his own Son, as the heretic Sabellius imagined. But they are two, for the Father is Father, and the Son is not the same, but, again, the Son is Son, and not the Father himself. But their Nature (φύσις) is one, for the Begotten is not dissimilar (ἀνόμοιος) to the Begetter, but his image, and everything that is the Father’s is also the Son’s.”
Five months after the return from the council of Nicaea Bishop Alexander died; and on the 8th of February 326 Athanasius, at the age of thirty-three, became his successor. The first years of his episcopate were tranquil; then the storms in which the remainder of his life was passed began to gather round him. The council had by no means composed the divisions in the Church which the Arian controversy had provoked. Arius himself still lived, and his friend Eusebius of Nicomedia rapidly regained influence over the emperor Constantine. The result was a demand made by the emperor that Arius should be readmitted to communion. Athanasius stood firm, but many accusers soon rose up against one who was known to be under the frown of the imperial displeasure. He was charged with cruelty, even with sorcery and murder. It was reported that a bishop of the Meletian party (see Meletius) in the Thebaid, of the name of Arsenius, had been unlawfully put to death by him. He was easily able to clear himself of these charges; but the hatred of his enemies was not relaxed, and in the summer of 335 he was peremptorily ordered to appear at Tyre, where a council had been summoned to sit in judgment upon his conduct. There appeared plainly a predetermination to condemn him, and he fled from Tyre to Constantinople to appeal to the emperor himself. Refused at first a hearing, his perseverance was at length rewarded by the emperor’s assent to his reasonable request that his accusers should be brought face to face with him in the imperial presence. Accordingly the leaders of the council, the most conspicuous of whom were Eusebius of Nicomedia and his namesake of Caesarea, were summoned to Constantinople. Here they did not attempt to repeat their old charges, but found a more effective weapon to their hands in a new charge of a political kind—that Athanasius had threatened to stop the Alexandrian corn-ships bound for Constantinople. It is very difficult to understand how far there was truth in the persistent accusations made against the prince-bishop of Alexandria. Probably there was in the very greatness of his character and the extent of his popular influence a certain species of dominance which lent a colour of truth to some of the things said against him. On the present occasion his accusers succeeded at once in arousing the imperial jealousy. Without obtaining a hearing, he was banished at the end of 335 to Trèves in Gaul. This was the first banishment of Athanasius, which lasted about one year and a half. It was brought to a close by the death of Constantine, and the accession as emperor of the West of Constantine II., who, in June 337, allowed Athanasius to return to Alexandria.
He reached his see on the 23rd of November 337, and, as he himself has told us, “the people ran in crowds to see his face; the churches were full of rejoicing; thanksgivings were everywhere offered up; the ministers and clergy thought the day the happiest in their lives.” But this period of happiness was destined to be short-lived. His position as bishop of Alexandria placed him, not under his patron Constantine, but under Constantius, another son of the elder Constantine, who had succeeded to the throne of the East. He in his turn fell, as his father had done in later years, under the influence of Eusebius of Nicomedia, who in the latter half of 339 was transferred to the see of Constantinople, the new seat of the imperial court. A second expulsion of Athanasius was accordingly resolved upon. The old accusations against him were revived, and he was further charged with having set at naught the decision of a council. On the 18th of March 339 the exarch of Egypt suddenly confronted Athanasius with an imperial edict, by which he was deposed and a Cappadocian named Gregory was nominated bishop in his place. On the following day, after tumultuous scenes, Athanasius fled, and four days later Gregory was installed by the aid of the soldiery. On the first opportunity, Athanasius went to Rome, to “lay his case before the church.” A synod assembled at Rome in the autumn of 340, and the great council—probably that which met at Sardica in 342 or 343, where the Orientals refused to meet the representatives of the Western church—declared him guiltless. This decision, however, had no immediate effect in favour of Athanasius. Constantius continued for some time implacable, and the bold action of the Western bishops only incited the Arian party in Alexandria to fresh severities. But the death of the intruder Gregory, on the 26th of June 345, opened up a way of reconciliation. Constantius decided to yield to the importunity of his brother Constans, who had succeeded Constantine II. in the West; and the result was the restoration of Athanasius for the second time, on the 21st of October 346. Again he returned to Alexandria amid the enthusiastic demonstrations of the populace, which is described by Gregory of Nazianzus, in his panegyric on Athanasius, as streaming forth like “another Nile” to meet him afar off as he approached the city.
The six years of his residence in the West had given Athanasius the opportunity of displaying a momentous activity. He made long journeys in Italy, in Gaul, and as far as Belgium. Everywhere he laboured for the Nicene faith, and the impression made by his personality was so great that to hold fast the orthodox faith and to defend Athanasius were for many people one and the same thing. This was shown when, after the death of the emperor Constans, Constantius became sole ruler of East and West. With the help of counsellors more subtle than discerning, the emperor, with the object of uniting the various parties in the Church at any cost, sought for the most colourless possible formula of belief, which he hoped to persuade all the bishops to accept. As his efforts remained for years fruitless, he used force. “My will is your guiding-line,” he exclaimed in the summer of 355 to the bishops who had assembled at Milan in response to his orders. A series of his most defiant opponents had to go into banishment, Liberius of Rome, Hilarius of Poitiers and Hosius of Corduba, the last-named once the confidant of Constantine and the actual originator of the Homousios, and now nearly a hundred years old. At length came the turn of Athanasius, now almost the sole upholder of the banner of the Nicene creed in the East. Several attempts to expel him failed owing to the attitude of the populace. On the night of the 8th-9th of February 356, however, when the bishop was holding the Vigils, soldiers and police broke into the church of Theonas. Athanasius himself has described the scene for us: “I was seated upon my chair, the deacon was about to read the psalm, the people to answer, ‘For his mercy endureth for ever.’ The solemn act was interrupted; a panic arose.” The bishop, who was at first unwilling to save himself, until he knew that his faithful followers were in safety, succeeded in escaping, leaving the town and finding a hiding-place in the country. The solitudes of Upper Egypt, where numerous monasteries and hermitages had been planted, seem at this time to have been his chief shelter. In this case, benefit was repayed by benefit, for Athanasius during his episcopate had been a zealous promoter of asceticism and monachism. With Anthony the hermit and Pachomius the founder of monasteries, he had maintained personal relations, and the former he had commemorated in his Life of Anthony. During his exile his time was occupied in writing on behalf of his cause, and to this period belong some of his most important works, above all the great Orations or Discourses against the Arians, which furnish the best exposition of his theological principles.
During his absence the see of Alexandria was left without a pastor. It is true that George of Cappadocia had taken his place; but he could only maintain himself for a short while (February 357-October 358). The great majority of the population remained faithful to the exile. At length, in November 361, the way was opened to him for his return to his see by the death of Constantius. Julian, who succeeded to the imperial throne, professed himself indifferent to the contentions of the Church, and gave permission to the bishops exiled in the late reign to return home. Among others, Athanasius availed himself of this permission, and in February 362 once more seated himself upon