The Last Galley Impressions and Tales HTML version

The Coming Of The Huns
In the middle of the fourth century the state of the Christian religion was a scandal and a
disgrace. Patient, humble, and long-suffering in adversity, it had become positive,
aggressive, and unreasonable with success. Paganism was not yet dead, but it was rapidly
sinking, finding its most faithful supporters among the conservative aristocrats of the best
families on the one hand, and among those benighted villagers on the other who gave
their name to the expiring creed. Between these two extremes the great majority of
reasonable men had turned from the conception of many gods to that of one, and had
rejected for ever the beliefs of their forefathers. But with the vices of polytheism they had
also abandoned its virtues, among which toleration and religious good humour had been
conspicuous. The strenuous earnestness of the Christians had compelled them to examine
and define every point of their own theology; but as they had no central authority by
which such definitions could be checked, it was not long before a hundred heresies had
put forward their rival views, while the same earnestness of conviction led the stronger
bands of schismatics to endeavour, for conscience sake, to force their views upon the
weaker, and thus to cover the Eastern world with confusion and strife.
Alexandria, Antioch, and Constantinople were centres of theological warfare. The whole
north of Africa, too, was rent by the strife of the Donatists, who upheld their particular
schism by iron flails and the war-cry of "Praise to the Lord!" But minor local
controversies sank to nothing when compared with the huge argument of the Catholic and
the Arian, which rent every village in twain, and divided every household from the
cottage to the palace. The rival doctrines of the Homoousian and of the Homoiousian,
containing metaphysical differences so attenuated that they could hardly be stated, turned
bishop against bishop and congregation against congregation. The ink of the theologians
and the blood of the fanatics were spilled in floods on either side, and gentle followers of
Christ were horrified to find that their faith was responsible for such a state of riot and
bloodshed as had never yet disgraced the religious history of the world. Many of the more
earnest among them, shocked and scandalized, slipped away to the Libyan Desert, or to
the solitude of Pontus, there to await in self-denial and prayer that second coming which
was supposed to be at hand. Even in the deserts they could not escape the echo of the
distant strife, and the hermits themselves scowled fiercely from their dens at passing
travellers who might be contaminated by the doctrines of Athanasius or of Arius.
Such a hermit was Simon Melas, of whom I write. A Trinitarian and a Catholic, he was
shocked by the excesses of the persecution of the Arians, which could be only matched
by the similar outrages with which these same Arians in the day of their power avenged
their treatment on their brother Christians. Weary of the whole strife, and convinced that
the end of the world was indeed at hand, he left his home in Constantinople and travelled
as far as the Gothic settlements in Dacia, beyond the Danube, in search of some spot
where he might be free from the never-ending disputes. Still journeying to the north and
east, he crossed the river which we now call the Dneister, and there, finding a rocky hill
rising from an immense plain, he formed a cell near its summit, and settled himself down
to end his life in self-denial and meditation. There were fish in the stream, the country