Exile: Creating Orthodoxy in the Roman Empire

Exile: the banishment of a person or group from their home country, typically those who pose a threat to government and/or society. Exile has often been used by successive leaders and states to remove those who contradict their authority through words and actions. For the Roman Emperors of the fourth and fifth centuries, the use of exile was no different.

Following on from last week’s Religion & Law talk, on Weds 12th October Dr Julia Hillner traced the development of Christianity in the Roman Empire, and how the use of Imperial Law had unintended consequences for the establishment of Christian orthodoxy.

In the fourth century, the Roman Emperors exiled hundred of Christian clerics to far-flung and remote regions of the Empire (including the Isles of Scilly). The intention was to bring about their cultural alienation. But because their exile was within the Empire itself, many clerics were able to continue to spread the opinions for which they had been exiled.

A good example of this is provided by Athanasius of Alexandria. Athanasius had led the fight against a cleric named Arius, who argued that Christ was subordinate to God the Father.  Athanasius succeeded in having the Council of Nicaea in 325, called by the Emperor Constantine, condemn Arius’s beliefs as heretical.

Many people remained however attracted by Arius’s beliefs, and indeed Athanasius himself ended up being exiled. But Athanasius, and others like him, were able to make use of their exile to create new networks of support, particularly in the West of the Roman Empire. So when Arius’s beliefs were discussed again some sixty years later at the Council of Constantinople in 381, there were far fewer people willing to speak up for them. Athanasius’s exile had led to the spread of ideas, an unintended consequence of a law that was supposed to stop ideas from travelling, not promote them.

In the fifth century, however, the imperial government and Church Councils were able to wield more control over exiled clerics, as the example of Nestorius of Constantinople demonstrates. Nestorius argued that Jesus had two natures: one divine and one human, and that it was his human nature that was represented in his life on earth.

His arguments tapped into a great debate within Christianity, but because of disagreements with Cyril, the Bishop of Alexandria, he was condemned at the Council of Ephesus in 431 and initially exiled to his monastery at Antioch. But continued accusations against him led him to be exiled to numerous other places in Egypt, under ever closer surveillance by the Bishop of Alexandria, throughout the East until his death in circa 450. Unlike Athanasius, Nestorius was less able to use his exile to spread his ideas beyond his core supporters located in Syria. As a result, Athanasius’s theology is now fundamental to western Christianity, whereas Nestorius’s isn’t.

Exile then was a way for the Church and the Roman Emperor to attempt to create a Christian space and exclude anyone who did not agree. The exiling of clerics helped to shape the nature of Christian orthodoxy; an orthodoxy that would continue to define Christianity up to the present day.

For more information on Dr Julia Hillner’s work,  you can read about her project here.


The next talk in the series is on Wednesday 19th October at 1:15pm at Sheffield Cathedral, where Dr Charles West will discuss Clerical Exemption from the Law in the Middle Ages. For the full programme of talks, see here.

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