I would call 365 of the Common Era the worst year for Christianity since Jesus got arrested. It began in January when raiding parties of Germanic tribes crossed the Rhine at Strasburg in Gaul. As a soldier risen from the ranks, the new Emperor in Constantinople, the sour faced Valentinian I, realized that if the Germans were having a hungry winter, then spring would bring a full scale invasion. He immediately ordered the commander of the two under strength legions in Gaul, Charietto, to call for support from the loyal tribes. And he started planing to move his court and his legions to the west.
The sour puss Valentinian (above) had only taken on the purple in March of 364, at 43 years old. He was smart and decisive. But he had little patience with intellectuals, and when the Christian leader Hillary of Potiers insisted the Emperor enforce persecutions of pagans and Christian heretics the Emperor told him to go home, into exile. Valentinian was a Christian, but with so many enemies outside the empire, he did not want to give anybody inside the empire - pagan or Christian - a reason to join them. To an ideologue like Hillary, such practical tolerance was an insult to God.
Hillary (above) had been waging war against the ideas of Bishop Arius of Alexandria since the Council of Nicoea, back in 325 C.E.. Eventually even Constantine the Great, who had convened the Council, got tired of Hillary's insistent calls for punishing any who suggested that God the father (Yawyeh) and God the Son (Jesus) were not the same persona. “Jesus that I know as my Redeemer cannot be less than God”, the “Hammer of the Arians” insisted. And yet even after Arius died in an Alexandrian toilet after being poisoned in 336, his idea of God the father and the demigod his son, refused to be stamped out Even after being dismissed by Valentinian I, with the threat of exile hanging over his own head , Hillary could not keep his mouth or his pen shut. In the spring of 365 Hillary's condemnation of the Emperor became a minor best seller.
Like many a Christian ideologue since, the 55 year old Hillary divined the end of the world was coming because the Emperor refused to listen to him. And if anybody could see the end of the world coming, it would be Hillary of Poitiers, who helped create acceptance for the “Book of Revelations” by the Council of Nicocea (above). That book prophesied that one of the signs of the “end of times” would be the rise and rule of the Antichrist. And wrote Hillary in the year 365, “the Antichrist is ruling.”. Most educated people took his rhetoric as just more holy hot air.
Back in Gaul, as winter turned to spring, Charietto sent scouts into the border forests, to attack the German raiders in their sleep. He paid these hunters by the kill, which they proved by bringing in German heads, which were then impaled on spikes around Gaulic villages as a morale builder. But the bloody tributes failed to inspire the population. So the general sought out the support of an aging pro Roman Gaul, Serverianus, who managed to raise a small force loyal to him. And that June, with his legions tied to the major cities, Charietto was forced to use Severianus's men as a rapid response force.
Unfortunately the Germans ambushed the Gauls. Serverianus was thrown from his horse and killed. Charietto managed to slow the rout for a time, but when he was killed the entire force was either slaughtered or scattered. And all of Gaul began to ask themselves what they were paying Roman taxes for. It started to seem as if Hillary had been right. God - father, son and Holy Ghost - was intent on punishing the Roman world.
The Emperor Valentinian I was already on the road to Gaul, and had reached the old Imperial villa at Mediana, in what is today southern Serbia, when word of the disaster reached him. He immediately dispatched an old political ally, Dagalaifus, to take charge of things on the ground in Gaul. But the disaster highlighted, again, that the Empire was too big for one man to rule. Valentinian had promised to name a co-ruler and he did so now, handing over Constantinople and the eastern half of his realm to his younger brother Valens . This division, in 365, would prove to be the ultimate break between east and west, Greek and Latin Christianity, but at the time it was merely a division of convience. Valentinian then hurried on to Gaul, not pausing until he had reached the ancient circular fortress town of Rheims.
Meanwhile, roughly 17,000 feet beneath the merchant ships plying the surface between the bread basket of North Africa and the way station island of Crete, a truly earth shaking doomsday was looming. As yet unimagined by human minds, ancient Greece and the islands of the Aegean, birthplace of democracy and Western literature, was being held in place by the anvil of the European plate, while from the south the even larger hammer of the African plate was driving under the Aegean plate at an inch and a half a year, downward at a 30 degree angle and pulling the southern edge of Crete down with it.
And off the island's southwest coast, just after dawn on 21 July, 365, the rocks of the Aegean plate snapped, and the west coast of Crete suddenly popped 20 feet into the air. Hillary of Poitiers may have prophesied this as the end of the world, but it had happened before. That was why Crete is there.
Almost two thousand years later the shaking would be estimated as an 8.5 earthquake on the classic Richter Scale. Survivor Ammianus Marcellinus would describe it as “...a thick succession of fiercely shaken thunderbolts” which made “the solidity of the whole earth...shake and shudder.” And he was 600 miles southeast of the epicenter.
A mere 20 miles away, at the base of a peninsula on the northwest coast of Crete, was the port of Phalasarna (above), a wealthy harbor for over six hundred years. That morning, 21 July, 365, the entire harbor and town was lifted nine feet out of the water.
Walls and stairways cracked, homes and work shops collapsed and the stone supports for the piers (above) were lifted straight upward, high and dry. In a few moments it became a port without water. In the town, the dead outnumbered the living. And every town on Crete was damaged or destroyed by the quake.
The pagan writer Libanius attributed the disaster to the anger of Poseidon, the god of the sea and of earthquakes, as punishment for the heresy of Christianity. The world was, “Like a horse shaking off his rider...All the cities of Libya were destroyed...the greatest cities in Sicily lie in ruins, as do those in the Hellenes...beautiful Nicacea has been felled.” Meanwhile the Christian writer Jerome described the collapse of the walls and houses of the city Ar Moab, east of the Dead Sea in Palestine, as the Christian God's wraith for paganism.
But the greater killer was the tsunami. To the west, 600 miles from the epicenter, the first 82 foot high tidal wave hit 70 minutes after the quake, washing up to a mile inland on Malta. On the south coast of Cyprus, 500 miles to the east, the wave drowned the city of Kourion, killing at least 5,000, including craftsmen at their work benches. But the worst was what the wave did to the great city of Alexandria, on the Nile Delta.
Marcellinus was there when “...the sea was driven away...so that the abyss of the depths was uncovered...Many ships, then, were stranded as if on dry land, and people wandered...to collect fish and the like in their hands; then the roaring sea....returning when least expected killed many thousands by drowning...the bodies of people killed in shipwrecks lay there, faces up or down. Other huge ships, thrust out by the mad blasts, perched on the roofs of houses...hurled nearly two miles from the shore.”.The cost in Alexandria was at least 5,000 dead and 50,000 homes and apartments destroyed. Farmland in the rich Nile Delta was poisoned by salt water for a decade.
Where the island of Crete, north of the fault, had been raised in an instant by 9 feet or more, south of the fault, in Alexandria, the shore slowly sank by 20 feet, submerging the harbor breakwaters, the famous lighthouse, even Cleopatra's tomb.
And the House of the Dead, tomb of Alexander the Great, one of the greatest mausoleums in the world, was shattered by the earthquake and then smashed by the waves, its scattered stones scavenged until there was nothing left of it. For two centuries Alexandria would memorialize “The Day of Horror”.
In far off Reims, in northeastern France, Valentinian I's only concern was that in the midst of a Germanic invasion, he was suddenly told he could expect no revenues from the rich lands of north Africa and Sicily. Meanwhile in the east, his brother Valens was facing his own crises.
Upon becoming eastern Emperor, Valens (above) moved his legions to quell revolts in Mesopotamia, and had reached Cappadocian Ceasarea, 600 miles from Constantinople, when his father-in-law hit the fan.
As commander of the Martensian legion responsible for order in the capital, Pretronius Probus (the father-in-law) was running the city in Valens absence. But according to our old friend Marcellinus, Petronius was “ a man ugly in spirit and in appearance...inexorable, cruel, savage and fearlessly hard-hearted, never capable of giving or receiving reason” in his search for tax debts going back decades. He “...closed the houses of the poor and the palaces of the rich in great numbers....”
And according to the Catholic historian Gregory of Nazianzus, Pretonius even arrested (later Saint) Basil of Nazianzus, to squeeze money out of the church. It proved a repossession too far, and there was a general uprising in the city. “Each man was armed with the tool he was using, or with whatever else came to hand at the moment. Torch in hand, amid showers of stones, with cudgel's ready, all ran and shouted together in their united zeal....Nor were the women weaponless...” As dramatic as the story told by both historians may be, I suspect that what rose in Constantinople in the late summer of 365 was an “astro-turf” rebellion, for the benefit of Procopius, a distant relative of the Emperor Constantine the Great, who promised the upper classes a return of stability and power.
Learning of all this in September, Valens thought briefly about abdication, or even suicide. But his advisers (and his wife) would have none of that. So he turned his military expedition around and started his legions back to the capital. The first two legions to approach the city were bribed by Probopius's supporters, and joined the rebellion, supported by Catholic Church leaders. This fed Valens's growing distrust in the Church and encouraged Valen's sympathy for the “Arians Christians”, who were more understanding of the Emperor's need to raise revenues. The split between Latin and Greek Churches was growing wider by the minute.
It would be the next year before the rebel Procopius and his supporters could be tracked down and killed. And that same year, of 366, before the Germanic tribes would be forced back across the Rhine. For the time being.
In January of 367 defender of the Trinity, Hillary of Poitiers, who prophesied with certainty the world was coming to an end, instead died in exile. But Christianity, and the world, both survived in spite of his vision.
This was proof again that Christianity could survive even its most fervent supporters, who always seem to confuse their personal doomsday with God's.