A 4th century power struggle played out across the Mediterranean world brought a minor sect of religious extremists to centre stage. Finding themselves on the winning side and cosseted within imperial residences, bishops of the Christian Church were able to impose their faith upon a demoralised population using all the sanctions of the State. And as the empire fragmented and fell, ambitious clerics of Christ disseminated a cancer of superstition, fear and brutality far beyond the old imperial frontiers.
The Real Barbarians
"Roman Egypt: Jewel in the Crown
The conquest of Egypt in 30 BC rewarded the caesars with a lavish prize – yet also considerable danger. Egypt was a source of immense accumulated wealth and exotic wonder but the relative ease with which this ancient land could be defended – and its strategic control of much of Rome's grain supply – made the province an ideal base from which to mount a bid for the throne. Vespasian in the troubled year of 68 had camped in Egypt, awaiting news from Rome. When Valerian was captured on the Persian front in 260 first the 'Macriani' usurpers and then Mussius Aemilianus had been hailed in Egypt. After the defection of the Kingdom of Palmyra in 273, Aurelian had faced a revolt in Alexandria. In 281, Julius Saturninus, a commander in Syria, was another who had been encouraged by the Alexandrians to seize power in the east (though soon after his bid he was assassinated). A serious rebellion led by Domitus Domitianus and Aurelius Achilleus in 296/298 had required Diocletian's personal intervention.
In anticipation of such dangers, Augustus had placed Egypt directly under his personal authority and no senator could even step foot in the province without his express approval. The treasury of the Ptolemies became the basis of Augustus's personal fortune.
The Conflicts of Alexandria
Unlike the forested lands of Gaul and Germany, in Egypt were cities that pre-dated the foundation of Rome by millennia. Demographically the province was divided between a sophisticated and urban 'foreign' element – mainly Greek and Jew – and the stubborn and superstitious native Egyptians. Within the many cities – and especially within Alexandria itself – cultural and commercial rivalry often brought the Greeks and Jews into conflict. Feuds, riots, and massacres were not infrequent.
The Romans were a pious people but in Egypt they faced religion on an epic scale. A rich and powerful caste of priests, unlike anything known in Rome, had historically been close to imperial power and still wove a spell from a vast array of fortress-like temples. Priestcraft, and the whole paraphernalia of temple commerce, thrived, even though, with the passing of the last of Ptolemies, they had lost their god-king.
In the main, the Egyptians were an under-class of rural labourers, alienated from the 'foreign landlords', occupying the cities. As a food source, the soil of the Nile Valley and the Faiyum oasis were amazingly fertile – a ten per cent grain levy was sufficient to feed Rome for four months of the year – but the producers saw little benefit.
With the transfer of power from Greeks to Romans the cycle of life appeared unchanging – but beneath the surface boiled a complex brew.
Civil Power versus Church Power
Augustus and his successors placed Alexandria under the rule of a Roman Prefect, or Governor, drawn from the equestrian rather than the senatorial class, an official who administered the province through mainly Greek civil servants. This had worked well but with the inauguration of a "Christian Monarchy" a second hierarchy of officials appeared, in conflict with the first.
Before the "Constantinian Revolution" it had been the policy of Rome to exercise great tolerance in religious matters, indeed to have little regard for popular superstitions. But from the 4th century onward, unorthodox thought became a crime and a burgeoning Church hierarchy, headed by a bishop, policed popular sentiments.
The duopoly meant that neither the Bishop nor the Prefect could unseat each other - both derived their power from the Emperor. But inevitably personalities came into conflict. In the early years of the 5th century these personalities were an urbane and educated pagan prefect called Orestes and an ambitious and fanatical bishop called Cyril. It was a clash between the classic liberality of antiquity and the vulgar intolerance of the New World Order of Christianity.
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