That Time the Church Asked a Pagan Emperor for Help

There’s an incident Eusebius records in Book 7 of the Ecclesiastical History about an unsavory bishop of Antioch named Paul of Samosata. The events in question took place in the mid-260s, not long before Eusebius’ own day. To keep a long story short, this Paul was such a bad bishop in doctrine and personal comportment that he came to the attention of many other prominent churchmen around the empire. When a large council convened to investigate Paul’s conduct, he was condemned and excommunicated. Subsequently, the council sent out a general letter to churches everywhere, letting them know what had transpired and on what grounds they had decided to remove Paul from his office (see Hist. Eccl. 7.29–30 for the full story).

There was one small problem, however: Paul wouldn’t leave the church property after his excommunication.

With Paul then having fallen away from both the orthodoxy of the faith and the episcopacy, Domnos (as was said) received the ministry of the church of Antioch. But since Paul was not willing to stand aside from the house of the church, the emperor Aurelian was petitioned, and he handled the matter most fittingly, commanding that possession of the house go to whomever the bishops of the teaching [i.e., Christianity] in Italy and the city of the Romans wrote a letter. Thus, the man was prominently displayed by the worldly empire with the final disgrace and driven from the church.[1]

There are a few interesting things going on in this anecdote. First and most obviously, there is the appeal to Roman legal intervention to remove Paul from the church property. This comes decades before the Great Persecution under the Tetrarchy and the even later ascent of Constantine. It proves the important and oft-forgotten historical reality that official Roman policy toward Christianity was not an all-out, 24/7 persecution. In reality, Roman emperors see-sawed—even so far as helping the church sort out property disputes in a “most fitting” manner. Then again, as Eusebius notes in the next paragraph, Aurelian himself proved hostile to Christianity in the long run, much like Decius about a decade earlier or Diocletian in the early 300s.

Second, we catch a glimpse of church organization in the mid-200s. There is a sense of a universal Church with a stake in the affairs of local churches, while the local churches themselves—granted, Antioch might have been an outlier as a large community—have a discernible institutional profile. The church at Antioch has delineated property that, at least in the judgment of the emperor, did not strictly “belong” to the person of the bishop but to the institution. Further, the emperor determines that other bishops themselves are the ones with the rightful authority to make the final judgment, as opposed to, say, local lay Christians in Antioch or its environs.

Relatedly, I think this is an interesting anecdote for illustrating what the collective episcopacy and Roman “primacy” specifically were and were not in the 260s—and through much of late antiquity at large. That is, the prestige of a given see frequently (albeit not exclusively) piggy-backed on Roman notions of civic prestige and hierarchy. Thus, we see not just the bishop of Rome asked to rule but also those in Italy generally: a classic Roman hierarchization. Likewise, when Constantinople later became the most important city in the Roman world, the status of its bishops followed suit, and a similar argument could probably be made for the churches at places like Milan and Ravenna at particular moments in time. Just as interesting is that the impetus to bring in Rome and Italy as the definitive arbiters apparently springs from the pagan emperor here more than the Christian actors themselves.

Finally, about that emperor—one catches whiffs of the same old pre-Constantinian ambivalence toward Rome and its rule. From one angle, not only are the Christian actors apparently unconcerned about persecution, they actually trust the emperor to handle appropriately a major legal problem concerning ecclesiastical property. This is the kind of thing that emperors and governing authorities are good for, after all.

That said, it is also intriguing that Eusebius frames Aurelian’s intervention as a kind of final, well-deserved insult to Paul. I think there’s a double meaning here. The flat reading is that Paul embarrassed himself all the way up to the highest heights of Roman society, losing publicly in every court of opinion. But there’s more here, I suspect. Eusebius’ words about the “worldly empire” and his tag about Aurelian’s eventual turn against Christianity also cast a shadow over the emperor himself. In other words, Paul’s tenure was so outlandish that the universal Church had to resort to asking a figure as morally questionable as Aurelian to step in and remove him.

  1. Hist. Eccl. 7.20.19–20: τοῦ δὴ οὖν Παύλου σὺν καὶ τῇ τῆς πίστεως ὀρθοδοξίᾳ τῆς ἐπισκοπῆς ἀποπεπτωκότος, Δόμνος, ὡς εἴρηται, τὴν λειτουργίαν τῆς κατὰ Ἀντιόχειαν ἐκκλησίας διεδέξατο· ἀλλὰ γὰρ μηδαμῶς ἐκστῆναι τοῦ Παύλου τοῦ τῆς ἐκκλησίας οἴκου θέλοντος, βασιλεὺς ἐντευχθεὶς Αὐρηλιανὸς αἰσιώτατα περὶ τοῦ πρακτέου διείληφεν, τούτοις νεῖμαι προστάττων τὸν οἶκον, οἷς ἂν οἱ κατὰ τὴν Ἰταλίαν καὶ τὴν Ῥωμαίων πόλιν ἐπίσκοποι τοῦ δόγματος ἐπιστέλλοιεν. οὕτω δῆτα ὁ προδηλωθεὶς ἀνὴρ μετὰ τῆς ἐσχάτης αἰσχύνης ὑπὸ τῆς κοσμικῆς ἀρχῆς ἐξελαύνεται τῆς ἐκκλησίας. Translation is my own.


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