Was the Byzantine State a Theocracy?

Venerable Theodore the Sanctified, Disciple of the Venerable Pachomius the Great

Beloved brothers and sisters in Our Risen Lord, God, Redeemer and the Only True Savior of the world Jesus Christ,


Let us who have beheld the Resurrection of Christ, worship our Holy Lord Jesus, Who is alone without sin. We worship Thy Cross, O Christ, and praise and glorify Thy Holy Resurrection. For Thou art our God, and we know none other beside Thee, and we call upon Thy Name. Come, all ye faithful, let us worship Christ's Holy Resurrection, for behold, through the Cross, joy has come to the whole world. We praise His Resurrection, and forever glorify the Lord. He endured the Cross for us, and by death destroyed Death.

Jesus, having risen from the grave, as He foretold, has given to us Eternal Life and the Great Mercy. Amen.




On May 16th Our Holy Orthodox Christian Church commemorates, honors and entreats the holy intercessions of the following Saints, Forefathers, Fathers, Patriarchs, Prophets, Apostles, Preachers, Evangelists, Martyrs, Confessors, Ascetics, Teachers and every righteous soul made perfect in Our Holy Orthodox Christian faith: Saint Theodore the Sanctified of Egypt; Saint Nicholas I, Patriarch of Constantinople; Saints Abdas and Abdiesus, bishops, with 38 Holy Martyrs, in Persia; Saint Peter of Vlachernae; New Holy Martyr Nicholas of Metsovo; Saints Isaacius, Symeon and Bachthisoes; Holy Martyr Papylinos; Saint Alexander, Archbishop of Jerusalem; Saint Efymia near Neaorion; Saints Cassian and Laurence, Egoumenoi (Abbots) of Komel; Monk-Martyrs of the community of Saint Savva the Sanctified; Saint Ephraim of Novgorod; Saint Musa of Rome; Saint Brendan the Voyager.

+By the holy intercessions of Your Saints, Holy Martyrs, Holy Patriarchs, Holy bishops, Holy Egoumenoi, Holy Archbishops, Holy Monk-Martyrs, Holy Mothers, Holy Fathers, Holy Ascetics, O Christ Our God, have mercy on us and save us. Amen.

SAINT NICHOLAS MYSTIKOS, PATRIARCH OF CONSTANTINOPLE. Saint Nicholas was from 9th century Constantinople. He was educated by his relative, Patriarch Photios, who later came to be known as Saint Photios the Great. When St. Photios fell out of favor, both he and his family were persecuted. Saint Nicholas went into seclusion at the St. Tryphon Monastery, where he became a monk. When Leo VI became the Emperor, he chose St. Nicholas, who was an old classmate, to become his advisor. St. Nicholas received the title Mystikos, which was given to high-ranking officials who were close to the Emperor. Later, Leo elevated St. Nicholas to the Patriarchate. However, when St. Nicholas opposed and nullified Leo's fourth marriage, Leo deposed him. When St. Nicholas' replacement Efthymios failed in his efforts, St. Nicholas was reinstated as Patriarch three years later. St. Nicholas was always as strict with his personal asceticism as he was in defending the Holy Canons of the Church. Thirteen years after his reinstatement, St. Nicholas died peacefully.


Holy Epistle Lesson: Acts 10:44-48, 11:1-10
Holy Gospel Lesson: St. John 8:21-30


"We have Christ our God, the One Who died and rose again for us, as our example and Prototype". (Amma [Mother] Theodora of the Desert)



By Anastasios Philippidis (Source: Greek Orthodox Tradition: Roots and Perspective)

In order to avoid the confusion caused to most writers by the term theocracy, we suggest four criteria with which the existence and degree of a theocracy can be measured within a state:

1) Identification of political and religious power in the same person
2) Imposition of religious rules on the whole system of law
3) Exercise of public administration by religious officials
4) Control of education by the religious hierarchy

As strange as it seems, "Byzantium" does not satisfy even one of the four criteria for a theocratic state. Let's look at them in order.

1) That the "Pope" and the "Caesar" were different people is known to all. Neither the one nor the other had complete power over all functions of public life. In other words, no Khomeini ever ruled over the entire state from the Patriarchal throne. In addition, no bishop ever led any military battalion into conflicts of war, as was the rule in the West.

2) In the area of law, "Byzantium" continued the great Roman tradition. The main axis of the legal system in all its long history remained the Roman law as it had been codified by Justinian. From time to time, changes were added to this, which were established by the new social conditions and the influence of Christianity. Thus, the final constitution was a much more humane version of ancient Roman law. All this, however, belonged to the secular (not ecclesiastical) sphere of the state. The law schools and courts had no relation to the Church, and the judges certainly were not bishops, as happened during the same period in the West. (The bishops could be judges in certain situations, if requested by the defendant, but this was a humane concession that did not fundamentally change the essence of secular justice.)

3) As a result of the unbroken, political, continuity of "Byzantium" there was always an educated bureaucracy which handled state affairs. In contrast, in the West, as we will see more thoroughly in the next section, there appeared from the 6th century a huge gap in education. A characteristic result of the decline of letters in the West was that there were no more educated, secular men to see to the basic administrative needs of the new, uncivilized states. Thus from the 7th century Western Europe relied solely on its clerics for diplomatic, administrative, and educational functions.

Already in the court of Charlemagne (end of the 8th century) almost all the known scholars, with the exception of Einhard, were clerics (Alcuin of York, Deacon Peter, Paulinus, etc.) This was a development with enormous consequences in Western Latin history. This was not only because it was maintained for a 1,000 years and marked the character of the Latin West, but also because it eventually caused a fierce anticlerical spirit which broke out during the "Enlightenment" and the French Revolution. This reaction has shaped today's Western European attitude toward Christianity.

The Western European man would be very different, if he didn't carry within himself centuries of oppression by the monopolistic stance of the Latin (Roman Catholic) Church on public life. Certainly all this is completely unknown to the Romans, since the secular character of the Roman administration was an essential feature of "Byzantium" throughout its existence. Moreover, because of this, anticlerical messages have never had success in our lands [1].

4) With regard to education, we can distinguish three types of schools in "Byzantium": public, private, and monastic schools. Concerning the last, only children who had been devoted to monasticism were allowed to study there. Indeed, the Ecumenical Council of Chalcedon (451 A.D.) expressly forbade the laity to attend these schools, and from what it seems, this rule was applied without exception [2]. Now the majority of our ancestors of the Roman lands were educated in secular schools as opposed to that which simultaneously happened in the Latin West. As it is known, for many centuries in the Latin West, the complete collapse of the Greco-Roman civilization resulted in the Church emerging as the exclusive provider of education. The only education which one could receive was that which was provided by the monasteries.

On the contrary, in "Byzantium" the education was principally attached to the Classical tradition. Required reading, along with the Holy Scripture, was Homer, which all students learned by heart, dictating these works word for word [3].

Michael Psellos boasts that from a very young age he knew the complete Iliad by heart [4]. Anna Comnena mentions verses from Homer sixty-six times in her "La Alexiada", often without feeling the need to add the clarification of "such-and-such Homeric verse..." [5]. In order to understand the cultural gap which separated the Romans(Ρωμηοί) from the West, it is enough to recall that the West didn't encounter Homer until the 14th century, when by order of Petrarch and Boccaccio-a Roman of Southern Italy, Leontius Pilate translated both the Iliad and the Odyssey into Latin [6].

The secular character of education throughout the 1,000 year history of the Empire is highlighted also by the fact that the university of Constantinople was a state institution never found under the control of the Church. According to the Constitutive Act (Theodosius II, 425 AD), teachers were paid by the state and also exempt from taxes [7]. It is significant that the subject of theology did not exist in the university, since the purpose of public education was for the learning of governmental officials and dignitaries [8].

As we mentioned at the start of this section, the question of theocracy in "Byzantium" is vast and cannot be exhausted here. From the little shown above, however, it must become clear that the reality of the Christian Roman Empire was quite different from that which is presented to us by the various simplistic, popular views. With the danger of becoming tiring we repeat that unfortunately we often fall into the mistake of identifying the deceptive, theocratic, Middle Ages of the West with the corresponding time of "Byzantium". As we have seen the differences are enormous and very substantial. The ignorance, lack of freedom, religious oppression, i.e., the holy Inquisition, the military bishops that led battalions of monks into battle, all of this is unknown in our land and civilization. This explains, in part, the persistent resistance of the [Eastern] Romans to the efforts for their westernization, which have occurred since 1204 AD until today.

There are also other aspects for consideration with respect to the cultural divide between the [Eastern] Romans and the Latin West in the Middle Ages, a period often referred to as "dark" for all of Europe. As we shall see, if by the term "Europe" we mean only the West, then the characterization of "dark" is absolutely correct. However, if we also include the [Eastern] Roman Empire-"Byzantium"-then we ourselves fall victims of the deceptive, cultural, imperialism of the West.



With sincere agape in our Risen Lord and Savior Jesus Christ,
The sinner and unworthy servant of God

+Father George