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Athanasius of Alexandria in Flight
The desert has no doors, and all who wish pass through, but the Lord's house is enclosed with walls and doors, and brings to light the differences between the pious and the profane.
— ATHANASIUS, DEFENSE BEFORE CONSTANTIUS
Then do walls make Christians?
— AUGUSTINE, CONFESSIONS
In book 8 of his Confessions, Augustine of Hippo (354–430) describes in great detail a series of conversion narratives that lead to his own famous scene in the garden. Wandering men turn to the Christian faith as they mine the scriptures for Platonic truths or encounter fanciful stories of monks in the desert. Augustine decides to initiate his stories of conversions with the tale of Marius Victorinus. A famous fourth-century orator and fierce defender of the Roman imperial cults for the majority of his long life, Victorinus eventually devotes himself to the careful study of the scriptures. As we might expect, his study results in his conversion. After Victorinus discloses this miraculous change of heart to a friend, he is immediately chided: "I shall not believe that or count you among the Christians unless I see you in the church of Christ." Victorinus, puzzled by such a statement, quickly retorts with a question that will occupy us in this chapter: "Then do walls make Christians?"
For Augustine and his friends, it would seem that walls do, in fact, make Christians. Holy spaces safely mark out those who are in and those who are not. This question was by no means a new one by the time Augustine wrote his Confessions: Athanasius of Alexandria made a similar argument nearly half a century earlier, although, for him, at least at an early moment in his career as the reigning bishop of Alexandria, the overarching issue was not the declaration of one's faith within the walls of the church but who owned the walls of the church. Those walls, he stressed, belonged to the Roman emperor. Athanasius was a fierce defender of those Roman imperial walls until, forced to flee from them, he was also forced to change his thinking. This miraculous transformation came about in the most unlikely of places: the Nitrian desert.
In this chapter, I focus on how the displaced bishop of Alexandria represented his own exile in two key polemical texts: Defense before Constantius and Defense of His Flight. In the first text, Athanasius began to think through the role particular spaces play in the identification and preservation of the Christian faith. As his position as an exile came into sharper focus, he shifted his argument away from the protection of imperial walls and toward the desert. By the end of his Defense before Constantius, Athanasius concluded that the desert, although a fearful place, is much safer than the walls of a church corrupted by a misguided emperor and, worse, heretical foes.
The desert, the space into which he fled, was then carefully constructed as a heterotopic politeia, which he defended in Defense of His Flight. In this second text, Athanasius elaborated on his theory of the desert to redefine and further defend his continued absence from Alexandria as accusations of cowardice and abandonment began to mount against him. The desert is an ascetic retreat rendered holy by other fleeing saints, who also find refuge there. It is not cowardly to flee, he argued, but this flight — his flight — is paramount to the survival of the Christian faith.
His description of this transformation finally solidified in his most famous work, the Life of Antony. The desert is no longer a temporary haven but a mirrored image of Alexandria made new and devoid of all the corrupting powers of heresy. As we will come to see, the walls of the Alexandrian churches quickly become too dangerous in the hands of Athanasius's enemies. The walls and doors then give way to the safety and, most importantly, the orthodox space of the desert, transformed into a holy city.
HOW TO CONSTRUCT A MODEL CITY: ALEXANDRIA
The actual space from which a bishop is exiled plays a significant role in how Athanasius and other fleeing men imagine themselves and how they will later be remembered. While Athanasius's first two trips into exile took him beyond the Alexandrian city limits, his literary prowess and identity as an exile began to flourish as he moved between Alexandria and the neighboring Nitrian desert. By the fourth century, Alexandria had already developed a long history in the politics of an expansive Roman Empire and an eroding Greek past. Founded by Alexander the Great in 331 BCE, it later became the capital of the Hellenistic world and exemplified the height of civilization, despite being invaded frequently and experiencing significant internal unrest. Between the restoration efforts made by Diocletian (284–305 CE) and the conquest of the Arab armies in the seventh century, Alexandria became a powerful and influential megalopolis within the Roman Empire. As a strategic stronghold, it boasted of its access to both a Mediterranean port and the Nile. That it was surrounded by two immense bodies of water that partitioned it from mainland Egypt no doubt led to its being referred to as "Alexandria ad Aegyptum" (Alexandria next to Egypt). Alexandria thus sat at the political center of the Graeco-Roman world. The colonnades and statues in the central streets, Canopica Way and the Soma, continued to remind visitors of its rich history. The city was also an amalgam of intellectual, religious, and economic wealth that captured the literary imaginations of many ancient authors and further bolstered its reputation as a vibrant civic epicenter.
The unified imperial presence in Egypt was also instrumental in promoting its affluence. Egypt's political structure was systematized due in large part to the reform efforts of Septimius Severus (193–211) and Diocletian (284–305) after him. As Philip Rousseau surmises,
In 199 or 200, Severus decided to allow Alexandria and to each metropolis (the urban center of a nome, or administrative district) a [boule], or council, of its own. His purpose was undoubtedly to render more efficient the collection of taxes. ... The districts around the towns were retained under the central control of the provincial government. But members of the new [boulai] quickly acquired responsibilities within the territoria, at least as agents of that government if not in their own right. The increased status of the towns encouraged in its turn the establishment in them of bishoprics. That ecclesiastical network and the new rapport between town and country paved the way for developments after Diocletian, when the metropoleis gained the added responsibility of administering the territoria themselves.
The hierarchical structures set in place by these imperial reforms helped to centralize the Egyptian episcopal authority in Alexandria, although it was not until the fifth and sixth centuries that large-scale construction of churches and monasteries began there.
The Alexandrian diocese was coveted and was the site of inter-ecclesial conflict from an early stage in Christian history. Control over this valuable city had its advantages as well as its risks. Because Alexandria was known as the breadbasket of the Roman Empire, misuse of the ports and the export of goods to the surrounding regions such as Constantinople and Rome were considered a treasonable act. The bishop of this city was, politically, a broker of stomachs as much as souls within the empire. Indeed, one of the first reasons cited for Athanasius's exile was his rumored meddling in the grain trade. The civic center was not the only space that captured the heart (or stomachs) of the empire. The Nitrian desert, roughly thirty to fifty miles south of Alexandria, also held its own acclaim. Archeological digs have produced evidence that a vibrant monastic community began to develop during the fourth and fifth centuries. The majority of these early monastic communities developed along the desert strip adjacent to cultivated land and known as the "outer desert." Extending even further south is what was known as the "inner desert," an expanse of land beyond the valley that still contains remnants of ancient mines and quarries. For the most part, those who inhabited this region were criminals or slaves who worked in the mines and quarries; only a few zealous ascetics were said to have dared traverse this difficult landscape.
The harsh conditions of the Nitrian desert were not lost on early Christian authors, including Athanasius, for whose ascetic imaginations the outer and inner deserts became a literary backdrop. By the fourth century, these two significant spaces, the city and the desert, experienced both institutional transition and ongoing ecclesiastical conflict. The memory of imperial persecution haunted the avenues of the city and bled out into the surrounding desert sands. The battle over the Christian memory of Diocletian's persecution in North Africa (302–303), for example, resulted in the creation of two Christian factions based in Alexandria. Meletius, an elected bishop of Lycopolis, became bishop of Alexandria after the patriarch Peter fled into hiding sometime during the Diocletian persecution. In a controversial move, Meletius of Alexandria continued to act as a rival bishop even after Peter returned. As a response to his breach of conduct, a synod was convened, and Meletius was formally deposed by the council in 306. Persecutions soon resumed under Maximinus in 308, and Meletius was condemned to the mines in Palestine. He returned to Alexandria in 311 and started what is frequently referred to as the "Church of the Martyrs." After persecutions ceased, two competing Christian factions remained and continued to vie for control over the Alexandrian patriarchate. As many scholars have noted, this battle over the blood of the martyrs and the cultural authority of their memory shaped much of Athanasius's literary output and episcopal career. His story of a localized persecution will work to his advantage as he reads his own story into spaces long troubled by violence, even as he flees from them.
The birth of the Arian controversy in Alexandria also transformed how Athanasius would view the function of the desert over against the city. For it is in the desert that Nicaea's textual legacy was supplanted and received a new literary life. As Virginia Burrus has noted, Athanasius took great pains to condemn Arius's teaching well after his death and, at the same time, to create the legacy of the famed council of Nicaea in a new (literary) landscape. Burrus remarks: "Only after the crisis of Gregory's entry into Alexandria in late 338 did Athanasius rediscover 'Arius' (who had been dead since 335 or 336) and the usefulness of the label 'Arianism.'" Athanasius maligned Arius's memory and the memories of his supporters and sympathizers in order to construct his orthodox project in and around Alexandria. His subsequent polemical works capitalized on a genealogical rhetoric that pit the "Arian madmen" against the true inheritors of Nicene Christianity. This move then amplified the legacy of Nicaea and the fathers of the orthodox faith, a move we will continue to encounter in later chapters. The city of Alexandria and its neighboring desert changed the way later Christians would remember their theological heritage.
Much like the Alexandrian city, the famous bishop of Alexandria has his own mythical beginnings. Born into a humble family, Athanasius showed promise from an early age and quickly rose through the ranks of ecclesial office. He became a deacon as soon as his age would permit, and Alexander, bishop of Alexandria from 313 to 328, took him on as a trusted assistant and protégé. He is said to have been present at the Council of Nicaea in 325 and was almost immediately an ardent defender of its decrees. Upon the death of his mentor, Athanasius was named Alexander's heir despite the fact that, according to the Festal Index, he had not reached the canonical age for the episcopacy. From its very inception, Athanasius's career as the bishop of Alexandria was contested.
Fairly early on, then, Athanasius's enemies sought to oust the young bishop from his position of power. As discussed in the previous chapter, their efforts appeared to have been successful: between the end of Constantine's reign and the early years of Constantius's sole rule, Athanasius found himself in the western part of the empire, first in the city of Trier and then in Rome. Athanasius's first two periods in exile were spent outside of Egypt. Given the contradictory reports found in the primary sources, the precise reasons for these flights are difficult to pin down. What is clear is that Athanasius took advantage of his displacement and its literary possibilities to construct a sympathetic and powerful identity. Exile, Athanasius argued, is synonymous with persecution. He construed himself as a victim, though in reality he was hardly a passive one. It is clear that by adopting the identity of an exile, Athanasius ensured his legacy as an orthodox bishop whose circumstances behind closed walls eventually drove him to the desert.
IF THESE WALLS COULD TALK: DEFENSE BEFORE CONSTANTIUS
Athanasius's discourse on his exile and the desert begins in his Defense before Constantius. The defense is particularly difficult to date, but T. D. Barnes, building on the work of Archibald Robertson (1892) and J.-M. Szymusiak (1958), suggests that the defense was written in two stages: chapters 1–26 between 353 and 355, and chapters 27–35 in 357. In the decade prior to his third exile (346–356), Athanasius composed the first stage in order to defend himself against a series of charges, both long-standing and new. The second stage signaled a change in both his dealings with the emperor and his view of the desert.
By the time Athanasius completed the text, presumably during his third exile into the desert, it became evident that his hopes of securing imperial sympathy would go unfulfilled. The beginning of the text strikes a conciliatory note and is sympathetic to the emperor's position as a misinformed mediator and defender of sacred space. By its end, it is clear that Athanasius's opinion of the emperor has shifted significantly, as have his opinions of where orthodox space might be found.
Written in the form of a letter, the text begins with a detailed response to four charges the so-called Arians laid against Athanasius. First, he is accused of conspiring with the youngest son of Constantine, Constans (chaps. 2–5), and then of seeking an alliance with Magnetius after the conspiratorial death of Constans (chaps. 6–13). If these treasonous activities were not worrisome enough, Athanasius's enemies also accuse him of making use of a church in Alexandria that had not yet been sanctioned by Constantius (chaps. 14–18). Finally, Athanasius must answer to the charge that he failed to adhere to a summons to appear before Constantius to answer to these charges and more (chaps. 19–27). It is in response to the latter two charges that Athanasius begins his discussion on the desert. As we will soon see, the further he ventures away from city and moves into the desert, the more his relationship with Constantius deteriorates. The desert is infused with different meanings, as Athanasius lays out his defense. And it is in the desert that Athanasius begins to articulate why the Alexandrian churches are no longer safe for Christian worship and the proof of Christian authenticity.
Athanasius first mentions the desert in chapter 14, where he defends his decision to use the unsanctioned Alexandrian church in the first place. The week prior to the Easter celebration, the crowds had grown too large for the approved spaces of worship. In a moment of desperation, Athanasius decides to turn to the larger space, but only after the worshippers had threatened to go into the desert:
When the churches were too small, and the people so numerous as they were, and desirous to go forth into the deserts, what should I have done? The desert has no doors, and all who wish pass through, but the Lord's house is enclosed with walls and doors, and brings to light the differences between the pious and the profane. ... The charge would have been much greater if we had passed by the place which the emperor was building and went into the desert to pray. (Athanasius, Apol. Const. 17, emphasis mine)
As we see here, Athanasius states that the desert is hardly an appropriate place for worship and prayer. It has no doors — anyone might pass through. It does not even have any walls. And we hear the familiar refrain: Athanasius insists that walls do, in fact, make Christians. They are all that separate the pious from the profane.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Bishops in Flight"
Copyright © 2019 Jennifer Barry.
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