WHETHER Constantine was persuaded by Eustathius’ argument, or Hosius’ flattery, at that moment such matter appeared immaterial. Being a practical man, and seeing no better option, he agreed with the proposal to convoke an ecumenical council among the prominent priests. It was called ecumenical because all prominent priests the world over were invited to attend. Ecumenical is a term borrowed from a Greek word oikoumenikos, meaning universal.
It was going to be nothing less than a universal gathering, where all priests in the then known universe would be invited to participate. A place called Nicaea in the Asia Minor was chosen, its location being the most central in the Christian world and the city was near the seat of the Constantine’s empire. Constantine also had summer imperial palace there, where the council would be held. The date May 20th 325 was chosen and letters convoking all prominent bishops and priests were sent. Altogether 1,800 bishops were invited: 1,000 from the East and 800 from the West.
Hosius was right. Even a god needs a king, for throughout the Christianity history up until that moment, there had not been a turnout as big as the one at Nicaea. About 2,018 priests of various denominations came from the East as well as the West. Even bishops from the Persian Empire attended, though they were by definition not obliged to attend, for at least two reasons. One, they were not Constantine’s subjects, since they were the subjects of the Persian Emperor. Two, the convocation was not made by a Christian authority, but a pagan emperor. Yet they came, no doubt on the pretext that the council was to be convened by a neutral authority, namely the pagan emperor, or at best a nominal Christian emperor, thereby giving the air of hope that everybody would have fair chance of voicing his view.
The only notable absentee was the pope Sylvester I, the bishop of Rome, on account of his infirmity. In his place, however, two presbyters were sent.
Two thousand and eighteen people were too huge a crowd for a meaningful council. Hence only 320 bishops and prominent priests were allowed to enter the meeting hall. Selection criteria were determined by the secretariat of the council, headed by Hosius as the president of the council, whose job was to preside on the proceeding. The Emperor Constantine was to be the observer and overseer of the whole procession, and of course to decide, should these zealots cannot reconcile their differences. So it was that on 20th of May the year 325, three hundred and twenty prominent bishops throughout the world convened at Nicaea.
Constantine made a royal appearance wearing his royal robe seating in his royal throne. His role was made clear: to observe the procession, to be the overseer of the whole proceeding, and to decide should the attendees cannot reconcile their differences. Hosius of course had given more than sufficient briefs to the emperor to enable him to be the final decision maker. Hosius himself took his place as the president of the whole procession. In his hand lies the outcome of the great meeting. He was to be impartial to any dispute, especially regarding the Arian controversy.
All attendees took their seats, greetings being made, purpose of the meeting being read, and the agenda being set, the debate started. Here was a group of people passionately debating the subtle and the not so subtle differences in their faiths. At times the emotion ran so high that the debaters were literally on each other’s necks. Sometimes the arguments were pure brilliant; sometimes pure insults. Occasionally they seemed to reach an agreement; most of the time, however, it appeared that they were not capable of agreeing on anything. Regardless of what transpired, one thing was clear. This was a group of people whom even death was more preferable than forsaking their faith. They were totally devoted to their belief, for better or for worse.
As Constantine pondered further, another thing was clear. For all their passions, devotions and commitments, these people lacked the formula that will glue them together. That formula was a temporal leadership. As of now, they were totally disunited. Disunited zealots were bad omen for the state; that much Constantine knew. An emperor who can seize the opportunity to be their temporal leader will achieve two benefits. First, his empire would not only be more orderly, but he would have a group of fearless soldiers to defend the state. Their bravery bordering on death wish had been proven many times before, especially at the Milvian Bridge against the forces of Maxentius, and at the many battles against Licinius, especially at Adrianople, Hellespont, and Chrysopolis. Second, that leader will have the opportunity to be immortal. Not immortality in literal sense, but his name would be remembered for eternity.
The short conversation Constantine had with Hosius rang again in his ear. The problem of these zealots calling themselves Christians had not been lost to Constantine. Having defeated all his rivals, Constantine was then concerned about making his empire orderly. But he had been disturbed by these zealots whom Licinius considered pests. When Licinius was defeated and put to death, the foremost in Constantine’s mind was how to rein this bunch of zealots.
Hosius was right. The divisiveness among these zealots calling themselves Christians had reached the proportion that they can no longer solve it among themselves. It had to be intervened. And intervened by an emperor, no less.
Alas, we move too fast. There are many finer points that occurred inside and outside of that august conference, as there are many important incidents that occurred during, before and after that pioneer ecumenical council. These we shouldn’t miss, for they constitute the important parts of the story. We shall look into some details and not be content with just a mere summary.
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