Oxford history of the christian church


Patriarch Athanasius I and his immediate successors



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5. Patriarch Athanasius I and his immediate successors.


Gregory II's immediate successor, Athanasius I, who came to the patriarchate on 14 October 1289, was one of those specifically singled out when Palamas spoke of his predecessors in the spiritual life. 102 The monk Athanasius was the choice of the devout Andronicus II who was greatly attached to him and was always open to monastic influence. Andronicus, who certainly did not want an Arsenite patriarch, may have hoped that this undoubtedly holy man would be above criticism in the particularly difficult atmosphere of the day. With Gregory II's help the question of union with Rome had been scotched, at any rate temporarily. The Josephites had been placated. But there remained the discontented Arsenites. There was too increasing danger from Turkish encroachment in Asia Minor which necessarily meant some disruption of normal diocesan life. And there were evidently many lapses in clerical — and lay — standards.

Athanasius who in Palamas's words, 'adorned the patriarchate for a number of years' (1289-93 and 1303-9) 103 was by no means as ignorant as Nicephorus Gregoras would seem to imply when he said that he was unlettered and uncultured. 104 Gregoras probably looked down on those who had not had the traditional higher education. Athanasius, who had early become a monk, had travelled widely from Athos to Jerusalem and to some of the outstanding monastic centres of Asia Minor, as Mount Auxentius. He spent eighteen years in the house of St Lazarus on Mount Galesius and his Vita described the rich library there which he voraciously devoured, reading through each book not once, as lazy creatures do, but three or four times. 105 He left more than 200 folios of his own writings, sermons, letters, canonical rulings, directives. These are in literary koine without much rhetorical embellishment which is a relief rather than otherwise. This corpus was certainly not the work of an ignoramus but of a clear thinker and a vigorous administrator. 106

Athanasius had high standards and spared none. Bishops lingering in the capital were directed back to their dioceses. Monks were reminded of the rules of their chosen way of life. Even the Emperor was censured for allowing his officials to rob the islands of poultry and livestock and to drag off for his own use flocks of sheep meant for the slaughterhouses of Constantinople. Increasing resentment, particularly from the higher clergy and powerful laity, resulted in a stream of harassing complaints to the Emperor. Athanasius, perhaps desiring release from the heavy cares of his office as he envisaged it, left Constantinople for the monastery of Cosmidion just outside the city up the Golden Horn. Before going, he placed hidden in the capital of a pillar in the galleries of Hagia Sophia a document in which he defended himself and then excommunicated all his 'enemies' (without however explicitly naming them). He also sent the Emperor an unsigned copy of his abdication, 107 followed by further letters asking for protection from violence and speaking of the needs of the patriarchate. 108

Andronicus II replaced Athanasius with another monk, John XII Cosmas, hoping perhaps for less harassment. But during his years of office (1 January 1294-21 June 1303) John XII attempted to continue the work of his immediate predecessor, arousing the same opposition. The situation worsened. The poor were in terrible need, refugees continued to stream across the water from Asia Minor, and particularly heavy taxes were levied. John protested about the taxation, criticizing the Emperor himself. He even threatened to abstain from performing his office. Meanwhile Andronicus, suffering from characteristic scrupulosity, had been greatly upset by the discovery of Athanasius's hidden document anathematizing his false accusers and 'him who had been misled', presumably the Emperor. This had been brought to light by boys looking for pigeons' nests on the ledges of the capitals in the galleries of the Great Church. 109 Athanasius had to be restored to patriarchal office in order to get the implied ban lifted. Andronicus therefore took advantage of hostility to John. He may too have felt that John was unreasonably exacting in some of his criticisms, failing to appreciate the government's urgent need to raise funds. Athanasius meanwhile foretold an approaching disaster. Then in January 1304 the City was shaken by an earthquake and Athanasius's stock rose. After some debate in synod and some resistance from John (who was hostile to the former Patriarch), the way was clear for the reinstatement of Athanasius. John abdicated and for another six years Athanasius, regarded with awe as having the gift of prophecy, preached the Christian life, thundering triumphantly against the evils of his day, acting as the protector of the poor, the critic of the corrupt and powerful, both lay and ecclesiastic. Pachymeres, describing his austere domination, told how men were so afraid of his crippling penalties, including excommunication and imprisonment, that they even took refuge in the houses of the Latin friars across the Golden Horn in Pera. 110 Particularly important, at least in Andronicus's eyes, was Patriarch Athanasius's formal withdrawal of the general excommunication against his enemies during his first patriarchate, which he did with the admission that he had been in the wrong.

Many of Athanasius's letters belong to the second period of his patriarchate when the Empire was particularly hard hit by the Catalan threat as well as by the Turks. The situation was aggravated by bitterly cold winters, by famine and black market. The letters give a poignant picture of the Patriarch's struggles in widely differing spheres. His agonizing cry for firewood to keep his soup kitchens going in Constantinople is balanced by his grave concern for the higher affairs of state. Patriarchal responsibility in the later middle ages was all-embracing. The greater part of Athanasius's life had been spent in a monastic framework. But now he not only reminded the Emperor of his high office but he gave him instructions on such problems as dealing with the city defence or paying the army. He told him that the actions of his court officials would be scrutinized by the Patriarch himself (as indeed they were). He advised on foreign policy, urging avoidance of relations with the schismatic West, relying rather on repentant Orthodoxy and the return of the bishops to their Asia Minor sees. It was not without point that he ironically remarked in a letter that one of the few accomplishments of bishops lingering on in the capital was 'to depose patriarchs'. 111 He became increasingly unpopular, and the Arsenites, still in schism, increasingly vociferous. His enemies even set traps for him and for a second time he resigned, 'wearied by old age and illness, nor am I even in possession of my sight'. 112 In September 1309 he returned to his former house by Xerolophos in Constantinople. 113

Perhaps more than any other fourteenth-century collection Athanasius's letters provide detail all too often unrecorded. Weighed down by the responsibility of his patriarchal office he was the protector of starving refugees and harassed citizens. And he did not hesitate to offer advice and admonition on higher problems of state and church. Asia Minor was virtually lost to the Turks. Dioceses went. Revenue ceased. Such disasters obviously affected the Christian population of Asia Minor now often pressurized to turn Muslim. 114 They also hit the Great Church in Constantinople and other ecclesiastical institutions having assets abroad. And as though these misfortunes were not sufficient, the Byzantine polity in the fourteenth century was torn by internal schism and intermittent civil wars.

Fully aware of dissension within the Church Athanasius in his farewell letter begged the bishops to assist the Emperor 'who cares for the Church more than anyone' and he expressed the hope that the right successor might be found to watch over the Christian flock. 115 Far from it. Niphon of Cyzicus (May 1310-April 1314) who succeeded Athanasius after a confused interval appeared to have few if any qualifications for his office. He was said to be illiterate and according to Nicephorus Gregoras was a luxuryloving gourmet, better suited to be a dealer in real estate than a patriarch. 116 No contrast could be more marked. But at least one thing was achieved, for it was during Niphon's patriarchate that the long drawn-out Arsenite schism within the Byzantine Church was at last resolved. Unlike the strongly anti-Arsenite Athanasius, Niphon was willing to compromise.

The Arsenites had long opposed the establishment and the hierarchy. They now modified their extreme demands which had included the election of an Arsenite patriarch. At a fantastic ceremony in Hagia Sophia on 14 September 1310 they were received back into the Church. Here the corpse of the dead Patriarch Arsenius was set up dressed in his patriarchal robes. The reigning Patriarch Niphon solemnly took from Arsenius's skeleton hand a document absolving all whom Arsenius had previously anathematized. This concession meant the recognition of the Palaeologan dynasty which was the main concern of the establishment. The Emperor Andronicus pronounced the terms of the agreement in a 'tome of union' and the liturgy for the Exaltation of the Holy Cross was then celebrated by former Arsenite and Orthodox bishops together. 117

The feuding which had marked internal ecclesiastical relations during Andronicus II's reign to some extent now ceased. But other increasingly pressing problems thronged in as the patriarchal registers show. There was little continuity in the brief tenures of patriarchal office. After barely four years Niphon had to abdicate.
His successor John XIII Glykys(May 1315-May 1319) was the patron and friend of the scholar and historian Nicephorus Gregoras. Though a layman and logothete at the time of his unanimous election he was admirably suited for high ecclesiastical office. But in 1319 at his own request he had to resign by reason of a grave progressive illness which made it impossible for him to celebrate the holy mysteries. 118 Much of his work had been concerned with administration and finance, showing how hopeless it was to struggle to maintain any kind of normal diocesan life particularly in the face of an Asia Minor virtually lost to the Turks. 119 John Glykys was succeeded by an imperial choice, Gerasimus I(March 1320-April 1321), the abbot of the Mangana monastery. He was greatly mocked by Nicephorus Gregoras who complained of his lack of learning and deafness (events however suggest that he could not have been totally deaf). Gerasimus died on the night of Easter Saturday (19 April 1321) at a time when hostilities between Andronicus II and his ambitious young grandson Andronicus III were coming to a head. A synod had been called by Andronicus II to excommunicate his grandson for rebellion. Gerasimus had apparently informed the young Andronicus of his grandfather's intention to restrain him and the young man had fled the capital with his followers. 120

Whether or not this indicated that Gerasimus was pro-Andronicus III is unclear. It was at this time that the civil wars began, disrupting what was left of the Empire until almost the end of its political life in 1453. Already Gerasimus's action pointed the way to patriarchal partisanship in the coming bitter struggle for political power which rent the rapidly weakening state when Andronicus III forced his aged grandfather to abdicate in 1328. Patriarch Isaias (November 1323-May 1332) openly took his stand on the winning side but he was also the leading figure in mediating between the defeated old Emperor and his victorious grandson. And subsequent fourteenth-century patriarchs often played a key role in the troubles caused by the disputes between the Palaeologan John V and the coEmperor John VI Cantacuzenus, as also with members of his rebellious and ambitious family.






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