Thursday, June 13, 2019

"The ship was utterly consumed with all on board" ~ The persecutions of the Arian Emperor Valens

Eighty orthodox clerics are burnt to death by the order of the Emperor Valens
in this 18th century etching.
The Roman Emperor Valens is an enigmatic and paradoxical historical figure. Placed on the throne of the Eastern Empire by his brother, Valentinian I in AD 364, Valens was a reasonably effective ruler for much of his reign, but lacked much of the political, military and religious acumen of his elder sibling. In his Ecclesiastical History, Hermias Sozomen compares the religious views of the two brothers as follows:
Valens, when he was baptized, employed Eudoxius as his initiator, and was zealously attached to the doctrines of Arius, and would readily have compelled all mankind by force to yield to them. Valentinian, on the other hand, maintained the faith of the council of Nic├Ža, and favored those who upheld the same sentiments, without molesting those who entertained other opinions. [Ecclesiastical History of Sozomen, Book VI, Chapter 6]
As an Arian and an active persecutor of the orthodox Nicean Christians, Valens occasionally attempted to enforce his will with brutal tactics reminiscent of his pagan predecessors like Diocletian, Decius and Valerian. One such instance occurred after rioting broke out in Constantinople between Arian and orthodox factions over the election of a new bishop for the city. Having been thoroughly beaten and abused by the ascendant Arians, eighty clerics of the orthodox faction approached Valens in Nicomedia with a petition for redress. Sozomen describes Valens reaction as follows:
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Although exceedingly angry, the emperor did not openly manifest any wrath, but secretly commanded the prefect to seize and slay the whole deputation. But the prefect, being apprehensive that a whole popular insurrection would be excited if he were to put so many good and religious men to death without any of the forms of justice, pretended that they were to be sent into exile, and under this pretext compelled them to embark on board a ship, to which they assented with the most perfect resignation. When they had sailed to about the center of the bay, which was called Astacius, the sailors, according to the orders they had received, set fire to the vessel and leaped into the tender. A wind arising, the ship was blown along to Dacibiza, a place on the sea-coast of Bithynia, but no sooner had it neared the shore, than it was utterly consumed with all the men on board. [Eccelsiastical History of Sozomen, Book VI, Chapter 14]
On another occasion, Valens visited the city of Edessa and was infuriated to discover large crowds of orthodox Catholics worshiping in the open air outside the city walls in defiance of his edict which had stripped them of their churches. The emperor’s fury nearly turned into a wholesale slaughter, but his wrath was deflected by the willingness of the Edessenes to suffer martyrdom en masse. Sozomen describes the scene:
[Valens] beheld the members of the Catholic Church assembled for worship in the plain before the walls of the city, for there, too, they had been deprived of their houses of prayer. It is said that the emperor reproached the prefect thoroughly and struck him on the jaw with his fist for having permitted these congregations contrary to his edict. Modestus (for this was the name of the prefect), although he was himself a heretic, secretly warned the people of Edessa not to meet for prayer on the accustomed spot the next day, for he had received orders from the emperor to punish all who should be seized. He uttered such threats with the forethought that none, or at least but a few, would incur danger, and with the desire to appease the wrath of the monarch. But the people of Edessa, totally disregarding the threat, ran together with more than their customary zeal, and filled the usual place of meeting.

Modestus, on being apprised of their proceedings, was undecided as to what measures ought to be adopted, and repaired in embarrassment to the plain with the throng. A woman, leading a child by the hand, and trailing her mantle in a way unbefitting the decency of women, forced her way through the files of the soldiers who were conducted by the prefect, as if bent upon some affair of importance. Modestus remarked her conduct, ordered her to be arrested, and summoned her into his presence, to inquire the cause of her running. She replied that she was hastening to the plain where the members of the Catholic Church were assembled.

"Know you not," replied Modestus, "that the prefect is on his way there for the purpose of condemning to death all who are found on the spot?"

"I have heard so," replied she, "and this is the very reason of my haste, for I am fearful of arriving too late, and thus losing the honor of martyrdom for God."

The governor having asked her why she took her child with her, she replied, "In order that he may share in the common suffering, and participate in the same reward."

Modestus, struck with astonishment at the courage of this woman, went to the emperor, and, acquainting him with what had occurred, persuaded him not to carry out a design which he showed to be disgraceful and disastrous. Thus was the Christian faith confessed by the whole city of Edessa. [Ecclesiastical History of Sozomen, Book VI, Chapter 18]
Valens continued vacillating between persecution and mercy with regard to non-Arians throughout the remainder of his reign. According to Sozomen, his death was predicted by an orthodox monk named Isaac who warned him that victory against the Goths would only be gained if the churches which had been given over to the Arians were returned to the orthodox.

Valens refused.

Shortly thereafter, he was killed by the Goths following the disastrous Roman defeat at the Battle of Adrianople in AD 378.

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