Post-classical history

Saints Cyril and Methodios, ‘Apostles to the Slavs’

How is it that you now teach and have created letters for the Slavs, which none else have found before?… We know of only three tongues worthy of praising God in the Scriptures, Hebrew, Greek and Latin.

Life of Constantine, probably by Methodios, ninth century

In the ninth century, two brothers, Methodios and Constantine, who lived in Thessalonike, where their father Leo was a military officer, learned to speak Slavonic. Many Slavs came to the city to trade and bilingualism was a feature of life on the imperial frontiers. But these two young men were exceptionally good at languages. When Patriarch Photios realized this, he encouraged the brothers to invent a way of writing down Slavonic. They devised an alphabet to represent the sounds of the spoken tongue and began to translate the key texts of orthodoxy. Their first attempt produced an alphabet called Glagolitic, which later developed into Church Slavonic; their second is still in use in Russia today. This alphabet is called Cyrillic after Constantine’s adoption of the monastic name Cyril before he died in 869. The brothers became known as Saints Cyril and Methodios, ‘Apostles to the Slavs’.

The elder brother, Methodios, initially followed a secular career and held an official position in a Slavonic principality of Macedonia, where he must have lived among Slavs. Then he became a monk on Mount Olympos. After the death of Emperor Theophilos in 842, the younger brother, Constantine, was sent to complete his education in Constantinople. His first patron, the eunuch Theoktistos, promoted him as an ordained priest and official of the church of Hagia Sophia. But in addition, he studied Syriac, Hebrew (he translated a Hebrew grammar into Greek) and philosophy. His second patron was Patriarch Photios himself, with whom he shared intellectual interests and a concern with education. Like Photios, he was sent on diplomatic missions to the Muslim court at Samarra and the Khazar centre, north of the Black Sea, where he is supposed to have discovered the relics of St Clement, a shadowy Bishop of Rome in the first century, banished to the Crimea.

According to the Life of Constantine, probably written by Methodios, familiarity with the language spoken by the Slavs was common enough in the region of Thessalonike. Numerous tribes had settled there after they crossed the Danube frontier at the end of the sixth century. While some groups captured major fortified cities and on several occasions besieged Thessalonike, without success, others moved south with their families and herds and occupied agricultural land. Their presence throughout the Balkans and as far south as the Peloponnese was hostile enough to cause the flight of much of the indigenous population to mountain castles and islands, according to later reports. From the late eighth century on, imperial campaigns began to reassert control from Constantinople, and in 786 Empress Irene and her son Constantine VI made a royal tour as far as Berroia (Stara Zagora in Bulgaria). Accompanied by dancers and musicians, they marked the pacification of the Slavs and dedicated the church of Hagia Sophia in Thessalonike. Twenty years later, Nikephoros I is reported to have thwarted a combined Slav–Arab uprising in Patras and invited the original population to return to their city. As Arethas, a ninth-century scholar records, his own relatives were among those who came back from Sicily to Patras, where they found the defeated Slavs under the bishop’s authority.

Despite the loss of control over large areas of the Balkans and western Greece for many generations, Constantinople eventually restored imperial administration through the new system of ‘theme’ government. By the tenth century, there were themes in the Peloponnese, Hellas (central Greece), the islands of Kephalonia, Zakynthos, Kerkyra (Corfu), Dyrrachion (modern Durrës in Albania), Thessaly, Thessalonike and Macedonia. After many years of contact with Byzantium, the Slavs who had originally settled inSklaviniai were now aware of Christianity and the Greek language. Only on Mount Taygetos above Sparta two tribes remained hostile to the civilizing mission of Byzantium, and they were eventually incorporated. Just as Rome latinized and Christianized barbarian invaders in the West, even though it lost control over them, so the strengths of East Rome, its Greek culture, commerce, laws and wealth absorbed numerous intruders.

In 862, however, Emperor Michael III received a request from Moravia (part of ancient Pannonia, modern Slovakia and the Czech Republic) for Byzantine priests. King Rastislav was anxious to counterbalance the influence of Frankish missionaries from Bavaria and to create an independent Moravian Church. Although Patriarch Photios considered the Greek language superior, he encouraged Methodios and Constantine to use the new alphabet to translate the Gospels and the Psalms, as well as the liturgy attributed to St John Chrysostomos, into Slavonic. In 863 he sent the brothers to Moravia where they spent four years setting up a church using both the new vernacular and Greek. This was opposed by the western missionaries, who celebrated the liturgy in Latin. Perhaps at the request of Rastislav, the brothers planned to have some of their disciples ordained as priests to strengthen their church in Moravia, and in 867 they set off for Rome.

When they reached Venice, a famous debate took place over their use of the Slavonic liturgy. On one side were the westerners (bishops, priests and monks from Venice and possibly Francia), who insisted that there were only three sacred languages, Hebrew, Greek and Latin, because they were the languages used on the Cross to record the death of Jesus. On the other side, Constantine defended the newly created vernacular, pointing out that,

we know of numerous peoples who possess writing, and render glory unto God, each in his own tongue. Surely these are obvious: Armenians, Persians, Abkhasians, Iberians, Sogdians, Goths, Avars, Turks, Khazars, Arabs, Egyptians and many others… Falls not God’s rain upon all equally? And shines not the sun also upon all?

While they attacked him ‘like ravens against a falcon’, according to the Life of the saint, Constantine retorted that they should be ashamed to command all other nations to be blind and deaf, and produced numerous scriptural justifications for allowing all nations to praise the Lord.

An invitation from Pope Nicholas I caught up with them there and they left Venice for Rome, only to find that Nicholas had just died. His successor, Hadrian II, however, welcomed the missionaries. Constantine presented the pope with the relics of St Clement, which he had brought from the Black Sea. The disciples from Moravia were duly ordained and ‘they at once sang the liturgy in the Slavonic tongue in the church of the Apostle Peter’. The Slavonic Scriptures were placed in the church of St Maria AD Praesepe, and the liturgy was celebrated several times there and in other churches of Rome. In February 869, when he felt his death approaching, Constantine became a monk with the monastic name Cyril. He was buried in the shrine of San Clemente, where later frescoes commemorate his adventurous life.

Pope Hadrian not only approved of the missionaries’ use of the vernacular, he also appointed Methodios as papal legate to the princes of Moravia and Pannonia, instructing him to read the lessons first in Latin and only then in Slavonic. Shortly after his brother’s death, he left Rome to take up this position and for over fifteen years he continued their work of translation and conversion, despite increasing Frankish opposition. After the overthrow of Rastislav in 870 by his nephew Svjatopluk, Methodios was imprisoned in Swabia (south Germany) for several years; eventually he and his supporters were driven out of Moravia. Despite the brothers’ efforts, the Church in Moravia passed increasingly under Frankish control and remains largely Roman Catholic today.

Elsewhere, however, the Slavonic liturgy had greater success. Before his death in 885, Methodios and his disciples completed translations of the Bible, liturgical services and collections of canon law. The aim of making the Slavs one ‘among the great peoples who praise God in their own languages’, as recorded in the Life of Constantine, was ultimately achieved. Not only the Bulgarians but later the Russians and the Serbs were thus allowed to celebrate using their own tongue. Given the Byzantine insistence on the centrality of Greek in the transmission of all culture, how should we view this triumph of the vernacular? It is a tribute to Patriarch Photios, who had nurtured the outstanding linguistic talent of the two missionary brothers from Thessalonike. But it can also be seen as a radical break with tradition, another example of Byzantine innovation and creativity, which contrasts with the insistent use of Latin demanded by the western Church.

Photios was a brilliant scholar and diplomat, but when he initiated the process of converting the Bulgars to Byzantine Christianity he provoked Pope Nicholas I into a tremendous battle. Rome was already critical of Photios’ rapid promotion through the clerical ranks, and in 861 condemned his appointment to the patriarchate as ‘an invasion of the see held by Ignatios’. An exchange of hostile letters began, which led to a debate over Constantinople’s claim to powers equivalent to those of Rome in the West, its preservation of correct Christian doctrine, and its authority to convert non-Christians to orthodox traditions, most specifically the Bulgarians.

The importance of Bulgaria lay in its position between the spheres of eastern (Byzantine) and western (Frankish) influence. In 862, when Khan Boris made an alliance with Louis the German, a descendant of Charlemagne whose territory abutted Bulgaria in the West, Michael III sent a military expedition to counter it, and Boris was forced to accept Byzantine terms and Christian baptism. Photios performed the ceremony and the Khan was given the Christian name Michael by the emperor, his godfather. Boris-Michael, however, had failed to win over his own pagan supporters, who opposed the Greek clergy and rose in revolt. Rapidly, the Khan put down the revolt and made an abrupt turn to the West, writing to Louis the German in 866 and to Pope Nicholas. He was trying to work out which of the two leading centres of Christianity would accord his Bulgarian Church the greater degree of independence.

As Boris-Michael played one side off against the other, both New and Old Rome responded to his questions about the true faith. Photios’ letter on correct theology as defined by oecumenical councils, and on the duties of a Christian prince, implied the Khan’s subordination to Constantinople. In contrast, the pope emphasized Roman control and use of the Latin liturgy in the nascent Bulgarian Church in his Responsa (Answers). While Nicholas cited the absolute superiority of the Bishop of Rome, based on descent from St Peter, Photios drew on the theory of the pentarchy, the five great patriarchs meeting in council, as the highest authority in Christendom. The pope mentioned papal claims to the diocese of East Illyricum, which had been transferred to Constantinople in the eighth century, and ridiculed some of the customs attributed to Byzantine priests working in Bulgaria. Both parties were trying to ensure that Boris’s state adopted Christianity in a particular form, sending rival bands of missionaries to convert his subjects.

This conflict led to the mutual excommunication of Photios and Nicholas in the summer of 867. In September, however, Michael III was murdered by his favourite, Basil, who assumed full power as sole emperor (see below). One of his first actions was to dismiss Photios and restore Ignatios, as noted in chapter 11. A few months later, Nicholas I died in Rome. The removal of these two leading players in the conflict permitted the emperor to summon an oecumenical council (the eighth) to resolve the schism. It was held in the Byzantine capital from October 869 to March 870. Just four days after the closing session, Boris-Michael’s envoys arrived to consult the council about the Church of Bulgaria: to which patriarchate should it belong? The question was sprung on the Roman delegates, who protested in vain that the council could not decide. But Basil I had given the Bulgarians an opportunity to settle the matter by a conciliar decision and then insisted in favour of Constantinople.

The efforts of Cyril and Methodios, and Photios, were thus brought to a successful conclusion, although the first was dead and the other two took no part in it. Through a political manoeuvre designed to reduce Roman influence over Bulgaria, Basil I made sure that the empire would secure an orthodox ally on its western border. Despite Pope Hadrian II’s refusal to accept the Council’s decision on Bulgaria, ten years later the Council of 879/80 confirmed the decision. This council, summoned by Photios after he regained his post as patriarch, claimed to be the eighth. Although it is not recognized in the West, its decree concerning the orientation of the Bulgarian Church could not be undone. Khan Boris-Michael kept his country within the Byzantine ‘family of kings’ and encouraged the use of the vernacular in secular as well as ecclesiastical education. Although, unusually, no contemporary record of Photios’ Life survives, he is also recognized as a saint in the Orthodox Church for his efforts to convert the Bulgars.


Re-examining Photios’ efforts today, we can appreciate that his leading role and pedagogic skills set new standards of excellence and expanded the intellectual range of interests in Byzantium. He emphasized Boris-Michael’s need to adopt the Christian attributes of a just ruler, as one of a Byzantine family of kings under the fatherly figure of the basileus (emperor) in Constantinople, and strengthened the courtly practice of integrating foreign princes through the award of titles, insignia and official costumes. The spread of orthodoxy to Bulgaria was accompanied by the adaptation of many Byzantine art forms, church architecture, icons and painted tiles, and Khan Boris-Michael built himself grand palaces modelled on that of Constantinople. Adoption of Christianity did not check Bulgarian rivalry with Byzantium, but it did extend the orthodox faith to large areas of the Balkans.

More significantly, it created a model which could be reused in the conversion of other northern peoples. In 860, Russian warriors sailed down the River Dnieper, across the Black Sea and attacked its southern coastline near Sinope. They penetrated into the Bosphoros and threatened the walls of Constantinople. According to Patriarch Photios, who witnessed the attack, their sudden appearance caused great consternation: their red hair, wild clothing and fierce, incomprehensible shouts terrified the Byzantines, who had never seen the ‘Rus’. Seven years later, Photios sent off a bishop with the missionary task of finding the ruler (khagan) of these Russians based at Gorodishche (later Novgorod, in northern Russia) and converting him to Christianity. Thus, even before the Bulgars had been won to the faith, Photios was looking farther afield and planning an even larger campaign. A few Byzantine coins excavated at Gorodishche confirm some commercial contact with this northern settlement, though nothing more came of the missionary effort. In contrast, when the Christian authorities in Constantinople identified heretical forces, such as the Paulicians, a dualist sect active on the eastern frontier, they tried to defeat them militarily. Basil I campaigned successfully against the Paulicians and transferred some to the Balkans, where they later re-emerged as Bogomils (see chapter 22).

By 911, however, Russian merchants probably from the much nearer centre of Kiev on the Dnieper, had made a trade treaty with Constantinople and were regular visitors. In 941, a hostile attack on the Queen City had to be beaten off by boats loaded with ‘Greek fire’. Eventually, in 944 a new treaty regulated the number of precious silks the Russians could acquire in exchange for their slaves, wax and honey. Through these more intense trading agreements, the Russians became more familiar with Byzantine culture and the Byzantines with the Rus. In the mid-tenth century, Olga, widow of the Rus leader Igor, made a visit to Constantinople with numerous merchants, two interpreters and a Christian priest. She was baptized and took the Christian name Helena, from the empress, Constantine VII’s wife, who received her in special ceremonies inside the women’s quarter of the palace. This was the start of a momentous development that led up to the conversion of the Rus at the end of the tenth century. I will return to it in chapter 17.

In this long process of winning non-Christian peoples to the Byzantine definitions of the Christian faith, Photios remains a commanding figure. By encouraging Saints Cyril and Methodios to develop written forms of Slavonic, he contributed to a novel solution of using the vernacular to win non-Greek speakers to the faith. In contrast, Pope Nicholas I and the Frankish missionaries insisted on the centrality of Latin in Christian worship, just as all Muslims were (and are still) expected to learn the Qur’an in the original classical Arabic, even if it is not their mother tongue. The West only caught up with Byzantium during the sixteenth-century Reformation, when the Protestants claimed the right to translate the Bible into their own languages; it is often said that Islam has never experienced a similar reformation. Photios understood that the needs of Slavonic peoples could be better met by having Christian teachings in their own tongue. Although he himself used a polished Attic Greek and considered it vastly superior to any other linguistic medium, he inspired the ‘Apostles to the Slavs’ to pursue their invention of a written alphabet for Slavonic, and then their translation of the Bible, Christian liturgy and law books. They gave the Bulgars, Serbs and Russians ways of worshipping in their own languages, which created their own orthodox traditions. In turn, for centuries after 1453, their religion formed a central component of the Russian claim on the imperial traditions of Byzantium.

If you find an error or have any questions, please email us at Thank you!