Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Flattery and Lies in the Early Church [Part Nine]


Up until now we have avoided the core issue to our investigation which is – did the Commodian government actively ‘encourage’ the transformation of contemporary religious culture in the direction of monarchianism? Or, perhaps more pointedly - did Marcia, Commodus’s beloved Christian concubine, actively manipulate the Roman Church to facilitate its embrace of the cosmocrator? The short answer here is that it is impossible to prove anything about the age given the lack of information which has come down to us. We can say however that there is evidence to suggest that Marci did have an influence on the shape of the Christianity because she rescued a man Brent describes as emerging as the greatest, fullest expression of the ‘monarchianism’ the Roman Church has ever known - the future bishop Callixtus.

Marcia rescued Callixtus, as is well known, from the mines during the reign of ‘Pope’ Victor. During the reign of Victor’s successor, Zephyrinus, Callixtus rose to ‘second in command’ – i.e. deacon – of the Church of Rome. Callixtus would assume the throne of St Peter itself at the end of Zephyrinus’s reign c. 218. History was changed thanks to the gracious effort of Commodus’s Christian concubine.

To Brent, Callixtus was a prime mover, the greatest advocate of a monarch bishop over all the house-churches of the fractionalised Roman community. Let us not forget after all that 218 CE was the year Varius Avitus Bassianus assumed the office of Emperor following the assassination of Caracalla, the son of Septimius Severus, the year before. Bassianus took the additional title of Elagabalus, the name of his favoured deity, and attempted to introduce into Rome the cult of Sol Invictus Elagabal, that is to say the cult of Sol Invictus in its specifically Syrian form, as the universal religion of the Empire.

Brent notes that this “attempt, characterised by the imposition of the specific ritual and priestly dress of the form of a cult that was alien to Roman culture, failed for that reason.” That is, it was not a failure of the process of syncretism itself, but the failure of a kind of religious fundamentalism. Brent sees the rise of Callixtus in the chair of St Peter as the ultimate parallel to these events. However he may be exaggerating the parallels insofar as there is no reason to think that Callixtus was radical in any way, shape or form. Callixtus merely took advantage of a Roman Church that had been already been systematically reshaped by monarchianism for almost two generations.

Brent is right in arguing that with Callixtus we have the ultimate realization towards a monarchical episcopate accompanied by an advocacy of monarchia in the godhead. He notes that Callixtus appeared to Tertullian as behaving like a pagan Pontifex Maximus in trying to become episcopus episcoporum – the bishop of bishops. Brent says that in doing so Callixtus, as putative bishop of Rome, was but making similar claims to those of the emperor Elagabalus, as Pontifex Maximus of a syncretism that found its final expression in the Baal of Emesa as Sol Invictus. Yet it is difficult to see how this understanding is as radical as Brent proposes it to be.

Already during the reign of Victor, the bishop of Rome attempted to wield his power in the dispute with the churches of Asia Minor over the calculation of Easter. It was Irenaeus who acted as ‘peacemaker’ during that dispute. Yet a careful reading of the Ignatius Epistles commonly recognized as ‘spurious’ makes clear that the Hero, the alleged successor to Ignatius, is being groomed for the chair of St Peter, with the title ‘deacon of the bishops’ which may be just as weaker attempt at the same ‘special office.’ The epistles themselves were probably written at the turn of the third century.

According to Brent’s artificial reconstruction of historical events, Callixtus and Elagabalus were two sides of the same monarchian coin. Callixtus was looking for the ultimate principle in the godhead from which all lesser beings or persons were derived, just as Elagabalus could find that principle in Sol Invictus. Both emperor and pope were reflecting, in their own way, ideals of imperial unity in the societies over which they claimed to have the right to rule. This is all true of course. But it is only the culmination of a long process that began with Commodus and Irenaeus, then the monarchian tradition clearly ran through the court of Septimius Severus.

Septimius Severus’s wife Julia Domna was the beautiful daughter of the high priest of the Syrian god Elagabalus. The Roman historian Dio Cassius references both Caracalla and Julia Domna as crafty "Syrians." Yet they were only refining ideas about the ultimate priniciple – i.e. monarchia – established since the time of Commodus. Brett points to images of Septimius Severus previously had appeared with those of Julia Domna his wife and aunt of Julia Mamaea on the arch at Leptis Magna (erected 203), where they represent Sarapis and Isis. The portrait types follow artistic depictions of the cult statue of Sarapis at the Alexandrian Sarapeum. McCann has pointed out that there is here a "single, powerful image of the syncretistic Jupiter-Sarapis" in which the claim to deification "had never before been so comprehensively and boldly stated . . . Jupiter, the ruler of the upper world, and Sarapis the god of the lower world . . . are fused in the image of the cosmocrator which appears on his coinage."

In keeping with his thesis about the developing monarchian theology emerging in Rome, Brent notes that although the Isis iconography is applied to Julia Domna, there is no application of the Sarapis iconography in isolation to Septimius Severus or his successors on the coinage itself. Rather the imagery of Sarapis as the sun god as counterpart to Isis his consort as moon goddess has been absorbed by a new developmental stage in the syncretism. The themes of cosmocrator combined with Sol Invictus now incorporate into a universal monotheism other deities who are but aspects of the One. Sol Invictus can have no consort as Sarapis had done, since Sol Invictus syncretises both Isis and Sarapis, Zeus and Hera, and the rest of the pantheon into the new solar monotheism.

The iconographic shift with its implied theology was to find support in contemporary philosophy of religion. The origins of that philosophy, which was to develop into fully fledged Neoplatonism with Plotinus, were undoubtedly within the imperial establishment itself. It is particularly significant that Brent points to Julia Domna as being the major influence in providing for the construction of a philosophy of nature and of history that would legitimate the ideology of the divine emperor in its specifically Severan form. Marcia can be argued to have had a similar role during the reign of Commodus with respect to the Christian community quite specifically, so too Julia’s niece Julia Mamaea during the ill-fated reign of Elagabalus.

In each case we see a core group of women developing actively developing a cult for their man while the Emperor himself was basically only concerned with debauchery. In Julia Domna’s case we are afforded the clearest view of how this propaganda machine operated. Brent notes that “it would be no exaggeration to describe as the Severan Reformation was a self-conscious quest for a philosophy of religion that would legitimate that (political) revolution.” Several denarii depict Julia Domna, wife of Septimius Severus, as he philosophos. She appears draped with hair raised and coiled at the back, and with the legend IVLIA AVGVSTA. Isis prefigures on the obverse, with Horus at her breast and with the legend SAECVLI FELICITAS S.C.

In the literary sources Julia emerges as concerned with a philosophical circle that she gathered around her, whilst she herself remained actively engaged in the affairs of state. Dio records that, when Plautianus became hostile, "she began to study philosophy on account of this and to consort with sophists." She was in charge of Septimius' correspondence and this lead to her holding receptions for prominent men, "but she still rather conducted philosophical discussion with them.” Certainly her role in these discussions was not a passive one. Philostratus describes how he is instructed, as a member of the circle around her, to correct the documents of memoirs of the life of Apollonius of Tyanna. It is with an evaluation of the cultural and philosophical life of the Severan age, in which Julia Domna and indeed her niece Julia Mamaea after her had such interest, and its contribution to the imperial ideology.

But the key thing again to pay attention to is that the women had philosophers acting almost as foot soldiers for the revolution …

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