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Why Did Arianism Appeal to Ascetics? An Unexpected Answer

November 29, 2010

I recently finished reading Christopher Haas’ book Alexandria in Late Antiquity (Johns Hopkins, 1997). Haas’ study is a fascinating look at Alexandria during the period known as Late Antiquity (roughly the 200s-600s AD). He has detailed discussions of the geography of the city as well as its three main competing groups – the pagans, Jews, and Christians. Alexandria was one of the greatest cities in the empire, certainly the most important city in Egypt, and was vital to the survival of the rest of the Eastern empire due to the huge grain shipments that regularly went from its port to destinations across the Mediterranean. Given its importance, Alexandria is a sort of microcosm of the sort of changes occurring all over the empire during this transitional period, as the church assumed dominance over other religious groups.

Reading Haas’ book is a good reminder that history does not happen in a vacuum. If you restrict yourself simply to reading ancient texts, you might forget that the authors of those ancient texts inhabited a real world. One concrete example given by Haas is the appeal of Arianism to Alexandria’s ascetic or monastic communities. Surely there would have been biblical and theological reasons for the appeal of Arianism. However, Haas points to a simple fact that might be overlooked, but which is nevertheless revealing. Arius served as a presbyter of a parish church in Baucalis or Boukolou, a region just outside the city in a suburb. His church appears to have been in an area frequented by ascetics since it contained the martyrium of St. Mark. This fact sheds light on why Arius presented himself in monastic dress and was known for his ascetic appearance. Moreover, the larger area in which his church was situated was home primarily to shepherds and their flocks. This fact might explain why it was the shepherds who made up the Arian mobs which were often involved in the fourth-century conflicts. These people would have herd their local presbyter preach, and likely felt some loyalty to and pride in Arius. In Alexandria, a church’s pride over its presbyter sometimes led to rivalries with competing churches in the city. Thus, it is not surprising that ascetics and shepherds were involved on the Arian side of the debates in the fourth century. History cannot be entirely explained from its context. That is, intellectual arguments matter as well. But those intellectual (i.e., theological and biblical) arguments always occur in a context. Looking at that context helps to explain why history takes the turns that it does.

By the way, the appeal of Arianism to the ascetics also explains why Athanasius sought to cultivate a close relationship with Antony the ideal monk. By writing Antony’s spiritual biography he was attempting to align the monastic communities on his side of the debate. Certainly that is not all that Athanasius was doing in writing the text, but surely it is one of the reasons he did so.

For a discussion of these issues, see Haas, pp.268-77. The image above is of Alexandria’s famous Pharos lighthouse, one of the wonders of the ancient world [Update: Image was removed for copyright reasonsCheck out http://www.ancientvine.com/Thelighthouseofalexandria.html to see the image. – J.Gould]

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