Post-classical history

Greek Orthodoxy

The profession of the divine symbol of faith [the creed], which is made by all, prefigures the mystical thanksgiving of the future age… by which we are saved.

St Maximos Confessor, Mystagogia, written c. 640, quoted

by Patriarch Germanos in his Commentary on the

Divine Liturgy (post-730)

Historians regularly ask why Christianity succeeded, how it won the loyalty of those who previously worshipped many gods, and what factors ensured its permanent presence in the ancient Mediterranean world. As an offshoot from Judaism it inherited the conviction that there was only one creator God, which it universalized by preaching to anyone who would listen. But the old cults had satisfied most needs for centuries. Why did the adherents of Apollo, Isis, Zoroaster, Mithras and other established gods adopt Christianity?

Unlike their contemporaries, the followers of Jesus were confident that death was not the end: they would rise again into a heaven of peace and light. This belief motivated them to behave in a correct Christian fashion, avoiding sin and encouraging faith, hope and charity, so that God would judge them worthy of eternal life in the next world. It set them apart from the Jews, polytheists and members of other cults that flourished in the early centuries AD.

It also prompted some to prefer death to denial of their faith, which the Roman authorities found most extraordinary. From the time of Emperor Nero, who pinned responsibility for the fires that destroyed Rome in AD 64 on the group, ‘hated for its abominations’, the Christians opted for martyrdom rather than give up their belief. The slave girl Blandina, who was thrown to the wild beasts with her companions in the Roman arena of Lyons in 180, repeated constantly, ‘I am a Christian’, nothing else. Numerous public tortures and humiliations followed and she was eventually gored by a bull. ‘After six days’ exposure to every kind of insult and to the open sky, the martyrs’ bodies were finally burnt to ashes and swept by these wicked men into the Rhône… that not even a trace of them might be seen on earth again.’ But those who witnessed the spectacle were amazed and shocked; some may even have been inspired by her courage. Her example was duplicated across the Roman world by Christians of all classes: Lawrence in Rome, Perpetua in Carthage, Duke Artemios of Egypt, and Thekla, alleged companion of St Paul, in Seleukeia. Wherever they could, Christians built shrines over the sites of martyrdom and tombs containing the martyrs’ relics.

Martyrdom may not have been the defining feature of early Christianity, but during the third- and early fourth-century persecutions by Emperors Decius and Diocletian, whole communities chose to die rather than burn incense in honour of the Roman rulers. This was because their God forbade the worship of other gods. At Christian celebrations, the bloodless sacrifice of bread and wine, symbolizing the body and blood of Christ, marked the commemoration of his death and replaced all other forms of sacrifice. The resurrection of the Son of God brought the promise of a heavenly afterlife to all who believed. Hence the importance of the creed: ‘I believe in one God, maker of heaven and earth…’, which was recited by the entire congregation at every celebration of the Eucharist.

Through his travels and letters to Christian communities in the eastern Mediterranean, St Paul had documented the early growth of this faith. Later, the Gospel writers collected accounts of the life of Jesus, often in his actual words, such as the Lord’s Prayer, the parables and the Sermon on the Mount, and basic instructions about how to be a Christian. As the largely urban groups expanded, they appointed an overseer (in Greek, episkopos) as their spokesman. This overseer-bishop gradually became a leader with a staff of officials to assist in the celebration of the liturgy, the instruction of new converts, the care of ill or elderly believers, and the exploitation of lands bequeathed to the Christian community. In Rome, the bishop was considered a direct descendant of St Peter, who had been crucified there. The chains used to restrain him became cherished relics. Since Jesus is reported to have said, ‘Thou art Peter and on this rock (petra) I will build my church’, later Christian bishops in the old pagan capital claimed a unique authority.

So, long before Constantine I’s ‘conversion’, the Christians had created a network of churches throughout the Roman world. Theirs was a small organization, with places of worship less impressive than the temples devoted to the ancient gods, less common than the altars set up to Mithras, the Persian god, and less popular than the cults of Isis and Osiris imported from Egypt. And in the early fourth century, they were profoundly shaken by the ‘Great Persecution’ instituted by Emperor Diocletian (284–305). Many apostatized, agreed to sacrifice and handed over their sacred books and altar vessels. Others fled into the countryside to hide. The list of martyrs grew longer. Although historians still debate what percentage of the population was Christian at the time of the Edict of Milan in 313, they agree that the churches had been weakened and divided by imperial edicts against the faith.

Undoubtedly, the most significant feature of Constantine’s new imperial patronage lay in his decision to summon all the bishops of the Christian world to a meeting held at Nicaea in western Asia Minor in the summer of 325. There is no record of how many there were, though in several cities rival bishops claimed control over the church buildings. The council’s tasks were to examine the doctrines propounded by Arius, a deacon of the Church of Alexandria, and to settle the wording of the creed, the statement of basic belief, as well as the method of calculating the date of Easter. The emperor covered all travel and accommodation expenses and presided over the council. Due to the presence of church leaders from all parts of the empire, though very few from the West attended, the council was later given the epithet ‘universal’ (oecumenical). Subsequent meetings called by emperors to settle the most serious theological problems followed this pattern. Eight were identified as universal (the last, held in 879/80, is not always recognized in the West), and all were summoned by an emperor who often participated in the proceedings. Secular control was therefore built into the organization of the Christian Church from the earliest phase of its incorporation into the Roman Empire.

Earlier, local councils provided a model for resolving divisions within the Church, but Constantine planned something much grander. The twenty disciplinary laws (canons) agreed at Nicaea were intended to legislate for the entire Christian world. Similarly, the council’s decision on the views of Arius – who claimed that Jesus, the Son of God, must be subordinate to God the Father and could not be of the same substance – would be universally applied. After discussions, the council defined the Son as consubstantial (homoousios) and co-eternal with the Father, sharing the same divine nature. This was vital, because if Christ was not the Incarnate Logos (Word of God) with the same fully divine nature, mere humans could not hope to share in eternal life through salvation. The writings of Arius were condemned and he was exiled. Finally, the council issued a dogmatic definition of Christian belief, the creed, and decided on a method of calculating the date of Easter (to be celebrated on the Sunday after the full moon following the spring equinox). All but two of the bishops present are reported to have signed their agreement.

The condemnation of Arius, the canons, and texts relating to Easter and the creed are the only records that survive from the First Oecumenical Council, as it became known by the late fourth century. The number of bishops who had attended was fixed as being 318, and these became known as the 318 Fathers of the Church. Since no lists of attendance are preserved, they remain an anonymous group, albeit of great authority. The meeting set an important precedent: that the emperor should summon these councils, which represented the entire body of Christians and issued regulations for their correct belief and practice. In practice, they were all held in the East; their discussions were conducted in Greek and often the Bishop of Rome was the sole western representative. The difficulty of travel and greater distance must have deterred western bishops, who learned about conciliar decisions from reports circulated by the pope. Later councils were called to deal with divisions in the Church; they also defined and condemned heretical belief. Their proceedings, which often record every detail of the debates, provide valuable evidence of the growth of Christianity and local variations in belief and practice.

Despite the condemnation of Arius at Nicaea, he was later pardoned and in 335 his theology was rehabilitated. For most of the fourth century Constantine’s sons favoured his theological definitions. This had serious consequences both for those who supported the decrees of Nicaea and for the spread of Christianity among non-Roman tribes. During the 340s, Ulfila, a Gothic leader, visited Constantinople and was ordained as bishop by the Arian authorities. He then devised an alphabet to represent spoken Gothic in written form and translated the Gospels into his new script. The Goths were not the only people to embrace Arian definitions of Christianity; almost all the other Germanic tribes adopted them. So when the Roman Empire in the West succumbed to barbarian rule, the Ostrogoths, Visigoths, Sueves, Burgundians and Vandals imported their Arian beliefs, which had repeatedly been condemned by church councils. In this process the newcomers met strenuous opposition from anti-Arian Christians. Theoderic’s Ravenna still preserves Arian and Orthodox baptisteries, as well as churches designed to serve the two rival Christian groups. In North Africa, the Vandals were much less tolerant and instituted a serious persecution of anti-Arian Christians. Arianism was only finally rooted out during the sixth century when Justinian’s troops imposed orthodox definitions. Gradually the Sueves, Visigoths and Burgundians abandoned their pro-Arian past for the definitions approved by oecumenical councils and a more ‘Roman’ character.

Although most surviving sources are overwhelmingly Christian in origin, it is clear that the pagan cults did not die out quickly. The schools of philosophy, which sustained higher education in Alexandria, Athens and Antioch, continued to function in a pre-Christian environment. For intelligent young men, this was the only form of advanced instruction available, and four great eastern saints who are recognized as the Greek Fathers of the Church, Basil, Gregory of Nazianzos, Gregory of Nyssa and John Chrysostom, were totally imbued with this culture. Similarly, St Augustine, who became the leading Latin Father of the Church, had followed an entirely pagan curriculum in his education. Basil, who later became Bishop of Caesarea, attended lectures in ancient philosophy by the Platonic expert Prohaeresius at Athens, together with the future emperor Julian. When Julian became emperor in 361 he attempted to reinvigorate worship of the pagan gods, but his premature death only 18 months later removed the leader of this movement, which died with him. Many groups of scholars, however, continued to practise the ancient cults, while rural inhabitants untouched by Christian doctrines lived by their traditional customs, marking the seasons by the rhythms of the sun and moon and cult activities associated with the gods.

Against this persistent substratum of trust in the ancient gods, emperors used universal gatherings of bishops to legislate against both pagan and heretical beliefs, and to establish a fixed Christian hierarchy. Theodosius I (379–95) summoned a council to meet in Constantinople in 381. Under his authority, 150 bishops confirmed the decisions taken at Nicaea, condemned Arianism again, added significant measures against the pagan cults, and clarified the wording of the creed, to be recited by all Christians as their declaration of faith. Theodosius also insisted on the promotion of the sees of Constantinople and Jerusalem to the same patriarchal status as Rome, Alexandria and Antioch, all three of which had been founded by apostles. Jerusalem was honoured as the place of Christ’s ministry and death on the Cross, which had been discovered by Helena. Constantinople’s claim to prominence was based on the fact that it had become the capital of the Roman Empire, where the emperor resided.

The elevation of Constantinople was of course disputed by Rome. But in 451 at the Council of Chalcedon, when the gathering of 381 was recognized as the Second Oecumenical Council, it was cited as binding. New Rome was thus raised to the same position as Old Rome, even if Old Rome retained the primacy of honour, due to the foundation of its church by St Peter. Old Rome and New Rome were followed by Alexandria, Antioch and Jerusalem; and their bishops were seated in that order of precedence on the emperor’s right hand, and signed the acts of the council in the same order. By the end of the fifth century, however, Constantinople was also known as ‘New Jerusalem’, a clear sign of its claim to superior spiritual power.

These five centres, Rome, Constantinople, Alexandria, Antioch and Jerusalem, each governed by a bishop called patriarch or pope, constituted the pentarchy (‘rule of five’), with responsibility for maintaining correct belief and ecclesiastical discipline throughout the Christian universe (oikoumene). Gradually they evolved a system of ecclesiastical government based on canons issued by oecumenical councils. Rivalry between Alexandria and Constantinople exacerbated theological differences at the meetings of the Third and Fourth Councils, held at Ephesos in 431 and Chalcedon in 451. Patriarch Nestorios of Constantinople (428–31) caused a major dispute over the role of the Virgin Mary when he preached that she should be considered the mother of Christ (in Greek,Christotokos). At Ephesos, however, the assembled bishops insisted that the term Theotokos, she who bore God, was appropriate, and Nestorios was condemned for his stress on the human nature of the Incarnate Christ.

This decision did not prevent further debate over the human and divine elements in Christ, whose dual nature was always a matter of concern. Patriarch Cyril of Alexandria (412–44) elaborated the theology of their union in the person of Christ (using the termhypostasis for person). In later developments this hypostatic union, ‘the one incarnate nature of God the Word’, became confused with definitions of Christ’s being (ousia) and nature (physis). Support for belief in the ‘union in one nature’ gave rise to a distinct group of Christians later named Monophysite, from the Greek terms for one (monos) and nature (physis). But at the Fourth Oecumenical Council called to Chalcedon by Emperor Marcian and his wife Pulcheria in 451 to settle the matter, Christ was acknowledged ‘in two natures… perfect in Godhead, perfect in humanity’. Pope Leo I lent his support to this definition in a letter often called the Tome, tomus, of Leo. Monophysite refusal to accept it made Chalcedon a permanent symbol of division and led to the growth of separate churches, particularly in Syria and Egypt, where the Coptic Church still sustains belief in the ‘union in one nature’.

Because most of this institutional history of Christianity had taken place in the eastern half of the empire and was recorded in Greek, it was directly available to the Byzantines. In contrast, the West had inadequate translations of Greek theological definitions, which did not reflect the subtlety of eastern debate about the divine and human in Christ’s nature. In addition to official pronouncements, popular enthusiasm for Christian belief produced unofficial stories and cult activities, often focused on particularly holy people. Belief in the miraculous was widespread – miracles had been an essential feature of Jesus’ preaching – and people seeking a cure made special journeys to the shrines of Christian healers. The bones of St Menas, for instance, who died in a Roman arena, became known for their cures, and pilgrims to his tomb to the west of Alexandria often carried home little jars of dust from his shrine. These flasks were decorated with a picture of the saint standing between his two camels with his hands raised (plate 9). They circulated throughout the Christian world and spread the story of his healing powers. While such centres were not confined to the East, many of the stories associated with the early Christian saints were written first in Greek and later translated into Latin.

The most famous example of this new literature was the Life of Antony, written by Patriarch Athanasius of Alexandria (328–73), who was also one of the most outspoken opponents of Arius. On several occasions when emperors promoted pro-Arian theology, he was exiled and sought refuge in the desert. There he met Antony. Using oral sources transmitted in the Egyptian spoken by the saint’s companions, who had followed him into the desert to learn about his solitary ascetic life, Athanasius wrote the first Christian biography in Greek. It recorded the very long life of a young man who renounced his family and fortune to practise spiritual exercises, night-long vigils, intense prayer and contemplation of God, alone in the desert. This Life of Antony established a model of hagiography, writing about saints, which had a dominant influence not only in Byzantine literature but also in the West. Within a few years it was translated into Latin and was read by Augustine, who later became Bishop of Hippo in North Africa. As the author of a very unusual autobiographical work, the Confessions, St Augustine’s interest in personal formation may well have been influenced by Antony’s Life. It certainly inspired his self-transformation from a master of ancient rhetoric into an ascetic Christian bishop, who was known throughout the Middle Ages as the founding father of the western Church.

Similar traditions also developed in Syria and Palestine, as holy men left the cities of the Mediterranean world to face the challenge of living in the desert. In the fourth century, St Chariton set up the first lavra (a group of cells for individual monks), in the Judaean desert south of Jerusalem; it was a centre for ascetics who came together for their Sunday liturgy but spent the week in their cells, scattered in caves, ancient tombs and remote mountains. At about the same time Pachom, an Egyptian soldier who died in about 346, wrote down regulations for his followers, which became much-copied monastic rules. Communal living coexisted with isolated hermits and both types of asceticism inspired followers and pilgrims. For Byzantium, St Basil of Caesarea (c. 329–79) was perhaps the most influential author. He visited the monastic communities in Syria and Egypt before establishing his own near Caesarea in Cappadocia, central Asia Minor, and wrote Long and Short Rules for monks and nuns, which stressed the importance of life in common, koinobion. This Greek term became the word used for monastery, and its derivative, ‘coenobite’, is often used to mean a monk. Basil also stressed the need to look after the weaker members of society – widows, orphans, the sick, elderly and lepers – in pious foundations devoted to philanthropy.

Some individual holy men stood on the top of columns and were thus known as ‘stylites’ (from Greek, stylos, column), notably St Symeon the Elder and his follower St Symeon the Younger, whose shrines near Antioch attracted numerous pilgrims and performed miraculous cures. Few holy women attained leading positions in desert communities. Susannah, a Desert Mother, was an exception, but stories of holy women like St Mary of Egypt, a reformed prostitute, perpetuated the idea that females could also survive in the desert. Often they had to disguise themselves as eunuchs, which led to some very popular stories. When Marina cut off her hair and put on a man’s tunic, she became Marinos and joined a monastery, where she was accused of fathering a child. Excluded from the community, she raised the child without complaint and only when she died did the monks realize that she could never have committed the crime they attributed to her.

Among the earliest monastic centres, the settlement established by the end of the fourth century in the remotest part of the Sinai peninsula became one of the most celebrated. It was built to protect the Burning Bush through which God had spoken to Moses, at the foot of the Holy Mountain where he later received the tablets of the law. These crucial stages in the flight of the Children of Israel out of Egypt on their long journey to the promised land were celebrated by a group of Christian ascetics who constructed a tower near the Burning Bush. When the western pilgrim Egeria visited them in the early 380s, she read aloud the relevant parts of the Book of Exodus recording the story of Moses. In the sixth century, these monks appealed to Emperor Justinian to protect them against local Bedouin raids and he ordered a fortress to be built around the Bush in the rocky wilderness. The historian Procopius describes the region as ‘uninhabited… a barren land, unwatered and producing neither crops nor any useful thing’.

The garrison sent to guard the monks against attacks by the desert tribes erected enormous fortification walls which have been maintained to this day (plate 2). Using local volcanic rock, an architect named Stephen who came from Aqaba (Eilat) designed the basilica church dedicated to the Mother of God, and on its roof beams recorded the generosity of the emperor and empress (Theodora had recently died in 548), as well as his own name. The original form of the church remains unchanged and the original wooden doors also survive. Some years after the church’s dedication, Abbot Longinos commissioned a magnificent mosaic of the Transfiguration to decorate the apse of the church. It commemorates the light which surrounded Christ in the Garden of Gethsemane, as well as Moses and Elijah, the prophets who had witnessed the presence of God on Mount Sinai. Numerous pilgrims had followed Egeria, bringing gifts to the monastery: icons, liturgical objects and donations which enabled the monks to survive in a most inclement environment. Gradually, the community built up the most extraordinary collection of manuscripts in many languages and painted religious images, including the celebrated icons of Christ, the Virgin with the Christ Child and Saints, and St Peter (plate 21).

After the Arab conquests of the seventh century, Sinai passed under Muslim control and became increasingly isolated from other Christians. The monks ensured their independence by forging mutually beneficial relations with local Bedouin tribes, which were enhanced by a document ‘signed’ by the Prophet Muhammad, who is alleged to have granted the monks permission to remain in Sinai. Whenever Muslim rulers threatened to take over the community, the monks displayed the ‘Hand of the Prophet’. A later copy with the image of Muhammad’s hand (since he could not write his name) is preserved in the monastery. Throughout the Middle Ages, both the monks and the Arabs of Sinai survived together, assisted by Christian and Muslim pilgrimage to the Holy Mountain, and by the association of St Catherine of Alexandria and her relics. Now dedicated to her name, the monastery on Mount Sinai represents the earliest traditions of Christian monasticism, a living link with the fourth century AD and beyond that to the Old Testament story of Moses. In 2006, its icons were exhibited in Los Angeles and would later be displayed in London, before returning to their arid fortress.

While the famous desert monasteries of Egypt, Palestine and Syria continued to inspire ascetic practices, hostile invasions, culminating in the Arab conquest of the Near East in the 640s, forced many to seek refuge farther north. Several found their way to Constantinople or Rome and adapted their activity to a more philanthropic role in urban society. At first emperors had banned monks from Constantinople, considering them unsuited to city life, since the ascetic movement was founded on a rejection of the civilized world and flight into desert places. But by the middle of the fifth century, numerous monasteries had been established in cities. Before 454, a senator named Stoudios constructed a basilica church on his property in the southwest corner of Constantinople, where a monastic community cherished its relic, the head of St John the Baptist. This monastery remained a leading one in the capital into the fourteenth century. Other urban monasteries were set up in houses, founded by their owners, such as the two saints Melania. The elder Melania travelled around the Mediterranean and endowed communities in Jerusalem, followed by her granddaughter, the younger, who moved from Italy to the Mount of Olives.

The secular church of bishops and the monastic church of spiritual communities form two branches of Greek Orthodoxy, the Christian world of correct belief as defined in Greek by the oecumenical councils. They were linked by their shared devotion to daily routines of prayer. They also possessed a code of church law, which included all the canons of oecumenical and local councils and additional monastic regulations derived from St Basil and the Cappadocian Church Fathers. By the sixth century, this had been summarized in a distinct system of ecclesiastical law used to regulate spiritual matters, such as the age of entry into monasteries and of ordination to church offices. It coexisted with the civil law and drew on imperial edicts devoted to issues related to Christianity. Although it was not taught in the same systematic way as civil law, canon law provoked commentaries, compendia, treatises on specific problems and collections of judicial decisions which made it practical and useful. In the early thirteenth century, the acts of Archbishop Chomatenos of Ohrid reveal a sophisticated application of Justinianic as well as canon law to resolve problems such as the abduction of a virgin by a married man (as a fornicator he had to pay the girl a monetary compensation or give her half of his property, and the local prelate had to exclude him from communion for seven years).

Similarly, patriarchs of Constantinople presided over a synod or court, which heard cases involving churchmen and gave definitive judgments on issues such as marriage within the prohibited degrees of consanguinity. In 1316, for instance, Patriarch John XIII judged a quarrel over inheritance between the children of a man’s first marriage and the daughter from his second union. The following year the synod had to decide who owned an icon of the Virgin and a plot of land, originally given to the Metropolitan of Lakedaimonia by Euphrosyne Marinia, a nun. The property had come into the possession of another bishop and Euphrosyne appealed to have it returned. While many cases concern the wealth of the Church, others reveal clerical misdemeanours, incestuous relations, improper use of magic charms and other superstitious practices, providing fascinating hints about daily life in Byzantium.

While the Church had its own independent administration, the emperor often tried to appoint a particular ally as patriarch. Theoretically, he was limited to choosing one of three candidates whose names were put forward by the clergy of the cathedral church of Constantinople. But on many occasions an outside candidate, the emperor’s youngest son, or a favourite monk, might be imposed. Conflicts over these and more serious issues often led to a breakdown in cooperation, and patriarchs might be deposed by imperial power. St John Chrysostom, elected in 398, was one of the first and most famous casualties of this practice. He was exiled to Armenia in 404 because he had denounced Empress Eudoxia for erecting a statue of herself with time-honoured and noisy pagan ceremonies, and died three years later, protesting his innocence in letters to his supporters. In 907, when Leo VI married his fourth wife, the patriarch denied him entry to the church for ten months. Despite such instances of conflict, the cooperation of Empire and Church was one of the great strengths of Christian culture in Byzantium.

It also distinguished Byzantium from the situation in the medieval West, where the leading bishop, the Bishop of Rome, had much less secular support and regularly had to negotiate with invaders. Although Rome was restored to imperial control in the sixth century and remained under nominal Byzantine administration until the eighth, imperial officials and troops often failed to protect the city from attack. The heirs of St Peter, as bishops of Rome considered themselves, stressed their superior moral authority to balance the reality of their political weakness. During the fifth century the term papa, which means father, was adopted, and although all Christian priests are regularly addressed as father, bishops of Rome have become distinguished by the title pope. Whether Roman claims to a moral superiority were recognized or not, it became the custom for disaffected eastern clerics or monks, who had been condemned by the emperor or patriarch, to appeal to Rome. In this way they hoped to attract support from Christian authorities outside the empire.

This practice, which set Old Rome against New Rome, can be observed in the appeals by dissidents for support, for example, during the iconoclast controversy (see chapter 10) and when Leo VI was excommunicated by his patriarch for marrying for the fourth time. The emperor appealed to the pope and was pleased to learn that Rome had no objection to his marriage. In 907, this opened a rift between Constantinople and Rome, which was only patched up thirteen years later. Such appeals to the see of St Peter, whether by those in the East who had been condemned and exiled, or by patriarchs who felt they had been unjustly deposed, enhanced the pope’s position as the ultimate arbiter of Christian quarrels. In the eyes of eastern Church leaders, who felt uneasy about recognizing papal primacy, they also created a dangerous precedent.

During the reign of Constantine IX Monomachos (1042–55), this latent hostility flared into mutual condemnation. Contacts between Old and New Rome had drawn attention to differences between eastern and western Church practice. Some were fundamental, such as the wording of the creed; what bread to use in the eucharist (leavened with yeast, zymos, in the East, unleavened, azyme, in the West); whether priests should marry (celibacy was imposed on all clerics in the West but priests and those in lesser orders were permitted to marry in the East); and the primacy of bishops of Rome. Others were relatively insignificant and had developed over centuries: for instance, in the East cheese (but not meat) was eaten during the week preceding Lent and in the West it was not eaten on certain fast days. But against the background of heightened awareness generated by reformers like Pope Leo IX (1049–54), the West asserted the purity of its traditions. In turn, Byzantium emphasized that the West had added a phrase to the wording of the creed.

The essential theological difference concerned the origin of the Holy Spirit, ‘which proceeds from the Father’, according to the definition adopted at the Councils of Nicaea and Chalcedon in 325 and 451. Orthodox teaching on the Trinity was clear: the three manifestations of God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit shared in its uncreated essence and pre-existing substance – in a word they are consubstantial. But each had its own hypostasis, a term difficult to translate, which had been rendered in Latin bynatura (nature) or substantia (substance). This was not the same as that pre-existing power which the orthodox identified as the nature or substance, ousia, of the Godhead. The complex relationships defined in Greek by early Christian theologians had never been fully reflected in Latin translation, a fact recognized as early as the fifth century by St Augustine.

The relationship of the Son (or Logos, the Word) and the Holy Spirit (Pneuma) to the Father was not the same, since the Son is generated and the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father. The Son participates in this process, holding the position of mediator, which gives rise to the formula: ‘the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father through the Son’ (dia tou Hyiou). This was how Maximos Confessor understood the relationship in the seventh century. Nonetheless, at about this time the clause and from the Son (filioque in Latin) had been added to the creed in Spain, and with the authority of St Isidore of Seville behind it this wording gradually spread to other churches. Rome did not accept it immediately: in the early ninth century, Pope Leo III erected shields with the traditional wording of the creed in both Greek and Latin at the entrance to St Peter’s. In 879/80 at the Council of Constantinople, the western formulation ‘the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father and from the Son’ was condemned as heretical, an unauthorized addition to the creed as defined by the Oecumenical Councils of 325 and 451. In the eleventh century, however, Rome adopted the clause and thus endorsed a new interpretation of the Holy Spirit, which was never recognized in the East.

In 1054, Constantine IX invited Pope Leo IX to send a delegation to Constantinople to discuss the possibility of constructing an effective Byzantine-papal alliance against the Normans in southern Italy. The three Roman envoys were all noted for their hostility to Byzantium, although they were polite to the emperor. But their leader, Cardinal Humbert of Silva Candida, clashed immediately with the patriarch, Michael Keroularios. After several stormy meetings, on 16 July he deposited a bull of excommunication on the altar of St Sophia, and Keroularios immediately responded in kind. At the same moment, Pope Leo IX died, leaving the see of Rome vacant and the status of the bull uncertain. This event is sometimes described as the ‘Great Schism’ between the churches of the East and the West. But the excommunications were considered personal and were rapidly lifted; regular mutual commemoration of the leaders of the Churches of Rome and Constantinople was restored.

When Alexios I Komnenos (1081–1118) asked for evidence of any break in relations between the churches, no document could be found in the patriarch’s library. Constantinople and Rome remained in communion and many westerners worshipped in Greek churches and vice versa. Alexios I’s appeal to the pope for military aid against the Muslims was based on shared Christian traditions, which resulted in the First Crusade and the recapture of Jerusalem (see chapter 24). With hindsight, however, the split of 1054 assumed larger proportions and was subsequently used by later crusaders to justify their desire to attack Constantinople.

It is hardly surprising that differences had developed between the two major sees of Christendom. Constantinople remained a Greek-speaking city, while Rome used Latin, and translation between the two languages was not always accurate. In contrast to the churches of the medieval West, the lower clergy in the East below the rank of bishop were allowed to marry. Celibacy was required only of eastern bishops, so if a married priest was elected to the episcopacy, he and his wife had to agree to an amicable separation, and she had to enter a nunnery distant from his see. In the West, celibacy slowly became a requirement for all clerics (those who took holy orders). Married men continued to become bishops and to plan for their sons to inherit their churches. In one very visible difference, western churches used an unleavened bread, which has become a wafer, in the Eucharist, while in the East bread raised with yeast, more like a bun, was distributed. Genuflecting was more common in the West than the East, where priests prostrated themselves before the altar at particular moments in the liturgy. Local customs added to the variety, especially in the matter of fasting: meat was eaten on Saturdays in the East but it was prohibited in some churches of the West which prepared for Sunday by fasting.

The churches were nonetheless united in their common zeal to care for Christian souls and to convert those who had not been educated in Christian ways. In Byzantium most people lived in villages, where married priests attended to the needs of their Christian flocks, baptized and married their children, buried their dead and guided their moral lives. In larger towns a bishop and his staff filled this role. In turn, bishops were subordinate to the metropolitan or archbishop who resided in the capital of his archdiocese. This structure is recorded in the hierarchy of ecclesiastical sees, which descend from the Patriarch of Constantinople, through the numbered ranks of metropolitans, down to the bishops. During the late Byzantine period, many sees in the European provinces gained in importance and moved up the list to acquire a higher rank, at the expense of those in Asia Minor, devastated and impoverished by constant warfare.

While Mount Athos became a beacon for ascetic monasticism, local monks and holy men constantly inspired men and women to devote their lives to God and directed their spiritual life. When the young Luke of Steiris (central Greece) left home in the early tenth century, he learned of a stylite at Zemenna in the Peloponnese and begged to be allowed to serve him. For several years he studied ascetic practices with him and then moved to an isolated retreat at Ioannitza as a solitary hermit. Eventually, the disciples who joined him formed a monastery and the local governor, General Krinites, funded its first church, dedicated to St Barbara, a patron of military fighters. The community later erected the church of Hosios Loukas (Holy Luke) over his tomb, and joined it to the church of the Theotokos, thus creating a dual structure at Steiris (plate 31). As the fame of miracles performed at his tomb spread, gifts of property and money allowed the monks to decorate the shrine with exquisite mosaics and frescoes that survive to this day. From donations of this sort, monasteries often became very wealthy and powerful institutions. It is all the more important to recall that their resources were based not only on imperial patronage but also on the faith of peasant families, whose devotion to orthodoxy was typical of Byzantium.

There were, of course, challenges to Christian dominance in society, from intellectuals or heretics such as the philosopher John Italos and Boris the Bogomil (a Bulgarian charismatic leader) in the early twelfth century, or George Gemistos Plethon (who adopted pagan religion as well as philosophy) in the fifteenth. In general though, heresy was less common than in the medieval West. Theological disputes often reveal the characteristic mixture of elements in Byzantine culture. Italos and Plethon represented the philosophical traditions and cults of ancient Greece; Boris, the varieties within medieval religious observance. While Byzantium was the repository of all Christian traditions written in Greek, it also preserved poems and stories about the ancient gods, as well as some of their temples and statues.

I have emphasized the lasting strength which the classical, pagan inheritance gave Byzantium through its educational, administrative and cultural traditions. These were unified by a belief system that was determinedly orthodox – vigorous in its development of Christian definitions that allowed for a variety of different experiences, male and female, solitary and ceremonial. It was through its religion that Byzantium conducted its great arguments, not only with the Muslims, Arab and then Turkish, but also with other Christians, particularly western. Over the centuries these arguments led to the Byzantine refusal to accept subordination to the bishops of Rome. The theological sophistication of this stubborn and persistent Greek Orthodoxy constructed a characteristic belief system and a coherent authority through the combination of emperor and patriarch at its centre. Even if, to the end, emperors fought and died like Greeks and Romans, they wanted to be buried and prayed for as Christians.

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