site.btaThe 343 Council of Sardica and Present-day Sofia
The Council of Sardica, or Serdica, was a synod convened 1680 years ago at what is today Sofia by the joint emperors Constantius II (Eastern, sympathetic to the Arian party) and Constans I (Western, sympathetic to the Nicene party) at the request of Pope Julius I to attempt a settlement of the Arian controversies. These concerned the relationship between the substance of God the Father and the substance of His Son, and divided the Church into factions.
The Council of Sardica passed some disciplinary canons, chief among these the provisions constituting a court of appeal for accused bishops in certain circumstances. The synodal canons, though recognized in the West as regulating relations between metropolitan sees, were not accepted in the Eastern churches. But the fundamental differences between Western and Eastern though on theological and disciplinary matters received their first open expression.
For several months Sardica, the chosen residence of emperors Galerius and Constantine the Great, became the center of the Christian world. Hosius of Cordoba (who is generally believed to have also presided over the First Council of Nicaea, 325) was commissioned to preside over the council. Some 100 Western bishops attended the council; those from the East were less numerous.
The place was well chosen. At that time Sardica was “a small city dominated by imperial presence and distinguished largely by the ritual buildings of the court”, to use the words of Prof. Bernard Green in his book "Christianity in Ancient Rome: The First Three Centuries". Due to the turbulent history of the city, ruins are most often the only sign of its ancient glory. However, some locations in contemporary Sofia still remind us of this important meeting of early Christian authorities.
Among the sites that bear witness of that time is the Church of St. Sophia, although in the years of Sardica Council the building looked quite different. Today in downtown Sofia, in Late Antiquity it was outside the city walls. Within the span of two centuries, at least three churches were built one after – and on top of – the other. The now existing basilica was built later, during the reign of Byzantine Emperor Justinian in the middle of the 6th century.
At the time of the Council of Sardica, the church of Saint George (or the St. George Rotunda), now considered one of the oldest buildings in Bulgarian capital, was quite a new structure inside the Serdica walls.
The church, now located in the courtyard next to the Presidency, is visibly lower that the surrounding buildings - at a level a few metres below the streets of the capital. It is part of a larger archaeological complex which gives a good idea of the ancient city. There are ruins of a large, three-naved basilica, one big, probably public, building and several smaller ones, connected by a Roman street section.
The complex offers a glimpse of the city at the time when Constantine the Great used to call it "his Rome" (Sardica mea Roma est). Today, thousands of people walk among the ruins of ancient buildings found under the Sveta Nedelya Square, with more under the remains of the Sveti Spas church and the Sveta Petka Stara (Old) church (now part of the Sofia metropolitan residence). The 4th century Serdica, capital of ancient Dacia Mediterranea, was a place fit for an ecumenical Council.
Bearing in mind the number of bishops present, most scholars believe that the participants were accommodated at monasteries around the city. Of these we now know almost nothing. Ruins of an ancient monastery were discovered under the existing Church of the Great Martyr St. Menas in Sofia’s Slatina district. Another location was discovered some twenty years ago, an Early Christian Religious Complex in the Lozenets district. Although these ruins are difficult to study, being heavily affected by contemporary construction, in 2000-2007 archaeologists of the Archaeological Institute and Museum with the Bulgarian Academy of Sciences found that it was a church complex surrounded by a wall with a rectangular layout and corner towers.
Legendary lingered centuries later about places where the Council of Sardica was held, for it was remembered and treasured as a truly memorable one. Petar Bogdan Baksic (1601–1674), a bishop of the Roman Catholic Church in Bulgaria and author of the first Bulgarian history, mentioned one such place as “a monastery now destroyed” by the name of Triada (Trinity), somewhere to the south of the city.
To quote the same Peter Bogdan, “So, speaking of the Council of Serdica, it is enjoyable to dwell on it in more detail, because this Council won a brilliant and eternal glory for the Bulgarian land. Serdica is its capital and all this is a proof of the great love towards Christian faith that existed here even before the Bulgarians came. For general councils were only convened in the safest cities, where the faith of Christ thrived.”
The bishops adopted some 20 canons, particularly about the transfer, promotion, trials and appeals of bishops. But the attempt to resolve the Arian issue failed. The split between the Western and the Eastern factions remained (Trinitarianism against Arianism) and even deepened. Probably fearing domination of the council by Western bishops, some of the Eastern bishops left the council to hold another one (in Philippopolis, present-day Plovdiv in Southern Bulgaria). Athanasius of Alexandria, Marcellus of Ancyra (Ankara) and Asclepiades of Gaza, who had been deposed at the Council of Tyre in 335, were declared innocent. The council itself was denied recognition as ecumenical, although it was intended as such. It has universal authority in Eastern Church, but not in the Western one…
The Council of Sardica failed in its initial purpose and historians are inclined to see here mainly the shadow of the forthcoming schism. But a contemporary observer could draw from the historical narrative a somehow different picture of the ancient world. Even a non-Christian could see linguistic and cultural unity at truly surprising level; strong common beliefs that make differences to seem soluble; attempts to solve problems of a large community through meetings and discussion; responsibility for other people as motivation of leaders. And above all - a vast geographic space of basic understanding on certain spiritual principles: from Cordoba to Gaza, from Philippopolis to Jerusalem and Antioch, from Rome to Ancyra (Ankara). Ironic as it may seem, one could learn some lessons from that.