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Last Updated on May 12, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1197

Athens in the fourth century, during the reign of the Roman Emperor Constantius, was divided by three factions. Dominant among the three was one Christian faction headed by Bishop Peter of Athens. Opposing them, though less in number, was the faction which adhered to the heresy of Athanasius. The third faction was the group which still clung to the gods of ancient Greece and the reasonable philosophy of Plato. The last group was headed by Chrysanteus, archon of Athens and its richest citizen. Representing Rome in the city was Annaeus Domitius, the proconsul, who by traveling a middle path hoped to keep some semblance of order in and about the city. His efforts were hindered by the fact that Julian the Apostate was about to succeed Constantius as the emperor of Rome; Constantius, a Christian, had favored the non-Athanasian Christians, but Julian, who was a pagan, favored the people who clung to the old gods.

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Under the favor of Constantius, Bishop Peter and his followers practically ruled Athens and dictated orders to the proconsul. When the Athanasians were accused of killing Bishop Peter’s father, a hermit who lived at the top of a pillar, Domitius turned over the troops of Rome to the bishop and discreetly left Athens to evade responsibility for what might happen. He did not want to take sides in the quarrel, and he feared that the hatred of the Christians might be turned against the pagans, including Chrysanteus. Domitius knew that if Constantius succeeded in retaining the empire, Chrysanteus’ death would be of little consequence; but if Julian were to succeed in becoming emperor, his old tutor, for Chrysanteus had been that, would be a very important person, one whom the proconsul did not want as a corpse about his neck.

As Domitius feared, riot and slaughter broke out in Athens, for Bishop Peter turned the troops and his followers against the heretic Christians and against the pagans. Word came to Domitius at his country villa, however, that Constantius had died and that Julian was emperor. Domitius immediately went back to Athens with the news, arriving in time to prevent a Christian mob from entering Chrysanteus’ dwelling to pillage and murder. Within a few hours, the Roman troops, having returned to the proconsul’s command, restored quiet in Athens and published Julian’s order that freedom of worship and belief were to be accorded all men. Bishop Peter and his Christian faction were reduced, to all appearances, to a position no better than that of any other group. They were ordered to restore to the pagans all the temples they had taken over and to replace treasures they had plundered and destroyed.

Actually, the bishop was more dangerous than ever. He had many spies within and without the city; he had, in addition, a large body of devoted and obedient fanatics at his call. Furthermore, he had as his foster son a young man who was actually Chrysanteus’ long-lost son, Clemens. Reared as a Christian, the boy had become a priest. Through Clemens, Bishop Peter plotted to destroy Chrysanteus. The bishop also plotted to convert Hermione, Chrysanteus’ daughter, to Christianity, not through any pious motives but simply to undermine the position of Chrysanteus and to secure his immediate wealth.

Fate seemed to go against Bishop Peter when Chrysanteus discovered, quite by chance, that Clemens was his son and that Bishop Peter was an escaped slave who had once belonged to the household of Chrysanteus. The bishop was thrown into prison by the archon, and Clemens was restored to his father’s home. Clemens, however, was so fanatic a Christian that he soon left his father’s house and became a hermit, dwelling in a cave on the outskirts of the city.

In the meantime, Charmides, an Epicurean betrothed to Hermione, fell into the bad graces of both Hermione and her father because of his profligate habits. He also fell prey to a Jewish broker, to whom he owed large sums of money, for the Jew became his enemy when he learned that his daughter was in love with Charmides. At the moment of his greatest despair, he was befriended by Bishop Peter, whose followers had succeeded in securing his release from prison. Bishop Peter saw in Charmides another tool in his battle against paganism and Chrysanteus. Upon Charmides’ promise to turn Christian, the bishop interceded with the Jew, showing the Jew that a reformed Charmides would still have an opportunity to marry Chrysanteus’ daughter. The Jew, seeing a chance to recoup all the money he had lent to the penniless Charmides, agreed to the bishop’s plan.

The plan worked smoothly. Reformed, Charmides was received again by Chrysanteus and Hermione, and a date was set for the wedding. Nothing was said of the fact that Charmides had been baptized as a Christian. On his wedding night, however, Charmides was killed, murdered by a young Jew who had discovered that Charmides had seduced the usurer’s daughter, to whom the assassin had been betrothed. After the death of Charmides, much to Chrysanteus’ discomfiture, the Christians claimed the body of Charmides for burial and proved by documents that the dead man had been one of their number.

Further disaster overtook pagan Chrysanteus when his son went mad after being attacked by another hermit. As if that were not enough, Julian the Apostate was killed in a battle with the Persians. The new emperor, Jovian, was not only a Christian but also an adherent to that branch of the Church represented by Bishop Peter. The bishop, supported by Roman troops and the proconsul, was again the real ruler of Athens.

Immediately upon hearing of Julian’s death, Chrysanteus and Hermione fled to the mountains, where they were befriended by another small sect of Christians, a group that had been declared heretics by the bishop and consequently had no love for him. Learning that Chrysanteus and Hermione had taken asylum with the outcasts, Bishop Peter, still avaricious for Chrysanteus’ great wealth, prevailed upon the proconsul to lead a crusade into the mountains against the heretics. Domitius was willing to do so, hoping thereby to win acclaim and honors from the new emperor. There was a short but bloody campaign. In the battle, Chrysanteus was killed and Hermione taken prisoner. Hermione was forced to submit to baptism. Rather than remain alive as a Christian under those circumstances, she killed herself immediately. Her death left the wealth of Chrysanteus in the hands of Bishop Peter. A short time later, his reasons for desiring the wealth became known; with it he intended to buy the bishopric of Rome, which even then was regarded as the seat of the Church. His superior at Constantinople suspected that Bishop Peter must intend to turn heretic, for the bishopric of Rome had turned to the beliefs of the Athanasians.

These suspicions were confirmed by agents sent to Athens, and orders were sent to Bishop Peter’s fellow priests to kill him. He was given a draught of poison which did not cause immediate death; he lived, ironically enough, to receive emissaries from Rome who offered him the coveted bishopric just before he died.

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