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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

western hostility grows

In the eleventh century the Byzantine Empire began to decline in strength. This was not only because of the parade of external enemies constantly attacking the empire's territory (often simultaneously on three or even four fronts) but because of internal unrest and decay. Ultimately, owing at least in part to Western (especially Venetian) economic rivalry, even of cupidity for Byzantium's trade and riches, and to political rivalry with Constantinople, the West became increasingly hostile to the Byzantines. Because of the prevailingly religious temper of the age, this antagonism was most clearly expressed in the growing ecclesiastical rift between the two churches, in the rivalry between the patriarch of Constantinople and the pope of Rome. Constantinople as the "New Rome" now claimed an equality of honor with old Rome, while Rome insisted on its jurisdictional authority over the Eastern patriarchs. The Churches differed over the dogma of the filioque, and in the liturgical question of the azyma -- that is, the use by the Orthodox of leavened bread in the Eucharist in contrast to the unleavened bread of the Roman Church. Finally, there was the difference in the epiklesis, different beliefs as to the moment when the miracle of metavole -- the change of the bread and wine into the Body and Blood of Christ -- occurs in the liturgical service.

These theological and especially liturgical differences came to assume even greater importance in the context of the Norman (Catholic) conquest of southern Italy, which was then still Greek speaking and Orthodox in religion. In this period the popes at tempted to Latinize the Orthodox people there, a fact which led to the famous events of 1054, when the so-called "definitive schism" occurred between the churches of Rome and Constantinople. At that time envoys of the papacy, incensed primarily over the opposition of the then patriarch of Constantinople, Michael Kerularios, to "Latinization" of the Orthodox ritual among the Greek Orthodox churches in southern Italy (now under papal jurisdiction), deposited a bull of excommunication against the patriarch on the altar of Hagia Sophia itself£ Contrary to what has long been believed, however, only Patriarch Michael Kerularios "and his followers" were anathematized by the papal legates, the Byzantine Emperor and the populace, in fact, being praised for their "Orthodoxy." Kerularios immediately convoked the Synodos Endemousa, which retaliated in turn by anathematizing the envoys but not -- it should be noted -- the pope. Nonetheless, though the event in itself was not of great moment (since schisms of this type had not infrequently occurred in the past and had always been satisfactorily healed), in retrospect history has fixed on this date as that marking the final rupture between the two patriarchates. Henceforth, Rome went her way and Constantinople hers. It was specifically in order to annul or cancel these historic mutual excommunications of 1054 (lasting up to modern times) that, largely at the initiative of the late great Patriarch Athenagoras, these mutual personal excommunications of 1054, which have always in symbol marked the final division of the two great branches of the Christian Church were finally lifted in 1965 at the historic meeting in Jerusalem between Patriarch Athenagoras and Pope Paul VI. This did not, however, revoke the long-lasting schism between the two churches.

Relations between the Latin West and Byzantium became worse and worse, not only ecclesiastically but politically, economically, and psychologically. Ultimately, the animosity between East and West, fanned at the same time by economic and military rivalry, became so strong that the inevitable result was one of the greatest tragedies of history, the capture and notorious sacking of Constantinople in 1204 by Western "crusader" armies, ostensibly on their way to recapture Jerusalem from the Muslims.

After 1204, with a Latin Empire established on the ruins of the old Byzantine state, that which best preserved the unity of the Byzantine (or Greek) people and gave them a rallying point was their common faith, Orthodoxy, and its guardian, the Patriarch, who sat in Nicea (in Asia Minor), which had escaped the Latin occupation. In 1261, after fifty-seven years of Latin occupation, the Greeks recovered their great capital, Constantinople, under Emperor Michael Paleologos. His very first act after recovery of the Queen City in 1261 was to march in an elaborate procession from the Golden Gate, with the icon of the Virgin Hodegetria at the head, to Hagia Sophia, where he and the entire people gave thanks to God. Thus from its place of exile in Nicea, the Patriarch ate was once more reestablished in its traditional center at Constantinople.

Next -- Third Period: the last byzantine centuries


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