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In C.435 Sozomen, the fifth-century lawyer and continuator of Eusebius of Caesarea’s Ecclesiastical History, describes how probably near the end of Constantine’s reign his grandfather and his family were converted to Christianity. He attributes this to the work of the Palestinian monk, Hilarion. He writes of Alaphion, a friend of the family at that time living in Bethelia near Gaza, a pagan stronghold:
Alaphion it appears was possessed of a devil; and neither the pagans nor the Jews could by any enchantments deliver him from this affliction, but Hilarion, by simply calling on the name of Christ expelled the demon and Alaphion and his whole family immediately embraced the faith.
A visitor to the Greco-Roman world about the year 350 AD would have found himself confronted by one of the great ‘sea changes’ in the lives of its peoples. The structure of city, farm and village that had persisted for centuries would appear to be intact. The market-places of the towns would be lined with altars and statues of long-dead benefactors. Temples to the gods of Rome and perhaps to a native deity duly Romanised, would dominate the scene. Wherever one stood in the city the temples in the forum would be the landmark. Nearby, would be the amphitheatre and great bath-building, the social centres of the old community, and near the entrance to the town the triumphal arch, marking perhaps the unification of Roman citizen and native inhabitant into one community.
The Acacian schism which lasted from 484 to 519 has been regarded as a bitter affair, characterised by intransigence on both sides and ending in an unqualified disaster for the Byzantine church. A closer look at the evidence suggests that the rigid attitudes of popes Gelasius (494–8) and Hormisdas (514–23) were far from being reproduced on the Byzantine side even at moments of provocation, and among the populace as a whole its existence was for most of the time a matter of indifference. The eventual ending of the schism through the initiative of the emperor Justin I was not regarded in the east as involving a derogation of the rights of the eastern patriarchates and of the church at Constantinople in particular.
The Great Persecution in the Western provinces of the Roman Empire was relatively short and sharp. Eusebius in both his Ecclesiastical History and the Martyrs of Palestine contrasts the eight long years of repression suffered by the East, first under Diocletian and Galerius and then under Maximian, with the persecution of ‘scarcely two years’ duration’ endured by the Western Christians. In the West, indeed, the persecution of Valerian 257-60 seems to have been longer and perhaps more costly in human lives, and that of Decius more dangerous to the Church.
How far does the great religious controversy of the fifth century centred on the mystery of the Incarnation reflect popular religious ideas of the east Roman world? It is well known that factors that had little to do with theological speculation, such as the rivalry for prestige and leadership between Constantinople and Alexandria, played a large part in bringing the controversy between rival concepts of christology to their climax in the twenty years that separate the councils of Ephesus and Chalcedon. More discussion, perhaps, is needed concerning the contribution of articulate public opinion to the course of events, and in particular, to the persistence of the opposition to the Chalcedonian definition after 451.
The writer of the History of the Patriarchs preserves an interesting tradition concerning the attitude of the monks of the monastery of Metras towards the Monophysite patriarch Benjamin (619–661/5)’ during the reign of the emperor Heraclius. ‘The inmates,’ we are told, ‘were especially powerful.’ They were Egyptians (Miswrani) by race, all natives, and there was no stranger among them. Therefore, Heraclius could not make their hearts pliant, and therefore they received Apa Benjamin when he returned from Upper Egypt, because they kept the orthodox (that is, Monophysite) faith and did not deviate from it’. Other monasteries might bow to ‘Heraclius the heretic’, but not they.
In the 250 years that separate the Neronian persecution in 64 CE from the conversion of Constantine to Christianity, c. 312, Christianity was an illegal and suspect religion whose members were subject to arrest, condemnation and, in many cases, death. During the last half of the second century, instinctive popular anger against the Christians generated the violent, sporadic persecutions recorded by Eusebius. The Jews are now less prominent, though at this time the Platonist critic Celsus still regarded the Christians as apostates from Judaism. In Alexandria, where Dionysius, bishop through two persecutions, was an eyewitness, we find the same conflict but without equally tragic results. His account of his interrogation by the deputy prefect, Aemilian, is preserved by Eusebius. In Palestine, there were forty-seven executions recorded by Eusebius in his Martyrs of Palestine, most for provoking the authorities. The majority of recalcitrant Christians, however, were sent to work in the mines of Egypt.
Apologetics take their place beside miracles of healing and courage in the face of persecution as an important means of furthering the early Christian mission. In the first two centuries AD, when the popular perception was that Christianity was closely allied to Judaism, the argument from Old Testament prophecy was important. In the third century, however, as the Church gained ground among the educated classes in east and west, the emphasis changed to an attempt to demonstrate the superiority of Christianity over its pagan rivals as a philosophy with a more convincing understanding of the role of providence. Apologists in the north African tradition, Tertullian, Minucius Felix, Arnobius and Lactantius, all played their part in this process. The prophecies of the Old Testament had to be confirmed by other prophecies, notably the Sibylline oracles and the sayings of Hermes Trismegistus. Finally, in the fourth century, many north Africans who, like Augustine for ten years, adhered to Manichaean Christianity relied wholly on these authorities, rejecting the Old Testament altogether.