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a short history of the ecumenical patriarchate of constantinople

First among equals in the eastern orthodox church

Dino Geanakoplos
Professor of Byzantine History and Orthodox Church History,
Yale University


The Five Great Christian Sees: The PENTARCHY

The Five-Phase History of the Patriarchate

First Phase: The Formative Period

Second Phase: Photios, the Greatest Patriarch


Third Phase: The Last Byzantine Centuries

Fourth Phase: "The Tourkokratia"

Fifth Phase: The Modern Period

About the author

Additional Books


The Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople is the most striking manifestation of the continued viability, over 1500 years, of the most creative of Byzantine institutions, the Eastern Orthodox Church. It was the Byzantine Church, headed by the Patriarch of Constantinople, that converted the Goths (the earliest ancestors of the modern Germanic peoples), that brought Christianity to the Slavic masses in Eastern Europe, that evangelized certain of the peoples of Western Asia and North Africa and above all, that fashioned the unique religious ethos which permeated all aspects of Byzantine civilization. Working hand in hand with the Emperor in Constantinople, the Patriarch was instrumental in preserving the Orthodox faith in the perilous times of the repeated assaults on Byzantium of Persians, Goths, Avars, Slavs, Arabs, Normans, Patzinaks, Bulgars, Serbs, Seljuk and Ottoman Turks. And when Constantinople, the great imperial city, the "city guarded by God," finally fell before the Ottoman Turks in 1453, it was the Patriarch and his clergy who managed to keep alive the Orthodox faith and Hellenism in the face of a long and repressive Ottoman Turkish occupation that saw the destruction of churches, the suppression (in Greece and the Balkans at least) of virtually all schools of learning, and the daily pressures exerted by the conquerors on their subject population.

In the Ottoman period, nevertheless, the Patriarch managed to present a good deal of his authority (though always under the Sultan), while maintaining and sustaining the Orthodox ecclesiastical tradition. In more recent times, however, and especially in the last several decades, the Patriarch has fallen on the most evil times of all. Orthodox esteem for its authority remains high as ever, but the persecution being undergone by the Patriarch and his flock in Constantinople appears to be the most trying ordeal of its entire history.

When and how did the office of Patriarch of Constantinople originate? What were his functions and privileges and what in particular was his relationship to his fellow patriarchs, in particular the Pope (and bishop of Rome)? To understand these complex questions we must revert back to the earliest period of the Christian Church, the Apostolic period immediately after the death and resurrection of Christ. In this first century A.D., Christianity was outlaw ed by the still pagan emperors of Rome. Nevertheless, through the efforts of the Apostoloi (literally those sent out by Christ) it managed to spread throughout the vast Roman Empire, especially in the Greek East. The Apostles tended naturally to carry out their mission in the densely populated urban centers of the Roman Empire. And it is these centers, in which the Apostles were often martyred for the faith, that soon became the leading centers of Christianity. Consequently, there developed the "theory of Apostolicity," according to which the relative rank of the great sees or bishoprics in the Christian ecclesiastical organization depended on the importance of the particular Apostle who per formed his missionary work there.

Thus, because (as is believed by Roman Catholics and many other Christians) not only Peter, the "chief" of the Apostles, but also St. Paul were martyred and buried in Rome, that city should hold the first rank among all the sees of Christendom. According to Matthew, Christ said to Peter: "Thou art Peter and on this rock I will build my Church." The Orthodox Church believes that this refers to Peter's faith and that this faith is shared by aU bishops of the Church. Constantinople, too, claims Apostolic foundation since it is believed that the Apostle Andrew, the brother of Peter and himself "the first called" Apostle of Christ, travelled and made many conversions in the area surrounding Byzantium (the ancient Greek name for Constantinople), in parts of Greece and what is today southern Russia. After valuable missionary service, Andrew finally died a glorious martyr to the Christian faith in the Greek city of Patras (in the Peloponnesos) where he was crucified in the manner of a common criminal by order of the pagan Roman governor. St. Andrew is of course the patron saint of the Patriarchate of Constantinople.

However important the concept of Apostolicity (described above) was in ecclesiastical history, Church historians have shown that antedating this theory was yet another, the emergence of which was due to practical exigency. This was the theory of "accommodation" (the belief that the importance of a great bishopric depended primarily on its rank in the political organization of the Roman Empire, which in turn was imitated by the organization of the Church. Rome according to this criterion, though of importance as the original capital of the Roman Empire, was later equalled in rank by Constantinople when the imperial capital was removed to the ancient city of Byzantium) renamed Constantinople by its founder, the first Christian Emperor, Constantine the Great (in 330 A.D.). This event marks the beginning of what historians call the "Byzantine Empire."

Next -- The Five Great Christian Sees: The Pentarchy

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