Illstarred heresiarch

In Brief

Having considered the original controversy surrounding the Trinitarian doctrine of consubstantiality, Stephen goes on in Proteus to think in more personal terms of "poor dear Arius," a 4th century Christian bishop who met a very bad end, first being judged a "heresiarch" whose books should be burned, and then dying a painful and degrading death.

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Only in part did Arius' ill fortune consist in having his teachings condemned by the First Council of Nicaea in 325. This clarification of church doctrine came about at the instigation of the Emperor Constantine, who had legitimized Christianity in the 310s and called the Council in order to consolidate its widely divergent teachings. After the Council acted, the Emperor gave order that Arius should be exiled, that all of his books should be burned, and that anyone who hid a copy should be put to death, "so that not only will the wickedness of his teaching be obliterated, but nothing will be left even to remind anyone of him" ("Edict by Emperor Constantine against the Arians"). None of Arius' writings are known to exist today, and knowledge of what he said and wrote comes mostly from characterizations in works by writers who were hostile to his views. For the next several centuries Arian churches, which were widespread throughout the territories of the Roman Empire and spread into many Germanic lands, were converted to the true faith either at the point of the sword or by negotiation.

After some years in exile, however, the Emperor allowed Arius to return, and in 336 he ordered the Bishop of Constantinople to receive him and give him Holy Communion. Gifford notes that "That ministration would have been public evidence that Arius was no longer excommunicant, but Arius died before it took place." Socrates Scholasticus, an opponent, writes that the day before he was to visit the church, after leaving the imperial palace and walking proudly through the city streets with supporters, "a terror arising from the remorse of conscience seized Arius, and with the terror a violent relaxation of the bowels." Directed to a public toilet, "Soon after a faintness came over him, and together with the evacuations his bowels protruded, followed by a copious hemorrhage, and the descent of the smaller intestines: moreover portions of his spleen and liver were brought off in the effusion of blood, so that he almost immediately died" ("The Death of Arius"). Whatever exactly may have happened on that toilet and inside his body, Arius' excruciating death provided lasting evidence to his opponents of divine displeasure. Gifford directs interested readers to the Adversus Haereses of Epiphanius (a man who was about 20 years old at the time of the death) for "a splendidly one-sided account."

Stephen thinks, "Illstarred heresiarch. In a Greek watercloset he breathed his last: euthanasia. With beaded mitre and with crozier, stalled upon his throne, widower of a widowed see, with upstiffed omophorion, with clotted hinderparts." He clearly is using the word "euthansia" (Greek for a good death) sardonically, and likewise the word "throne": instead of sitting glorified in an bishop's chair with "mitre" (the bishop's tall, two-pointed hat), "crozier" (the bishop's long, sheephook staff), and "omophorion" (the bishop's long stole of embroidered white silk), Arius comes down through history disastrously "stalled" on the seat of a public toilet, divorced from his "see," the church in Alexandria from which he was deposed as pastor in 321. (A "widowed see" is a recognized expression for a diocese temporarily without a bishop.)

Presumably the historical Arius, stripped of all his titles and responsibilities, did not actually die with a bishop's vestments and appurtenances in that watercloset. But Stephen imagines him that way. (Is his omophorion "upstiffed" because it has been employed in a vain effort to keep his vitals from exiting his body?) In Circe, Stephen looks back on the horrific scene he has conjured up in Proteus: "But beware Antisthenes, the dog sage, and the last end of Arius Heresiarchus. The agony in the closet."

JH 2014
2008 photograph by JJensen of an icon in the the Mégalo Metéoron Monastery in Greece, representing the First Council of Nicaea in 325 A.D. The condemned Arius lies at the bottom, in an iconographic Hell. Source: Wikimedia Commons.
The burning of the heretic Arius' books by order of the emperor Constantine, in a 2008 photograph of an illustration from a book of canon law, ca. 825. Source: Wikimedia Commons.