Skip to main content

Constantine & Naissus

Couple of centuries after Christ, Constantine was very popular name. Especially among soldiers in Roman and Bysantine empires along with Greeks during their Macedonian age. Within latin Cōnstantīnus and greek Κωνσταντῖνος (Kōnstantînos) name literally means the one who's constant and steadfast especially within military properties related to strength and stamina. In those times the land of my current location was called "Moesia Superior" with the city of Naissus in the role of its main trade center and biggest military outpost for Roman army. Today's name of the city is "Niš", the largest city of southern Serbia and also the city where I was born and where I live ever since. Serbian usage of the name is "Konstantin" and even though it is not related to military anymore, the name is fairly popular nowadays among young Serbians. It was third on my list when my son was born simply because I really like names with strong inner "adjectivity" and history as well, but in our case my son's name Viktor won six years ago in the photo finish. If I had another son his name would probably be Konstantin (Constantine) or Filip (Philip) but now it is certain that this will stay in my wish list only.

Constantine the Great*

Well, this post is not going to be just about names. Instead it will equally be about my birth town, history of Christian religion and "Edict of Milan", small glimpse to the Roman empire, the end of Classical era during violent events in ancient Alexandria and little photography on the way. But, for a moment, let's stay with names and their importance for this story. With mention of "Edict of Milan", the city I was most probably named for, many of you probably guessed why I partly named this post "Constantine". Constantine I or Constantine The Great, emperor of Western part of Roman empire and Licinius I, its fellow emperor of Eastern part, in February of 313, BC, declared Christianity, rising religion of the time, to be treated equal to all other official beliefs in the whole southern Europe, northern Africa and big portion of eastern Asia ruled by Romans after Crucifixion of Jesus where modern history we are living in started with. But, early days (or to better say centuries) of "modern history" or how we love to call it "AD" were, to call it the least, very disturbing. The probably best example of those violent "multi-religious" times happened at the end of fourth century in the city of Alexandria. I am sure if Alexander the Great knew what would happen 700 years after he founded the city, he would never do it in the first place. In the classic BC times of great city, free thought and scientific premises flourished in the most famous institution in the world at the time and probably ever since - the great Library of Alexandria. In those times over million scrolls from Assyria, Greece, Persia, Egypt, India and many other nations were stored in the library and comparing to nowadays terminology we can safely say that entire ancient "internet" were located within one single library. More than hundred scholars worked full time within Library's walls performing research, translating documents, giving lectures, writing books. It was one of the shiniest period of the whole World's history.

Then "Anno Domini" happened. Soon after the birth of Christianity, Alexandria became home for people of different beliefs but mainly Christians, Jews and Pagans. One ancient writer claimed that there was no people who loved a fight more than those of Alexandria. Religious animosities raised to the edge in the time of Theophilus, Patriarch of Alexandria and in his raid, around 391AD, the Temple of Serapis, where one branch of Alexandrian library was located, was demolished, documents destroyed and temple converted to church. The rest of the Library's treasure was probably lost couple of years later when one of the most famous women ever lived, Hypatia, a neoplatonist philosopher, mathematician, and astronomer was killed by Christians during some retaliation against both the Jews and the Pagans. That night was officially the end of Classical antiquity or era of prosperity I was talking about in post Aegean Sea. If some document survived that night, when Hypatia was stripped, beaten and hacked to pieces and her body burned to hide all traces of the crime, then it was destroyed centuries later, when Muslims took the city of Alexandria around the year of 640AD, where all the remaining scrolls are proclaimed either heresy or superfluous.

Rachel Weisz as Hypatia of Alexandria in Agora (2009)

There is no doubt that Constantine the Great was one of those great visionaries who has foreseen all possible futures of Roman empire and had enough courage to act and officially acknowledge definite rise of Christians in order to avoid all the dangers that came with first multi-cultural societies. The Rome and Constantinople under his rule and rules of many emperors that came later more or less managed to survive the Alexandria's fate. At least until couple of centuries later when third big player in the world of monotheistic religions appeared in the face of Islam. We all know what happened next. The crusades. What happened to Alexandria in fourth century, started to happen to Jerusalem. Multiple times. During each crusade. Some would say it is not over yet.

If story so far was not enough to demonstrate the cruelty of the first couple of centuries of the first millennium AD, I have some more historical facts and they all originate way back to the point of first founders of my home town. The misfortune of Naissus was in the fact that it's location was on the crossing road point between north and south and west and east. Who ever warrior you were and whatever army or tribe you belonged to in those times your path would lead through Naissus and you were destined to raid it, no matter if you were member of Triballi tribes who invaded this area in 4th century BC or member of Gallic groups who invaded Balkan peninsula during the 3th century BC or Romans who gave the original name to the town and held it the longest period of them all but with the price of thousands men lost in numerous battles and with the most famous one called simply "Battle of Naissus" where Romans with help of Dalmatians and Greeks finally defeated the enormous invasion by Gothics and their allies. Later in 5th and 6th centuries, the town was constantly in flames and devastated by Attila's Huns, Barbarians, restored by Romans and Byzantine emperor Justinian I and then demolished again by Avars and finally occupied by Serbian ancestors, the Slavs in the year of 540AD or so. Serbians managed to hold it even longer than Romans, all the way into the next millennium but also with frequent interruptions by various invasion in face of Bulgarians and Ugri (Hungarian ancestors). Second millennium was no different and the same area where I am sitting right now was under different rulers firstly by Byzantine forces, Hungarian kingdom, Greeks, Serbians again, Ottoman empire, Austrians... Phew... I probably forgot someone. Let's just finish with all the world wars, Germans and the Nazi and hope that all the testosterone in the third millennium devolved a little and we will witness no more wars like before.

Third-century Roman soldiers battling Gothic troops**

Naissus was a birth town for three Roman emperors in 3rd century and after. The most famous one was of course Constantine the Great (272), but also Constantius III (360) and later Justin I (450). Within the suburb of Naissus, not far from the thermal water spa, during the reign of Constantine the Great, Romans built a luxurious residence with a highly organised economy by the name Mediana***. Until it is fully destroyed by Attila's hordes in the year of 442, the residence was used by several emperors after Constantine including Julian the Apostate who was best known for his attempts to restore paganism to the Roman empire and this time within Hellenistic polytheism (Julian was also one of neoplatonist philosophers, like Hypatia) and for several edicts in various laws including Tolerance Edict of 362. Obviously, his efforts was not successful for a longer period of time and religions with Gods seen in plural finally ended in Greek and Roman mythology and picturesque legends. But, perhaps the best known role of the residence of Mediana, who lies, by the way, only couple of hundreds meters form my home, was in the year of 364AD when emperors Valentinian and Valens met there and divided the Roman Empire and ruled as co-emperors.

Well, in the history of humans, every separation on west and east never was without serious consequences. Separation of Roman empire, over time moved the center of power from Rome to Constantinople, started with Rome fall on September 4, 476. Christian Church suffered the same. Distance and differences did the math and Church finally separated in so called "Great Schism" culminating in early 11th century and giving birth to the Eastern Orthodox Church and the Roman Catholic Church we all know today. The saddest thing is that one full millennium passed since then and both "grand" fractions of the same religion are still looking to each other over their shoulders. After all that time, I am positive that if we randomly select one catholic cardinal and one orthodox patriarch and asked them why Church split up in the first place and why they didn't manage to even sit and talk for a 1000 years and find the way to "un-schism" lost millennium, I am sure that they would hardly be able to provide any meaningful answer. Giving up the throne is never easy and I guess the only way to unite Christianity is for God to show himself once again and to cut the misery once for all. But, this story is not the place for me to express all of my skepticism about this and if you are eager to read more about my religious glimpse to the world, please go to Science of God.

In front of Church of the Holy Emperor Constantine and Empress Helena

Well ok, let's stop with history now and continue with some more cheerful stories. For starters, please allow me to quote my favorite character from the movie "Kung Fu Panda". In the animated story, master Oogway, among all his turtle wisdom, said exactly this: "Yesterday is history, tomorrow is a mystery, but today is a gift. That is why it is called the present." It is a beautiful one-liner and after little search online I have to say that I failed to find the origin of this quote but I am perfectly fine to credit it to Oogway himself. In that spirit, let's switch from history to the present and talk a little about my home city and religious event happening this weekend.

This year is 1,700th anniversary of the Edict of Milan and this weekend is chosen in Serbia to be memorized with special liturgy (λειτουργία) where all major patriarchs gathered in Niš or Naissus if you will, to honor Constantine's efforts to stop persecuting Christians and give rising new religion chance to be equal with others. The liturgy took place in front of Church of the Holy Emperor Constantine and Empress Helena in one of the biggest parks in the city and for this occasion a piece of wood from the Jesus's cross (fragmentary remains that are by tradition alleged to be those of the True Cross) and John the Baptist's right hand, with which he baptized Jesus was transferred to the Constantine's new Church. Last night, two relics were moved to the new display and we wanted to feel the atmosphere. The crowd was fantastic and on the nearby cross section people formed the cross with candle lights in total darkness (below photo), while this morning was official event for "VIPs" which was much less interesting. Perhaps the only shadow to the occasion was presence of zillion policemen fully armored and spread everywhere. I guess they will never learn that the same job can be done without uniforms and with hidden guns, but that's topic for another story.

1,700th anniversary of the Edict of Milan in Niš, Serbia

After 1700 years I guess lots of things changed. There are no Roman empire anymore or big crusades but religiosity is still there, without much disturbance by the passed centuries. We can say about Christian church in general whatever we want but one thing is for sure. Society of people can't live without protocols and rituals. This is what we are and I will just repeat what I said two years ago in relation to Orthodox Christian rituals: "From the point when we are born until died there are many occasions requiring many events to be performed. I mean I can't imagine wedding here in Serbia without Church involved. They have very nice protocols. Funerals too. Anything that requires more than two people to participate with, religious organisations are doing this just right."

They proved it once again.

Image ref:

* Constantine  The Great

** Battle of Naissus

*** Mediana

More referencesš

© 2023 Milan's Public Journal