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The Arians Of The Fourth Century - Blessed John Henry Newman

Open persecution by the Arians

THE first Arian Persecution is spread over the space of about twelve years, being the interval between the death of Constans, and that of Constantius. Various local violences, particularly at Alexandria and Constantinople, had occurred with the countenance of the Eusebians at an earlier date; but they were rather acts of revenge, than intended as means of proselyting the Catholics, and were conducted on no plan. But now the alternative of subscription or suffering was gradually introduced; and, though Arianism was more sanguinary in its later persecutions, it could not be more abandoned and audacious than it showed itself in this.

Application of the Homoion to the Western Christians

The artifice of the Homoion, of which Acacius had undertaken the management, was adapted to promote the success of his party, among the orthodox of the West, as well as to delude or embarrass the Semi-arians, for whom it was particularly provided. The Latin Churches, who had not been exposed to those trials of heretical subtlety of which the Homoousion was reluctantly made the remedy, had adhered with a noble simplicity to the decision of Nicæa; being satisfied, (as it would seem,) that, whether or not they had need of the test of orthodoxy at present, yet that in it lay the security of the great doctrine in debate, whenever the need should come. At the same time, they were naturally jealous of the introduction of such terms into their theology, as chiefly served to inform them of the dissensions of foreigners; and, as influenced by this feeling, even after their leaders had declared against the Eusebians at Sardica, were exposed to the temptation presented to them in the formula of the Homoion. To shut up the subject in Scripture terms, and to say that our Lord was like His Father, no explanation being added, seemed to be a peaceful doctrine, and certainly was in itself unexceptionable; and, of course would wear a still more favourable aspect, when contrasted with the threat of exile and poverty, by which its acceptance was enforced. On the other hand, the proposed measure veiled the grossness of that threat itself, and fixed the attention of the solicited Churches rather upon the argument, than upon the Imperial command. Minds that are proof against the mere menaces of power, are overcome by the artifices of an importunate casuistry. Those, who would rather have suffered death than have sanctioned the impieties of Arius, hardly saw how to defend themselves in refusing creeds, which were abstractedly true, though incomplete, and intolerable only because the badges of a prevaricating party. Thus Arianism gained its first footing in the West. And, when one concession was made, another was demanded; or, at other times, the first concession was converted, not without speciousness, into a principle of general theological change, as if to depart from the Homoousion were in fact to acquiesce in the open impieties of Arius and the Anomœans. This is the character of the history more or less illustrated in this and the subsequent section; the Catholics harassed by sophistry and persecution, and the Semi-arums first acquiescing in the Homoion, then retracting, and becoming more distinct upon the scene, as the Eusebians ventured to speak of our Lord in leas honourable terms.

Condemnation of Athanasius

But there was another subscription, required of the Catholics during the same period and from an earlier date, as painful, and to all but the most honest minds as embarrassing, as that to the creed of the Homoion; the condemnation of Athanasius. The Eusebians were incited against him by resentment and jealousy; they perceived that the success of their schemes was impossible, while there was a prelate alive, so popular at home, so respected abroad, the bond of connexion between the orthodox of Europe and Asia, the organ of their sentiments, and the guide and vigorous agent of their counsels. Moreover, the circumstances of the times, had attached an adventitious importance to his fortunes; as if the cause of the Homoousion were providentially committed to his custody, and in his safety or overthrow, the triumph or loss of the truth were actually involved. And, in the eyes of the Emperor, the Catholic champion appeared as a rival of his own sovereignty; type, as he really was, and instrument of that Apostolic Order, which, whether or not united to the civil power, must, to the end of time, divide the rule with Cæsar as the Minister of God. Considering then Athanasius too great for a subject, Constantius, as if for the peace of his empire, desired his destruction at any rate. Whether he was unfortunate or culpable it mattered not; whether implicated in legal guilt, or forced by circumstances into his present position; still he was the fit victim of a sort of ecclesiastical ostracism, which accordingly, he called upon the Church to exercise. He demanded it of the Church, for the very eminence of Athanasius rendered it unsafe, even for the Emperor, to approach him in any other way. The Patriarch of Alexandria could not be deposed, except after a series of successes over less influential Catholics, and with the forced acquiescence or countenance of the principal Christian communities. And thus the history of the first few years of the persecution, presents to us the curious spectacle of the violences of the enemies of truth spreading every where, except about the person who was the real object of them; who was left for a time to continue his services in God’s cause at Alexandria, unmolested by the Councils, conferences, and usurpations, which perplexed the other capitals of Christendom.

Charges against him

As regards the majority of prelates, who were called upon to condemn him, there was, it would appear, little room for error of judgment, if they dealt honestly with their consciences. Yet, in the West, there were many, doubtless, who hardly knew enough of him to give him their confidence, or who had no means of forming a true opinion of the fresh charges, to which he was subjected. These, if it is worth while to notice them, were as follows: that he had excited differences between Constantius and his brother; that he had corresponded with Magnentius, the usurper of the West; that he had dedicated, or used, a new Church in Alexandria without the Emperor’s leave; and lastly, that he had not obeyed his mandate summoning him to Italy.—In the following notices of the persecution it has been thought advisable to begin at a somewhat earlier date than the transactions referred to in the foregoing remarks.

Persecution of the Church of Constantinople

1. Paul had succeeded Alexander in the See of Constantinople, A.D. 336. At the date before us (A.D. 350), he had already been thrice driven from his Church by the intrigues of the Arians; Pontus, Gaul, and Mesopotamia, being successively the places of his exile. He had now been two years restored, when he was called a fourth time, not merely to exile, but to martyrdom. By authority of the Emperor, he was conveyed from Constantinople to Cucusus in Cappadocia, a dreary town amid the deserts of Taurus, afterwards the place of banishment of his successor St. Chrysostom. Here he was left for six days without food; when his conductors impatiently anticipated the termination of his sufferings by strangling him in prison. Macedonius, the Semi-arian, took possession of the vacant see, and maintained his power by the most savage excesses. The confiscation of property, banishment, brandings, torture, and death, were the means of his accomplishing, in the Church of Constantinople, a conformity with the tenets of heresy. The Novatians, as maintaining the Homoousion, were included in the persecution. On their refusing to communicate with him, they were seized and scourged, and the sacred elements violently thrust into their mouths. Women and children were forcibly baptized; and, on the former resistng, they were subjected to cruelties too miserable to be described.

Of the church of Adrianople

2. The sufferings of the Church of Hadrianople occurred about the same time, or even earlier. Under the superintendence of a civil officer, who had already acted as the tool of the Arians in the Mareotis, several of the clergy were beheaded; Lucius, their bishop, for the second time loaded with chains and sent into exile, where he died; and three other bishops of the neighbourhood visited by an Imperial Edict, which banished them, at the peril of their lives, from all parts of the empire.

Deposition of Photinus of Sirmium

3. Continuing their operations westward, the Arians next possessed themselves of the province of Sirmium in Pannonia, in which the dioceses of Valens and Ursacius were situated. They were enabled to do so under the following circumstances. It had always been their policy, to accuse the Homoousion of involving some or other heresy by necessary consequence. A Valentinian or a Manichean materialism was sometimes ascribed to the orthodox doctrine; and at another time, Sabellianism, which was peculiarly abominated by the Semi-arians. And it happened, most unhappily for the Church, that one of the most strenuous of her champions at Nicæa, had since fallen into a heresy of a Sabellian character; and had thus confirmed the prejudice against the true doctrine, by what would be considered an instance of its dangerous tendency. It was in the course of a work in refutation of the Sophist Asterius, the founder of the Semi-arians, that Marcellus of Ancyra was led to simplify, (as he conceived,) the creed of the Church, by statements which savoured of Sabellianism; i. e. he maintained the unity of the Son with the Father, at the expence of the doctrine of the personal distinction between them. He was answered, not only by Asterius, but by Eusebius of Cæsarea and Acacius; and, A. D. 335, he was deposed from his see by the Eusebians, in order to make way for the Semi-arian Basil. In spite of the suspicions against him, the orthodox party defended him, for a considerable time, and the Council of Sardica (A. D. 347) acquitted him and restored him to his see; but at length, perhaps on account of the increasing definiteness of his heretical views, he was abandoned by his friends as hopeless, even by Athanasius, who quietly put him aside with the acquiescence of Marcellus himself. The evil did not end there; his disciple Photinus, Bishop of Sirmium, increased the scandal, by advocating the same opinions with greater boldness than his master. The Arians did not neglect the opportunity thus offered them, both to calumniate the Catholic doctrine, and to seize on so considerable a station in the Church, which its present occupier had disgraced by his heresy. A Council was held at Sirmium (A.D. 351), to inquire into his opinions; and at his request a formal disputation was held. Basil, the rival of Marcellus, was selected to be the antagonist of his pupil; and, having the easier position to defend, gained the victory in the judgment of impartial arbiters, who had been selected. The deposition of Photinus followed; and a new creed was promulgated of a structure between Homœusian and Homœan. Germinius, who was put into his see, was at the time an Arian; but some years afterwards adopted a Semi-arianism verging upon the Catholic creed, and that at a time, when it may be hoped that secular views did not influence his change.

Fall of Vincent of Capua at Arles

4. The first open attack upon Athanasius and the independence of the West, was made two years later at Arles, at that time the residence of the Court. The Arians had already solicited the friendship of Liberius, the new Bishop of Rome, hoping to find him more tractable than his predecessor Julius. A letter however from an Egyptian Council, in favour of Athanasius, decided him against his persecutors; at the same time, to soften his refusal, he sent to Constantius a submissive message, petitioning him to assemble a general and final Council at Aquileia, a measure which the Emperor had already led the Catholics to expect. The deputies of the Roman See found him at Arles, already engaged with his bishops in the execution of his purposes against Athanasius It was in vain that the Western Bishops demanded, that the orthodox creed should be acknowledged by the meeting, or Arius condemned, as a previous step to their condemnation of Athanasius. Valens, the most daring of the Eusebians, seconded the imperiousness of Constantius; ill treatment was added; till the Bishops, worn out by sufferings, consented to depose and even excommunicate the Alexandrian prelate. Upon this, an edict was published, denouncing punishment on all Bishops who refused to subscribe the decree thus obtained. Among the instances of cowardice, which were exhibited at Arles, none was more lamentable than that of Vincent of Capua, one of the deputies from Liberius to the Emperor. Vincent had on former occasions shown himself a zealous supporter of orthodoxy. He is supposed to be the presbyter of the same name, who was one of the representatives of the Roman Bishop at Nicæa; he had acted with the orthodox at Sardica, and had afterwards been sent by Constans to Constantius, to effect the restoration of the Athanasians in A. D. 348. It was on this occasion, that he and his companion had been exposed to the malice of Stephen, the Arian Bishop of Antioch; who, anxious to destroy their influence, caused a woman of light character to be introduced into their chamber, with the intention of founding a calumny against them; and who, on the artifice being discovered, was deposed by order of Constantius. On the present occasion, Vincent was entirely in the confidence of Liberius; who, having intrusted him with his delicate commission from a sense of his vigour and experience, was deeply afflicted at his fall. It is satisfactory to know, that Vincent retrieved himself afterwards at Ariminum; where he boldly resisted the tyrannical attempt of the Arians, to force their creed on the Western Church.

Council of Milan

5. Times of trial bring forward men of zeal and boldness, who else would be unknown to posterity. Liberius, downcast at the disgrace of his representative, and liable himself to fluctuations of mind, was unexpectedly cheered by the arrival of the famous Lucifer, Bishop of Cagliari, in Sardinia, and Eusebius of Vercellæ. These, joined by a few others, proceeded as his deputies and advocates to the great Council of Milan, which was held (A. D. 355), two years later than that in which Vincent fell. The prelates collected there were in number above 300, almost all of the Western Church. Constantius was present, and Valens conducted the Arian intrigue; and so secure of success were he and his party, that they did not scruple to insult the Council with the proposal of a pure Arian or Anomœan creed.

Athanasius condemned

Whether this creed was generally subscribed, does not appear; but the condemnation of Athanasius was universally agreed upon, scarcely one or two of the whole number refusing to sign it. This is remarkable; inasmuch as, at first, the Occidentals demanded of the Eusebians an avowal of the orthodox faith, as the condition of entering upon the consideration of the charges against him. But herein is the strength of audacious men; who gain what is unjust, by asking what is extravagant. Sozomen attributes the concession of the Council to fear, surprise, and ignorance. In truth, a multitude of men, who were strangers to each other, and without organization or recognized leaders, definite objects or policy, was open to every variety of influence, which the shrewdness of the usurping faction might direct against them. The simplicity of honesty, the weakness of an amiable temper, the inexperience of a secluded, and the dulness of a rustic life, all combined with the dread of the Emperor’s displeasure, which had been openly manifested on their hesitation. When some of them ventured to object the rule of the Church against his command, that they should condemn Athanasius, and communicate with the Arians, “My will must be its rule,” he replied; “so the Syrian Bishops have decided; and so must yourselves, would you escape exile.”

Banishment of the orthodox Prelates; of Dionysius of Milan

Several of the more noble-minded prelates of the principal Churches submitted to the alternative, and left their sees. Dionysius, Exarch of Milan, was banished to Cappadocia or Armenia, where he died before the end of the persecution; Auxentius being placed in his see, a bitter Arian, brought for the purpose from Cappadocia, and from his ignorance of Latin, singularly ill-fitted to preside over a Western province. Lucifer was sent into Syria, and Eusebius of Vercellæ into Palestine.

Lucifer of Cagliari, Eusebius of Vercellæ

A fresh and more violent edict was published against Athanasius; orders were given to arrest him as an impious person, and to put the Arians in possession of his Churches, and of the benefactions, which Constantine had left for ecclesiastical and charitable uses. All bishops were prohibited from communion with him, under pain of losing their sees; and the laity were to be compelled by the magistrates to join themselves to the heretical party.

Hilary of Poitiers

Hilary of Poitiers was the next victim of the persecution. He had taken part in a petition, presented to Constantius, in behalf of the exiled bishops. In consequence a Gallic Council was called, under the presidency of Saturninus, Bishop of Arles; and Hilary was banished into Phrygia.

Liberius of Rome

6. The history of Liberius, the occupier of the most powerful see in the West, possesses an interest, which deserves our careful attention. The year after the Council of Milan, the principal eunuch of the Imperial Court had been sent, to urge on him by threats and promises the condemnation of Athanasius; and, on his insisting on a fair trial for the accused, and a disavowal of Arianism on the part of his accusers, as preliminary conditions, had caused him to be forced away to Milan. There the same arguments were addressed to him in the more impressive words of the Emperor himself; who urged upon him “the notoriously wicked life of Athanasius, his vexatious opposition to the peace of the Church, his intrigues to effect a quarrel between the imperial brothers, and his frequent condemnation in the Councils of Eastern and Western Christendom;” and further exhorted him, as being by his pastoral office especially a man of peace, to be cautious of appearing the sole obstacle to the happy settlement of a question, which could not otherwise be arranged. Liberius replied by demanding of Constantius even more than his deputies had proposed to the Milanese Council;—first, that there should be a general subscription to the Nicene faith throughout the Church; next, that the banished bishops should be restored to their sees; and lastly, should the trial of Athanasius be still thought advisable, that a Council should be held at Alexandria, where justice might be fairly dealt between him and his accusers. The conference ended in the bishop being allowed three days to choose between making the required subscription, and going into exile; at the end of which time he manfully departed for Berœa, in Thrace. Constantius and the empress, struck with the nobleness of his conduct, sent after him a thousand pieces of gold; but he refused a gift, which must have laid him under restraint towards heretical benefactors. Much more promptly did he reject the offer of assistance, which Eusebius, the eunuch before-mentioned, from whatever feeling, made him. “You have desolated the Churches of Christendom,” he said to the powerful favourite, “and then you offer me alms as a convict. Go, first learn to be a Christian.”

Liberius wavers

There are men, in whose mouths sentiments, such as these, are becoming and admirable, as being the result of Christian magnanimity, and urged upon them by their station in the Church. But the sequel of the history shows, that in the conduct of Liberius there was more of personal feeling and intemperate indignation, than of deep-seated fortitude of soul. His fall, which followed, scandalous as it is in itself, may yet be taken to illustrate the silent firmness of those others his fellow-sufferers, of whom we hear less, because they bore themselves more consistently. Two years of exile, amid the uncouth solitudes of Thrace, broke his spirit; and the triumph of his deacon Felix, who had succeeded to his power, painfully forced upon his imagination his own listless condition, which brought him no work to perform, and no witness of his sufferings for the truth’s sake. Demophilus, one of the foremost of the Eusebian party, was Bishop of Berœa, the place of his banishment; and gave intelligence of his growing melancholy to his associates. Wise in their generation, they had an instrument ready prepared for the tempter’s office. Fortunatian, Bishop of Aquileia, who stood high in the opinion of Liberius for disinterestedness and courage, had conformed to the court-religion in the Anomœan Council of Milan; and he was now employed by the Eusebians, to gain over the wavering prelate. The arguments of Fortunatian and Demophilus shall be given in the words of Maimbourg. “They told him, that they could not conceive, how a man of his worth and spirit could so long obstinately resolve to be miserable, upon a chimerical notion, which subsisted only in the imagination of people of weak or no understanding; that, indeed, if he suffered for the cause of God and the Church, of which God had given him the government, they should not only look upon his sufferings as glorious, but, being willing to partake of his glory, they should also become his companions in banishment themselves. But that this matter related neither to God nor religion; that it concerned merely a private person, named Athanasius, whose cause had nothing in common with that of the Church, whom the public voice had long since accused of numberless crimes, whom Councils had condemned, and who had been turned out of his see by the great Constantine, whose judgment alone was sufficient to justify all that the East and West had so often pronounced against him. That, even if he were not so guilty as men made him, yet it was necessary to sacrifice him to the peace of the Church, and to throw him into the sea to appease the storm, which he was the occasion of raising; but that, the greater part of the Bishops having condemned him, the defending him would be causing a schism, and that it was a very uncommon sight to see the Roman prelate abandon the care of the Church, and banish himself into Thrace, to become the martyr of one, whom both divine and human justice had so often declared guilty. That it was high time to undeceive himself, and to open his eyes at last; to see, whether it was not passion in Athanasius, which gave a false alarm, and opposed an imaginary heresy, to make the world believe, that they had a mind to establish error.”

Liberius falls

The arguments, diffusively but instructively reported in the above extract, were enforced by the threat of death as the consequence of obstinacy; while, on the other hand, a temptation of a peculiar nature presented itself to the exiled bishop in his very popularity with the Roman people, which was such, that Constantius had already been obliged to promise them his restoration. Moreover, as if to give a reality to the inducements by which he was assailed, a specific plan of mutual concession and concord had been projected, in which he was required to take part. The Western Catholics had, as we have seen, continually required evidence of the orthodoxy of the Eusebians, before they consented to take part with them against Athanasius. Constantius, desirous of ingratiating himself with the people of Rome, and himself a Semi-arian, and at that time alarmed at the increasing boldness of the Anomœans, was not unwilling to force a union of all opinions on the basis of his own creed; and thus, while sacrificing the Anomœans, whom he feared, to the Catholics, and claiming from them in turn what were scarcely concessions, in the imperfect language of the West, to realise that religious agreement, the alleged existence of which had been his principal argument against the inflexible orthodoxy of Athanasius. Moreover, the heresies of Marcellus and Photinus were in favour of his scheme; for, by dwelling upon them, he withdrew the eyes of the Church from the contrary errors of Semi-arianism. A creed was compiled from three former confessions, that of the orthodox Council against Paulus (A. D. 264), that of the Dedication (A. D. 341), and a third lately published at Sirmium, on the condemnation of Photinus (A. D. 351). Thus carefully composed, it was signed by all parties, Eusebians and Semi-arians, as well as Liberius; the Eusebians being compelled by the Emperor to submit for the time to the dogmatic formulæ, which they had gradually abandoned. Were it desirable to enlarge on this miserable apostasy, there are abundant materials in the letters, which Liberius wrote in renunciation of Athanasius, to his clergy, and to the Arian prelates. To Valens he protests, that nothing but his love of peace, greater than his desire of martyrdom itself, would have led him to the step which he had taken; in another he declares, that he has but followed his conscience in God’s sight. To add to his misery, Constantius suffered him for a while to linger in exile, after he had given way. At length he was restored; and at Ariminum in a measure retrieved his error, together with Vincent of Capua.

Persecution of Hosius

7. The sufferings and trials of Hosius, which took place about the same time, are calculated to impress the mind with the most sorrowful feelings, and still more with a lively indignation against his inhuman persecutors. Shortly before the conference at Sirmium, at which Liberius gave his allegiance to the supremacy of Semi arianism, a creed had been drawn up in the same city by Valens and the other more daring of the Eusebians. It would seem, that at this date Constantius had not taken the alarm against the Anomœans, to the extent in which he felt it soon afterwards, on the news probably of their proceedings in the East. Accordingly, the creed in question is of a mixed character. Not venturing on the Anomoion, as at Milan, it nevertheless condemns the use of the ousia (substance), Homoousion, and Homoiousion, on somewhat of the equivocal plan, of which Acacius was the most conspicuous patron; and being such, it was presented for signature to the aged Bishop of Corduba. The cruelty which they exercised to accomplish their purpose, was worthy of that singularly wicked faction, which Eusebius had organised. Hosius was at this time 101 years old; and had passed a life, prolonged beyond the age of man, in services and sufferings in the cause of Christ. He had assisted in the celebrated Council of Elvira (about) A. D. 300, and had been distinguished as a confessor in the Maximinian persecution. He presided at the General Councils of Nicæa and Sardica, and was perhaps the only prelate, besides Athanasius, who was known and reverenced at once in the East and West. When Constantius became possessed of the Western world, far from relaxing his zeal in a cause discountenanced at the Court, Hosius had exerted himself in his own diocese for the orthodox faith; and, when the persecution began, endeavoured by letter to rouse other bishops to a sense of the connexion between the acquittal of Athanasius, and the maintenance of divine truth. The Eusebians were irritated by his opposition; he was summoned to the Court at Milan, and, after a vain attempt to shake his constancy, dismissed back to his see. The importunities of Constantius being shortly after renewed, both in the way of threats and of promises, Hosius addressed to him an admirable letter, which Athanasius has preserved. After declaring his willingness to repeat, should it be necessary, the good confession which he had witnessed in the heathen persecution, he exhorts the Emperor to abandon his unscriptural creed, and to turn his ear from Arian advisers. He states his conviction, that the condemnation of Athanasius was urged merely for the establishment of the heresy; declares, that at Sardica his accusers had been challenged publicly to produce the proof of their allegations, and had failed, and that he himself had conversed with them in private, and could gain nothing satisfactory from them; and he further reminds Constantius, that Valens and Ursacius had retracted the charges, which they had formerly urged against him. “Change your course of action, I beseech you,” continues the earnest Prelate; “remember that you are a man. Fear the day of judgment; keep your hands clean against it; meddle not with Church matters; far from advising us about them, rather seek instruction from us. God has put dominion into your hands; to us He has entrusted the management of the Church; and, as a traitor to you is a rebel to the God who ordained you, so be afraid on your part, lest, usurping ecclesiastical power, you become guilty of a great sin. It is written, ‘Render unto Cæsar, Cæsar’s, and what is God’s, to God.’ We may not bear rule; you, O Emperor, may not burn incense. I write this from a care for your soul. As to your message, I remain in the same mind. I do not join the Arians. I anathematize them. I do not subscribe the condemnation of Athanasius.” Hosius did not address such language with impunity to a Court, which affected the majesty of oriental despotism. He was summoned to Sirmium, and thrown into prison. There he remained for a whole year. Tortures were added to force the old man from his resolution. He was scourged, and afterwards placed upon the rack. Mysterious it was, that so honoured a life should be preserved to an extremity of age, to become the sport and triumph of the Enemy of mankind. At length broken in spirit, the contemporary of Gregory and Dionysius, was induced to countenance the impieties of the generation, into which he had lived; not indeed signing the condemnation of Athanasius, for he spurned that baseness to the last, but yielding subscription to a formulary, which forbad the mention of the Homoousion, and thus virtually condemned the creed of Nicæa, and countenanced the Arian proceedings. Hosius lived about two years after this tragical event; and, on his deathbed, he protested against the compulsion which had been used towards him, and, with his last breath, abjured the heresy which dishonoured his Divine Lord and Saviour.


8. Meanwhile, the great Egyptian prelate, seated on his patriarchal throne, had calmly prosecuted the work, for which he was raised up, as if his name had not been mentioned in the Arian Councils, and the troubles, which agitated the Western Church, were not the prelude to the blow, which was to fall on himself. Untutored in concession to impiety, by the experience or the prospect of suffering, yet, sensitively alive to the difference between unbelief and error, while he punished he spared, and restored in the spirit of meekness, while he rebuked and rejected with power. On his return to Alexandria, seven years previous to the events last recorded, congratulations and professions of attachment poured in upon him from the provinces of the whole Roman world, near and distant. From Africa to Illyricum, and from England to Palestine, 400 episcopal letters solicited his communion or patronage; and apologies, and the officiousness of personal service were liberally tendered by those, who, through cowardice, dulness, or self-interest, had joined themselves to the heretical party. Nor did Athanasius fail to improve the season of prosperity, for the true moral strength and substantial holiness of the people committed to him. The sacred services were diligently attended; alms and benefactions supplied the wants of the friendless and infirm; and the young turned their thoughts to that generous consecration of themselves to God, recommended by St. Paul in times of trouble and persecution.

Previous trials of the Alexandrian Church

In truth the sufferings, which the Church of Alexandria had lately undergone from the hands of the Eusebians, were sufficient to indispose serious minds towards secular engagements, or vows of duty to a fellow mortal; to quench those anticipations of quietness and peace, which the overthrow of paganism had at first excited; and to remind them, that the girdle of celibacy and the lamp of watchers best became those, on whom God’s judgments might fall suddenly. Not more than ten years were gone by, since Gregory, appointed to the See of Athanasius by the Council of the Dedication, had been thrust upon them by the Imperial Governor, with the most frightful and revolting outrages. Philagrius, an apostate from the Christian faith, and Arsacius, an eunuch of the court, introduced the Eusebian Bishop into his episcopal city. A church besieged and spoiled, the massacre of the assembled worshippers, the clergy trodden under foot, the women subjected to the most infamous profanations, these were the first benedictory greetings scattered by the Arian among his people. Next, bishops were robbed, beaten, imprisoned, banished; the sacred elements of the Eucharist were scornfully cast about by the heathen rabble, which seconded the usurping party; birds and fruits were offered in sacrifice on the holy table; hymns chaunted in honour of the idols of paganism; and the Scriptures given to the flames.

Exhortation of the Council of Sardica

Such had already been the trial of a much-enduring Church; and it might be renewed in spite of its present prosperity. The Council of Sardica, convoked principally to remedy these miserable disorders, had in its synodal letter warned the Alexandrian Catholics against relaxing in their brave testimony to the faith of the Gospel. “We exhort you, beloved brethren, before all things, that ye hold the right faith of the Catholic Church. Many and grievous have been your sufferings, and many are the insults and injuries inflicted on the Catholic Church, but ‘he, who endureth unto the end, the same shall be saved.’ Wherefore, should they essay further enormities against you, let affliction be your rejoicing. For such sufferings are a kind of martyrdom, and such confessions and tortures have their reward. Ye shall receive from God the combatant’s prize. Wherefore struggle with all might for the sound faith, and for the exculpation of our brother Athanasius, your bishop. We on our part have not been silent about you, nor neglected to provide for your security; but have been mindful, and done all that Christian love requires of us, suffering with our suffering brethren, and accounting their trials as our own.”

George of Cappadocia

The time was now at hand, which was anticipated by the prophetic solicitude of the Sardican Fathers. The same year in which Hosius was thrown into prison, the furies of heretical malice were let loose upon the Catholics of Alexandria. George of Cappadocia, a man of illiterate mind and savage manners, was selected by the Eusebians as their new substitute for Athanasius in the see of that city; and the charge of executing this extraordinary determination was committed to Syrianus, Duke of Egypt. The scenes which followed are but the repetition, with more aggravated horrors, of the atrocities perpetrated by the intruder Gregory.

Attack upon the Church by Syrianus

Syrianus entered Alexandria at night; and straightway proceeded with his soldiers to one of the churches, where the Alexandrians were engaged in the services of religion. We have the account of the irruption from Athanasius himself; who, being accused by the Arians of cowardice, on occasion of his subsequent flight, after defending his conduct from Scripture, describes the circumstances, under which he was driven from his Church. “It was now night,” he says, “and some of our people were keeping vigil, preparatory to receiving the Lord’s Supper; when Syrianus suddenly came upon us, with a force of above 5000 men, prepared for attack, with drawn swords, bows, darts, and clubs, … and surrounded the church with close parties of the soldiery, that none might escape from within. There seemed an impropriety in my deserting my congregation in such a riot, instead of hazarding the danger in their stead; so I placed myself in my bishop’s chair, and bade the deacon read the Psalm (Ps. 136), and the congregation alternate ‘for His mercy endureth for ever,’ and then all retire and go home. But the General bursting at length into the church, and his soldiers blocking up the chancel, with a view of arresting me, the clergy and some of my people present began in their turn clamorously to urge me to withdraw myself. However, I refused to do so, before one and all in the church were gone. Accordingly, I stood up, and directed the parting prayer to be said; and then I urged them all to depart first, for that it was better that I should run the risk, than any of them suffer. But by the time that most of them were gone out, and the rest were following, the Religious Brethren and some of the clergy, who were immediately about me, ran up the steps, and dragged me down. And so, be truth my witness, though the soldiers blockaded the chancel, and were in motion round about the church, the Lord leading, I made my way through them, and by His protection got away unperceived; glorifying God mightily, that I had been enabled to stand by my people, and even to send them out before me, and yet had escaped in safety from the hands of those who sought me.”

Protest of the Alexandrian Catholics

The formal protest of the Alexandrian Christians against this outrage, which is still extant, gives a stronger and fuller statement of the violences attending it. “While we were watching in prayer,” they say, “suddenly about midnight, the most noble Duke Syrianus came upon us with a large force of legionaries, with arms, drawn swords, and other military weapons, and their helmets on. The prayers and sacred reading were proceeding, when they assaulted the doors, and, on these being laid open by the force of numbers, he gave the word of command. Upon which, some began to let fly their arrows, and others to sound a charge; and there was a clashing of weapons, and swords glared against the lamplight. Presently, the sacred virgins were slaughtered, numbers trampled down one over another by the rush of the soldiers, and others killed by arrows. Some of the soldiers betook themselves to pillage, and began to strip the females, to whom the very touch of strangers was more terrible than death. Meanwhile, the Bishop sat on his throne, exhorting all to pray … He was dragged down, and almost torn to pieces. He swooned away, and became as dead; we do not know how he got away from them, for they were bent upon killing him.”

Escape and wanderings of Athanasius

The first purpose of Athanasius on his escape, was at once to betake himself to Constantius; and he had began his journey to him, when news of the fury, with which the persecution raged throughout the West, changed his intention. A price was set on his head, and every place was diligently searched in the attempt to find him. He retired into the wilderness of the Thebaid, then inhabited by the followers of Paul and Anthony, the first hermits. Driven at length thence by the activity of his persecutors, he went through a variety of strange adventures, which lasted for the space of six years, till the death of Constantius allowed him to return to Alexandria.

Persecution of the Catholics

His suffragan bishops did not escape a persecution, which was directed, not against an individual, but against the Christian faith. Thirty of them were banished, ninety were deprived of their churches; and many of the inferior clergy suffered with them. Sickness and death were the ordinary result of such hardships as exile involved; but direct violence in good measure superseded a lingering and uncertain vengeance. George, the representative of the Arians, led the way in a course of horrors, which he carried through all ranks and professions of the Catholic people; and the Jews and heathen of Alexandria, sympathising in his brutality, submitted themselves to his guidance, and enabled him to extend the range of his crimes in every direction. Houses were pillaged, churches were burned, or subjected to the most loathsome profanations, and cemeteries were ransacked. On the week after Whitsuntide, George himself surprised a congregation, which had refused to communicate with him. He brought out some of the consecrated virgins, and threatened them with death by burning, unless they forthwith turned Arians. On perceiving their constancy of purpose, he stripped them of their garments, and beat them so barbarously on the face, that for some time afterwards their features could not be distinguished. Of the men, forty were scourged; some died of their wounds, the rest were banished. This is one out of many notorious facts, publicly declared at the time, and uncontradicted; and which were not merely the unauthorised excesses of an uneducated Cappadocian, but recognised by the Arian body as their own, in a state paper from the Imperial Court, and perpetrated for the maintenance of the peace of the Church, and of a good understanding among all who agreed in the authority of the sacred Scriptures.

Letter from Constantius to the Alexandrians

In the document referred to, which is addressed to the Alexandrians, the infatuated Emperor applauds their conduct in turning from a cheat and impostor, and siding with those who were venerable men, and above all praise. “The majority of the citizens,” he continues, “were blinded by the influence of one, who rose from the abyss, darkly misleading those who seek the truth; who had at no time any fruitful exhortation to communicate, but abused the souls of his hearers with frivolous and superficial discussions.… That noble personage has not ventured to stand a trial, but has adjudged himself to banishment; whom it is the interest even of the barbarians to get rid of, lest by pouring out his griefs as in a play to the first comer, he persuade some of them to be profane. So we will wish him a fair journey. But for yourselves, only the select few are your equals, or rather, none are worthy of your honours; who are allotted excellence and sense, such as your actions proclaim, celebrated as they are almost through the world. You have roused yourselves from the grovelling things of earth to those of heaven, the most reverend George undertaking to be your leader, a man of all others the most accomplished in such matters; under whose care you will enjoy in days to come honourable hope, and tranquillity at the present time. May all of you hang upon his words as upon a holy anchor, that any cutting and burning may be needless on our part against men of depraved souls, whom we seriously advise to abstain from paying respect to Athanasius, and dismiss from their minds his troublesome garrulity; or such factious men will find themselves involved in extreme peril, which perhaps no skill will be able to avert from them. For it were absurd indeed, to drive about the pestilent Athanasius from country to country, aiming at his death, though he had ten lives, and not to put a stop to the extravagances of his flatterers and juggling attendants, such as it is a disgrace to name, and whose death has long been determined by the judges. Yet there is a hope of pardon, if they will at length relinquish their offensive proceedings. As to their profligate leader Athanasius, he distracted the harmony of the state, and laid on the most holy men impious and sacrilegious hands.”

The ignorance and folly of this remarkable document are at first sight incredible; but to an observvant mind the common experience of life brings sufficient proof, that there is nothing too audacious for party spirit to assert, nothing too gross for monarch or inflamed populace to receive.

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