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Over the last few months I have been thinking a lot about a rebellious cleric. No, it wasn’t one of the so-called Muslim hate preachers that so excited recent public debates, but a man whose repeated banishments from his community in the fourth century AD arguably changed the history of Christianity. Athanasius, patriarch of Alexandria (328-373), was expelled no less than five times from the Egyptian city in the course of his quest to defend the decisions of the council of Nicaea, which had been held in 325 to define the Trinity. From a modern perspective it may be hard to understand why the question how Jesus relates to God the Father caused so much social and political trouble throughout the fourth century.[1] But cause trouble, and often violent trouble, it did.

Athanasius, in fact, was not the only cleric exiled as a consequence of his teaching, even if he was, perhaps, the most prominent. On my last count, some 160 heterodox churchmen were banished from their cities between 325 and 381, the year emperor Theodosius declared adherence to the Nicene creed the definitive statement of orthodox belief.

Few aspects of these exiles are comparable to contemporary cases of deportation of Muslim clerics from the UK. Banishment of fourth-century clerics, even though often called deportation (Latin: deportatio), was a legal penalty for an ‘enemy of the state’, not extradition to face trial in a different country (although these categories are sometimes conflated today). It was usually to a place within the same ‘country’, the Roman empire, and the authorities supported the same faith as those banished, just a different variety. This was internal religious conflict over the many shades of doctrinal truth, and a fair amount of social and political power over an only recently converted population, between men who shared the same cultural backgrounds. And, of course, the faith in question was a different one.

Still, the rhetoric surrounding the events of banishment has a familiar ring to it. Demand for deportation of a dissident cleric had most chances of success if it could be shown that the cleric in question was not only a religious troublemaker, but also a serious danger to social peace and order. Athanasius was banished in 335 mostly due to accusations of tampering with the grain supply, treason and inciting violence. He was also supposed to have cut off a bishop’s arm and used it for magic purposes. Luckily, Athanasius could convincingly demonstrate that this was a concocted plot, for he managed to bring the bishop before a church council with both of his arms intact (no need for this cleric, hence, to sport a pirate hook!). Whether accusations of violence had any foundations in reality is a moot point; what is clear is that their elaboration in writing and oratory served a rhetorical purpose to impress a judge. And, while there was no court of human rights, many involved in religious conflicts claimed alleged rights of immunity from certain acts of violence due to social status. According appeals to the emperor often prolonged legal procedures.

Fourth-century descriptions of geographic dimensions of banishment in legal and moralistic writing reflected the idea that, once the ties between dissident clerics and their communities were severed, the problem would go away. Dissident clerics were hence preferentially sent far away from their theatre of action, to the margins of the empire where they were to reside, it was hoped, among peasants, barbarians and pagans. In 335 Athanasius was sent to Gaul (modern-day France), presumably because from an Eastern point of view this was both remote and in no way comparable to the cosmopolitan and intellectual climate of Alexandria. Similarly, Western bishops were sent to the East in the fourth century, often to the Black Sea region.

History teaches us, however, that the outcome of banishment of dissident clerics at times defied its purpose. Athanasius, at least, used the time of his banishment in the West to forge invaluable contacts with Western bishops and to send letters back home to fortify his supporters. That ‘the West was won’ for the Nicene version of Christianity was also due to Athanasius’s presence there and the circulation of his writings. There is, at present, little research into the cultural encounters that the hundreds of other exiled dissident clerics in the fourth century engendered. Chances are that without them orthodox Christian doctrine may have looked very different at the end of the fourth century and, indeed, may look different today.

When I went to mass this past Christmas Day, I was asked, like millions of other people around the world on the same occasion, to recite the Nicene creed. Looking at the peaceful congregation around me I couldn’t help thinking how far we have come since the fourth century. But then, how far have we come?

The Roman empire of the fourth century was as global as one could get in that period, with an astonishing level of long-distance communication. The thought that the removal of a troublemaker to the other side of the Mediterranean would curb his influence might strike us as naïve, but it is a powerful testament to the fact that, for most fourth-century people, the short-term restoration of social peace in their local community was the most pressing issue at hand. Little thought was spent on what the removal of a troublemaker would mean to another community or, indeed, the empire at large. Today, we live in a world that is infinitely more global with levels of communication that have changed beyond all recognition. Are we really able, when we deport religious troublemakers, to also deport their influences from our society, as has been suggested on occasion, even if we trust other legal authorities to restrain them (as no doubt the Romans did)? If the fourth-century situation is anything to go by, they might be with us for a long time.

Julia Hillner is Lecturer in Medieval History at the University of Sheffield. Her book on Prison, Punishment and Penance in Late Antiquity is forthcoming with CUP.


[1] Suggestions for how to define this relationship ranged from ‘consubstantial’ (the version that has come to be known as ‘Nicene’), ‘of similar substance’, ‘similar’, or even ‘unlike’.

Tags : Abu QatadaAthanasiusbanishmentdeportationhistoryMuslim clerics
Julia Hillner

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