Ward-Perkins, Bryan: The Impact of Christianity

In a further reflection of the secular administrative hierarch a bishop whose city was the capital of an imperial province had, special status being termed a ‘metropolitan’ (later an ‘archbishop’), with some authority over all the other civitates and bishops of the province. The powers of these metropolitans were not well defined in the fourth century, but from the time of the council of Nicaea (325) they did include, at least in theory, the all-important right and duty to confirm all Episcopal elections within their province (Nicaea canon 4).

Above these metropolitans were a handful of bishops, sometimes called patriarchs, in the great traditional centres of empire – Alexandria, Carthage, Antioch and Rome.(65) The patriarchates, however, never evolved into a coherent scheme covering with identical authority all the provinces of the empire, and so at this level the church no longer neatly mirrored the all-embracing secular structure of dioceses and prefectures. Nor was the arrangement of patriarchates static. Not surprisingly, powerful bishops periodically attempted to create for their sees wider jurisdictions, and in the late empire they were likely to have some success if their see was one of the rising cities within the secular administration. Thus Ambrose in fourth century Milan temporarily asserted his authority in the church as far afield as Sirmium and Dacia; and inevitably, as Constantinople emerged as a major and favoured imperial residence, here too there developed the problem of the status of its bishop.

The church of Constantinople (or rather of Byzantium, as the small town on this site was called before Constantine) had no historic rights within the Christian community and indeed had no good biblical or early Christian claims to fame. In this respect it started a very long way behind Rome, which possessed the bodies of both Peter and Paul (not to mention a host of famous local martyrs), but also behind other Aegean and eastern cities with well-known early Christian histories and martyrs, such as Ephesus or Corinth. Constantinople could only manage two highly obscure local martyrs, Mocius and Acacius, though Constantine did his best for them by building a vast basilica over Mocius’ tomb.(66)

However, although the bishop of Constantinople did not formally lay claim to the rights of a patriarch until the council of Chalcedon in 451, already in the fourth century bishops and emperors were working to adjust Christian and sacred geography to fit the reality of Constantinople’s growing political importance. In 381 the bishop of Constantinople was accorded an undefined but highly prestigious status immediately beneath the bishop of Rome, on the grounds that Constantinople was the New Rome.(67) And at the end of his reign Constantius II (337-61) moved to the city the bodies of three illustrious saints, Timothy, Luke and Andrew.(68) This is the very first recorded instance of the movement of relics away from their traditional homes, and it is not surprising that this important precedent was set in the interests of providing a popular imperial residence with better-quality saints and protectors. Like Constantine, who had been prepared to use his imperial power to despoil the cities of the east of classical statuary in order to enhance the aura of his new city, so Constantius was prepared to despoil cities of their saints in order to create a more imposing sacred environment within Constantinople.

In fourth-century Milan, Ambrose attempted something rather similar. The city, although a favoured imperial residence, like Constantinople lacked a really good local saint. Ambrose did what he could to rectify this position by ‘discovering’ further relics to build up the number of local martyrs, by building new and large churches over the sacred graves, and by bringing in relics from outside (though these were contact-relics rather than the whole bodies which were moved to Constantinople). Nevertheless, when he built the Basilica Ambrosiana, with space for his tomb under the high altar, he also perhaps accurately predicted that his greatest gift to the Milanese church would be his own sainthood and his own body.(69)

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