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p. 97 Introduction to Apologia Contra Arianos.


This Apology,” says Montfaucon, “is the most authentic source of the history of the Church in the first half of the fourth century. Athanasius is far superior to any other historians of the period, both from his bearing for the most part a personal testimony to the facts he relates, and from his great accuracy and use of actual documents. On the other hand, Rufinus, Socrates, Sozomen, Theodoret, must not be used without extreme caution, unless they adduce documents, which is seldom the case.” The ‘Apology’ is a personal defence by Athanasius against the charges laid against him by the Eusebian party, and does not directly concern matters of doctrine. After the Council of Nicæa, the Eusebian policy had been to oust the principal opponents from their sees on personal grounds, so as to pave the way for the abrogation of the Nicene formula. The attack upon Athanasius began in 331, but without success. It was renewed at Cæsarea and Tyre in 334–335, and resulted in the exile of Athanasius to Treveri, 336. His return in 337 was followed by a Synod at Antioch which ‘deposed’ him (close of 338), and by his expulsion in favour of Gregory (339). Then follow the intervention of Julius (339–340), and the Council of Sardica (343), which resulted in the eventual return of Athanasius in the autumn of 346. (The details are given more fully in the Prolegomena, ch. ii. §§4–6). After this latter date, and before the relapse of Valens and Ursacius which followed upon the death of Constans, Athanasius drew up a collection of documents in proof of his innocence, connecting them together by an explanatory narrative. (1) The charges against him related to events alleged to have occurred before the year 332 (extortion of money, subvention of the rebel Philumenus, the chalice of Ischyras, murder and mutilation of the bishop Arsenius): the principal evidence as to their falsehood was comprised in the proceedings of the Councils of Tyre and Jerusalem, and of the commission of enquiry sent by the assembled bishops to the Mareotis. (2) The judicial investigations which proved the innocence of Athanasius took place first at Rome under Julius, secondly at Sardica under Hosius; and were followed by the recognition of his innocence on the part of the Emperor Constantius, of bishops in various parts of the world, and lastly of some of his chief accusers.

The method of defence now adopted by Athanasius was firstly to show how complete that recognition had been: this he does by a series of documents from the eve of his departure to Rome down to the recantation of Ursacius and Valens soon after his return to Alexandria: these documents cover eight years (339–347) previous to the composition of the Apology (§§1–58). Having shewn the completeness of his acquittal, he next gives the evidence upon which it was based. Accordingly the second part (§§59–90) of the Apology deals with facts and documents earlier than those comprised in the first. Hence the inversion of chronological sequence (præposterus ordo, Montf.) as between the two parts.

Referring the reader to the Prolegomena for a connected view of the history of which this Apology is the primary source, it will suffice for our present purpose to enumerate the documents quoted, with the briefest possible statement of their contents and bearing upon the general purpose of the work. It should be noted that while in the first part the documents follow one another in strict chronological order, those of the second part fall into groups p. 98 within which the matters are arranged as best suits the argument, and not in order of time. In the following list the probable or approximate date of each document is given.

a. DOCUMENTS IN THE FIRST PART (general subject, the vindication of Athanasius before the bishops of the Christian world).

i. Documents Prior to the Council of Sardica (§§1–35).

1. §§3–19 (end of 338 or beginning of 339). Circular of Egyptian bishops reciting the election of Athanasius, the plots and charges against him, the history of the Mareotic Commission, the testimony available in his defence, and requesting all bishops to join in vindicating him.

2. §§20–35 (340 a.d.). Letter of Julius to the Eusebian bishops (at the request of a Roman Council) remonstrating with their discourteous reply to a former letter, reciting the history of the intrigues against Athanasius, pressing them with their disrespect to the Synod of Nicæa, with their evasion of the invitation to the Council at Rome, vindicating Athanasius (on the ground of documentary proof of his innocence, and on that of the irregularity of the proceedings against him) and Marcellus (upon his own statement of belief), lastly, insisting on the propriety of a reference of the questions at issue to the whole Church, and upon the precedent giving the Roman Church a decisive voice in questions affecting that of Alexandria.

ii. Council of Sardica (§§36–50).

3. §§36–40 (a.d. 343) Letter of the Council to the Church of Alexandria, reciting the intrigues against Athanasius, and the confirmation by the council of his acquittal by Julius, encouraging the Alexandrine Church to patience, and announcing that they have requested the Emperors to give effect to their decisions.

4. §§41–43 (same date). Letter of the Council to the bishops of Egypt and Libya: identical with No. 3, except that it omits the reference to certain presbyters of Alexandria, and mentions several Arian leaders by name.

5. §§44–50 (same date). Circular letter of the Council, reciting the occasion of its assembling, the behaviour of the Eastern bishops, the violence inflicted by them upon orthodox bishops, the breakdown of the charges brought by them against Athanasius, and the purgation of Marcellus and Asclepas, who are pronounced innocent, while the Arian leaders are deposed and anathematised. The signatures follow of over 280 bishops, most of whom signed afterwards while the letter was in circulation.

iii. Documents Forming a Sequel to the Council of Sardica (§§51–58).

6–8. §51. Letters of Constantius to Athanasius before and after death of Gregory.

6. (a.d. 345). Expressing sympathy with his sufferings, and inviting him to court; he has written to Constans to ask him to allow Athanasius to return.

7. (same year, later). Urging the same invitation.

8. (346, winter, or early spring). A similar summons, but more pressing.

9. §52 (same year). Letter of Julius to the Church of Alexandria, eulogising Athanasius, complimenting them for their constancy, and congratulating them upon his return.

10. §54 (same year). Circular letter of Constantius to the Church at large, announcing the restoration of Athanasius and the cessation of all decrees against him, with indemnity to all in his communion.

11. §55 (same date). Letter of Constantius to the Church of Alexandria. Announcement of the restoration of Athanasius, with exhortation to peace, and warning against disturbances.

12. §56 (same date). To the Prefect of Egypt and other officials. Revocation of decrees against those in communion with Athanasius, and restoration of their immunities.

13. §57 (same year, autumn). Letter of the bishops of Palestine to the Egyptian Church congratulating them on the restoration of Athanasius.

14. §58 (a.d. 347). Letter of Valens and Ursacius to Julius unreservedly withdrawing their allegations against Athanasius, anathematizing Arius and his heresy, and at the same time promising to take the consequences of their offence if required by Julius to do so.

15. ib. (same year). Letter of the same to Athanasius, with a greeting and assurance that they are in communion with him and with the Church.


i. Letters of Constantine Previous to the Council of Tyre (§§59–63).

16. §59 (a.d. 331). A fragment, urging Athanasius with threats to admit to communion all (Arians) who wish it.

17. §61 (same year). Letter to the people of Alexandria, remonstrating with them for their dissensions and stigmatising the calumnies against Athanasius (about the affair of Philumenus).

p. 99 ii. 18. §64 (332). Confession of Ischyras, that he had been compelled by the violence of certain Meletians to fabricate false charges against Athanasius.

iii. The Affair of Arsenius (§§65–70).

19. §67 (probably 332). Intercepted letter of the presbyter Pinnes to John Arcaph, warning him of the discovery of the plot, and begging him to drop the matter.

20. §68 (same year). Letter of Constantine to Athanasius, expressing indignation at the charges concerning Arsenius and Ischyras, and bidding him publish this letter in vindication of himself.

21. §66 (same year). Letter of Alexander, Bishop of Thessalonica, praising Serapion, the son of an old friend, and congratulating Athanasius on the exposure of the plot about Arsenius.

22. §69 (same year). Letter of Arsenius to Athanasius, offering submission and requesting communion with the Church.

23. §70 (same year). Letter of Constantine to John Arcaph accepting his reconciliation to Athanasius, and summoning him to court.

iv. Proceedings at Tyre in 335 (§§71–83).

24. §77. Address to the Council by the Egyptian Bishop, complaining of the presence of partizan judges, of the rejection of their evidence, and of the proposed constitution of the Mareotic Commission.

25. §71. (Written a.d. 327, but put in as evidence at Tyre by Athanasius in the matter of Ischyras, after the exposure of the plot concerning Arsenius). List of Meletian Bishops and Clergy presented to Alexander of Alexandria shortly before his death, and not containing the name of Ischyras.

26. §78. Protest addressed by the Egyptian Bishops to Count Dionysius, repeating the above complaints (in No. 24), and requesting him to stop the irregularities.

27. §80. Alexander of Thessalonica to Dionysius, warning him of the conspiracy against Athanasius, and of the character of the Mission to the Mareotis.

28. §81. Letter of Dionysius to the Council, strongly remonstrating against their proceedings.

29. §79. Letter of the Egyptian Bishops to Dionysius appealing to the Emperor.

30–32. Protests made by Egyptian Clergy against the proceedings of the Mareotic Commission.

30. §73. Clergy of Alexandria to the Commissioners, protesting against the exclusion of all independent persons from the proceedings.

31. §§74, 75. Clergy of the Mareotis to the Council, giving an account of the facts concerning Ischyras, and of the ex-parte character of the proceedings of the Commission.

32. §76. The same to the Prefect and other officials of Egypt (dated Sep. 8, 335), denying upon oath the tale of Ischyras, and requesting them to forward their statement to the Emperor.

v. Documents Subsequent to the Council of Tyre (§§84–88).

33. §86 (335). Constantine to the Bishops assembled at Tyre, summoning them to give an account of their proceedings.

34. §84. The Council of Jerusalem to the Church of Alexandria, announcing that Arius has been received to communion.

35. §87 (June 17, 337). Constantine II. to the Church of Alexandria (upon the death of Constantine, whose purpose he claims to be carrying out), announcing the restoration of Athanasius.

36. §85 (perhaps in 337, but possibly as early as 335). Order by Flavius Hemerius for the erection of a church for Ischyras.

The two concluding sections (89, 90) of the Apology are a postscript added during the troubles under Constantius (about 358, see Introd. to Hist. Ar.). He points to the sufferings which many bishops, including Hosius and Liberius, had endured rather than surrender his cause, as fresh evidence of their belief in his innocence. He refuses to see any detraction from the force of this argument in the fall of the two bishops mentioned.

The importance to the historian of this collection of documents need not be dwelt upon. If the charges in dispute seem trivial and even grotesque, they none the less illustrate the temper of the parties concerned, and the character of the controversy during the very important twenty years which end with the death of Constans and the reign of Constantius over the undivided Empire.

Next: Apologia Contra Arianos. (Defence Against the Arians.)