Hello, and welcome to the History of the Copts. Episode 7. The Martyr Church.
Last time, we saw how the Coptic Church under Pope Demetrious started the long journey of representing all strands of the Egypt’s society
That critical time was also a transition period for the Roman Empire, where the efficiency of governing was starting to slip and the army was calling the shots with the Senate as institution becoming irrelevant
The events that follows are known generally as the crisis of the third century, as it was a century of Roman decline, civil wars, and increasing misery for the average men and women living in the empire, including Egypt
The Coptic Church didn’t fare well also. Multiple intense persecutions took place, not only initiated and enforced by the government, but perhaps more damaging, spontaneous riots between Christians and pagans – Where, at this stage, the Pagans outnumbered the Christians, and the victims were mostly Christians
Under those persecutions, civil wars, and all-around misery, the Coptic Church embraced and promoted an identity of a Church of Martyrs
Even until now, it is imprinted on every Copt to this day that sacrifice and martyrdom is what makes Copts, Copts!
We will see in this episode, how did martyrdom became an achievement to be proud of, and how it did the Early Copts deal with various crises on their hands?
The story begins when Septimus Severus dies during a campaign in Britain
Under Septiumus Severus, the Roman empire reached its greatest extent, he was remembered fondly in Egypt for giving the Egyptians cities a measure of self-governing
But also, under him, probably driven by local administration, the Christians of Alexandria faced the first government sponsored persecution
When he died, he left a strong Roman army, a decent administration, and two sons who hated each other
The sons, Carracella and Geta were crowned co-emperors, but within a year, Caracalla murdered his own brother
His cruelty didn’t stop there, he banished and then killed his wife, and spent the majority of his reign in different wars or killing his own people
While preparing for one of those wars, he heard how the Alexandrians exercised their talent for satire and sarcasm at his expense
In Alexandria, there were two things that were central to the life of the city and its inhabitants
The first, is the hippodrome, a racing tract for chariots and a public place where riots some time started
The chariot racers were usually split into two teams, the greens and the blues. Like all the major cities of the empire, passions ran high for those teams, and things could get out of hand pretty easily
The second, more vital to our story is the theatre.
The theatre was also a public gathering place, where the leading citizens of the city paid and organized shows for the entrainment of the public
In one of these shows, Caracella was ridiculed and was an object of mockery in account of his murder of his brother, and his subsequent completely ridiculous claim that it was done in self-defense
Now, Caracella wasn’t the kind of guy who will get angry when he hears that kind of thing and add a new tax or take a privilege away from the city
He wasn’t also the kind of guy who let it go, and send a friendly letter to the prefect as a reminder to keep things reasonable
Nope, he was the kind of guy, who will stop the preparation for the war he is about to start, go to Alexandria, smile, meet, and greet all the important citizens of the city
Then tells them to bring all the young men of the city so he can enlist them in the Army for the upcoming war
And when everyone is lined up and ready to go.. He orders his army to kill them all.
The army then proceeds to plunder the city and destroy, rape, and kill all who stood in the way
In a letter exchange between Caracella and the Senate after the massacre, he remarked that it didn’t matter how many Alexandrians died, as they all deserved it.
Caracella wasn’t all evil though, perhaps motivated to increase taxation or just out of a sense of justice. He issued a famous edict, which granted all the citizens of the empire, Roman citizenship.
With a stroke of his pen, Egypt inhabitants were no longer Greeks, Egyptians, and Romans as before. They all have become Romans, at least in the eyes of the law
Now, on the ground, immediately, nothing much have changed, as poor farmers were still exploited, and if you had money and power you can get away with a lot of things
But the effect of the edict was nonetheless significant, as it started to remove the legal hereditary barriers to social advancements and made Greek as a legal class obsolete
Carracella’s Edict took Egypt back to the time before Augustus, where there was a rich, powerful upper class and much larger, poor, rural farmers. The barrier between the two classes was difficult, but not impossible to cross
Nonetheless, any appreciation for Carrracella’s edict was overshadowed by the massacre of Alexandria
and the Alexandrian’s contempt for carrcella will extend beyond his reign and gets them in trouble even after he dies
The massacre was in 215 or 216 AD, right in the middle of Pope Demetrious reign, who could have been outside of Alexandria at this time and relatively unaffected
Either way, it does seem that the massacre effects on the church was the same as everybody else, unnecessary death and tragedy
Caracalla eventually moved on with his war, and was assassinated in 217 AD by a common soldier with the blessing of the head of his bodyguard and next emperor Macrinus
Now, with Macrinus, there was a big symbolic change of how the empire was run, for he was the first non-senator to become emperor and in top of that, when he was looking for administrators to run the empire, he picked a Senator to serve as second in command in Egypt
Which was something unheard of since Augustus annexed Egypt in 30 BC
Gone was the days when Senators were powerful politicians and generals who the emperor feared giving them control over Egypt’s resources
Now, the senate was irrelevant and all power was concentrated in the army.
Macrinus didn’t last for long, a distant relative of Caracella, given the name Elagabalus claimed that he is caracella’s son, and paid the troops to support his claim
Macrianus was abandoned by his troops and killed. But the important part in our story is the second massacre of Alexandria that accompanied those events
the citizens of Alexandria, when they heard that the new claimant to the throne claimed himself to be the son of their old enemy Caracalla, they naturally opposed him and supported the prefect, appointed by Macrianus
But the military garrison was already paid by Elagabalus, and to force their case, they plundered the city, killing the prefect and anyone who supported him
It was just another tragedy of a line of many to come.
Elagablus reign is to be noted for his religious zeal for a Syrian religion that worshipped a god closely related to sun worship, Sol Invictus or the unconquered sun
Much like Constantine and his support for Christianity in a century or so from now, Elagablus tried to spread his Sol Invictus religion, but he was resented for it
Perhaps the only thing that stuck is that a feast on December 25th became so popular during his time, that, it was later Christianized and became Christmas
He lasted for 4 years and was assassinated with the support of his own grandmother who picked his cousin, Alexander Severus to replace him.
By then, things had gotten so bad in Alexandria, that when an officer had led a mutiny of the guards at Rome, he was dispatched to Egypt as prefect.
Not really as an honor, more like banishment to a geopolitical backwater
A short while after, when everyone in Rome started forgot him, he was quietly executed
It is at during Alexander Severus’ reign that Pope Demtrious died, and the next Pope and the former Dean of the school of Alexandria, Pope Heracles (yarakles) was chosen
Not much is known about Pope Heracles from either the Coptic Sources or the non-coptic sources
It was under him though that we can definitely say that the bishops of Alexandria were called Popes
We have a letter that is preserved from his successor calling him “blessed pope Heraclas”
Interestingly, based on the preserved evidence, the bishop of Alexandria is accorded the title of "Pope") fifty years before that same title was applied to the bishop of Rome.
Pope Heracles reigned for 18 years, which saw a quick turnover in emperors and a time of increasing anarchy
Basically, a common soldier, maximinus thrax, has risen through the ranks, and successfully achieved a coup dispatching with Alexander Severus. The problem with that was essentially the loss of all legitimacy for the office of the emperor
Civil war followed, and multiple emperors rose and fell, from 235 AD when Alexander Severus died to 244 AD when Philip the Arab ascended the throne – The Romans were either fighting among themselves, fighting germanic tribes in the north. Or fighting the new power that has risen in Iran, the Sassanids
Most of the time, it was all three in the same time
Philip the Arab, was born in Syria, hence his nickname. He achieved peace with the sassinds by paying them off, giving the empire a brief respite.
He was the first emperor to be tolerant toward Christianity, with Eusebius even claiming that he was a Christian, but that’s not confirmed in other sources.
Either way, 2 years into his reign, Pope Heracles dies and he is followed by the Dean of the Theological school of Alexander Pope Dionysius
In the Coptic sources, Pope Dionysius was a pagan who was converted when he bought the epistles of St. Paul from a poor widow
He was baptized by Pope Demetrious and went on and became the dean of the school when Pope Demetrious died, and Pope Heracles took his place
Pope Dionysius was a prolific writer, and many of his letters are preserved giving us a window looking into his world
Just a year after his election as bishop in 247 AD, the world of the Alexandrian church was thrown into turmoil when an unruly mob rose up against the Christians
In a letter written later to bishop Fabius of Antioch, Dionysius describes how the ringleader of the mob, a pagan prophet, incited them to attack local Christians
He then goes on and tells the details of the riot vividly describing how an old Christian man was struck with wooden clubs, stabbed, and then stoned to death
Others suffered a similar fate: a female convert was dragged through the city, beaten and stoned to death; an old woman named Apollonia had her teeth knocked out and was burned to death; and finally, a man named Serapeum was tortured, had his limbs broken, and was then thrown off the upper story of a building
If local pagan v. Christian riots weren’t enough, Philip the Arab dies in yet another civil war, and he is followed by Decius, who has the dubious honor of instituting the first empire-wide Christian persecution
Decius published an edict requiring citizens in the empire to sacrifice to the Roman gods, and upon sacrifice, the citizens were issued certificates verifying their loyalty
If they refused, then they were to be imprisoned, tortured, and then killed
Christians in Egypt responded to the edict and the call to sacrifice in a variety of ways
In another of Pope Dionysius preserved letters, he describes the atrocities committed against those who refused
How some had there flesh dissolved by quicklime, some were burned alive, and how many were imprisoned and tortured in hopes that they will relent and offer sacrifice
But also, he describes how some bribed officials for the certificate, or made their slaves do it for them, and if all else failed, some just capitulated under the pressure
The prosecution was systemic, intense, and empire wide.
But modern historians, as well as Pope Dionysus tone from the letter, imply that those who appeased the Romans far outnumbered the martyrs, yet the few martyrs left a lasting impact on the conscious of the emerging Coptic church
Under it, the bishop of Rome, the bishop of Jerusalem, and the bishop of Antioch were all imprisoned and killed
In this prosecution Origen was, also, imprisoned and tortured in Palestine and later died as a result of his wounds
Those who were imprisoned and tortured but didn’t die were known in Egypt as the “confessors”, who became a central figures in their community and had certain spiritual authority
Just like it started, the prosecution ended seemingly overnight when Decious died in battle against Germainc tribes 2 years into his reign
Now, the sharp observer would have noticed that while the bishops of all the major cities in the empire were imprisoned and killed, Pope Dionysus has escaped relatively unscathed
Thankfully, he left us a letter explaining what have happened. In his letters, he explains.
“I speak even as in the presence of God, and he knows whether I am lying. I did not give any thought to myself, nor did I conceive of my flight apart from God. But earlier, when the persecution had been instituted by Decius, Sabinus in that very hour sent a police agent to search for me, and I remained at home for four days awaiting his arrival. But even though he went around searching everywhere ... he was smitten with blindness and did not find the house. For he did not believe that I, being an object of persecution, would remain at home. It was only after four days, after God commanded me to change location and miraculously paved the way, that I went out, along with the young men and many of the brethren. The events that happened next during which perhaps I became useful to some demonstrated that this was a work of God's providence.”
The story then goes on, how he was caught by soldiers, but rescued against his wishes by a group of pagan villagers
Pope Dionysus through showing himself to be a bishop who had been dragged away from martyrdom only through divine intervention and under his protest shaped the view of the Coptic Church
He was the first pope to extol martyrs and used the concepts of holy suffering to shape the identity of the Coptic church as a church of heroic martyrs
His discourse could have been that by getting away he was able to maintain the leadership of the church, as the bishop of Carthage did
Or he could have sacrificed to the emperor, and maintained the position that it’s foolishness to die in vain as in the case of the bishop of Smyrna
But he chose and thereby influenced the church after him that martyrdom would be the best course of action
Again and again after him, martyrdom discourse would increasingly shape the church thinking
The prosecution also brought to light the problems of what to do with those who denied their faith under pressure as well as what status should the confessors have in the church now that the persecution was over
To complicate matters, some of the confessors, independent of the bishop, began welcoming those who had "lapsed" back into the church
In the Coptic work, the History of the Patriarchs, Pope Dionysus, is given the nickname, the wise. Perhaps due to his approach for the two problems
He advocated for clemency and readmission to those who denied their faith after the passing of a sufficient time and he wrote tirelessly to various bishops trying to convince them to do the same
He also, carefully cultivated a relationship with the confessors, and with time he brought them to be an agreement and under the authority of their bishops
One gets an image of Pope Dionysus as a diligent diplomat, constantly writing to bishops outside and inside Egypt to present a unified approach to problems facing the church
His times was very rough on emperors, church, soldiers, and peasants, all alike
When Decius died in battle, he left the army defeated, with the economy in tatters, and with enemies on all fronts
His immediate successor, Gallus, had way too many problems to worry about the Christians and the prosecution ended briefly
One of those problems was another brewing civil war, which Gallus was betrayed and killed by his army when they realized they are outnumbered, and soon after the rebel general was also betrayed and killed by his troops, when the future emperor Valerian arrived with even more troops
Valerian inherited the same problems, an essentially worthless currency, repels on every corner of the empire, an ascended Persian empire in the east, and non-stop barrage of Germanic tribes in the west
And if that wasn’t enough, he also decided to renew the prosecution of Decius, and in the process killed the Carthaginian bishop, St. Cyprian, who is our main historical source for the events
Under Valerian, Pope Dionysius was arrested, imprisoned, and eventually exiled to Libya
The situation on the ground for the average Egyptian was bleak
The political establishment in Alexandria was decimated by Carreclla’s massacre, and played no role whatsoever in the endless civil wars in the third century with a whole generation missing
After multiple currency devaluations, inflation was incredibly high, and imperial coins were worthless. As a result, trade suffered and in-kind exchanges replaced the much more efficient money based system
The army became an undisciplined gang of armed men, and their visits to towns and cities requesting what is basically protection money became a regular occurrence
Their extortion couldn’t be curtailed by the civil administers, as the quality of governance slipped by the eroding of civil institutions such as the Senate and the loss of legitimacy for the office of the emperor
For the wealthy elites, serving in a city council was avoided by any means as it usually meant that your property was going to get confiscated when you can’t deliver the money requested by the central government.
Which needed more and more money to fight through the endless civil wars and external invasions
To make matters worse, desert tribes in Egypt began to be emboldened and raid the Nile towns and cities, especially in upper Egypt
And with the tribes active, desert trade routes leading to the Red sea ports and then India via the sea became risky ventures that decreased in frequency and value – losing a vital source of revenue for Egypt and the Romans
So we are left with a leaderless, prosecuted church, farmers being extorted by the army or raided by Bedouin tribes, wealthy elites withdrawing from active participation in governing, and an emperor way over his head.
Did I also mention that there was also a plague going around the empire killing 5,000 people a day in Rome alone, so yea, the times were rough and, the fact that Pope Dionysius survived with head intact, and managed to guide his flock through two prosecution, multiple thorny issues, and diplomatically influence the universal church to accept a conciliatory tone toward those who denied their faith is quite an achievement
He also quietly dealt with a few heresies and of course laid the foundation of the martyr church. All in all, the renowned Coptic historian Aziz Atiya has no qualms about titling his entry in the Coptic Encyclopedia, as Dionysius the Great and I think in addition to the wise given to given to him by the History of the Patriarchs writers, I would humbly add, the Diplomat to that list as well.
Next week, Valerian will meet a curios fate, and the Roman Empire will be 3 empires. But, the Egyptians will perhaps given a brief respite from misery.
Farewell, and until next week.
The Early Coptic Papacy: The Egyptian Church and Its Leadership in Late Antiquity by" Stephen J. Davis
A History of Egypt under Roman Rule by" Joseph Grafton Milne
Life in Egypt Under Roman Rule by" Naphtali Lewis
The History of the Patriarchs by" multiple
The Coptic Encyclopedia by" Aziz S. Atiya (editor)
Alexandria in Late Antiquity: Topography and Social Conflict by" Christopher Haas
The Roman Empire from Severus to Constantine by" Pat Southern