Scholia Reviews ns 11 (2002) 30.
Timothy D. Barnes, Athanasius and Constantius. Theology and Politics in the Constantinian Empire. Cambridge (Mass.) and London: Harvard University Press, 2001. Pp. xviii + 343, incl. eleven appendices. ISBN 0-674-00549-X. UK£16.95.
André F. Basson
University at Buffalo (State University of New York)
In the history of the Western church, Athanasius of Alexandria has long been revered as the author of the paschal letter (39) that established the canonical status of most of the books of the New Testament, and honored for his unyielding stand against Arianism. By painstakingly sifting through the facts and carefully evaluating the historical evidence drawn from an impressive array of primary documents (not to mention the vast number of modern sources), Timothy Barnes has attempted to recover something of the original portrait of Athanasius. But, as the title already suggests, the aim of the book is not a biography in the conventional sense of the word. Instead, the focus is primarily on Athanasius' career during the often turbulent years in which he served -- on and off -- as bishop of Alexandria, and his volatile relationship with the imperial court. The concise Forschungsbericht that serves as an introduction seeks to justify the need for a reappraisal of Athanasius' role in ecclesiastical politics during the reigns of Constantine and his sons. The main assumption underlying Barnes' book needs to be noted. It is that 'Athanasius consistently misrepresented central facts about his ecclesiastical career, in particular about his relationship with the emperor Constantine and his three sons … and about his own standing within the Christian church in the eastern half of the empire …' (p. 2). In the introduction, Barnes also provides a systematic overview of the principal groups of primary sources, briefly noting their history and relative value in each case.
By way of introduction, the first few paragraphs of the second chapter (pp. 10-18) cursorily review Athanasius' early years, before his election as bishop of Alexandria in 328, but special attention is devoted to his education and culture. At least from the subject's own writings, Barnes finds no solid evidence to conclude that his culture was anything but rather mediocre, even when measured by the general standards of someone of his humble origins. No sooner had the external threat of persecution been removed, than the Arian controversy struck the church like a hurricane. Alexander, bishop of Alexandria, was at the epicentre of the storm. By virtue of his close connection to Alexander, Athanasius was drawn into many of the major ecclesiastical maneuvers aimed at reconciling the main parties, hence the title of this chapter (Bishop Alexander) which deals for the major part with the extent to which the crisis impacted upon Athanasius' career. He even assisted Alexander at the famous Council of Nicaea (325). When Alexander died three years later, Athanasius was elected -- although not by a unanimous vote -- to succeed him. Clearly, his steadfast support of Alexander and his prominent role in the anti-Arian coalition were beginning to pay dividends. But just how ephemeral these dividends actually were, would soon be revealed. Already the fact that his election was not by a common vote, was an ominous sign.
As Barnes points out at the beginning of Chapter 3, 'Alexander and Constantine: History and Apologia' (pp. 19-33), the forty- five years Athanasius served as bishop of Alexandria were almost anything but peaceful. It was a tumultuous time in which political events in the Roman Empire and the changing fortunes of the house of Constantine often influenced the course of church politics and vice versa. From the very beginning, Athanasius found the legitimacy of his episcopacy being contested, and only two years after his election he was forced into exile. Barnes neatly traces the tortuous route of diplomacy and political intrigue that followed Athanasius' return to his see and still allowed him to survive the unrelenting efforts by his opponents (notably the Arian 'party' and the Melitians) to end his episcopacy. Unfortunately for Athanasius, who nevertheless proved himself to be a worthy adversary, the supporters of Arius and the Melitians had the advantage of a powerful and very influential champion at the imperial court in the person of Eusebius, bishop of Nicomedia. In his dealings with both parties, Constantine appears to have been at pains to act without bias and not to encroach upon the powers and prerogatives of the church. Hence, for example, the anomaly of Athanasius being exiled to Trier by imperial order in 335, but without any official change in his status as the legitimate metropolitan of Alexandria. In the remainder of the chapter, Barnes submits to closer scrutiny Athanasius' account of these years in his Defence against the Arians and demonstrates how Athanasius musters an impressive arsenal of documents to put a positive spin on his relationship with Constantine and to discredit his opponents. It appears that both in his treatment of documentary evidence and in attempts to safeguard his position, Athanasius was not averse to resorting to dishonest means.
The death of Constantine found Athanasius still in exile in Trier. As soon as his exile was lifted, he returned to Alexandria via Cappadocia for the purpose of a meeting with Constantius. This is the subject of Chapter 4, 'A Journey to Cappadocia' (pp. 34-46). But Barnes does not state why Athanasius found it necessary to seek an audience with Constantius at this point in time. At Antioch, a council of bishops had already taken the first steps towards deposing Athanasius. Probably on Athanasius' initiative, a council of Egyptian bishops was soon convened in Alexandria to prove him innocent of the charges levelled at him by the council of Antioch. Athanasius had a powerful ally in the person of Julius, the bishop of Rome, but was still unable to secure Constantius' goodwill. One must assume -- since Barnes does not provide a clear reason -- that Constantius' hostility towards Athanasius had much to do with the latter's relentless opposition to Arianism, an attitude which Constantius probably feared would split the Empire. On at least two occasions during 337 and 338, Athanasius was able to defend himself before Constantius, apparently with some success, since he was allowed to remain bishop of Alexandria, his condemnation by the council of Antioch notwithstanding. But his enemies nevertheless pressed ahead to have him deposed. This they managed to achieve at another council of bishops which again met in Antioch, with the full-knowledge if not active support of Constantius. Athanasius was forced to flee Alexandria and go into exile for the second time. Intriguing is the vacillating attitude of Constantius towards Athanasius and Barnes does not provide a clear answer for it. Mere political opportunism just does not seem to explain fully the reason why one moment he was quite willing to accept Athanasius' defence against the calumnies of the first council of Antioch, when the very next moment, almost immediately after their meeting in Caesarea, he proceeded to conspire with the second council of Antioch to have him deposed.
When Athanasius left Alexandria, it was at Rome that he sought refuge. There at least he could count on the protection of the city's bishop. Barnes devotes one whole chapter, 'Athanasius at Rome' (pp. 47-55), to Athanasius' Roman sojourn. At Rome, Athanasius composed an encyclical letter in which he tried to 'set the record straight' regarding the circumstances surrounding his departure from Alexandria. To the eastern bishops -- the primary addressees of the letter -- he portrayed himself as the innocent victim of a series of hostile acts, for which he held mainly Constantius and the council of Antioch responsible. It was probably also at Rome- so Barnes argues - that Athanasius composed his (three) Orations against the Arians. This treatise sought to expose Arius' heretical teachings and to explain the orthodox view. At the same time, it also aimed at arousing sympathy for Athanasius as the principal champion of orthodox theology. By hitching his cause to that of Nicaean orthodoxy and promoting the idea that an assault on the former constitutes ipso facto an attack on the latter, Barnes claims, Athanasius was deliberately engaging his enemies on two fronts, the political and the ideological.
In an attempt to achieve some kind of rapprochement between Athanasius and his eastern confrères, Julius invited the latter to a joint council to be held in Rome. The invitation was turned down. Most of Chapter 6, 'Julius and Marcellus' (pp. 56-62), deals with Julius' reply to the rejection by the eastern bishops of his invitation to come to Rome. If anything, the chapter reveals the extent of the ideological gulf that separated the two parties, not only on the issue of the innocence of Athanasius and Marcellus, another exile at Rome whose cause had been taken up by Julius, but also on strictly theological issues. When Athanasius finally did return to Egypt in 346 it was due to the intervention of Constans who had put pressure on his brother Constantius. Four years later, Constans would be dead, the victim of an assassination, and Athanasius without his imperial patron.
In his Defense before Constantius, Athanasius sought to refute allegations that he had somehow turned Constans against his brother. In Chapter 7, 'The Intervention of Constans' (pp. 63-70), Barnes examines the relationship between Athanasius and the western emperor, in the light of this document which, so Barnes seeks to demonstrate in Appendix 3 (pp. 196-197), was actually written over a number of years, from 353 to 357. Throughout his Defense before Constantius, Athanasius professes his innocence. He claims he had met with the emperor in three cities, Aquileia, Trier, and Milan, but always in the presence of witnesses. Barnes finds textual evidence proving that these audiences occurred between the autumn of 342 and the autumn of 345.
The council of Serdica was an attempt by the emperor Constans to address concerns he and the western clergy had regarding the state of the church and of orthodox theology in the East. The eastern bishops saw these matters in a different light and were therefore less eager to attend. In fact, the delegates from the West outnumbered their counterparts from the East by a fairly wide margin. The council of Serdica and the correspondence that ensued between the main parties are the main subject of the Chapter 8, 'The Council of Serdica' (pp. 71-81). Given the high level of disagreement and mutual distrust that already prevailed between East and West, it should not come as a surprise that the delegates failed to reach unanimity on the main issues. When news arrived that Constantius had defeated the Persians, the eastern delegates withdrew. In a letter they addressed to the council, they singled out a number of ecclesiastics (including Athanasius) for vehement condemnation, while also denouncing other bishops who had been deposed in the East and forced into exile. Piqued by the conduct of their eastern brethren, the western bishops composed a stern riposte in which inter alia they re- affirmed Athanasius' innocence and insisted that he be allowed to return to his see. Both letters also dealt with other pressing ecclesiastical issues, but these were not strictly germane to Athanasius' cause, although Barnes discusses them at some length.
Since no final agreement had been reached at Serdica on any matter, Athanasius' official status remained unchanged, at least as far as Constantius was concerned, and he was therefore not able to return to Alexandria until the emperor was prepared to accept the statement of his innocence by the western bishops who had attended the council of Serdica. In Chapter 9, 'Athanasius and the martyrs of Adrianople' (pp. 82-86), Barnes examines Athanasius' activities and movements in the intervening years, between the conclusion of the council of Serdica and his return to Alexandria, but especially his account in the History of the Arians of the hostile actions taken against him by the eastern bishops.
Intervention by Constans prompted Constantius to adopt a more conciliatory attitude towards Athanasius. Before returning to his former see in 346, Athanasius first met with Constans in Trier, visited Rome (via Aquileia), and journeyed to Antioch in response to the (repeated) summons of Constantius to appear at court. Apart from dealing with the theological and political response by the eastern bishops to the synodical letter of the western council of Serdica, Chapter 10, 'Return to Alexandria' (pp. 87-93), also examines the main factors involved in Constantius' decision to restore Athanasius to his former see and the favourable circumstances under which the latter was able to return to Alexandria.
Upon entering Alexandria, Athanasius received a rapturous welcome, a fact which Barnes interprets at the beginning of Chapter 11, 'The condemnation of 349 and its context' (pp. 94- 100), as evidence that the city's support for their erstwhile bishop had not diminished during his long absence. In fact, the author notes that between 335 and 348 the number of Egyptian bishops loyal to Athanasius had almost doubled. But, as Barnes points out, support for Athanasius was not limited to the Egyptian church hierarchy, but also included monastic communities in rural Egypt, not to mention the goodwill of the western bishops (the most notable of whom being the bishop of Rome) and the emperor Constans. The fact that another council of Antioch decided to depose Athanasius in 349 certainly seems to confirm Barnes' claim that Constantius' conciliatory attitude towards him had purely been a matter of political expediency (pp. 90 and 97). If Athanasius wrote the main part of his Defense against the Arians with the aim of submitting it to the council, as Barnes tries to argue, one could only wonder what effect he thought it would have, since at that point in time he could hardly been under any illusion regarding the extent of the feelings of his eastern colleagues against him.
In Chapter 12, 'The Usurpation of Magnentius' (pp. 101-8), Barnes returns to the issue of the charge that Athanasius had conspired against Constantius. The death of Constans allowed room for the accusation that he had not only tried to foment hostility between Constans against his brother, but had also colluded with the former's successor, Magnentius. Athanasius vehemently denied these charges in his Defense before Constantius. Barnes carefully weighs Athanasius' arguments, yet finds no clear evidence either proving or disproving his guilt. For the time being, Constantius appears to have had no other choice but to lend his support to Athanasius, if only to discourage him from conspiring with Magnentius. The latter part of the chapter, reviews the conflict between Constantius and Magnentius, and the dynastic succession that raised first Gallus and then his younger brother, Julian Caesar, to the imperial purple. It concludes with a brief discussion of the positive appraisal of Constantius and his reign by Cyril of Jerusalem.
The only evidence for Athanasius being deposed by the Council of Sirmium (351) is neither official nor explicit, but for the most part entirely circumstantial. Be that as it may, it seems that the Council's decision was conveyed to the bishop of Rome who acted upon it by inviting Athanasius to come to Rome in order that the matter could be resolved. In great detail, Chapter 13, 'Sirmium, Arles, and Milan', pp. 109-20) first sets out Athanasius' literary response to the decision by the Council of Sirmium, before turning to the measures taken by Constantius to ensure unanimous support for the council's condemnation of Athanasius. On the basis of Athanasius' fervent defence of Nicaean orthodoxy in his On the Council of Nicaea, Barnes argues that it is quite possible that the work was written as a direct response to the Council of Sirmium, since 'it had long been Athanasius' strategy to associate his own cause with the defense of the true faith' (p. 110). Athanasius was far too astute a politician not to realize that Constantius would resort to any means to ensure that the council's decision would be carried out. In his Defense before Constantius, he therefore attempts to refute the main charges on which his condemnation by the council was based. Undeterred Constantius sought to obtain general support for the council's decision, even applying 'coercion and threats' (p. 115) where called for. These measures proved to be quite effective, since only a few western bishops persisted in withholding their assent. Athanasius was left with little choice but to leave Alexandria.
Athanasius appears to have spent the major part of his 'exile' in hiding in Egypt (some of it even in Alexandria). The most important works which he wrote in this period (his most prolific according to Barnes) are the subject of Chapter 14 (pp. 121-135). They include a long Letter to the Bishops of Egypt and Libya, a Defense of His Flight, his History of the Arians, a collection of Letters to Serapion, and an On the Councils. The chapter's title (Apologia, Polemic, Theology) is intended to echo the general tenor of these works which, with the exception of the latter two, all aimed to portray Athanasius, in one way or another, as the courageous guardian of the orthodox cause and the hapless victim of its enemies. The Letters to Serapion and the On the Councils reaffirm the position of the Council of Nicaea regarding the relationship among the three persons of the Trinity, although in the latter work, Athanasius adopted a more conciliatory tone in an attempt to gain the support of some of his opponents. In this respect, Athanasius had little choice, since Constantius' efforts to enforce universal adherence to the decisions of the Council of Sirmium were proving to be very successful.
Since the Council of Nicaea, the term homoousios had been central to the orthodox doctrine on the relationship between the Father and the Son in the divine Trinity. But in the late 350's, Athanasius, for political reasons, accepted the term homoiousios as equally valid. At the same time, a more radical doctrine suggesting the subordination of the Son to the Father caused a major realignment of theological loyalties and alliances. In Chapter 15, 'New Theological Controversies' (pp. 136-43), Barnes examines the response both in the East and in the West to this new doctrine. No less a person than the emperor Constantius rejected it (although it did not deter him from continuing to isolate Athanasius), and in the West Hilary of Poitiers took up the pen against what he saw as an attack on Athanasius and Nicaean orthodoxy.
Chapter 16, 'The Homoean Creed' (pp. 144-51), is only relevant to the life of Athanasius to the extent that it deals with the fate of Nicaean orthodoxy at the councils of Ariminium and Seleucia. Both councils, the former in the West and the latter in the East, were held at the behest of Constantius in order to achieve unanimity on the issue of the relationship between the Father and the Son in the Trinity. Pressure was brought to bear on the supporters of the Nicene creed at the Council of Ariminium -- not a new imperial strategy - to adopt a creed that would find imperial favour. After much debate, the Council of Seleucia was forced to follow suit. The new homoean creed which the two councils finally adopted stated that the 'Son is like the Father' (p. 148) and deliberately avoided many of the key terms which in previous creeds had caused so much discord and dissent.
The sudden death of Constantius in 361 opened a window of opportunity for Athanasius and the Nicene cause. Under Julian, Constantius' successor, Athanasius was allowed to return to Alexandria. Soon after his arrival in the city, Athanasius convened a council to rally support for the creed of Nicaea and to reconcile the various groups who were willing to endorse it. Even before the demise of its imperial sponsor, the homoean creed as ratified by the Council of Constantinople in 360 had been challenged. While still Caesar, Julian, prompted by political opportunism, made no attempt to suppress the growing opposition to the homoean creed being spearheaded by Hilary in the West. But once Constantius was out of the way, Julian changed tack and adopted a policy towards Christianity that was more aggressively hostile. Athanasius was among its first and most prominent victims. However, Julian's untimely death soon allowed him to resume his position as bishop of Alexandria. Chapter 17, 'The Elder Statesman' (pp. 152-64), traces the checkered course of Athanasius' career as the principal champion of Nicene orthodoxy under Julian, Jovian, and Valens. Under Valens who had received the eastern provinces upon his appointment as joint Augustus with his brother Valentinian, and who was a strong supporter of the homoean creed, Athanasius was again forced to flee Alexandria, but was soon able to return to his see when political circumstances changed in his favour. Athanasius' prominent role in the defense of the Nicene creed eventually came to overshadow his past crimes and indiscretions, and, as Barnes observes (p. 152), transformed him into an 'elder statesman', precisely the status which many generations of reverential church historians would later thrust upon him.
Chapter 18, 'The Emperor and the Church, 324-361' (pp. 165-75), seeks to draw some pertinent conclusions from what has been discussed in the previous seventeen chapters. It is a well established fact that the reign of Constantine inaugurated a period of increasingly close -- but not always harmonious - relations between church and state, a fact perhaps best illustrated in the life of Athanasius. This development became even more marked during the reign of Constantius, although, as Barnes points out (p. 166), contemporary historians (both secular and ecclesiastical) are curiously somewhat reticent about it. In respect to the extent to which the emperor was able (or even willing) to exercise control over the course of church politics, Barnes makes the important observation that the conclusions of more recent (especially German) scholarship are not borne out by the facts. For example, apart from one notable exception, there is no evidence that during the period 324-379 the emperor 'ever presided or even sat as a member' of an ecclesiastical council (p. 169). Even the convening of a council was not absolutely dependent on his command or even his fiat. But this does not mean that the emperor was without influence when it came to setting the agenda or the decisions that were taken. Furthermore, it seems that already in the time of Constantine, the emperor felt obliged to respect the decisions of ecclesiastical councils, as well as their right to try bishops. The increasing independence the bishop began to enjoy vis-à-vis the Roman legal system of the day, especially in the West, was certainly a major contributing factor to the steady rise to influence and power of the episcopacy in the late fourth, fifth and sixth centuries. Thus one can hardly dispute Barnes' claim at the beginning of Chapter 19, 'Bishops and Society' (pp. 176-79), that in the case of Athanasius, political factors were as much the reason for his eventual prominence -- if not more so -- as was his personal character. Barnes also demonstrates how certain aspects of imperial policy under Constantine served indirectly to further enhance the status and authority of the Christian bishop. But particularly noteworthy is his observation that from the dissolution of the traditionally close network of social, religious and political relations caused by Constantine's reforms, the Christian bishop finally emerged as the single most important power-broker and dispenser of patronage after the emperor -- a phenomenon already examined in greater detail by numerous scholars of late antiquity.
In the final chapter which serves as an epilogue, (pp. 180-82), Barnes briefly goes into the power struggle that ensued almost immediately after Athanasius' death. At issue -- so the man whom Athanasius himself designated as his successor claimed -- was nothing less than the future of Nicene orthodoxy. However, the death of Valens and the appointment of Theodosius to succeed him in the East, determined the outcome of the struggle in favour of the cause Athanasius had so indefatigably championed all his life as bishop.
Barnes concludes his book with no less than eleven extremely detailed appendices. The first appendix (pp. 183-91) provides a brief editorial history of the Syriac and Coptic corpora of Athanasius' Festal Letters as well as a reconstituted chronology. Appendix 2 (pp. 192-95) addresses the question of what the author terms the puzzling structure (p. 192) of the Defense Against the Arians, while appendix 3 (pp. 196f.) examines the nature of the composition of the Defense Before Constantius. In appendix 4 (pp. 198f.), Barnes explains his reason for postulating 352/3 as the date of the On the Council of Nicaea. Appendix 5 (pp. 200-4) offers a brief analysis of the second book of Socrates' Ecclesiastical History to demonstrate the work's unreliability as a chronological account. Appendix 6 (pp. 205-8) reviews the principal sources of Socrates' Ecclesiastical History and Sozomenus' work of the same name, and lists a number of passages in the latter which supplement and provide detail not found in Socrates. Appendix 7 (pp. 209-11) seeks to rehabilitate Theodoretus' reputation as a historian, notably by cataloguing passages from Book Two of his Ecclesiastical History that demonstrate a measure of independence from previous sources, especially Rufinus and Socrates. In Appendix 8 (pp. 212-17), Barnes proposes a reconstruction of the chronology of Paul of Constantinople's career, drawing on internal evidence provided by Socrates' Ecclesiastical History. Appendix 9 (pp. 218-28) sets out a chronology of the principal residences and attested movements of Constantine's three sons, and of Caesar Gallus and the emperor Julian, up to December 361. Appendix 10 (pp. 229-32) consists of a list of the (surviving) creeds promulgated during the reign of Constantius. In each case, the text edition and other pertinent information are also mentioned. It concludes by examining the thorny issue of the four Councils of Sirmium. The final appendix (pp. 233f.) provides a concordance of the reference-systems of the Martin, Batiffol, and Opitz editions of the Athanasii historia acephala.
To conclude, Barnes' book is by no means an easy read, but its meticulous scholarship and valuable insights make it an indispensable guide to the life of Athanasius, to the relationship between Church and State in Late Antiquity.