WHY DID CONSTANTINOPLE FALL

Written by Vladimir Moss

WHY DID CONSTANTINOPLE FALL?

Many causes have been proposed for the Fall of Constantinople in 1453. Secular historians have naturally looked for material causes: the loss of Anatolia to the Ottoman Turks, with the consequent loss of manpower and economic resources; the handover of trade into the hands of the Genoese; the debasing of the currency; the feudal system introduced by the Latins; social inequalities between the rich and the poor; and the Black Death… Orthodox historians have gone deeper, proposing the divisions in the Byzantine commonwealth of States between the Slavs and the Greeks, or, most plausibly, the betrayal of the Faith at the Council of Florence in 1439…

And yet there is something not quite convincing in these explanations. While undoubtedly valid up to a point, they fail, individually and collectively, to explain why the Fall took place precisely at this time. After all, the Byzantines had suffered similar disasters on previous occasions. Anatolia had been lost to the Arabs in the seventh century, and again to the Seljuks in the eleventh century – but they had recovered. Before 1204 trade had been in the hands of the Venetians – but they had recovered. Social rest had been rife at the end of the Comnenan period, and again in mid-fourteenth century Thessalonica – but they had recovered. The Black Death afflicted them, as it afflicted many European states – but they had recovered. As for trouble with the Slavs, especially the Bulgarians, this was not new. And as for falls into heresy, these had been frequent and sometimes prolonged, as in the time of the iconoclasts - but both the Church and the Empire had recovered. There was no reason to believe that this fall into heresy was any deeper than previous falls – the unia of Florence 1439 was rejected almost immediately by the people, and was officially rejected by the hierarchy in 1454 and again in 1484.

A clue to our conundrum is provided by an 8th or 9th century Greek prophecy found in St. Sabbas’ monastery in Jerusalem, which says: "The sceptre of the Orthodox kingdom will fall from the weakening hands of the Byzantine emperors, since they will not have proved able to achieve the symphony of Church and State. Therefore the Lord in His Providence will send a third God-chosen people to take the place of the chosen, but spiritually decrepit people of the Greeks.”[1] If we take this prophecy as God-inspired, as I believe we can, then we have the beginnings of an answer: Constantinople fell because something fundamental in the relationship between Church and State went wrong in the Palaeologan period – something that was irreparable in the context of late Byzantium, and which was so serious, according to God’s righteous judgement, as to require the final Fall of the Empire itself...

But had not the Church-State relationship almost always been in crisis in Byzantine history? How many emperors had not come to power through murdering their predecessors, prompting the remark of the historian J.B. Bury that the government of Byzantium was “an autocracy tempered by the legal right of revolution”.[2] How many had not broken the laws of marriage in a particularly flagrant manner! How many had not tried to impose heresy on the Empire, thereby stretching the Church-State relationship to breaking point! What was so sinister about the apparently peaceful relations between Church and State in the Palaeologan period that called for so terrible and final a judgement?

According to the theory of Church-State “symphony” that was accepted in both East and West before the rise of the heretical papacy, the Emperor was in complete command of the political sphere, and could be deposed only in the case of his apostasy from the true faith. Thus in about the year 1000 the English Abbot Aelfric said: “No man may make himself a king, for the people have the option to choose him for king who is agreeable to them. But after he has been hallowed as king, he has power over the people, and they may not shake his yoke from their necks.”[3]

However, until the first Fall of the City in 1204, the Byzantines were constantly “shaking the yoke of the emperors from their necks” – and not for reasons of the faith. They were killed or mutilated simply because, in the opinion of some army commander, they were bad rulers. And the Church and the people usually acquiesced in the deed…

Thus in 865 St. Irene Chrysovalantou revealed that the Emperor Michael III was to be murdered. However, she said, “do not by any means oppose the new Emperor [Basil I], who shall come to the throne, though murder be at the root of it. The holy God has preferred and chosen him, so the enemy himself will not benefit.”[4]

Again, when Emperor Nicephorus Phocas was murdered in 969 by John Tzimiskes, Patriarch Polyeuctus eventually crowned him although Tzimiskes’ guilt was well-known. The patriarch, as Leo the Deacon relates, “declared that he would not allow the Emperor to enter the church as long as he had not expelled the Augusta from the palace and had not named the murderer of the Emperor, whoever he might be. Moreover, he demanded the return to the Synod of a document published by Nicephorus in violation of justice. The point was that Nicephorus, either intending to remove certain violations of the sacred rites that had been allowed, in his opinion, by certain hierarchs, or wishing to submit to himself even that in the religious sphere which it was not fitting for him to rule over, had forced the hierarchs to compose a decree according to which nothing in Church affairs was to be undertaken without his will. Polyeuctus suggested that the Emperor carry out all (this); in the contrary case he would not allow him to enter the holy church. (John) accepted the conditions; he removed the Augusta from the palace and exiled her to an island called Protos, returned Nicephorus’ decree to the Synod and pointed to Leo Valans, saying that he and nobody else had killed the Emperor with his own hand. Only then did Polyeuctus allow him into the holy church and crown him, after which he returned to the Royal palace and was hailed by the army and people”.[5]

The Russian diplomat K.N. Leontiev tried to defend the Byzantines against the charge of serial regicide: “They drove out the Caesars, changed them, killed them. But nobody touched the holiness of Caesarism itself. They changed the people, but nobody changed its basic organization.[6] But was he correct? Was Caesarism truly seen as holy? Is not the truth rather that the Byzantine attitude to the imperial power veered, for much of its history, from one unchristian extreme to the other, from the extreme of idolatry (the emperor as demi-god) to the extreme of sacrilege and murder (the emperor as a mere mortal, who could be removed by force if “the mandate of heaven” deserted him)? In neither case was the Lord’s command: “Touch not Mine anointed ones” (Psalm 104.15) seen as applying to emperors, and emperors continued to be slaughtered right until the first Fall of the City in 1204.

But then, under the impact of that terrible tragedy, attitudes began to change. Emperor Theodore I Lascaris received the physical sacrament of anointing to the kingdom for the first time in Byzantine history – over six centuries since the sacrament had first been used in the barbarian lands of the British Isles, on the one hand, and Southern Arabia, on the other. And the effects were felt immediately: the Lascarid dynasty was the most pious and effective in Byzantine history, even if – and perhaps partly because - their rule was exercised in the more modest conditions of Nicaean exile and not in the pomp and splendour of Constantinople. Moreover, no Lascarid emperor was was killed by his own people…

However, with the advent of the last Byzantine dynasty, that of the Palaeologi, this apparent improvement in morals was compromised by what amounted to a deviation from the faith, a heresy concerning the kingdom. For the emperor was now not only the Anointed one – both physically and spiritually, but also considered to be untouchable, even in the event of his falling away from the Orthodox faith…

This development began in 1369, only a few years after the great spiritual triumph of the Palamite Councils, when the Emperor John V Palaeologus travelled to Italy and converted to Roman Catholicism. No rebellion against him followed because of his apostasy, as there had been in the time of Michael VIII. And the reason for that is revealing…

The reason is that, as Sir Steven Runciman writes, “he was careful not to involve the Church in his conversion. His tact was rewarded. Towards the end of his reign, probably in 1380 or soon afterwards, in circumstances that are unknown to us, he was able to make a concordat with the Patriarchate which clarified and restored much of the Imperial control over the Church. It contained nine points. The Emperor was to nominate metropolitans from three candidates whose names were submitted to him. He alone could transfer and promote bishops. He had to sanction appointments to high Church offices. He alone could redistribute sees. Neither he nor his senior officials nor members of the Senate, which was his advisory council, could be excommunicated except with his permission, ‘because the Emperor is defender of the Church and the canons’. Bishops were to come to Constantinople and to leave it whenever he ordered. Every bishop must take an oath of allegiance to him on appointment. Every bishop must put his signature to acts passed by a Synod or Council. Every bishop must implement such acts and refuse support to any cleric or candidate for ecclesiastical office who opposed Imperial policy.”

St. Simeon, Metropolitan of Thessalonica commented with some bitterness on the situation: “Now… the Bishop is not counted worthy of any kind of honour for the sake of Christ, but rather his lot is dishonour; he is counted immeasurably inferior to the emperor, who receives a blessing from the Hierarch. At the present time the Bishop falls down at the feet of the emperor and kisses his right hand. With the sanctified lips with which he recently touched the Sacred Sacrifice, he servilely kisses a secular hand, whose function is to hold the sword. And, O shame!, the Bishop stands while the emperor sits. For the Bishop, as the delegate of the Church, all this reflects in an indecent and shameful manner on Christ Himself. These absurd customs were introduced, however, not by the emperors themselves, but by flatterers, who in an undiscerning manner suggested to them that they should use the Divine for evil, that they should ascribe to themselves power and install and remove the Bishop. Alas, what madness! If the deposition of a Bishop is necessary, this should be done through the Holy Spirit, by Whom the Bishop has been consecrated, and not through the secular power. Hence come all our woes and misfortunes; hence we have become an object of mockery for all peoples. If we give to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s, then the blessing of God will rest on everything: the Church will receive peace, and the State will become more prosperous.”[7]

“As an Emperor,” continues Runciman, “John V was incompetent and almost impotent. The Turks were overrunning all his territory and exacting tribute from him. [In 1396 the Byzantine armies suffered a crushing defeat at Nicopolis, and Sultan Bayezid began a siege of Constantinople. The City was saved at this time by the intervention of the Mongols under Tamerlane in the Turkish rear.] He himself in a reign of fifty years was three times driven into exile, by his father-in-law, by his son and by his grandson. Yet, as the concordat shows, he still retained prestige enough to reaffirm his theoretical control over a Church, many of whose dioceses lay far outside of his political control. It was soon after his death that the Patriarch Antony IV wrote the letter in which he talked of the great position of the Emperor. It was addressed to the Grand Prince of Muscovy, Vassily I, who had somewhat scornfully pointed out the actual weakness of the Emperor, hinting that some more powerful Orthodox ruler ought to lead the Oecumene. ‘The Emperor,’ Antony wrote, ‘is still the Holy Emperor, the heir of the Emperors of old and the consecrated head of the Oecumene. He, and he alone, is the King whom Saint Peter bade the faithful to honour.’

“The Patriarch’s loyalty was greater than his realism. But the Emperor still had some power. About twenty years later, in 1414 or 1415, Manuel II, who was generally liked by his ecclesiastics, when in Thessalonica appointed a Macedonian bishop to the see of Moldavia and sent him to Constantinople for consecration by the Patriarch, Euthymius II. Euthymius refused to perform the service, on the out-of-date ground that a bishop could not be transferred. The case undoubtedly had deeper implications, of which we can only guess. It must be remembered the Emperor was actually nominating a bishop for a Christian country over which he had no control; and the Patriarch must have feared that his own good relations with the sovereign Prince of Moldavia might be endangered. He insisted that the transference be approved by the Holy Synod. But the Emperor referred him to the concordat. He had to yield…”[8]

The concordat was a truly shameful document, which subordinated the Church to the State in a truly caesaropapist manner. The Emperor now had a control over the Church that the iconoclast emperors could only have dreamed of. Moreover, nobody had twisted the Church’s arm: the hierarchs had surrendered their power voluntarily and without compulsion…

From now on, even if the emperor betrayed the Faith he could not be removed or even excommunicated, according to the concordat. Or, if some still thought he should be removed, nobody called on the people to do it. Thus John V submitted to Rome – and kept his throne. John VIII signed the unia in 1439 – and kept his throne. Constantine XI remained faithful to the unia – and kept his throne - until an unbeliever killed him and captured it...

The unia with Rome was not caused by real sympathy for the papacy: only a small minority were real Latinophiles. It was caused by the fact that the bishops (except Mark of Ephesus) chose to follow their emperor rather than Christ. But by 1453 the emperor was not only uniate but also unanointed. And yet in spite of that the people followed him even when they deserted the uniate churches.

And so the emperors, although they were no longer seen as gods, as in pagan times, nor have pretensions to be priests, as in the times of the iconoclasts, were nevertheless for all practical purposes god-kings and king-priests. For they were untouchable, being placed by their subjects above the laws both of God and of man. And this untouchable idol was placed as the lynch-pin upon which the whole Byzantine system of government, both political and ecclesiastical, rested; for as Patriarch Anthony IV said to Great Prince Basil of Moscow, “it is impossible for Christians to have a Church, but not have an Emperor”.

And yet this was not true, as the patriarchs knew better than anybody else. For whereas, in late Byzantium, the emperor’s ever-decreasing rule extended over Constantinople, Thessalonica and the Peloponnese, and little else, the authority of the Ecumenical Patriarch was truly universal in the Orthodox world, extending far beyond the bounds of the Empire – to Serbia in the West, to Russia in the north, and to the Turkish-occupied lands in the East.

So why did the powerful patriarchs fawn on, and bow down to the almost powerless emperors? The paradox is explained by the fact that the Ecumenical Patriarchate was increasingly Greek in its orientation – and Greek hopes centred exclusively on the Empire, and specifically on Constantinople. In 1204 the patriarchs had been prepared to fight on even after the fall of the City – and had constructed a viable and prosperous realm outside it. But not now… In a previous age, they might have blessed and supported a translatio imperii to some foreign land that was still devoted to the ideals of the Christian Empire – Romania, perhaps, or Moscow. But not now…

The fatal weakness of the Byzantines had been their placing the security of the Empire above that of the Church, the earthly kingdom above the Heavenly Kingdom. They reversed the choice that the holy Prince Lazar of Serbia made on the field of Kosovo. Like Judah in the time of Jeremiah, they tried to play off one despotic power against another – and lost to both. Unable to present a truly Catholic – in the sense of universal, non-nationalistic - vision of Christian society to the world, the Byzantines fell into a false union with the West with its heretical, but more explicitly universal vision. And so, in becoming Latins, they ceased to be Romans, whose whole glory, even when their dominion was no longer universal, lay in their universal vision; for, as Solomon said, “where there is no vision, the people perish” (Proverbs 29.18).

Great-Prince Basil had been right. “We have a Church,” he said to Patriarch Anthony, “but we do not have an emperor”. But the Byzantines could not and would not believe this, even when it was obvious that their heretical emperor was leading them to political and spiritual disaster. Unlike their great ancestors, who had often defied heretical emperors for the sake of the Faith, they tried to preserve their earthly kingdom at the price of the Kingdom of Heaven, forgetting that the whole glory of the Christian Empire lay in its readiness to live and die for its Heavenly King; "for here we have no lasting city, but seek the City which is to come" (Hebrews 13.14). The universal vision of Christian Rome had been narrowed to a terribly debilitating concentration on one speck of dust. And so, in order that this extreme narrowness of vision should not contract to complete blindness, the Lord in His great mercy removed even that speck from their sight…

Vladimir Moss.

May 16/29, 2011.

Sunday of the Blind Man.



[1] Archbishop Seraphim, “Sud’by Rossii” (“The Destinies of Russia”), Pravoslavnij Vestnik (Orthodox Messenger), № 87, January-February, 1996, pp. 6-7 (in Russian). Translated in Fr. Andrew Phillips, Orthodox Christianity and the Old English Church, English Orthodox Trust, 1996.

[2] Bury, The Constitution of the Later Roman Empire, Cambridge University Press, 1910, p. 9.

[3] Aelfric, Sermon on Palm Sunday.

[4] The Lives of the Spiritual Mothers, Buena Vista, CO; Holy Apostles’ Convent, 1991, p. 325. In spite of that, St. Photius the Great refused the new Emperor communion.

[5] Leo the Deacon, quoted in S. Fomin and T. Fomina, Rossia pered Vtorym Prishestviem (Russia before the Second Coming), Sergius Posad, 1994, vol. 1, p. 99 (in Russian).

[6] Leontiev, “Vyzantinizm i Slavianstvo” (“Byzantinism and Slavism”), in Vostok, Rossia i Slavianstvo (The East, Russia and Slavism), Moscow, 1996, p. 97 (in Russian).

[7] M.V. Zyzykin, Patriarkh Nikon, Warsaw, 1931, part I, pp. 122-123 (in Russian).

[8] Runciman, The Great Church in Captivity, Cambridge University Press, 1968, pp. 71-72.

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