A historical survey 600850

At the beginning of our period, the Byzantine Empire was still recognizably the restored Christian Roman Empire ofJustinian I (527-65). It could still make some claim to be a Mediterranean empire, embracing almost everywhere that touched on the Mediterranean coast, though its hold on Spain was quite fragile. Already by 600, however, this vision of the Christian Roman Empire was being fragmented. Slavs had begun to cross the Danube and settle throughout the Balkan peninsula in regions called by the Byzantines Sklavinias. Under the leadership of the more warlike Avars, the Slavs were beginning to threaten the Byzantine presence, laying siege to Thessaloniki and, in 626, to Constantinople. Their presence in the Balkans drove a wedge between the two capitals of the Byzantine Empire, Rome and Constantinople, impeding communication between West and East. To the east, Persia, the traditional enemy of the Mediterranean empire in its various historical forms, was poised to strike. Taking as an excuse the overthrow of the Emperor Maurice (582-602) by Phocas (602-10) in 602, the Persian Empire embarked on an invasion of the Byzantine Empire, takingJerusalem in 614, and annexing its eastern provinces from Syria to Egypt. In these provinces seized from the Byzantine Empire, the Shah of Persia discovered divisions among the Christians that he sought to exploit.

Christological controversy1 These divisions went backto the Council of Chalcedon (451) that had attempted to achieve agreement on the Incarnation of Christ among Christians by affirming that, while in Christ there were two perfect natures, human and divine, there was only one hypostasis. For most Christians of the East, it was to Cyril, patriarch of Alexandria (410-44), that they looked for guidance in their understanding of Christ. The bishops at Chalcedon thought that their Christological definition expressed Cyril's understanding of the matter, but many disagreed and rejected Chalcedon. These anti-Chalcedonians, called by their opponents "monophysites," had not only survived in the decades after Chalcedon, but had prospered, especially in Syria and Egypt, despite periodic persecution by the Byzantine authorities. Shortly after the fall of Jerusalem to the Persians, the shah, Chosroes II (590-628), decided to exploit this situation by supporting the anti-Chalcedonians in Syria, Armenian and western Mesopotamia, and Egypt, after it fell to the Persians in 618. The anti-Chalcedonian patriarch of Antioch, Athanasius the Camel-Driver (595-631), welcomed this passing of the "Chalcedonian night."

This provoked a counter-move from the Byzantine Emperor Heraclius (61041), and Sergius, patriarch of Constantinople (610-38), who, in consultation

1 See Dorfmann-Lazarev in this volume.

with bishops in Sinai and Egypt, came up with a compromise formula (mon-energism), by which they hoped to reconcile the supporters and opponents of Chalcedon. This compromise maintained with Chalcedon that in Christ there were two natures and one person, with the refinement that there was only one activity (Greek: energeia), that Dionysius the Areopagite (fl. early sixth century) had called divine-human or "theandric." In 628 Heraclius successfully invaded Persia, provoking a court rebellion in which the shah was overthrown, and recovering from Ctesiphon the relic of the True Cross that had been taken there from Jerusalem. With this relic, Heraclius began a triumphal procession through the recovered provinces, proposing reunion with the anti-Chalcedonians on the basis of monenergism, and achieving, it appears, some success. But monenergism found its greatest success in Egypt. In 633, Cyrus, originally from Phasi in Georgia, whom Heraclius had appointed both patriarch of Alexandria and augustal prefect of Egypt (631-42), reached a major reconciliation with the Theodosians, as the Egyptian anti-Chalcedonians were called, set out in a Pact of Union, in nine chapters. Cyrus reported his success to Sergius of Constantinople, who in return reported it to Pope Honorius I (625-38). This achievement was, however, marred by the opposition of a distinguished scholar and monk, Sophronius (c. 560-638), for whom the Nine Chapters were simply heretical. Sophronius traveled to Constantinople, and then to Rome, with his grievance, but achieved nothing more than a decision from Sergius, in his Psephos of 634, to forbid any discussion of the number of activities in Christ. By this time Sophronius was Patriarch of Jerusalem. A further refinement of monenergism was proposed in 638, in the Ekthesis, composed by Sergius and promulgated by Heraclius, which affirmed that Christ, one person in two natures, had yet a single, divine will: a doctrine called monothelitism. This provoked opposition led by one of Sophronius's disciples, Maximus the Confessor (c. 580-662), then resident in North Africa (Sophronius now being dead), which culminated in the Lateran Synod of 649, masterminded, it would seem, by Maximus and called by Pope Martin (64955), that condemned monenergism and monothelitism, and those churchmen who had endorsed these heresies.

By this time, however, the Byzantine Empire had fallen to a much more serious opponent than the Persians, namely the Arab tribes, united under Islam, that, within barely fifteen years of the death of the prophet Muhammad (632), had crushed the Persian Empire and seized the eastern provinces of the Byzantine Empire, this time for good. Jerusalem fell in 638, surrendered to the caliph, Umar I (634-44), by Sophronius. The controversy over monothelitism, taking place against the background of Byzantine defeat, undermined the possibility it offered of union with the anti-Chalcedonians, now subject to Islam, and with it any Byzantine retaliation based on such a union. The sense that Maximus's theological stubbornness was tantamount to sedition is palpable in the accounts of his trial at the Byzantine court, which led to his condemnation for heresy, mutilation, and death in exile in 662.2 By the time the Byzantine Empire formally renounced monenergism and monothelitism at the Sixth Ecumenical Council in 680-81, the Umayyad Empire was firmly established, with its capital in Damascus.

The definition of Orthodoxy Despite the desperate political conditions of the seventh century, this was, paradoxically, one of the greatest periods of Byzantine theology. Maximus the Confessor based his opposition to the imperial Christological nostrums on a theological vision, drawing together the several strands of Greek theology -doctrinal, philosophical, ascetic, and liturgical - that has never been matched. He came to exercise a profound influence on all later Byzantine theology. Maximus's influence was immediately felt, however, not in Constantinople, which had no reason to look on him with any favor, but in the lands that had fallen to Islam, especially Palestine. There the effect of Islam was to remove political support for any brand of Christianity, creating a situation in which the different Christian groups were forced to define and defend their own position against the other Christian positions, and other religious options, not least of all Islam.3 The most famous such statement ofthe Chalcedonian position is found in the works of John of Damascus (c. 675-c. 749), then a monk of Palestine, especially in his three-part work, The Fountain of Knowledge, the last part of which contains an epitome of Christian doctrine in a hundred chapters. John was also a notable defender of the traditional veneration of icons (see below) and a distinguished composer of the new style of liturgical poetry (especially the canon) that came to grace the monastic office of the Chalcedonian or "Melkite" monks (that is, those who supported the Byzantine emperor or malka). His fame as a defender of icons had reached Constantinople by the mid-eighth century, when he was roundly condemned at the Synod of Hiereia (754), but any detailed knowledge of his works seems not to have reached the capital until the restoration of Orthodoxy in the mid-ninth century, at about the same time the poetical enrichment of the monastic office, in which John had participated, reached Constantinople. It is an irony that "Byzantine

2 See Maximus the Confessor, Maximus the Confessor and his Companions.

3 See Griffith in this volume.

Orthodoxy" found its definitive expression not in the capital, and indeed not in the empire at all.

The end of the seventh and beginning of the eighth centuries saw several attempts on the part of the Byzantines to recover their nerve: emperors took names such as Constantine and Justinian, indicative of fresh beginnings. In 691-92, Justinian II (685-95, 705-11) called a council in the domed chamber (Latin: trullus) of the imperial palace, that sought to complete the work of the two earlier councils held in Constantinople in 553 and 680-81, which had issued only doctrinal decrees. This council, which seems to have regarded itself as a continuation of the Sixth Council, though it came later to be called the Fifth-Sixth (Quinisext) or the Trullan Council, drew up 102 canons that constituted a recapitulation of the entire canonical tradition of the Byzantine Church. Its attitude is conservative and defensive, affirming the traditions of Constantinople against those of Rome (on clerical celibacy, especially) and Armenia, forbidding contact with Jews, and outlawing various remnants of pagan practices. Military pressure from the Arabs continued, Constantinople being blockaded by the Arabs from 674 to 678 and facing another siege in 718. The relatively short imperial reigns at the end of the seventh and beginning of the eighth centuries are a further sign of instability. The accession of Leo III (717-41) in 717 marked the beginning of a long period of political stability, continued under his son Constantine V (741-75) - their combined reigns covering nearly sixty years - during which the Byzantine Empire began to recover its strength. It was also the period of the first stage of iconoclasm, during which religious imagery was destroyed and forbidden at the imperial command.


The origins of iconoclasm are much disputed, as is the initial sequence of events. Both our historical sources - Nicephorus's Short History and Theo-phanes' Chronicle - attribute the introduction of iconoclasm to the emperor's reaction to an earthquake in the Cyclades in 726 which threw up another island close to Thera and Therasia, themselves the result of earlier volcanic activity. Fearful of divine wrath, Leo caused the icon of Christ at the bronze gate of the palace to be removed. It is, however, far from clear that there was an icon of Christ there at that time, and it was only in 730 that Germanus, the patriarch, resigned over the imperial policy. It seems beyond doubt, however, that Byzantine iconoclasm was a matter of imperial edict, rather than a response to any sort of popular movement. By the beginning of the eighth century, religious art occupied a prominent place in Byzantine society, both in public and in private. The removal of all religious pictorial art must have had a profound impact. The visual field would have been rudely altered: secular depictions and images of the emperor would remain, but instead of depictions of Christ, the Mother of God, and the saints - in mosaics, frescoes, on boards, and woven in fabric (maybe in statues, though there is little evidence of this) - the only religious depiction allowed was the Sign of the Cross, itself one of the imperial symbols. This suggests that one motive behind iconoclasm may have been the unambiguous assertion of imperial authority, free from the competing claims of various forms of holiness. There is little evidence as to the course of imperial iconoclasm in Leo Ill's reign; indeed, our sources make rather more of the extensive damage caused by an earthquake in Constantinople in 740.

Our picture of the theological reaction to Leo's iconoclast edict is limited to various letters and treatises of Germanus and the three treatises against the iconoclasts by John of Damascus, writing from the safety of Umayyad Palestine. These treatises, especially John's replete with patristic proof-texts, drew on the Christian response in the seventh century to Jewish objections to Christian veneration of icons, part of the religious dispute that flourished under the political ascendancy of Islam. The Jews had argued that the second commandment proscribed the veneration oficons (Leo seems to have made the same objection in his now-lost edict). Christians had replied that the second commandment forbade idolatry, in the sense of worshiping the creature as God, but not veneration of pictures of holy men and women, whose holiness expressed their closeness to God. A distinction was drawn between prostration (proskynesis) expressing worship (latreia), dueto Godalone, and that expressing honour (timé), which could be rendered to the saints, or even to holy objects. St. Basil's remark that "the honor offered to the image passes to the original" was also frequently cited. The eighth-century defenders of the veneration of icons, especially John of Damascus, added to these arguments a fundamental appeal to the Incarnation; whereas God in himself is beyond circumscription, in becoming incarnate as a man he made himself circumscribable, and now as incarnate can be depicted - indeed, as incarnate, he must be capable of depiction.

On his death in 741, Leo was succeeded by his son Constantine V, after a brief attempt to gain the throne by his son-in-law Artabasdus. Constantine is presented in our sources as a sacrilegious villain. However, for the better part of ten years, he made no further move in promoting iconoclasm, being occupied with the defeat of Artabasdus, taking advantage of the burgeoning civil war among the Arabs (which led to the foundation of the Abbasid dynasty in 750), and copingwithplague and earthquake in the empire. In 754, however, he called a synod in the palace at Hiereia, on the Asian shore opposite Constantinople, to endorse iconoclasm. Prior to that, he had circulated to his bishops a collection of "inquiries" (peuseis), raising various questions about icons. The synod itself issued a long "definition" (horos), preserved because it was subject to detailed refutation at the council, now regarded as the Seventh Ecumenical Council, held in 787. This definition took the argument against icons on to a thoroughly theological level. Instead of arguing that icons were idols, it argued that an icon of Christ was impossible: either it depicted the humanity of Christ, separate from his divinity, which entailed Nestorianism, or it depicted his humanity fused with his divinity, which entailed monophysitism. Depiction of Christ was therefore tantamount to heresy. A further argument urged that the real image of Christ was the Eucharist, in which bread and wine received priestly blessing and became an image or type of the body and blood of Christ.

After the decision of the self-styled "seventh ecumenical" council of Hiereia, Constantine V seems to have intensified the persecution of those who opposed iconoclasm. He also took action against the monastic state, forcing monks and nuns into marriage and the abandonment of their vows. There is, however, no evidence, even in the iconodule sources, that Constantine's persecution of iconodules and of monks were related, and it has been plausibly argued that the most prominent of the iconodule martyrs, St. Stephen the Younger (c. 713-64), was put to death on suspicion of being involved in seditious intrigue, rather than for his defense of icons as such.4

Constantine V died in 775 and was succeeded by his son, Leo IV (775-80), whose wife, Irene, was an Athenian noblewoman. Leo died in 780, and Irene became regent for their young son, Constantine VI (780-97). After the death of Paul IV (780-84), Irene appointed a bureaucrat, Tarasius, patriarch (784806), and in 787 veneration of icons was reaffirmed at the Seventh Ecumenical Council, held in Nicaea. Clergy who renounced their former iconoclasm were readily reinstated by Tarasius, who was anxious for reconciliation, though this laid him open to charges of laxity from the more vehement iconodules, especially the monks associated with Theodore, later known as the Studite (d. 826). It was the same group of monks who loudly opposed Constantine's divorce of his wife Maria in 795 in order to marry a lady of court, Theodote, ironically Theodore's cousin. Theodore was also favored by Irene, who invited him and his monks from the Sakkoudion monastery in Bithynia to Constantinople to revive the Studios monastery, just within the Golden Gate.

Irene herself, having secured the blinding and deposition of her son, acceded to the throne in 797 in her own person (the only woman ever to do so), but

4 See La vie d'Etienne leJeune and Auzepy, L'hagiographie et I'iconoclasme byzantin.

after only five years, she was deposed and succeeded by Nicephorus I (80211). His reign ended ingloriously in defeat at the hands of the Bulgarians, whose khan, Krum, had his skull turned into a silver-inlaid drinking goblet. Nicephorus's son, wounded in the same campaign as his father, was succeeded by the unsatisfactory Michael I Rhangabe (811-13), who was deposed in 813 by LeoV(8i3-20). In little over a year, Leo had reintroduced iconoclasm at a synod held in Constantinople that reasserted the synodal authority of Hiereia. The patriarch, Nicephorus (806-15), was forced to resign, and Theodore and the monks of the Studios Monastery were scattered and sent into exile. Although Leo had the decisions of Hiereia reinstated, the nature of iconoclasm and the issues had changed. The question was no longer one of the very existence of icons, rather it was a matter of their veneration; some icons high up on walls, beyond reach of veneration, were permitted to remain. Theodore the Studite's defense of icons comes to turn on the question of the legitimacy of the veneration of the hypostasis (the technical theological term for "person") depicted on the icon, which is identical in the icon and the original. One reason for this change of perspective may well have been the desire on Leo's part to secure the support ofthe Franks who at their synod at Frankfurt in 794 rejected the veneration of icons, without endorsing thoroughgoing iconoclasm.

With Leo's death in 820, iconoclasm was less strictly enforced and exiles recalled, though Michael II (820-29) refused to sanction the veneration of icons, at least within Constantinople itself. Under his successor Theophilus (829-42), persecution of iconodules seems to have intensified, notable among such iconodules being the two brothers Theodore and Theophanes, monks from Palestine, whose faces were branded with (poor quality!) iconoclast verses. With Theophilus's death in 842, the veneration of icons was again reintroduced, again by a widowed empress acting as regent for her son, in this case Theodora and her son, Michael III (842-67). As in 815, this was done by the home synod of Constantinople reaffirming the decrees of an eighth-century council, in this case the second council of Nicaea, the Seventh Ecumenical. The decision of this home synod, held under the chairmanship of the newpatriarch, Methodius I (843-47), was proclaimed by the Synodikon of Orthodoxy - a formal acclamation of Orthodoxy and its defenders and anathematization of heresy and heretics - before the Divine Liturgy in the Great Church of Hagia Sophia on the first Sunday of Lent, 843. This ceremony was to be repeated yearly, first in Constantinople, and eventually throughout the Byzantine world, each first Sunday of Lent, which came to be known as the Sunday of Orthodoxy. Although some resistance to icons within the Byzantine world remained, the veneration of icons was henceforth to remain Byzantine policy.

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