Saturday, 7 December 2013

Dumbing down

I don't know if anyone else saw that programme on BBC4 this week, Byzantium, a tale of three cities. It was pretty disappointing, so don't rush to see the next episode. When one considers how much they pay to make these programmes, it staggers me that they do not set aside a little bit of the budget to employ someone to make sure they get their historical facts right. I suppose that what they are trying to do is make a good story, so why let facts get in their way? Perhaps it is because they employ scriptwriters to write these things, not historians. A historian would have been able to help a scriptwriter negotiate the sweep of history with greater accuracy, dismissing nutcases or distracting minor stories and helping the larger picture appear.

I don't think there were any actual nutcases in the programme, but there were annoying distractions, such as the guy with a private theory about having discovered Constantine's real tomb, which he identified on the grounds of it having peg holes drilled into the sides (because we know that Constantine's tomb had hangings around it) and a labarum (the Chi-Rho) on a gable end. That's pretty thin evidence; I'm sure more than Constantine's tomb had hangings, and after his time the labarum was in common use.

The two egregious errors that annoyed me most were the definition of Arianism (which Simon Sebag Montefiore pronounced 'arrianism') as being a heresy that said that Jesus was a mere human being, and the assertion that Constantine was converted to Christianity at the battle of the Milvian bridge.

The latter error may, perhaps, be forgiven: it is a common view, and I think that both Eusebius and Lactantius (our main sources for that episode) wanted to create that impression with their accounts. But the evidence paints a much more interesting picture.

Nobody doubts that Constantine died a Christian. He was baptized (by the Arian Eusebius of Nicomedia, as it happens) on his deathbed. But what happened between the Milvian Bridge and his baptism is not straightforward. Only a short while before the battle, he had had, in Autun, a vision not of Christ, but of Apollo. His coinage for the next ten years carried an inscription of devotion to the sun God (identified with Apollo) soli invicto comiti. Though the Edict of Milan (whose 1700th anniversary we celebrate this year) expressly ended persecution of Christianity, Constantine did not identify himself with it for many years. There seems to have been a sort of syncretistic policy followed of devotion to the 'Summus Deus': a notion of divinity that leaves the individual believer to fill in the blanks according to his own taste. 'We all worship the Highest God; you may call him Christ, I'll call him Apollo.'

Some historians point to the fact that the Chi-Rho / labarum was never used by Christians before Constantine's time. The labarum, not a simple cross, seems to have been the sign that he saw in the sky before the battle; some have suggested that in fact the labarum is a sign of Apollo. But the CH+R can certainly be made to suggest 'Christ', especially if you aren't worried about blurring the two a little.

In the cemetery which lies under St Peter's Basilica in Rome, there is a tomb which is without doubt Christian. In that tomb is a mosaic which would appear to show Christ—but is it Christ? It shows a bright charioteer, which is usually our representation of Apollo. Was there a deliberate policy of identifying Christ and Apollo in those early days of Constantine?

And, more intriguingly, was this the way that Constantine was induced to adopt the Christian faith? And if that is so, then who did the inducing? Who led him from a paganism sympathetic to Christianity to a wholehearted profession of the faith? My money is on a shadowy figure called Hosius of Cordoba. He was with Constantine from at least the Milvian Bridge to after Nicæa as, effectively his closest religious adviser. It was he, probably, who came up with the word 'Homoousios' at Nicæa, and thereby solved one problem and created others. He was to live on to over a hundred years old, being probably tortured into signing an Arian creed in extreme old age.

Can we honestly say that in fact a sort of syncretistic gradualism, or even dumbing down, was used to lead Constantine slowly into the faith? Well, maybe.

Let's go back to that porphyry supposed tomb of Constantine. The significance of that labarum which was on the gable end was missed by the programme. It was set into the loop of an Egyptian Ankh, the symbol of life. The ankh is known to have been used by Christians for a while: you can find it called the Coptic Cross or crux ansata, but it leads me to wonder whether there was more syncretism going on in those days than we might find comfortable. The picture shows a Christian ankh, with an ordinary cross in the loop rather than a labarum.

And here is another thought. It is becoming increasingly clear that, improbably, Celtic Christianity owes a great deal to Egyptian Christianity. Could this perhaps be the source of the famous celtic cross?

I could probably go on, but I must go and do a wedding. Pray for Lisa and Mark, please.


Patricius said...

"Was there a deliberate policy of identifying Christ and Apollo in those early days of Constantine?"

An interesting question, Father. I saw the mosaic of the Christ/Apollo in the pre-Constantinian necropolis under St Peter's when I visited in April and, although it is only a small fragment, it is an altogether beautiful, even breath-taking, sight to which no photograph does justice. One reason for such images from the early Christian era showing strong correspondences with Pagan imagery may well be on account of their having been produced by artists/craftsmen who were not necessarily Christian themselves and who were responding to verbal instructions by those commissioning the work. This was a world in which Christian visual prototypes were scarce and the meaning of the image took precedence over visual likeness.

James Evans said...

Thanks for this. I pretty much shut the program down when I heard the gaff about Arius, saved only by my wife's pleas to turn off the sound, the pictures are pretty. It is Dan Brown Da Vinci Code stuff - doesn't BBC know the difference? One look at the Wikipedia site on Arius give the information they need in only its second sentence.

Lynda said...

Write SSM an open letter.