Patriarchate of Constantinople in the Byzantine period

1. Introduction

The patriarchate of Constantinople developed closely with the city itself; thus, the bishop of New Rome gradually developed to the ecumenical patriarch. Throughout its history, the patriarch worked closely with the imperial administration, ideally under the principle of symphonia, close and peaceful cooperation. However, individual patriarchs sometimes found themselves completely pushed over by forceful emperors or struggling in confrontation with imperial will. Although the emperor was supposed to respect the church’s own choice of patriarchate, more often than not emperors ensured that their own candidate became patriarch. Still, for most of its history the patriarchate cooperated closely with the imperial government and played a major role in the imperial administration both within the empire and with relations with external churches, powers, and peoples.

2. History

2.1. Early Period

According to legend, the see of Byzantium was founded by the apostle Andrew, although this late legend has little historical basis and is a fabrication to counter the apostolic claims of the see of Rome. The patriarchate of Constantinople has always been closely connected to the status of the city. There was a bishop of Byzantium before the re-founding of the city as New Rome by Constantine I in 330. Shortly after the foundation of the new city, the bishop of Byzantium was elevated to the status of archbishop.

In the early stages of the archbishopric of Constantinople, however, the role of the archbishop was not significant outside of the city of Constantinople. Early bishops, like John Chrysostom (bishop 26 Feb. 398 - 20 June 404) were brought to the city on account of fame or imperial favor. John was known as an orator, and while he became involved in the court, he was not burdened with significant administrative duties outside the city. John fell victim to court intrigue and was deposed, like his predecessor Gregory of Nazianzos (bishop 27 November 380-81). At this stage, the archbishop functioned much like a member of the imperial court, and the archbishop served at the emperor’s will. Emperors preferred archbishops who agreed with them doctrinally and who served almost as a court chaplain or official preacher for the imperial household. When Theodosios I (r. 379 - 395) made Christianity the official religion of the empire, the patriarch’s role became even more important, since Christianity was now an official department of the imperial administration.

The Christological controversies, as a side effect, led to a greater role for the archbishop of Constantinople and to conflict with other sees. The bishop of Constantinople did not play a significant role in the Arian controversy or in the council of Nicaea (325), the first council deemed ecumenical.1 The first council of Constantinople, called by Theodosios I in 381, gave Constantinople precedence of honor over all sees except old Rome, but Meletios, bishop of Antioch, was president of the council. Later, Nestorios (bishop of Constantinople, 10 Apr. 428 - 22 June 431), ignited theological controversy by denying the title of theotokos to theVirgin Mary. The controversy only diminished the prestige of the see of Constantinople, while the see of Alexandria under Cyril (patriarch of Alexandria, 18 Oct. 412 - 27 June 444) and Dioscorus (patriarch 444-51) became seen by many as the champions of Orthodoxy. The theology of Cyril triumphed at the Council of Ephesus (431) and Nestorios was deposed. On the other hand, and in spite of imperial backing, the “Robber” Council of Ephesus (449) was not accepted and Dioscorus was finally deposed too. The council of Chalcedon increased the prestige of Pope Leo, who was now seen as the defender of Orthodoxy, but the canons of the council elevated the archbishopric of Constantinople to a patriarchate by giving it jurisdiction over the dioceses of Asia, the Pontus, and Thrace and by affirming its place of honor after Rome (canon 28). Constantinople also received the right to hear appeals from regional metropolitans (canons 9, 17). The later Christological controversies, monotheletism and iconoclasm, and their related councils, did not increase the prestige of the ecumenical patriarchs, because the patriarchate showed itself pliable to imperial will.

While ecumenical councils formally lifted the status and increased the role of the ecumenical patriarchate, from the Byzantine point of view, it was the emperor who called and sponsored an ecumenical council, as became a point of controversy at the later union council of Ferrara-Florence (1438-39). By the council of Chalcedon (451), the patriarchate had achieved its full status and the pentarchy of five patriarchal sees of Rome, Constantinople, Alexandria, Antioch, and Jerusalem was recognized. Prior to Chalcedon, the patriarch of Constantinople was an archbishop with little canonical authority and in a continuous struggle with the see of Alexandria for honor and primacy in the eastern half of the empire. By the 6th century, ecumenical patriarch had become a courtesy title for the archbishop of Constantinople, a symbol of his role as the superior orthodox patriarch of the ecumenical empire whose see was the imperial capital. However, when John IV Nesteutes (r. 12 April 582 - 2 September 595) called himself ecumenical patriarch, it scandalized Pope Pelagius II and Gregory I.2 Michael I Keroularios (r. 25 March 1043 - 2 November 1058), a very ambitious patriarch,3 used the title on his lead seals after he and the papal legate Humbert had mutually anathematized one another (16 July 1054). Use of the title, however, was never a major point of contention between Rome and Constantinople. After the seventh century, the patriarchates of Antioch and Alexandria became politically insignificant, and the patriarchate of Constantinople found itself locked in a continuous struggle with the pope in Rome over a variety of issues.

2.2. Middle Byzantine Period

The middle Byzantine period was ushered in with the Islamic conquests (battle of Yarmuk, 636) and the iconoclastic controversy (714-843). The conquests actually increased the prestige of the patriarchate, as the patriarchs of Antioch and Alexandria became irrelevant and the patriarchate of Constantinople was no longer forced to try to achieve unity with the non-Chalcedonian churches. Iconoclasm made the patriarchate appear weak and pliable to imperial will, but ultimately the view of the church triumphed. After iconoclasm, the patriarchate entered a period of development and greater prestige. Emperors no longer tried to force doctrine on the church, although patriarchs sometimes found themselves in conflict with emperors. The period was dominated by the ongoing struggle with the pope and the eventual schism of 1054.4

Constantinople was able to assert its authority with the backing of the emperor by acquiring jurisdiction over Illyricum (8th c.) and Bulgaria (9th c.). Throughout the 9th c., Rome tried to intervene in the conflict between Photios and Ignatios, as well as in the dispute over Leo VI's tetragamy. Such controversies may make the patriarchate appear weak, since the imperial will succeeded in placing its candidate on the throne and Leo VI was able to marry a fourth time. However, as in iconoclasm, the emperor may get his way in the short-term but could not succeed in changing canon law or doctrine. The alternation between Photios and Ignatios was a matter of imperial politics, as there was no doctrinal disagreement. The fourth marriage of Leo VI was tolerated as a matter of oikonomia, but fourth marriages were permanently banned thereafter. It is in the middle period that the idea of symphonia develops, with the emperor and patriarch working together as the two hands of God. The emperor was appointed by God, but it was his duty to protect the church and church doctrine, as defined by the church fathers and tradition. Ideally, the patriarch was to cooperate closely with the emperor to ensure the good governance of the church. The patriarch could hear appeals in both ecclesiastical and secular cases. The church defined doctrine, but heresy was a concern for the emperor and he was expected to prosecute it. For example, Alexios I Komnenos (r. 4 Apr. 1081 - 15 Aug. 1118) personally heard the case of Basil the Bogomil and had him burned at the stake. Certainly the patriarch could weld exceptional moral authority, and even defy the emperor, although rarely with success. Isaac Komnenos could not arrest and depose the popular patriarch Michael I Keroularios until he left the city. Still, Keroularios was finally arrested. Some patriarchs were utterly subservient while others worked closely with the emperor in a fruitful collaboration.

Patriarchs were actively involved in missions and diplomacy, which were inseparable from the Byzantine view. Patriarch Nicholas I Mystikos (patriarch 1 Mar. 901 - 1 Feb. 907 and May 912 - May 925) actively corresponded with leaders in southern Italy, Bulgaria, and the Caucasus. Missions were sent to the Slavs and Rus, the most famous being that of Cyril and Methodius (893). At the height of its splendor in the 11th c., the patriarchate of Constantinople had a very large staff, centered around the Great Church, Ηagia Sophia. The patriarch relied on five or six principal officials: megas oikonomos, the head of the sakellion, megas sakellarios, megas skeuophylax, chartophylax, and the protekdikos. These officials often had roles far exceeding their titles. The patriarchate called the metropolitans regularly to meet for certain matters in a council or endemousa synodos. In 1107 Alexios I founded the Patriarchal School, although a patriarchal school may have existed earlier. The church and patriarchate were actively involved in the cultural renaissance of this period.

2.3. Late Byzantine Period

After the Fourth Crusade in 1204, as the Empire declined, the prestige of the church and patriarchate increased, even though its former splendor was gone just as the city itself was a shadow of its former glory. Still, the patriarchal throne was occupied with men of talent and ability, like the scholar Gregory II of Cyprus (patriarch 28 Mar. 1283 - June 1289).5 Patriarchs, as in previous years, were expected to cooperate with imperial policy, although there were men who were more independent in their approach. The ascetic Athanasios I (patriarch Oct. 1289 - Oct. 1293; June 1303-Sept. 1309) sought to enforce canon law and was deposed for his unpopular insistence on strict monastic discipline.6 He never yielded to imperial will but was deposed by Andronikos II who installed him. The biggest issue for the patriarch became the union with the West favored by emperors in hopes of securing military aid from the west. Emperors saw union as a matter of political necessity for the sake of military aid. At the council of Lyons (7 May - 17 July 1274) Emperor Michael VIII Palaiologos sent three representatives and promised submission of the Byzantine church, although no formal delegation sent by the church was present.7 At the Council of Ferrara-Florence (1438-39), the patriarch Joseph II (patriarch 21 May 1416 - 10 June 1439) cooperated closely with the Emperor John VIII Palaiologos to seek military aid from the West.8 However, patriarch and emperor were unsuccessful in persuading the Byzantine populous and monks in accepting a union with the West which was hated and resented since the Fourth Crusade (1204).

The patriarch during the period also had to navigate the new political realities of a shrinking empire. The late Byzantine period began with an internal schism, the Arsenite schism. Patriarch Arsenios (patriarch 1255-1259; 1261-1264) excommunicated the new emperor Michael VIII Palaiologos after he blinded and deposed the last Laskarid, John IV. In turn, Arsenios was deposed. The familiar pattern continued: emperors achieved their immediate will but the church ultimately triumphed. In this case the schism was not healed until 1310.9 Likewise efforts at union followed this pattern. Emperors were able to promise union to the West, but the church remained uncommitted.

In spite of shrinking resources and the reality of a diminishing empire, the patriarchate was able to increase its prestige in some areas. The jurisdiction of Mt. Athos was transferred from the emperor to the patriarch in 1312. The prestige and authority of the patriarch was recognized in areas where the emperor no longer or never had political power, like Russia and even as far as Lithuania, although many of these places sought to assert their ecclesiastical independence while honoring the patriarch. Monasticism and scholarship continued to flourish with both supported by the patriarchate. While the Slavs would eventually assert ecclesiastical independence from the patriarchate of Constantinople, the patriarchate survived the fall of the empire in 1453.

It is easy to see the patriarchate as nothing more than a tool of state. However, there was a certain stability. From Apostle Andrew, according to tradition, to 1204 AD there were more than 120 bishops and patriarchs. The average tenure of a patriarch in this period was nine years. Thirty-five of these patriarchs died after resignation or deposition while five were deposed temporarily. They came from throughout the Empire and from a variety of backgrounds. From 1204 to 1453 there were more than 30 patriarchs, with an average reign of eight years. Fourteen of these were deposed, and seven were reinstated. All were Greek, except Joseph II (1416-1439) who was Bulgarian. Eighty percent of the patriarchs in this period were monks. In the Ottoman period (1453 - ca. 1900) the average reign of a patriarch was three years. In the early Byzantine period, the role of the patriarchate of Constantinople developed but remained completely subordinate to imperial will. In the middle and late period, the patriarchate and emperor strove to work together in symphonia. Although the patriarchate occasionally had to capitulate to imperial will, in doctrinal matters the church maintained its independence.

1. On the council of Nicaea and fourth century theological disputes, see Ayres, L., Nicaea and its Legacy. An Approach to Fourth-Century Trinitarian Theology (Oxford 2004).

2. Vailhé, S., “Le titre de patriarche oecuménique avant saint Grégoire le Grand,” Échos d’Orient  11 (1908), pp. 65-69 ; Laurent, V., “Le titre de patriarche œcuménique et la signature patriarcale,” Revue des Études Byzantines 6 (1948), pp. 5-26; Tuilier, Α., “Le sens de l’adjectif ‘œcuménique’ dans la tradition patristique et dans la tradition byzantine,” Nouvelle Revue Théologique 86 (1964), pp. 260-71.

3. Tinnefeld, F., “Michael I. Kerullarios, Patriarch von Konstantinopel (1043-1058). Kritische Überlegungen zu einer Biographie,” Jahrbuch der Österreichischen Byzantinistik 39 (1989), pp. 95-127.

4. See, among others, Runciman, S., The Eastern Schism. A Study of the Papacy and the Eastern Churches during the XIth and XIIth Centuries (Oxford 1955).

5. Cf. Papadakis, A., Crisis in Byzantium: The Filioque Controversy in the Patriarchate of Gregory II of Cyprus (1283-1289) (New York 1983).

6. Boojamra, J. L., Church Reform in the Late Byzantine Empire: A Study of the Patriarchate of Athanasius of Constantinople, 1289-1293, 1303-1309 (Brookline, MA 1980); idem, The Church and Social Reform: The Policies of Patriarch Athanasios of Constantinople (New York 1993).

7. See Nicol, D.M., “The Greeks and the Union of the Churches: The Preliminaries to the Second Council of Lyons, 1261-1274,” in J.A. Watt – J.B. Morrall – F.X. Martin (eds.), Medieval Studies Presented to Aubrey Gwynn, S.J. (Dublin 1961), pp. 454-480; idem, "The Byzantine Reaction to the Second Council of Lyons, 1274,” Studies in Church History 7 (1971), pp. 113-146.

8. For this council and the events prior to its assembly, see Gill, J., The Council of Florence (Cambridge 1959); Geanakoplos, D.J., “The Council of Florence (1438-1439) and the Problem of Union between the Greek and Latin Churches," Church History 24 (1955), pp. 324-346.

9. Γουναρίδης, Π., Το κίνημα των Αρσενιατών (1261-1310). Ιδεολογικές διαμάχες την εποχή των πρώτων Παλαιολόγων (Αθήνα 1999).