Written by Vladimir Moss



     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.”[1] 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.[2]

     This new intransigeance of the patriarchs in relation to the emperors had been foreshadowed even before the last period of iconoclast persecution, when, 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.”[3] 

     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 focussed 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 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 have no truck 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)”.[4] 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 the patriarch of the time, St. Methodius, while he had severe reservations about some of the writing of St. Theodore, followed him in trying to exalt the authority of the patriarchate in relation to the empire. His successors, Saints Ignatius and Photius, went still further in the same direction...

     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.[5] 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.”[6]

     However, St. Photius soon came into conflict with one who exalted his priesthood in such a way as to encroach on the prerogatives of kings and introduce heresy into the Church – Nicholas I, Pope of Rome. The dogmatic aspect of the quarrel related to Nicholas’ introduction into the Creed of the Filioque, which Photius succeeded in having anathematised together with its author. But the conflict 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.

      It was becoming clear that if “caesaropapism” had been the greatest danger in the iconoclast period, it was its opposite, “papocaesarism”, that was 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 defence 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.

     As regards the emperor, in a letter to the Emperor Basil who exiled him, St. Photius reminded him of his fallibility and mortality.[7] 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.”[8]

     Moreover, in his advice to the newly baptized Bulgarian Tsar St. 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”.[9] 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.”[10 

     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’ [nomos empsychos].”[11] He can be called that only in the secular sphere: “The Emperor must act as the law when there is none written, except that his actions must not violate 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’ (ennomoVepistasia), 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…  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.”[12] 

     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 re-establish 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 a more exalted place is accorded to the patriarch in the Epanagoge, it is 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 the thought of St. Photius, 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 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.”[13] 

     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.[14] In 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. Moreover, 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, the patriarch was now the prime mover.[15] Thus the patriarchate was becoming ever more truly “ecumenical”... 

     At the same time, St. Photius did not deny 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 (symphonia) between the Empire and the Priesthood (constitutes) the spiritual and bodily peace and prosperity of the citizens” (Titulus III, 8). And so the iconoclast thesis and the post-iconoclast antithesis in political theology came to rest, in the Epanagoge, in a synthesis emphasizing the traditional symphony of powers, even if the superiority was clearly given to the patriarch (the soul) over the emperor (the body).

     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 over 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 – provided 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 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, in the former case, and to the State, in the latter.

February 9/22, 2015.


[1] Theosterictus, Life of St. Nicetas of Medicion; in Gilbert Dagron, Empereur et Prêtre (Emperor and Priest), Paris : Gallimard, 1996, p. 197.

[2] It is perhaps significant that several of the patriarchs of the period – notably Tarasius, Nicephorus and Photius – had worked as laymen in the imperial administration before becoming patriarchs. The same was true of St. Ambrose of Milan. Evidently close experience of imperial administration from within is a good qualification for a patriarch who has to stand up against imperial power!

[3] Dagron, op. cit., pp. 198-199.

[4] St. Theodore, quoted in Fomin, S. & Fomina, T. Rossia pered Vtorym Prishestviem (Russia before the Second Coming), Moscow, 1994, vol. I, p. 94.

[5] G.A. Ostrogorsky writes: “My reposed friend N.M. Belaev indicated that in the art of medieval Byzantium the ideas of the Kingdom and the priesthood were incarnate in the images of Moses and Aaron, while in the early Byzantine period both ideas were united in the image of Melchizedek, and that the turning point here must be seen to be precisely the VIIth century” (quoted in Fomin and Fomina, op. cit, vol. I, p. 105).

[6] Dagron, op. cit., p. 234.

[7] “Remember that you are a human being, even though you are Emperor. Remember that we are clothed with the same flesh, whether we are kings or private persons, and that we share the same nature. Remember that we have a common Master and Fashioner and Judge… Respect nature, revere the common laws of mankind, revere the common rights of the Roman Empire, Do not allow an unheard of story to be told of your life: namely, once an emperor who professed goodness and kindness, having made a high priest a friend and co-parent, under whose hands he himself and his empress were anointed with the chrism of emperorship and put on this office, by whom he was exceedingly loved and to whom he had given pledges and awesome assurances, whom he showed to all that he loved exceedingly and cherished; him he gave up to exile and bitter hunger, wore down with countless other ills, while he was praying on his behalf, and sent on to his death.” (D.S. White, Patriarch Photios of Constantinople, Brookline, Mass.: Holy Cross Orthodox Press, 1981, pp. 164-165).

[8] White, op. cit., p. 155.

[9] Quoted in Fomin and Fomina, op. cit., vol. I, p. 95.

[10] Dvorkin, Ocherki po Istorii Vselenskoj Pravoslavnoj Tserkvi (Sketches on the History of the Universal Orthodox Church), Nizhni-Novogorod, 2006, pp. 586-587.

[11] Nikolin, Tserkov’ i Gosudarstvo (Church and State), Moscow, 1997, pp. 41, 42. It will be recalled that Justinian used the same phrase…

[12] Dagron, op. cit., pp. 237-238.

[13] Shabanov, “Kanonicheskaya Spravka o Prave Vselenskogo Patriarchego Prestola Konstantinopolia – Novogo Rima prinimat’ apelliatsii na sudebnie dela iz drugikh Pomestnykh Tservej” (A Canonical Note on the Right of the Ecumenical Patriarchal Throne of Constantinople – New Rome to accept appeals in judicial cases from other Local Churches),, July 24, 2008.

[14] Dagron, op. cit., pp. 240, 241; Shabanov, op. cit.

[15] Dagron, op. cit., p. 239.




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