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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


Introduction

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

WESTERN HOSTILITY GROWS

Third Phase: The Last Byzantine Centuries

Fourth Phase: "The Tourkokratia"

Fifth Phase: The Modern Period

About the author

Additional Books


second phase: photios, the greatest patriarch

During the second phase of the patriarchate extending from 843 to 1204, Photios, who is usually considered the greatest of all Byzantine patriarchs, occupied the patriarchal throne of Constantinople. Extremely learned in ancient Greek literature and philosophy as well as Christian theology, he was originally professor of philosophy at the famous University of Constantinople -- the first university (or "higher school") to be established in medieval Europe, at a time when the West was still stuck in the mire of the barbaric Dark Ages. Photios was perhaps responsible for a new codification of canon (church) law, the Collection of 14 Titles, and probably for a new legal code, the Epanagoge, which spelled out a new importance for the patriarch with respect to the Emperor. But he is perhaps best known for his leading role in the conversion of the Slavic peoples. It was Photios who, correctly understanding the inner psychology of the semi-barbaric Moravian Slavs (in today's Czechoslovakia), dispatched to convert them in 862, at their request, the Apostles to the Slavs, Cyril and his brother Methodios, two Greeks from Thessalonike learned in the Slavonic language and, most important, to translate the Greek liturgy into Slavonic. In this way he bound them to Constantinople instead of to Rome which was also seeking to convert them but would not permit the liturgy to be translated into Slavonic. Photios was also primarily responsible for converting the Bulgars, then wavering between Roman Catholicism and Orthodoxy. It was Photios' conversion of the Moravians and Bulgars through the work of Cyril and Methodios that later led to the Byzantine conversion of the Russian Slavs. In addition, Photios established, or reorganized, the patriarchal school in Constantinople for the education of priests in literature and philosophy as well as in theology. (It is the direct ancestor of the modern patriarchal school at Halki.) Lastly, as is not usually realized, he delivered the coup de grace to Iconoclasm -- that is to certain intellectuals who continued, though covertly, even after 843 to teach Iconoclasm.

Until publication of Father Dvornik's recent work on Patriarch Photios, he was considered by the Roman Church (not of course by the Orthodox for whom he has always been a great ecclesiastical hero) as the arch-heretic, the one most responsible for originating the schism or split between the Churches of Rome and Constantinople, the first to formulate Orthodox Greek charges against innovations (kenotomies) in doctrine and practices of the Roman Church. But these were usually teachings propounded not so much by the Latins of Rome as by the recently converted Germans, who had sent missionaries into Bulgaria. In particular they taught the doctrine of the flioque (that the Holy Spirit proceeds from both the Father and Son), contrary to explicit pronouncements of the early Ecumenical Councils that the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father (alone). (Ekporevetai ek tou Patros). The latter is the view of the Orthodox, a belief considered necessary in order to preserve the unitary nature of God -- since there can be only one fundamental archic source for the Godhead, not two. If there are two sources, there would in effect be two Gods.

It was the precedents and the increase in patriarchal authority that developed under Photios which enabled the Church and subsequent patriarchs to surmount the difficult times which followed for both the state and Church. Indeed, by the time of the apogee of the Byzantine Empire in the late tenth and early eleventh century when it had become without question the most powerful, richest, cultured, and sophisticated state in the world, the patriarchal court of Constantinople had become second to none in splendor and in the respect accorded it. Within his cathedral church, the incomparable Hagia Sophia, whose dome seemed to "hang suspended as if from heaven itself," to quote the Byzantine poet George of Pisidia, and whose mosaics glittered from their places on the walls, the patriarch officiated in the most impressive ecclesiastical edifice in all Christendom. To take care of the liturgical needs of the "Great Church" (as the Greeks always called it), Emperor Justinian decreed in 537 that there be constantly in attendance a huge staff consisting of sixty priests, ten deacons, forty deaconesses, ninety subdeacons, one hundred readers, twenty five chanters, and one hundred custodians.

No wonder the Russian envoys, sent to Constantinople in 988 to compare its religious services with those of other religions they were considering adopting, were so awed by the splendor and the sublimity of the Liturgy that, on their return to their capital city of Kiev, they declared to their master Prince Vladimir the Great, that in Hagia Sophia they thought they were "in Heaven itself." So far-reaching was the fame of Hagia Sophia that it became almost mythical -- being known to the far-off Anglo-Saxons of England who borrowed not only aspects of Byzantine art but even the title of Basileus for their king and whose own first Archbishop of Canterbury was in fact a Greek, the missionary Theodore from Tarsus in Asia Minor. Even the Vikings in distant Scandinavia and in Russland referred to Constantinople as Miklegard or Tsargrad (the Emperor's city), of which the chief jewel was Hagia Sophia.

Hagia Sophia and the Patriarchate were noted in the medieval world of both East and West for the enormous number of relics preserved there and in the church of the Holy Apostles, dating from the time of Christ or shortly thereafter: the true cross, the crown of thorns, the Virgin's girdle and robe -- the latter two in particular looked upon by the Byzantine populace as the palladia (protectors) of Constantinople. Numerous stories remain from the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries recounting dangerous journeys made by Russian pilgrims to Constantinople, not to speak of Western clerics who earlier, before the time of the schism in 1054, had come to Constantinople to see the Church of the Holy Apostles (where the Byzantine Emperors were all buried), to participate in the liturgy in Hagia Sophia with the remarkably moving chant of the patriarchal antiphonal choirs, and above all, to worship the sacred relics dating from the time of Christ. Some modern scholars believe that Pope Gregory the Great, after he was papal envoy in Constantinople (before 590), in imitation of the chanting in Hagia Sophia, which he had often heard, introduced into St. Peter's at Rome the so-called Gregorian chant.

Next -- Western Hostility Grows

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