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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

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third PHASE: the last byzantine centuries

In the third period of patriarchal history, from 1261 to 1453, but increasingly after the late fourteenth century, the last but greatest enemy of the Byzantines, the Ottoman Turks of Asia, advanced closer and closer to Constantinople. In this period, the once mighty Byzantine Empire had so shrunk in territory that by 1300, almost all that remained, besides Constantinople itself, was part of what we call today Greece, Macedonia, Thrace, and a strip of western Asia Minor. (Asia Minor of course had earlier been entirely Greek and the very backbone of the Byzantine Empire.) The danger from the advancing Turks soon became so pressing that in order to secure military aid, the Emperors were forced to turn to the greatest source of power in the West, the Papacy. But the popes of Rome would offer no aid unless the Greeks accepted the popes as the head of their church, in other words, unless they converted to Roman Catholicism with its beliefs and practices.

The Byzantine common people of course violently objected to this, as did the monks, nuns, almost all of the middle class, and the larger part of the upper class. Some of the upper class, including very few prelates, for the sake of political expediency (or sometimes from even an admiration for the vigor of the Latin Scholastic philosophy) supported these Emperors who were willing to pay the papal price for military aid. Actually, the Greek people soon became split into two factions, the pro-unionists and the far larger group of anti unionists, over the question of whether aid from Rome should be accepted. The problem became so acute that in 1274 (at Lyons in southern France) and again in 1439 at the famous Council of Florence, Italy, religious union between the two churches was (temporarily) achieved, or at least signed. But the Byzantine people in general adamantly refused to accept these two councils. They insisted that since all five of the patriarchs were not present at both these councils (as Byzantine canon law demanded since no subsequent council had declared them to be "ecumenical" and since most Greeks believed the Byzantine delegates were coerced into acceptance, both Councils of Lyons and Florence were invalid. The Patriarch himself, followed by the vast bulk of the Greek populace, therefore refused to compromise his Orthodox beliefs by accepting papal jurisdiction as well as belief in the filioque and the azyma in order, presumably, to save the Empire.

It is a remarkable irony of history that in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, when the power of the Byzantine emperor was sharply declining as a result of the severe territorial diminution of the empire, the authority of the Patriarch, in contrast, markedly increased. Russia, though Orthodox, was never politically part of the Byzantine Empire, but from virtually the beginning of the con version of its Prince Vladimir in 989, the Patriarch of Constantinople governed the Russian Church. Not only did he appoint their chief bishop (the Metropolitan of Kiev and later Moscow) and sent to Russia the chrism when their bishops were ordained, but he was also looked upon by all Slavs of both the Balkans and Russia as the true leader of the Orthodox Christian world. Things were now reversed and, contrary to earlier times, the patriarch had become in effect the protector of the Emperor. This may be clearly seen in the Byzantine Patriarch Anthony's rebuke to the Russian Tsar, who had written to him in 1395 that "there is now no emperor." Anthony's response was that "there can be no church without the emperor." In any case, the Byzantine patriarchs now performed remarkable work in preserving Orthodoxy, not only from the propaganda of Latin missionaries who seemed to be everywhere in the Greek East, but also in the face of the forced or sometimes even voluntary conversions to Islam of the conquered Greeks of Asia Minor.

Next -- fourth Period: "The Tourkokratia"

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