Written by Vladimir Moss



     “The world,” said Tertullian in the third century, “may need its Caesars. But the Emperor can never be a Christian, nor a Christian ever be an Emperor.” He was wrong. And the fact of his wrongness – the fact, namely, that even the most powerful, secular and pagan element in Old Roman society, the very apex of its antichristian system, could be and was converted from blasphemy to piety by the grace of Christ – changed that society forever, renewing it in the image of the God-Man, Jesus Christ, Whom the emperors now recognized.

St. Constantine the Great

     To an astonishing degree, the transformation of the old absolutist system of Roman government into the Christian Autocracy that we know as the New Rome, was the work of just one man – Constantine the Great. 

     After his victory over the pagans at Rome in 312, Constantine broke with tradition by refusing to offer sacrifice to the pagan gods, an act of considerable courage. “And because Constantine made no supplication to evil spirits,” wrote St. Augustine, “but worshipped only the true God, he enjoyed a life more favoured by marks of worldly prosperity than anyone would have dared imagine was possible.” Contrary to many western historians, who assert that he did not break with paganism for diplomatic reasons, the Emperor was not slow to ascribe his victory to Christ and the Cross: “In the royal city he raised this sacred standard and inscribed definitely and indelibly that this saving sign is the preserver of the Roman Empire and the whole kingdom. But when in the most crowded place of Rome they raised a statue to him, he immediately ordered that a long spear in the shape of a cross be put in the hand of his representation and that the following inscription be written word for word in Latin: ‘By this saving and famous sign, the true witness of courage, I saved and liberated your city from the yoke of tyranny, and on liberating it, returned to the Roman senate and people its freedom, its former glory and its celebrity.’”

     He continued to experience the power of the Cross, “the sceptre of kings”, throughout his reign. Thus “wherever the sign of the cross was shown, enemies were turned to flight, while the victors pursued them. When the Emperor heard about this, he ordered the saving sign, as being the most genuine means of victory, to be transferred to the place where he saw one of his regiments weakening. Immediately victory was restored to it, because the warriors at the sight of it were strengthened by a vigour and a power sent from on high.”

     In the West the persecution of the Christians was now over. However, in the East the persecution continued under the Caesar Galerius until his death in 311, and in the territories of the Caesar Maximinus until 313. In that year St. Constantine met the new emperor in the East, Licinius, and with him proclaimed an Edict of religious toleration: “Our purpose is to grant both to the Christians and to all others full authority to follow whatever worship each man has desired; whereby whatsoever divinity dwells in heaven may be benevolent and propitious to us, and to all who are placed under our authority”. Fr. Alexis Nikolin writes: “The Edict of Milan decisively rejected many traditions of antiquity. St. Constantine clearly proclaimed that Christianity is not the property of any particular people, but is a universal religion, the religion of the whole of humanity. If formerly it was thought that a given religion belongs to a given people and for that reason it is sacred and untouchable, now the lawgiver affirmed a new principle: that the sacred and untouchable religion was that religion which belonged to all peoples – Christianity. It was obviously not an attempt to bring Christianity under the usual (pagan) juridical forms, but a principled change in those forms.”

      It was to be a true Renovatio Imperii, renovation of the Empire. As Fr. George Florovsky writes, “the Age of Constantine is commonly regarded as a turning point of Christian history. After a protracted struggle with the Church, the Roman Empire at last capitulated. The Caesar himself was converted, and humbly applied for admission into the Church. Religious freedom was formally promulgated, and was emphatically extended to Christians. The confiscated property was returned to Christian communities. Those Christians who suffered disability and deportation in the years of persecution were now ordered back, and were received with honors. In fact, Constantine was offering to the Church not only peace and freedom, but also protection and close cooperation. Indeed, he was urging the Church and her leaders to join with him in the ‘Renovation’ of the Empire… Constantine was firmly convinced that, by Divine Providence, he was entrusted with a high and holy mission, that he was chosen to re-establish the Empire, and to re-establish it on a Christian foundation. This conviction, more than any particular theory, was the decisive factor in his policy, and in his actual mode of ruling.”

     And yet the Triumph of the Cross proved, paradoxically, that God does not need Christian kings in order to save the world. They help – they help greatly. But for almost three centuries from the Resurrection of Christ the Church had survived and grown in the teeth of everything that Jewish and pagan fury could hurl against her, and without the help of any earthly forces. 

     For, as Metropolitan Philaret of Moscow wrote: “there is benefit in the union of the altar and the throne, but it is not mutual benefit that is the first foundation of their union, but the independent truth, which supports both the one and the other. May the king, the protector of the altar, be blessed; but the altar does not fear the fall of this protection. The priest is right who preaches that the king should be honoured, but not by right of mutuality, but by pure obligation, even if this took place without the hope of mutuality… Constantine the Great came to the altar of Christ when it already stood on the expanses of Asia, Europe and Africa: he came, not in order to support it with his strength, but in order to submit himself with his majesty before its Holiness. He Who dwells in the heavens laughed at those who later thought of lowering His Divine religion to dependence on human assistance. In order to make their sophistry laughable, He waited for three centuries before calling the wise king to the altar of Christ, and meanwhile from day to day kings, peoples, wise men, power, art, cupidity, cunning and rage rose up to destroy this altar. And what happened in the end? All this has disappeared, while the Church of Christ stands – but not because it is supported by human power…”

     Having said that, the conversion of the Emperor to the Church was an event of the greatest historical significance that brought immeasurable benefits. As Eusebius of Caesarea wrote: “Divine joy blossomed in all hearts as we saw that every place which a little whole before had been reduced to dust by the tyrants’ wickedness was now, as if from a prolonged and deadly stranglehold, coming back to life; and that cathedrals were again rising from their foundations high into the air, and far surpassing in magnitude those previously destroyed by the enemy. Emperors, too, the most exalted (Constantine and Licinius) by a succession of ordinances in favour of the Christians, confirmed still further and more surely the blessings God showered upon us; and a stream of personal letters from the emperor reached the bishops, accompanied by honours and gifts of money. Old troubles were forgotten, and all irreligion passed into oblivion; good things present were enjoyed, those yet to come eagerly awaited. In every city the victorious emperor published decrees full of humanity and laws that gave proof of munificence and true piety. Thus all tyranny had been purged away, and the kingdom that was theirs was preserved securely and without question for Constantine and his sons alone.”

     In 324, Constantine defeated Licinius and imposed his rule on the East, thereby delivering Christians throughout the Empire from persecution. Rome was now, not the persecutor, but the protector, of the Christian people. Nearly three hundred years after Christ told the Roman procurator, Pontius Pilate, that His power came from God, the reason why God thus favoured Rome became evident…

     Indeed, long before his defeat of the last tyrant, Constantine had started to legislate in favour of Christianity with the following decrees: “on the abolition of pagan games (314), on the liberation of the Christian clergy from civil obligations and church lands from additional taxes (313-315), on the abolition of crucifixion as a means of capital punishment (315), on the abolition of the branding of criminals (315), against the Jews who rose up against the Church (315), on the liberation of slaves at church gatherings without special formalities (316), on forbidding private persons from offering sacrifices to idols and divining at home (319), on the annulment of laws against celibacy (320), on the celebration of Sunday throughout the Empire (321), on the right of bishops to be appeal judges (321), on banning the forcible compulsion of Christians to take part in pagan festivals (322), on the banning of gladiatorial games (325), on allowing Christians to take up senior government posts (325), on the building of Christian churches and the banning in them of statues and images of the emperor (325).” Constantine also defended the Christians against the Jews. He ordered the release of all slaves whom the Jews had dared to circumcise, and those Jews who killed their co-religionists for converting to Christianity were executed. 

     Among these decrees the one on absolving the clergy from holding civic office is particularly interesting because it shows the underlying motivation of Constantine’s legislation: “[The clergy] shall not be drawn away by any deviation and sacrifice from the worship that is due to the Divinity, but shall devote themselves without interference to their own law… for it seems that rendering the greatest possible service to the Deity, they most benefit the state.” Some see in this a cynical attempt to exploit the Deity in the interests of the emperor. But a more reasonable interpretation is that Constantine was already feeling his way to a doctrine of the symphony of powers, in which the emperor helps the Church as the defender of the faith and “the bishop of those outside the Church”, while the Church helps the emperor through her prayers – all to the ultimate glory of God and the salvation of men.

     Barnes writes: “Constantine allowed pagans to retain their beliefs, even to build new sacred edifices. But he allowed them to worship their traditional gods only in the Christian sense of that word, not according to the traditional forms hallowed by antiquity. The emperor made the distinction underlying his policy explicit when he answered a petition from the Umbrian town of Hispellum requesting permission to build a temple of the Gens Flavia. Constantine granted the request but specified that the shrine dedicated to the imperial family must never be ‘polluted by the deceits of any contagious superstition’. From 324 onwards Constantine constantly evinced official disapproval of the sacrifices and other cultic acts which constituted the essence of Greco-Roman paganism: Christianity was now the established religion of the Roman Empire and its ruler, and paganism should now conform to Christian patterns of religious observance.”

     “What must have really shocked traditional Romans,” writes Peter Salway, “was Constantine’s transfer to the Church of certain powers that had always been the prerogative of Roman magistrates. Even Constantine’s own praetorian prefect, himself a Christian, was not sure that he had understood the emperor correctly when Constantine decided that either party in a legal action could have the case transferred out of the ordinary courts to the local bishop – and that, if necessary, the secular authorities were required to enforce the judgement. This extraordinary ecclesiastical privilege did not, admittedly, last, but it sheds an interesting light on how revolutionary Constantine was prepared to be.”

     How central Christianity was to Constantine’s conception of empire is illustrated by his words on hearing of the Donatist heresy: “Until now I cannot be completely calm until all my subjects are united in brotherly unity and offer to the All-holy God the true worship that is prescribed by the Catholic Church”. Again, when the Donatists appealed to him against the judgement of the bishops, he said: “What mad presumption! They turn heavenly things into earthly, appealing to me as if the matter was of a civic nature.” And on the decision of the Council of Arles he said: “The bishops’ decision should be looked upon as though the Lord Himself had been sitting in judgement.” Thus Constantine separated Church matters from civic matters and did not subject the former to State law, but on the contrary tried to conform his legislation to Christian principles. He gave to the Church the full honour due to her as an institution founded by the One True God, no less than the Body of the God-Man Himself, and therefore higher by nature than any human institution, not excluding the Roman Empire itself. Christianity did not simply take the place of the old Roman religion in the State apparatus; for Constantine understood that the Christian faith was not to be honoured for the sake of the empire, or in submission to the empire, but that the empire existed for the sake of the faith and was to be submitted to it. This was most clearly illustrated at the First Ecumenical Council in 325, when the emperor took part in the proceedings only at the request of the bishops, and did not sit on a royal throne, but on a little stool. 

     Later, when he addressed the Council Fathers he demonstrated that for him the internal peace and prosperity of the Church was even more important that the external peace and prosperity of the Empire: “Now that we, with the help of God the Saviour, have destroyed the tyranny of the atheists who entered into open war with us, may the evil spirit not dare to attack our holy Faith with his cunning devices. I say to you from the depths of my heart: the internal differences in the Church of God that I see before my eyes have plunged me into profound sorrow... Servants of the God of peace, regenerate amidst us that spirit of love which it is your duty to instill in others, destroy the seeds of all quarrels.” Again, to the Fathers who were not present at the Council of Nicaea he wrote concerning its decrees: “That which has been established in accordance with the God-inspired decision of so many and such holy Bishops we shall accept with joy as the command of God; for everything that is established at the Holy Councils of Bishops must be ascribed to the Divine will.” Indeed, so obedient was he to the Church that, as I.I. Sokolov writes, “at the First Ecumenical Council, according to the witness of the historian Rufinus, the Emperor Constantine said: ‘God has made you priests and given you the power the judge my peoples and me myself. Therefore it is just that I should submit to your verdict. The thought has never entered my mind to be judge over you.”

     Constantine saw himself as the instrument of God’s will for the replacement of false religion with the true: “With such impiety pervading the human race, and the State threatened with destruction, what relief did God devise?… I myself was the instrument He chose… Thus, beginning at the remote Ocean of Britain, where the sun sinks beneath the horizon in obedience to the law of nature, with God’s help I banished and eliminated every form of evil then prevailing, in the hope that the human race, enlightened through me, might be recalled to a proper observance of God’s holy laws.”

     Whatever Constantine did for the Church he did, not as an arbitrary expression of his imperial will, but in obedience to the commission of the Church. Thus the Fathers of the First Council welcomed the Emperor as follows: "Blessed is God, Who has chosen you as king of the earth, having by your hand destroyed the worship of idols and through you bestowed peace upon the hearts of the faithful... On this teaching of the Trinity, your Majesty, is established the greatness of your piety. Preserve it for us whole and unshaken, so that none of the heretics, having penetrated into the Church, might subject our faith to mockery... Your Majesty, command that Arius should depart from his error and rise no longer against the apostolic teaching. Or if he remains obstinate in his impiety, drive him out of the Orthodox Church." 

     As Bishop Dionysius writes, "this is a clear recognition of the divine election of Constantine as the external defender of the Church, who is obliged to work with her in preserving the right faith, and in correspondence with the conciliar sentence is empowered to drive heretics out of the Church."

     The most famous definition of the relationship between Constantine and the Church is to be found in two passages from Eusebius’ Life of Constantine, which speak of him as “like a common bishop” and “like a bishop of those outside”. The first passage is as follows: “[Constantine] was common for all, but he paid a completely special attention to the Church of God. While certain divergences manifested themselves in different regions, he, like a common bishop established by God, reunited the ministers of God in synods. He did not disdain to be present at their activities and to sit with them, participating in their episcopal deliberations, and arbitrating for everyone the peace of God… Then, he did not fail to give his support to those whom he saw were bending to the better opinion and leaning towards equilibrium and consensus, showing how much joy the common accord of all gave him, while he turned away from the indocile…” In the second passage the emperor receives the bishops and says that he, too, is a bishop: “But you, you are bishops whose jurisdiction is within the Church: I also am a bishop, ordained by God to oversee those outside the Church.” Eusebius immediately explains that Constantine’s “bishopric” here consisted, not in liturgical priestly acts, but in “overseeing [επεσκοπει] all the subjects of the empire” and leading them towards piety.

     So the emperor was not really a bishop, but only like a bishop, being like the pastors in both his missionary and supervisory roles. And he excelled in both. Thus, on the one hand, he responded vigorously to St. Nina’s request that he send bishops and priest to help her missionary work in Georgia, and on hearing that the Christians were being persecuted in Persia he threatened to go to war with that state. And on the other hand, he convened numerous councils of bishops to settle doctrinal disputes throughout the empire, acting as the focus of unity for the Church on earth.

     The emperor’s role as a focus of unity within the Church did not mean that he was thought to have power over the Church. Thus when St. Athanasius the Great was condemned by a council at Tyre that considered itself "ecumenical", and appealed to the Emperor Constantine against the decision, he was not asking the secular power to overthrow the decision of the ecclesiastical power, as had been the thought of the Donatists earlier in the reign, but was rather calling on a son of the Church to defend the decision of the Holy Fathers of Nicaea against heretics. Of course, being mortal, Constantine was not always consistent in the execution of his principles (as when he refused Athanasius’ appeal). But the principles themselves were sound, and he was always sincere in trying to uphold them.

     The emperor as focus of unity was especially needed when the Church was afflicted by problems that affected the whole Church, and needed a Council representing the whole Church to solve them. Such, for example, were the problems of Arianism and the Church calendar, both of which were resolved at the First Ecumenical Council. Since the Church herself, contrary to the assertions of later papist propagandists, lacked a “bishop of bishops” having ecumenical jurisdiction, only the emperor could carry out this co-ordinating function. He alone had the ecumenical authority necessary to compel the bishops from all parts of the empire to meet together in Synods, and remain there until decisions were agreed upon. And he alone could then see that these decisions were put into practice.

     There has been much controversy, especially in the Protestant West, over the sincerity of Constantine’s conversion to Christianity, on the one hand, and the value of his revolution in Church-State relations, on the other. On both scores the Orthodox Church has had no doubts. Whatever sins or inconsistencies, in faith or works, that Constantine committed during his life, these were washed away in his baptism, which he received on his deathbed. And since then there have been many witnesses to his glory in the heavens. As for the revolution in Church-State relations which he, and he alone, effected in the face of enormous difficulties, it is almost impossible to overestimate its beneficial impact, both in his lifetime and for centuries afterwards. Even if the new “symphony” in Church-State relations brought with it certain new temptations and dangers, this was in the nature of the fundamentally unstable relationship between the Church and the world that “lies in evil”.

     Although Constantine was not baptized until he was on his deathbed, and never received a visible anointing, the Church has always believed that he received the invisible anointing of the Holy Spirit: “Thou wast the image of a new David, receiving the horn of royal anointing over thy head; for with the oil of the Spirit hath the transcendent Word and Lord anointed thee, O glorious one. Wherefore, thou hast also received a royal sceptre, O all-wise one, asking great mercy for us.”

     St. Constantine died at midday on Pentecost, 337, and was buried in the church of the Holy Apostles amidst the sepulchres of the twelve apostles. For in his person the Church had indeed found an “equal to the apostles”. In his reign the process of converting the world that began at Pentecost reached its first climax…


The Pagan and Heretical Reaction

     The transformation of the pagan despotism of Old Rome into the Christian Autocracy of New Rome on the model of the Israelite Autocracy was a gradual, piecemeal process, with many reverses along the way. Just as Constantine himself did not immediately become a baptized Christian after his vision of the Cross at the Milvian Bridge, but was baptized only on his deathbed, so the pagan governmental structure did not become Christian overnight. It was not until the reign of Gratian that the Emperors abandoned the pagan religious title of pontifex maximus, and the Senate was forbidden to offer incense on the altar of the goddess Victor. And official paganism still retained some of its rights until Theodosius’ decrees late in the fourth century.

     Some of the successors of Constantine, especially in the East, tried to revive the pagan Roman idea of the Emperor as supreme ruler in both religious and secular affairs, and to treat the Church as no more than a department of State. This pagan reaction began already in the reign of Constantine’s son Constantius. He had been Orthodox, but converted to the Arian heresy, believing that Christ was not the pre-eternal God but a created being. Consequently, St. Athanasius, who had previously addressed him as “very pious”, a “worshipper of God”, “beloved of God” and a successor of David and Solomon, now denounced him as “patron of impiety and Emperor of heresy,… godless, unholy,.. this modern Ahab, this second Belshazzar”, like Pharaoh, worse than Pilate and a forerunner of the Antichrist. For, as he wrote to Constantius: “Judgement is made by bishops. What business is it of the Emperor’s?”

     Another bishop who spoke out against Constantius was St. Hilary of Poitiers. “It is time to speak,” he begins; “the time for holding my peace has passed. Let Christ be expected, for Antichrist has prevailed. Let the shepherds cry, for the hirelings have fled… You are fighting against God, you are raging against the Church, you are persecuting the saints, you hate the preachers of Christ, you are annulling religion; you are a tyrant no longer only in the human, but in the divine sphere… You mendaciously declare yourself a Christian, but are a new enemy of Christ. You art a precursor of Antichrist, and you work the mysteries of his secrets.”

     Constantius’ heretical cast of mind made it easier for him to assume the place of Christ as head of the Church. Thus at the Council of Milan in 355, he said: “My will is law”. To which St. Osius of Cordoba, replied: “Stop, I beseech you. Remember that you are a mortal man, fear the Day of Judgement, preserve yourself pure for that. Do not interfere in matters that are essentially ecclesiastical and do not give us orders about them, but rather accept teaching from us. God has entrusted you with the Empire, and to us He has entrusted the affairs of the Church. And just as one who seizes for himself your power contradicts the institution of God, so fear lest you, in taking into your own hands the affairs of the Church, do not become guilty of a serious offence. As it is written, give to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s. We are not permitted to exercise an earthly role; and you, Sire, are not authorised to burn incense.”

     At about this time, the Persian King Sapor started to kill the clergy, confiscate church property and raze the churches to the ground. He told St. Simeon, Bishop of Seleucia and Ctesiphon, that if he worshipped the sun, he would receive every possible honour and gift. But if he refused, Christianity in Persia would be utterly destroyed. In reply, St. Simeon not only refused to worship the sun but also refused to recognize the king by bowing to him. This omission of his previous respect for the king’s authority was noticed and questioned by the King. St. Simeon replied: "Before I bowed down to you, giving you honour as a king, but now I come being brought to deny my God and Faith. It is not good for me to bow before an enemy of my God!" The King then threatened to destroy the Church in his kingdom… He brought in about one hundred priests and about one thousand other Christians and killed them before the saint’s eyes. The saint encouraged them not to be frightened and to be in hope of eternal life. After everyone had been killed, St. Simeon himself was martyred.

     This shows that the Fathers and Martyrs of the Church recognized the authority of kings and emperors only so long as they did not persecute the Church of God. At the same time, non-recognition did not necessarily mean rebellion. Thus although the Fathers could not look upon a heretical emperor such as Constantius as an image of the Heavenly King, they did not counsel rebellion against him, but only resistance against those of his laws that encroached on Christian piety. However, when Julian the Apostate (361-363) came to the throne, passive resistance turned into active, if not actually physical, attempts to have him removed. Thus St. Basil the Great prayed for the defeat of Julian in his wars against the Persians; and it was through his prayers that the apostate was in fact killed, as was revealed by God to the holy hermit Julian of Mesopotamia. Again, St. Basil’s friend, St. Gregory the Theologian wrote: “I call to spiritual rejoicing all those who constantly remained in fasting, in mourning and prayer, and by day and by night besought deliverance from the sorrows that surrounded us and found a reliable healing from the evils in unshakeable hope… What hoards of weapons, what myriads of men could have produced what our prayers and the will of God produced?” Gregory called Julian not only an “apostate”, but also “universal enemy” and “general murderer”, a traitor to Romanity as well as to Christianity, explicitly denying that his was a power from God and therefore requiring obedience: “What demon instilled this thought in you? If every authority were acknowledged as sacred by the very fact of its existence, Christ the Savior would not have called Herod ‘that fox’. The Church would not hitherto have denounced ungodly rulers who defended heresies and persecuted Orthodoxy. Of course, if one judges an authority on the basis of its outward power, and not on its inner, moral worthiness, one may easily bow down to the beast, i.e. the Antichrist, ‘whose coming will be with all power and lying wonders’ (II Thessalonians 2.9), to whom ‘power was given… over all kindred, and tongues, and nations. And all that dwelt upon the earth shall worship him, whose names were not written in the book of life of the Lamb’ (Revelation 13.7-8).”

     This raises the question: what made Julian the Apostate so much worse than previous persecutors and unworthy even of that honour and obedience that had been given to them? Two possible answers suggest themselves. The first is that Julian was the first – and last – of the Byzantine emperors who openly trampled on the memory and legitimacy of St. Constantine, declaring that he “insolently usurped the throne”. In this way he questioned the legitimacy of the Christian Empire as such – a revolutionary position very rare in Byzantine history. If, as Paul Magdalino suggests, “each emperor’s accession was a conscious act of renewal of the imperial order instituted by Constantine the Great,” and “the idea of each new ruler as a new Constantine was implicit in the dynastic succession established by the founder of Constantinople”, then Julian’s rejection of Constantine was clearly a rejection of the imperial order as such. In this sense he was an anti-emperor as well as an anti-christ.

     That this is how the Byzantines looked at it is suggested by what happened at the death of Julian and the accession of the Christian Emperor Jovian in 363: “Themistus assured the people of the city that what they were getting, after Constantine’s son Constantius and Constantine’s nephew Julian, was nothing less than a reincarnation of Constantine himself.” Jovian’s being a “new Constantine” was a guarantee that he represented a return to the old order and true, Christian Romanity. From this time new Byzantine emperors were often hailed as new Constantines, as were the Christian kings of the junior members of the Christian commonwealth of nations. 

     A second reason for ascribing to Julian an exceptional place amongst the forerunners of the Antichrist was his reversal of Emperor Hadrian’s decree in 135 forbidding the Jews from returning to Jerusalem and, still worse, his helping the Jews to rebuild the Temple, in defiance of the Lord’s prophecy that “there shall be left not one stone upon another that shall not be thrown down” (Mark 13.2). 

     By a miracle of God the rebuilding of the Temple was forcibly stopped. St. Gregory the Theologian tells how the Jews enthusiastically set about the rebuilding. But “suddenly they were driven from their work by a violent earthquake and whirlwind, and they rushed together for refuge to a neighbouring church… There are some who say that the church doors were closed against them by an invisible hand although these doors had been wide open a moment before… It is, moreover, affirmed and believed by all that as they strove to force their way in by violence, the fire, which burst from the foundation of the Temple, met and stopped them; some it burnt and destroyed, others it injured seriously… But the most wonderful thing was that a light, as of a cross within a circle, appeared in the heavens… and the mark of the cross was impressed on their garments… a mark which in art and elegance surpassed all painting and embroidery.”

     But if Julian had succeeded, then, wondered the Christians, what would have prevented him from sitting in the Temple as God – that is, from becoming the Antichrist himself? And so it is from this time, as Dagron points out, “that the face of each emperor or empress is scrutinized to try and recognize in it the characteristic traits of the Antichrist or of the sovereigns, good or bad, who precede his coming…”

     The Fathers were no less bold in their claims on Orthodox emperors. Thus St. Basil the Great wrote: “The Emperors must defend the decrees of God”.And according to St. Gregory the Theologian: “The law of Christ submits you [emperors] to our power and our judgement. For we also rule, and our power is higher than yours. In fact, must the spirit bow before matter, the heavenly before the earthly?” Again, St. John Chrysostom wrote: “The priesthood is as far above the kingdom as the spirit is above the body. The king rules the body, but the priest – the king, which is why the king bows his head before the finger of the priest.” And again: “The Church is not the sphere of Caesar, but of God. The decrees of the State authorities in matters of religion cannot have ecclesiastical significance. Only the will of God can be the source of Church law. He who bears the diadem is no better than the last citizen when he must be reproached and punished. Ecclesiastical authority must stand firmly for its rights if the State authorities interfere in its sphere. It must know that the boundaries of royal power do not coincide with those of the priesthood, and the latter is greater than the former. Finally, we read in a fourth-century document: “The king occupies himself only with military matters, worrying about war and peace, so as to preserve the body, while the bishop covers the priesthood of God, protecting both body and soul from danger. Thus the priesthood surpasses the kingdom as much as the soul surpasses the body, for it binds and looses those worthy of punishment and forgiveness.”


Kingship and Tyranny

     A clear example of the heavenly refusing to bow down before the earthly was provided by St. John Chrysostom in his relations with the Empress Eudoxia.  In 403 a silver statue of the empress was erected in Constantinople, before which the public games were performed. “These,” writes Socrates Scholasticus, “John regarded as an insult offered to the Church, and having regained his ordinary freedom and keenness of tongue [after his first exile], he employed his tongue against those who did these things… The empress once more applied his expression to herself as indicating marked contempt towards her own person: she therefore endeavoured to procure the convocation of another council of bishops against him. When John became aware of this, he delivered in the church that celebrated oration beginning with: ‘Again Herodias raves, again she is troubled, again she dances, and again she desires to receive John’s head on a platter’.”

     A still clearer example of this new assertiveness of the Church towards the Empire is provided by the relationship between the Emperor Theodosius the Great and St. Ambrose, Bishop of Milan. Theodosius was probably more disposed to accede to the desires of the Church than any Emperor since Constantine. Thus in 380 he decreed that everyone should become a Christian: “It is Our Will that all the peoples We rule shall practice that religion which the divine Peter the Apostle transmitted to the Romans. We shall believe in the single Deity of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, under the concept of equal majesty and of the Holy Trinity. We command that those persons who follow this rule shall embrace the name of Catholic Christians. The rest, however, whom We adjudge demented and insane, shall sustain the infamy of heretical dogmas, their meeting places shall not receive the name of churches, and they shall be smitten first by divine vengeance and secondly by the retribution of Our own initiative, which We shall assume in accordance with divine judgement.”

     While only a general, Theodosius had had a vision of St. Meletius, Bishop of Antioch, investing him with the imperial robe and crown. So, on seeing him at the Second Ecumenical Council in 381, the emperor ran up to him, “and, like a boy who loves his father, stood for a long time gazing on him with filial joy, then flung his arms around him, and covered eyes and lips and breast and head and the hand that had given him the crown, with kisses” – a striking image of the new, filial relationship between Church and Empire. Never before, and not again until the Muscovite tsars of the seventeenth century, was this relationship to be so clearly promulgated.

     But if Theodosius thought that the Church would now always support him, as he supported the Church, he was to receive a salutary shock at the hands of the great St. Ambrose of Milan, “the most influential churchman in Christendom” according to John Julius Norwich, “– more so by far than the Pope in Rome, by reason not only of the greater importance of Milan as a political capital but also of his own background. Member of one of the most ancient Christian families of the Roman aristocracy, son of a Praetorian Prefect of Gaul and himself formerly a consularis, or governor, of Liguria and Aemilia, he had never intended to enter the priesthood; but on the death in 374 of the previous bishop, the Arian Auxentius, an acrimonious dispute had arisen between the Orthodox and Arian factions in the city over which he, as governor, was obliged to arbitrate. Only when it finally emerged that he alone possessed sufficient prestige to make him equally acceptable to both parties did he reluctantly allow his name to go forward. In a single week he was successively a layman, catechumen, priest and bishop.”

     Now in 388 some Christians burned down the local synagogue in Callinicum (Raqqa), on the Euphrates. Theodosius ordered it to be rebuilt at the Christians’ expense. However, St. Ambrose wrote to him: “When a report was made by the military Count of the East that a synagogue had been burnt down, and that this was done at the instigation of the bishop, You gave command that the others should be punished, and the synagogue be rebuilt by the bishop himself… The bishop’s account ought to have been waited for, for priests are the calmers of disturbances, and anxious for peace, except when even they are moved by some offence against God, or insult to the Church. Let us suppose that the bishop burned down the synagogue… It will evidently be necessary for him to take back his act or become a martyr. Both the one and the other are foreign to Your rule: if he turns out to be a hero, then fear lest he end his life in martyrdom; but if he turns out to be unworthy, then fear lest you become the cause of his fall, for the seducer bears the greater responsibility. And what if others are cowardly and agree to construct the synagogue? Then… you can write on the front of the building: ‘This temple of impiety was built on contributions taken from Christians’. You are motivated by considerations of public order. But what is the order from on high? Religion was always bound to have the main significance in the State, which is why the severity of the laws must be modified here. Remember Julian, who wanted to rebuild the temple of Jerusalem: the builders were then burned by the fire of God. Do you not take fright at what happened then?… And how many temples did the Jews not burn down under Julian at Gaza, Askalon, Beirut and other places? You did not take revenge for the churches, but now You take revenge for the synagogue!”

     “What is more important,” he asked, “the parade of discipline or the cause of religion? The maintenance of civil law is secondary to religious interest.” And he refused to celebrate the Divine Liturgy until the imperial decree had been revoked.Theodosius backed down…

     St. Ambrose’s views on Church-State relations were squarely in the tradition of the Eastern Fathers quoted above: “The Emperor is not above the Church, but in the Church,” he wrote. “If one reads the Scriptures, one sees that it is bishops who judge Emperors.” He showed an awesome courage in the face of State authority. He knew from his experience as a governor, as well as from his Christian faith, how weak emperors really are. As he wrote: “How miserable even in this world is the condition of kings, how mutable the imperial state, how short the span of this life, what slavery sovereigns themselves endure, seeing that they live not according to their own will but by the will of others”.

     St. Ambrose strikingly combined the ideals of the political and ecclesiastical rulers as described by St. John Chrysostom: “Fear induced by the leaders does not allow us to relax from lack of care, while the consolations of the Church do not allow us to fall into despondency: through both the one and the other God constructs our salvation. He both established the leaders (Romans 13.4) so as to frighten the bold, and has ordained the priests so as to comfort the sorrowing.”

     Ambrose displayed these qualities again in 390, when a riot took place in Thessalonica that led to the murder of several magistrates. The Emperor Theodosius ordered the execution of the perpetrators. But there was no trial, and many innocent as well as guilty were killed, perhaps as many as seven thousand. 

     “News of this lamentable calamity,” writes Theodoret, “reached Ambrose. The emperor on his arrival at Milan wished according to custom to enter the church. Ambrose met him outside the outer porch and forbade him to step over the sacred threshold. ‘You seem, sir, not to know,’ said he, ‘the magnitude of the bloody deed that has been done. Your rage has subsided, but your reason has not yet recognised the character of the deed. Peradventure your Imperial power prevents your recognising the sin, and power stands in the light of reason. We must however know how our nature passes away and is subject to death; we must know the ancestral dust from which we sprang, and to which we are swiftly returning.  We must not because we are dazzled by the sheen of the purple fail to see the weakness of the body that it robes. You are a sovereign, sir; of men of like nature with your own, and who are in truth your fellow slaves; for there is one Lord and Sovereign of mankind, Creator of the universe. With what eyes then will you look on the temple of our common Lord – with what feet will you tread that holy threshold, how will you stretch forth your hands still dripping with the blood of unjust slaughter? How in such hands will you receive the all-holy Body of the Lord? How will you who in rage unrighteously poured forth so much blood lift to your lips the precious Blood? Begone. Attempt not to add another crime to that which you have committed. Submit to the restriction to which God the Lord of all agrees that you be sentenced. He will be your physician, He will give you health.’

     “Educated as he had been in the sacred oracles, Theodosius knew clearly what belonged to priests and what to emperors. He therefore bowed to the rebuke of Ambrose, and retired sighing and weeping to the palace. After a considerable time, when eight months had passed away, the festival of our Saviour’s birth came round and the emperor sat in his palace shedding a storm of tears.”

     At this point Rufinus, controller of the household, proposed that he ask Ambrose to revoke his decision. The emperor did not think Rufinus would succeed; “for I know the justice of the sentence passed by Ambrose, nor will he ever be moved by respect for my imperial power to transgress the law of God.” Nevertheless, he eventually agreed that Rufinus should make the attempt. 

     Ambrose was scathing to Rufinus: “Your impudence matches a dog’s,” he said, “for you were the adviser of this terrible slaughter.” And he said he would rather die than allow the emperor to enter the church: “If he is for changing his sovereign power into that of a tyrant, I too will gladly submit to a violent death.”

     Here we find a very important difference between the concepts of true sovereignty, basileia, and the unlawful power of the usurper, tyrannis. Such a distinction was not new. Aristotle had written: “There is a third kind of tyranny; which is the most typical form and is the counterpart to the perfect monarchy. This tyranny is just that arbitrary power of an individual which is responsible to no-one and governs all alike, whether equals or betters, with a view to its own advantage, not to that of its subjects and therefore against their will.”

     The Holy Fathers developed this idea in a Christian context. Thus St. Basil the Great said: “If the heart of the king is in the hands of God (Proverbs 21.1), then he is saved, not by force of arms, but by the guidance of God. But not every one is in the hands of God, but only he who is worthy of the name of king. Some have defined kingly power as lawful dominion or sovereignty over all, without being subject to sin.” A strict definition indeed! And again: “The difference between a tyrant and a King is that the tyrant strives in every way to carry out his own will. But the King does good to those whom he rules.”

     Since Julian revived paganism and made himself a pagan priest, he was a tyrant comparable to the apostate kings of old, like Ahab and Manasseh, and was destroyed by God. St. Ambrose followed in this tradition and asserted: a tyrant is a ruler who attempts to disobey or dominate the Church. And St. Isidore of Pelusium wrote: “If some evildoer unlawfully seizes power, we do not say that he is established by God [the definition of a true king], but we say that he is permitted, either in order to spit out all his craftiness, or in order to chasten those for whom cruelty is necessary, as the king of Babylon chastened the Jews."



Ideas about Kingship

     Before attempting to answer the question: what kind of state was the Christian Roman Empire?, let us remind ourselves of some of the different concepts of kingship in ancient times. “In every people,” writes the French linguist Émile Benveniste, “we can observe that special functions are attributed to the ‘king’. Between royal power in the Vedas [of India] and Greek royal power there is a difference which comes out when we compare the following two definitions: In the Laws of Manu the king is characterized in one phrase: ‘the king is a great god in human form’. Such a definition is confirmed by other utterances: ‘there are eight holy objects, objects of veneration, worship and good treatment: Brahman, the holy cow, fire, gold, melted butter, the sun, the waters and the king (as the eighth)’. This is opposed by the definition of Aristotle: ‘the king is in the same relationship with his subjects as the head of a family with his children’. That is, in essence, this despotism in the etymological sense of the word was a master of the house – a complete master, without a doubt, but by no means a divinity….

     “For the Indo-Iranians the king is a divinity, and he has no need to attach legality to his power by using a symbol such as a sceptre. But the Homeric king was just a man who received royal dignity from Zeus together with the attributes that emphasized this dignity. For the Germans the king’s power was purely human.”

     So Rome, according to Benveniste, tended towards the oriental, despotic, god-man model of kingship. However, there was always a tension, in the early pagan Roman Empire, between the earlier, more democratic and aristocratic traditions of Republican Rome and the later, more despotic traditions adopted by Augustus from the East (especially Cleopatra’s Egypt). Only by the time of Diocletian, in the late third and early fourth centuries, had the oriental, despotic tradition achieved clear dominance. 

     But the Christian Roman emperors beginning with Constantine had more than Greco-Roman traditions to draw on: there were also the traditions of Israel. They had as models for imitation not only the pagan Greek and Roman emperors, such as Alexander and Augustus, but also the Old Testament kings, such as David and Solomon. In the end, a creative synthesis was achieved, which enabled the Christian Roman emperors to look back to both David and Augustus as models and forerunners. And into this synthesis went a third element: St. Paul’s teaching that the Roman emperor was “the servant of God” (Romans 13.4), the King of kings, the Lord Jesus Christ – Who chose to become a man as the Son of David and a taxpayer as the subject of Augustus. 

     However, the tension between the pagan (Roman) and Christian (neo-Roman or Byzantine) elements of this synthesis continued to trouble the empire for centuries. G.A. Ostrogorsky writes: “The Byzantine State structure was not created by Christian Byzantium itself. It was created, first and above all, by the Roman Emperor and pagan Diocletian, and secondly, by Constantine the Great, who stood on the boundary between the old and the new Rome, between paganism and Christianity. This circumstance determined the destiny of Byzantium. According to their State consciousness, the Byzantines always remained Romans; they proudly called themselves Romans right up to the 15th century, on the eve of the fall of the Empire. Moreover, they knew no other name for themselves. But in spirit – and the more so as time passed – they were Greeks. But at the same time and first of all they were Christians. Transferred into the sphere of another culture, the form of Roman Statehood served as a vessel for the Greek-Christian spirit. No less than the Byzantine people, and still more, did the Byzantine Emperors feel themselves to be Romans – the heirs and successors of ancient Rome, right up to Augustus. With the form of Roman Statehood they absorbed also all the prerogatives and attributes of Imperial power in ancient Rome. But to these prerogatives there also belonged the prerogative of the first-priesthood. The Emperor was not only the supreme judge and army commander, but also the Pontifex Maximus; the religious life of his subjects was subject to him as a part of public law. In ancient Rome, where the State religion was the cult of the genius of the divine Emperor, this was completely natural. In Christian Byzantium such a position, it would seem, was unthinkable. Further development also demonstrated its impossibility, but not a little time passed before the new spirit broke through the ways of the old traditions. The very title Pontifex Maximus was removed only half a century after the Christianization of the Empire (by an Edict of the Emperor Gratian in 375), while the remnants of the first-hierarchical character of Imperial power were visible for longer.... This viewpoint was not eastern, but simply typical of the given period, and was based not on Byzantine, but on ancient Roman ideas. At that time it was inherent both in the East and in the West; in the Middle Ages it lost its power both in the West and in Byzantium. And it is important that it lost its power in the East in proportion as the Byzantine principles began to triumph over the Roman...”

     One idea that was to prove critical in defining the status of the emperor was that of the earthly king as being the image of the Heavenly King. Though pagan in origin, immediately after the Christianization of the empire this idea was borrowed and modified by Christian writers, who purified it of the tendency, so natural to pagan thought, of identifying the earthly and the Heavenly, the image and its archetype. Thus St. Cyril of Alexandria wrote to the Emperor Theodosius II: “In truth, you are a certain image and likeness of the Heavenly Kingdom”.

     The first Christian to use this comparison was Bishop Eusebius of Caesarea, who wrote of St. Constantine: "The kingdom with which he is invested is an image of the heavenly one. He looks up to see the archetypal pattern and guides those whom he rules below in accordance with that pattern.” “The ruler of the whole world is the second Person of the All-Holy Trinity – the Word of God, Who is in everything visible and invisible. From this all-embracing Reason the Emperor is rational, from this Wisdom he is wise, from participation in this Divinity he is good, from communion with this Righteousness he is righteous, in accordance with the idea of this Moderation he is moderate, from the reception of this highest Power he is courageous. In all justice one must call a true Emperor him who has formed his soul with royal virtues, according to the image of the Highest Kingdom.”

     Already in the first three centuries the Roman Empire had been regarded as the providential creation of God for the furtherance and strengthening of His rule on earth. Now that the emperor himself was a Christian and was acting in such a successful way to spread the faith throughout the oikoumene, the idea that his earthly kingdom was a reflection of the Heavenly Kingdom was readily accepted. But this is no way implied the spiritual subjection of the Church to the Empire. And when the emperor began to support heresy and persecute the Orthodox, his “image status” was immediately lost. At no time more than in the fourth century do we find Christians bolder in their confession against false emperors, or more prepared, as we have seen, to emphasize the superiority of the Church to the Empire…

     Understood in a Christian way, the idea of the emperor as the image of the Heavenly King excluded both the pagan idea of the despotic king-god-man and the equally pagan idea of democratism. Thus Eusebius: “The example of monarchical rule there is a source of strength to him. This is something granted to man alone of the creatures of the earth by the universal King. The basic principle of kingly authority is the establishment of a single source of authority to which everything is subject. Monarchy is superior to every other constitution and form of government. For polyarchy, where everyone competes on equal terms, is really anarchy and discord. This is why there is one God, not two or three or even more. Polytheism is strictly atheism. There is one King, and His Word and royal law are one.”

     Even those Fathers who insisted most on the inferiority of the State to the Church accepted that the State could only be ruled by one man – although, according to Roman conceptions, the monarchy need not be hereditary. Thus St. Basil the Great wrote: "Even the king of the birds is not elected by the majority because the temerity of the people often nominates for leader the worst one; nor does it receive its power by lot, because the unwise chance of the lot frequently hands over power to the last; nor in accordance with hereditary succession, because those living in luxury and flattery are also less competent and untaught in any virtue; but according to nature one holds the first place over all, both in its size and appearance and meek disposition." Again, St. Ambrose wrote: “One God, one empire, one emperor.”

     К.V. Glazkov writes that St. Ephraim “noted that God’s unity of rule in the Heavenly Kingdom and Caesar’s unity of rule in the earthly kingdom destroy polytheism and polyarchy... The holy hierarch Gregory the Theologian remarked that there exist three basic forms of rule: monarchy – rule by one man, which contains in itself faith in one God or, at least, in a highest God; polyarchy or aristocracy – the rule of the minority or of the best, which is bound up with polytheism; and, finally, the power of the majority, which St. Gregory calls anarchy (democracy), which goes hand in glove with atheism. The saint affirmed that the Orthodox venerate monarchy insofar as it imitates the unity of God, while polyarchy presupposes a scattering of His might, a division of His essence amidst several gods. And, finally, anarchy, the rule of the people, theologically includes within itself the atomization of God’s essence, in other words, power is so fragmented that it becomes almost impossible to attain to the very existence of God.”

     This teaching of the fourth-century Fathers оn the significance of autocratic power was confirmed, over four centuries later, by St. Theodore the Studite: "There is one Lord and Giver of the Law, as it is written: one authority and one Divine principle over all. This single principle is the source of all wisdom, goodness and good order; it extends over every creature that has received its beginning from the goodness of God…, it is given to one man only… to construct rules of life in accordance with the likeness of God. For the divine Moses in his description of the origin of the world that comes from the mouth of God, cites the word: 'Let us create man in accordance with Our image and likeness' (Genesis 1.26). Hence the establishment among men of every dominion and every authority, especially in the Churches of God: one patriarch in a patriarchate, one metropolitan in a metropolia, one bishop in a bishopric, one abbot in a monastery, and in secular life, if you want to listen, one king, one regimental commander, one captain on a ship. And if one will did not rule in all this, there would be no law and order in anything, and it would not be for the best, for a multiplicity of wills destroys everything."

     The idea that monarchy is the natural form of government because it reflects the monarchy of God, was a new concept of great importance in the history of ideas. The pagan states of the Ancient World were, for the most part, monarchical. But none of them believed, as did the Christians, in a single God and Creator. Moreover, as often as not, they invested the king with divine status, so that no higher principle or source of authority above the king or emperor was recognized. In the Christian empire, on the other hand, sacred and secular power were embodied in different persons and institutions, and both emperor and patriarch were considered bound by, and subject to, the will of God in heaven.

     Of course, there were real dangers in attributing too exalted an authority to the emperor, and some of the iconoclast emperors earned the epithets “beast”, “tyrant” and “forerunner of the Antichrist” in Byzantine liturgical and hagiographical texts when they tried to revive the pagan idea of the king-priest. However, in spite of their constant struggle to prevent the emperors invading their sphere, the Byzantine patriarchs continued to assert the independent and sacred authority of the anointed emperors. They pointed to the examples of Kings David and Solomon, who, while deferring to the priesthood, were nevertheless quite clearly the leaders of the people of God in a more than purely political sense. 

     The same predominance was enjoyed by the emperors in Byzantium. In Byzantium, therefore, writes Dagron, “the Old Testament has a constitutional value. It has the same normative character in the political domain as the New Testament has in the moral domain…”


The Sanctity of Kingship

     We have seen that the great fourth-century bishops, in both East and West, vigorously upheld the sovereignty of the Church in “the things that are God’s”. This led in some cases to serious conflict with the emperors. Thus Saints Athanasius and Basil and Gregory had to defy the will of Arianizing emperors in the East, as did Saints Osius and Hilary and Ambrose in the West; while St. John Chrysostom reproached the Empress Eudoxia and suffered banishment for his boldness.

     However, there were several emperors who were conscientious in protecting the rights of the Church – the western emperors Arcadius, Honorius and Valentinian III, for example, and the eastern emperors Theodosius I and II. The latter sent emissaries to the Council of Ephesus, at which Nestorius was condemned, instructing them not to interfere in the arguments about the faith. For it was not permitted, he said, for any of them who was not numbered among the most holy bishops to interfere in Church questions.

     But as the fifth century wore on, and the chaos caused by the heretics increased, the emperors were called upon to take a more active role in Church affairs. Some “interference” by them was even sanctioned by Canon 93 (Greek 96) of the Council of Carthage in the year 419: “It behoves the gracious clemency of their Majesties to take measures that the Catholic Church, which has begotten them as worshippers of Christ in her womb, and has nourished them with the strong meat of the faith, should by their forethought be defended, lest violent men, taking advantage of the times of religious excitement, should by fear overcome a weak people, whom by arguments they were not able to pervert”. As an ancient epitome of this canon puts it: “The Emperors who were born in the true religion and were educated in the faith, ought to stretch forth a helping hand to the Churches. For the military band overthrew the dire conspiracy which was threatening Paul.”

     That the Emperor, as well as the hierarchs, was required to defend the faith can be seen in the life of St. Hypatius of Rufinianus: “When Nestorius had left for Ephesus, and the [Third Ecumenical] Council had assembled, on the day when he should be deposed, Saint Hypatius saw in a vision that an angel of the Lord took hold of Saint John the Apostle, and led him to the most pious Emperor [Theodosius II] and said to him, ‘Say to the Emperor: “Pronounce your sentence against Nestorius”.’ And he, having heard this, pronounced it. Saint Hypatius made note of this day, and it was verified that Nestorius was deposed on that very day…”

     St. Isidore of Pelusium declared that some “interference” by the emperors was necessary in view of the sorry state of the priesthood: “The present hierarchs, by not acting in the same way as their predecessors, do not receive the same as they; but undertaking the opposite to them, they themselves experience the opposite. It would be surprising if, while doing nothing similar to their ancestors, they enjoyed the same honour as they. In those days, when the kings fell into sin they became chaste again, but now this does not happen even with laymen. In ancient times the priesthood corrected the royal power when it sinned, but now it awaits instructions from it; not because it has lost its own dignity, but because that dignity has been entrusted to those who are not similar to those who lived in the time of our ancestors. Formerly, when those who had lived an evangelical and apostolic life were crowned with the priesthood, the priesthood was fearful by right for the royal power; but now the royal power is fearful to the priesthood. However, it is better to say, not ‘priesthood’, but those who have the appearance of doing the priestly work, while by their actions they insult the priesthood. That is why it seems to me that the royal power is acting justly…” Such “interference” was justified, in St. Isidore’s view, because “although there is a very great difference between the priesthood and the kingdom (the former is the soul, the latter – the body), nevertheless they strive for one and the same goal, that is, the salvation of citizens”.

     Emperors had to intervene especially when heretics became violent – as when the Monophysite heretic Dioscuros murdered St. Flavian. Thus it was the decisive intervention of the new Emperors Marcian and Pulcheria that made possible the convening of the Fourth Ecumenical Council in 451 which anathematized the Monophysite heresy.  For, as Marcian said at the Council: “When by the decree of God we were elected to the kingdom, then amidst the very many needs of the State, there was no matter that occupied us more than that the true and Orthodox faith, which is holy and pure, should remain in the souls of all without doubts.”

     Imperial “interference” was welcomed by the bishops at such times. Thus St. Leo, Pope of Rome, wrote to the Emperor Marcian: “I have learned that although the impious Eutychius is in exile as he deserves, in the very place of his condemnation he is still more desperately pouring out many poisons of blasphemies against Catholic purity, and, in order to ensnare the innocent, he is with the greatest shamelessness vomiting that which the whole world was appalled at in him and condemned. And so I think your grace with complete justification ordered that he be sent to a more distant and remote place. 

     Again he wrote to Emperor Leo I: “You must unceasingly remember that Royal power has been entrusted to you, not only for administering the world, but also and in particular to rule the Church.”

     At such times, when the bishops were betraying the truth, the pious emperors stood out as the representatives of the laity, which, as the Eastern Patriarchs were to declare in their encyclical of the year 1848, is the guardian of the truth of the Church. At such times they were indeed higher than the clergy, if not by the grace they had received, at any rate in view of the fact that the clergy had forsaken their vocation and trampled on that grace they had received. At such times, the emperors were indeed images of the Heavenly King, their vocation being, like His, to witness to the truth. For as the King of kings said to Pilate: “You say that I am a king. For that I was born, and for that I came into the world, to witness to the truth” (John 18.37). 

     It was in this sense that St. Leo the Great wrote to the Emperor Theodosius II that he had “not only the soul of an Emperor, but also the soul of a priest”. And for the Emperor Marcian he wished “the palm of the priesthood as well as the emperor’s crown”. 

     For, as Dagron points out, “the emperor could not remain neutral. He was the guarantor and often the principal architect of the unity of the Church. Thus the Orthodox or heretical council unanimously celebrated the sovereign ‘guarded by God’ by giving him without niggardliness the title of ‘teacher of the faith’, ‘new Paul’, ‘equal to the apostles, illumined like the bishops by the Holy Spirit’. At the end of the fourth session of the council held in Constantinople in 536, the bishops expressed the conviction of all in declaring that, ‘under an Orthodox emperor’, the Empire had nothing and nobody to fear; and Patriarch Menas concluded: ‘It is fitting that nothing of that which is debated in the holy Church should be decided against the advice and order [of the emperor]’.” It is in this context that one has to understand the at times highly rhetorical expressions often applied to the rulers. Dagron again: “The distinction between the two powers was never as clearly formulated as while there was a disagreement between them. When there was concord or the hope of harmony, the celebration or hope of unity carried the day. Nobody found anything wrong when the synod that condemned the heretic Eutyches in Constantinople in 448 acclaimed Theodosius with the words: ‘Great is the faith of the emperors! Many years to the guardians of the faith! Many years to the pious emperor, the emperor-bishop (τω αρχιερει Βασιλει).’ The whole world is equally agreed, a little later at the Council of Chalcedon, in acclaiming Marcian as ‘priest and emperor’, at the same time as ‘restorer of the Church, teacher of the faith, New Constantine, New Paul and New David’. At the same time Pope Leo congratulated Theodosius II, and then Marcian, on the sacerdotalis industria, on the sacerdotalis anima, and on the sacerdotalis palma with which God had rewarded them, and he declared to Leo I that he was inspired by the Holy Spirit in matters of the faith. Except during periods of tension, the adjective sacerdotalis was part of the formula of the pontifical chancellery for letters addressed to the emperors of Constantinople. The composers of elegies were not behindhand, in the West as in the East. Procopius of Gaza underlined that Anastasius had been elected to be a bishop before being named emperor, and that he reunited in himself ‘that which is most precious among men, the apparatus of an emperor and the thought of a priest’; Ennodius of Pavia (473-521) proclaimed Theodoric to be ‘prince and priest’; Venantius Fortunatus, in the second half of the 6th century, called Childebert I ‘Melchisedech noster, merito rex atque sacerdos’; towards 645 and anonymous panegyric characterised Clotaire I as quasi sacerdos; Paulinus, bishop of Aquilea, in 794 encouraged Charlemagne to be ‘Dominus et pater, rex et sacerdos’. To justify the canonization of a king, they said that he had been led during his reign acsi bonus sacerdos. We are in the domain of rhetoric, but that does not mean that they could say anything and break the taboos. Even if the words have a metaphorical and incantatory meaning, even if their association distilled a small dose of provocation, there was nothing abnormal in affirming that the ideal emperor was also a priest.”


Justinian the Great

     And so by the time Justinian the Great ascended the throne in the early sixth century, the Gelasian doctrine of a strict demarcation of powers between the Emperor and the Church was giving way, in both East and West, to a less clearly defined Leonine model in which the Emperor was allowed a greater initiative in the spiritual domain, and was even accorded a quasi-priestly status. 

     This enhanced status was used by him in his ambitious aim of reuniting the Christian world, parts of which had seceded from the Empire for religious reasons. Thus the Western Church had broken with Constantinople because of the Monophysitism of the Emperor Anastasius, and Italy was under the sway of barbarians; while the Semitic and Coptic parts of the Eastern Empire had fallen into Monophysitism or Nestorianism. 

     Justinian pursued his aim in two ways: in the West, through war against the Vandals, Ostrogoths and Visigoths, and a mixture of concessions and pressure on the papacy, and in the East, by intensive theological negotiations with the heretics (led by himself). 

     In relation to Old Rome he was successful. Under Belisarius’ generalship Italy was reconquered for the Empire, and “the ancient and lesser Rome,” in Michael Psellus’ words, was returned to the dominion of “the later, more powerful city”. A Byzantine governor ruled Northern and Central Italy from Ravenna; Byzantine titles were lavished on the Roman aristocracy; and the Pope commemorated the Emperor at the liturgy. Tactfully, Patriarch John Kappadokes of Constantinople continued to recognize the primacy of the see of Old Rome, and Pope John II responded by exalting the emperor as high as any western bishop had ever done: "'The King's heart is in the hand of God and He directs it as He pleases' (Proverbs 21.1). There lies the foundation of your Empire and the endurance of your rule. For the peace of the Church and the unity of religion raise their originator to the highest place and sustain him there in happiness and peace. God's power will never fail him who protects the Church against the evil and stain of division, for it is written: 'When a righteous King sits on the throne, no evil will befall him' (Proverbs 20:8).’”

     The negotiations with the Monophysites in the East were less successful. Nevertheless, the union, however fleeting, of the five ancient patriarchates of Rome, Constantinople, Alexandria, Antioch and Jerusalem in one Orthodox Church under one right-believing Emperor, was a great achievement. And there could be little doubt that the single person most instrumental in achieving this union was the emperor himself: if the five patriarchates represented the five senses of the Body of Christ on earth, then the head in which they all adhered – again, on earth - was the emperor.

     This unity was not achieved without some pressure, especially on the Roman patriarchate. However, writes Meyendorff, “without denying the dangers and the abuses of imperial power, which occurred in particular instances, the system as such, which been created by Theodosius I and Justinian, did not deprive the Church of its ability to define dogma through conciliarity. But conciliarity presupposed the existence of a mechanism, making consensus possible and effective. Local churches needed to be grouped into provinces and patriarchates, and patriarchates were to act together to reach an agreement valid for all. The empire provided the universal Church with such a mechanism…”

     Thus, as in Constantine’s time, the emperor acted as the focus of unity of quarrelling Christians. The importance of this function was recognized by all – even by the heretics. 

     In consequence, as L.A. Tikhomirov points out, even when a Byzantine emperor tried to impose heresy on the Church, “this was a struggle that did not besmirch the Church and State power as institutions. In this struggle he acted as a member of the Church, in the name of Church truth, albeit mistakenly understood. This battle was not about the relationship between the Church and the State and did not lead to its interruption, nor to the seeking of any other kind of principles of mutual relationship. As regards the direct conflicts between Church and State power, they arose only for particular reasons, only between given persons, and also did not relate to the principle of the mutual relationship itself.”

     As if to symbolize the unity he had achieved, Justinian built Hagia Sophia, the greatest church in Christendom. “I have surpassed Solomon,” he cried on entering the church. The other, no less enduring expression of this unity was Justinian’s codification of Roman law, which united the old and new in one coherent body. 

     These laws included the famous Sixth Novella (535), which contained the most famous formulation of the principle of the symphony of powers: "The greatest gifts given by God to men by His supreme kindness are the priesthood and the empire, of which the first serves the things of God and the second rules the things of men and assumes the burden of care for them. Both proceed from one source and adorn the life of man. Nothing therefore will be so greatly desired by the emperors than the honour of the priests, since they always pray to God about both these very things. For if the first is without reproach and adorned with faithfulness to God, and the other adorns the state entrusted to it rightly and competently, a good symphony will exist, which will offer everything that is useful for the human race. We therefore have the greatest care concerning the true dogmas of God and concerning the honour of the priests…, because through this the greatest good things will be given by God – both those things that we already have will be made firm and those things which we do not have yet we shall acquire. Everything will go well if the principle of the matter is right and pleasing to God. We believe that this will come to pass if the holy canons are observed, which have been handed down to us by the apostles, those inspectors and ministers of God worthy of praise and veneration, and which have been preserved and explained." 

     Several points in Justinian’s Sixth Novella, which was addressed to Patriarch Epiphanius of Constantinople, need to be emphasized. First, both the priesthood and the empire are said to “proceed from the same source”, that is, God. This has the very important consequence that the normal and natural relationship between the two powers is one of harmony and symphony, not rivalry and division. If some of the early Fathers, in both East and West, tended to emphasize the separation and distinctness of the powers rather than their unity from and under God, this was a natural result of the friction between the Church and the pagan and heretical emperors in the early centuries. However, now that unity in Orthodoxy had been achieved the emphasis had to return to the common source and common end of the two institutions. The unity of the Christian world under the Christian emperor had as its foundation-stone this “symphony” between the emperor and the patriarch, the symphony being grounded in their common origin in God.

     The Seventh Novella (2, 1) admitted that “the goods of the Church, which are in principle inalienable, could be the object of transactions with the emperor, ‘for the difference between the priesthood (ιερωσυνη) and the empire (βασιλεια) is small, as it is between the sacred goods and the goods that are common to the community.’”

     Secondly, however, insofar as the symphony in the Novella existed, not only between two men, but between two institutions, the priesthood and the empire, it extended beyond the relationship between emperor and patriarch. 

     As Bishop Dionysius (Alferov) writes: “Symphonicity in Church administration only began at the level of the Emperor and Patriarch, and continued at the level of the bishop and eparch (who also received the blessing of the Church for his service) and was completed at the level of the parish priest and its founder. With such a deep ‘enchurchment’ from all sides of the life of the Orthodox Empire, and the symphonicity of all levels of the Church-State pyramid, the violations of symphony at the highest level were, while annoying, not especially dangerous. The most important thing still remained the service of ‘him who restrains’, which was carried out by the Orthodox Emperor in symphony with the whole Church, and not only personally with the Patriarch. The decisive factor was the personal self-consciousness of the Emperor and the activity based on that. Thus Justinian conceived of himself completely as a Christian sovereign, and strove throughout the whole of his life to make the whole world Christian. His symphony with the Patriarch was desirable as a useful means towards that end, but it was not an end-in-itself. During Justinian’s time five Patriarchates entered into the Empire, including the Roman, and the Emperor did not establish ‘symphonic’ relations with all of them personally (as, for example, with Pope Vigilius, who did not want to accept the decisions of the 5th Ecumenical Council). But symphony with the whole Church did exist, and a proof of this is provided by the 5th Ecumenical Council, which was convened through the efforts of Justinian and accepted the dogmatic definitions against the heresies that he presented; and by the multitude of saints who shone forth during his reign and who related completely ‘symphonically’ to him (for example, St. Sabbas the Sanctified); and by the general flourishing of Christian culture.”

     Thirdly, it is not any kind of harmony or symphony that is in question here, but only a true symphony that comes from God and leads to the good. As I.N. Andrushkevich points out, the word "symphony” [consonantia in the original Latin] here denotes much more than simple agreement or concord. Church and State can agree in an evil way, for evil ends. True symphony is possible only where both the Church “is without reproach and adorned with faithfulness to God” and the State is ruled “rightly and competently” - that is, in accordance with the commandments of God.

     Where these conditions are not met, what we have, as A.V. Kartashev, the minister of religion under the Russian Provisional Government, points out, “is no longer symphony, but cacophony”. Justinian himself, in his preface to the Novella, pointed out that, although he was an Autocrat, he could not exercise dominion over the priesthood. He was obliged to allow the priests to follow their own canon law. 

     Thus he qualified the absolutist principle of Roman power, namely, that whatever is pleasing to the emperor has the force of law with the words: unless it contradicts the holy canons. And in his Novella 131 he decreed: “The Church canons have the same force in the State as the State laws: what is permitted or forbidden by the former is permitted or forbidden by the latter. Therefore crimes against the former cannot be tolerated in the State according to State legislation.” 

     “As regards the judicial branch,” writes Nikolin, “coordinated action presupposed not simply mutual complementation of the spheres of administration of the ecclesiastical and secular courts, but, which is especially important, the introduction into the activity of the latter of the moral-educational content inherent in Christianity.

     “In a single service to the work of God both the Church and the State constitute as it were one whole, one organism – ‘unconfused’, but also ‘undivided’. In this lay the fundamental difference between Orthodox ‘symphony’ and Latin ‘papocaesarism’ and Protestant ‘caesaropapism’.”

     Of course, the principle that the Church canons should automatically be considered as State laws was not always carried out in practice, even in Justinian’s reign; and in some spheres, as Nikolin points out, “in becoming [State] law, the [Church] canon lost its isolation, and the all-powerful Emperor, in commenting on the canon that had become law, was able thereby to raise himself above the canon. The Christian Emperor received the ability to reveal the content of the canon in his own way (in the interests of the State). Justinian’s rule provides several confirmations of this. The rules for the election, conduct and inter-relations of bishops, clergy and monks, for the punishment of clergy, and for Church property were subjected to his reglamentation. Bishops received broad powers in State affairs (more exactly, numerous State duties were imputed to them).”

     For example, in episcopal elections there was a contradiction between Justinian’s laws, according to which the electoral body was to include the leading laymen of the locality – an enactment which gave an avenue for imperial influence on the elections through the local potentates, - and the laws of the Church, according to which only bishops were to take part in the election. In practice, the Church’s laws prevailed in this sphere, but Justinian’s laws remained in force.

     The recruitment of bishops to undertake secular duties was contrary to the apostolic canons as leading to a secularization of the Episcopal calling. In general, however, this did not take place, and the enormous benefits of the symphony of powers continued to be felt throughout Byzantine history. 

     As Nikolin writes, “Justinian’s rule was a rule in which the mutual relations of Church and State were inbuilt, and which later lasted in Byzantium right up to the days of her fall, and which were borrowed in the 10th century by Rus’. In the first place this related to the principle: 'Ecclesiastical canons are State laws’. Moreover, the Christian direction of Justinian’s reforms told on the content of the majority of juridical norms. This was most vividly revealed in the resolutions of questions concerning the regulation of individual spheres of Church life. Church communities were now provided with the rights of a juridical person. In property questions they were given various privileges...

     “A particular feature of Justinian’s reforms was that as a result of them State power was transformed into a defender of the faith. This was most clearly revealed in the establishment of restrictions on the juridical rights of citizens of the empire linked with their confession of faith:

      It is from the reign of Justinian that the Roman Emperor is evaluated primarily for his services to the Church rather than for his secular successes. As Bishop Dionysius (Alferov) writes: “After the holy Emperor Justinian any Christian monarch must confess, and reverently and unhypocritically believe that ‘Christian piety is the foundation of the strength of the empire’. For greater clarity let us indicate an example. The Emperor Justinian himself, while paying great attention to theology, Divine services and the building of churches, completely neglected the army and the navy, which under him came to a state of decline. But for his unfeigned piety and faith the Lord protected the empire from invasions and subjected to Justinian a part of the barbarians. After him the iconoclast emperors Leo the Isaurian and Constantine Copronymus were outstanding military commanders who reorganized the army and repelled opponents (the Arabs and Bulgars) far from the empire. But the heresy they introduced and their general impiety shook the foundations of Byzantium from within and brought it to the verge of extinction. Therefore amongst the qualities of an exemplary ruler his faith and piety occupy the first place. For the sake of these the Lord protects his kingdom from many woes. His practical capabilities in raising national life are already in the second place. 


The Dissonance of Powers

     Justinian’s formulation of the Symphony of Powers had been consciously based on Chalcedonian Orthodoxy: the unity of kingship and priesthood in one Christian Roman State was likened to the union of the two natures, human and Divine, in the one Person of Christ. It is therefore not surprising to find that under succeeding emperors who renounced Chalcedonian Orthodoxy and embraced heresy, the Symphony of Powers was also renounced – or rather, reinterpreted in such a way as to promote the prevailing heresy. Thus the emperor, from being a focus of unity in the religious sphere, became an imposer of unity – and a false unity at that. 

     The empire suffered accordingly: vast areas of the East were lost, first to the Persians, and then to the Muslim Arabs. As religious unity collapsed, so did the unity of nations. St. Anastasius of Sinai considered these defeats to be Divine punishment for the heresy of the Monothelite emperor Heraclius.

     Of course, this was not the first time that an emperor had been tempted to apply violence against the Orthodox. Even the great Justinian had come close to overstepping the mark in his relations with the Roman Popes. In the final analysis, however, he did not overstep the mark because a real unity of faith between the Old and New Romes was achieved in his reign.

     But this was no longer the case a century later, in 655, when the Orthodox Pope St. Martin was martyred for the faith by a heretical emperor acting in concert with a heretical patriarch. The heretics then proceeded to torture the famous monk and defender of the Church against Monothelitism, St. Maximus the Confessor. They wished him to acknowledge the power of the emperor over the Church, as if he were both king and priest like Melchizedek. But Maximus refused. When his interrogators asked: “What? Is not every Christian emperor a priest?” the saint replied: “No, for he has no access to the altar, and after the consecration of the bread does not elevate it with the words: ‘The holy things to the holy’. He does not baptize, he does not go on to the initiation with chrism, he does not ordain or place bishops, priests and deacons, he does not consecrate churches with oil, he does not wear the marks of the priestly dignity – the omophorion and the Gospel, as he wears those of the kingdom, the crown and the purple.” 

     The interrogators objected: “And why does Scripture itself say that Melchisedech is ‘king and priest’ [Genesis 14.18; Hebrews 7.1]?” 

     The saint replied: “There is only One Who is by nature King, the God of the universe, Who became for our salvation a hierarch by nature, of which Melchisedech is the unique type. If you say that there is another king and priest after the order of Melchisedech, then dare to say what comes next: ‘without father, without mother, without genealogy, of whose days there is no beginning and of whose life there is no end’ [Hebrews 7.3], and see the disastrous consequences that are entailed: such a person would be another God become man, working our salvation as a priest not in the order of Aaron, but in the order of Melchisedech. But what is the point of multiplying words? During the holy anaphora at the holy table, it is after the hierarchs and deacons and the whole order of the clergy that commemoration is made of the emperors at the same time as the laity, with the deacon saying: ‘and the deacons who have reposed in the faith, Constantine, Constans, etc.” Equally, mention is made of the living emperors after all the clergy’.”

     Again he said: “To investigate and define dogmas of the Faith is the task not of the emperors, but of the ministers of the altar, because it is reserved to them both to anoint the emperor and to lay hands upon him, and to stand before the altar, to perform the Mystery of the Eucharist, and to perform all the other divine and most great Mysteries.”

     When Bishop Theodosius of Caesarea claimed that the anti-Monothelite Roman Council was invalid since it was not convened by the Emperor, St. Maximus replied: “If only those councils are confirmed which were summoned by royal decree, then there cannot be an Orthodox Faith. Recall the councils that were summoned by royal decree against the homoousion, proclaiming the blasphemous teaching that the Son of God is not of one essence with God the Father… The Orthodox Church recognizes as true and holy only those councils at which true and infallible dogmas were established.”

     In 663 Constans II, the persecutor of Saints Martin and Maximus, moved his capital from Constantinople to Syracuse in Sicily. “For the Sicilians,” writes John Julius Norwich, “those five years were one protracted nightmare. The honour, such as it was, of finding their island selected for the capital of the Roman Empire was as nothing in comparison with the extortions of the imperial tax-gatherers – for the satisfaction of whom, we are told, husbands were sold into slavery, wives forced into prostitution, children separated from their parents. Nor can we tell how long these depradations might have continued had not the Emperor unexpectedly come to a sudden, violent and somewhat humiliating end. There was, so far as we know, no preconceived plan to assassinate him, far less any deeply hatched conspiracy; but on 15 September 668, while he was innocently lathering himself in the bath, one of his Greek attendants… felled him with the soap-dish.”

     Constans’ successor, Constantine IV, restored the capital to Constantinople, rescued the Empire from the Arabs, and convened the Sixth Ecumenical Council in 681, which anathematized Monothelitism and restored Orthodoxy to the Eastern Empire.

     In the next century, the iconoclast Emperor Leo III’s heretical, quasi-Muslim understanding of the nature of icons went hand in hand with a resurrection of the pagan model of the imperator-pontifex maximus. In fact, insofar as the Muslim Caliph considered himself to be both a king and a prophet, Leo could be said to have borrowed his theory of kingship (“I am both king and priest”), as well as his iconoclasm, from the Muslims. 

     It was therefore eminently fitting that his main critic in both spheres should have been St. John of Damascus, a functionary at the Caliph’s court. “What right have emperors to style themselves lawgivers in the Church?” asked St. John. “What does the holy apostle say? ‘And God has appointed in the Church first apostles, second prophets, third teachers and shepherds, for building up the body of Christ’ (I Corinthians 12.28). He does not mention emperors… Political prosperity is the business of emperors; the condition of the Church is the concern of shepherds and teachers.”

     Again, following the traditional teaching, the Seventh Ecumenical Council wrote: “God gave the greatest gift to men: the Priesthood and the Imperial power; the first preserves and watches over the heavenly, while the second rules earthly things by means of just laws.”

     Some years later, in a document probably written early in the ninth century in Constantinople, but ascribed to the earlier Orthodox Pope Gregory II, Leo III’s claim to be both king and priest is fittingly refuted, while it is admitted that true kings are in some ways like priests: “You write: ‘I am Emperor and priest’. Yes, the Emperors who were before you proved this in word and deed: they built churches and cared for them; being zealous for the Orthodox faith, they together with the hierarchs investigated and defended the truth. Emperors such as: Constantine the Great, Theodosius the Great, Constantine [IV], the father of Justinian [II], who was at the Sixth Council. These Emperors reigned piously: they together with the hierarchs with one mind and soul convened councils, investigated the truth of the dogmas, built and adorned the holy churches. These were priests and Emperors! They proved it in word and deed. But you, since the time that you received power, have not completely begun to observe the decrees of the Fathers...”

     The Pope also wrote: “You know, Emperor, that the dogmas of the Holy Church do not belong to the Emperor, but to the Hierarchs, who can safely dogmatize. That is why the Churches have been entrusted to the Hierarchs, and they do not enter into the affairs of the people’s administration. Understand and take note of this... The coming together of the Christ-loving Emperors and pious Hierarchs constitutes a single power, when affairs are governed with peace and love”. 

     And again: “God has given power over all men to the Piety of the Emperors in order that those who strive for virtue may find strengthening in them, - so that the path to the heavens should be wider, - so that the earthly kingdom should serve the Heavenly Kingdom.”

     One person in two distinct natures: one power in two distinct functions: the Chalcedonian basis of the symphonic doctrine of Church-State relations is clear. And just as the symphonic doctrine of Church-State relations reflects Chalcedonian Orthodoxy, so the absolutist theory of Church-State relations reflects both Monothelitism and Iconoclasm. Just as Monothelitism denies that there is more than one will in Christ, so the absolutist theory denies that there is more than one will in the government of the Christian commonwealth, declaring that the will of the emperor can take the place of the will of the hierarchs. And just as Iconoclasm destroys the proper relationship between the icon and its archetype, saying that icons are in fact idols, so absolutism destroys the proper relationship and distance between the earthly type and his Heavenly Archetype, so that the emperor becomes, in St. Maximus’ words, “another God incarnate” - that is, an idol. For this, no less than for his iconoclasm, Leo III is justly called “forerunner of the Antichrist” in the Byzantine service books, and was anathematized by the Church as “the tormentor and not Emperor Leo the Isaurian”. 

     And so, just as the Seventh Council brought to an end the period of Christological debates, so it brought to an end the debates over the role of the Emperor in the Church. The Emperor was an icon of Christ the King, but only so long as he remained Orthodox. He was in the Church, but not above it. As the Council put it in a concise and inspired definition of the Church-State relationship: “The priest is the sanctification and strengthening of the Imperial power, while the Imperial power is the strength and firmness of the priesthood.”


St. Photius the Great

     With the fall of iconoclasm in Byzantium in 843, there also fell the absolutist theory of Church-State relations preached by the iconoclast emperors. Although the new dynasty of Macedonian emperors was one of the strongest in Byzantine history, the patriarchs of the period were in no mood to concede more power than was necessary to it, however Orthodox it might be. One reason for this was the particularly prominent – and damaging - role that the emperors had taken in the recent persecutions, in which several of the leading hierarchs themselves had suffered (St. Methodius had been in prison, while St. Photius’ parents had been martyred). The early Roman emperors had persecuted the Church at times – but they had been pagans in a pagan society, and were therefore simply expressing the prejudices of the society in which they lived. Later emperors in the post-Constantinian era, such as Constantius and Valens, had also persecuted the Church – which was worse, since they were supposed to be Christians, but again, they had not been the initiators of the persecution, but had responded to the pleas of heretical churchmen. However, the iconoclast emperors enjoyed the dubious distinction of having been at the head of their heretical movement; they were heresiarchs themselves, not simply the political agents of heresiarchs. “The ancient heresies came from a quarrel over the dogmas and developed progressively, whereas this one [iconoclasm] comes from the imperial power itself.” The patriarchs therefore laboured to raise the profile of the patriarchate in society, as a defence against any return to antichristianity on the part of the emperors.

     This new intransigeance of the patriarchs in relation to the emperors had been foreshadowed even before the last period of iconoclast persecution. For on 24 December, 804, as Dagron writes, “Leo V brought Patriarch Nicephorus and several bishops and monks together to involve them in coming to an agreement with those who were ‘scandalised’ by the icons and in making an ‘economy’. The confrontation gave way to a series of grating ‘little phrases’ that were hawked about everywhere and which sketched a new theory of imperial power. The clergy refused to engage in any discussion with this perfectly legitimate emperor who had not yet taken any measures against the icons and who wanted a council of bishops to tackle the problem. Emilian of Cyzicus said to him: ‘If there is an ecclesiastical problem, as you say, Emperor, let it be resolved in the Church, as is the custom… and not in the Palace,’ to which Leo remarked that he also was a child of the Church and that he could serve as an arbiter between the two camps. Michael of Synada then said to him that ‘his arbitration’ was in fact a ‘tyranny’; others reproached him for taking sides. Without batting an eyelid, Euthymius of Sardis invoked eight centuries of Christian icons and angered the emperor by reusing a quotation from St. Paul that had already been used by John of Damascus: ‘Even if an angel from heaven should preach to us a gospel different from the one that you have received, let him be anathema!’ (Galatians 1.8). The ‘ardent teacher of the Church and abbot of Studion’ Theodore was the last to speak: ‘Emperor, do not destroy the stability of the Church. The apostle spoke of those whom God has established in the Church, first as apostles, secondly as prophets, and thirdly as pastors and teachers (I Corinthians 12.28)…, but he did not speak of emperors. You, O Emperor, have been entrusted with the stability of the State and the army. Occupy yourself with that and leave the Church, as the apostle says, to pastors and teachers. If you did not accept this and departed from our faith…, if an angel came from heaven to preach to us another gospel, we would not listen to him; so even less to you!’ Then Leo, furious, broke off the dialogue to set the persecution in motion.” 

     What is remarkable in this scene is the refusal of the hierarchs to allow the emperor any kind of arbitrating role – even though he had not yet declared himself to be an iconoclast. 

     Of course, the bishops probably knew the secret motives and beliefs of the emperor, so they knew that any council convened by him would have been a “robber council”, like that of 754. Moreover, the Seventh Ecumenical Council had already defined the position of the Church, so a further council was superfluous. However, the bishops’ fears were probably particularly focused on the word “arbitration” and the false theory of Church-State relations that that implied. 

     The Church had allowed, even urged, emperors to convene councils in the past; but they had never asked them to arbitrate in them. Rather it was they, the bishops sitting in council, who were the arbiters, and the emperor who was obliged, as an obedient son of the Church, to submit to their judgement. The bishops were determined to make no compromises with this last relic of the absolutist theory of Church-State relations.

     It was St. Theodore the Studite who particularly pressed this point. As he wrote to the Emperor Leo V: “If you want to be her (the Church’s) son, then nobody is hindering you; only follow in everything your spiritual father (the Patriarch)”. And it was the triumph of Studite rigorism – on this issue, at any rate – that determined the attitude of the patriarchs to the emperors after the final Triumph of Orthodoxy over iconoclasm in 843. For Patriarchs Methodius, Photius and Ignatius, all of whom were later canonized, quite consciously tried to exalt the authority of the patriarchate in relation to the empire. 

     However, in order to justify this programme, they needed a biblical model. And just as the Emperor Leo had used the figure of Melchizedek, both king and priest, to justify his exaltation of the role of the emperor, so Patriarch Photius used the figure of Moses, both king (as it were) and priest, to exalt the role of the patriarch. Only whereas Melchizedek had been seen by Leo as primarily a king who was also a priest, Moses was seen by St. Photius as primarily a priest who also had the effective power of a king: “Among the citizens, [Moses] chose the most refined and those who would be the most capable to lead the whole people, and he appointed them as priests… He entrusted them with guarding the laws and traditions; that was why the Jews never had a king and why the leadership of the people was always entrusted to the one among the priests who was reputed to be the most intelligent and the most virtuous. It is he whom they call the Great Priest, and they believe that he is for them the messenger of the Divine commandments.”

     However, St. Photius soon came into conflict with Pope Nicholas of Rome over his encroaching on the prerogatives of kings. Moreover, Nicholas introduced the heretical Filioque into the Creed, for which Photius had him anathematized. But this ecclesiastical and dogmatic struggle also had a political aspect insofar as Nicholas, reasserting the Gelasian model of Church-State relations, but also going further than that in an aggressively papist direction, claimed jurisdiction over the newly created Church of Bulgaria, where he wanted to introduce the Filioque. If “caesaropapism” had been the greatest danger in the iconoclast period, it was its opposite, “papocaesarism”, that was to be the greatest danger in the post-iconoclast period. 

     Until now, Rome had been the most consistently faithful to Orthodoxy of all the patriarchates. But her consciousness of this fine record had bred an incipient feeling of infallibility, which led her to encroach on the prerogatives both of the other patriarchates in the Church and of the emperor in the State. St. Photius stood up in defense of the Eastern Church and State. In 879-880 he convened a Great Council in Constantinople, which was attended by four hundred bishops, including the legates of Pope John VIII. It anathematized the Filioque and firmly restricted the Pope’s jurisdiction to the West. The Pope’s legates signed the decisions…

     As regards the emperor, in a letter to the Emperor Basil who exiled him, St. Photius reminded him of his fallibility and mortality. But on the other hand, in his letter to the bishops in exile dating to the same year (870), he gave due honour to the emperor: “While before us the divine Paul exhorts us to pray for sovereigns, so does Peter too, the chief of the apostles, saying, ‘Be submissive to every human institution for the Lord’s sake whether it be to the emperor as supreme,’ and again, ‘Honor the emperor,’ But still, even before them, our common Master and Teacher and Creator Himself from His incalculably great treasure, by paying tribute to Caesar, taught us by deed and custom to observe the privileges which had been assigned to emperors. For this reason, indeed, in our mystical and awesome services we offer up prayers on behalf of our sovereigns. It is, accordingly, both right and pleasing to God, as well as most appropriate for us, to maintain these privileges and to join also our Christ-loving emperors in preserving them.”

     Moreover, in his advice to the newly baptized Bulgarian Tsar Boris-Michael St. Photius gave the tsar authority even in matters of the faith: “The king must correct his people in the faith and direct it in the knowledge of the true God”. According to Dvorkin, the emperor was “the supreme judge and lawgiver, the defender of the Church and the preserver of the right faith. He took decisions on the declaration of war and the conclusion of peace; his juridical decision was final and not subject to appeal; his laws were considered to be God-inspired, while his power was limited only by the laws of morality and religion. On the other hand, however, once he had issued a law, the emperor himself fell under its force and he was bound to observe it.”

     However, in the preface to a law code entitled the Epanagoge, which was compiled between 879 and 886 but never published, and in whose composition St. Photius probably played a leading part, the authority of the Patriarch is exalted over the Emperor. The pro-patriarchal “bias” of this document is already evident in the foreword, where, as Fr. Alexis Nikolin writes, “it says that ‘the law is from God’, Who is the true Basileus… [And] in the Digests we do not find the following thesis of Roman law: ‘That which is pleasing to the emperor has the force of law’. Thus the emperor is not seen as ‘the living law’(νομος εμψυχος).”

     The Emperor is the living law, says the Epanagoge, only when there is not already a written law: “The Emperor must act as the law when there is none written, except that his actions must not violate the canon law. The Patriarch alone must interpret the canons of the ancient (Patriarchs) and the decrees of the Holy Fathers and the resolutions of the Holy Synods” (Titulus III, 5). In fact, as Dagron writes, “The emperor is defined as a ‘legitimate authority’ (εννομος επιστασια), contrary to the Hellenistic and Roman tradition which declares him to be ‘above the laws’, being himself ‘the living law’ and only submitting to the laws of his own free will… In the first article [of Titulus III] the patriarch is defined as the living and animate image of Christ by deeds and words typifying the truth (εικων ζωσα Χριστου και εμψυχος διεργων και λογων χαρακτεριζουσα την αληθειαν)…  Everything that the patriarch gains, he steals from the emperor. In place of the emperor traditionally called – as in the letter of Theodore the Studite – ‘imitator of Christ’ there is substituted a patriarch called the image of Christ, and in place of the emperor as the living law – a patriarch as the living truth… The idea of the emperor-priest, which was condemned in the person of Leo III, is succeeded by the prudent but clear evocation of a patriarch-emperor, or at least of a supreme priest to whom revert all the attributes of sovereignty. If he is the living image of Christ, the patriarch participates like him in the two powers. He is a New Moses and a New Melchizedek.”

     The document then proceeds to contrast the rights and duties of the Emperor and the Patriarch. “The task of the Emperor is to protect and preserve the existing popular forces by good administration, and to reestablish the damaged forces by careful supervision and just ways and actions” (Titulus II, 2). “The task of the Patriarch is, first, to keep those people whom he has received from God in piety and purity of life, and then he must as far as possible convert all heretics to Orthodoxy and the unity of the Church (heretics, in the laws and canons of the Church, are those who are not in communion with the Catholic Church). Also, he must lead the unbelievers to adopt the faith, striking them with the lustre and glory and wonder of his service” (Titulus III, 2)… “The aim of the Patriarch is the salvation of the souls entrusted to him; the Patriarch must live in Christ and be crucified for the world” (Titulus III, 3). “The Emperor must be most distinguished in Orthodoxy and piety and glorified in divine zeal, knowledgeable in the dogmas of the Holy Trinity and in the definitions of salvation through the incarnation of our Lord Jesus Christ” (Titulus II, 5). “It particularly belongs to the Patriarch to teach and to relate equally and without limitations of both high and low, and be gentle in administering justice, skilled in exposing the unbelievers, and not to be ashamed to speak before the face of the Emperor about justice and the defence of the dogmas” (Titulus III, 4). “The Emperor is bound to defend and strengthen, first of all, all that which is written in the Divine Scriptures, and then also all the dogmas established by the Holy Councils, and also selected Roman laws” (Titulus II, 4). 

     Although it is evident that a more exalted place is accorded to the patriarch in the Epanagoge, it is nevertheless striking that the emperor is still given an important role in defending the faith. However, the word “emperor” is carefully defined to exclude what St. Basil or St. Ambrose would have called a “tyrant”: “The aim of the Emperor is to do good, which is why he is called a benefactor. And when he ceases to do good, then, it seems, he corrupts the meaning of the concept of Emperor by comparison with the ancient teachings” (Titulus II, 3).

     In the last analysis, Photius’ conception of the kingship seems “to the right of centre” of the patristic consensus, if Justinian’s Novella 6 is seen as the centre. This is probably to be explained by the need felt by the Patriarch to counter the absolutism of Leo III’s Eclogue and to check the still sometimes intemperate acts of the contemporary emperors (Photius himself was exiled more than once). Moreover, St. Photius probably felt able to express such a bold attitude in relation to the emperor because of the exceptional power he wielded in post-iconoclast Byzantium. 

     This power was seen as extending even over the other patriarchates of the East. Thus Dmitri Shabanov writes: “As the editor of the Nomocanon in 14 Tituli… St. Photius often writes that on the territories of the East the Patriarch of Constantinople has all the canonical rights that the Roman Pope has on the territories of the West. For example, in Titulus I, 5 and in Titulus VIII, 5 of the Nomocanon in 14 Tituli St. Photius writes directly that Constantinople has the prerogatives of the old Rome and is ‘the head of all the Churches’ of the oikoumene, that is, of the Roman Empire…

     “According to St. Photius’ idea, the transfer of the prerogatives of the Roman bishop to the bishop of Constantinople gives the latter the right to speak out in the capacity of the highest court of appeal for the whole of the East.

     “St. Photius’ conception of the equal status of the sees of the Old and New Rome was accepted at the Great Council of Constantinople of 879-880 (many canonical monuments and some of the Holy Fathers called this Council the Eighth Ecumenical Council). The Council of 879-880 was convened to rescind the decisions of the preceding Council of 869 at which particular emphasis was placed on the rights of the eastern Patriarchs. In spite of the rescinded decisions of the Council of 869, the Great Council of Constantinople of 879-880 in general made no mention of any rights of the eastern Patriarchs, but decreed in its first canon that the Roman and Constantinopolitan sees had equal judicial rights, thereby removing the right of appeal to Rome to the decisions of the Constantinople court, which in this way was recognized as the highest court of appeal for the whole of the East.”

     The process of reducing the pentarchy of patriarchates to a diarchy (Rome and Constantinople) had begun in the time of Justinian in the sixth century. It gathered pace when the three Eastern patriarchates fell under Muslim rule in the seventh century and were virtually reduced to the status of metropolitan districts of the Constantinopolitan patriarchate.

     From the time of St. Photius, moreover, the diarchy was sometimes seen rather as a Constantinopolitan monarchy, insofar as the decline and corruption of Rome in the early tenth century during the “pornocracy of Marozia” greatly reduced her prestige and influence. This was especially noticeable in missionary work beyond the bounds of the empire (the Armenians and Syrians in the East, the Moravians in the West, the Khazars, Bulgars and Russians in the North), where the emperors had previously taken the initiative, but the patriarch was now the prime mover. 

     Thus the patriarchate was becoming ever more truly “ecumenical”... 

     At the same time, it must not be thought that St. Photius denied the traditional doctrine of Church-State symphony. Thus the Epanagoge concludes: “The State consists of parts and members like an individual person. The most important and necessary parts are the Emperor and the Patriarch. Therefore unanimity in everything and agreement (συμφωνια) between the Empire and the Priesthood (constitutes) the spiritual and bodily peace and prosperity of the citizens” (Titulus III, 8). 

     Thus the iconoclast thesis and the post-iconoclast antithesis in political theology came to rest, in the Epanagoge, in a synthesis which emphasized the traditional value of symphony between the two powers, even if the superiority was clearly given to the patriarch (the soul) over the emperor (the body). It must also be remembered that the “consensus of the Fathers” with regard to the emperor-patriarch relationship did not occupy an exact middle point, as it were, on the spectrum between “caesaropapism” and “papocaesarism”, but rather a broad band in the middle. In times when the emperor was apostate, heretical or simply power-hungry and passionate, the Fathers tended slightly right of centre, emphasizing the independence of the Church, the lay, unpriestly character of the emperor, and the superiority of spiritual to temporal ends as the soul is superior to the body (SS. Basil the Great, Gregory the Theologian, John Chrysostom, Ambrose of Milan, Maximus the Confessor, Photius the Great). But in times when the emperor was a faithful son of the Church, the Fathers were glad to accord him a quasi-priestly role and leadership even in spiritual matters – provided, of course, that he did not undertake strictly sacramental functions (the Fathers of the First, Fourth and Fifth Ecumenical Councils, St. Isidore of Pelusium). It was only the extremes that were definitely excluded: the royal absolutism of the iconoclast emperors and the priestly absolutism of the heretical popes, both of which tended to deny any independent sphere of action to the Church hierarchy, in the former case, and to the emperor, in the latter. 


Church Laws vs. Imperial Laws

      As we have seen, it was a fundamental principle both of Justinian’s and of Photius’ legislation that Church canons should always take precedence over imperial laws. As this principle became more generally accepted, more areas of what had been considered purely secular life, having little or nothing directly to do with the Church, came under the influence of the process of “enchurchment”. 

     This process was expressed in several new requirements: that the emperors themselves should be anointed in a special Church rite; that marriages take place in church, and in accordance with the canons; and that lands and monies donated by individuals to the Church should never be secularized, but should ever remain under the control of the Church. Thus one of the novellas of Emperor Alexis Comnenus said that it was wrong to forbid a slave a Church marriage in a Christian State, for in the Church a slave is equal to a lord. Again, there were cases of trials of murderers, not according to the civil codex, but in accordance with the Church canons: the criminal besought forgiveness on his knees and was given a fifteen-year penance of standing among the penitents at the Divine Liturgy.

     However, as was to be expected, there was resistance to this process, if not as an ideal, at any rate in practice; and this was particularly so in the case of marriage law – more specifically, of marriage law as applied to emperors… The first major conflict came towards the end of the eighth century, when St. Tarasius, Patriarch of Constantinople, refused to give his blessing to the marriage of the son of the Empress Irene, Constantine VI, who had cast off his lawful wife and entered into an adulterous relationship with his mistress. The Emperors then turned to the priest Joseph, who performed the marriage, upon which. St. Tarasius at first did nothing, “through adaptation to circumstances”, but then excommunicated Joseph. Fearful, however, that too great a strictness in this affair would lead the Emperors to incline towards iconoclasm, the patriarch accepted Joseph into communion before the end of his penance. He was also accepted by the next Patriarch, St. Nicephorus, who was under pressure from the next Emperor, Nicephorus. 

     In protest against this misuse of “economy”, St. Theodore the Studite broke communion with both patriarchs, and returned into communion with St. Nicephorus only when he had again excommunicated Joseph. According to St. Theodore, he who was not guided by the Canons was not fully Orthodox. St. Paul anathematised anyone who transgressed the law of Christ. A fortiori the emperors were not exempt from the Canons. There was no special “Gospel of the kings”: only God is not subject to the law.

     St. Photius faithfully followed St. Theodore’s teaching: when Basil I came to power after murdering his predecessor, he accepted him as emperor, but refused to give him communion. But he was deposed for this, and was deposed again by Basil’s son, Leo the Wise, who shifted the balance of Church-State relations back towards caesaropapism, saying: “from now on the emperor’s care extends to everything, and his foresight (προνοια, a word which can equally well mean the ‘providence’ of God) controls and governs everything.” He claimed, according to Dorothy Wood, “to be head of Church and State in the sense that, if the Church as led by the Patriarch was irreconcilably opposed to the Emperor, the Emperor could resolve the conflict”.

     And so when St. Photius’ successor (and nephew), Patriarch Nicholas the Mystic, opposed his fourth marriage to Zoe, the Emperor simply removed him from office, forced a priest to perform the marriage and then himself placed the crown on his “wife’s” head. 

     However, the patriarch did not give in. Commenting that the Emperor was to Zoe “both bridegroom and bishop”, he defrocked the priest that had “married” him and stopped the Emperor from entering Hagia Sophia. Then, when the papal legates recognized the marriage, St. Nicholas resigned from his see, declaring that he had received the patriarchate not from the king but from God, and that he was leaving because the Emperor was making the government of the Church impossible. The Emperor retaliated by exiling Nicholas and putting his friend Euthymius on the patriarchal throne, who permitted the fourth marriage, saying: “It is right, your Majesty, to obey your orders and receive your decisions as emanating from the will and providence of God”!

     However, after the death of Leo in 912, Euthymius was imprisoned and St. Nicholas was restored to the patriarchate. 

     Finally, in the Tome of Union (920), fourth marriages were condemned as “unquestionably illicit and void”, and third marriages permitted only by special dispensation. At the same time, “the Emperor’s child by his fourth marriage, Constantine Porphyrogennitus, was legitimized and succeeded to the Empire. Thenceforth Patriarchs issued their own rules about marriages and grounds for divorce; and the emperors did not intervene.”

     St. Nicholas explained to the Pope: “What was I to do in such circumstances? Shut up and go to sleep? Or think and act as befits a friend who cares at one and the same time both for the honour of the emperor and for the ecclesiastical decrees? And so we began the struggle with God’s help; we tried to convince the rulers not to be attracted by that which is proper only for those who do not know how to control themselves, but to endure what had happened with magnanimity, with good hope on Christ our God; while we touched, not only his knee, but also his leg, begging and beseeching him as king in the most reverential way not to permit his authority to do everything, but to remember that there sits One Whose authority is mightier than his - He Who shed His Most Pure Blood for the Church.” And to the Emperor he wrote: “My child and emperor, it befitted you as a worshipper of God and one who has been glorified by God more than others with wisdom and other virtue, to be satisfied with three marriages: perhaps even a third marriage was unworthy of your royal majesty… but the sacred canons do not completely reject a third marriage, but are condescending, although they dislike it. However, what justification can there be for a fourth marriage? The king, they say, is the unwritten law, but not in order that he may act in a lawless manner and everything that comes into his head, but in order that by his unwritten deeds he may be that which is the written law; for if the king is the enemy and foe of the laws, who will fear them?”

     The saint went on to say that “an emperor who gave orders to slander, to murder through treachery, to celebrate unlawful marriages, and to seize other people’s property, was not an emperor, but a brigand, a slanderer, an adulterer and a thief”.


The Question of Legitimacy

     Another area in which imperial might came up against ecclesiastical right was that of imperial legitimacy and succession. Even late into the Christian period, Roman emperors were so often overthrown by force that J.B. Bury, following Mommsen, called the government of Byzantium “an autocracy tempered by the legal right of revolution”. Dvorkin echoes this judgement: “The power of the Byzantine emperor was limited by the right of the people to revolution”. 

     However, Andrew Louth points out that by the time of the Macedonian dynasty in the tenth century, the idea of legitimate succession from father to son had taken hold. Dagron has shown that the Byzantine concept of legitimacy was a complex one; one could become emperor by dynastic succession from father to son, by being “purple-born (πορφυρογεννητος)”, by marrying a former empress, by being made co-emperor by a living emperor, as well as by usurpation, that is, the overthrow of a living emperor by force. Although a usurper would naturally be considered to be the very opposite of a legitimate ruler, he could nevertheless be seen as expressing God’s transfer of power from an unworthy man to one more worthy, as when He “repented” of His choice of Saul and chose David to take his place.

     The comparison between the Byzantine idea of legitimacy and the Chinese “mandate of heaven” is not completely frivolous. For in the Chinese system, as Roberts writes: “Confucian principles taught that, although rebellion was wrong if a true king reigned, a government which provoked rebellion and could not control it ought to be replaced, for it was ipso facto illegitimate.” Similarly in the Byzantine system, as Lemerle writes, “usurpation… has… almost a political function. It is not so much an illegal act as the first act in a process of legitimation… There is a parallelism, rather than an opposition, between the basileus and the usurper. Hence the existence of two different notions of legitimacy, the one ‘dynastic’ and the other which we might call (in the Roman sense) ‘republican’, which are not really in conflict but reinforce each other: the second, when the usurper fails, reinforces thereby the first, and when he succeeds, recreates it, whether the usurper attaches himself to the dynasty or founds a dynasty himself.”

     And yet: what if a usurper came to power by the murder of his predecessor? Even here the Church usually crowned him. 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. St. Photius also accepted the new emperor – but refused him communion in church.

     “Despite his obscure origins,” writes Judith Herrin, “Basil I’s family maintained control over Byzantium for nearly two centuries, from 867 to 1056. In the tenth century, Constantine VII commissioned a biography of Basil (his grandfather), which invented a noble Armenian origin for the family and traced the portents which led to Basil ‘saving’ the empire from a drunken and dissolute ruler, Michael III, rather than gaining power in treacherous circumstances. By blackening the character of Basil’s patron and colleague, Constantine made sure that his grandfather was given a highly original and invented role, as more legitimate and worthy of the imperial title than Michael. By such means the Macedonian dynasty, as it became known, contributed to a deeper sense of order, taxis, and strengthened the imperial office through a proper and controlled line of succession from father to son.”

     Sometimes the usurper was crowned, provided certain conditions were fulfilled. Thus when Emperor Nicephorus Phocas was murdered on December 11, 969 by his successor, John Tzimiskes, Patriarch Polyeuctus “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.”

     This extraordinary episode tells us much about the real relationship between Church and State in Byzantium. On the one hand, there is no question that although Tzimiskes won the throne through brute force and murder, there was no real attempt to remove him or refusal to recognize him. This indicates that the pagan principle of Old Rome: “might is right”, still prevailed in tenth-century Byzantium. Or rather: if might prevails, then this is by the Providence of God, and should therefore be accepted. On the other hand, Tzimiskes’ de facto victory was not felt to be enough in a Christian society: he needed the Church’s forgiveness and sacramental blessing. And this the Church felt powerful enough to withhold until several conditions had been met: (1) the removal of Empress Theophano, the widow both of Nicephorus and the previous emperor Romanus and the mother of Romanus’ purple-born sons Basil and Constantine, whom Tzimiskes had wanted to marry in order to strengthen his position; (2) the annulment of a caesaropapist decree of the previous emperor; and (3) the new emperor’s at any rate formal attempt to find the murderer (everyone must have known that the emperor himself was the murderer, but if he did not accuse himself there was no higher judicial power that could convict him). By obtaining the fulfillment of these three conditions the Church, it could be said, made the best out of a bad job, extracting some good from an essentially evil deed. And so while the Byzantines accepted Tzimiskes as basileus, they condemned the deed by which he attained the throne. 

     Thus, according to Morris, “Leo the Deacon writes of the action… as kathairesis (‘pulling down’) and anairesis (‘destruction’, ‘abrogation’). He comments that if the emperor’s brother, Leo Phokas, had been quicker off the mark, he might have been able to rally support against this neoterismos (‘innovation’, revolution’).” The manoeuvre, writes Morris, was “nicely put by Leo the Deacon, who clearly understood these matters. Tzimiskes, he wrote, ‘took up the reins of the Empire’ at the fourth hour of the day of 11 December 963. In other words he assumed the governance of the empire. But it was not until after his coronation that his position as autokrator was finally legitimized by receiving the blessing of the church.”

     But if this resolved the question of Tzimiskes’ legitimacy, it did not wipe out his sin. The best the Byzantines could come up with here was the theory – propounded by the thirteenth-century canonist Balsamon - that the emperor’s anointing washed out all his previous sins! As Morris writes: “In the Apocalypse of Anastasia, dateable to the beginning of the twelfth century at the latest, we have an angel indicating to the narrator an empty throne in Hell and explaining that it belonged to John Tzimiskes ‘who was not worthy of it, because he murdered Nikephoros Phokas’. Then the wounded Nikephoros is seen reproaching John, saying, “John, Tzimiskes, Lord John, why did you inflict an unjust death on me…” And John replied nothing but “Woe! What have I done?”’ The invention of the tradition that Tzimiskes’ anointing had washed away the sin of the murder is, of course, another clear indication that he was believed to have been directly implicated.”

     “The aim,” according to Dagron, “is to convert brute force (το θηριωδες, θηριον αλογον, as Agapetus and Basil write) into a legitimate power, and the historical sources often allude to this conversion. If Theophanes characterizes Leo V, in 814, as ‘very legitimate emperor of the Romans’, this is to signify that this general, who had been called to the Empire by war and popular favour, was able to carry out the mutation which from now on made him a legitimate sovereign by not being too precipitate in the stages of transition, by letting the patriarch act, by ceasing to be an army commander, by conforming himself, not to constitutional rules which did not exist, nor even to more or less uncertain procedures, but to a process that allowed him to leave one role, that of a popularly elected general, for another, that of an emperor elected by God. If, on the contrary, Michael Attaliates and his contemporaries were doubtful that Isaac I Comnenus had succeeded, in 1057, in his passage from ‘tyranny’ to ‘legitimate power’, in spite of his probity and his courage, this was because he had not been able to divest himself of his martial fury, which had given him power but not sacredness… So it is not power that is legitimate, it is he who appropriates it who can become legitimate by choosing to respect the law…”

     So by the end of the first millennium of Christian history the Byzantines had reached a pragmatic compromise with regard to the question of legitimacy. They could not stop usurping generals from seizing power, and did not refuse them from exercising that power. They simply hoped that they could tame the beast, and turn his illegitimacy into legality. The important thing was that he respect the Church, that he rule in symphony with it. On this the Byzantines – in this period, at any rate – made no compromise; and it was this that made theirs a truly Christian State.


October 25 / November 7, 2014.



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