At the time when Athanasius first appeared as an author, the condition of Christian Egypt was not peaceful. Meletius, bishop of Lycopolis, was accused of having sacrificed during the persecution in 301 (pp.131, 234); condemned by a synod under bishop Peter, he had carried on schismatical intrigues under Peter, Achillas, and Alexander, and by this time had a large following, especially in Upper Egypt. Many cities had Meletian bishops: many of the hermits, and even communities of monks (p.135), were on his side.
The Meletian account of the matter (preserved by Epiphan. H√¶r.58) was different from this. Meletius had been in prison along with Peter, and had differed from him on the question of the lapsed, taking the sterner view, in which most of the imprisoned clergy supported him. It would not be without a parallel (D.C.B. art. Donatists, Novatian) in the history of the burning question of the lapsi to suppose that Meletius recoiled from a compromised position to the advocacy of impossible strictness. At any rate (de Incarn.24.4) the Egyptian Church was rent by a formidable schism. No doctrinal question, however, was involved. The alliance of Meletians and Arians belongs to a later date.
It is doubtful whether the outbreak of the Arian controversy at Alexandria was directly connected with the previous Christological controversies in the same Church. The great Dionysius some half-century before had been involved in controversy with members of his Church both in Alexandria and in the suffragan dioceses of Libya (infr. p.173). Of the sequel of that controversy we have no direct knowledge: but we find several bishops and numerous clergy and laity in Alexandria and Libya ready to side with Arius against his bishop.
The origin of the controversy is obscure. It certainly must be placed as early as 318 or 319, to leave sufficient time before the final deposition of Arius in the council of 321 (infr. p.234). We are told that Arius, a native of Libya, had settled in Alexandria soon after the origin of the Meletian schism, and had from motives of ambition sided at first with Meletius, then with Peter, who ordained him deacon, but afterwards was compelled to depose him (Epiph. H√¶r.69, Sozom. i.15). He became reconciled to Achillas, who raised him to the presbyterate. Disappointed of the bishopric at the election of Alexander, he nurtured a private grudge (Thdt. H. E. i.2), which eventually culminated in opposition to his teaching. These tales deserve little credit: they are unsupported by Athanasius, and bear every trace of invention ex post facto. That Arius was a vain person we see from his Thalia (infr. p.308): but he certainly possessed claims to personal respect, and we find him not only in charge of the urban parish of Baucalis, but entrusted with the duties of a professor of scriptural exegesis. There is in fact no necessity to seek for personal motives to explain the dispute. The Arian problem was one which the Church was unable to avoid. Not until every alternative had been tried and rejected was the final theological expression of her faith possible. Two great streams of theological influence had run their course in the third century: the subordinationist theology of Origen at Alexandria, the Monarchian theology of the West and of Asia which had found a logical expression in Paul of Samosata. Both streams had met in Lucian the martyr, at Antioch, and in Arius, the pupil of Lucian, produced a result which combined elements of both (see below, ¬ß3 (2) a). According to some authorities Arius was the aggressor. He challenged some theological statements of Alexander as Sabellian, urging in opposition to them that if the Son were truly a Son He must have had a beginning, and that there had been therefore a time when He did not exist. According to others (Constantine in Eus. Vit. ii.69) Alexander had demanded of his presbyters an explanation of some passage of Scripture which had led Arius to broach his heresy. At any rate the attitude of Alexander was at first conciliatory. Himself an Origenist, he was willing to give Arius a fair hearing (Sozom. ubi supra). But the latter was impracticable. He began to canvass for support, and his doctrine was widely accepted. Among his first partisans were a number of lay people and virgins, five presbyters of Alexandria, six deacons, including Euzoius, afterwards Arian bishop at Antioch (a.d.361), and the Libyan bishops Secundus of Ptolemais in Pentapolis (see p.226) and Theonas of Marmarica (see p.70). A letter was addressed to Arius and his friends by Alexander, and signed by the clergy of Alexandria, but without result. A synod was now called (infr. p.70, Socr. i.6) of the bishops of Egypt and Libya, and Arius and his allies deposed. Even this did not check the movement. In Egypt two presbyters and four deacons of the Mareotis, one of the former being Pistus, a later Arian bishop of Alexandria, declared for Arius; while abroad he was in correspondence with influential bishops who cordially promised their support. Conspicuous among the latter was a man of whom we shall hear much in the earlier treatises of this volume, Eusebius, bishop of Berytus, who had recently, against the older custom of the Church (p.103, note 6), but in accordance with what has ever since been general in the case of important sees, been translated to the imperial city of Nicomedia. High in the favour, perhaps related to the family, of Constantine, possessed of theological training and practical ability, this remarkable man was for nearly a quarter of a century the head and centre of the Arian cause. (For his character and history, see the excellent article in D.C.B. ii.360-367.) He had been a fellow-pupil of Arius in the school of Lucian, and fully shared his opinions (his letter to Paulinus of Tyre, Thdt. H. E. i.6). The letter addressed to him by Arius (ib.5) is one of our most important Arian monuments. Arius claims the sympathy of Eusebius of C√¶sarea and other leading bishops, in fact of all the East excepting Macarius of Jerusalem and two others, heretical and untutored persons.' Eusebius responded with zeal to the appeal of his fellow-Lucianist.' While Alexander was indefatigable in writing to warn the bishops everywhere against Arius (who had now left Alexandria to seek foreign support, first in Palestine, then at Nicomedia), and in particular addressed a long letter to Alexander, bishop of Byzantium (Thdt. H. E. i.4), Eusebius called a council at Nicomedia, which issued letters in favour of Arius to many bishops, and urged Alexander himself to receive him to communion. Meanwhile a fresh complication had appeared in Egypt. Colluthus, whose name stands first among the signatures to the memorandum (to be mentioned presently) of the deposition of Arius, impatient it would seem at the moderation of Alexander, founded a schism of his own, and although merely a presbyter, took upon himself to ordain. In Egypt and abroad confusion reigned: parties formed in every city, bishops, to adopt the simile of Eusebius (Vit. Const.), collided like the fabled Symplegades, the most sacred of subjects were bandied about in the mouths of the populace, Christian and heathen.
In all this confusion Athanasius was ready with his convictions. His sure instinct and powerful grasp of the centre of the question made him the mainstay of his Bishop in the painful conflict. At a stage of it difficult to determine with precision, Alexander sent out to the bishops of the Church at large a concise and carefully-worded memorandum of the decision of the Egyptian Synod of 321, fortified by the signatures of the clergy of Alexandria and the Mareotis (see infra, pp.68-71).
This weighty document, so different in thought and style from the letter of Alexander preserved by Theodoret, bears the clear stamp of the mind and character of Athanasius: it contains the germ of which his whole series of anti-Arian writings are the expansion (see introd. and notes, pp.68-71), and is a significant comment on the hint of the Egyptian. bishops (Apol. c. Ar.6 ad init.).
Early in 324 a new actor came upon the scene. Hosius, bishop of Cordova and confessor (he is referred to, not by name, Vit. Const. ii.63, 73, cf. iii.7, ho panu boomenos; by name, Socr. i.7), arrived with a letter from the Emperor himself, intreating both parties to make peace, and treating the matter as one of trivial moment. The letter may have been written upon information furnished by Eusebius (D.C.B. s.v.); but the anxiety of the Emperor for the peace of his new dominions is its keynote. On the arrival of Hosius a council (p.140) was held, which produced little effect as far as the main question was concerned: but the claims of Colluthus were absolutely disallowed, and his ordination of one Ischyras (infr. ¬ß5) to the presbyterate pronounced null and void. Hosius apparently carried back with him a strong report in favour of Alexander; at any rate the Emperor is credited (Gelas. Cyz. ii., Hard. Conc. i.451-458) with a vehement letter of rebuke to Arius, possibly at this juncture. Such was the state of affairs which led to the imperial resolve, probably at the suggestion of Hosius, to summon a council of bishops from the whole world to decide the doctrinal question, as well as the relatively lesser matters in controversy.