Monday, February 20, 2017

The Battle of Poiters and Charles Martel the Hammer

Charles de Steuben's Bataille de Poitiers en October732 depicts a triumphant Charles Martel (mounted) facing 'Abdul Rahman Al Ghafiqi (right) at the Battle of Tours. The Celtic Cross in the background is an anachronism, such crosses being unknown at the time in the environs of Tours.
With the collapse of the Western Roman Empire, Europe fell into disarray. Due to this vacuum of power, Islam was able to spread. Beginning with the Prophet Muhammad in Mecca in 622, Islam would expand to control Arabia, North Africa, Palestine, Persia, Spain, and parts of India. It was a rise of power unseen before in history. In merely one hundred years a small group of Muhammad’s followers would become one, if not the most dominant force surrounding the Mediterranean and beyond. 

Uniting the tribes of Arabia under a common monotheistic religion, Muhammad was able to conquer Syria by 636, Alexandria by 642, Carthage by 697 and finally crossing the Straight of Gibralter in 711 they moved into Spain. To all observers it appeared that Islam would become the dominant religion of Europe, surpassing Christianity. Having established control of the Iberian Peninsula, the Muslim general Abd ar-Rahman departed his base in Pamplona and crossed the Pyrenees into the territory controlled by the Franks. He would make it across the Garonne River, pass the city of Bordeaux and reach all the way to the town of Poitiers with little resistance by local forces. It was not until he encountered Charles Martel, known by historians as “the Hammer”, that the advance of Islam would be checked. 

One of the main contributing factors to the rapid rise and movement of Islam throughout Norther Africa and the Iberian peninsula was a use of mounted soldiers. This was to serve as the Achilles heel of Abd ar-Rahmans forces when they encountered Charles Martel on the road from Poitiers to Tours. In what is known as the Battle of Tours, the Battle of Poiters and the Battle of the Palace of the Martyrs by Arab sources, Charles Martel controlling Frankish and Burgundian forces would defeat the advancing Muslims be relying on military tactics used by the Romans and Greeks for centuries. Rather than relying on the maneuver warfare of knights on horseback so often seen in popular depictions of Middle Ages warfare, Charles Martel’s forces, an assortment of spearman, light infantry and aristocratic nobles formed up on foot to hold firm the road from Poitiers to Tours.  Here they would encounter and defeat the advancing Islamic invaders. They would methodically beat back the advancing horseman in what was described by the historian Isadore as “the men of Europe, an immovable sea, stood close to another and stiffened like a wall, as a mass of ice they stood firm together.” And “with great blows of their swords, they beat down the Arabs.” With fortitude and strength, the men of Europe had preserved Christianity in Europe on that fateful day in October 732. If not for them Europe would likely have been praying to Mecca five times a day.

Curtis, Lang and Petersen, The 100 Most Important Events in Christian History. Flemming H. Revell, Grand Rapids MI. 1991.

Hanson, Victor Davis, Carnage and Culture: Landmark Battles in the Rise of Western Power. Anchor Books, New York. 2001.

Sunday, February 12, 2017

The Stylites

The rise of Monasticism in the 4th century continued in the 5th and 6th centuries. In the Christian east, this monasticism and attraction to asceticism manifested itself in many bizarre and extreme forms. One of these odd forms of hermetic asceticism can be seen in the Stylites, or “pillar-hermits”. 

The Stylites were Christian ascetics that chose to live atop a column or pillar (Greek: stylos). These rare examples of asceticism were known for their great holiness and could be found throughout eastern Christendom. Stylites lived for extended periods atop pillars typically with an area of four square yards. They were exposed to the elements, though sometimes they had a roof, and received sustenance from disciples that brought meager amounts of food to them by climbing up ladders. They spent most of their time in prayer but were also known to perform pastoral work among those who gathered around their columns. 

Ruins of the Church of Saint Simeon Stylites,
located 30km northwest of Aleppo Syria
The first known Stylite was Saint Simeon the Elder who mounted his column in Syria in 423 AD. He was born in Sisan about 388 and took up work as a shepherd before joining a monastery at age 16. due to his extreme asceticism and austerity, he was deemed unfit for communal life and was forced to quit the monastery. He became a hermit and lived a reclusive life in a hut in Telanissos in Syria. After three years he moved outdoors to a hill near one of Syria's main thoroughfares and was visited by travelers wanting to see the famous ascetic and ask his counsel. In order to escape this disturbance, he decided to live atop a pillar the first of which was 9 feet and finally, legend has it that, he ended up on a pillar 50 feet high. Atop his pillar, he conversed via letter with many people including the Emperor Theodosius, the Empress Eudocia and the Emperor Leo to whom Simeon wrote in favor of the Council of Chalcedon. He died in 459, having spent 37 years on his pillar. A church was built over his grave in the late 400s and his column was placed in the central court. 

Wellcome Library, London

Saint Simeon the Elder inspired many others to follow in his footsteps and his imitators include, Saint Daniel in Constantinople, Saint Simeon the Younger near Antioch, Saint Alypius near Adrianopolis, Saint Luke at Chalcedon and Saint Lazarus near Ephesus. Various other stylites lived throughout Greece and the Middle East and the only known stylite in the West was Saint Wulfaicus, a deacon near Yvoi, France who was forced by church authorities to descend. The longest reported period any Stylite spent atop their pillar was Saint Alypius who remained atop his pillar for, as legend has it, 67 years. 


Johnson, Paul. A History of Christianity. Simon and Schuster, New York. 1976

Thurston, Herbert. "St. Simeon Stylites the Elder." The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 13. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1912. 12 Feb. 2017 <>.

Crocker, H.W. Triumph:The Power and Glory of the Catholic Church. Three Rivers Press, New York.2001.

Encyclopedia Britanica, Saint Simeon Stylites,

Encyclopedia Britanica, Stylites

Sunday, February 5, 2017

The Rise and Condemnation of Arius

Arius was a layman from Alexandria who was ordained a priest by Achillas the Bishop of Alexandria. By all accounts, he was an eloquent, learned and holy man with a skill in disputation that surpassed many of his contemporaries. He likely could have been a father or doctor of the church except for his flawed belief about the divinity of Jesus. He promoted a theological position that viewed Jesus as a created and not eternal being, separate from the father. Alexander, the successor to Achillas demanded that Arius retract his position and Arius refused.(1) This was the beginning of the first great theological controversy in the history of the Church.

In response to the censorship of Alexander, Arius wrote to Eusebius, bishop of Nicomedia and kinsman of Constantine. In his letter to Eusebius sent via Ammonius he declares his opposition to Bishop Alexanders statements that there was, “always a God, always a Son;” “as soon as the Father, so soon the Son [existed];” “with the Father co-exists the Son unbegotten, ever-begotten, begotten without begetting;” “God neither precedes the Son in aspect or in a moment of time;” “always a God, always a Son, the Son being from God himself.”(2)

With the help of Eusebius, Arius continued his promotion of what many western bishops knew to be a heretical doctrine. Writing to many bishops throughout the eastern portions of the Roman Empire using scripture texts from Matthew 27, Mark 13 and John 14 Arius won many converts.(3) Tensions rose as more an more bishops sided with Arius. In 320 AD Bishop Alexander gathered all the bishops in his region to a synod in which they universally condemned Arius. Arius persisted and Alexander excommunicated him. It was a battle of wills.(4)

Arius left Egypt and headed East to Palestine then to the Nicomedia obtaining converts all along his path. In many cases disagreements turned to violence and Constantine, having just taken control of the entire Roman Empire by defeating the Eastern augustus Licinius took notice of the problems being cause in Alexandria and throughout the Eastern portions of his Empire. Taking an unprecedented step, Constantine convoked a council of all the bishops of the Roman Empire. Previously smaller councils would be convoked by local or regional bishops. This was the first universal council and it was declared by the Emperor himself.(5)

16th-century fresco depicting the Council of Nicaea
The council convened in the City of Nicaea in 325 AD so Constantine himself could participate.(6) Bishops from all over the Christian world we invited and attended. Notably absent was the Bishop of Rome, Sylvester, struggling from illness he sent two emissaries.(7) Somewhere between two and three hundred Bishops attended and all but two voted for what is known as the Nicene Creed, vindicating Alexander and condemning Arius and his followers. Their declaration read...

We believe in one God, the Father Almighty, maker of all things visible and invisible; and in one Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, the only-begotten of his Father, of the substance of the Father, God of God, Light of Light, very God of very God, begotten (γεννηθέντα), not made, being of one substance (ὁμοούσιον, consubstantialem) with the Father. By whom all things were made, both which be in heaven and in earth. Who for us men and for our salvation came down [from heaven] and was incarnate and was made man. He suffered and the third day he rose again, and ascended into heaven. And he shall come again to judge both the quick and the dead. And [we believe] in the Holy Ghost

And whosoever shall say that there was a time when the Son of God was not (ἤν ποτε ὅτε οὐκ ἦν), or that before he was begotten he was not, or that he was made of things that were not, or that he is of a different substance or essence [from the Father] or that he is a creature, or subject to change or conversion — all that so say, the Catholic and Apostolic Church anathematizes them.(8)

(1) Laux, Fr John. Church History. Rockford:Tan Books and Publishers, Inc, 1989. p107
(2) Letter of Arius to Eusebius of Nicomedia,
(3) Schreck, Alan. The Compact History of the Catholic Church Cincinnati:Servant Books 2009 p25
(4) Laux p108
(5) Wilken, Robert L. The First Thousand Years: A Global History of Christianity. New Haven: Yale University Press 2012. p91
(6) ibid
(7) ibid, and Laux p109