T.D. Barnes, Athanasius and Constantius: Theology and Politics in the Constantinian Empire. Cambridge, Mass., and London: Harvard University Press, 1993. Pp. xviii + 343. ISBN 0-674-05067-3. US$59.95.
University of the Witwatersrand
Athanasius was one of the great survivors of the early Christian Church. Elected Bishop of Alexandria in 328, at an age young enough to provoke controversy over the legitimacy of his election, he died in office almost forty-five years later. In the interim he had suffered repeated exiles from his see, under no fewer than four emperors. This roller-coaster career was closely bound up with the ecclesiastical politics of the period, in which the secular authorities themselves were thoroughly entwined. It was a time of bitter dispute over a doctrinal matter which to non-Christians then as now must have seemed nit-picking, but which dominated the theological arena in the first decades of the Christian Empire. How was the relation between the three personal subjects in God - Father, Son, and Holy Spirit - and particularly the first two of these, to be conceived and expressed? Some Christians - 'Arians', to use the blanket term common to the fourth and the twentieth century, though recent scholarship has rightly emphasised its inadequacy - opted for formulations which implied the subordination of the Son to the Father. Others rejected this view, holding fast to the position taken at the Council of Nicaea in 325, which asserted the consubstantiality - in effect, the ontological equality - of Father and Son. In the vanguard of this group stood Athanasius, and it was above all on his firm defence of Nicene 'orthodoxy' in his life and writings that his lasting reputation was built.
In this book T.D. Barnes subjects Athanasius to the most rigorous scrutiny. His main aim is 'to use modern techniques of historical research to probe behind Athanasius' misrepresentations . . . in order to discover the true nature of the ecclesiastical history and the ecclesiastical politics of the fourth century' (p. ix). Gibbon's view of the Bishop of Alexandria as 'a high-minded and prudent leader of genius constantly assailed by the false accusations and ignoble machinations of dishonest and mean-spirited adversaries' (p. 2) is put to the test. By a close examination of key texts by Athanasius himself, and with regard to other evidence, Barnes re-draws this picture. In an earlier work the author represented Athanasius as a gangster, the leader of an ecclesiastical mafia in Alexandria, a depiction which at least one scholar found hard to take.(1) To this image he now adds that of a man capable of extreme economy with the truth, suppressing and distorting facts as they suit his purpose. The general validity of this view must be assessed by others more intimately familiar than this reviewer with the primary material, and particularly the Athanasian documents themselves; but on the basis of Barnes' analysis it is hard to dispute that certain texts, above all the History of the Arians, give the matters with which they deal a slant which would win the admiration of any tabloid editor.
The volume possesses a thoroughly Barnesian character. Twenty chapters of densely-packed text are supported by eleven appendices and eighty-four pages of endnotes. In addition to a good general index, there are indices of Athanasian texts, episcopal councils, and modern scholars referred to in the work; the last of these might more usefully have been omitted in favour of a proper bibliography, even one restricted to works specifically on Athanasius. Of the appendices, especially valuable is that which lists the attested movements of the emperors between 337 and 361, information essential if events of the period are to be plotted accurately. Another appendix sets out the date and place of each episcopal council at which a creed was promulgated or adopted between the same years. While this is of some assistance in guiding the reader through the welter of creeds and councils that are a feature of the period, a chronological list of the most important councils, with a summary of the key decisions reached in each case, would have spared this reader at any rate from repeatedly having to rummage through earlier pages in order to maintain a firm grasp of the sequence and development of events.
After an introductory first chapter, which sets the book in the context of the history of scholarship on Athanasius, and discusses the principal sources for the reconstruction of his career, the bulk of the main text follows a general chronological line from the beginning of Athanasius' life to its end. Barnes supplies a continuous narrative thread, but the focus of his attention is on individual documents, and in a sense the book has the character of a historical commentary on specific writings. It is in the detailed attention paid to these texts, and in the author's powers of deductive reasoning, that the book's strength is most apparent. Two examples will illustrate the point. Explicit indications fix Athanasius' three Orations against the Arians in the reign of the Emperor Constantius. But that spanned almost a quarter of a century. Can the date of composition be determined more precisely? Barnes observes (p. 54) that in this text the term homoousios ('of the same substance', referring to the relationship between the Father and the Son) occurs only once, and that in a quasi-credal context. He deduces that this makes it unlikely in the extreme that the work was written - as some scholars have maintained - later than the early 350s, when homoousios became the 'theological watchword' of the Nicene party and Athanasius can certainly be expected to have defended its use. A second skilful piece of deduction is employed to argue convincingly that Paul of Constantinople, like Athanasius and other orthodox exiles, was restored to his see by the western bishops at the Council of Serdica in 343, despite the absence of Paul's name from their synodical letter (p. 77). The fifth-century historian Socrates states explicitly that the council restored Paul. Is Socrates in error? No: the western bishops are maintaining a prudent and diplomatic silence. Paul, who had been deposed in 337 following a disputed election, had returned uncanonically to Constantinople after the death of Eusebius of Nicomedia in 341, provoking riots and the lynching of the general Hermogenes, before being expelled again. The eastern, 'Arian', bishops at Serdica denounced him. Paul's name is suppressed in the western synodical letter because his actions were incapable of being effectively defended even by his supporters. While not all Barnes' deductions carry this degree of conviction (his attempt to date the Orations against the Arians more precisely still, to 339 or 340, for example, seems to press the evidence to fit in with a preconceived idea),(2) the book leaves one in no doubt of its author's enviable gift for drawing inferences from unpromising material, and for connecting up disparate pieces of information in a constructive and imaginative way.
The combination of close attention to detail, commendable in itself, and the relatively narrow focus which the author has chosen, makes the book a hard read. At times Barnes seems unable to distinguish between the essential and the tangential, discussing to no useful purpose in the context the notion of Athanasius as a Copt (p. 13), or the textual transmission of the Greek Bible (p. 40). He displays, too, a wearying tendency to pile on the names of bit players in the drama. On p. 123, in the course of one paragraph, he lists by name no fewer than forty-five bishops mentioned by Athanasius in his Letter to the Bishops of Egypt and Libya - fourteen of whom appear nowhere else in the book, while a further five crop up again only once. All this does is to clog the text and blur its contours.
The narrow focus, in turn, gives the book a degree of tunnel vision somewhat at variance with the impression created by the attractive dustjacket and a title that promises a wider angle on events. The author indeed seems a little out of touch with the response his work is likely to evoke in its readers. If his study has 'a certain logical affinity' with A.J.A. Symons' The Quest for Corvo (p. 2), the parallel is nonetheless misleading: Athanasius and Constantius is neither as readable as Symons' 'experiment in biography', nor, I fear, as intriguing. Even more remarkable is Barnes' concern that some readers may 'feel that too much of what I have written resembles a detective story more than a work of history' (p. ix). If any reader does pick up the book confusing T.D. Barnes with P.D. James, one may safely anticipate a rapid realisation of error.
Nevertheless, a broader perspective is not entirely lacking. Amid the subtleties of the theological arguments and formulas and the misrepresentations of Athanasius one gets glimpses of a real world of flesh and blood and human conflict. Our attention is drawn especially to the violence of the society in which the Bishop of Alexandria lived, which was all too often associated with religious differences. We read that the return of Marcellus of Ancyra to his see in 337 provoked fighting in the streets, the burning of houses, and assaults on clergy of the opposing faction (p. 56). In 344 or 345, when the praetorian prefect Philippus expelled Paul of Constantinople from his see and reinstated the 'Arian' Macedonius, riots ensued in which over three thousand people were killed (p. 86). In 360, a virgin in Alexandria who had concealed Athanasius was tortured by the secular authorities, anxious to capture him (pp. 121-2). Accusations of violence were hurled to and fro between Athanasius' party and his opponents throughout the period. If the truth, or the degree of truth, inherent in these accusations cannot always be accurately established, it is beyond question that thuggery was endemic on both sides.
The other, more important, theme of wider significance which stands out in the book is the intertwining of imperial and ecclesiastical politics. The most striking feature of Barnes' depiction of this relationship is his representation of the sons of Constantine, particularly Constantius, as being deeply interested and involved not just in the affairs of the Church, but in specifically theological matters. Yet the reasons for this involvement are left unexplored. Why was it that the emperors showed such concern for matters of Christian doctrine? Why did they not adopt the same policy as Valentinian I, who disclaimed any right to interfere in doctrinal issues? And why did they take the positions they did? There is no prima facie reason for thinking that they were motivated by a magnificent obsession with true belief, though an innocent reader might well suppose that that was the case. Again, was Constantius' involvement in ecclesiastical affairs actually as persistent and absorbing as Barnes would have it? Was the emperor, confronted with the usurpation of Magnentius, really 'determined to turn his attention back to ecclesiastical politics as soon as the impending civil war permitted' (p. 105)? As Barnes himself indicates (pp. 166-7), the fifth-century Church historians, and Ammianus Marcellinus, who lived through the period, give a very different impression. While Barnes draws attention to what seem to be serious omissions in Ammianus' record, he does not adequately explain them, and the apparent failure of the later historians to do justice to the relations between Constantius and the Church is not discussed at all. The discrepancies demand investigation.
Whatever criticisms can be levelled against this book, and for all its self-confessed idiosyncracy (p. x), it is a learned and important contribution to the study of the fourth century, certain to stimulate debate. Its assumptions and conclusions are unlikely to find favour with all historians of the period, but scholars will be forced to re-evaluate their views of Athanasius and of the relations between Church and State in the Constantinian empire. It should be stressed, however, that this is very much a book for the specialist; those who are versed neither in the history of the fourth century nor in the doctrinal issues of the years after Nicaea will not find much to their use or liking here, save perhaps for the broader topics discussed briefly in cc. 18 and 19 (the discussion on pp. 168-73 of the boundaries between the Church and the emperor in ecclesiastical matters is particularly good). The book is splendidly produced by Harvard University Press; I found only a handful of typographical errors, most of them trivial. On p. 166 'eastern bishops' is surely an error for 'western bishops' (cf. pp. 115-17), and on p. 180 'forty-four years earlier' should read 'thirty-four years earlier'.
(1) T.D. Barnes, Constantine and Eusebius (Cambridge, Mass., and London 1981) 230; contraR. van den Broek, Mnemosyne 39 (1986) 218-21, at 220-1.
(2) It also escapes Barnes that 339 is in fact excluded by his argument in the second paragraph of p. 55 if Marcellus of Ancyra did not reach Rome until the spring of 340, as he maintains on p. 57.