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Century IV, Chapter XVI

CHAP. XVI.
THE CHURCH UNDER THEODOSIUS.

It will be proper to look a little more particularly ' at the conduct of this prince towards the Church. He had been preserved in his younger years from the jealousy of Valens, who, by some superstition,

• EpisU 34. and de obitu Valeotiniaui.

had been led to suspect those, whose names began Cent. with THE, and to seek their destruction. After - IV- , his exaltation to the empire from a private life by the generous and patriotic choice of Gratian, he reigned in the East, more vigorously supporting Christianity, according to his ideas of it, than any emperor before him. His sense of justice, however, determined him to order some Christians to rebuild at their own expense a Jewish synagogue, which they had tumultuously pulled down. I mention with concern, yet with historical veracity, that Ambrose prevailed on him to set aside this sentence, from a mistaken notion of piety, that Christianity should not be obliged to contribute to the erection of a Jewish synagogue. If the Jews were tolerated at all in the empire, the transaction ought certainly to have been looked on as a civil one. This is the first instance I recollect in which a good man was induced, by superstitious motives, to break the essential rules of justice ; and it marks the growth of superstition *. Nor is there any thing in the declamatory eloquence of Ambrose, which moves me to pass a different judgment.

The Luciferians still existing, entreated this emperor to grant them liberty of conscience; confessing themselves to be Christians, and contending that it was wrong in others to give them a sectarian name ; at the same time declaring that they coveted not the riches and grandeur of other churches, and in their censures not sparing Hilary of Poictiers and Athanasius. These last were doubtless men of great uprightness and integrity. What they themselves were is not so evident as it were to be wished, because of the scantiness of information. They speak with extraordinary respect of Gregory, bishop of Elvira, as the chief of their communion ; a man doubtless of high estimation, because Theodosius himself admits it, and grants them a legal toleration. I have * Epis. 29.

Chap- before spoken of this class of dissenters, among XVL , whom, I apprehend, it is probable, marks of the presence of God might be found, if their history had come down to us. But the reader who knows how slight our information of these things is, while church history dwells chiefly on what is scandalous, not what is excellent, will not be surprised at my silence. The sect itself vanished soon after.

Theodosius was of a passionate temper, and on a particular occasion was led by it to commit a barbarous action; the circumstances of the story will be. the best comment on the character of this emperor, of Ambrose, and of the times. At Thessalonica a tumult was made by the populace, and the emperor's officer was murdered. The news was calculated to try the temper of Theodosius, who ordered the sword to be let loose upon them. Ambrose interceded, and the emperor promised to forgive. But the great officers of the court persuaded him to retract, and to sign a warrant for military execution. It was executed with great cruelty. Seven thousand were massacred in three hours, without trial, and without distinction !

Ambrose * wrote him a faithful letter, reminding him of the charge in the prophecy, that if the priest does not warn the wicked he shall be answerable for itf. "You discover a zeal," says he, "for the faith and fear of God, I own : but your temper is warm, soon to be appeased indeed, if endeavours are used to calm it; but if not regulated, it bears down all before it." He urges the example of David, and shows the impropriety of communicating with him at present. " I love you," says he, " I cherish you, I pray for you; but blame not me, if I give the preference to God." On these principles Ambrose refused to admit Theodosius into the church of Milan. The emperor pleaded the case of David. " Imitate him," says the zealous bishop, " in his • Amb. Epis, 51. j Ezek. Hi. 18.

repentance, as well as in his sin." Theodosius submitted, and kept from the church eight months. On the feast of the nativity, he expressed his sorrow with sighs and tears in the presence of Ruffinus the master of the offices*. "I weep,-' said he, "that the temple of God, and consequently heaven, isshutfrom me, which is open to slaves and beggars." Ruffinus undertook to persuade the bishop to admit the emperor. Ambrose urged the impropriety of his rude interference, because Ruffinus, by his evil counsels, had been the author of the massacre. Ruffinus telling him, that the emperor was coming, "I will hinder him," says he, " from entering the vestibule ; yet if he will play the king, I shall offer him my throat." Ruffinus returning, informed the emperor ; " I will go, and receive the refusal which I desire," sayshe. And as he approached the bishop, he added, "J come to offer myself, to submit to what you prescribe." Ambrose enjoined him to do public penance, and to suspend the execution of capital warrants for thirty days in future, in order that the ill effects of intemperate anger might be prevented. The emperor-pulling oft'his imperial robes, prayed prostrate on the pavement, nor did he put on those robes, till the time of his penance was expired. " My soul cleaveth to the dust," said he, "quicken thou me, according to thy word." The people prayed and wept with him, and he not only complied with the rules of penance, but retained visible marks of compunction and sadness during the rest of his life.

Let us make as candid an estimate, as we can, of this extraordinary affair: I say, as we can. Moderns hardly can be sufficiently candid ; so different are our sentiments and views. It is certain that these rules of humiliation are too severe, too formal, and by no means properly calculated to instruct: the growth also of superstition, and the immoderate exercise of episcopal power, are both strikingly * Theodoret, B. V. c. 18.

evident. But what then ? Was Theodosius a mean abject prince, and Ambrose a haughty or hypocritical pontiff? Neither the one nor the other is true. The general life of the former evinces him a great and wise prince, who had the true fear of God before his eyes : and the latter thought he did no more than what the office, which he bore, required ; and his affectionate regard for the emperor, and sincere concern for his soul, appear evident. On the whole, the dicipline itself thus magnanimously exercised by Ambrose, and humbly submitted to by Theodosius, when stripped of its superstitions and formalities, was salutary. Who does not see, that the contempt of discipline in our days, among the great,has proved extremely pernicious to the interests of practical religion ?

After the murder of Valentinian> a person named Eugcnius usurped the empireof the West, who again erected the altar of Victory, and encouraged the Pagans; but their hopes were of short duration. Theodosius soon stripped him of his life and power, and thus became sole master of the Roman world. Under his authority the extirpation of idolatry was carried on with more decisive vigour than ever. At Alexandria the votaries of the renowned temple of Serapis made an insurrection, and murdered a number of Christians. The emperor, beinginformed of this, declared that he would not suffer the glory of their martyrdom to be stained with any executions, and that he was determined to pardon the murderers in hopes of their conversion, but that the temples, the cause of so much mischief, should be destroyed. There was a remarkable image of Serapis in the temple, of which it had been confidently given out, that if any man touched it, the earth would open, the heaven be dissolved, and all things run back into a general chaos. A soldier however, animated by Theophilus the bishop, was so hardy as to make the experiment. With an axe he cleft him down the jaws; an army of mice fled Cent. out at the breach he had made; and Serapis was , \u . hacked in pieces. On the destruction of idolatry in Egypt, it happened that the Nile did not overflow so plentifully, as it had been wont to do. It is, said the Pagans, because it is affronted at the prevailing impiety ; it has not been worshipped with sacrifice*, as it is used to be. Theodosius, being informed of this, declared like a man who believed in God, and preferred heavenly things to earthly; " We ought to prefer our duty to God to the streams of the Nile, and the cause of piety to the fertility of the country; let the Nile never flow again, rather than idolatry be encouraged." The event afforded a fine comment on our Saviour's words, " Seek ye first the kingdom of God, and all other things shall be added unto you." The Nile returned to its course, and rose above the highest mark, which, at other times, it seldom reached. The Pagans, overcome in argument, made use of ridicule, the great sanctuary of profaneness, and cried out in their theatres, that the old doting god was grown so weak, that he could not hold his water. Numbers, however, made a more serious use of the remarkable Providence, and Egypt forsook the superstition, in which for so many ages it had been involved. And thus the country which had nourished idolatry more early and more passionately than others, was made the special scene of the triumphs of God and his Christ.

Libanius, the friend of Julian, was yet alive, and held the office of Pretorian prefect under the emperor. The gentleness of this prince encouraged the sophist to present him with an oration in favour of the temples; in which he trode in the steps of Symmachus, and pleaded the cause of the gods, as well as so bad a subject would admit. It is remarkable, that he argued, " Religion ought to be planted * Sozom. B. VII. c. 20.

in men's minds by reason, not by force." Thus , Pagans could now talk, who for ages had acted toward Christians in so different a manner*. ' The writer of this oration was himself a palpable instance of the clemency of Christian governors compared with Pagan. He lived in a respectable situation, unmolested, the champion of expiring Paganism; and many others were treated in the same manner.

Coming to Rome, the zealous emperor in a deliberate speech endeavoured to persuade the senate, very many of whom still patronised idolatry, to embrace the Christian faith, as the only religion, which taught men how to obtain pardon of sin, and holiness of life. The Gentile part of them declared, that they would not give up a religion, under which Rome had prospered near twelve hundred years. Theodosius told them, that he saw no reason, why he should maintain their religion, and that he would not only cease to furnish the expense out of the exchequer, but abolish the sacrifices themselves. The senators complained, that the neglect of the rites was the grand cause, why the empire declined so much: a specious argument well calculated to gain upon worldly minds, and which had great effect on many Pagans at this time. We may see by and by, what a laboured and animated answer to it was written by one of the greatest and

* At this very time, while Theodosius treated Pagans with moderation, under a Christian establishment, the Christians were treated with unbounded cruelty under a Pagan establishment in Persia. The blameable zeal of Audas, a bishop, gave the first occasion to it. Moved with divine zeal, as he supposed, lie overturned a temple in which the sacred fire was keptf, Isdigerdes the king ordered him to rebuild it, which he refusing, the Christian Churches were ordered to be destroyed, and the man to be slain. A persecution thus commencing on specious grounds, was continued for thirty years with unremitting barbarity. The tortures of Christians were dreadful beyond measure; yet they persevered, and numbers voluntarily endured afflictions, for the joy of eternal life set before them.

t Called wiftw. See Theodorct, B. V. e. 39. Magdeburg. C«nt. 4. e. 3.

ablest of the fathers. Theodosius now made it a capital crime to sacrifice, or attend the Pagan rites. In vain did the patrons of idolatry exercise their parts and assiduity. The emperor was determined, and issued out a law that made it treasonable to offer sacrifice, or to consult the entrails of beasts *. Incense and perfumes were likewise forbidden. Paganism never lifted up its head after this; habit alone supported it; and objects of sense being removed, zeal was extinguished, and as Theodosius was not disposed to make martyrs, so no Pagans felt any inclination to become such. This great prince expired at Milan in the year 395, about sixty years of age, having reigned sixteen years. And the century before us nearly closes with the full establishment of Christianity in the Roman empire. The religion which was of God made its way through all opposition ; that which was of man, supported only by power and custom, failed to thrive, as soon as it lost the ascendant, and within a generation it ceased almost universally to exist among men.

The real character of Theodosius is by no means doubtful. For though the praises of Ambrose may be suspected, yet Aurelius Victor, a Gentile writer, must be credited, when he commends this emperor. His clemency, liberality and generosity were admirable. He was brave and successful in war; but his wars were forced upon him. He was an enemy to drunkenness, and was himself a model of gravity, temperance and chastity in private life. By a law he forbad minstrels and other servants of lewdness to attend at feasts. Thus he is represented by a contemporary, whose account is certainly to be preferred to that of a later writer, the partial Zozimus, who treats every Christian emperor with malignity. I see in Theodosius the triumphs of the Cross ; nor in all the Pagan history of the emperors was there one to be compared with him. They had no principles

* Cave's Introduction to the Lives of the Fathers, Vol. II.

to produce humility. The excess of anger was, as we have seen, his predominant evil; and his case teaches at once two lessons : one is, that the best men need to guard daily against their besetting sins; and the other is, that even our infirmities may be turned to good account by the promotion of our humility, and the Redeemer's glory.

Flaccilla, the wife of Theodosius, appears to have been a pious and humble person. She was constantly reminding him of the private and low condition, in which they had lived together before his advancement, and exhorting him to attend to the duties of religion. She herself was an edifying pattern of condescension and liberality. The sick, the afflicted, the poor, were relieved not only by her alms, but also by her benevolent attention and labour. Some representing to her, that it was beneath her dignity to take care of hospitals and the houses of mourning, she answered, "the distribution of gold indeed becomes the imperial dignity ; but I offer to him, who hath given me that dignity, my personal labours as a token of gratitude." That grace is strong indeed, which melts not under the beams of prosperity. Theodosius was once inclined to converse with Eunomius, an able Arian, who lived at Constantinople, and whom, on account of his heretical practices, he banished thence. But Flaccilla, who trembled for the salvation of her husband, (I speak seriously what Mr. Gibbon does scornfully, chap. xxvm. vol. ni.) dissuaded him from it. It is pleasant to see orthodox profession consistently united with virtuous practice ; this can only be the case where men are taught of God indeed. It ought to be known, that the emperor, who in the cause of God never yielded a tittle to heresy, in his own cause was soft and flexible, and with princely liberality supported the aged mother, and brought up the orphan daughters of the usurper Maximus.