Egypt was one of the areas where the “Great Persecution” (303-312) was especially severe. Peter, the bishop of Alexandria, went into hiding. At least four other bishops in the Delta region were imprisoned. In early 305 as it seems, Melitius of Lycopolis (some 300 miles south of Alexandria), traveled northward to ordain some priests in these four dioceses without their bishops’ approval, or the approval of Peter. The four bishops wrote Melitius to protest his actions (Document 1 below) as being contrary to good order, to tradition, and to biblical mandates.

Melitius does not seem to have heeded the admonition and, in fact, seems to have also involved himself in similar activities in Alexandria itself. Although Melitius was himself arrested and sent to work in the mines at Thebes, he seems to have continued with further ordinations there.  As a result, in 306 Peter sent a letter to the church of Alexandria indicating that Melitius should be considered as outside the church’s fellowship until a more thorough examination should be conducted (Document 2).

The ongoing persecution complicated such an examination, but at some point in the following months or years, Melitius was formally removed from office by Peter. Soon, however, Peter was arrested and his imprisonment continued until he was martyred in 311. Melitius was meanwhile transferred to the mines in Palestine where he remained until his release when the persecution ended in 312.

The new outward peace that followed did not result in unity for the Egyptian church. Melitius and his followers had by then formed separate congregations and dioceses, apparently calling themselves the “Church of Martyrs” (Ἐκκλησία Μαρτύρων) as opposed to the “Catholic Church” (Ἔκκλησία καϑολικὴ; so Epiphanius, Adv. Haer. 68.3). Among the other ways that they distinguished themselves was a stricter practice of re-admitting the lapsi (Christians who had denied the faith during the persecution but who wished to re-enter the church). While Peter had called for a quicker re-admittance for the penitent, Melitius wished to prolong the process both to make the enormity of the sin evident, and to ensure the repentance bore the necessary fruits. It would take several decades for this aspect of the disagreement to fade. In the meantime the Melitians ordained new bishops and priests, and even founded their own monasteries.

Peter’s successor, Alexander, seems to have taken an irenic view towards the schismatics (Epiphanius, Adv. Haer. 68.3), but the situation was further complicated by the Arian controversy. There is no evidence that Melitius and his church was initially favorable to Arius’s christological position. When the Council of Nicaea met in 325, the Melitian situation was discussed and an attempt was made to conclude the schism without exacerbating it further. In a letter to the Alexandrian church the council relayed its conclusion. Acknowledging that Melitius had acted with “great impulsiveness and boldness in administering ordination” and “strictly speaking, did not deserve pardon,” they yet allowed him to remain in his city as long as he conducted no further ordinations. His clergy could continue to serve in their respective cities but the catholic clergy would have priority of place and honor. And all would be under the supervision and authority of “a the bishop of the catholic apostolic church” who himself would be “under the authority of our pious fellow-minister Alexander” (Document 3).

In order to assure that further ordinations did not take place, Melitius was asked to submit to Alexander a list of his clergy. He did this (Document 4) sometime before Alexander’s death, and that list has survived in a writing of Athanasius. That same year, 327, Melitius died, but not before appointing John Arkhaph, Bishop of Memphis, to succeed him as head of the Church of Martyrs. This appointment was evidence that the submission of a list of clergy had not meant a submission to the church in general. This became even more evident in 328 when John and the Melitians became opponents of the new biship of Alexandria, Athanasius. This resulted in the Melitians making common cause with the post-Nicaea supporters of Arius against Athanasius in the following decades (Documents 5ff.)  The schism remained in existence for several centuries, but by the end of the fourth century it had lost its vigor.

Unfortunately, the Melitian problem did not completely go away. Contrary to the provisions of the Nicene Council, Melitius named a successor by the name of John Archaph. The Melitians made an alliance with Eusebius of Nicomedia and his followers during the summer of 330. The schism continued to flourish with Eusebius acting as one of the main instigators, and he used the controversy to work against his enemy Athanasius, current bishop of Alexandria.

A majority of the documents in the table below come from Athanasius’ Apologia Contra Arianos, and since they act as a defense for Athanasius, they deal mostly with the time from Eusebius’ alliance with the Melitians in 330 to the climax of the controversy in 335, which resulted in Athanasius’ exile following the events of the Council of Tyre. It should be noted that the controversy continued for years after the council, but the table only contains documents from the most eventful period.

Fortunately, a large number of documents have survived in full, while a couple others are just fragments, as indicated in the table. Some of the documents listed are only references to letters, and these are indicated by a shaded background. A brief overview of the contents for such documents can be accessed by clicking the link. Varying accounts of the controversy, especially from the years 333-335, can cause a great deal of confusion. A table summarizing four of the main accounts can be accessed here.

Chart Guide:
Doc. No. The document number assigned by FCC
Date The date in which the document was written
Description The details on who wrote the document/letter to whom; translations of the documents can be accessed by clicking the link
Ancient Sources The location of various ancient sources in which the document can be found
Ancient Descriptions The location of various ancient sources in which the document is described
Doc. No. Date Description Ancient Sources Ancient Descriptions
1 c. 303-306 Four Bishops to Melitius of Lycopolis Codex Veronensis, LX, ed. M.J. Routh, Reliquae Sacrae, IV, 91-4; Migne, P.G. X, 1565-8, XVIII, 519-10
2 c. 303-306 Peter of Alexandria to the Alexandrians Codex Veronensis, LX, ed. M.J. Routh, Reliquae Sacrae, IV, 91-4; Migne, P.G. X, 1565-8, XVIII, 519-10
3 325 Council of Nicaea to Alexandria and Egyptian churches Soc. HE 1.9; Ath. Defense of Nicene Definition 36; Theodoret HE 1.9.2; Gelasius HE 2.34.2
4 327 Melitius to Alexander of Alexandria (breviarium Melitii) Ath. Ap. 71
5 330/1 Eusebius of Nicomedia to Athanasius Ath. Ap. 59; Soz. HE 2.22.1-2; Soc. HE 1.23.3b-4a
6 330/1 Eusebius of Nicomedia to Constantine Soz. HE 2.22.1-2; Soc. HE 1.27.2-3 and 1.23.4b
7 330/1 Athanasius to Constantine Soz. HE 2.22.3-5
8 330/1 Constantine to Athanasius (fragment) Ath. Ap. 59 Ath. Ap. 59; Soz. HE 2.22.3-5; Soc. HE 1.27.4-5
9 330/1 Athanasius to Constantine   Ath. Ap. 59; Soz. HE 2.22.6; Soc. HE 1.27.2-3
10 Winter 331/2 Constantine to the Melitians and Athanasius Ath. Ap. 60; Soz. HE 2.22.7; Soc. 1.27.8b
11 332 Constantine to Alexandria Ath. Ap. 61/2 Soc. HE 1.27.9-10; Soz. HE 2.22.8-9; portion in Theodoret HE 1.27
12 332/3? Ischyras to Athanasius Ath. Ap. 64
13 c. 333 Constantine to Dalmatius, censor of Antioch Ath. Ap. 65; Soc. HE 1.27.18-21
14 c. 333 Dalmatius to Athanasius Ath. Ap. 65
15 c. 333 Athanasius to the clergy in Egypt Ath. Ap. 65; Soz. HE 2.23
16 c. 333 Pinnes to John Archaph Ath. Ap. 67
17 c. 333 Athanasius to Constantine Ath. Ap. 65; Soz. HE 2.23
18 c. 333 Constantine to Athanasius Ath. Ap. 68 Soz. HE 2.23
19 c. 333 Constantine to Eusebius of Nicomedia and his followers Ath. Ap. 65
20 c. 333 Alexander of Thessalonica to Athanasius Ath. Ap. 66
21 c. 333 Arsenius to Athanasius Ath. Ap. 69
22 c. 333 Constantine to John Archaph Ath. Ap. 70
23 19 March 334 Aurelius Pageus to the Priors of Hathor monastery
24 May-June 335? Letter of Callistus
25 335 Constantine to Athanasius Ath. Ap. 71; Soc. HE 1.28; Theodoret, HE 1.28.2-4
26 335 Constantine to the Council of Tyre Theodoret, HE 1.29; Eusebius, Vita Const. IV.42
27 335 Alexandria to the Council of Tyre Ath. Ap. 73
28 335 Clergy of Mareotis to the Council of Tyre Ath. Ap. 74/5
29 8 September 335 Clergy of Mareotis to Philagrius, Prefect of Egypt Ath. Ap. 76
30 335 Bishops of Egypt to the Council of Tyre Ath. Ap. 77
31 335 Bishops of Egypt to Flavius Dionysius, consul of Tyre Ath. Ap. 78
32 335 Bishops of Egypt to Flavius Dionysius, consul of Tyre Ath. Ap. 79
33 335 Alexander of Thessalonica to Dionysius Ath. Ap. 80
34 335 Dionsysius to the Eusebians (fragment) Ath. Ap. 81
35 6 November 335 Constantine to the Bishops at Tyre Ath. Ap. 86; Gelasius, HE 3.18; Sozomen, HE 2.28.2-12; Socrates, HE 1.34


Barnard, L.W. “Athanasius and the Melitian Schism in Egypt.” The Journal of Egyptian Archaeology 59 (1973): 181-189.

Barnes, T.D. Athanasius and Constantius: Theology and Politics in the Constantinian Empire. London: Harvard University Press, 1993.

Bell, H. Idris. Jews and Christians in Egypt: The Jewish Troubles in Alexandria and the Athanasian Controversy. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1924.

Hardy, Edward Rochie. Christian Egypt: Church and People. New York: Oxford University Press, 1952.

McHugh, Michael P. “Melitius of Lycopolis.” In Encyclopedia of Early Christianity. New York: Garland Publishing, Inc., 1990.

Simonetti, M. “Melitius of Lycopolis, Melitian Schism,” “Peter I of Alexandria,” “Tyre.” In The Encyclopedia of the Early Church. New York: Oxford University Press, 1992.

Telfer, W. “Melitius of Lycopolis and Episcopal Succession in Egypt.” The Harvard Theological Review 48 (1955): 227-237.

Williams, Rowan. Arius: Heresy and Tradition. Revised Edition, Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2001. (pp. 32-41)

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Last updated: 5-10-2012

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