I have to pass along another quote from Wickham’s The Inheritance of Rome (see this post); he’s been describing the series of church councils that were intended to reconcile differing positions but usually wound up creating better-organized heresies (the ecumenical council at Constantinople in 381 “paradoxically … caused ‘Arianism’ itself to crystallize as a worked-out religious system, in effect”), and the impossibility of eradicating Monophysitism because it had grass-roots support, and then comes this sensible and delightfully written paragraph:
It is impossible to characterize these conflicts accurately in a few words, for the theology at issue is amazingly intricate, depending on tight definitions and Platonist philosophical developments of concepts which would take many pages to set out in English (it was, furthermore, a debate which made most sense in Greek even then; Leo I was the last Latin-speaker really to grasp and contribute to it). Such detailed characterizations do not belong here. But it is important to stress that they did matter. Pagan observers found these debates ridiculous, even insane, as well as amazingly badly behaved, but having an accurate and universally agreed definition of God became increasingly important for Christians between 300 and 550, not least because the political power of bishops steadily increased. It is relevant that they mattered more in the East, where technical philosophical debate was longer-rooted in intellectual life, but with the ‘barbarian’ conquests Christological issues came to the West as well, and Arian- Catholic debates were bitter there, too; anyway, the Augustinian problematic which dominated theology in the West, centred on predestination and divine grace, was no less complex, even though it sidestepped Christological debate. It is of course impossible to say how many people properly understood the issues at stake at, say, Chalcedon; perhaps only a few hundred, although one should not underestimate the theological sophistication of the citizens of the great cities, exposed as they were to the sermons of some high-powered thinkers. But the problem of the real divinity of a human god, who had even died, at the Crucifixion, was at least an issue that would have made sense in the late Roman world, where the cult of the emperors as gods was still remembered (indeed, it was still practised by some) and the divine being was not, in the fifth century at least, as distant from humanity as he (or they) would be in some versions of Christianity.
It is all too easy to make fun of the subtle distinctions insisted on by the various factions (I’ve certainly done so); he does a good job of explaining why they were seen as important. And in the next paragraph he mentions the Circumcellions (“ascetic peasants or seasonal labourers”)! He calls them the armed wing of the Donatists, and goes on to say “Monks from the countryside were also used as shock troops, usually on the Monophysite side; Jerusalem was a dangerous place because of the number of monasteries around it, which could quickly be mobilized…” Not the way we usually think of monks!