Wednesday, January 25, 2017

The Gruesome Death of Arius, AD 336

Here is an account, from the Ecclesiastical History of Sozomen, of the horrible death of the heresiarch Arius in AD 336. It was written about a century after the event, so Sozomen was not an eye-witness (who would want to be?). However, he appends to his own account that of St. Athanasius of Alexandria--the main opponent of Arius during his lifetime and a champion of Orthodoxy.

Of special note is the extra anecdote offered by Saint Athanasius of the horror which people evinced toward the exact spot where Arius expired, and the fact that a wealthy man of the Arian persuasion later purchased the latrine and tore it down so that this foul memorial to Arius might be forgotten.

Here is Sozomen's account, taken from Book II, Chapter XXIX and XXX of his Ecclesiastical History.
Russian portrayal of St. Nicholas
striking Arius (top), and Arius
expiring in the privy (bottom).
After the Synod of Jerusalem, Arius went to Egypt, but as he could not obtain permission to hold communion with the Church of Alexandria, he returned to Constantinople. As all those who had embraced his sentiments, and those who were attached to Eusebius, bishop of Nicomedia, had assembled cunningly in that city for the purpose of holding a council, Alexander, who was then ordering the see of Constantinople, used every effort to dissolve the council. But as his endeavors were frustrated, he openly refused all covenant with Arius, affirming that it was neither just nor according to ecclesiastical canons, to make powerless their own vote, and that of those bishops who had been assembled at Nic├Ža, from nearly every region under the sun. When the partisans of Eusebius perceived that their arguments produced no effect on Alexander, they had recourse to contumely, and threatened that unless he would receive Arius into communion on a stated day, he should be expelled from the church, and that another should be elected in his place who would be willing to hold communion with Arius. 
They then separated, the partisans of Eusebius to await the time they had fixed for carrying their menaces into execution, and Alexander to pray that the words of Eusebius might be prevented from being carried into deed. His chief source of fear arose from the fact that the emperor had been persuaded to give way. On the day before the appointed day he prostrated himself before the altar, and continued all the night in prayer to God, that his enemies might be prevented from carrying their schemes into execution against him. 
Late in the afternoon, Arius, being seized suddenly with pain in the stomach, was compelled to repair to the public place set apart for emergencies of this nature. As some time passed away without his coming out, some persons, who were waiting for him outside, entered, and found him dead and still sitting upon the seat. When his death became known, all people did not view the occurrence under the same aspect. Some believed that he died at that very hour, seized by a sudden disease of the heart, or suffering weakness from his joy over the fact that his matters were falling out according to his mind; others imagined that this mode of death was inflicted on him in judgment, on account of his impiety. Those who held his sentiments were of opinion that his death was brought about by magical arts. 
It will not be out of place to quote what Athanasius, bishop of Alexandria, stated on the subject. The following is his narrative: 
"Arius, the author of the heresy and the associate of Eusebius, having been summoned before the most blessed Constantine Augustus, at the solicitation of the partisans of Eusebius, was desired to give in writing an exposition of his faith. He drew up this document with great artfulness, and, like the devil, concealed his impious assertions beneath the simple words of Scripture. The most blessed Constantine said to him, ‘If you hold any other doctrines than those which are here set forth, render testimony to the truth. but if you perjure yourself, the Lord will punish you,’ and the wretched man swore that he held no sentiments except those specified in the document.

Soon after he went out, and judgment was visited upon him, for he bent forwards and burst in the middle. With all men life terminates in death. We must not blame a man, even if he be an enemy, merely because he died, for it is uncertain whether we shall live till the evening. But the end of Arius was so singular that it seems worthy of some remark. The partisans of Eusebius threatened to reinstate him in the church, and Alexander, bishop of Constantinople, opposed their intention. Arius placed his confidence in the power and menaces of Eusebius. It was Saturday, and he expected the next day to be re-admitted into the church. The dispute ran high. The partisans of Eusebius were loud in their menaces, while Alexander had recourse to prayer. The Lord was the judge, and declared himself against the unjust. A little before sunset Arius was compelled by a want of nature to enter the place appointed for such emergencies, and here he lost at once both restoration to communion and his life.

The most blessed Constantine was amazed when he heard of this occurrence, and regarded it as the punishment of perjury. It then became evident to every one that the menaces of Eusebius were absolutely futile, and that the expectations of Arius were vain and foolish. It also became manifest that the Arian heresy had met with condemnation from the Savior as well as from the pristine church. Is it not then astonishing that some are still found who seek to exculpate him whom the Lord has condemned, and to defend a heresy of which the author was not permitted by our Lord to be rejoined to the church? We have been duly informed that this was the mode of the death of Arius. It is said that for a long period subsequently no one would make use of the seat on which he died. Those who were compelled by necessities of nature to visit the public place, always avoided with horror the precise spot on which the impiety of Arius had been visited with judgment. At a later epoch a certain rich and powerful man, who had embraced the Arian tenets, bought the place of the public, and built a house on the spot, in order that the occurrence might fall into oblivion, and that there might be no perpetual memorial of the death of Arius."
Saint Athanasius's account also survives in a letter he wrote to Serapion regarding the death of Arius. In that document, Athanasius says that although he wasn't in Constantinople when Arius died, he received this account of the heresiarch's death via a priest named Macarius who was present when it happened.

That heretics should die such hideous deaths would have been no surprise to 4th and 5th century Christian Romans. It was a common view that pagans and heretics who persecuted orthodox Christians would come to horrifically bad ends as God made manifest His justice on earth in real time. Writing in the early 4th century immediately after the end of the last empire-wide persecution of Christians, Lactantius’s book, On the Death of the Persecutors, details the dramatic and gruesome ends of persecuting emperors such as Nero, Domitian, Decius, Valerian and many others. Sozomen himself relates additional stories in that vein when discussing the demise of the pagan emperor Julian the Apostate and the Arian emperor Valens in his Ecclesiastical History.

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