Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Arius and His Converts

[Fourth in a series on the Middle Ages: first, second, and third.]

One of the more interesting but not often mentioned aspect of the Middle Ages was that four of the five major Germanic tribal groups that held sway in the early centuries of this period were Arians rather than Catholics. That sort of thing might have little bearing in modern times; both were Christian, after all. But those days were meaningfully different. An Age of Faith was dawning.

The tribal grouping of the Franks were converted from raw paganism to the Catholic faith as they entered Roman realms. They were lucky, you might say; they became the ultimate winners. The Visigoths (in Spain), the Ostrogoths (in Italy), the Vandals (in Africa), and the Lombards (in Italy later) arrived already Christian—but also already labeled as heretics. That labeling took place in the First Council of Nicea convened by Emperor Constantine in 325, thus roughly 150 years before (in our eyes) the Middle Ages even began (476). Reality, however, is no respecter of firm dates.

The Franks spread over an area that had been Catholic for at least a century; their own faith made them acceptable as rulers; indeed they ruled under a higher umbrella, that of the Church. The other four groupings of barbarians were admired, to be sure, not least for their chastity (!), their honor, their tolerance of Catholics (except for the Vandals), and prowess in arms; but, as Arians, they were resisted because the Church, and the resident population which looked to the Church for guidance, saw them as religiously alien in a time that seemingly longed for unity at the highest levels of Church and State. Different times, those…

Now Arianism itself is an odd phenomenon. I was tempted to title this post “Arius and the Unintended Split in Christianity” or “Arius—Who Lent His Name.” For those of us who’re  theology-blind (in the sense of color-blind), the differences between Trinitarians and Arians is almost too difficult to see. In day-to-day practice they were the same. But they had their own clergy.

 In a gross simplification, the Arians held that Christ was created by God and was, therefore, not coeval with the Father. One of their Biblical citations was John 14:28 in which Jesus says, “the Father is greater than I.”  (Jesus also says, in John 10:30, “I and my Father are one,” but the total context is also ambiguous.) To be sure, the Arians did not hold that Jesus was merely a man; he was much more than man, but less than God the Father.

Now as for Arius, very little is known of him. He became a presbyter or priest in Egypt, in Alexandria. He was an avid student of others’ writings and held a view that had been in circulation evidently for decades before he himself became controversial. He became the focus of attention, briefly, when, in attempts at defending himself against accusations of heresy—he pointed to others much more prominent than he was. My own impression—and that’s all it is—is that Arius was a scholar, a minor figure, and not a leader either in thought or by force of personality. In effect he did lend his name to a controversy, and by triggering it, made it widely known. Once it spilled over into other Catholic regions from Egypt around 319, it eventually led to the Council of Nicea. But it was never a belief held even by a significant minority. Some 300 bishops attended the Council of Nicea; only two of that number refused to sign the Nicene Creed—showing the minority status of this sect.

Elements of Arianism, however, survived the reach of Nicea on the fringes of the Empire and in the Byzantine realm. From there an Arian bishop, Ulifas, ventured into the Balkans and succeeded in converting the Goths to Christianity of the Arian kind. That version of the faith also penetrated other Germanic tribes to the north, by and by, including parts of the Lombards; to see where they were circa 526, see the first map in the post shown here. Two Byzantine emperors (Constantius II, son of Constantine) and Valens were linked to Arianism, Constantius in a minor way, Valens with fewer vacillations and second thoughts.

One way to get a handle on the early Middle Ages is to see who ruled Italy. This period began with Italy’s rule by Odoacer (r. 476-493); he was of Germanic origin but presumably a pagan. Next comes Theodoric’s West Gothic Kingdom (lasted 493-553), which is Arian. His death in 526 eventually lead to the Gothic War of 535-554, Emperor Justinian’s attempt to reclaim Italy. This was a period of interregnum which greatly depopulated Italy. The next rule of that area was by the Lombards, large elements of which adhered to Arianism as well. The map shows the Lombard holdings at their heights. Lombard rule in Italy, never unified, lasted from 568 to 774. Note here that the Lombards did not hold Rome itself; Rome was independent. The Lombards were ruled by separate duchies, but they encircled Rome. Over time this pressure became dangerous, as viewed by the Church. And the end of any kind of Arian rule came when Pope Hadrian I called upon the Franks for help; and their king, Charles I, responded. That Charles, of course, was Charlemagne. He brought Italy under Frankish and therefore Catholic rule.

So what remains of Arianism in our day? Well, there is an interesting relic, part of a column in the Basilica of Sant’Apollinare Nuovo in Ravenna. The wall shown in the inset once showed an elaborate scene of Theodoric, the West Gothic ruler, and his entourage. But, as we know from George Orwell, when ideologies change, history tends to be rewritten by the winners. Therefore, in later times, the image of this Arian ruler was replaced with blank walls and curtains, but those who did the changing of the message must have had a sense of humor. They left a little thing in place, one hand grasping a column for support—an Arian hand no doubt.

Although the Lombards have actually left their mark on today’s Europe (the region of Lombardy in northern Italy, with Milan now its capital), the other Arian groupings have passed from view—except for that hand above. The Arian phenomenon, however, has something to teach us. Anything can serve as a support for identifying some collective as “the other” or as “the alien,” even when the effective content of the ideology rests on a difficult intellectual distinction which does not reach down to the working level or moral decisions. Those of us who are theology-blind are so because the Arian-Trinitarian conflict rests on conceptual distinctions which are not really “visible,” be it to our sensory apparatus or to what might be called “concrete” revelation; the Trinity is nowhere spelled out, as such, in the Gospels—or mentioned by Jesus. These distinctions are graspable only by intuition—which is personal and therefore not capable of verification in the public square. But Arianism, as an ideological projection, had quite concrete political consequences. Those who held it could not retain their grip on large enough populations to prevail. Sic transit, etc.
Images: Lombard Italy: Wikipedia (link); the regions shown are Neustria, Austria, Tuscia, and the Lombard Duchies of Spoleto and Benevento; the borders of the last are a little fuzzy. The Hand on the Column: Wikipedia (link).


  1. I love the Hand on the Column!

    Whenever I teach Boethius, I always have to do some background on this, and one of the things I do is point out that the followers of Arius and his allies are known as Arians, while the followers of Athanasius and his allies are know as the Orthodox Catholics or Catholic Orthodox, and ask what you can tell about the dispute simply from the names!

    I think you're right that Arius, clever as he seems to have been (even his enemies never deny his intelligence), is really a more minor figure than one would think -- in a sense he was just the person who happened by accident to press the matter so far as to get condemned by a major Church council, and 'Arians' afterward don't actually seem to be very interested in following Arius himself -- they are Arians for their own reasons. And broadly Arian ideas seem to arise spontaneously every so often -- early modern Arians like Isaac Newton or Samuel Clarke, for instance, didn't set out to follow Arius; they started to defend Arius because they came to positions that looked a lot like his.

  2. That "hand on the column" delighted me too when I stumbled upon it. Didn't know that Isaac Newton belongs here too. The shadow of Arius is long...