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7-08-2015, 21:01

State-sponsored missions in the age of justinian

During the sixth century Christian space was very significantly expanded, thanks above all to centralised missionary policies.5 Emperors began to receive state visits from barbarian rulers, showering them with gifts and baptism. In 522 Justin I (518–27) baptised Tzathus, king of Lazica, gave him a Byzantine bride and declared him his own son. In 527, Justinian (527–65) baptised Grod, prince of the Bosporan Huns, and Grep, ruler of a Germanic people, the Heruli, Justinian was also active beyond the empire’s borders, and his missionary initiatives extended in several directions. Thus, in Abkhazia many new churches were constructed at a fair distance from the sea. These churches were clearly intended for the barbarians; they contain baptisteries suitable for adult baptism. The expensive building materials and the high quality of the construction-work suggest that the empire was footing the bill. Justinian’s aims were purely political, as is clear from the account of the baptism of the Abkhazians by Procopius of Caesarea. The empire began to intervene in the internal affairs of this barbarian tribe so as to counter the influence of Sasanian Persia. This political pressure had a mildly civilising tinge. From an attempt to persuade the barbarians to renounce their ‘savage’ rituals it was but a short step to full-scale Christianisation. This in turn led to the overthrow of the authorities associated with the pagan religion and fromthere it was another small step to attempted colonisation. Such a policy could also have unforeseen consequences: the repudiation of Christianity because of its association with imperial expansionism.6 The Caucasian Tzani also became the targets of a state mission.7 The principal agent of the dual policy here – combining threats and Christian proselytism, church building and deforestation – was the Byzantine commander Sittas. Where Byzantium had no direct political interest, it likewise had no active interest in missions. The sincerity of the conversion was of no concern. According to Procopius, Justinian: persuaded all [theHeruli] to become Christians. Thus, having exchanged their way of life for one more mild, they resolved in all things to adopt Christian customs and on the basis of a treaty of alliance to cooperate with the Romaioi (Romans). Yet among themselves they are fickle, and adept at doing harm to their neighbours. And they engage in indecent intercourse even with donkeys. They are the most disgusting of all peoples.8 For the Byzantines, barbarian ‘mildness’ and ‘Christianity’ meant only one thing: forbearance from attacking the empire. We should not imagine, however, that every mission in this period was accomplished by armed force or with narrowly political aims. Missionary activity in Abyssinia was different. Unfortunately, Greek authors say not a word about it, and we shall encounter such silences again, many times. Yet the local Ethiopian sources are far from reticent. They tell us that a group of monks from Byzantium settled in the region of modern Akale Guzay. These ‘righteous men from Baraknakh’ were murdered by locals during a pagan uprising, and thereby became the first Abyssinian martyrs. Another group of seven or nine ‘Roman saints’ arrived in Axum and yet another missionary wasMichael Aragawi, whose Ethiopian Life reveals a few details of his preaching.9 Although the chronological indicators in the ‘Roman saints’ file are contradictory, scholars usually date them to the late fifth and early sixth centuries. Around the end of the 530s the southern Arabian state of Yemen broke free of Ethiopian patronage and established close links with Byzantium. A sign of the strengthening of Yemen’s religious contacts with the Byzantines was the construction of a large church in Sanaa, built in red, yellowand black marble and adorned with mosaics in the Constantinopolitan manner.10 It is not clear exactly when or by whom the Byzantines were asked to send a teacher of Christianity for the re-Christianised country; it may have been the occupying Ethiopian authorities or, more logically, the local inhabitants themselves. We have only one text, and a dubious one at that: the Life of Gregentius, bishop of theHomerites (Himyarites). In the story ofByzantine missions, Gregentius is as significant as he is mysterious. No reliable data about him has survived. His extant Life is late and most likely fictitious.11 Appended to it is a text known as the Laws of the Himyarites which, even if it is not an authentic piece of legislation, remains an example of Byzantine missionary thinking, albeit abstract and from a later period. The striking feature of the Laws is that their rules for the newly converted Arabs are much stricter than the rules in force in the Christian empire itself (see also above, pp. 186–7). The Laws turn practically every civil offence into a criminal one, and virtually all private law becomes public law. The Romans themselves would never have dreamed of abiding by such ferocious requirements. 12 Overall, the Laws of the Himyarites represent a totalitarian missionary utopia. As for the Arab tribes immediately bordering Byzantium to the east, conversions of pagan bedouin to orthodox Christianity were rare. Here, as so often, the empire was more preoccupied with averting heresy than with making Christian converts.13 Travelling up theNile, Justinian’s emissaries reached a multi-confessional sanctuary on the island of Philae, at the outer limits of the imperial possessions. The temple was converted into a church of St Stephen. The first extant inscription left by a native is dated as early as 537: ‘I, Theodosius the Nubian’.14 The history of the mission to Sudan is much better known than any other, because it involved the rivalry between Justinian and his wife Theodora, patrons of Chalcedonism and monophysitism respectively. The main source – virtually our only source – is John of Ephesus, himself a monophysite. In John’s account, the idea of a mission to Sudan was conceived in the circle of the monophysite patriarch of Alexandria, who lived in exile in Constantinople under the patronage of Theodora. Theodora turned to her husband for support, but he had his own plans to dispatch a Chalcedonian embassy to Sudan from Egypt. John’s subsequent narrative unfolds like a thriller. The imperial couple sent two missions, racing each other, but Theodora’s cunning ensured that her own mission, headed by Julian, arrived first: [Julian] handed over the empress’ letters . . . And [the Nubians] also received magnificent gifts, many baptismal garments and all in abundance. And they immediately . . . believed in the Christian God . . . Then he taught them . . . and also intimated to them the following: ‘Be forewarned that among Christians there are disputes concerning the faith . . . for this reason the empress has sent us to you.’15 Julian then explained to the Nubians how they should respond to the emperor’s mission. On arrival, Justinian’s envoy immediately handed over the emperor’s letter and gifts to the Nubians, and then his missionaries ‘began to teach them as they had been ordered, and they said, “Our Roman emperor has instructed us to propose that, if you become Christians, you should join the church and those who adhere to it, and not those who have been cast out.”’16 However, according to John of Ephesus, the barbarians firmly rebuffed him. The intrigue here revolved less around conversion than around the rivalry between monophysitism and Chalcedonism. Yet after the expulsion of Justinian’s embassy, Julian stayed in Sudan for two more years, showing great zeal and instructing the barbarians in Christianity daily: from nine in the morning until four in the afternoon he would conduct his lessons naked, sitting up to his neck in water in a cave, because of the unbearable heat: ‘Yet he endured this, and instructed and baptised the king, his magnates, and many people with them.’17 The initial baptism of Sudan took place between 537 and 539, whereupon Julian returned to Byzantium. In 565 Theodosius, Patriarch of Alexandria, had his prot´eg´e Longinus ordained as the new bishop of Nubia. Longinus was immediately arrested by Justinian and imprisoned for three years; but eventually he managed to escape to Sudan, where he spent some six years. According to John of Ephesus, Longinus ‘taught, enlightened and instructed them anew, and he built a church there, and appointed clergy, and taught them the entire order of the services and all the rules of Christianity.’ 18 It would appear that Longinus’ major achievement was the training of local clergy. This enabled the new religion to put down roots in Sudan, where it survived for many centuries.19 The fashion for the new religion spread further still, and Longinus was invited to a tribe further south, the Alodians. It is curious, however, that John of Ephesus says nothing about any mission to the Makurrah, though their land lay between Sudan and Alodia. Only the Latin chronicle of John of Biclaro mentions the conversion of theMakurrah, which he dates to the year 569;20 we can surmise that they were converted by the Chalcedonian patriarch of Alexandria, with the aim of annoying his monophysite rivals. In the ruins ofDongola, capital ofMakurria, the remains of several ‘Byzantine’ churches have been identified. We do not know how long the Makurrah remained Chalcedonian. At some time in the late sixth or early seventh century they joined up with Sudan and accepted monophysitism.NoGreek source contains even a single word about this rich and dramatic story of the Byzantine mission to the middle Nile: again we come up against silence. Justinian’s successors could be as ambitious as he was. According to John of Biclaro the Garamantes, Berbers living in the Libyan desert, were baptised under Justin II (565–78),21 while Maurice (582–602) is associated with an attempt to Christianise Byzantium’s great eastern rival, Persia. Christianity had been known in Persia from a very early period. After Christianity became the Roman empire’s state religion, any deterioration in the relations between the two superpowers would lead to persecution of Persian Christians. As divisions within Christianity deepened, the Persian authorities began to encourage Nestorianism, and this gradually expanded to become the second religion of Iran (see above, p. 144). The Persian ruler Hormizd IV (579–90) was notably tolerant of all Christians in Persia, including Chalcedonians, and this gave rise to a legend about the Persians’ own conversion.22 This legend, preserved only in Latin tradition, probably reflects hopes generated in the empire by developments in Persia. In 590 the shah was deposed and his son, Khusro II (590, 591–628), fled to Byzantium. The prince regained the throne with the aid of troops provided by Maurice. According to the Shahnama (Book of kings), in this new spirit of friendship the emperor sent Khusro ‘a cross ornamented with jewels’ and garments embroidered with crosses.23 During this period, the Chalcedonians were in favour. Here too, we learn of Byzantine activities from all kinds of sources, but with one conspicuous exception – the Byzantines themselves. Why does Theophylact Simocatta, who recounts Maurice’s dealings with the Persians in great detail, not say a word about his Christianising activities?However, these achievements were short-lived: in 602, as soon as Maurice was murdered, Khusro launched an attack on Byzantium, and ‘from the Euphrates to the east, the memory of the Council of Chalcedon was obliterated utterly’.24 The sixth century was an age of grandiose missionary undertakings, but there were also smaller-scale ones. The ‘Legend of seven bishops of Cherson’, for example, reflects local hagiographical tradition.One version of this legend, which probably originated in the sixth century, includes a certain Ephraim among the Christian missionaries in Cherson. According to this variant, Ephraim had been sent to convert ‘the land of the Tauroscythians which borders on Cherson’. It is noteworthy that in later centuries this mythical Ephraim was recast as having converted a number of barbaric tribes: Turks, Huns and Hungarians.25 The sixth century was also the age of the parting of ways between Chalcedonian and ‘heretical’ Christianity (see above, pp. 116–18, 212–13). The subsequent large-scale missions of the Nestorian and monophysite churches, involving conversions in Central Asia and China, had nothing to do with Byzantium. Henceforth only a ‘heretic’ could allow himself an elevated, ‘pan-Christian’ attitude towards missions. One such champion of unalloyed apostolic evangelism was the sixth-century Alexandrian traveller Cosmas Indicopleustes. In his Christian topography, Cosmas presents a kind of bird’s eye view of world-wide evangelisation.26 This sense of universality was all but lost by the imperial church.