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Panayiotis Christou

The Missionary Task of the Byzantine Emperor

Βυζαντινά, τ. 3, Θεσ/νίκη 1971

The Byzantine State demonstrated a remarkable missionary activity: It promoted the Christian faith throughout half the countries of Europe and carried it into the depths of Asia and Africa. And together with Christianity it also transplanted civilization. The achievements of that activity were partly reversed in the subsequent course of history, but what remained of them is sufficient to forestall the tendency of historians to disregard them.

A seemingly curious phenomenon is to be observed, which, if not properly evaluated ,may bring about a wrong estimation of the importance of the missionary work of the Byzantines. It is the fact that the initiative in this field always lay with the administration, in fact the emperor himself and not the Church.

The mission of Cyril and Methodius to Moravia is a characteristic example. As related in The Life of Cyril(1) the sovereign of that country, Rastislav, sent a delegation to emperor Michael III with a letter declaring that the Moravian people had renounced paganism and now adhered to the Christian rule, but there was no man suitable to teach them the true faith. «Despatch them, Sire, such a bishop and teacher, for it is from you that the good rule is communicated to every country». The emperor then after consultation summoned Constantine the Philosopher, as Cyril was called, and entrusted him with the leadership of the mission but he remonstrated that he would be willing to go to that country only provided the Moravians had an alphabet suited to their language. The emperor then made the following interesting remark: «My grand-father, my father and many others searched but found none. How could I succeed in this?» And the account goes on with the narration of the wonderful invention of the slavonic alphabet by Cyril himself and the subsequent departure of the missionary group to Moravia (863 A.D.).

It is clear from this text that not only in this particular case the patriarchal throne was then occupied by a figure of no less prestige and ability than that of Photius, was it the emperor who was in complete command, but also that Michael did nothing but follow an old tradition on the subject. The manifold endeavours which brought into the christian community numerous peoples of diverse origin in Europe, Africa and Asia go to the credit of emperor Justinian(2).

It was a work of emperor Heraclius the conversion to Christianity of the Southern Slavs , including the Croatians,who, according to Constantine the Porphyrogennetus, were proselytized «both by sending from Rome as well as ordaining archbishops and bishops and presbyters and deacons from amongst them»(3). Other Slavonic tribes of Dalmatia were converted by Basil I,the Macedonian,who also dispatched «a royal dignitary accompanied by priests and baptized them all»(4). The same policy was applied in the cases of the conversion of the Bulgarians and the Russians and this can be witnessed in every other related case. Historical sources invariably ascribe the initiative for missionary work to the emperor, completely ignoring the leaders of the Church.

There is always an easy answer at hand to the question of how such an initiative of the sovereign of Byzantium in a field of purely religious nature can be explained.The promotion of the Christian faith, it can be said, constituted an excellent pretext for advancing the political designs of Byzantium. That is the reason why the emperors, instead of leaving this work in the hands of the leaders of the Church, undertook it themselves.They thus had a free hand to select the right men, apparently as missionaries but, in reality, as agents of Byzantium(5).

The trouble with this answer is that it remains a theory, while, on the other hand, it is refuted by the facts. To return to the case of Cyril and Methodius,it will be argued that if these able and competent missionaries had been mere agents of the Byzantine goverment, then all their efforts would have been aimed chiefly elsewhere, namely, the promotion of the Greek language among the Slavs, establishing branches of the Greek Church in Central Europe, and propagating the expansion of the Byzantine rule in that area. How could these men practice exactly the opposite by striving for the introduction of the slavonic language in the worship of God, by founding independent churches wherever they worked, and by willingly and effectively co-operating with the local political rulers(6)?

This remark,properly adjusted,is also true of all other byzantine missions. The theory therefore according to which the missionary work of the Byzantine Empire was political in character cannot be seriously supported. Now, if the expansion of Christianity happened to serve incidentally other interests of Byzantium as well, this by no means constitutes the reason why the emperors undertook this work, but merely helps to explain the great fervour with which the work was accomplished.

One cannot overlook the difficulties which arise if the Church were to undertake this task, considering the condition of the Church itself. Firstly there was the division of the ecclesiastical jurisdiction. Just to limit ourselves to one point, let it be noted that any missionary activity in Asia would come under the Patriarchate of Constantinople if it took place in the Caucasus, under the Patriarchate of Antioch if it was carried out in Mesopotamia and under the Patriarchate of Jerusalem if in Arabia. Secondly there were no more apostles free from any ecclesiastical bonds to dedicate themselves to missionary work, while the monks of the East devoted their time either to their personal spiritual culture in solitude or to social work in the cities,but anyway not to missionary work. Finally the Church demonstrated an inability to face problems of political character, which usually arise in the course of missionary work in foreign countries. Those preaching a religion which is still little known, can travel far and wide without being very conspicuous. But those preaching a religion which has attained official recognition and is related to a glorious empire, easily become the centre of attention and even suspicion when working in alien countries. On the other hand foreign rulers while perhaps reluctant to receive delegates of the Patriarchate of Constantinople were by political necessity constrained to accept and occasionally even to invite church delegates of the powerful empire of Constantinople. It is only under this light that certain measures of the Byzantine state, not purely missionary, can be explained. Thus it was the emperor Michael III -to mention only one case- and not the patriarch who, in the second half of the ninth century, sent forth Photius and later Cyril to the Chalifate of Bagdad to negotiate certain affairs of the local Christians.

These conditions facilitated the growth of the theory concerning the apostolic character of the emperor,which constitutes part of the general concept of christian theology.

Quite in accordance with their habit to look for analogies between things heavenly and things terrestrial, the Byzantines saw in their earthly empire an image of the Kingdom of God: «âáóéëåßá ìåí ïõí åéêïíßæåé êñÜôïò Èåïý», according to the words of Nicephoros Blemmydes(7). It was Origen who had pioneered along this path in a most interesting passage of his, where he speaks in terms of macropolis and micropolis(8). And naturally the earthly king is a true image of the heavenly king(9). Besides it was from Him that the king derived his power, as the Byzantines were convinced, and this conviction was given its final form during the 4(th) century following a whole series of formulations dating back to the days of the Old Testament and as recently as Eusebius. Constantine the Great confesses to labouring under a feeling of great responsibility towards God(10), arising from the belief that it was God who had invested him with ruling powers over all earthly things(11). He also declared his firm conviction that he was appointed and appropriately instructed by God for the realization of His will on earth. But as it was a common belief among the Byzantines that royal power originated «Dei gratia», and this might well be thought to conflict with the accepted doctrine of the hereditary succession to the throne, the emperor Constantine Porphyrogennetus saw to it that the two beliefs were incompatible with the divine choice, because this is accomplished prenatally in the maternal womb, «êáè’ üôé áõôüò óå åîåëÝîáôï êáé áðü ìÞôñáò áöþñéóå êáé ôçí áõôïý âáóéëåßáí ùò áãáèüò õðÝñ ðÜíôáò óïé Ýäùêåí»(12). And it was only natural that the authority granted also included the administration of the affairs of the Church in so far as they concerned this world.

It was not long afterwards this doctrine was liturgically ratified(13). Ever since the year 450 or at least 457 A.D., the coronation, this formal ceremony of the emperor’s induction was performed by the patriarch, by placing the royal crown on the sovereign’s head. After the 7(th) century this ceremony took place in the Church of Saint Sophia. Eventually the religious character of the coronation was strongly emphasized by the introduction of such practices as the emperor’s obligation to a public declaration of faith(14 )and his being anointed with chrism. Thus the emperor was considered and called «èåïðñüâëçôïò» and «÷ñéóôüò» as having been smeared with holy oil.

The entire ceremony of the coronation corresponded to that of the ordination of clergymen, though it did not invest the Emperor with clerical rights, i.e. with the right of performing sacraments. Royalty and priesthood were two offices clearly distinguished from each other in Byzantium, where not only the title of pontifex maximus borne by the roman emperor had been relinquished, but also the theory concerning authority «after the order of Melchisedec», which had subsequently been adopted, was later rejected(15). This last theory prevailed only for a short time during the 5(th) century, and the fact that certain emperors during the 7(th) and 8(th) centuries persistently claimed the right to be considered as heads of the Church testifies to its having been already renounced.

This division of the authorities was solemnly accepted and proclaimed by the Byzantine State. Justinian writes that «ìÝãéóôá åí áíèñþðïéò åóôß äþñá Èåïý ðáñÜ ôçò Üíùèåí äåäïìÝíá öéëáíèñùðßáò, éåñùóýíç ôå êáé âáóéëåßá», which, both deriving from the same source, adorn human life. Of these the one applies to the divine while the other to human affairs(16). This is even more definitely stated in the «Epanagogue», according to which, the emperor and the patriarch administer two distinctly different but nevertheless closely connected institutions the perfect harmony of which bring forth peace and prosperity(17). Thus the king and the patriarch, these earthly images of Christ, each bore his own special office, both of which -royal and priestly- are jointly borne by Christ himself.

The byzantine emperor, therefore, neither was a priest, nor was he considered as such. Neither was he a layman, however, as an ordinary member of the congregation could not possibly hold such a prominent position in it. The emperor did hold a certain high rank in the Church, although all efforts to find an appropriate title defining his position were finally of no avail. The title of «êïéíüò åðßóêïðïò» suggested by Eusebius(18) did not prevail, as it sounded too ecclesiastical, while that of «åðéóôçìïíÜñ÷çò»(19) which was widely used much later, was soon discarded because it rendered the emperor an officer of law and order.

The title of «apostle» sounded more appropriate to the Byzantines and it was officially conferred upon Constantine the Great, both in the hymn below dedicated to him and elsewhere.

«Του σταυρού σου τον τύπον
εν ουρανώ θεασάμενος
και ως ο Παύλος την κλήσιν
ουκ εξ ανθρώπων δεξάμενος
ο εν βασιλεύσιν
απόστολός σου, Κύριε,
βασιλεύουσαν πόλιν
τη χειρί σου παρέθετο·
ην περίσωζε
δια παντός εν ειρήνη
πρεσβείαις της Θεοτόκου,
μόνε φιλάνθρωπε»(20).

The Gospel of St.Matthew (28, 29) ends with Jesus Christ’s commandment to the apostles to go forth and by preaching make disciples of all the heathens. Now that there were no more apostles, and each bishop limited his activity to his own diocese, it seemed that it was the emperor who had inherited the duty of organizing missions. This was probably the aspect expressed in the title «êïéíüò åðßóêïðïò» as defining the apostolic faculty of the emperor and denoting not a bishop general, as it is usually interpreted, but a bishop with no territorial limitations, a missionary bishop.

And ever since the founding of the Byzantine Empire, the emperor demonstrated by his deeds that he really was heir to these duties. Constantine the Great, in one aspect, can truly be considered to have definitely brought about the christianization of the whole empire as well as to have promoted the Christian faith beyond its boundaries. He was therefore a true successor to the task of the apostles. Such is the view expressed among others in the Letter to Theophilus, a spurious text attributed to John of Damascus: «ï åí âáóéëåýóé ôïõ ×ñéóôïý áðüóôïëïò Êùíóôáíôßíïò ï ÌÝãáò ... ùò óôýëïí ðõñóïöáíÞ ôçí ãíþóéí ôçò õðåñïõóßáò êáé æùáñ÷éêÞò ïìïïõóßïõ ÔñéÜäïò ôïéò ðÝñáóéí åîÝðåìøåí»21.

It is pointed out that this is not the case of a metaphorical use of the title due to the similarity of the missionary achievements of Constantine and the rest of the emperors, to those of the apostles. Wishing to make it clear that Constantine’s mission originated from God he compares his summons to that of St. Paul. And it is this summons, not his actions, which gave the emperor his missionary faculty. The model of a top apostle is also used in relation to the emperor in the preface of Ecloga(22), in which there is even a comparison between the royal and the apostolic administration: «Åðåß ïõí ôï êñÜôïò ôçò âáóéëåßáò çìßí åã÷åéñßóáò, ùò çõäüêçóå, äåßãìá ôïýôï ôçò åí öüâù ðñïò áõôüí áãáðÞóåùò çìþí åðïéÞóáôï êáôÜ ÐÝôñïí, ôçí êïñõöáéïôÜôçí ôùí áðïóôüëùí áêñüôçôá, ðïéìáßíåéí êåëåýóáò ðïßìíéïí...». Besides the iconoclastic Synod of 754 names the kings «åöáìßëïõò ôùí áðïóôüëùí, ùò õðü Èåïý ïñéóèÝíôáò êáé õðü ôïõ Ðíåýìáôïò óïöéóèÝíôáò»(23).

The title of «apostle» is certainly more honourable than that of the «bishop», in as much as it includes all the duties of an archbishop. Were it to be bestowed upon the emperor, as the sole apostle, it might involve his domination over the Church. And this is the reason why this title, too, failed to prevail. Nevertheless it became permanently a common conviction that it was the emperor’s apostolic duty to act in the interests of the Christian faith within as well as beyond the boundaries of the realm.

These ecclesiastical duties of the Emperor emanated from the rank he bore in the Church,which is best expressed in the phrase «åí ×ñéóôþ ôù Èåþ ðéóôüò âáóéëåýò».

It can be said that of all the duties related to this title the most important one was the missionary. By stating in his declarations of faith before being crowned by the patriarch that he «will be a defender and an avenger of the Church»(24), he meant that he would promote its work from every aspect, both positive and negative, defending it against its enemies and spreading the faith amoing the pagans.

This missionary work was not performed without the co-operations of the Church. It was so complicated a task that no civil authority could ever accomplish it.It included the training of the missionaries, the organizing of particular missions,the catechism of converts and the establishing of new Churches. The emperor was responsible for only the second of these, namely that of organizing the missions,which was doubtless the most difficult of all. On the whole, a remarkable spirit of co-operation invariably prevailed between the Church and the State. We have a striking example of this in the christening of Boris of Bulgaria, during which, patriarch Photius was the baptiser while emperor Michael acted as god-father. Whenever the emperor himself took the initiative he acted, as shown above, in his capacity of a dignitary of the Church and on its behalf, i.e. not as the emperor but as a king faithful to Christ. This is the reason why he never acted according to what was prescribed by the political interests of Byzantium. It would have been only a walk-over for emperor Michael III to occupy Boris’s Bulgaria but he refrained from it. He was satisfied with christianizing its people and bringing them into the civilized world. The emperor performed his missionary task by adhering to strictly ecclesiastical criterions, namely those of the Greek Othodox Church which are derived from its ideals of a confederate union.

Thus an independent Church was established in each and every country converted to Christianity, which recognized the local language and remained under the rule of the local regime. It was this policy which gave birth to the modern Orthodoxy with its numerous autocephalous Churches, loosely connected to each other from the point of view of organization but completely united from the aspect of dogma and liturgy.


1. Life of Constantine the Philosopher 14.

2. Cf. the episodes of this achievement in Procopius, De bellis I, 18,47; I,19, 36. VI, 14,33. De aedificiis III, 6,196; VI, 2,17 and elswhere.

3. Ad Romanum filium, Bonn,148.

4. Ibid 129.

5. Cf. e.g. Brückner, Die Wahrheit über die Slavapostel,Tübingen 1913, p.35 ff.

6. Cf.P.Chistou, «Αι επιδιώξεις της ιεραποστολής Κυρίλλου και Μεθοδίου εις την Κεντρικήν Ευρώπην», Κυρίλλω και Μεθοδίω, τομος εόρτιος, Thessaloniki 1966, pp.10-28.

7. «Βασιλεία μεν ουν εικονίζει κράτος Θεού», Nicephorus Blemmydes, De regis officiis 2, PG 142,659.

8. Contra Celsum 8,74, GCS II, p. 291.

9. Eusebius of Caesaria, Τricennalia 3, GCS p. 201f. Dialogue De scientia Politica, Mai, Scriptorum Veterum Nova Collectio, 2,571-609,ch.5,13.

10. Ad Aelafium 14, 65ff., H.von Soden-Η. von Gampenhausen, Urkunden zur Entstehungsgeschichte des Donatismus, in Lietzmann, Kleine Texte, 122, Berlin 1950.

11. Eusebius of Caesaria, De vita Cnstantini 2,28.

12. Ad Romanum filium, Bonn, p.67.

13. O. Treitinger, Die oströmische Kaiser und Reichsidee, Jena, 1938; Aic. Christophopoulou, Εκλογή, αναγόρευσις και στέψις του βυζαντινού αυτοκράτορος, Πρακτικά Ακαδημίας Αθηνών, 22,1956.

14. G. Codinus, De officiis, Bonn, 87.

15. Cf. Pope Gelasius, Tractatus IV,II. ed. Thiel, p. 567f Maximus the Confessor, Relatio motionis, PG 90,117.

16. Novella 6, preface.

17. 2,8. Zach.von Lingenthal, Jus graecoromanum 4, Leipzig,1865, p. 183.

18. De vita Constantini I, 44. Cf. J. A. Straub, «Constantine as κοινός επίσκοπος», in Dumbarton Oaks Papers, 21 (1967) 39-55.

19. Cf. B. Stefanides, «Οι όροι 'επιστήμη' και 'επιστημονάρχης' εν Βυζαντίω», Επετηρίς Εταιρ. Βυζαντινών Σπουδών, 7 (1930) 153-158.

20. Apolytikion on St. Constantine’s day, Menaion 21st of May. Cf. The Synaxarion and the Doxasticon of aposticha of vespers, in which he is named an «ισαπόστολος».

21. Epistola ad Theophilum, 3, PG 95, 348BC.

22. Zach.von Lingenthal, Collectio librorum juris graecoromani ineditorum, Leipzig, 1852, p.10.

23. Mansi, Sacr. Concil. Collectio, 13, 225.

24. G. Codinus, De officiis, Bonn, 87. Cf.Epanogoge, I,4,Zach. Von Lingenthal, Jus graecoromanum 4, p. 181.

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