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Emperor Aurelian and the Christian Church

Posted August 12th, 2014 at 01:04 PM by Salah

Before the reign of Constantine I, most Roman emperors were supposedly enemies of Christianity. Historians continue to debate the extent of the persecutions - or even if they occurred at all. Most 'martyrologies' tell us at least as much about medieval religious folklore as they do about the experiences of Christian believers in pre-Christian Rome.

In the early 270s CE, however, a unique event took place in the Roman province of Syria. For perhaps the first time in history, a Roman emperor took an active interest in a schism within the Christian community.

Lucius Domitius Aurelianus is better-known today as 'Aurelian'. A career soldier from the Balkans, he reigned from 270 to 275 CE. Like most 3rd Century emperors, he was assassinated, but he stands out in history for his energetic financial and military policies. He was best known in his own time as Restitutor Orbis - literally, 'Restorer of the World'. Aurelian dedicated much of his short reign to bringing the breakaway empires of Gaul and Palmyra back into the fold.

Eusebius, the 4th Century church historian, is one of our best sources for Aurelian's alleged interactions with the Christian community. Around the year 264, Paul of Samosata was elected to the Christian bishopric of Antioch. One of the largest cities of the Greek East, Antioch had changed hands between the Romans and the Sassanid Persians during a recent war. It was a rowdy metropolis, with a vibrant Christian population. According to the book of Acts, the word Christiani itself was first invented in Antioch.

Paul became a controversial bishop, however. Other prominent Christian leaders objected to his theology, and attempted to remove him. Paul was living in a house traditionally associated with the leader of the Antiochene Christians, and he refused to move; apparently, he even went so far as to hire armed men to keep out intruders.

It was at this point, that the other Christian bishops took the unique step of writing to the Emperor. At this time, Aurelian was in Syria, campaigning against Zenobia and the forces of her 'empire'. Aurelian recognized that Christianity was a growing religion, especially in the Empire's Eastern provinces. He wrote back, siding with the bishops. Orders were given for Paul to be evicted, and banned from entering Antioch again.

Initially, this incident does not appear very dramatic or historically important. Indeed, Aurelian himself probably saw it as just another bureaucratic headache, a localized property dispute barely deserving of his time. But the historical precedent it set was massive. This was the first of many times that matters of 'church and state' would become muddied in the Roman Empire. Little more than a century later, Emperor Theodosius I would be reduced to tears when his favorite bishop refused to serve him Communion.

It could be argued that Aurelian granted a sense of legitimacy to the Christian religion that it had never experienced before. As a worshiper of Sol Invictus, Aurelian wasn't necessarily a traditionalist by his own religious beliefs. According to Eusebius, however, his tolerance of Christianity was to prove short-lived. Late in his short reign, Aurelian supposedly came under the influence of advisers who encouraged him to renew persecution of the Christians. Several 4th Century Christian writers attributed his subsequent murder in the summer of 275 CE to divine providence.

Sources/Further Reading:

Eusebius - the History of the Church
Stoneman, Richard - Palmyra and its Empire
Watson, Alaric - Aurelian
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