Nicaea and the World


Chapter 6

Before Nicaea

The council in Nicaea would be the first general council in the history of the Church since the Apostolic Council at Jerusalem. 

Emperor Constantine’s wish was that the church be at peace.   Conflicts had raged in many areas.  The spread of the teachings of Arius were becoming uncontrollable.  Debates and arguments were taking place among too many of the churches. It had become so popular that men and women in all parts of the Empire were embracing it.

The council would be held twenty miles from Nicomedia, the ancient capital of Bithynia, the capital of the East.  

Ancient wall of Nicaea

It is of interest that in the conventional pictures of the council, such as the one that exists at Nicaea, the figures are almost indistinguishable from each other, with the exception of a small group of Arians (or Arius alone), showing a sign of their heresy.

Eusebius of Caesarea, himself an eye-witness, enumerates the different characters from various countries, their age and position.  He compares the scene of the council with the diverse nations assembled, with a garland of flowers woven together as a peace-offering after the Empire had attained peace.

“There were present the learned and the illiterate, courtiers and peasants, old and young, aged bishops on the verge of the  grave, beardless  deacons  just  entering  their  office.  It was an assembly in which the difference between age and youth was of more than ordinary significance, for it coincided with a marked transition in the history of the world.

The new generation had been brought up in peace and quiet.  They could just remember the joy diffused through the Christian communities by the Edict of Toleration published in their boyhood, while they themselves had suffered nothing.  Not so the older, and by far the larger part of the assembly.  They had lived through the last and worst of the persecutions, and now came like a regiment out of some frightful siege or battle, decimated and mutilated by the tortures of the hardships they had undergone.” 13  

Most of the older members had lost a friend or a brother, and many still bore the marks of their sufferings.  Some uncovered their sides and backs to show the wounds inflicted by the instruments of torture.  In the whole proceedings of the assembly, the voice of an old confessor was received almost as an oracle.

The number of bishops attending is still in dispute, however, the final figure accepted is 318.  The Eastern Church identified the Nicaean council by simply using the numbers ‘318’.  In Greek, the numbers 318 are TIH, said to stand for:  T = the cross and IH = the sacred name.  This was the beginning of mystery numbers in later councils.

Chalcedon prided itself on having double the attendees of Nicaea at 636.  Constantinople sought glory for itself by saying it had exactly the same number – 318 -- as Nicaea.

The exact date of the council is also unclear.   It was in early Summer, but when it actually began is in doubt.  Some say it was June 14 or 19, however, the Catholic Church says it was July 19.   Perhaps this was the day of the main debate. 

The Emperor visited Nicaea  before  the  bishops  arrived  on  May  23  to  see  how the preparations were progressing.   He then returned to celebrate his victory over Licinius.  If he waited until the actual date of his victory (July 3), he could not have arrived at the council until July 5.   Many say the council began on May 25.   We do know it lasted a number of weeks. (Permission given-non-commercial use)

After the bishops began to arrive in town, Constantine was showered with letters in the form of parchment rolls containing complaints and petitions from bishops against each other.  These were largely from those who would assemble for the council.

It was customary to present complaints when sovereigns were taking part in solemn processions or meetings, as a means of catching their attention.  “Among the complaints were pent-up grudges and quarrels of years; which now for the first time had an opportunity of making themselves heard…. It is impossible not to share in the emperor’s astonishment that this should have been the first act of the first Ecumenical Assembly of the Christian Church.  Constantine received the letters in silence.”  14

No one really knows where the meetings were held.  A previous persecution had destroyed churches, although some may have been spared.  Nicaea had a theatre and a large gymnasium, which can still be seen in the ruins.

Some have said the council took place in the mosque of Orchan, also in the ruins of Nicaea.  Others say it was held in a ‘sacred building’, but it does not disclose to whom it was sacred.   

Still  others  have  stated  it  was  at  the  Emperor’s residence in Nicaea, but the Imperial palace was in Nicomedia.  They could have used two buildings, one for meetings and another for services.

The main chamber prepared for meetings was a large room in the centre of a building, the largest room available.  Seats were arranged in a semi-circle, some raised, and descending around the room to lower levels until they reached the bottom.  

A ramp was constructed that led to the centre of the assembly, where a raised platform had been erected.   Upon this was a beautifully carved throne, richly gilt with gold and precious stones.  From here the Emperor could look over the whole assembly.

Before the throne, in the centre of the room, a copy of the Gospels lay open.  It represented the presence of Christ.  15

Ancient wall in Nicaea (Permission given-non-commercial use)

Everything is prepared and ready for the council.

When Emperor Constantine sits upon the throne, the council will begin.


Bishop Sylvester of Rome did not attend due to his advanced age.  It was a disappointment for the delegates at the council not to see the prelate of the ‘Imperial City’, but he sent two Roman presbyters, Victor and Vicentius to represent him as the pope.  Hosius travelled with these young men. 

Among the representatives from Egypt was Alexander, Bishop of Alexandria. Close beside him was Athanasius, who was already taking words out of the bishop’s mouth.  He would act as Alexander’s secretary, and come into prominence at the council.

The voices of the representatives from Egypt were shrill and vehement above all other disputants.  Their arguments were like “spears against those who sat under the same roof and ate off the same table.”  5

From  the  interior  of  Egypt  came  two  Copts.   They  were not Greeks,  nor Grecianised Egyptians,  but genuine Copts. They spoke  very  little  Greek  and  that  with  difficulty.  One  was Potammon, bishop of Herecleopolis, far up the Nile. Another Paphnutius, bishop of the Upper Thebaid. 

Both were well-known for their austerity.   They had lived half their lives in the desert and suffered great persecution.   One had his right eye dug out with a sword and the empty socket seared with a red-hot iron.  Another came limping on one leg, his left having been ham-strung. 6 

There were bishops from Syria and the interior of Asia, sometimes called the Eastern bishops. Two classes were represented:  scholars from the more civilised cities of Syria and wild ascetics from the remoter east. 

The first in dignity was Eustathius who was at the point of being made bishop of Antioch, the capital of Syria. It was the metropolis of the Eastern Church, then called the City of God.  He had suffered in heathen persecutions, and is chiefly known for his learning and eloquence, distinguished by a simplicity of lifestyle.

Then there was Eusebius the illustrious Bishop of Caesarea in Palestine.  He is honoured as the father of ecclesiastical history, the chief depositary of the traditions which connect the fourth with the first century. At Nicaea, his presence will awaken different feelings.  He alone can tell the mind of the Emperor, as he is the clerk of the Imperial closet, the interpreter, the chaplain, the confessor of Constantine.

The Egyptian Church will be on the watch for any slip he might make as Athanasius is convinced he is at heart an Arian.  However, Eusebius is supported by most of his bishops in Palestine, including one who is a champion for orthodoxy.

From Neo-Caesarea, a  border  fortress  on  the Euphrates, came its confessor bishop, Paul.  He had suffered in the persecutions under Licinius.   His hands were paralysed by the scorching of the muscles of all the fingers with a red-hot iron. (Permission given-non-commercial use)

Discussions took place how the debates should be conducted.  The varying characters of the assembly made it difficult for a general statement of theology that would be satisfactory at once to the few and to the many. 

A large number, perhaps the majority, consisted of rough, simple, almost illiterate men, like Spyridion the shepherd, Potammon the hermit, Acesius the puritan, who held their faith earnestly and sincerely, but would not be capable of entering into the arguments of their opponents.

One story is told of a group of men discussing and arguing for the mere pleasure of argument, when suddenly a simple-minded layman bore witness of his zeal for the Christian faith.   He stepped among them and said abruptly, ‘Christ and the apostles left us, not a system of logic, nor a vain deceit, but a naked truth, to be guarded by faith and good works.’  The bystanders were struck by his words.  The disputants took their differences more good-humouredly and the arguments subsided. 10

Spyridion, knowing his inability to argue, took a brick and said, ‘You deny that Three can be One.  Look at this:   it is one, and yet it is composed of the three elements of fire, earth, and water.’ 11 

Another simple-minded individual, uncouth in his appearance and mutilated by persecution, had been watching a group of Christians being taunted by an aged philosopher.  Unable to stand it any longer he roused himself. 

“In the name of Jesus Christ”, he called out. “Hear me, philosopher.  There is one God, maker of heaven and earth… who made all things by the power of His Word and by the holiness of His Holy Spirit.  This Word, by which name we call the Son of God, took compassion on men for their wandering astray… and chose to be born of a woman, and to converse with men, and to die for them, and He shall come again  to judge every one  for the things done in life.

These things we believe without curious inquiry. Cease therefore the vain labour of seeking proofs for or against what is established by faith, and the manner in which these things may be or  may not be;  but,  if thou believest,  answer  at once to me as I put my questions to you.”

The philosopher was struck dumb by this new mode of argument and could only reply that he assented. “Then”, continued the old man, “if thou believest this, rise and follow me to the Lord’s house, and receive the sign of this faith.”  The philosopher turned around to those who had gathered and said, ‘Hear my learned friends.  So long as it was a matter of words, I opposed words to words, and whatever was spoken I overthrew by my skill in speaking;  but when, in the place of words, power came out of this speaker’s lips, words could no longer resist power, man could no longer resist.  If any of you feel as I have felt, let him believe in Christ, and let him follow this old man in whom God has spoken.’  12  

Along with him were representatives of four churches, who, according to the Armenian tradition, travelled in company.  Their leader was ‘the Moses’ of Mesopotamia, James or Jacob of Nisibis.   He had lived for years as a hermit on the mountain, in the forests and caves, dressed in a rough goat-hair cloak.    Even after becoming a bishop, he did not lay aside his hermit’s clothing.   It gave a mysterious awe to his presence.

There was Aristaces, son of Gregory the Illuminator, founder of the Armenian Church. He represented his father Bishop Gregory and Tiridates the King of Armenia.   They both received a special invitation from Constantine and had sent their written Professions of Faith by the hands of Aristaces. A sole representative came from the more distant East, John the Persian.  

As these men travelled, they encountered Leontius of Caesarea in Cappadocia.  It is said that Gregory of Armenia had received ordination at his hand, and others in the Armenian party also desired ordination from him.  

Leontius was claimed by the Arians, but still more decidedly by those supposed to be orthodox.   Another on the orthodox side was Hermogenes the deacon, who afterwards became Bishop of Caesarea.  He acted as secretary of the council.

Among the most resolute defenders of Arius were Eusebius of Nicomedia, Theognis of Nicaea, Maris of Chalcedon and Menophantus of Ephesus.   These four men represent the Sees of the four ‘orthodox’ councils of the Church.   The three last names soon vanish from history.  

Euisebius of Nicomedia, friend and namesake of the bishop of Caesarea, was a personage of high importance both then and afterwards. As Athanasius was called ‘the great’ by the ‘orthodox’, so was Eusebius by the Arians.  

Marcellus, bishop of Ancyra was the fiercest opponent of Arius and when Athanasius was not present, he bore the brunt of the arguments.     He  was  one  of  those  awkward  theologians,  who never could attack Arianism without falling into Sabellianism and in later life was twice deposed from his See for heresy;  once excommunicated by Athanasius. 

Beside the more regular champions, the party from Greece and  Asia Minor  had a few very eccentric allies.   One was Acesius the Novatian, called ‘the Puritan’.  He was summoned by Constantine from a deep respect for his ascetic character.

From the island of Cyprus there arrived the simple shepherd Spyridion, a  shepherd  both  before  and after his elevation to the episcopate.   He rebuked a preacher at Cyprus for altering in a quotation from the gospels the word for ‘bed’ into ‘couch’. 

Another  one  was  Nicolas,  bishop  of  Myra.   Although  not mentioned by a single historian as being present at the council, he alone is featured in pictures standing in the midst of the assembly, suddenly roused by righteous indignation to assail Arius with a tremendous box on the ear.  7 

There were men whose presence must have been full of interest to their Eastern brethren.   One was Theophilus the Goth from the extreme North. “His light complexion doubtless made a marked contrast with the tawny hue and dark hair of almost all the rest… From all future generations of his Teutonic countrymen he may claim attention as the predecessor and teacher of Ulphilas, the great missionary of the Gothic nation.” 8

The council rejoiced to think they had “a genuine Scythian among them”.  9

Out of the province of Northern Africa came Caecilian, Bishop of Carthage.  He had been acquitted of charges brought against him by the Donatists at the Council of Arles. 

Metrophanes, Bishop of Byzantium was detained by old age and sickness, but Alexander, his presbyter, himself seventy years of age, was there with his twelve-year-old  secretary Paul,   who  was  a reader in the Byzantine Church.  

The delegates would have arrived at different times over two or three weeks. Prior to the beginning of the council preparatory arrangements  were  in progress. Men needed  to  be shown their quarters and made comfortable.

Copied from the World Atlas – Nicaea added

Public domain

Lake in Nicaea

A visitor to Nicaea wrote of the ruins of Nicaea 150 years ago.  “As the dawn rose, and as we approached the foot of the hills, through the thick mists which lay over the plain, there gradually broke upon our view the two features which mark the city of Nicaea. 

Beneath us lay the long inland lake – the Ascanian Lake – which opens at its western extremity by a small inlet from the Sea of Marmora.  It fills up almost the whole valley… Another is the Lake of Apollonius, seen from the summit of the Mysian Olympus.” 1

The Mysian Olympus or Bithynian Olympus is a mountain in Bursa Province, Western Turkey.   It has an elevation of 2,543 metres (8343 ft), a popular centre for Winter sports.   It is called Uludağ in Turkish which means ‘Sublime Mountain’, but in colloquial Turkish it became known as Keşiş Dağı, ‘Mountain of Monks.’

This Mount Olympus is not far from Nicaea, and Nicaea is on the edge of Lake Ascanian.   Today the ruins of Nicaea are marked by a few broken columns and a solitary plain tree.

The visitor to Nicaea continues.  “At the head of the lake appeared the oblong space enclosed by the ancient walls, of which the rectangular form indicates with unmistakable precision the original founders of the city - the successors of Alexander and their imitators. Alexandria, Antioch, Damascus, Philadelphia…were all constructed on the same model of a complete  square, intersected  by  four  straight streets adorned with a colonnade on each side.

This we know to have been the appearance of Nicaea, as founded by Lysimachus and rebuilt by Antigonus…. Within their circuit all is now a wilderness; over broken columns, and through tangled thickets, the traveller with difficulty makes his way to the Turkish village of Isnik.

In the midst of this village, surrounded by a few ruined mosques on whose summits stand  the never-failing storks  of the deserted cities of the East, remains a solitary Christian church, dedicated to the ‘Repose of the Virgin.’ Within the church is a rude picture commemorating the one event which, amidst all the vicissitudes of Nicaea, has secured for it an immortal name.” 2 

In AD325, Nicaea was a very pleasant city.  Mount Olympus could be seen with snow on its summit, chestnut woods were green with the first leaves of Summer, the rolling hills bounding the north and south of the city were still green and fresh. 

Of the 2000 invitations, a little over 300 responded.  Every bishop attending was to have two presbyters and three slaves as his retinue.  This would bring the total to at least 1200, not counting priests and deacons.   Nicaea was “overrun” with men during the early Summer of AD325.  

“They poured in by boat, caravan and mule cart from across the Roman Empire – from Asia, Syria, Palestine, Egypt, Greece, Thrace – and beyond from as far as Persia and Scythia, 318 bishops by one count, along with their attendants more than one thousand travellers in all, descending upon the bustling commercial city of Nicaea in the month of May 325.  The Emperor, Constantine the Great, had summoned them, and the bishops willingly answered his urgent call.” 3   

Bishop Eusebius of Caesarea said they came, “as fast as they could run, in almost a frenzy of excitement and enthusiasm.  Although the number attending was below later councils, the town was swamped with men – bishops, presbyters, deacons and slaves.” 4

Most of the bishops were Greek, but there were also a few Latins.  The  most  well-known  Latin  was  Hosius of Cordova, called  by Eusebius  ‘the magician from Spain’.  He was the representative of the Western-most of European churches.   As Eusebius was the chief counsellor to the Emperor in the Greek Church, so was Hosius in the Latin Church.  

Some of the Alexandrian deputies had already met Hosius when he delivered the Emperor’s letter to Alexander and Arius.   Other less conspicuous Latins were Nicasius from France, Marcus from Calabria, Capito from Sicily, Eustorgius from Milan, and Domnus of Stridon, Pannonia.