Eusebius of Caesarea, Ecclesiastical History VI.21.3-4

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The Christianity of Severus Alexander’s mother

Name of the author: 
Eusebius of Caesarea
Date: 
313 CE to 325 CE
Place: 
Caesarea Maritima
Language: 
Greek
Category: 
Christian
Literary genre: 
History
Title of work: 
Ecclesiastical History
Reference: 
VI.21.3-4
Commentary: 

For a general introduction to Eusebius and the Ecclesiastical History, please see the commentary on I.6.6-11.

In this passage, Eusebius describes the piety and supposed meeting with the famous Christian teacher Origen, of the mother of emperor Severus Alexander (reigned from 222-235 CE, the last of the Severan dynasty). He succeeded his cousin, Elagabalus, after the latter’s assassination. Alexander’s mother, Julia Mamaea, was the niece of Septimius Severus’s wife, Julia Domna, and the aunt of Elagabalus. From what we can gather from the ancient sources, such as the fifth and sixth book of Herodian’s Roman History, Mamaea was of great influence over her son both before and during his reign. For Herodian, Mamaea’s over-involvement was something of a curse for the emperor, and the historian posits that were it not for her greedy nature, Alexander’s reign might have been viewed as a time of near perfection (VI.9.8). Mamaea’s sway over her son is evidenced by the fact that she was given some notable titles, which indicate the power she held through connections and influence. For instance, like Julia Domna before her, she was known as mater castorum (mother of the camp), and then later as mater Augusti et castorum et senatus atque patriae (mother of the Augustus, camp, senate, and fatherland) (on her titles, see Benario, “Two Notes,” p. 13-14; Burns, Great Women). There are also numerous coins depicting her (see: http://judaism-and-rome.preprod.lamp.cnrs.fr/denarius-depicting-head-julia-mamaea-and-juno-peacock-222-235-ce; http://www.wildwinds.com/coins/ric/julia_mamaea/i.html).

The period of Alexander’s reign is somewhat difficult to reconstruct due to questions of reliability relating to the ancient sources which describe it. One such source is Herodian’s Roman History, but his account is frequently simplified, and lacking in analysis (see Southern, The Roman Empire, p. 79). The account of Alexander’s life by Lampidius in the highly polemical Historia Augusta must also be treated with extreme caution, and cannot be solely relied upon for any historical detail (this text was written late, during the reigns of Diocletian and Constantine). As Cécile Bertrand-Dagenbach argues, the figure presented in the Historia Augusta is essentially a literary construction seeking to portray him as the ideal prince (Alexandre Sévère, p. 190; on Severus Alexander in the Historia Augusta, see also Syme, Emperors and Biography, p. 146-162). This uncertainty has proven pertinent in discussions relating to the religious outlook of Julia Mamaea and her son, particularly in relation to Christianity. Despite the insinuations of the present passage from Eusebius, we do not have any concrete evidence that Julia Mamaea was strictly a Christian. Eusebius refers to her with the terms θεοσεβής (theosebēs, god-fearing, religious), but this does not specify that she held Christian beliefs (it may imply it), and the most that we can say is that according to this passage, this religiosity may have piqued her interest in the prolific Christian teacher Origen, whose fame had begun to spread.

Before we discuss this issue further, let us briefly overview the evidence which has led to Severus Alexander and his mother being understood to have favoured religious syncretism, and been particularly favourable towards Judaism and Christianity. This is the impression that we get particularly from the Historia Augusta (XXII.4). It is reported that the emperor had busts of Abraham and Christ in his private lararium alongside those of Orpheus, Apollonius of Tyana, and other Roman emperors (Life of Severus Alexander XXIX.2). The same text also claims that Alexander wished to build a temple to Jesus, but was discouraged from doing so by pagan priests fearing that too many people would become Christians, and the old temples would be rendered useless (XLIII.6-7). Lampridius goes on to state that the emperor was mocked in Antioch and Alexandria for being a synagogue-overseer and high priest (XXVIII.7), and that he inscribed the so-called “golden rule” of Judaism and Christianity—“do to others as you would have them do to you” —on his palace and public buildings (LI.7-8). One very late, probably eleventh century, midrash also claims that there was a synagogue of Severus in Rome, which if historical, may have honoured Severus Alexander (Genesis Rabbati 45:8; see The Cambridge History of Judaism, p. 1004). Questioning the likelihood of Severus Alexander having had busts of Christ and Abraham, Allen Brent has explored the possible relationship between the emperor and the Christian historian Julius Africanus in an effort to establish how close a connection to Christianity to emperor may have had. Brent concludes, quite rightly, that there is simply not enough reliable evidence to support the claims made in the spurious Historia Augusta (see Hippolytus and the Roman Church, p. 89-95; see p. 95 n. 142 for a bibliography relating to the lararium claims in the Historia Augusta). Alexander’s sympathy for Christians has also been suggested due to the claim that he employed many in his imperial household (see VI.28 of the present work, for instance). An inscription found on the Via Salario Vetus in Rome, dated to the late Severan period (CIL 6.8987), mentions two servants in the house of Caesar who have been identified as Christians on the basis of a monotheistic appeal. If the inscription is indeed from the time of Severus Alexander, then this may well be representative of the fact that there were a certain number of Christians in the imperial household. However, we must be cautious about drawing conclusions as to just how much of the emperor’s personal workforce was Christian (see Graeme Clarke, “Two Christians”; Paul Keresztes, “The Emperor Maximinus’ Decree,” p. 606, has argued that there likely were some Christians at the imperial court, but Eusebius no doubt exaggerates this in VI.28 when he speaks of there being “many”).

Since we cannot trust the Historia Augusta’s representation of a particularly pro-Christian and pro-Jewish Severus Alexander, our other clues to this possible relationship must be gleaned from elsewhere. This does not leave us with much, and the present text from Eusebius must also be treated with caution given that it too has a polemical agenda. This said, it has been accepted by many scholars that an interview between Origen and Mamaea could have taken place. The date of the supposed meeting has been debated. Most likely, it was between 230 and 233 CE, when Mamaea had travelled with her son to Antioch during the campaign to beat back the Sassanid threat from the East. In book VI.26 of the Ecclesiastical History Eusebius records that Origen left Alexandria for Caesarea Maritima in 231 CE due to a disagreement with the bishop there, which would place him in reasonable summoning distance from Antioch while Mamaea was staying there. The year 232 CE has been accepted by various scholars (see, for instance, Stevenson and Frend, A New Eusebius; Carrington, The Early Christian Church, p. 393). Good relations between the imperial household and Christianity are also indicated by the fact that Hippolytus seems to have dedicated his work on the resurrection to “Queen Mamaea” (the work survives in fragmentary form in Syriac manuscripts, and is also mentioned by Jerome in his On Illustrious Men LXI; see Brent, Hippolytus and the Roman Church, p. 328).

While it remains almost impossible to establish exactly what relationship to Christianity Severus Alexander and his mother had, it is somewhat less problematic to draw conclusions in relation to Eusebius’s own purposes. Eusebius’s descriptions of the various Roman emperors are extremely varied, and each fit into his narrative as part of a broader rhetoric relating to Christianity and the empire. In the case of Severus Alexander and his mother, the notion of the imperial family being so intrigued by a Christian teacher that he is formally summoned to impart his wisdom is one which elevates Christianity. By portraying the imperial household as seeing Christian doctrines as valuable, and something worth being instructed in, Eusebius is able to present Christianity as a religion which has the edge over Rome’s traditional religious beliefs. Arguably, part of Eusebius’s aim here is not to directly provide a critique of Roman religion, but rather to show that discerning followers of Roman religion can identify that Christian teachings are worth taking seriously. Perhaps most importantly, by highlighting Origen’s role as the sought after instructor, in comparison to Mamaea’s role as the student, a power dynamic is suggested in which Christianity clearly comes out on top.

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Eusebius of Caesarea, Ecclesiastical History VI.21.3-4
Author(s) of this publication: Kimberley Fowler
Publishing date: Tue, 08/08/2017 - 16:10
URL: http://judaism-and-rome.cnrs.fr/eusebius-caesarea-ecclesiastical-history-vi213-4
Visited: Sun, 08/20/2017 - 17:40

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