One day in March 339, Philagrius, the prefect of Egypt, attempted to dislodge a group of Christians from their church buildings in Alexandria. He was preparing the city for the arrival of its new bishop, Gregory, whose theological views differed from those of the protestors, but who enjoyed the support of the emperor. According to the account written by Athanasius, Philagrius—the rival claimant to this episcopal see—along with soldiers, pagans and Jews, looted and burned a church, beat up monks, stripped virgins naked, sacrificed pinecones on the altar, cavorted naked in the baptistery and generally behaved so badly that it was legitimate to state that ‘there is a persecution here, a persecution the like of which has never before arisen against the Church’.1 This is one of many episodes that Galvão-Sobrinho discusses in his vigorous account of the early decades of the ‘Arian controversy’, a set of theological disputes that created uncertainty and upheaval for many fourth-century Christians, especially in the eastern part of the Roman empire. As well as reconstructing many details of the sequence of events involved, especially in the early part of the conflict, this book also argues that the Arian controversy marks a watershed in the history of the Christian church. Galvão-Sobrinho presents the view that, while the dominant model for the settlement of disagreements had previously been debate and compromise, this changed rapidly in the context of growing tensions between the Alexandrian priest Arius and his bishop, Alexander, even before the involvement of the emperor Constantine and the calling of the Council of Nicaea in 325.
The book’s chronological narrative is divided into three parts, with the first devoted to supplying context on episcopal authority and theological disputes in the decades before Arius. Galvão-Sobrinho provides an account of attempts to define the tenets of Christian belief more sharply, but also characterises the period as one in which leading churchmen ‘approached theological dissent in a markedly cautious, tolerant, and more or less predictable manner, striving to achieve consensus and compromise’ (14). By examining a number of writings from the third century, most notably those by Origen, the first chapter argues coherently that, although bishops did not hold an exclusive right to pronounce on matters of doctrine, their positions as leaders within their Christian communities were intrinsically linked to, and reliant upon, their perceived possession of ‘spiritual authority’ and orthodoxy. Despite this potential vulnerability in their status, ‘in contrast to priests, prophets, teachers, deacons, and others, who were often excommunicated and expelled from the community, we hardly ever hear of bishops being deposed or removed from office for doctrinal reasons’ (22, supported by an appendix at 161-2). In chapter 2, Galvão-Sobrinho explains this phenomenon as resulting from bishops’ success in developing strategies for dealing with challenges, most notably in the calling of councils for discussing points of disagreement, but also through taking refuge in the security of theological imprecision.
Part II provides a detailed reconstruction of events from the outbreak of the Arian controversy in 318 up to the Council of Nicaea seven years later. The narrative presented here not only traces a gradual drive towards greater definition and the consequent breakdown in the ‘compromise’ model of the third century, but also argues that this process ‘gave birth to a new style of church leadership’ (33). The sequence of events is reconstructed carefully with close attention being paid to a wealth of contemporary and near-contemporary accounts. As might be expected, the priest Arius features prominently in this story, as does Alexander, bishop of Alexandria, who is often overshadowed in modern accounts of the dispute, which tend to pay much more attention to his deacon, Athanasius, who succeeded him as bishop in 328. In fact, alongside an admirable critique of the traditional view of Arius as a troublesome instigator of heresy, Galvão-Sobrinho consistently presents Alexander as a rather hot-headed and insecure figure, whose (over-)reaction to Arius’ theological statements inflamed tensions significantly. As chapter 3 describes, although the bishop did originally try to settle the matter through debate, he soon presented his own views as ecclesiastical orthodoxy, before calling a council to condemn Arius and his supporters. As the dispute spread outside Egypt, Alexander ‘selfishly claimed for himself the authority to define the orthodox position on the matter for the entire church ’ (69, author’s italics), before condemning Eusebius of Nicomedia in a manner that was ‘callous and enormously divisive’, since ‘in one cavalier stroke, Alexander assailed a noted bishop who also happened to be a pious and learned man, admired throughout the East’ (72). Similarly, at the Council of Nicaea, Alexander was ‘unforgiving’ and acted ‘disingenuously’ (86), and also ‘continuously sabotaged the bishops’ efforts to reach a consensus’ (85). Moreover, in describing Alexander’s inflammatory rhetoric, chapter 4 states that the bishop ‘actually distorted the controversy, describing it not as a disagreement over a difficult theological matter but as a struggle of the true church against the forces of darkness’ (53–4). While these chapters do much to illuminate the escalation of the dispute and the significant role played by Alexander in this process, such phrases run the risk of assigning ‘blame’ solely to this one individual, as well as implying that a theological disagreement was, objectively, not a dangerous attack on the church. Heresy is, after all, always in the eye of the beholder, and we must be careful in suggesting that Alexander did not perceive his opponents in this way.
In contrast, Arius emerges from this account in a more positive light, certainly playing a part in increasing tensions, but usually being reactive in the face of Alexander’s provocations. In particular, chapter 4 contains a very interesting reconstruction of the spread of Arius’ ideas within Alexandria itself, including the ways in which he and his followers might have created and mobilised a base of support among many of the ordinary people of the city. Galvão-Sobrinho bases this work on Arius’ fragmentary poem, the Thalia, as well as Philostorgius’ claim that the priest wrote songs for sailors, millers and other groups of men, and goes on to imagine clandestine meetings where, ‘in the flickering light of candles and lamps, amid singing and dancing, devout Christians could bond with one another’ (60). Sometimes these suggestions become a little speculative, especially in the suggestion that Alexander’s supporters ‘may have infiltrated or heckled Arian assemblies’ (53), or the use of phrases such as ‘we can picture…’ or ‘we can imagine…’ (61). Nonetheless, most, if not all, of the reconstructions are perfectly reasonable and do not conflict with the small amount of surviving evidence, thus providing a useful, if sadly unprovable, way to visualise the urban dynamics of religious proselytisation.
The text of the Thalia itself is also analysed carefully, with Galvão-Sobrinho arguing that it promoted a less hierarchical notion of religious instruction, where ‘the path to the truth lay in individual learning and understanding, not in conformity to the injunctions of bishops and priests’ (56). This in particular clashed with Alexander’s understanding of the Church, since he ‘not only drew a line separating bishops and teachers, but also emphasized the gulf dividing the members of the priesthood from everyone else’ (41). Galvão-Sobrinho is undoubtedly right to stress the fact that the Thalia adopts the voice of an ‘ordinary’ Christian addressing other laypeople and providing them with theological statements, yet it is not clear that this meant that ‘Arius exalted the human intellect, not blind obedience to authority’ (56). While the translation on p. 55 includes a line that states, ‘learning under God, I have gained wisdom and knowledge’, it also opens with a statement of the speaker’s reliance on others: ‘These are the things I have learned from the partakers of wisdom / Sharp-minded men, taught by God, and wise in all things’. This could be a reference to the Apostles and the authors of Scripture, but it may also refer to Arius and other educated men, on whose theological expertise anyone reciting the Thalia explicitly declared themselves to depend. In addition, by writing such a poem, Arius did not democratise theological debate, but rather closed down opportunities, presenting a form of words to be recited by other Christians, whose role was imitation, not innovation. Although he would not accept the authority of his own (possibly heretical) bishop, Arius was, nonetheless, a priest who sought the support of the authority possessed by priests, bishops and an emperor.
The book’s third part takes the narrative beyond Nicaea to look at the remainder of Constantine’s reign, as well as the reigns of his sons, concentrating on the period up to the return of eastern episcopal exiles in 345–6. These chapters, like those which precede them, demonstrate an impressive command of the ancient material and modern reconstructions of events, as do the supporting sections of the appendix, which present detailed arguments for both the dating of the recall of Arius and the exiled Bithynian bishops and the sequence of letters, envoys and councils in 339–41. In this final section, Galvão-Sobrinho charts the continuing escalation of violence in ecclesiastical disputes, with bishops mustering support from official, imperial channels, as well as from urban populations. The marshalling of popular support is also explored further here, with charitable activities given an important role in the creation of communities loyal to particular clerics. These chapters also give a generally balanced view of the widespread use of violence, although the bishops of Alexandria again come in for a fair amount of criticism, including for one occasion when ‘Athanasius’ goons went on a rampage’ (120). This picture is largely a result of the surviving material for this period, in which we can see accusations against many of the major figures involved. So, for example, the famous Melitian letter in PLond. 1914 provides the account of the aforementioned misbehaviour by Athanasius’ subordinates, but in a number of places (such as at 135), quotations from Athanasius’ tendentious accounts of his own mistreatment are relied upon as clear descriptions of events. In a footnote about the passage from Athanasius described at the start of this review, Galvão-Sobrinho notes that David Gwynn ‘sees these episodes of violence as rhetorical constructions’, but dismisses this objection by stating that ‘despite the polemical nature of the evidence, acts of violence were not rhetorical topoi ’ (252 n. 76). Although describing an urban riot was not one of the exercises to be found in schoolroom progymnasmata in late antiquity, fourth-century authors had many influential literary models available when composing such accounts, including stories of persecution and martyrdom under earlier pagan emperors. I would certainly not want to argue that we should dismiss all accounts of violence in this period: much of what they describe almost certainly happened, but they must nonetheless always be read cautiously and critically.
Throughout this book, Galvão-Sobrinho presents a carefully researched and clearly written reconstruction of this vital period of theological and political upheaval. There are also important conclusions about changes in the roles and activities of bishops, including the mobilisation of popular support and the use of violence. Significantly, the early years of the Arian controversy are presented as central to this shift, which ‘owed little to imperial patronage of the church’ (6), although there is a suggestion in the conclusion that ‘the disputants might have hammered out a compromise solution’ if Constantine had not become involved (156). More ‘literary minded’ historians (in which group I count myself) might have some reservations about the ways in which ancient polemical writings are used here, while certain suggestions made about Alexandrian popular religion necessarily remain speculative. This is, however, a thoughtful and scholarly volume that has much to offer to anyone interested in either the Arian controversy itself or the wider subject of episcopal authority in late antiquity.
1. Athanasius, Epistula encyclica, quoting 5.7.