for the sick, one of its most effective and enduring functions until the rise of modern medicine and state care.

In short, the bishops combined the roles of spiritual leader, patron, estates manager, builder, overseer of law and order, city representative, and protector of the poor among others. This variety can be seen in the condolences sent by Basil of Caesarea to the people of Neocaesarea on the death of their bishop, Musonius.

Now withered is the bloom of your beauty; your church is dumb; your assemblies are full of mournful faces; your sacred synod craves its leader; your holy utterances wait for an expounder; your young men have a lost a father, your elders a brother; your nobles have lost a leader, your people their champion, and your poor their nurturer.29

However, the prestige of bishoprics was so high that they were often fought over. Gregory of Nazianzus recounts of the bishopric of Sasima in Cappadocia:

It was a no man’s land between two rival bishops. A division of our native province gave occasion for the outbreak of a frightful brawl. The pretext was souls, but in fact it was desire for control, control, I hesitate to say it, of taxes and contributions which have the whole world in miserable confusion.30

This “desire for control . . . of taxes and contributions” was a corrosive feature of church politics. The linking of access to resources with orthodoxy was bound to lead to nasty rivalries when doctrine was so fluid. In Alexandria, Athanasius’ chequered career meant that on three occasions one Christian faction was dislodged to be replaced by another, and the tax exemptions were transferred, to the fury of the dispossessed. There were many opportunities for the less scrupulous. The story is told of one bishop, Theodosius of Synnada in Phrygia, who was so angered by the heretics in his diocese that he set off to complain about them to the emperor in Constantinople. However, in his absence, the leading heretic, one Agapetus, declared that he had now become orthodox, seized control of the bishopric and was never to be dislodged.

Within a bishopric the different roles often came into conflict with each other. Cyril of Jerusalem was accused of selling off church treasures for poor relief at a time of famine (and this was a charge also brought against Ambrose by his Homoean opponents), while Theophilus of Alexandria, in contrast, was accused of diverting into his building programme money given to buy shirts for the poor. One of the complaints against Athanasius was that he had sold in the private markets grain specifically given to him by the emperor on behalf of the poor. For every Basil, ready to use his wealth for the poor, another diverted his to different ends. The case of Cyril of Alexandria, bishop from 412 to 444, illustrates the point well. His obsession was to discredit the rival bishop of Constantinople, Nestorius, through having the latter declared a heretic for his views on the two natures of Christ. Having manipulated a council held at Ephesus to uphold his view, he had to convince the emperor Theodosius II to support him. This involved, as a document sent secretly by Cyril to agents in Constantinople reveals, massive bribery at court. The sum of 77,760 gold pieces—enough, it has been estimated, to feed and clothe 19,000 poor people for a year—tapestries, carpets, even ostrich eggs were made available for distribution, with double handouts to those known to oppose Cyril. This strategy worked. Nestorius was deposed and forced into exile, and in 435 Theodosius ordered the burning of all his writings.31

The original message of Christianity, set in a framework in which power, wealth, even conventional social ties were renounced, and proclaimed as it was by a spiritual leader who had suffered the most humiliating punishments the empire could administer, could be seen as a threat to that empire. Yet now Christian leaders were firmly embedded within the social, political and legal establishment. By tying the bishops into the imperial administration and at the same time giving them access to wealth and status (which they could, of course, use in a variety of ways so long as these did not subvert the social order), the state had achieved a major political transformation from which there would be no turning back. One consequence was that the balance of power between church and state had shifted so that the more confident and determined bishops were even prepared to assert church authority over the state. The prime example of this is Ambrose of Milan.

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