Oxford history of the christian church


The patriarchate of Constantinople and the Emperor



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2. The patriarchate of Constantinople and the Emperor.


Such fluctuations in the territorial extent of the patriarch of Constantinople were in a sense peripheral to the life and development of the medieval Church within the Byzantine Empire and in no way lessened its claims to authority. It accepted limitations of time and space without sacrificing either its belief or its spirituality and it was in no sense 'a department of state' as some modern scholars would have it. It was an integral part of the East Roman polity and as such had a special relationship with the Emperor, the Christian ruler who was regarded as the vicegerent of Christ. Both Graeco-Roman and Jewish traditions had accorded religious authority to the ruler. The Christian Emperor was not worshipped as divine as in the Hellenistic world (this is what the Christians had objected to), but he did have a special and indeed unique position as the representative of Christ responsible for the good government of the Empire. This was assumed from Constantine I's day and is clearly stated by Justinian I in his novels. The Christian polity was made up of the priesthood (sacerdotium) and the Empire (basileia) and they should work together, the one promoting orthodoxy, the other regulating human affairs. 2 But the Emperor had an overall responsibility for both civil and canon law. 'If we make every effort to enforce civil laws, how much more should we not try to enforce the canons and the divine laws designed for the salvation of our souls?' 3 The position accorded to the Byzantine Emperor thus reflected the integration of non-Christian and Christian elements. He was an autocrator whose absolute authority was tempered by his ultimate responsibility for good government in all spheres of the Christian life.

The Emperor's position was emphasized in the elaborate ritual of his public life which was shared by church dignitaries, officers of state, and members of the court and imperial household. Protocol was strictly observed and much of its detail can be found in the tenth-centuryBook of Ceremonies which Constantine VII drew up for his son. The procedures thus described did not leap into being, ready made. They date from various periods and resulted from gradual changes in practice over the centuries moving from pagan to Christian and reflecting an increasing predominance of the religious elements. 4 There seems to have been an increased emphasis on the religious element in the late sixth and early seventh centuries. For instance the God-given Emperor of the acclamations for the fifth century Leo I — 'God gave you to us. God will guard you' 5 — church, soon to be established as the patriarchal Great Church of Hagia Sophia and accompanied by an elaborate liturgy stressing the divine nature of the appointment. Whatever part may have been played by army, senate, and people, it was God who placed power in imperial hands and set up the Emperor as autocrator. There was no intermediary between God and the Emperor, but a resolute Patriarch could impose certain limitations on imperial activities or demands if he disapproved of these. Such was Polyeuctus's refusal to accord the status of martyr to Nicephorus II's troops who fell in battle.

The position of the Emperor in the civilized world, the oecumene, and his direct link with God were stressed in the elaborate ceremonial at receptions, banquets, and audiences in the vast halls of the Great Palace, particularly the Golden Hall (chrysotriclinus), the main throne room. The same emphasis characterized the festivals of the Christian year celebrated in Hagia Sophia and in other churches in the capital, often accompanied by processions to particularly venerated shrines, as the Blachernae church which housed the robe of Theotokos. Secular and religious elements were closely integrated. Ambassadors were formally received in the main throne room where in the post-iconoclast period Christian themes associated with the Empire were stressed, as in the icon of Christ in majesty above the imperial throne and the Theotokos standing as the protector of the City. Thus at every turn figural art stressed the link between the heavenly and the earthly kingdom. 6 It was the same with the ritual and responses in the liturgy. And in the festivals linked with episodes in the life of Christ the Emperor had a special role. Everything stressed his unique and sacred character though he never had the authority of the priesthood. Within Hagia Sophia there was (as in the imperial palace) a special porphyry rota where the Emperor stood to pray before entering the sanctuary at special times. Ritual was laid down whereby he met the Patriarch in the narthex at the Royal Door. The procession, imperial guards, court, clergy, then entered the cathedral, before the people crowding the outer narthex and atrium were admitted. Further details can be was originally crowned in the imperial palace, but by the early seventh century this took place in a church, soon to be established as the patriarchal Great Church of Hagia Sophia and accompanied by an elaborate liturgy stressing the divine nature of the appointment. Whatever part may have been played by army, senate, and people, it was God who placed power in imperial hands and set up the Emperor as autocrator. There was no intermediary between God and the Emperor, but a resolute Patriarch could impose certain limitations on imperial activities or demands if he disapproved of these. Such was Polyeuctus's refusal to accord the status of martyr to Nicephorus II's troops who fell in battle.

The position of the Emperor in the civilized world, the oecumene, and his direct link with God were stressed in the elaborate ceremonial at receptions, banquets, and audiences in the vast halls of the Great Palace, particularly the Golden Hall (chrysotriclinus), the main throne room. The same emphasis characterized the festivals of the Christian year celebrated in Hagia Sophia and in other churches in the capital, often accompanied by processions to particularly venerated shrines, as the Blachernae church which housed the robe of Theotokos. Secular and religious elements were closely integrated. Ambassadors were formally received in the main throne room where in the post-iconoclast period Christian themes associated with the Empire were stressed, as in the icon of Christ in majesty above the imperial throne and the Theotokos standing as the protector of the City. Thus at every turn figural art stressed the link between the heavenly and the earthly kingdom. 6 It was the same with the ritual and responses in the liturgy. And in the festivals linked with episodes in the life of Christ the Emperor had a special role. Everything stressed his unique and sacred character though he never had the authority of the priesthood. Within Hagia Sophia there was (as in the imperial palace) a special porphyry rota where the Emperor stood to pray before entering the sanctuary at special times. Ritual was laid down whereby he met the Patriarch in the narthex at the Royal Door. The procession, imperial guards, court, clergy, then entered the cathedral, before the people crowding the outer narthex and atrium were admitted. Further details can be found in the Emperor Constantine VII's Book of Ceremonies, supplemented by the fourteenth-century Pseudo-Codinus. It was an elaborate procedure, difficult if not impossible to maintain to the full in the disordered years after 1204, though the very existence of the Pseudo-Codinus points to the tenacity with which the Byzantines held to all that their ceremonial symbolized even in the late middle ages. But the Pseudo-Codinus also reflects changes which had come about since the tenth century, such as the permanent establishment within the capital and across the Golden Horn of various privileged foreign groups, particularly the Genoese, who had to be accorded a place in such ceremonial as was possible. 7



The precise authority of the Emperor in ecclesiastical affairs has been much disputed and certainly often misunderstood through failure to realize the nature of the Byzantine polity and the close integration of imperial and ecclesiastical interests. On the threshold of the medieval era the fifth-century Pope Leo I made it clear that it was the imperial duty to promote orthodoxy, but not in the sense of determining faith which fell to an episcopal general council. The imperial role was to summon the general council and to confirm and promulgate its decisions. Throughout the medieval period this remained the imperial position though it was on occasion infringed, as in the seventh century and in the iconoclast period. Certainly the Emperor was responsible for implementing conciliar decisions. He also legislated freely in disciplinary and administrative matters affecting the Church, and on occasion against the will of Patriarch and metropolitans. He was closely concerned with the suppression of heresy. In fact almost at every turn it seemed to be chance whether the Emperor or the Church took the initiative in providing good ecclesiastical government or in protecting orthodox tradition, matters in which they both had a common interest. The Byzantines themselves did not always agree on the nature of imperial authority. The twelfth-century canonist Balsamon sometimes went as far as to imply that the Emperor was above canon law. Certainly long before Balsamon he was called the 'living' or 'animate law' (empsychos nomos), an oriental and Hellenist legacy embodied in Justinian I's novel 105. 8 The thirteenth-century canonist Demetrius Chomatianus called him the epistemonarches, meaning the super visor or director in divine matters. 9 This was generally interpreted as the guardianship of orthodoxy rather than the right to initiate or innovate in doctrinal matters, whatever his prerogative in other affairs. All the same it will at once come to mind that during the 800 years or so from the seventh to the fifteenth century there were instances of imperial attempts to solve doctrinal issues, such as monotheletism or iconoclasm. Their interventions might take the form of pronouncements, as the Type of Constans II, but more generally they sought to fortify themselves with conciliar support. In the long run if Emperors were considered to have deviated from true doctrine, their rulings were repudiated and the orthodox faith re-established by a council, as in the case of iconoclasm and Nicaea II (787), the last general council recognized by the Orthodox Church. After this there were no major doctrinal issues in which the Emperor was personally involved and few clashes between Emperor and Church, the exceptions being Lyons II (1274) and Ferrara — Florence (1438-9) both of which were to some extent called forth by reason of dire Byzantine need for western military aid, however much there was a genuine desire on both sides for the reunion of the Churches.

An occasional fierce monastic voice might exhort the Emperor to confine himself to purely secular affairs. Such was the view of the redoubtable Theodore Studites, but his understandable outburst was evoked in the heat of the iconoclast controversy when imperial policy was attacking orthodoxy and in general his views were not shared. Given the medieval Roman Empire, it was appropriate that its ruler should have a special function within the Christian polity. Thus the political theory of East Rome developed on different lines from that of contemporary western kingdoms. In the Latin world there was a more clear-cut division between church and state and its 'patriarch', the Pope, occupied a relatively detached position vis-àvis various rulers such as the Capetians or Angevins, and his closer association with the would-be 'Roman' emperors, the Carolingians and their successors, bore little if any resemblance to the relationship between the Patriarch of Constantinople and the genuine successors of the Caesars in New Rome.





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