IX: Pagans and Christians on the Nile

From: 428 AD

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Pagans and Christians on the Nile E was the most populous territory in the entire Mediterranean. Because of the exceptional fertility of its soil, the Nile Valley provided most of the grain that was shipped to Constantinople.1 For about half a century, the province had been enjoying a special degree of autonomy. Power was divided between a multitude of civil, military, and ecclesiastical officials.The governor of the diocese, called the “Augustan Prefect,” shared power with the military leaders each in charge of one of three areas: Thebais, Lower Egypt, and parts of the Libyan desert. Wars and invasions had strengthened the army’s role, and thus the comes of Egypt who was in command of the army of the Lower Nile gradually acquired some prerogatives of a civil nature (Code of Theodosius, , , ).2 It was always a risk to give the military such power to the detriment of the civil authorities, and Theodosius II was aware of this, but there were such serious problems in the region that in the following decades it was even decided that all civil and military authority should be concentrated in the hands of a single official. Besides, the imperial presence had not gone beyond the borders of Egypt for more than a century—no further than the First Cataract. In , Diocletian had ordered the withdrawal of troops from their outposts in Nubian territory, and fixed the frontier at the Isle of Philae. The most important fortress of the time was Babylon, whose walls have now been incorporated into the old Coptic district of Cairo. It was modified under Diocletian, and controlled navigation along Trajan ’s Canal, which linked the Nile to the Red Sea.This Traiános potamós was abandoned under the Arabs, but in the first half of the fifth century  C H A P T E R I X was still in working order: some papyri dated to – report that the canal was being cleaned every year in the spring, when the Nile was at its lowest level.3 Thebes (Luxor), the capital of Thebais, was a crossroads for merchants and travelers. This Christianized world had not lost its curiosity for distant and exotic peoples, such as can be found in De Gentibus Indiae et de Bragmanibus (Of the Peoples of India and the Brahmans ), a short ethnographic work which was an enormous success with the Byzantines and has been attributed to Palladius, the Galatian author of the Lausiac History. At some point De Gentibus was incorporated into the Alexander Romance and also translated into Latin. The work does present some problems in terms of dating and attribution, but it seems possible that the first part could be attributed to Palladius, who is thought to have relied on an account by an anonymous scholastik ós (lawyer or rather imperial official) whom he met in Thebes. This person is supposed to have spent six years in India and held in slavery in a region not too far from the Bay of Bengal, where he was able to discover the wonders and curiosities of the country, particularly the asceticism of the Brahmans, who could be considered an example for Christian monks.4 However, the most important city was still the metropolis of Alexandria , an extremely important religious center, and the reference point for orthodoxy.The bishop of Alexandria, who in  was the great theologian Saint Cyril, had the privilege of sending permanent envoys to Constantinople, the so-called apochrysárioi, who were in fact ambassadors who ensured a channel of communication to the emperor and his court. In this manner, the patriarch could resist the rivalry of emerging episcopacies and intervene immediately in the event of theological disputes . From the end of , it was Cyril, with the pope’s support, who provided the theological basis for condemning Nestorius. The advance of Christianity was one of the things that kept the emperors away from Egypt, because they no longer needed to pay homage to its pharaonic past. In spite of the esteem in which great founders of monasticism were held, Constantinople had not forgotten the Arian crisis of the fourth century, when orthodox Alexandria distanced itself from the capital.The restoration of orthodoxy did not improve the situation , because the consolidation of the New Rome was damaging the fortunes of the Alexandrian church. P A G A N S A N D C H R I S T I A N S O N T H E N...