The Great Events by Famous Historians, Vol 3

Author: J. L. von Mosheim  | Date: A.D. 325

First Nicene Council
Rise and Decline of Arianism

A.D. 325


Controversies in the Christian Church concerning the mystery of the Trinity began in the second century, prior to which the word trinity—a term not found in the Scriptures—had scarcely been used in Christian writings. It was prominently introduced by theologians of the second century, who employed new metaphysical methods in their attempts to explain the divine nature. The dispute turned upon the questions whether Christ was God or man or an intermediate being, whether or not he was created, and like inquiries. Arius, a deacon of Alexandria, early in the fourth century, held that Christ was a created being, though superior to all other created beings. The Son, he maintained, is of a nature similar to—not the same as—that of the Father, to whom the Son is subordinate. This heresy obtained such currency in the Church that, in 321, a provincial synod at Alexandria excommunicated Arius, who in his learned writings had set them forth since 318. Once started among the people, the controversy begun in the schools became very bitter, and in many of the churches partisans of the heretical view equalled in number those of the orthodox. Arius continued to publish his doctrines.

The Emperor Constantine, having become the patron of Christianity, conceived that the controversy might be settled by an assembly of the whole Church, and in the year 325 he convoked the first council of Nicaea, which was also the first ecumenical or general council of the entire Christian Church. At this Council, before which Arius defended his views, over three hundred bishops were in attendance, and pronounced in favor of the orthodox doctrine—that of the equality of the Son with the Father—and condemned the Arians to exile and their books to be burned. This Council also promulgated the Nicene Creed in its early form; and this is today the general Creed of almost all Christians. Hence, the First Nicene Council holds a large place in history for several reasons. It fixed the Christian Creed; it began the long series of Church Councils; and it rejected Arianism. It also recognized and emphasized the primacy of the Pope, or Bishop of Rome, though just how much real authority or leadership belonged to him is a point often in sharp dispute among writers of different faiths. Hence the following Protestant accounts are closed by a summary from the noted Roman Catholic historian, Dr. Alzog.

Some phases of Arianism long persisted, and have even reappeared in modern times. But the orthodox doctrine affirmed at Nicaea has prevailed in the great branches of the Christian Church, and the acceptance of its fundamental principle—that of the Incarnation—in the post-apostolic age was destined to have an incalculable influence upon the development of individual and national life, civil as well as religious, throughout the world.


In the year 317 a storm arose in Egypt which spread its ravages over the whole Christian world. The ground of this controversy was the doctrine of three persons in the Godhead, which during the three preceding centuries had not been in all respects defined. The doctors explained this subject in different ways, and gave various representations of the difference between the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, without offence being taken.

Alexander, the bishop of Alexandria—it is uncertain on what occasion—expressed himself very freely on this subject in a meeting of his presbyters, and maintained, among other things, that the Son possesses not only the same dignity as the Father, but also the same essence. But Arius, one of the presbyters, a man of an acute mind and fluent, at first denied the truth of Alexander’s positions, on the ground that they were allied to the Sabellian errors, which were condemned by the Church; and then, going to the opposite extreme, he maintained that the Son is totally and essentially distinct from the Father; that he was only the first and noblest of those created beings whom God the Father formed out of nothing, and the instrument which the Father used in creating the material universe, and therefore that he was inferior to the Father both in nature and in dignity. No one of the ancients has left us a connected and systematic account of the religion professed by Arius and his associates.

The opinions of Arius were no sooner divulged than they found very many abettors, and among them men of distinguished talents and rank, both in Egypt and the neighboring provinces. Alexander, on the other hand, accused Arius of blasphemy before two councils assembled at Alexandria, and cast him out of the Church. He was not discouraged by this disgrace; but retiring to Palestine he wrote various letters to men of distinction, in which he labored to demonstrate the truth of his doctrines, and with so much success that he drew over immense numbers to his side, and in particular Eusebius, bishop of Nicomedia, who was a man of vast influence. The emperor Constantine, who considered the discussion as relating to a matter of little importance and remote from the fundamentals of religion, at first addressed the disputants by letter, admonishing them to desist from contention. But when he found that nothing was effected by this measure, and that greater commotion was daily rising throughout the empire, he in the year 325 summoned that famous council of the whole Church which met at Nice in Bithynia, to put an end to this controversy. In this council, after various altercations and conflicts of the bishops, the doctrine of Arius was condemned, Christ was pronounced to be of the same essence with the Father, Arius was sent into exile in Illyricum, and his followers were compelled to assent to a creed or confession of faith composed by the council.

No part of church history, perhaps, has acquired more celebrity than this assembly of bishops at Nice to settle the affairs of the Church; and yet it is very singular that scarcely any part of ecclesiastical history has been investigated and explained more negligently. The ancient writers are not agreed as to the time and year, nor the place, nor the number of the judges, nor the president of this council, nor as to many other particulars. No written journal of the proceedings of this venerable tribunal was kept—at least none has reached us. How many and what canons or ecclesiastical laws were enacted is not agreed on by the Eastern and Western Christians. The latter tell us they were only twenty in number, but the orientals make them far more numerous. From the canons universally received, and from the other monuments of the council, it appears not only that Arius was condemned, but that other things were decreed, with a view to settle the affairs of the Church. In particular, the controversy respecting the time of celebrating Easter, which had long perplexed Christians, was terminated; the jurisdiction of the greater bishops was defined, and several other matters of a like nature were determined.

But the passions of men were more efficient than either the decrees of the Nicene Council or the authority of the Emperor; for there were those who, though they did not fall in with the doctrine of Arius, yet were dissatisfied with some things in the decrees and the creed of the council, and the Arians left no means untried to free themselves from the evils inflicted on them by those decrees. And the issue was favorable to their wishes; for in a few years after the Nicene Council an Arian presbyter whom Constantia, the Emperor’s sister, at her death had recommended to the care of her brother, succeeded in persuading Constantine the Great that Arius had been wrongfully condemned from personal enmity. Accordingly, in the year 330, the Emperor recalled Arius from exile, rescinded the decrees passed against his associates and friends, and permitted Eusebius of Nicomedia, the principal supporter of Arius, and his powerful faction, now thirsting for revenge, to persecute the defenders of the Nicene Council. They assailed no one more fiercely than Athanasius, the bishop of Alexandria. When he could in no way be brought to restore Arius to his former honors and ecclesiastical standing, Athanasius was first deprived of his office, in a council held at Tyre, A.D. 335, and then banished to Gaul, while in the same year, by a numerous council held at Jerusalem, Arius and his friends were solemnly admitted to the communion of the Church. But by none of these proceedings could the Alexandrians be induced to receive Arius among their presbyters. Accordingly the Emperor called him to Constantinople, in the year 336, and ordered Alexander, the bishop of that city, to open the doors of his church to him. But before that could take place Arius died at Constantinople in a tragical manner;1

and the Emperor himself closed life shortly after.

After the death of Constantine the Great, one of his sons, Constantius, the Emperor of the East, with his wife and his court, was very partial to the Arian cause, but Constantine and Constans supported in the western parts, where they governed, the decisions of the Nicene Council. Hence the broils, the commotions, the plots, the injuries had neither measure nor bounds, and on both sides councils were assembled to oppose councils. Constans died in the year 350, and two years afterward a great part of the West, particularly Italy and Rome, came under the dominion of his brother Constantius. This revolution was most disastrous to the friends of the Nicene Council; for this Emperor, being devoted to the Arians, involved the others in numerous evils and calamities, and by threats and punishments compelled many of them to apostatize to that sect to which he was himself attached. The Nicene party made no hesitation to return the same treatment as soon as time, place, and opportunity were afforded them, and the history of Christianity under Constantius presents the picture of a most stormy period, and of a war among brethren which was carried on without religion or justice or humanity.

On the death of Constantius, in the year 362, the prosperous days of the Arians were at an end. Julian had no partiality for either, and therefore patronized neither the Arians nor the orthodox. Jovian espoused the orthodox sentiments, and therefore all the West, with no small part of the East, rejecting Arian views, reverted to the doctrines of the Nicene Council, But the scene was changed under the two brothers Valentinian and Valens, who were advanced to the government of the Empire in the year 364. Valentinian adhered to the decisions at Nice, and therefore in the West the Arian sect, a few churches excepted, was wholly extirpated. Valens, on the contrary, took sides with the Arians, and hence in the eastern provinces many calamities befell the orthodox. But when this Emperor had fallen in a war with the Goths, A.D. 378, Gratian—who succeeded Valentinian in the West, in the year 376, and became master of the whole empire in 378—restored peace to the orthodox. After him Theodosius the Great, by depriving the Arians of all their churches and enacting severe laws against them, caused the decisions of the Nicene Council to triumph everywhere, and none could any longer publicly profess Arian doctrines except among the barbarous nations, the Goths, the Vandals, and the Burgundians. That there were great faults on both sides in this long and violent contest no candid person can deny, but which party was guilty of the greatest wrong it is difficult to say.

The Arians would have done much more harm to the Church if they had not become divided among themselves, after the Nicene Council, and split into sects which could not endure each other. Unhappily the Arian contests produced, as was very natural, some new sects. Some persons, while eager to avoid and to confute the opinions of Arius, fell into opinions equally dangerous. Others, after treading in the footsteps of Arius, ventured on far beyond him and became still greater errorists. The human mind, weak and subject to the control of the senses and the imagination, seldom exerts all its energies to comprehend divine subjects in such a manner as to be duly guarded against extremes. In the former class I would reckon Apollinaris the Younger, bishop of Laodicea, though otherwise a man of great merit, and one who in various ways rendered important service to the Church. He manfully asserted the divinity of Christ against the Arians, but by philosophizing too freely and too eagerly he almost set aside the human nature of the Saviour. This great man was led astray, not merely by the ardor of debate, but likewise by his immoderate attachment to the Platonic doctrine concerning a twofold soul, from which if the divines of the age had been free they would have formed more wise and more correct judgments on many points. The doctrine of Apollinaris met the approbation of many in nearly all the eastern provinces, and, being explained in different ways, it became a source of new sects. But as it was assailed by the laws of the emperors, the decrees of councils, and the writings of learned men, it gradually sunk under these united assaults.

At the head of those whom the contests with Arius led into still greater errors may undoubtedly be placed Photinus, bishop of Sirmium, who in the year 343 advanced opinions concerning God equally remote from those of the orthodox and those of the Arians. The temerity of the man was chastened not only by the orthodox, in their councils of Antioch in 345, of Milan in 347, and of Sirmium, but also by the Arians in a council held at Sirmium in 331. He was deprived of his office, and died in exile in the year 372. After him Macedonius, bishop of Constantinople, a distinguished semi-Arian teacher, being deprived of his office by the Council of Constantinople, in the year 360, in his exile founded the sect of the Pneumatomachi. He openly professed that the Holy Spirit is a divine energy diffused throughout the universe, and not a person distinct from the Father and the Son. This doctrine was embraced by many in the Asiatic provinces; but the Council of Constantinople, assembled by Theodosius the Great, in the year 381, and which is commonly considered as the second ecumenical council, early dissipated by its authority this young and immature sect. One hundred and fifty bishops present in this council defined fully and perfectly the doctrine of three persons and one God, as it is still professed by the great body of Christians, which the Nicene Council had only in part performed. They also anathematized all the heresies then known.

In the fifth century the Arians, oppressed and persecuted by the imperial edicts, took refuge among those barbarous nations who gradually overturned the Roman Empire in the West, and found among the Goths, Heruli, Suevi, Vandals, and Burgundians a fixed residence and a quiet retreat. Being now safe, they treated the orthodox with the same violence which the orthodox had employed against them and other heretics, and had no hesitation about persecuting the adherents to the Nicene doctrines in a variety of ways. The Vandals, who had established their kingdom in Africa, surpassed all the rest in cruelty and injustice. At first Genseric, their king, and then Huneric, his son, demolished the temples of such Christians as maintained the divinity of the Saviour, sent their bishops into exile, mutilated many of the more firm and decided, and tortured them in various ways; and they expressly stated that they were authorized to do so by the example of the emperors, who had enacted similar laws against the Donatists in Africa, the Arians, and others who dissented from them in religion.

At the beginning of the sixth century the Arians were triumphant in some parts of Asia, Africa, and Europe. Not a few of the Asiatic bishops favored them. The Vandals in Africa, the Goths in Italy, many of the Gauls, the Suevi, the Burgundians, and the Spaniards openly espoused their interests. The Greeks indeed, who approved of the Nicene Council, oppressed and also punished them wherever they were able; but the Arians returned the like treatment, especially in Africa and Italy. Yet this prosperity of the Arians wholly terminated when, under the auspices of Justinian, the Vandals were driven from Africa and the Goths from Italy. For the other Arian kings, Sigismund, king of the Burgundians, Theodimir, king of the Suevi in Lusitania, and Receared, king of Spain, without violence and war, suffered themselves to be led to a renunciation of the Arian doctrine, and to efforts for its extirpation among their subjects by means of legal enactments and councils. Whether reason and arguments or hope and fear had the greater influence in the conversion of these kings, it is difficult to say; but it is certain that the Arian sect was from this time dispersed and could never after recover any strength.


The delegates to the council assembled in the first instance in one of the chief buildings of Nicaea, apparently for the purpose of a thanksgiving and a religious reunion. Whether it was an actual church may be questioned. Christians, no doubt, there had been in Bithynia for some generations. Already in the second century Pliny had found them in such numbers that the temples were deserted and the sacrifices neglected. But it would seem that on this occasion a secular building was fitted up as a temporary house of prayer. At least the traditional account of the place where their concluding prayers were held exactly agrees with Strabo’s account of the ancient gymnasium of Nicaea.

It was a large building, shaped like a basilica, with an apsis at one end, planted in the centre of the town, and thus commanding down each of the four streets a view of the four gates, and therefore called Mesomphalos, the "Navel" of the city. Whether, however, this edifice actually was a church or not, its use as such on this occasion served as a precedent for most of the later councils. From the time of the Council of Chalcedon, they have usually been held within the walls of churches. But for this the first council, the church, so far as it was a church, was only used as the beginning and the end. After these thanksgivings were over, the members of the assembly must have been collected according to the divisions which shall now be described.

The group which, above the rest, attracts our attention, is the deputation from the Church of Egypt. Shrill above all other voices, vehement above all other disputants, "brandishing their arguments," as it was described by one who knew them well, "like spears, against those who sate under the same roof and ate off the same table as themselves," were the combatants from Alexandria, who had brought to its present pass the question which the council was called to decide. Foremost in the group in dignity, though not in importance or in energy, was the aged Alexander, whose imprudent sermon had provoked the quarrel, and whose subsequent vacillation had encouraged it. He was the bishop, not indeed of the first, but of the most learned, see of Christendom. He was known by a title which he alone officially bore in that assembly. He was "the Pope." "The Pope of Rome" was a phrase which had not yet emerged in history. But "Pope of Alexandria" was a well-known dignity. Papa, that strange and universal mixture of familiar endearment and of reverential awe, extended in a general sense to all Greek presbyters and all Latin bishops, was the special address which, long before the name of patriarch or of archbishop, was given to the head of the Alexandrian Church.

In the Patriarchal Treasury at Moscow is a very ancient scarf or omophorion, said to have been given by the bishop of Nicaea in the seventeenth century to the czar Alexis, and to have been left to the Church of Nicaea by Alexander of Alexandria. It is white, and is rudely worked with a representation of the Ascension; possibly an allusion to the first Sunday of their meeting. This relic, true or false, is the nearest approach we can now make to the bodily presence of the old theologian. The shadow of death is already upon him; in a few months he will be beyond the reach of controversy.

But close beside the pope Alexander is a small insignificant young man, of hardly twenty-five years of age, of lively manners and speech, and of bright, serene countenance. Though he is but the deacon, the chief deacon, or archdeacon, of Alexander, he has closely riveted the attention of the assembly by the vehemence of his arguments. He is already taking the words out of the bishop’s mouth, and briefly acting in reality the part he had before, as a child, acted in name, and that in a few months he will be called to act both in name and in reality. In some of the conventional pictures of the council his humble rank as a deacon does not allow of his appearance. But his activity and prominence behind the scenes made enemies for him there, who will never leave him through life. Anyone who had read his passionate invectives afterward may form some notion of what he was when in the thick of his youthful battles. That small, insignificant deacon is the great Athanasius.

Next after the pope and deacon of Alexandria we must turn to one of its most important presbyters—the parish priest of its principal church, which bore the name of Baucalis, and marked the first beginnings of what we should call a parochial system. In appearance he is the very opposite of Athanasius. He is sixty years of age, very tall and thin, and apparently unable to support his stature; he has an odd way of contorting and twisting himself, which his enemies compare to the wrigglings of a snake. He would be handsome but for the emaciation and deadly pallor of his face, and a downcast look, imparted by a weakness of eyesight. At times his veins throb and swell and his limbs tremble, as if suffering from some violent internal complaint—the same, perhaps, that will terminate one day in his sudden and frightful death. There is a wild look about him, which at first sight is startling. His dress and demeanor are those of a rigid ascetic. He wears a long coat with short sleeves, and a scarf of only half size, such as was the mark of an austere life; and his hair hangs in a tangled mass over his head. He is usually silent, but at times breaks out into fierce excitement, such as will give the impression of madness. Yet with all this there are a sweetness in his voice and a winning, earnest manner which fascinates those who come across him. Among the religious ladies of Alexandria he is said to have had from the first a following of not less than seven hundred. This strange, captivating, moon-struck giant is the heretic Arius, or, as his adversaries called him, the madman of Ares or Mars. Close beside him was a group of his countrymen, of whom we know little, except their fidelity to him through good report and evil: Saras, like himself a presbyter, from the Libyan province; Euzoius, a deacon of Egypt; Achillas, a reader; Theonas, bishop of Marmarica in the Cyrenaica; and Secundus, bishop of Ptolemais in the Delta.

These were the most remarkable deputies from the Church of Alexandria. But from the interior of Egypt came characters of quite another stamp; not Greeks, nor Grecized Egyptians, but genuine Copts, speaking the Greek language not at all, or with great difficulty; living half or the whole of their lives in the desert; their very names taken from the heathen gods of the times of the ancient Pharaohs. One was Potammon, bishop of Heracleopolis, far up the Nile; the other, Paphnutius, bishop of the Upper Thebaid. Both are famous for the austerity of their lives. Potammon—that is, "dedicated to Ammon"—had himself visited the hermit Antony; Paphnutius—that is, "dedicated to his God"—had been brought up in a hermitage. Both, too, had suffered in the persecutions. Each presented the frightful spectacle of the right eye dug out with iron. Paphnutius, besides, came limping on one leg, his left having been hamstrung.

Next in importance must be reckoned the bishop of Syria and of the interior of Asia; or, as they are sometimes called in the later councils, the Eastern bishops, as distinguished from the Church of Egypt. Then, as afterward, there was a rivalry between those branches of oriental Christendom; each, from long neighborhood, knowing each, yet each tending in an opposite direction till, after the Council of Chalcedon, a community of heresy drew them together again. Here, as in Egypt, we find two classes of representatives—scholars from the more civilized cities of Syria; wild ascetics from the remoter East. The first in dignity was the orthodox Eustathius, who either was, or was on the point of being made, bishop of the capital of Syria, the metropolis of the Eastern Church, Antioch, then called "the city of God." He had suffered in heathen persecutions, and was destined to suffer in Christian persecutions also. But he was chiefly known for his learning and eloquence, which was distinguished by an antique simplicity of style. One work alone has come down to us on the "Witch of Endor."

Next in rank and far more illustrious was his chief suffragan, the metropolitan of Palestine, the bishop of Caesarea, Eusebius. We honor him as the father of ecclesiastical history, as the chief depositary of the traditions which connect the fourth with the first century. But in the bishops of Nicaea his presence awakened feelings of a very different kind. He alone of the eastern prelates could tell what was in the mind of the Emperor; he was the clerk of the imperial closet; he was the interpreter, the chaplain, the confessor of Constantine. And yet he was on the wrong side. Two especially, we may be sure, of the Egyptian Church, were on the watch for any slip that he might make. Athanasius—whatever may have been the opinions of later times respecting the doctrines of Eusebius was convinced that he was at heart an Arian. Potammon of the one eye had known him formerly in the days of persecution, and was ready with that most fatal taunt, which, on a later occasion, he threw out against him, that, while he had thus suffered for the cause of Christ, Eusebius had escaped by sacrificing to an idol.

If Eusebius was suspected of Arianism, he was supported by most of his suffragan bishops in Palestine, of whom Paulinus of Tyre, and Patrophilus of Bethshan (Scythopolis) were the most remarkable. One, however, a champion of orthodoxy, was distinguished, not in himself, but for the see which he occupied—once the highest in Christendom, in a few years about to claim something of its former grandeur, but at the time of the council known only as a second-rate Syro-Roman city—Macarius, bishop of Ælia Capitolina, that is, "Jerusalem."

From Neocaesarea, a border fortress on the Euphrates, came its confessor bishop, Paul, who, like Paphnutius and Potammon, had suffered in the persecutions, but more recently under Licinius. His hands were paralyzed by the scorching of the muscles of all the fingers with red-hot iron. Along with him were the orthodox representatives of four famous churches, who, according to the Armenian tradition, travelled in company. Their leader was the marvel, "the Moses" as he was termed, of Mesopotamia, James, or Jacob, bishop of Nisibis. He had lived for years as a hermit on the mountains—in the forests during the summer, in caverns during the winter—browsing on roots and leaves like a wild beast, and like a wild beast clothed in a rough goat-hair cloak. This dress and manner of life, even after he became bishop, he never laid aside; and the mysterious awe which his presence inspired was increased by the stories of miraculous powers which, we are told, he exercised in a manner as humane and playful as it was grotesque; as when he turned the washerwoman’s hair white, detected the impostor who pretended to be dead, and raised an army of gnats against the Persians. His fame as a theologian rests on disputed writings.

The second was Ait-allaha—"the brought of God," like the Greek "Theophorus"—who had just occupied the see of Edessa, and finished the building of the cemetery of his cathedral.

The third was Aristaces, said to be the cousin of Jacob of Bisibis and son of Gregory the Illuminator, founder of the Armenian Church. He represented both his father and the bishop and Tiridates, the king of Armenia; the bishop and King having received a special invitation from Constantine, and sent their written professions of faith by the hands of Aristaces.

The fourth came from beyond the frontier, the sole representative of the more distant East, "John the Persian," who added to his name the more sounding title—here appearing for the first time, but revived in our own days as the designation of our own bishops of Calcutta—"Metropolitan of India."

A curious tradition related that this band, including eleven other names from the remote East, were the only members of the Nicene Council who had not sustained some bodily mutilation or injury.

As this little band advanced westward, they encountered a remarkable personage, who stands at the head of the next group which we meet—the prelates of Asia Minor and Greece. Thin was Leontius of Caesarea in Cappadocia. From his hands, it was said, Gregory of Armenia had received ordination, and from his successors in the see of Caesarea had desired that every succeeding bishop of Armenia should receive ordination like-wise. For this reason, it may be, Aristaces and his company sought them out. They found Leontius already on his journey, and they overtook him at a critical moment. He was on the point of baptizing another Gregory, father of a much more celebrated Gregory, the future bishop of Nazianzen. A light, it was believed, shone from the water, which was only discerned by the sacred travellers.

Leontius was claimed by the Arians, but still more decidedly by the orthodox. Others, of the same side, are usually named as from the same region, among them Hypatius of Gangra, whose end we shall witness at the close of these events, and Hermogenes the deacon, afterward bishop of Caesarea, who acted as secretary of the council.

Eusebius of Nicomedia, afterward of Constantinople, Theognis of Nicaea, Maris of Chalcedon, and Menophantus of Ephesus, were among the most resolute defenders of Arius. It is curious to reflect that they represent the four sees of the four orthodox councils of the Church. The three last named soon vanish away from history. But Eusebius of Nicomedia, friend, namesake, perhaps even brother of the bishop of Caesarea, was a personage of high importance both then and afterward. As Athanasius was called "the Great" by the orthodox, so was Eusebius by the Arians. Even miracles were ascribed to him, originally bishop of Beyruth (Berytus), he had been translated to the see of Nicomedia, then the capital of the Eastern Empire. He had been a favorite of the Emperor’s rival Licinius, and had thus become intimate with Constantia, the Emperor’s sister, the wife, now the widow of Licinius. Through her and through his own distant relationship with the imperial family he kept a hold on the court which he never lost, even to the moment when he stood by the dying bed of the Emperor, years afterward, and received him into the Church. We must not be too hard on the Christianity of Eusebius, if we wish to vindicate the baptism of Constantine.

Not far from the great prelate of the capital of the East would be the representative of what was now a small Greek town, but in five years from that time would supersede altogether the glories of Nicomedia. Metrophanes, bishop of Byzantium, was detained by old age and sickness, but Alexander, his presbyter, himself seventy years of age, was there with a little secretary of the name of Paul, not more than twelve years old, one of the readers and collectors of the Byzantine Church. Alexander had already corresponded with his namesake on the Arian controversy, and was apparently attached firmly to the orthodox side.

Besides their more regular champions the orthodox party of Greece and Asia Minor had a few very eccentric allies. One was Acesius, the Novatian, "the Puritan," summoned by Constantine from Byzantium with Alexander, from the deep respect entertained by the Emperor for his ascetic character. He was attended by a boy, Auxanon, who lived to a great age afterward as a presbyter in the same sect. This child was then living with a hermit, Eutychianus, on the heights of the neighboring mountain of the Bithynian Olympus, and he descended from these solitudes to attend upon Acesius. From him we have obtained some of the most curious details of the council.

Marcellus, Bishop of Ancyra, was among the bishops, the fiercest opponent of Arius, and, when the active deacon of Alexandria was not present, seems to have borne the brunt of the arguments. Yet, if we may judge from his subsequent history, Athanasius could never have been quite at ease in leaving the cause in his hands. He was one of those awkward theologians who never could attack Arianism without falling into Sabellianism; and in later life he was twice deposed from his see for heresy, once excommunicated by. Athanasius himself; and in the present form of the Nicene Creed one clause—that which asserts that "the kingdom of Christ shall have no end"—is said to have been expressly aimed at his exaggerated language.

And now come two, who in the common pictures of the council always appear together, of whom the one probably left the deepest impression on his contemporaries; and the other, if he were present at all, on the subsequent traditions of the council. From the island of Cyprus there arrived the simple shepherd Spyridion, a shepherd both before and after his elevation to the episcopate. Strange stories were told by his fellow-islanders to the historian Socrates of the thieves who were miraculously caught in attempting to steal his sheep, and of Spyridion’s good-humored reply when he found them in the morning, and gave them a ram, that they might not have sat up all night for nothing.

Another tale, exactly similar to the fantastic Mussulman legends which hand about stories of Jerusalem, told how he had gained an answer from his dead daughter Irene to tell where a certain deposit was hidden. Two less marvellous, but more instructive, stories bring out the simplicity of his character. He rebuked a celebrated preacher at Cyprus for altering, in a quotation from the gospels, the homely word for "bed" into "couch." "What! are you better than He who said `bed,’ that you are ashamed to use his words?" On occasion of a way-worn traveller coming to him in Lent, finding no other food in the house, he presented him with salted pork; and when the stranger declined, saying that he could not as a Christian break his fast: "So much the less reason," he said, "have you for scruple; to the pure all things are pure."

A characteristic legend attaches to the account of his journey to the council. It was his usual practice to travel on foot. But on this occasion the length of the journey, as well as the dignity of his office, induced him to ride, in company with his deacon, on two mules, a white and a chestnut. One night at his arrival at a caravansary where a cavalcade of orthodox bishops were already assembled, the mules were turned out to pasture, while he retired to his devotions. The bishops had conceived an alarm lest the cause of orthodoxy should suffer in the council by the ignorance or awkwardness of the Shepherd of Cyprus when opposed to the subtleties of the Alexandrian heretic. Accordingly, taking advantage of his encounter, they determined to throw a decisive impediment in his way. They cut off the heads of his two mules, and then, as is the custom in oriental travelling, started on their journey before sunrise. Spyridion also rose, but was met by his terrified deacon announcing the unexpected disaster. On arriving at the spot the saint bade the deacon attach the heads to the dead bodies. He did so, and at a sign from the bishop the two mules with their restored heads shook themselves as if from a deep sleep, and started to their feet. Spyridion and the deacon mounted and soon overtook the travellers. As the day broke the prelates and the deacon were alike astonished at seeing that he, performing the annexation in the dark and in haste, had fixed the heads on the wrong shoulders, so that the white mule had now a chestnut head, and the chestnut mule had the head of its white companion. Thus the miracle was doubly attested, the bishops doubly discomfited, and the simplicity of Spyridion doubly exemplified.

Many more stories might be told of him, but, to use the words of an ancient writer who has related some of them, "from the claws you can make out the lion." Of all the Nicene fathers, it may yet be said that in a certain curious sense he is the only one who has survived the decay of time. After resting for many years in his native Cyprus his body was transferred to Constantinople, where it remained till a short time before the fall of the empire. It was thence conveyed to Corfu, where it is still preserved. Hence by a strange resuscitation of fame he has become the patron saint, one might almost say the divinity, of the Ionian Islands. Twice a year in solemn procession he is carried round the streets of Corfu. Hundreds of Corfutes bear his name, now abridged into the familiar diminutive of "Spiro." The superstitious veneration entertained for the old saint is a constant source of quarrel between the English residents and the native Ionians. But the historian may be pardoned for gazing with a momentary interest on the dead hands, now black and withered, that subscribed the Creed of Nicaea.

Still more famous—and still more apocryphal, at least in his attendance at Nicaea—is Nicolas, bishop of Myra. Not mentioned by a single ancient historian, he yet figures in the traditional pictures of the council as the foremost figure of all. Type as he is of universal benevolence to sailors, to thieves, to the victims of thieves, to children—known by his broad red face and flowing white hair—the traditions of the East always represent him as standing in the midst of the assembly, and suddenly roused by righteous indignation to assail the heretic Arius with a tremendous box on the ear.

One more group of deputies closes the arrivals. The Nicene Council was a council of the Eastern Church, and Eastern seemingly were at least three hundred and ten of the three hundred and eighteen bishops. But the West was not entirely unrepresented. Corresponding to John the Persian from the extreme East was Theophilus the Goth from the extreme North. His light complexion doubtless made a marked contrast with the tawny hue and dark hair of almost all the rest. They rejoiced to think that they had a genuine Scythian among them. From all future generations of his Teutonic countrymen he may claim attention as the predecessor and teacher of Ulphilas, the great missionary of the Gothic nation.

If any of the distant Orientals had hoped to catch a sight of the bishop of the "Imperial City," they were doomed to disappointment. Doubtless had he been there his position as prelate of the capital would have been, if not first, at least among the first. But Sylvester was now far advanced in years; and in his place came the two presbyters, who, according to the arrangement laid down by the Emperor, would have accompanied him had he been able to make the journey. In this simple deputation later writers have seen—and perhaps by a gradual process the connection might be traced—the first germ of legati a latere. But it must have been a very far-seeing eye which in Vitus and Vincentius, the two unknown elders, representing their sick old bishop, could have detected the predecessors of Pandulf or of Wolsey. With them, however, was a man who, though now long forgotten, was then an object of deeper interest to Christendom than any bishop of Rome could at that time have been. It was the world-renowned Spaniard, as he is called by Eusebius; the magician from Spain, as he is called by Zosimus; Hosius, bishop of Cordova. He was the representative of the westernmost of European churches; but, as Eusebius of Caesarea was the chief counsellor of the Emperor in the Greek Church, so was Hosius in the Latin.

The enumeration of the characters just given shows that there were two very `different elements in the assembly. A large number, perhaps the majority, consisted of rough, simple, almost illiterate men, like Spyridion the shepherd. These men; when suddenly brought into collision with the acutest and most learned disputants of the age, naturally took up the position that the safest course was to hold by what had been handed down, without any further inquiry or explanation.

A story somewhat variously told is related of an encounter of one of these simple characters with the more philosophical combatants, which, in whatever way it be taken, well illustrates the mixed character of the council, and the choice of the courses open before it. As Socrates describes the incident, the disputes were running so high, from the mere pleasure of argument, that there seemed likely to be no end, when suddenly a simple-minded layman, who by his sightless eye or limping leg bore witness of his zeal for the Christian faith, stepped among them and abruptly said, "Christ and the apostles left us not a system of logic nor a vain deceit, but a naked truth to be guided by faith and good works."

This tradition grew in later times into the form which it bears in all the pictures of the council, and which is commemorated in the services of the Greek Church. Aware of his incapacity for argument, the layman took a brick and said: "You deny that three can be one. Look at this: it is one, and yet it is composed of the three elements of fire, earth, and water." As he spoke the brick resolved itself into its component parts; the fire flew upward, the day remained in his hand, and the water fell to the ground. The philosopher, or, according to some accounts, Arius himself was so confounded as to deciare himself converted on the spot.


Constantine the Great, who was still a catechumen, imagining that the controversy over Arianism was a trivial matter, involving no more than a conflict over the meaning of words, which, taken in any of the controverted senses, would come to about the same thing, ridiculed the quarrel as one in which "plebeians" might indulge indeed, but which was "childish and unworthy the dignity of priests."

Hosius, Bishop of Cordova, however, made him throughly conversant with the importance of the question at issue. The Emperor, who had overcome all his foreign enemies, and had just triumphed at the battle of Byzantium (A.D. 323) over Licinius, a persecutor of the Christians, wished also to put an end to these growing dissensions of the Christian Church. Upon the advice of the most eminent bishops, Constantine summoned a general assembly of the bishops of his empire, to be held at Nice, in the province of Bithynia, in June, A.D. 325.

At this Council three hundred and eighteen bishops assembled, the greater part of whom were Orientals. From the West were Vitus and Vincentius, who represented Pope Sylvester I; from Spain, Hosius of Cordova. Of the whole number of bishops assembled at this Council, only twenty-two favored the doctrine of Arius. The Council was presided over by Hosius, Bishop of Cordova, and by the two Roman priests, Vitus and Vincentius, the representatives of Pope Sylvester, and was held in a church, which "by disposition of Divine Providence, had been made so spacious that it accommodated all the bishops who came from so many provinces."

The principal defenders of the Catholic faith were Eustathius of Antioch, Marcellus of Ancyra, but preeminently the young Alexandrian deacon Athanasius, who, to the faith and gifts of an apostle, and to the heroic courage and fortitude of a martyr, added the keen penetration and dialectic skill of a philosopher, and the persuasive power and sweeping eloquence of a true orator.

The Council condemned the writings of Arius, and ordered them to be burned.

The Catholics framed a new Profession of Faith. Eusebius and his followers were continually equivocating about the doctrine, and skilfully concealed their real purpose by ostentatiously parading such texts as "Son of God," "from God," "like to the Father," which, they said, were in many instances applied in Holy Writ to men. To meet the adroit shifts of their opponents, and to cut off all chance of equivocation, the orthodox bishops inserted in the creed a word which should serve as a crucial test of orthodoxy in the doctrine of the Trinity, and that word was "consubstantiation." The Profession of Faith declared, in the name of the Holy Ghost, that the Son "was true God, born of God not made, and consubstantial with the Father; hence let no one presume to assert that He is created or changeable or variable." The signatures of all the orthodox bishops were subscribed to this profession. The Emperor exiled to Illyria, Arius, and the Egyptian bishops who espoused his cause, such as Theonas of Marmarica and Secundus of Ptolemais; and, three months later, Eusebius of Nicomedia and Theognis of Nice shared the same fate.

The Fathers of the Council of Nice also put an end to the controversy about the celebration of the Easter festival. They decided that the festival should be celebrated everywhere on the first Sunday after the spring full-moon. But as there still existed discrepancies in fixing the day, Pope Leo afterward ordered the Bishop of Alexandria to calculate beforehand the precise time for the celebration of Easter, and to send the result to the Apostolic See, whence it would be communicated to the whole Church.

Finally, the Fathers of the Council of Nice, after having put an end to these disputes, turned their attention to the discipline of the Church. They drafted and passed twenty canons, referring to various points, such as the qualifications requisite for elevation to the clerical state; the celibacy of the clergy; the election of bishops, and their confirmation by the metropolitan, the holding of synods twice a year, in spring and fall; the primacy of the Roman Church, and the hierarchical rank of the Patriarchs of Rome, Alexandria, and Antioch.

1Some of the old writers declared that Arius died by the falling out of his bowels, as if by a miracle. The matter became a subject of much controversy. Mosheim thinks it most probable that Arius was poisoned by his enemies. Most recorders of the present day are content to say simply that "he died suddenly."


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Chicago: A. P. Stanley et al., "First Nicene Councilrise and Decline of Arianism," The Great Events by Famous Historians, Vol 3 in The Great Events by Famous Historians. Lincoln Memorial University Edition, ed. Rossiter Johnson (Harrogate, TN: The National Alunmi, 1926), Original Sources, accessed December 6, 2022,

MLA: Mosheim, J. L. von, et al. "First Nicene Councilrise and Decline of Arianism." The Great Events by Famous Historians, Vol 3, in The Great Events by Famous Historians. Lincoln Memorial University Edition, edited by Rossiter Johnson, Harrogate, TN, The National Alunmi, 1926, Original Sources. 6 Dec. 2022.

Harvard: Mosheim, JL et al., 'First Nicene Councilrise and Decline of Arianism' in The Great Events by Famous Historians, Vol 3. cited in 1926, The Great Events by Famous Historians. Lincoln Memorial University Edition, ed. , The National Alunmi, Harrogate, TN. Original Sources, retrieved 6 December 2022, from