Peter of Alexandria
We are now on our second of three days reading Peter of Alexandria. Peter of Alexandria was was Bishop of Alexandria from 300 to 311; his episcopate thus covered the Diocletianic Persecution, also called the Great Persecution — that last, great persecution of Christians by the Roman imperial powers that would leave an indelible mark upon the church’s identity and self-image ever after.
Eusebius, in Book 8.10 of the Ecclesiastical History, gives a description of the persecution in Alexandria from an eyewitness named Phileas:
And the spectacle of the outrages was varied and exhibited great malignity. For some, with their hands bound behind them, were suspended on the stocks, and every member stretched by certain machines. Then the torturers, as commanded, lacerated with instruments2542 their entire bodies; not only their sides, as in the case of murderers, but also their stomachs and knees and cheeks. Others were raised aloft, suspended from the porch by one hand, and endured the most terrible suffering of all, through the distension of their joints and limbs. Others were bound face to face to pillars, not resting on their feet, but with the weight of their bodies bearing on their bonds and drawing them tightly.
6. And they endured this, not merely as long as the governor talked with them or was at leisure, but through almost the entire day. For when he passed on to others, he left officers under his authority to watch the first, and observe if any of them, overcome by the tortures, appeared to yield. And he commanded to cast them into chains without mercy, and afterwards when they were at the last gasp to throw them to the ground and drag them away.
7. For he said that they were not to have the least concern for us, but were to think and act as if we no longer existed, our enemies having invented this second mode of torture in addition to the stripes.
8. “Some, also, after these outrages, were placed on the stocks, and had both their feet stretched over the four2543 holes, so that they were compelled to lie on their backs on the stocks, being unable to keep themselves up on account of the fresh wounds with which their entire bodies were covered as a result of the scourging. Others were thrown on the ground and lay there under the accumulated infliction of tortures, exhibiting to the spectators a more terrible manifestation of severity, as they bore on their bodies the marks of the various and diverse punishments which had been invented.
9. As this went on, some died under the tortures, shaming the adversary by their constancy. Others half dead were shut up in prison, and suffering with their agonies, they died in a few days; but the rest, recovering under the care which they received, gained confidence by time and their long detention in prison.
10. When therefore they were ordered to choose whether they would be released from molestation by touching the polluted sacrifice, and would receive from them the accursed freedom, or refusing to sacrifice, should be condemned to death, they did not hesitate, but went to death cheerfully. For they knew what had been declared before by the Sacred Scriptures. For it is said,2544 ‘He that sacrificeth to other gods shall be utterly destroyed,’2545 and, ‘Thou shalt have no other gods before me.’
However, as we see in the readings from Peter, not everyone withstood persecution so well. These people are the lapsed, much discussed several decades earlier in St Cyprian of Carthage’s works. Peter’s discipline for the lapsed in his Canons represents the standard line of what would be the mainstream tradition, that different offenders or kinds of lapse require different severities or lengths of penance and excommunication before restoration to fellowship, and clerics who lapse are to be cut off from ministry ever after.
Along with the canons of Peter, we find commentary by Balsamon and Zonaras. Theodore Balsamon (c. 1130 to after 1195) was Patriarch of Antioch (although he stayed in Constantinople), hegoumenos of Blachernai and the monastery called to Zipon, and a major canonist; that is, he compiled documents pertinent to canon law and commented on them, particularly those of the Nomokanon in Fourteen Titles which is the main source of Byzantine canon law, including many texts otherwise now lost and seeking to revise statements that were contradictory or obsolete. Interestingly, this is the same period as Gratian in the West and some of the major Latin canonists, as well.
Zonaras (d. after 1159) was a historian, theologian, canonist, and court official under Emperor Alexius I (1048-1118). After the death of Alexius, Zonaras left the civil service and became a monk at the monastery of St Glykeria. Besides writing commentaries on a number of sources for canon law, he also wrote an Epitome Historion, running from creation to death of Alexius in 1118. His perspective on running the empire was based on the Roman ideal of bureaucracy and officialdom, thus of meritocracy, over against the more feudal or “seigneurial” style of Alexius.