The Ecclesio-Political System of Byzantium and Its Shortcomings

June 6, 2013 Length: 47:03

Fr. John draws attention to a feature of Byzantine statecraft in which the Emperor persecuted and manipulated the leadership of the Church.


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It was the year 404, and St. John Chrysostom found himself in an impossible situation. As archbishop of Constantinople, he was widely loved by his flock, but in that capital of the Byzantine empire, he also found himself confronted by the imperial state. Chief among his opponents was the empress, Eudoxia. John had emerged from an early life in a more distant area of the empire, though hardly an unnoticed one: the city of Antioch. He had become a monk early on, as part of the movement of that first century of Christianity in the Roman empire, when monasticism took off. I’ll talk more about that movement in a later episode, but St. John Chrysostom was part of it.

He was then elevated to become archbishop of Antioch, and there he distinguished himself in a variety of ways, all of them earning a great reputation within the Church of his time. His sermons were first among the most-noted elements in his work as archpastor of Antioch. His sermons were beautifully presented and composed, and earned him the title of Golden-mouth—that’s what “Chrysostom” means in Greek—even though, interestingly, those sermons usually displayed an uncompromising witness against worldly culture of that time. He also composed, as part of his output of sermons, his most famous, which is the Paschal homily. And this homily influenced and appropriating the practice and art of classical rhetoric in a very effective way, especially with its use of repetition. The Paschal homily came to be treasured by the Orthodox Church, the Eastern Church, and used up until the present day, today, at all of the services of Pascha.

In addition to this, John helped develop the liturgical life of the Church by composing liturgical prayers. And, in fact, the anaphora prayers are used in the present form of the Divine Liturgy most often served in an Orthodox church on a given Sunday or a feast day, the Liturgy being named after John Chrysostom himself. He also developed the practice of scriptural commentary. John developed the practice of scriptural commentary, following a tradition that had been started by earlier writers in the Christian tradition, especially Origen. John had written—wrote, in fact, quite a few commentaries on the different books of the Scriptures.

He ultimately was recognized for his contributions to the Church, and he was appointed archbishop of Constantinople, and transferred to the imperial capital, this apparently against his will, in the year 397. This earned him the resentment of other bishops, especially the archbishop of Alexandria, Theophilos. Once in the capital in 397, John found himself facing a very different kind of environment than he had been used to in Antioch. The capital city of the Byzantine empire was a city where much luxury and wealth were concentrated, and there were great disparities of wealth between the aristocracy of the capital and the common people. John continued to distinguish himself as a very fiery, a very fierce opponent of luxury, and a refusal of the wealthy to share their wealth, to distribute their wealth to those in need. And this did not earn him many friends among the aristocracy.

But his main confrontation, he found, came from the very imperial court itself, and he came into contact with what can be called the dark side of Constantinopolitan politics. Among the forces at work were the Emperor Arcadius—he reigned from 395 to 408 as emperor of Byzantium, of the east, and he was very weak-willed as an emperor. He didn’t contribute much at all to the policies of the empire, which were really dominated at court by a eunuch named Eutropius, and Eutropius was a very conniving and manipulative force at court.

When Eutropius had a given point during the reign of Arcadius, early on, perceived that he, Eutropius, might be overlooked in favor of someone else who offered to Arcadius a bride—Arcadius was as yet unmarried—Eutropius arranged for another bride to be brought forward, another woman of marriageable age, a young girl, a Frankish girl from the West named Eudoxia. And he promoted her in the presence of Arcadius so successfully that the emperor decided to marry her, and he and Eudoxia married, but Eudoxia proved herself to be a handful as well. She was elevated and became very ambitious, and in many ways ungrateful as empress during the reign of Arcadius.

I can quote here a passage from a work, the first volume of John Norwich’s History of Byzantium, subtitled: The Early Centuries, which gives a very nice little concise account of the character of Eudoxia and the role of Eutropius in bringing her to power.

Eudoxia [Norwich writes] is the first of that long line of Byzantine empresses—beautiful, worldly, and ambitious—whose names were to become bywords for luxury and sensuality. Widely rumored to entertain whole strings of lovers, she was said to flaunt her depravity, together with her court ladies, by wearing a fringe combed down low over the forehead, the recognized trademark of a courtesan. She owed her position entirely to Eutropius. Foolishly, however, he had reminded her of the fact once too often, and she was furthermore deeply jealous of his influence over her husband.

So Eudoxia, then, decided to turn on Eutropius, and Eutropius fell from favor at the court, very much in the presence of, under the eye of John Chrysostom. This all happened in 399, and it contributed to the growing tension between John Chrysostom and the court, especially Eudoxia. When Eutropius realized that he was in danger in the court, he fled the palace and sought sanctuary in the church of Hagia Sophia, which was the archbishop’s main church, John’s main church. John offered Eutropius protection, sanctuary, there, and defiantly held back the empress’s troops. Finally, he arranged for Eutropius to be released, provided he not be harmed, and yet, very soon Eutropius was tried and executed, despite John’s efforts.

It was now John’s turn to fall afoul of Eudoxia and her policies at court. She resented his popularity among the people, and John made consistent witness of traditional Christian sexual morality to her against her behavior at the court. So she came to hate, to loathe John Chrysostom. So she arranged for his deposition. As empress, in connection with her husband the emperor Arcadius, she had the power to manipulate the clergy, especially the bishops, and drive out even the archbishop of Constantinople. She formed an alliance with Theophilos, the one who was very resentful toward John and suspected him of being overly influenced by the dubious work of Origen, and arranged for a synod of bishops to assemble outside of the city, called the Synod of the Oak, at which Theophilos and other bishops formally deposed John.

When he was sent packing, as it were, from the city as a result in the year 403, riots broke out in the capital, and these riots were enlarged and amplified by the fact that a large delegation of supporters of John, realizing he was in trouble, had traveled from Antioch. Then there occurred an earthquake, by most reports, and the empress herself was said to have had a miscarriage. Both of these events being seen as signs of God’s displeasure with the decision to depose John. So he was very quickly restored as archbishop of Constantinople, but he did not remain in place very long.

The very next year, a second deposition of John took place, in the year 404. John had refused, when coming back, to soften his preaching against the corruption at court that he found, especially in the person of Eudoxia, and her blatant disregard for traditional Christian sexual morality. And Eudoxia herself made the situation even more tense when she erected a statue of herself outside of the cathedral of Hagia Sophia, and John condemned this. John finally gives a sermon against Eudoxia, a famous one, where he says, making reference to Herodias, the immoral woman recorded in the Gospel who arranges for the death of John the Baptist, John Chrysostom’s namesake, and in his homily, John was heard to say, “Again Herodias rages, again she demands the head of John upon a platter.”

So it was simply impossible to continue in that tense situation, so Eudoxia again organized the deposition of John and exile of him from the city. Again, riots broke out, and this time the burning of the city took… Part of the city was burned, including the great church of Hagia Sophia itself. Months later, Eudoxia herself died during the experience of a second miscarriage, again being seen as divine punishment for her deposition and persecution of one of God’s saints. For his own part, John in exile continued to be an active leader of the Church to the extent that he was able. He received support from the pope of Rome, he corresponded with a variety of people, including a group of letters exchanged with a woman named Olympias, beautiful writings here about spiritual life. But in the end he was driven to his death by soldiers in the Byzantine East, and it was said of him when he died in 407, the victim of Byzantine court intrigue and politics directed against the Church and her leadership, he was said, nevertheless, to have glorified God and expressed gratitude by declaring in his final words: “Glory to God for all things.” Very famous words.

Now the case of John Chrysostom brings attention to a feature of Byzantine statecraft which emerged almost from the beginning, in which the emperor, or in the case of Eudoxia empress, persecuted and manipulated the leadership of the Church, especially her bishops and especially the prestigious archbishop and later called patriarch of Constantinople. Now this was not supposed to happen in the Christian state that had been consolidated during the course of a couple centuries and which, in the last episode, we traced in its formation and consolidation all the way up until the seventh century during the reign of Heraclius. This was not supposed to happen. The Byzantine state, now being a Christian state, was supposed to feature a harmonious relationship between the Christian emperor and the Church leadership, particularly the bishops, and most importantly the bishop of Constantinople, the archbishop or patriarch of that city.

Nevertheless, as the case of John Chrysostom shows, there was a tension between those two forces within the Byzantine empire, and we can speak about an ecclesial-political problem that was present in the Byzantine state from the start. In this episode, I’d like to explore that ecclesial-political problem and, in particular, its opposite poles of expression: on the one hand the ideal of symphony between emperor and patriarch, and on the other the problem and tendency toward what is often called caesaropapism.

To begin, let me try to define what symphony was understood to be as a kind of doctrine guiding the relations between emperor and patriarch. Symphony, symphonia, was a word used repeatedly by the Church leadership and by the state leadership as well to describe the relations, the ideal relations, between the emperor and the patriarch. And I can quote here a passage written by the Patriarch Photios, who was a very famous saint of the ninth century, a passage by Photios which gives expression to this ideal of symphony. This is from a work entitled the Epanagoge that’s usually attributed to Photios, and this is what he writes:

As the polity or commonwealth consists, like man, of parts and members, the greatest and most necessary parts are the emperor and the patriarch, wherefore the peace and felicity of subjects in body and soul is, depends on, the agreement and symphony of the kingship and priesthood in all things.

So that was an ideal expressed by the patriarch, St. Photios, in the ninth century. Well, according to this ideal of symphony, the emperor, as head of the state, as embodiment of the Byzantine state, was expected to uphold personally a high standard of Orthodoxy, a high standard of Christian piety and adherence to the doctrines and traditions of the Church as they were defined by the Church leadership and especially councils of bishops when they assembled over the course of time. In addition to a personal standard of Orthodoxy, the emperor was expected to be a patron of the Church in a variety of ways. He was expected to support the clergy, and we have in fact another document, this one by none other than Emperor Justinian himself, which speaks about the emperor’s obligation to support the clergy of the Church, in a very symphonic—to use that word—way. And this is what Justinian had to say in a famous law, a novella that he wrote, that he issued, during his reign in the sixth century.

The greatest blessings of mankind are the gifts of God, which have been granted us by the mercy on high: the priesthood and the imperial authority. The priesthood ministers to things divine; the imperial authority is set over and shows diligence in things human. But both proceed from one and the same source, and both adorn the life of man. Nothing, therefore, will be a greater matter of concern to the emperor than the dignity and honor of the clergy, the more as they offer prayers to God without ceasing on his behalf. For if the priesthood be in all respects without blame and full of faith before God, and if the imperial authority rightly and duly adorn the commonwealth committed to its charge, there will ensue a happy symphony which will bring forth all good things for mankind.

Those are the words of the Emperor Justinian in the sixth century, patronizing and supporting the clergy of the Church in particular.

The emperor also patronized the Church by obtaining tax revenue and using that to support the Church: the support of the clergy, the support of building projects like cathedrals and churches and monasteries, things like this. Also, the emperor was expected to pass legislation such as the law just quoted that would support the Church and especially the moral kind of vision of life that the Church, according to her tradition, articulated and manifested, witnessed within the world she lived. There was also the expectation that the emperor would patronize the Church, protect the Church against heretical movements, preventing them from overwhelming the Church.

And he would defend against non-Christian foreign enemies, and there were many of these who surrounded the Byzantine empire and regularly made incursions into her territory and attacks upon her people, her Christian people increasingly. These included barbarians in the north, Germans, for instance, and Slavs, who had yet to be converted to Christianity (that would come later), Persians in the East, and with the rise of the Arabs and Islam in the south, that people, to which was added the Turks at a later date. All these peoples presented threats to the Christian commonwealth that the emperor, as an example of symphony, working with the bishops, was expected to defend against.

The emperor, because of his important role, was seen as being very close to the clergy themselves, though he was never admitted to the clergy and could not in fact be admitted to the clergy. One canon of the Church in an early date, Apostolic Canon 81, actually banned clergy from holding political office, and that’s the reason why the Byzantine state was not, strictly speaking, a theocracy. Theocracy means “rule of God,” literally, and usually is a state in which religious leaders hold political office and issue laws directly and rule directly. Well, Byzantium was not a theocracy in that sense, religious as the system was. It was a very clear distinction between the clergy and the emperor, and the Church actually canonically banned members of the clergy from serving in imperial or political office. That ban was sometimes suspended, for instance, in the reign of Emperor Heraclius himself in the seventh century, the patriarch of Constantinople, Sergius, did actually hold office during the absence of Heraclius in wars against Persia in the east. But as a rule, the clergy were not allowed, not tolerated to hold political office, to prevent them from falling into a worldly pattern of life and concerns in the East. Interestingly, later on, in the West, first in case of the papacy with its papal states in the center of Italy, a kind of remnant of which in modern times is Vatican City, but also just generally bishops in the Holy Roman Empire and other parts of Western Europe will hold political office, but that is something that will come much later.

So the emperor was expected, then, to know the limits that existed between him and the clergy, and I can quote a passage here from St. Maximus the Confessor about that very point. Maximus writes about the distinction here and the fact that the emperor is not a priest: “None of the emperors was able…” —and these are the words reported of Maximus, which [were] actually taken during an interrogation of him when he came up against the imperial authorities

None of the emperors was able, through compromising measures, to induce the Fathers, who were theologians, to conform to their heretical teachings of their time, but in strong and compelling voices appropriate to the dogma in question, they declared quite clearly that it is the function of the clergy to discuss and define the saving dogmas of the universal Church.

And you said: What then? Is not every emperor a Christian and a priest?

He’s addressing himself to the representatives of the emperor.

To which I, Maximus, responded: He is not a priest [the emperor is not a priest], for he does not participate in the sanctuary [the altar service], nor after the consecration of the bread [the Eucharist] does he elevate it and say, “The holy things to the holy.” He does not baptize nor perform the ceremony of chrismation, nor does he lay on the hands and ordain bishops, priests, and deacons, nor does he consecrate churches, nor does he bear the symbols of the priesthood: the omophorion and the Gospel, as he does bear the symbols of his rule: the crown and the purple robe.

So those are words by Maximus the Confessor, who actually did, as we’ll see, run afoul of imperial policy and interference in Church life, defining clearly the limits, then, of the emperor in that life, just as limits were imposed by Apostolic Canon 81 and other customs in the Church, preventing the clergy from participating in politics. Even so, the emperor did occupy and enjoy privileges that were not given to the laity in the divine services and the activities of the Church generally. The emperor, for instance, presided at councils of bishops, especially the Ecumenical Councils. He was given special privileges in the altar. For instance, he would receive holy Communion, as we’ll comment a little bit later in this episode, at Hagia Sophia and at other churches, he would receive during the Liturgy Communion as the clergy would receive Communion. And he would also often preach from the ambo, which was a responsibility limited to the clergy.

So this was the ideal, then, of symphony as it was defined in Byzantium, expecting the emperor, as a pious Christian ruler, to support and defend and patronize and uphold the Church, at the same time expecting him to know his place, the limits upon his influence and role within the life of the Church. That was the ideal, anyway.

Now the reality of the ecclesial-political system of Byzantium was sometimes, and in fact too often, very different from this principle of symphony. The reality sometimes degenerated into what has been called caesaropapism. Now this word, “caesaropapism,” which is widely used by historians of Byzantium and just generally of the history of Christendom, “caesaropapism” was actually a word coined many years, many centuries after the collapse of Byzantium, when Byzantium no longer existed, by a Protestant theologian. And this theologian, using the term “caesaropapism,” contrasted it with another term he used, called “papocaesarism,” and this was all done in the 18th century by a Protestant theologian. His name was Justus Böhmer. He used both of these words to contrast tendencies that could be found in the history of Christendom where the emperor would intervene to the detriment of the Church in Church affairs. That would be “caesaropapism”: when the caesar, the emperor, would act as a pope: papism.

This term immediately alerts us to the fact that it would be anachronistic to apply it literally to Byzantium, because, certainly in the period we’re discussing now, there was no “papism” as such. The papacy, as it came to be known with time, over the course of centuries, had yet to adopt formally the word “pope,” for instance that happens in the sixth century, the 500s, and certainly the understanding of the pope being the universal head of the Church, with universal jurisdiction over it, and also extending over the secular—or not… probably a bad word to use here—the political figures of the day—well, this is all something that has a long time to develop centuries ahead. Nevertheless, caesaropapism is a rather useful term to describe a reality of Byzantine statecraft where the emperor did in fact intervene in Church life and dominated and sometimes tyrannized the clergy.

So how did this happen? Well, there were two ways that caesaropapism manifested itself in the Byzantine state. One way was administrative. He, the emperor, or the empress, as we saw in the case of Eudoxia in the opening anecdote of this episode, would intervene in the administrative life of the Church, and sometimes, rather summarily, dismiss, even organize the deposition of, important bishops, especially the patriarchs of Constantinople. That office in particular, the most influential in the Byzantine empire, especially after the Council of Chalcedon, which had elevated the patriarchate of Constantinople to a position essentially equal to that of Rome, that particular office was often subject to imperial intervention and manipulation.

The emperor had the right, according to custom, to appoint the patriarch of Constantinople. As a matter of fact, it’s quite interesting to note that for many centuries, the emperor also had the right to confirm—often to elect, but also to confirm—the pope of Rome as well, a point often lost in modern reflections on the so-called traditions of the election of popes, as we have seen recently in the election of Pope Francis. People speak about the traditions of a convocation of cardinals and so forth, and how this is all part of the traditions. Well, in fact, if you go back far enough, the traditions are rather different than they are today, and in fact for many centuries the emperor of Constantinople played a very direct role in the elections and confirmations of popes of Rome.

But that’s rather another story. Here we just want to bring attention to the fact that the emperor often did this in Constantinople, but he was usually supposed to be given a list of three candidates for that position, and in no way—we should take note of this if it’s not clear—in no way did the emperor ever ordain the candidate in question. These people were already vetted and either ordained bishops already, as John Chrysostom had been a bishop in Antioch, or had been vetted by the Church leadership to be worthy of ordination, and the emperor simply confirmed whichever person he chose. He certainly did not ordain anyone. But he did have this great influence in the selection of archbishops of Constantinople. With this power, he could often tyrannize that office administratively.

Now, the second form of caesaropapism was even, in many ways, more damaging to the Church, and this was the emperor’s power to deviate from the doctrines of the Church and impose, because of his great authority in the life of the Church, those doctrinal deviations into the life of the Church. This rarely happened. It was much more common for caesaropapism to be manifested in administrative tyranny than in doctrinal deviation, but it was a fact that the emperor was expected to protect the true faith as it was defined and pass laws to help define, or not define but at least to codify that faith, that definition of the faith, and many emperors had the intellectual resources and certainly the time and the contacts to develop a very strong interest in theology. Some of them distinguished themselves this way: Emperor Justinian in the sixth century did so, Emperor Leo VI, known as Leo the Wise, did so also as well in the tenth century. So the emperors sometimes took doctrine so seriously in their own administration of the empire that they advanced particular doctrines that wound up deviating from the Tradition of the Church. This often happened because the emperors were tempted because of their largely political preoccupations with the question of unity of their empire and their problem of political division which, in an empire that was so fundamentally Christian in character was often subject to doctrinal divisions.

Now, the greatest of these in terms of caesaropapism was the heresy of Monophysitism, the teaching that Jesus had only one nature, and his divine nature largely subsumed his human nature. The emperors often found themselves, after the Council of Chalcedon, which declared Monophysitism a heresy, found themselves confronted by political division in an empire so fundamentally Christian as the Byzantine empire, divisions concentrated particularly in Egypt and Syria and Palestine.

Another temptation was to try to purify the Church of whatever the emperor happened to think was corrupting the Church, for instance, if the emperor got it into his head that icons were a form of idolatry, and in studying theology and reading the Scriptures and reflecting on the second commandment, which says to make no graven images, and at the same time thinking about the fact that many of his subjects, especially in Asia Minor (Turkey—Anatolia, not yet Turkey) being against this practice, he might (the emperor might) try to purify the Church by trying to issue a policy to ban or even destroy icons. Of course, this is exactly what does happen in the eighth century, and we’ll get to that.

In both cases, temptations to solve political divisions and temptation to purify the Church of idolatry, emperors sometimes drifted into doctrinal deviation and exercised a caesaropapist influence in the life of the Church.

Before turning to actual examples of caesaropapism—and there are a few I’m going to describe here briefly—I might just add to these particular problems of the ecclesio-political system a couple others which existed which I don’t really have time to go through in any detail, but there were more than just the problem of caesaropapism, the influence and intervention of the emperor in Church life to its detriment. One of these problems, just very briefly, was the fact that the emperor and the political culture of the court at Constantinople was really so frequently marred by violence, by political violence, which was a direct contradiction to and defiance of the Gospel, the teachings of traditional Christianity about mercy and meekness and gentleness and humility.

Well, in fact, the imperial court was one of vanity and avarice and all the kind of passions of power-hunger that all were a repudiation of the Gospel of the Church. What we find in Byzantium is a record throughout the history, from beginning really until the end, of political violence and intrigue, which is very unpleasant to observe in the history of Byzantium. It has caused many in the West—not that Western politics, especially in modern times, have been so clean; they haven’t been—but many in the West to see Byzantium and Byzantine political life to just be kind of a record of perfidy and duplicity and power-hunger.

This was certainly the attitude of Edward Gibbon, whose 18th-century study of Byzantium, The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, kind of set a kind of standard in Western scholarship about Byzantium, dismissing it as being a, as I say, very duplicitous and ugly kind of political system. Let me quote to you here a 19th-century—this was way back 150 years—19th-century summary of this position; it’s still strong today.

Of that Byzantine empire, the universal verdict of history is that it constitutes without a single exception the most thoroughly base and despicable form that civilization has yet assumed. There has been yet no other enduring civilization so absolutely destitute of all forms and elements of greatness, and none to which the epithet “mean” (base) may be so emphatically applied. The history of the empire is a monotonous story of the intrigues of priests, eunuchs, and women, of poisonings, of conspiracies, of uniform ingratitude.

Well, perhaps he was thinking about Eudoxia there,  but it is a fact that there is a lot of darkness at the Byzantine court over the course of time. I just want to bring attention to that. I can’t explore it much in these episodes, but it’s certainly interesting. You get a lot in… certain authors tend to emphasize it more than others. If one wants to go in this direction, I guess they can go to the three-volume study by Runciman, already mentioned—I’m sorry, not Runciman, but rather John Norwich; Runciman’s a very different scholar. But, no, John Norwich is whom I meant to mention. His three-volume study of Byzantium brings a lot of attention to this violence and court intrigue, with a similar moral reaction against it.

Another final area of the ecclesial-political problem that might just be mentioned in passing here would be the fact that the Byzantine state, committed as it was to Orthodox Christianity, most of the time, anyway, and under the rule of an emperor who used his power to enforce that Christianity, as we saw in the previous episode, beginning with Gratian and Theodosius at the end of the fourth century, possibly in reaction against the uncertainty of the direction of the state under the Arian emperors Constantius and Valens, and even more the pagan emperor Julian the Apostate, beginning in the late fourth century, especially with Theodosius, the emperors issued laws and acted against non-Christian and non-Orthodox religious life in the empire, which opened the door for the rise of religious persecution, the religious persecution, the Christian persecution of non-Christians and of heretical Christians. I will explore this in more detail when we come to the kind of greatest example, the worst example, I guess, of religious persecution, which occurs after the Great Schism in the medieval West, especially around the institution known as the Inquisition and the religious… the Crusades and other events as well.

But there is a record of this in Byzantium as well. There were cases of persecuting heretics, not nearly so many. There were cases of mob violence against believers of a different form of Christianity. That particular phenomenon was associated with the whole Monophysite upheaval of the fifth century, and in fact is documented in a book published not too long ago by Charles Freeman, entitled Jesus Wars. Jesus Wars: Charles Freeman in his book documents the struggle between Christians, often in the form of mob violence, around doctrinal questions.

And then, finally, the Byzantine state itself did fight military campaigns against communities within the empire who were predominantly heretical: the Paulicians in the ninth century and in the eleventh century a group known as the Bogomils in the Balkans were both targeted and subjected to imperial persecution. But I emphasize: this was done by the state, not by the clergy. It was a political event that the state directed.

Anyway, religious persecution is to be found there, and it, like acts of violence at the court, in some ways is simply the continuation of practices that were already alive and well in the Roman state before Constantine and the coming of Christianity. In the case of court violence, of course, it’s perfectly obvious that for centuries, and especially during that troubled third century, culminating in the person of Diocletian, pagan emperors were repeatedly and sometimes almost habitually inclined, or the pretenders were inclined, to assassinate people to get them out of the way and take the power themselves.

So in cases such as the case of notorious ascent of power of Basil the Macedonian in the ninth century in Constantinople, in Byzantium, Basil the Macedonian came to power through intrigue. He had been promoted by Emperor Michael III and used that insider position to arrange the murder of his patron, Michael III, one night after a kind of heavy bout of drinking. Michael III was known as a drunkard. Basil the Macedonian had been promoted I think from the peasantry. He came from a very low origin. Many people in Byzantium had that freedom to rise to heights despite their social and economic, or even ethnic or racial background.

Basil the Macedonian rigged the lock on the door of the emperor, and when the emperor retired for the evening, fell into a deep slumber from his drinking, Basil and a group of other conspirators entered the chamber and butchered the emperor. Michael III’s hands were chopped off, and as he was in agony, crying for help, they finally did him in. That’s how Basil the Macedonian, head, founder of a new dynasty beginning in the ninth century, came to power. So there were a lot of these really brutal examples of violence and intrigue, but they had their origins, really, all the way back, in similar patterns of government and accession to power in the pagan Roman empire before Byzantium.

The same can be said about religious persecution, of course. The pagan Roman empire was hardly a stranger to religious persecution, as we obviously have seen in the case of Christians and martyrs, but Jews also were persecuted vigorously by the Roman government, driven out of Jerusalem, the Jewish temple destroyed in 70 A.D., and non-Jew and non-Christian victims of the persecution conducted by the pagan Roman empire also occurred. Those are just a few comments, anyway, about other aspects of the ecclesial-political problem that one might consider in assessing Byzantine statecraft.

Join me next time, when I explore actual cases in which caesaropapism disrupted the life of Christendom as well as cases in which the ideal of symphony fulfilled Christians’ efforts to direct the human experience toward paradise.