The Nicene Creed: Ancient Defense Mechanism?

hexamillion_block

Justinian’s Nicene inscription from the Corinthian Isthmus. Dates to the 6th century CE. Ancient national security.

Hunched over a Greek inscription in OSU’s epigraphy center, I checked my translation again. It couldn’t possibly be right, could it?:

“φῶς ἐκ φωτός, θεὸς ἀληθινὸς ἐκ θεοῦ ἀληθινοῦ…”

“Light from light, true God from true God…”

Yep, the opening line of my inscription was lifted directly from the Nicene Creed, the famous 4th-century profession of faith that distills all of Christian orthodoxy into one short passage. Inscribed in legible, albeit messy, handwriting, it bore all the hallmarks of the Late Antique period…poor syntax, imaginative letter-forms, and crosses. The fact that it mentioned Emperor Justinian, though, made it obvious:

+Light from Light, True

God from True God

guard the Emperor

Justinian and his

faithful servant

Victorinus as well as those

dwelling in Greece according to the living God.+

512px-Corinth_ast_2005129_lrgThis inscription was originally carved on a block on the Hexamillion Wall…a series of fortifications spanning the Isthmus of Corinth. At a mere 6.3 km wide, the Isthmus was the only land route between the Peloponnese and the Greek mainland, causing rulers to covet the land not only for its strategic value but also its commercial viability as a crossroads between the Western and Eastern Mediterranean. In fact, merchants in antiquity used to transport their goods (and sometimes even their ships!) across the Isthmus on the Diolkos Road. Justinian wisely capitalized on this prime real estate, but stone and mortar alone apparently did not satisfy his defensive criteria. He required divine protection.

By invoking the Nicene Creed, this inscription not only broadcasted the emperor’s Orthodoxy but also called upon the power of God using a well-known formula. This strategy echoes other inscriptions intended to ward away misfortune, whether that be an enemy assault, plague, or demonic invasion. A similar block appears in the city of Miletus which reads:

Archangels! Protect the city of the Milesians and all the inhabitants!

Unlike the Hexamillion block, which only uses small crosses, the Milesian block includes esoteric magical symbols that were believed to harness and direct ritual power. Here we see two different strategies to defend imperiled space, one invoking God, the other archangels. However, early Christians had a panoply of options available to them for supernatural protection…some quite a bit less “orthodox” than Justinian’s pious inscription. The bishop John Chrysostom, for example, lambastes his congregation for wearing medallions of Alexander the Great around their necks: “Why rely on a Greek king when you can rely on the King of Kings??”

Today the Nicene Creed is synonymous with orthodoxy. Millions of Christians every week recite it in response to the question: “Christian: What do you believe?” But what does the Nicene Creed mean in an epigraphical context? Particularly when it closely resembles other Greco-Roman magical strategies?

As I’ve said before concerning amatory spells, Christians in Late Antiquity deployed any strategy they deemed effective regardless of “orthodoxy” when it came to magic. Although Christianity had blossomed in popularity by the 5th and 6th centuries, the Mediterranean world remained a religiously pluralistic society, enabling individuals who may have attended the basilicas on Sundays to appropriate indigenous practices into their own worldview. We shouldn’t interpret this as vestiges of “paganism” persisting in a sub-culture of semi-converted Christians, but rather, as culture’s inexorable tendency to assimilate readily available symbols and reinvest them with new meaning. Labeling this phenomenon as the intermingling of “Christianity” with “paganism” skews the social reality of Late Antiquity—a time when neither term was well-defined or used as discrete categories of classification.

Justinian’s Hexamillion inscription certainly proclaims Nicene Christianity, but the inscription joins a long tradition of employing stone to defend imperiled space. This should alert us to the fact that early Christians were a product of their immediate culture as much as we are today. Although we invoke symbols and discourses to differentiate ourselves from the Other, we may have a lot more in common with our neighbor than we think.

Further Reading:

Rangar Cline, “Archangels, Magical Amulets, and the Defense of Late Antique Miletus,” Journal of Late Antiquity, Volume 4, Number 1, Spring 2011, 55-78.