Preaching to Dread and Panic

IN ANTIOCH the edict was proclaimed during the morning of February 26, 387. When the proclamation was read outside the praeto-rium, it was received for a moment in stunned silence, broken by the wailing of women.

In the crowd were some professional agitators, the same men who were hired by the officials to applaud them during processions and by actors to applaud them on the stage. The crowd was surging against the praetorium when one of these agitators, or perhaps an officer of the guard (for no one knew exactly what happened) uttered the cry, “To the bathhouses!” Immediately the mob surged in the direction of the Baths of Caligula. In their rage, the crowd smashed everything they could lay their hands on, cutting the chains which held the bronze lanterns and then letting them crash on the stone floor, and hacking down the trees in the gardens.

The mob swung back to the praetorium, rushed past the guards and demanded the abrogation of the levy. There was no sign of the prefect [territorial Roman magistrate] he had slipped away, over the garden wall. The mob rushed through the great marble audience hall, where the prefect was accustomed to sit in state, wearing the robe and the slender silver crown of his office, under the statues of the emperor and empress. There was no prefect they could shout to.

They had exhausted most of their energy, and they might have gone quietly and sullenly from the palace if a small boy, clutching a stone in his hand, had not suddenly decided to throw the stone at the statue of Theodosius. The equestrian statue of gilded bronze represented everything the crowd detested. Soon they were all hurling stones at the statues.

There were altogether five statues, representing the old Count Theodosius, the father of the emperor, the emperor himself, the empress Flacilla, who had recently died, and the two princes, Honorius and Arcadius, who bore the titles of Emperor of the West and Emperor of the East, respectively. The statues of the emperor and the empress were torn down, smashed, mutilated, and led in triumph through the streets. Rain had fallen. The streets were thick with mud. The mob, insane with fear and joy, was chanting: “Try to defend yourself now, proud horseman!”

Meanwhile there were some who remained behind in the praetoriun busily smearing mud on the emperor’s tablets [official records] and setting fire to the heavy silk curtains hung between the marble pillars.

Deathly silence

Three hours later, the prefect led the archers into the city, and the mob dispersed. Then there was only deathly silence and pieces of twiste bronze in the mud in the streets. No one moved. The clouds hung heavy and low over Antioch, and the city seemed to have given itself up for dead. Everyone knew that in the eye of the emperor the whole city had committed the crime of laesae maiet tatis [treason]. The penalty was death.

That day the punishments began. Men arrested by the archers and th praetorian guards were summaril executed. The executions went on for days. Archbishop Flavian, a man of eighty years, slipped out of the city and made his way through the snow to Constantinople to plead for mercy at the feet of the emperor. The ringleaders of the assault on the Baths of Caligula had been put to death; most of the professional agi tators were rounded up.

Then came the turn of the leading citizens-now made hostages of the praetorian guard-examined in the torture chambers, their wealth confiscated, their wives and children thrown out onto the streets, to live as best they could. “There is a silence, said John, “huge with terror, and utter loneliness everywhere.”

All hope for the city depended upon the intercession of the arch bishop, and hardly anyone believed he would be able to cross 800 mile of barren countryside deep in snow and return alive.

For seven days John remained silent, while the executions went on. Then he could contain himself no longer.

Threatening, consoling

He began to deliver to the people of Antioch that long series of sermons known as On the Statues. In these sermons, he said very little about the statues. Most of all , he spoke of God’s mercy, and how there are things far more dreadful than death or slavery. He spoke too of his fond hope in Flavian’s intercession and his desire that the people of Antioch should embrace death, if they had to, or life, with equal courage.

He talked gently, in tones of lament, and sometimes in paradoxes, as when he said, “Strip yourselves, for it is the season for wrestling. Clothe yourselves,, for we are engaged in a fierce warfare with devils. Whet your sickles which are blunted with long surfeiting, and then sharpen them with fasting.”

He reminded the worshipers that Abel was murdered and was happy, while Cain lived and was miserable. John the Baptist was beheaded, Stephen was stoned, yet their deaths were happy. No one should fear death at the hands of the emperor. Slavery? Why should a man fear slavery so long as he was free to worship his God? Have faith in Christ and in his servant Flavian:

"I tell you, God will not suffer this errand to be fruitless. The very sight of the venerable bishop will dispose the emperor to mercy. This is the holy season. In such a season, Flavian will show the emperor the blessedness of forgiving sins, for this is the season when we remember how Christ died for the sins of the world... Let us supplicate; let us make an embassy to the king who reigns above, an embassy of tears.”

At this time, John was 41 years old; he looked 60 and resembled an Old Testament prophet, breathing forth fire and thunder, excoriating the people for their past vices, their addiction to wealth, their love of the theatre, their sensual enjoyments. If they had lived more strictly, they would not have behaved like wild beasts as they raced through the praetorium, and if they were true Christians, they would not have possessed this abject fear of the emperor and his power over them. A king is only a man. Why fear him? No kings ever entertained angels, but the Heavenly King is forever attended by them.

Again and again, on these strange days when destruction hung in the air, he inveighed against wealth and luxury:

"Abraham was rich but loved not his wealth. He regarded not the house of this man nor the wealth of another, but going forth he looked around for the stranger or for some poor man that he might entertain the wayfarer. He covered not his ceilings with gold, but placing his tent near the oak, he was content with the shade of its leaves.”

John believed that it was the desire for luxury which precipitated the rebellion. The mob rebelled for the sake of a few gold coins, and if the gold coins had been taken from them, what then? Surely they would have spent the money in the theatres, on horse races, on dancing girls, on still more sumptuous houses. Their desires dwelt on the things of teh earth; perhaps the visitation of destruction was deserved. Sodom and Jerusalem had been destroyed, and now there was God’s vengeance on Antioch! And he goes on, exhorting, threatening, consoling.

These staggering sermons, which were delivered to the people daily in church, kept the flock together. After the first day there was no more panic, though the tortures went on, and day by day the people could see the senators of Antioch, and everyone else thought guilty by the praetorian guard, dragged through the streets to prison. Yet hope filled the air: rumors had reached Antioch that Flavian had been successful in his mission of mercy. These rumors were followed by others promising the direst punishments.

Pleas of wild hermits

About the middle of Lent, two imperial commissioners, Hellebicus and Caesarius, reached Antioch with orders to make a complete report on the rebellion. They were both Christians and posessed friends in the city. They were empowered to hold a public inquiry and to put the highest citizens on trial and to execute summary judgment. The old scholar Libanius pleaded for the life of the city and was given a special place on the tribunal beside the judges.

Others came to plead, among them, some wild hermits from the mountains, saintly men who had walked barefoot, with tattered clothes and ragged beards. Crowds followed the hermits, and John especially delighted in them, pointing to their frugal lives, their asceticism, their avoidance of the temptations the world sets in front of them. The commissioners must have regarded the hermits privately as an unspeakable nuisance, for they were hammering at the doors of the praetorium, continually begging for mercy. In public, as good Christians, the commissioners were apt to regard them with veneration.

THe story is told of the aged hermit Macedonius the Barley Eater, who subsisted on only a few grains of barley a day. He had no other name. He was the most ragged of all the hermits. One day the imperial commissioners were riding through the streets when they saw the wild hermits approaching them.

“Who is that mad fellow?” they asked, and when they were told it was a mostly saintly ascetic, they dropped off their horses and went down to their knees.

According to [Christian historian] Theodret (c. 393-466), who tells the story rather wistfully, as though he did not quite believe it, the hermit regarded them sternly and gave them a lesson in Christian behavior.

“My friends,” said the hermit, “go to the emperor and tell him from me: ‘ You are an emperor, but you are also a man, and you rule over beings who are of a like nature with yourself! Man was created after a divine image and likeness! Do not then mercilessly command the image of God to be destroyed, for you will provoke the Maker if you punish this image!'”

These hermits, who fell upon Antioch like a plague of locusts, begged for mercy for the city and martyrdom for themselves. When John discovered that the caves they had abandoned were now being filled with the scholars who scattered from the city in the time of danger, he was happily ironical:

"Tell me this: Where are those long-bearded fellows - those cynical lickers-up-of-crumbs-from-below-the-table, those gentlemen who work so hard on behalf of their bellies? I will tell you! They have scurried away and hidden themselves in the caves and dens of our hermits who walk boldly about our forum as though no calamity had ever threatened!"

Triumphal entry

In Constantinople, Archbishop Flavian had presented the case for the city with great dignity and sweetness. He reminded Theodosius of a similar event that had happened during the reign of the emperor Constantine. A stone had been thrown at his statue, the face of it was disfigured, and the emperor had asked to be taken to the statue. Then he stroked his own face and said laughingly, “I do not find the mark of any wounds.”

Flavian reminded the emperor that it was in his power to create the most splendid statue in the world: “If you will pardon the offense of those who have done your majesty injury, if you take no revenge upon them, then they will build for you a statue neither of brass, nor of gold, nor inlaid with jewels, but one adorned with a robe more precious than any costly silks - the robe of humanity and of tender mercy — and every man will erect this statue of you in his own heart.”

Before such an advocate the emperor was helpless. He pardoned the city; there would be no general massacre. Instead he gave orders that Antioch should be degraded from the rank of capital of Syria. The metropolitan honors were transferred to the neighboring city of Laodicea.

On the day when the news of the pardon finally reached Antioch, John gave the last of his sermons On the Statues. “Today,” he said, “I shall begin with the same words I spoke in the time of danger. So say with me: May God be praised, who enables us this day to celebrate our festival with so light and joyful a heart. May God be praised, who is able to do exceeding abundantly above all that we ask or think!”

On Holy Saturday [the day before Easter], Flavian returned to the city, an old man with almost no strength left in him. Lamps were lit; torches shone in daylight; spring flowers and green leaves covered the shops; the forum was decorated with garlands. The archbishop made his triumphal entry, while the crowds gathered round him, eager to touch his garments or to stand in his shadow; and then he blessed the crowd and entered the basilica. The strain of those long weeks when the survival of the city hung in the balance fell heavily on John. For many days he was ill. When he recovered, Antioch seemed hardly to have changed: evil was still abroad; the hermits had returned to their caves; and though there were no more places of amusement (Flavian had extracted from the emperor a ban against theatres and horse racing), there was God’s work to be done.

For nearly ten more years, John was to remain in Antioch, delivering his sermons and writing his occasional books, and sometimes there would come to him in the middle of a phrase the sudden recollection of those terrible days when the faggots were lit in the market place.

By Robert Payne

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

Robert Payne (d. 1983) was the author of highly praised histories and biographies, including Fathers of the Western Church (1951) and The Holy Fire: The Story of the Early Centuries of the Early Christian Churches in the Near East (1957), from which this article is adapted with permission.
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