NAVIGATION: You are presently looking at Part 23.1
We begin a new chapter from Tom Lee's exploration of the First 500 Years of Christianity. At the end of the fourth century the Empire becomes permanently divided. Today's excerpt is principally concerned with looking at the input of John Chrysostom elected Bishop of Constantinople in 398.
Barbarians at the Gate, Predestination & Erotic Penitence. Part 23.1
The permanent division of the Empire...
After Emperor Theodosius' death in 395 the empire was again divided, and this time the division was permanent. The east went to his eighteen-year-old son Arcadius, and the western throne at Milan to his younger son Honorius, aged eleven. Spoilt and inept, as they grew older the brothers proved both unintelligent and incompetent. The task of running the empire fell to their regents. In the same year a boy was born who would become Attila, the Scourge of God. The son of Mundzuk, Attila traced his ancestry back through thirty-five generations to Schongar, the Bird-King, who ruled all flying things. Of mixed Mongol and Hun lineage he was born somewhere along the plains of the Danube and his name was the Hunic name for the great river. By age six he was reputed already a fearless and skilled horseman and hunter.
The full-scale German invasion of the west began on the death of Theodosius. Pressured by the inflow of Huns to the north and east of them, the Visigoths, under their great leader, Alaric the Bold, revolted against Roman containment and ravaged Macedonia and Greece, before sailing up the Adriatic Sea into Italy.
The only man who could save Italy was general Stilicho, the stately Vandal. Indeed the best generals and ministers of the empire, both east and west, were now Germans, as were the best soldiers in the legions. But Stilicho's hostility to the eastern empire affected his thinking. He arranged for the assassination of his eastern counterpart Rufinus, and was unwilling to deal firmly with Alaric, who showed his aggressive intentions by invading deep into Italy (401-3), leading the timid Emperor Honorius to move his capital from Milan to the coastal city Ravenna, which was protected by marshes on the landward side and was easy to escape from by sea.
Stilicho also ordered the burning of the remaining Sibylline Oracles, the prophecies attributed to those ancient soothsaying women who had predicted the future in fits of inspired madness, lest any be attached to his name and exploits. But from their ashes new ones arose, consulted seriously well into the Reformation.
In 398 John Chrysostom was elected bishop of Constantinople. A man of great faith, he had little tact, and his ascetic refusal to entertain lavishly offended the wealthy and the aristocrats, including other bishops who enjoyed the pomp of high office.
Although previous Church fathers had regarded marital sex as a grievous hazard, John conceded that, as long as a husband and wife rationed their embraces, wedded bliss need not be an insuperable obstacle to salvation. But he did castigate profligate monks, of whom there were apparently quite a number in the eastern capital, and roundly condemned members of the regular clergy who shared their homes with women of dubious character. His remark about his fellow bishops, that the number of them who might be saved was only a small proportion of those who would be damned, was hardly likely to earn him many friends.
The rancor of Chrysostom...
Homosexuality was so rampant among the clergy, Chrysostom complained, "Those very people who have been nourished by godly doctrine, who instruct others in what they ought and ought not to do, who have heard the Scriptures brought down from heaven, these do not consort with prostitutes as fearlessly as they do with young men." He also attacked lesbianism and read Paul's ambiguous language about women "changing the natural order" as an explicit reference to "women who abused women". Moreover, he assured his hearers "natural intercourse is more pleasurable than sodomy" — as if he knew.
The rancor of Chrysostom's oratory was not reserved for the rich and powerful and the sexually sinful. His pulpit wrath was poured out most notably on the Jews, for whom he bore a special hatred. In the eight sermons that he delivered in Antioch in 387, he denounced the Jews as "sensual, slippery, voluptuous, avaricious, and possessed by demons, harlots, and breakers of the Law". He condemned them as murderers of "the prophets, Christ, and God". The virulence of his attack is surprising even in an age when rhetorical denunciation was frequently indulged with complete abandon. The effects of his preaching had a baneful effect for centuries thereafter on the Jews, and enforced and encouraged homophobia.
Despite Emperor Constantine's injunction that pagan religion would never pollute his new capital at Constantinople, some pagan relics of ancient Byzantium survived, if only as decorations. The statue of Priapus, a hugely endowed fertility god of immemorial antiquity, gazed benignly on the vessels sailing into harbor. The triumphal arch that Theodosius built to his own glory was adorned with the exploits of the pagan heroes Prometheus and Hercules. In the senate house stood statues of Jupiter and Athena. When John Chrysostom preached hell-fire and destruction in the city, the building was destroyed by earthly fire, but the statues were amazingly preserved, considered by many a miraculous sign that the old gods still extended their protection.
John Chrysostom preached in the Goths' church in Constantinople, where they used their own language for Bible and liturgy, and he also sent missionaries to the Goths in the Crimea and north of the Black Sea.
The Eucharistic liturgy had been imbued by this time with such a deep reverence, because of the growing belief (not yet dogma) that Christ was truly physically present in the bread and the wine after the invocation of the Holy Spirit and the words of consecration, that John spoke of the Lord's Table as a place of "terror and shuddering." Some eastern churches were already celebrating this part of the rite behind a screen, away from the gaze of the vulgar.
Pope Siricius died at Rome in 399 to be succeeded for an uneventful two years by Anastasius I. He was succeeded in 401 by his son, Innocent I, who had been his deacon. The first year of Innocent's reign saw the last Christian martyrdom in Rome, if a suicidal act can be so characterized. The supposedly Christianized populace of the city still indulged its blood-lust by cheering on gladiators in mortal combat in the arena. In protest a Christian monk, Telemachus, leapt into the ring and tried to separate the combatants. The enraged spectators stoned him to death, but his desperate act led to legislation banning such bloody man-to-man butchery. The public slaughter of animals, however, continued for another hundred years.
NAVIGATION: You are presently looking at Part 23.1
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