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Mythes et réalités de l'Empire Byzantin


Myths and misconceptions about the Byzantine Empire (of which Russia is believed by many to be the spiritual and political successor) abound. According to these prejudiced views, it was a backward and underdeveloped state, an Eastern despotism with a dead, ossified culture. On May 29, 2018 (the commemoration of the fall of Constantinople according to the old calendar), published a talk about these myths related to the Byzantine Empire with Pavel Kuzenkov, Ph.D in History, teacher of the Sretensky Theological Seminary.

The Byzantine Church was not a part of the Byzantine state

According to a wide-spread myth, the Byzantine Empire was a despotic state.

—First we need to look into the origin of the word “despot”. In ancient Greece a despot (“despotes”) was technically “master of a household”. The same sense could be found later. To be brief, this word originally meant “a master” (“vladyka” in Russian), an owner of something, without any negative connotation. But from about the eighteenth century on “a despot” meant “a tyrant” in European culture. It was a substitution of concepts. Little by little the word “despot” began to grate on Europeans’ ears. For example, the exclamation “Is Polla eti, Despota”, meaning “Many years, Master Bishop!” It sounded as if the Orthodox were obsessed with despotism!

Thus, a despot is merely a master who is responsible for the territory and people in his jurisdiction. People are obedient to the emperor who rules over them. But there are no signs of violence in this subordination. That is why “despotism” was a normal form of government for all Greeks of that era.

Despotism is often associated with an arbitrary rule, the petty tyranny of one man—a cruel monarch.

—What you have just mentioned was called tyranny and denounced as a perversion of authority. The Greeks viewed the emperor’s authority as lawful governance. There is a law in the Romano-Byzantine legislative tradition that was issued by Emperor Theodosius II (the fifth century) and included into the Justinian Code (the sixth century). It reads: “If an emperor’s edict contradicts the laws, it shall not be executed.” In other words, an emperor must abide by laws and rule justly. And he is accountable before God for that. Interestingly, the emperor stood above the laws—he was not limited by anybody or anything—but Theodosius II imposed these constraints on himself so that his legislative acts could agree with the laws, proclaiming: “Nothing is more wonderful than when an emperor acts in accordance with laws.”

Did the empire have a “checks and balances” system?

—Yes, it did, and a very strong one at that! Firstly, the senate that they called the Synclete was always there. Secondly, the masses and the army played an important role at some points. And, thirdly, the Church was always independent and never controlled by the state.

So the emperor de facto wasn’t the head of the Church?

—Never! It would have been a gross violation of the Church canons that forbid the laity to intervene in the Church affairs, and the emperor was practically a lay-person, albeit with a special status. The Head of the Church is Christ.

It was according to the Church canons and rules, ideally. But what practice existed there de facto?

—There was a consensus: since the Church was in the world, the emperor acted as a representative of the secular society in it. Specifically, on behalf of all the laity he participated in the election of the patriarch. The Synod would nominate three candidates for the emperor to choose from. The emperor would convene Ecumenical Councils and define the diocesan boundaries, which in most cases corresponded to administrative boundaries. Thus he played an important part in the life of the Church. But if the Church Hierarchy for one or another reason disagreed with the emperor, he had no right to depose the patriarch or a bishop by his decree. To be more precise, he legally had a right to arrest or exile the patriarch, but this would immediately provoke violent indignation in society and potentially lead to his dethronement or even death. History knows the examples of such emperors whose actions (such as use of force against the clergy) provoked disturbances and revolts. The most notorious examples are the iconoclasts and uniates. But these were graphic examples of unseemly behavior that was resolutely condemned.

This is one of the fundamental differences between the Byzantine and the Russian practices. Let us recall that Russian grand princes and tsars would themselves appoint metropolitans and patriarchs. More than that, from the time of Peter the Great, the Russian clergy would swear loyalty to the throne, which in effect was not only a violation of the canons but also a violation of the commandment of God. In the Byzantine Empire the clergy never took an oath to the emperor; they served God alone. They did not receive pay from the state and were not in any formal relations with it. To paraphrase it in modern legal language, the Byzantine Church was separated from the state, though it was part and parcel of the Byzantine society. The Church and state institutions functioned in harmony with each other yet independently.

As a matter of fact, independence is the most essential instrument in the preaching and mission of the Church. It is no coincidence that anchorites and ascetics were the most influential mentors. If the clergy are dependent on the powers that be, they will hardly enjoy authority. Only he who has freedom and absolute authority can teach and instruct. It should be admitted that this lack of freedom and independence prevented the Russian Church from playing its role in the pre-revolutionary period. Its dependent state undermined its authority, while in the Soviet era the persecuted Church reclaimed its authority again.

But is it bad if the Church influences the state affairs and state officials? In this case the laws will become more moral and the morals will improve.

—The most important thing is not to pander to the powers that be. The Church must demonstrate that it has its own programs and principles and remind the state that there is a line dividing good and evil. The Church must denounce the state from time to time and publicly instruct it. Such was the mechanism of maintaining Church authority in the Byzantine Empire. Let us remember St. John Chrysostom—a model hierarch for all times.

On the “perfidious Byzantines”

There is another popular myth about the allegedly “perfidious Byzantines”.

—This myth has to do with the East-West culture gap in the middle ages. In the eyes of Western European knights and even Russian chroniclers (unsophisticated people as they were) the Byzantine Greeks were a personification of perfidy. But why? The Byzantine army’s greatest advantage was its skill rather than the number of its soldiers. The secret of the Grand Byzantine Strategy was a bloodless victory with economy of forces. They strove to achieve success by military ruse or diplomacy. So the Byzantines had a reputation for intricate political intrigues. They viewed politics as a chess game.

True, the culture of medieval Western European knights and the traditions of Russian princes’ armed forces considered it as meanness. The honest armored knights preferred single combat and fought in tournaments. The Byzantines couldn’t afford this “luxury”, which is characteristic of young nations which boast so much of their vigor. In this sense the Byzantine Empire can be compared with China.

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