Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers: Series II/Volume VI/Prolegomena/Contemporary History
The references in this Section, where numbers alone are given, are to the date A. D.
It seems desirable to prefix to this Introduction some account of the times of St. Jerome. General and ecclesiastical history must not be kept too far apart.
Jerome was born in the troubled times which followed the death of Constantine (337), and before Constantius became sole Emperor (353). He was still a schoolboy during the reign of Julian (361–63), and when he heard of his death. During his student life at Rome, Jovian and Valentinian were Emperors, and at Treves, where he next sojourned, the latter Emperor held his court. His first letter refers to a scene in which Ambrose, then Prefect of Liguria, seems to have taken part (370), and his settlement at Aquileia synchronises with the law of Valentinian restraining legacies to the clergy (370). He went to the East in the year of the death of Athanasius (373), and during his stay in the desert and at Antioch (374-80) occurred the death of Valentinian, the defeat and death of his brother Valens in the battle of Adrianople, the elevation of Theodosius to the purple, and the call of Gregory Nazianzen to Constantinople. He was ordained by Paulinus, one of the three Bishops of Antioch, and studied under Apollinaris, thus touching on both the chief points for which the Council of Constantinople was called (381). At that Council he was probably present, being, as stated above, a disciple of its president, Gregory Nazianzen. He was present also at the Western Council held the next year in Rome under Pope Damasus, whose trusted counsellor he became (pp. 233, 255). His later life, spent at Bethlehem (386–420), witnessed the division of the Empire between the sons of Theodosius, the fall of the Prefect Rufinus (p. 174), to whom Jerome had been denounced, the triumph of Stilicho and his death (at which he weakly rejoiced, p. 237), Alaric’s sack of Rome (410) and his death, the revolt of Heraclian, the marriage of Alaric’s successor, Adolphus, with the Emperor’s sister, Galla Placidia, and the death of Arcadius (408); in ecclesiastical matters, it witnessed the rise of Chrysostom (398) and his exile (403) and death (407), the condemnation of Origenism (400), and the Pelagian controversy (415). It is of this period that we are now to give a sketch.
The Emperor Constantius “may be dismissed,” says Gibbon, “with the remark that he inherited the defects without the abilities of his father.” He died in Cilicia on November 3, 361; he had been stained in his youth by the blood of nine of his near relatives; he had fallen early under the dominion of the eunuchs of his palace; and he had done little for the defence of the empire. In ecclesiastical matters he had favoured the Arian cause, and had banished the orthodox Bishops of the principal sees, and had visited Athanasius of Alexandria with his especial displeasure. His jealousy of his cousin Julian, who had risen to fame by his just and vigorous administration and by his victories over the Germans, led him into acts which provoked the legions of Gaul and caused them to hail Julian as their Emperor. His overtures of peace were rejected by Constantius; he marched rapidly toward Constantinople, and Constantius, leaving the Persian war in which he was engaged, turned westward to meet him. The death of Constantius saved the world from civil war.
Julian’s accession was hailed by all who felt the need of a strong ruler; and his first measures were just and tolerant. He recalled from exile the Bishops whom Constantius had banished; his private life was virtuous, and his love of learning endeared him to some of the best of his subjects. But his contempt of Christianity made him first impatient and then a persecutor. He forbade Christians, or Galileans as he called them, to teach in the schools, or to follow the learned professions; he restored Paganism, though it was observed that the Paganism he introduced was in many ways modified by Christian influence; and he favoured the Jews and wished them to rebuild their temple at Jerusalem. What the result of his retrogressive policy would have been it is hard to say. He died in a skirmish in the Persian war, on June 26, 363.
Jovian, who succeeded him, was a Christian; and his election showed that the anti- Christian policy of Julian had been without effect. He proclaimed a complete toleration, but died before reaching Constantinople, only six months after his election.
Valentinian, his successor, was an orthodox Christian, his brother Valens, whom he associated with himself, an Arian. Valentinian established his court at Treves, and successfully kept back the barbarians. Thither in 366 Jerome went for a time, and he describes the curious customs of the tribes whom he saw there (Against Jovinian, ii. 7, p. 394). The Emperors proclaimed toleration, which extended even to the celebration of the Eleusinian mysteries. But their inquisitorial and cruel treatment of all suspected of magic arts had a repressive effect upon learning. Their foundation of schools and endowment of physicians for the poorer citizens show that the hopes of social improvement were not extinguished. Yet the state of society in Rome and in other large cities, as given at this time by Ammianus Marcellinus (cxiv. 6, xxviii. 4. See Gibbon, iv. 77. Ed. Milman & Smith), reveals to us the causes of the fall of Rome.
In the reign of Valentinian many ecclesiastical events of great importance took place. The election of Damasus to the Popedom in 366, when the rival factions of Damasus and Ursinus filled the whole city with their conflict, and churches were stormed and strewed with the slain, showed how important the Bishopric of Rome had become. “If you would make me Pope, perhaps I might become a Christian,” said Prætextatus, the worshipper of the old gods, to Damasus, who wished to convert him (see p. 428). The law of Valentinian forbidding legacies to be made to the clergy shows also their wealth and deterioration (p. 92). But this reign produced some of the greatest Bishops and leaders whom the Church has known. Athanasius died in 373. Ambrose became Bishop of Milan in 374. Basil was Bishop of Cæsarea in Cappadocia from 370 to 379.
Meanwhile, the reign of Valens in the East was unsuccessful, and ended in a great disaster. The Visigoths, and Ostrogoths, or Gruthungi, pressed by the Huns, implored permission to cross the Danube from their settlements in Dacia and to be allowed to cultivate the waste lands of Thrace and Asia Minor. This was conceded to them; but they were ill treated and cajoled, and at last asserted their rights by force; and the Emperor, who attacked them near Adrianople, was defeated and slain, and his army destroyed (378). The Goths were now a formidable force within the Empire. It was in the year before the death of Valens (377) that Stridon, the birth-place of Jerome, was destroyed.
Valentinian had died in 375, leaving two sons, Gratian, an accomplished youth of eighteen, who became Emperor of Gaul and the West, and Valentinian II., then a child, who was nominal Emperor of Italy and the central provinces, and who, with his mother Justina, had his residence at Milan. Gratian distinguished himself by his conduct of several expeditions against the German tribes beyond the Rhine, and, upon the death of his uncle Valens, nominated Theodosius to be Emperor of the East. But he afterwards yielded to idleness and frivolous pleasure, and in 383 was murdered by the agents of the usurper Maximus.
Theodosius, the son of the elder Theodosius, who had recovered Britain and Africa for the Empire, but had on a false accusation been put to death at Carthage, was called to the Empire from his retirement in Spain. He showed himself a great and capable ruler. He took the Goths in detail and gradually dispossessed them. He put down the usurper Maximus (383), and on the death of the young Valentinian (392) fought against the usurper Eugenius, and became sole Emperor (394) in the year before his death. He reformed the laws, enacting the Theodosian Code. In his reign Paganism was finally suppressed. He caused a vote to be taken in the Roman Senate for the establishment of Christian worship and the suppression of Paganism. He destroyed the temples—the destruction of the Serapeum at Alexandria in 389 being the most notable instance of this—and supported Ambrose in his vehement efforts for the suppression of Paganism. Though he loyally befriended the Empress Justina, who was an Arian, and her young son Valentinian II., he did not support their demand for the toleration of Arian worship at Milan which Ambrose had denied to them, and he suppressed Arianism throughout the Empire. To settle the doctrinal disputes raised by the teaching of Apollinaris, Bishop of the Syrian Laodicæa, who held that the Logos in Christ supplied the place of the human soul, and the disputed succession at Antioch, where the Episcopal throne was claimed by the Arian Vitalis, the Trinitarian but Arian-ordained Meletius, and Paulinus the champion of the uncompromising orthodoxy of the West, he summoned the Council of Constantinople, which met in 381. The President of the Council was Gregory Nazianzen, who had come to Constantinople in 379, and, partly through his own eloquence and other great powers, partly through the influence of Theodosius, had won his way from the position of minister of a single church, the Anastasis, to the Episcopal throne. The Egyptian Bishops opposed him and vainly endeavoured to foist in the Cynic Maximus into his place. The Council did not succeed in settling the dispute at Antioch, but they maintained the Nicene creed, and added to it all the articles after “I believe in the Holy Ghost.” The Council held at Rome in the following year (382), to which Jerome went with Epiphanius, Bishop of Cyprus, and Paulinus of Antioch (p. 255), contradicted that of Constantinople on the subject of the succession at Antioch, but agreed with it on the creed. Gregory Nazianzen soon after the Council resigned the Bishopric of Constantinople, and Damasus, Bishop of Rome, died in 384.
Theodosius was, like Henry II. of England, liable to violent accesses of passion. When the people of Antioch rose in insurrection in 387, and destroyed the busts of the Emperor, he gave an order that the city should be razed and reduced to the rank of a village, from which sentence he was only deterred by the entreaties of the Governor of the city and its Bishop, John Chrysostom. When a similar rising took place at Thessalonica in 390, he was not similarly appeased, but ordered that the people when summoned to the theatre should be massacred by his soldiers, and seven thousand men, women and children were thus put to death. Ambrose, on Theodosius’ coming to Milan, refused to admit him to the communion of the Church till he had undergone five months of penance and showed his repentance for his crime.
On the death of the young Valentinian in 391, Eugenius the rhetorician usurped the throne of the West. Justina fled to the court of Theodosius, who, after long preparations, marched against Eugenius, and defeated him at Aquileia in 394. Theodosius, however, did not long survive his rival. After this last success he gave himself up to ease and self-indulgence, and died 395.
The Empire was divided between the sons of Theodosius. Arcadius, who became Emperor of the East, was eighteen years of age, and Honorius, fourteen. Both were weak characters, ill suited to cope with the growing dangers of the Empire. Arcadius married Eudoxia, a woman of a worldly and violent disposition. Honorius married the daughter of Stilicho, the great semi-barbarian general, who was his cousin, having married Serena, the daughter of Honorius, brother to the great Theodosius. Arcadius’ minister, Rufinus, became so unbearable in his rapacity (see Jerome’s allusion to him, p. 447) that a tumult was raised against him and he was put to death (395). Honorius removed his court to Ravenna, among the pine forests of which he was more secure from invasion; and, so long as he was under the guidance of Stilicho, was able to live in security.
John Chrysostom became Bishop of Constantinople in 398, and by his sermons and ascetic discipline exerted a large influence. But intrigues were raised against him by Theophilus of Alexandria on account of his reception of the Long Monks, whom Theophilus had banished in his zeal against Origenism. And the Empress Eudoxia, whom his plain speaking had offended, endeavoured to work his ruin. He was banished, after having been once brought back to the capital by the entreaties of the people, in 404, and died in 407, having continued to exercise his influence over the Church generally from his exile at Comana in Pontus. His remains were brought to Constantinople thirty years later, and were welcomed by Theodosius II. and his consort Eudocia with tears of repentance for the fault of their predecessors. Arcadius died in 408, leaving as his heir the young Theodosius, then but seven years old. His daughter Pulcheria and the Prefect Anthemius administered the Empire successfully; the Huns, who had entered the Roman territory and encamped in Thrace, were persuaded to withdraw, and the Eastern Empire enjoyed peace during the remainder of the reign of Theodosius II.
Turning to ecclesiastical affairs, we find a certain calm settling down upon the Church after the Council of Constantinople, and an unwillingness to reopen the subjects of strife. Men used the name of heretic rather as something to frighten their opponents, and sought to identify opinions which they disliked with the Arianism of the past, which all alike condemned. There were much fewer Councils of Bishops and no General Council for fifty years (Ephesus, 431). But other subjects of dispute arose, the Christian community being saturated with Greek contentiousness. The first of these related to Origenism. The works of the great and original church teacher of Alexandria of the third century (~254) had been little studied for above a hundred years, when a new interest in them arose both in the East and the West. The earnest study of Scripture which led to the formation of the Vulgate, or translation from the original into the vulgar tongue of the Latin world, led to a wish to consult the greatest textual writer and interpreter of Scripture who had as yet appeared; and those who learned from his Bible work to admire him were led also to study his doctrinal views. It happened to Origen, as to many modern teachers, that his name came to be identified with one or two prominent doctrines; and, as men speak of Calvinism or Erastianism or Hegelianism, so they spoke of Origenism. The doctrines which they connected with Origen were taken from his most important work, the Περὶ ᾽Αρχῶν, “on First Principles.” They were mainly (1) his expressions relating to the subordination of the Son to the Father, and (2) his eschatology. As to the first of these, they took isolated expressions, such as, “The Son does not see the Father,” or, “the Son is darkness in comparison with the Father,” and they spoke of him as the father of Arius; as to the second, they fastened upon his speculative ideas, that the coming of men’s souls into this world was a fall from a previous state of being; that men may rise into an angelic state; that the material body is destined to pass away; and that in the consummation of all things all spiritual beings, including the fallen angels, will be schooled into obedience, so that the universe may be brought back into harmony. Men were incapable of entering into the general system of Origen, and still more of understanding his historical position. The Pope Anastasius who condemned him in 404 says plainly that he knows neither who Origen was nor when he lived (see Vol. iii. 433); and they consequently took his tenets in an absolute sense, and thought of him as denying the divinity of Christ, or the condemnation of the wicked, or the resurrection of the body. His views were most widely spread in Egypt, where the contrary tendency of Anthropomorphism, that is, the conception of God as the subject of human properties and passions, was also widely prevalent. Theophilus, Bishop of Alexandria, at first was generally favourable to Origen, as was also Jerome; but, through various causes, not unmixed with personal feeling, he turned against Origenism in a fanatical and persecuting temper. He procured the condemnation of Origenism by the Bishops of Egypt, Syria, and Cyprus, and also by those of Rome and Italy; and he pursued those who had fled from his persecution to Constantinople, and branded Chrysostom, who had receive them, as a heretic. In all this he was aided by Jerome, who translated his missives into Latin (see Letters 86 to 100, 113 and 114). But the whole matter was transacted without any Council being called; the Bishops were taken as speaking the general sentiment, and their decisions were reinforced by a decree of the Emperors (400).
The second controversy (which also was disposed of without any General Council) was that of Pelagianism. Pelagius and Cælestius, monks of Britain, had come to Rome in 409, and maintained the doctrine of Free Will and the possibility of a man living without sin, against the Augustinian doctrine of Grace, which asserted the helplessness of man and issued in absolute predestinarianism. They passed into Africa with the crowds who were escaping from Alaric’s invasion, and there confronted the influence of Augustin. Condemned by a Council at Carthage in 413, they passed into Palestine, and procured recognition from Councils held at Jerusalem and Diospolis in 415, notwithstanding the presence of Orosius, Augustin’s friend, and the accusations of the Gaulish Bishops, Heros and Lazarus. Jerome was invited to write against them (pp. 272, 279), and their followers rose against him and burnt his monasteries (p. 280, Augustin De Gest. Pel. c. 66), after which they visited Ephesus and Rome, and were at first received by the Pope Zosimus; and several Bishops, of whom the chief was Julian of Eclana, espoused their cause. But Augustin’s influence prevailed in the West, while in the East little interest was taken in a controversy which was humanistic rather than strictly theological, and men’s minds were being drawn to the questions of Christology, which led to the Nestorian controversy and the Council of Ephesus (431).
The forces of the barbarians, which in the reign of Valens had threatened Constantinople, were diverted to the West in the reign of the sons of Theodosius. Those who remained within the boundaries of the Empire imbibed something of Roman civilisation, and, in many cases, became servants of Rome; and, as the subjects of the Empire withdrew through love of luxury from military duties, the power of the barbarians enlisted as mercenaries increased. Alaric, who now rose to power, occupied an ambiguous position. He marched with his Gothic army into Greece (396), and, being a Christian, thought himself justified in plundering the historic fanes of the old religion. He was attacked by Stilicho near the Isthmus of Corinth, and defeated, but he contrived to transport his army across the gulf and to take possession of Epiris (397), and the ministers of Arcadius thought it prudent to make peace with him. In 398 he became at once Master-General of Illyricum and King of the Visigoths; and, his rights not being respected by the Emperor of the West, he invaded the North of Italy. He was vanquished by Stilicho in the battles of Pollentia and Verona (403); but the conqueror, who well knew the increasing weakness of Rome, made peace with Alaric and acknowledged his official position. Alaric retreated for a time, but another barbarian invader, Radagaisus or Radaghast, with a mixed host of Vandals, Suevi, and Burgundians, forced his way to Florence. He was there met by Stilicho who gained over him his last great victory on the heights of Fiesole (406). The policy of conciliation adopted by Stilicho might have converted Alaric and his Goths into the guards of the Empire; but his action was disowned, and he was treated as a traitor and put to death in 408. Then Alaric advanced to the attack upon Rome. He was induced by fair promises to raise the siege; but, finding that no faith could be placed in the court of Ravenna, he renewed the siege, and took the city on August 26, 410. The only redeeming feature in the terrible destruction which ensued was the respect of the Goths for the Christian religion. They spared the clergy and the churches and those who had taken refuge in them; and even the rich plate and ornaments of divine worship were held sacred from their rapacity. But the knell of Roman greatness had been sounded, and the end of the Empire was near at hand. Alaric on leaving Rome ravaged Italy. He marched to Rhegium, the flames of which Rufinus saw from the opposite coast while he wrote his Commentary on the Book of Numbers (Vol. iii. p. 568); but his attempt to cross into Sicily was frustrated by a storm, and he himself died before the year of the sack of Rome had closed. His successor, Adolphus, made peace with Rome, and dared to ask for the hand of Galla Placidia, the sister of Honorius. The King of the Goths was accepted as the brother-in-law of the Roman Emperor.
The Empire of the West might now be compared to a ship heaving to and fro in a troubled sea, encompassed by enemies and without captain or rudder. Britain had revolted in 409. From 409 to 413 Gaul was a prey to revolutions, and the usurper Constantine was with difficulty overcome by the Roman General Constantius, only to be followed by fresh usurpers, Jovinus, Sebastian, and Attalus. The Count Heraclian dared to invade Rome itself in 413, though defeat and death were the penalty. One by one the provinces of the Empire passed into the hands of the barbarians. The Goths settled in Aquitaine and in Spain; the Vandals turned down into Africa; the Burgundians settled in the East and North of France, and the Franks in the centre. The ruin of the Empire of the West was practically consummated at the time of Jerome’s death in 419, though sixty years of disaster and disgrace intervened before its final extinction.
Meanwhile the distressed condition of Italy had driven large numbers of persons, especially of the clergy and the upper classes of society, to take refuge in the East, so as almost to justify Thierry’s designation of the movement as an emigration to the Holy Land. Jerome and his friends received this tide of fugitives at Bethlehem, and corresponded with those left behind; and thus the evils of the time made the Solitary of the East the chief Doctor of the West.