John Chrysostom: A Gallery of Politicos, Pagans, and the Pious

Eudoxia (d. 404)

Avaricious empress

Early in John’s career in Constantinople, Eudoxia was one of his powerful supporters. She spent long hours with him, and he baptized her son. When the relics of some saint were moved to a chapel outside the city, Eudoxia joined the procession, barefoot, without her veil or any trappings of royalty, with every outward sign of piety.

Her inner strength could have turned her toward being a saint; instead it turned her toward a quest for power and the destruction of her enemies, including John.

Eudoxia married Emperor Arcadius in 395 and quickly discovered that Arcadius was weak and dominated by Eutropius, a leading official. Eudoxia wanted to be named Augusta (empress), a move Eutropius opposed. Determined to gain more power, she began to plot Eutropius’s downfall.

Her chance came in 399. Many generals resented Eutropius for his high-handed ways. Gothic mercenaries rebelled and demanded his expulsion. At the same time, in a heated argument, Eutropius told Eudoxia, in effect, “I raised you to power; I can just as easily break you.” Arcadius had Eutropius deposed. Soon she was named Augusta and became, effectively, the ruler of the empire.

Eudoxia now began to fear John’s power—he may have been the only man in the empire strong enough to oppose her. After John’s sermon on the vices of women (in 401), Eudoxia conspired with Bishop Theophilus of Alexandria to depose John.

A few days after John was put out of the city, however, an earthquake shook the region, damaging the imperial bedroom. Terrified of God’s evident wrath, Eudoxia begged John to return, affirming her regard for him and remembering his baptism of her son.

But more intrigue (and perhaps an indirect attack on Eudoxia by John in one of his sermons), ended the short truce. John was again sent into exile. A few weeks later, Eudoxia, due to complications in childbirth, died.

Libanius (314–395)

Brilliant pagan

Libanius was born in Antioch, studied in Athens, and then opened a controversial school in Constantinople. He was so popular, however, that his opponents had him expelled in 343 on the charge of practicing magic. He finally settled in Antioch in 354.

As a teacher, Libanius attracted and trained some of the key leaders of the day, including the Christians Basil the Great and John Chrysostom, as well as the famous pagan emperor Julian.

In Libanius’s day, pagan culture was on the defensive, fighting for its life, and Libanius was one of its leading apologists. When Christian Emperor Theodosius began to destroy pagan temples, Libanius wrote a speech calling for their protection. And when Emperor Julian, who had tried to revive ancient paganism, was killed in Persia, Libanius composed a funeral oration. In it, he celebrated Julian’s writings against the Christians, which he said demonstrated the “ridiculous and trifling character of their sacred books.”

Libanius, though, was committed to justice and fairness, and against fanaticism and oppression. He gave himself to the plight of farmers and peasants. He continually called on the imperial administration to act justly toward the poor.

Although Libanius respected John, as well as John’s mother, he died a committed pagan.


Devoted follower

When Olympias’s parents died, she inherited a large fortune. Her uncle arranged her marriage with Nebridius, the prefect of Constantinople, whom she loved. The great theologian Gregory Nazianzus apologized for not being able to attend the wedding, an indication of Olympias’s early reputation for piety.

Nebridius died a few years later, and Emperor Theodosius tried to get Olympias to marry his cousin. Olympias replied, “Had God wished me to remain a wife, he would not have taken Nebridius away.” Theodosius was angered and had her money turned over to the urban prefect, who was to be her guardian until she was 30.

Olympias, however, wrote to the emperor, thanking him for freeing her from the burden of managing her money. She asked him to divide it between the poor and the church. Theodosius relented and gave back her property.

Olympias became a deaconess and established a convent in Constantinople. She was so famous for her generosity, John had to remind her about responsible stewardship. She was once described as “a wonderful woman . . . like a precious vase filled with the Holy Spirit.”

She was also a dear and trusted friend of John. John put Olympias and her house under his protection, adding an orphanage and hospital to her convent. On behalf of John, she took in, fed, and sheltered the Tall Brothers and Isidore when they sought refuge in Constantinople. She was one of the last people to whom he said goodbye before his final exile. Her friends, it is reported, literally had to tear her from his feet.

After John’s departure, Olympias suffered the same persecution as John’s other friends. She was dragged before the tribunal and accused of setting fire to the cathedral. She was charged with refusing to be in communion with John’s successor (whom she believed had been chosen unlawfully). Eventually, she was exiled and wandered about ill for one winter and spring. She was brought back to Constantinople and fined heavily, and her religious community was broken up.

Olympias died a few years later, one of a line of wealthy widows who have supported the work of monks and bishops, and one of the few who remained loyal to John in the face of persecution.

Eutropius (d. 399)

Conniving eunuch

Eutropius, a former slave and eunuch, became a civil servant under Emperor Theodosius and quickly rose in power. He became an ambassador and eventually civilian head of the state church. Under the next emperor, Arcadius, Eutropius was responsible for making John archbishop of the capital—a move that would later save Eutropius’s life, at least for a time.

Eutropius soon consolidated his power. He convinced Emperor Arcadius to marry Eudoxia rather than the daughter of the prefect Rufinus, who stood in the way of Eutropius’s ambitions. Rufinus was later murdered, and Eutropius appropriated Rufinus’s property and transferred some powers of the prefect to himself. He removed the best generals in the army and replaced them with men loyal to himself.

Soon, his grip on imperial power started to loosen. The commander of some mercenary Goth troops revolted, partly because Eutropius refused to give him a large enough gift for his services. The commander told the emperor that Eutropius must be deposed if there was to be peace again. Eutropius unfortunately chose this moment to quarrel with Empress Eudoxia.

Believing his life was in danger, Eutropius fled for sanctuary to Chrysostom’s church (even though he, Eutropius, had earlier passed a law denying the right of sanctuary). Chrysostom publicly rebuked Eutropius’s worldly ways. But in compassion, John approached the emperor and convinced him to spare Eutropius’s life.

Eutropius was banished to Cyprus, but within a few months, he was brought back, convicted of wearing clothing having the imperial insignia, and beheaded.

Theophilus (c. 345–412)

Scheming bishop

As Christians became key players in the intrigues of fourth-century politics, it led to not a few ironies and tragedies. Take for example, the case of Theophilus, archbishop of Alexandria, whose high-handed tactics forced John, archbishop of Constantinople, into exile.

Two controversies reveal Theophilus’s personality and the times in which John lived.

The first: A large party of Egyptian monks were troubled by the popular views of Origen (d. 254), who spiritualized many biblical passages. In reaction, these monks argued that God had a body; Scriptures that referred to God’s “face,” for example, should be taken literally.

Theophilus, archbishop of Alexandria, disagreed. He held that God was incorporeal and said so in one Easter letter to his churches. When the monks read it, they marched to Alexandria and incited a riot. Monks commanded great reverence from the people, so bishops had to retain their support. Faced with this tumult, Theophilus slyly said to the monks, “When I look upon you, it is as if I behold the face of God.”

The monks insisted that Theophilus denounce publicly the works of Origen. This Theophilus did, a “change of heart” that would prove useful in a later controversy that would involve Chrysostom.

Tall Brothers affair

This controversy began because Theophilus was famous for grand building projects and infamous for taking money given for the poor and using it to build churches. One day Isidore, a revered priest and Theodosius’s assistant responsible for charitable works, refused to hand over one such donation. Theophilus degraded him from his priestly office and threatened bodily harm.

Isidore fled to the desert, taking refuge with four monks called the “Tall Brothers.” The Tall Brothers asked Theophilus to restore Isidore; Theophilus responded by jailing one of the monks. The Tall Brothers, in turn, went to the prison and staged a sitdown strike. Theophilus, furious at such maneuvering, accused the monks of following Origenism (only partly true), and convinced the civil authorities to drive them out of Egypt.

The Tall Brothers and Isidore eventually landed in Constantinople and sought the help of Chrysostom, who gave them hospitality while he researched their cause.

One day, as Empress Eudoxia rode through the city, the Tall Brothers approached her chariot and asked her to intercede for them. She replied, “Pray for the emperor, for me, for our children, and for the empire. For my part, I shall shortly cause a council to be convened, to which Theophilus shall be summoned.”

Back in Alexandria, Theophilus no doubt fumed. Years earlier, Constantinople had replaced Alexandria as the “Second City” of Christendom. And when Constantinople’s archbishoporic had become open, Theophilus’s nomination was rejected in favor of Chrysostom. Theophilus had a long-standing grudge against Constantinople and Chrysostom, and now he had to defend himself in Constantinople against a former assistant he counted a traitor!

Great reverse

On his way to Constantinople, though, Theophilus persuaded various bishops to come with him, ostensibly to attend a conference to condemn Origenism. Theophilus arrived with a large body of priests and bishops who were either loyal to him or angry with John (for having disciplined them for their lax ways). Rather than be disciplined, Theophilus unilaterally convened his own synod (the so-called “Synod of the Oak”) to condemn John! The charges? Among other things, Origenism.

John refused to appear, and he was summarily condemned. Meanwhile, Theophilus’s party won the ear of the emperor, who drove John from the city.

When the people heard of John’s banishment, riots erupted. Then an earthquake shook the city, which the empress interpreted as divine judgment. The emperor quickly had John returned, and Theophilus was forced to return to Alexandria.

After his death, Theophilus’s nephew and successor, the great Cyril, preserved the better memory of Theophilus—he had earlier used his political acumen to fight paganism. Cyril was successful, for today the Coptic and Syrian churches consider Theophilus a saint.

By John O. Gooch

[Christian History originally published this article in Christian History Issue #44 in 1994]

John Gooch is an editor at the United Methodist Publishing House in Nashville, Tennessee. He is author of The Doctrine of Holiness in Tertullian (University Microfilms, 1983).
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