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6. Council of Constantinople 869 |
The worst blow falls as feuds over authority split East from West

Council of Constantinople 869 is drawn from Chapter Six, beginning on page , of Volume Six, The Quest for the City of the twelve-volume historical series The Christians: Their First Two Thousand Years. If you would like to order this book please visit

Clashes between pope and patriarch make starkly clear the gulf between Eastern and Western Christendom, though the disputants themselves were appalled by it

Council of Constantinople 869 - The worst blow falls as feuds over authority split East from West

Council of Constantinople 869 - The worst blow falls as feuds over authority split East from West
In 869 the Byzantine emperor Basil I and Pope Adrian II were mutually intent upon reconciliation. The result, depicted above by the seventeenth-century artist, Cesare Nebbia, was a synod held in Hagia Sophia, the cathedral in Constantinople, one of the last two councils where both East and West were represented. Attended by 102 bishops, four patriarchs, and two papal representatives, it confirmed the pope’s condemnation of Patriarch Photius of Constantinople (already deposed and banished by Basil), but also required every Eastern bishop to pledge obedience to decisions of the Roman see. Ten years later, however, Photius would be back. (The painting is now held in the Vatican Museums.)

In the year 1000, when the Christians entered their second millennium, their prospects were something less than promising. Islam’s assault three to four centuries before had overrun more than half of their churches and people. Muslim armies still pressed upon them from the west in Spain, from the south across the Mediterranean, and from the East in Persia and Syria. The hideous Viking raids from the north that had destroyed hundreds of churches and monasteries had largely stopped, but most of the Scandinavians were still pagan and still threatening. Finally, from the great steppes to the east, the fearsome Turks were moving towards Islam spiritually, and toward the Christian lands militarily.

To be sure, not all was grim. Christendom’s demoralizing string of retreats and defeats had been somewhat offset by stirrings of revival: the founding in the West of the Cluny monastery with its contagious spirit of reform; a renewed confidence in the East as the Byzantine Empire held the Muslim legions at bay; and the recent baptism of Grand Prince Vladimir that portended the conversion of Russia. But as the historian Kenneth Scott Latourette observes, Christianity at the end of its first millennium was still “far less prominent on the total human scene than it had been in A.D. 500”–so much so, in fact, that someone then reviewing Christianity’s setbacks and the combined strength of its enemies might well have imagined it shrinking into insignificance during the next few hundred years.

The last thing Christians needed in the year 1000 was another catastrophe to weaken their ranks, and yet one was quickly approaching, and would climax before the century had passed.

This disaster would be internal: a decisive showdown between East and West. The Byzantine Empire, though now stripped of Muslim-held Syria, Palestine, Egypt and North Africa, still controlled most of Asia Minor, Greece and eastern Europe south of the Danube, and still called itself “Roman.” Its emperor at Constantinople and most of his subjects spoke Greek, and viewed the people of the West as barbarians, and their Latin language as barbarous. To them, the bishop of Rome, increasingly referred to as the “pope,” was merely “the Patriarch of the West.” True, he was the senior of the five patriarchs in Christendom–the others being those of Constantinople, Alexandria, Jerusalem and Antioch–but being senior, they contended, did not empower him to approve the appointments of the other four, or intervene in their internal affairs. In addition, they said, he was still a “subject” of the emperor at Constantinople.

To the Latin West, most of these contentions were absurd. Had not Jesus Christ himself, to preserve unity, named Peter to lead the apostles as they led the Church? Had Christ not given Peter, they asked, the steward’s “keys to the royal household” and thus the authority to “open and close,” that is, to govern (as in Matt 16:18—19 and Isa. 22:20—22)? Had not Peter become bishop of Rome and therefore did not all his successors in that office inherit this authority to govern? And did not this authority apply to the whole Church?

Moreover, said the West, the bishop of Rome was no longer a subject to the Byzantine Empire, but subject to God as coruler with the emperor of the true Roman Empire, now restored to the West and established by Charlemagne, who had been crowned by the pope himself in the year 800. Finally, the West saw the Constantinople patriarchate as a latecomer, an upstart, not even heard of until the fourth century. Surely, the patriarchs of Antioch, Alexandria and Jerusalem, though now under Muslim control, held far more venerable and respected offices.

By the second millennium after Christ, an East-West schism had been brewing for five centuries. Six times it had boiled over, and Rome and Constantinople had severed relations with each other. Twice popes had been kidnapped and held hostage by Byzantine emperors. With the Muslim calamity, however, the whole structure of the church had changed, particularly in the East, where three of its four patriarchs must now somehow safeguard their imperiled flocks under Muslim governments that prohibited the preaching of the gospel to Muslims on penalty of death. Under such anxious conditions, church leaders had become more sensitive than ever to practices that diverged from what they considered the settled traditions of the church.

This growing vigilance was apparent as early as 692, at the Trullan Council (literally, “under the Dome” in the imperial palace in Constantinople), whose canons highlighted a number of differences between the Eastern and Western churches. The emperor Justinian II convened the gathering to settle unresolved matters from the Fifth and Sixth Ecumenical Councils, but also because it was a moment fraught with urgency for the church. With so many of the faithful newly subject to a psychological state of siege within the Muslim orbit, it was important to tie up loose ends regarding what was permitted and what was not. Solidarity and unity were the orders of the day.

Alas for unity, the council turned out to be an Eastern affair, with not one of 215 bishops in attendance hailing from the West. Even the representative of the pope, Basil of Gortyn in Crete (which for the moment remained within papal control), did not appreciate how badly several of the canons would go down in Rome. Given the growing sense of papal prerogative, however, it is no wonder Pope Sergius I would bridle at a declaration that “the see of Constantinople shall have equal privileges with the see of Old Rome, and shall be highly regarded in ecclesiastical matters as that is, and shall be second after it.” That last phrase may have softened the blow somewhat, but the statement remained no more palatable to Sergius than a similar declaration, more than two hundred years before at Chalcedon, had been to Pope Leo I.

Several other canons at the Trullan (or Quinisext) Council also showcased the East-West divide. One insisted that clergy below the rank of bishop could continue to “live with a lawful wife,” but could not marry after they were ordained, while bishops could not be married at all; another banned the depiction of Christ as a lamb; a third denounced the custom of fasting on Saturdays. All three insulted entrenched Western practices, and the defense of lesser clergy who remain married is especially notable as the first evidence of East-West tension over celibacy.

The council also approved a canon that foretold a most bitter dispute in the future involving the type of bread used in the Eucharist. “Let no one in the priestly order nor any layman eat the unleavened bread of the Jews,” Canon XI declared in part. Although the thrust of the entire canon clearly aimed at barring close association between Christians and Jews, its frontal assault on unleavened bread no doubt raised eyebrows in the West. The Latin Church believed Jesus could not have used leavened bread in the Last Supper, given the account in the synoptic Gospels, which indicate it occurred on the Jewish day of Passover, the first day of a week in which only unleavened bread could be consumed; the Eastern fathers, on the other hand, drew quite a different conclusion, based upon their reading of the Gospel of John, which suggests Jesus was crucified on the day of Preparation, or in other words before the Passover meal. This was not a new disagreement, but for most of early church history, it simply had not mattered. “The Roman and Byzantine rites had long coexisted in the ancient world without conflict,” observes historian Mahlon H. Smith (And Taking Bread: Cerularius and the Azyme Controversy). But the two spheres of Christendom were drifting apart, and soon those who saw advantage, or religious duty, in demanding that the other side reform its ways would seize upon these differences.

When Pope Sergius withheld his approval to the canons of Trullo, the emperor decided to bring the recalcitrant pontiff to heel and ordered his arrest. But this was easier said than done. No sooner had the captain of the imperial guard arrived in Rome to inform the pope that he was being summoned to Constantinople than the Italian-born troops who were supposed to enforce the decree mutinied in the pope’s defense. Only Sergius’s personal intervention saved the emperor’s emissary–who at one point was reduced to cowering under the pope’s bed.

Relations between East and West would soon improve again, but the fragile amity of the early eighth century quickly plunged into even more radical estrangement when Emperor Leo III began destroying religious icons in 726, and Rome refused to follow suit (see chapter 5). Suffice it to say this would be the last century in which a pope visited Constantinople; the last century in which a pope paid imperial taxes; the last in which he would date his proclamations according to the reign of the emperor in Constantinople; and the last in which any pope would be Greek.

In many ways, ironically, the relentless Muslim advance conspired to accelerate the separation of East and West. Muslim assaults tied down Byzantium at key moments when the papacy might have looked to it for military help, thus prodding the pope, who faced Arab scares of his own, to scan the horizon for an ally with a more reliable mailed fist. And as East and West alike sought to compensate for the loss of regions once under their influence, they sent forth missionaries who competed on the same spiritual frontiers.

Even so, the single consistent thread in the on-again, off-again relationship between the Eastern and Western churches was the tension over papal claims to ecclesiastical primacy and Constantinople’s insistence on all-but-equivalent prestige and autonomy. No episode illustrates this central fact more clearly than the “Photian schism” of the late ninth century, the single most significant confrontation in the long run-up to the decisive break between East and West that occurred two centuries later.

When the empress Theodora restored image veneration in 843, many of the iconoclasts she suppressed had no intention of accepting the new order.1 They represented a continuing threat in the eyes of their triumphant enemies, particularly those of the zealous Studite monks. These anti-iconoclasts demanded a patriarch of impeccable credentials, a resolute and uncompromising leader, and they got their wish with the elevation of the saintly Ignatius to the post in 847.

The younger son of the late emperor Michael I, Ignatius had been castrated, tonsured a monk and imprisoned on Princes Islands when his father was deposed in 813. By the time he became patriarch, Ignatius was renowned for his ascetic rigor and stubborn fearlessness–a reputation that subsequent events were to vindicate in full. But although Ignatius was a sincere and holy man, his virtues did not include an instinct for diplomacy. His background was nearly bereft of secular learning or experience in the wider world, and it showed in his prickly dealings with those who did not fully share his priorities. Indeed, Ignatius’s blunt, abrupt style sparked a confrontation at his own consecration as patriarch with a bishop from Sicily, Gregory Asbestas, who was in Constantinople to deal with a charge that he had violated church rules. When Ignatius insisted the Sicilian vacate St. Sophia’s because of his uncertain status, the bishop exploded. He denounced the patriarch as a wolf, smashed his own candle against the floor and stalked out of the church leading a procession of allied clerics.

And this was only the beginning of the clash. Ignatius called a synod that condemned Asbestas and his followers, but the move inspired the Sicilian to escalate the confrontation. He appealed to Rome, complaining not only of his own treatment, but also of the irregular way Ignatius had been designated patriarch by Theodora and her advisers, who had failed to convene the usual synod. Pope Leo IV was not reluctant to get involved, and wrote to the patriarch asking that copies of papers on the Gregory Asbestas case be sent to Rome for Leo’s inspection. Ignatius evaded this trap with a flat refusal, and then gave the same answer when Leo’s successor, Benedict III, repeated the request.

The stubborn Ignatius was willing to assert his autonomy not only against the faraway pope. He also refused to kowtow to a figure of far more potential menace to himself, Theodora’s brother Bardas, who served as regent for her son, the emperor Michael III. Persuaded by rumors that Bardas enjoyed an incestuous relationship with his daughter-in-law, Ignatius resolved as his holy duty to stop the perversion. On the feast of the Epiphany in 858, the patriarch made his move: He withheld communion from Bardas in full view of other congregants, a humiliation that provoked the caesar into a controlled but vengeful fury. It was now only a matter of time before Ignatius’s downfall, but it would not occur until the patriarch once again had proved his valor.

At Bardas’s prodding, the adolescent emperor was persuaded to seize sole control of the government by the device of banishing his mother to a monastery. To solemnize the deed, the emperor ordered Ignatius to perform the ceremony of the tonsure on Theodora and her daughters, a shameful duty for a man who owed his position to the empress. But to his lasting credit, Ignatius chose personal loyalty to Theodora over his own welfare, and rejected the emperor’s demand on the ground that the empress’s abdication was coerced. Now Bardas had Ignatius where he wanted him. It would not require much more evidence to convince the emperor that the stiff-necked patriarch was a liability, and Bardas was capable of manufacturing the sort of tale to which any ruler must pay attention: He linked Ignatius to a traitor. The patriarch was arrested, resigned his position, and was banished to the island Terebinthus.

At this point, we encounter one of the most intriguing yet elusive individuals in the medieval church. Photius is a pivotal historical figure who nonetheless comes down to us in such contrasting portraits, depending on the allegiance of the source, that a mist of contradiction swirls around him still. Was he an unprincipled aggressor in his confrontation with the pope, or a defender of New Rome’s prerogatives forced reluctantly into his role? Were his attacks on Western practices, especially the use of the Filioque clause in the creed, heartfelt? Or were they a mere pretext for driving a wedge between the Greek and Latin Churches?

For a thousand years, Western theologians and scholars hewed to the most unflattering answers, thus ruling out the slightest sympathy for Photius and his position. Yet even his most savage critics have always agreed to this extent with his enthusiasts: Photius was one of the most brilliant men of his age, and easily the most learned. The son of an old, aristocratic family–Greek, but with an admixture of Armenian on his mother’s side–his knowledge and understanding of classical literature not only dazzled his peers and his students at the university of Constantinople, they impressed much later scholars as well, who credited him with preserving a wealth of classical culture that otherwise would surely have been lost.

Photius’s interests were not confined to the secular classics. A deeply religious man, he had mastered the subtleties of theological literature, too–his facility being such that at one point before he was patriarch, he published a heresy as a prank to test whether the intellectually less nimble Ignatius, then patriarch, would detect it.

The regent Bardas may have been a ruthless man, but this vice was in part redeemed by an admiration for subtle judgment and erudition, and he could hardly fail to appreciate the talents of Photius. He and the emperor were naturally pleased, therefore, when the synod that met to nominate a successor to Ignatius chose Photius as a compromise candidate who could attract the support of all but five bishops. There was just one problem with this selection: Photius was a layman. He would have to proceed through the entire ecclesiastical sequence–lector, subdeacon, deacon, priest, bishop–before he could become patriarch. But no matter. The task was accomplished in a sprint that began on December 20, 858, and concluded on Christmas Day, with none other than Gregory Asbestas, the sworn enemy of Ignatius, among those presiding at the consecration.

Unlike Ignatius, Photius understood the uses of a conciliatory compliment or a gracious expression of concern, and he genuinely tried to win over those such as the Studite monks and a handful of influential bishops who would not be reconciled to his predecessor’s abdication. It was to no avail. The Abbot of Studion would not take communion with Photius. The dissident bishops, meanwhile, met in the church of Hagia Eirene, declared Ignatius patriarch and excommunicated Photius, a bold but hopeless gesture given the balance of power. Soon those bishops too were deposed, a crackdown accompanied by a general persecution against the now routed allies of Ignatius.

The pope at the time was an aristocrat, Nicholas I, who in his own way was as remarkable as Photius. Not for nothing was Nicholas the last pontiff to earn the title “the Great.” In his nine years as bishop of Rome (858—867), he set about to heighten the authority, prestige, and independence of the Roman see, which he insisted must rank as the final court of appeal in church affairs. No bishop, he maintained, could be appointed or deposed without the pope’s approval, and because the pope functions as the apostle Peter’s deputy, his authority takes precedence over the decisions of any synod, too.

So the pope seized his opportunities as they arose, bringing the independent-minded archbishops of Ravenna and Reims to heel, for example, through the excommunication of the first and a threat of the same to the second. (Despite their long-standing Byzantine connection, both Ravenna and Reims fell under the Roman patriarchate.) When a synod of servile Frankish bishops agreed to let King Lothar of Lorraine divorce his wife, Theutberga, in order to marry his mistress, the pope stiffened again. He ordered the king to return to his wife, excommunicated two archbishops who sided with Lothar (and who returned fire by denouncing Nicholas for “making himself emperor of the whole world”), and refused to back down even when Lothar’s brother marched on Rome and forced the pope to seek asylum in the shrine of St. Peter’s. It was the king, in the end, who would capitulate.

“The Lorraine divorce case showed Nicholas at his courageous best,” contends historian Eamon Duffy (Saints and Sinners: A History of the Popes), “defying emperors, archbishops and regional councils in defense not only of papal prerogatives but of a friendless woman. The same determination marked his relations with the emperor and churches of the East, but here the consequence was to be a tragic split between the churches of East and West.”

In their letters to Nicholas informing him that Ignatius had been deposed as patriarch, both Emperor Michael and Photius carefully avoided asking for the pope’s approval. But the pope hardly required an invitation to assert his oversight in such important business. He responded to the emperor that his legates, who would be delivering the reply in person to Michael, would “make a careful inquiry into [Ignatius’s] deposition and his censure, with a view to discovering whether the canons have been observed or not; then, when the matter has been reported to us, we shall direct by our apostolic authority what is to be done, so that your church, daily shaken by these anxieties, may henceforth remain inviolate and unhurt.” Nicholas’s letter to Photius was shorter and somewhat curt: It objected to the elevation of a layman to bishop, but added that the pope would await the judgment of his legates on the new patriarch’s character.2

Some historians describe Nicholas’s intervention as little more than a cynical exercise intended to wrest Illyricum in the East, plus the Italian district of Calabria and the island Sicily in the West, from the jurisdiction of the patriarch of Constantinople, since the pope raised that possibility with the emperor. Yet if Nicholas was prepared to strike a deal, it is just as apparent that he actually wanted both the disputed territory and the last word on whether Ignatius had been justifiably deposed. In the event, discussion on the topic of the Balkans never seriously got under way. What did occur in Constantinople in the spring of 861 was far more remarkable: a retrial of Ignatius for the benefit of the pope’s legates, Rodoald and Zachary. This was a major concession to the Roman see, even if the emperor was at pains to insist the retrial was merely a courtesy to the pope. The rehearing was also a political risk, since it was sure to reignite pro-Ignatius passions and demonstrations, which had to be put down with ugly force. At the council, meanwhile, the papal legates at first sought merely to gather information to take back to Rome, but Michael reared up against this limited agenda. He insisted the pope’s representatives render a decision on Ignatius on the spot, and his wish was eventually granted–although historians have sparred ever since over how he managed to win the legates over. Did he bribe Rodoald and Zachary? Threaten them? Or were they moved simply by the logic of the situation? After all, they found Photius to be suave and respectful, while Ignatius seemed oblivious to his opportunity and adopted a truculent attitude that rejected their authority to consider his case at all. Moreover, they must have come to realize that Ignatius was more isolated in Byzantium than the pope had been led to believe.

Whatever their reasons, Rodoald and Zachary capitulated to Michael’s demands, exceeded their orders, and in a serious abuse of power, passed sentence on Ignatius–condemning him–before anxiously heading back to report to Nicholas.

The pope was anything but pleased. His legates had failed to restore Illyricum to the papal orbit and had preempted his rightful decision to rule on the retrial of Ignatius. The latter affront became increasingly hard to bear after the arrival in Rome of an eloquent defender of Ignatius, the abbot Theognostos, who had fled Constantinople in disguise just steps ahead of the emperor’s agents. Theognostos regaled Nicholas with lurid stories of the Ignatians’ abuse at the hands of Michael, and no doubt reminded the pope of the equally sensational origins of Ignatius’s downfall: His refusal to grant communion to Bardas over allegations of grave sin. Nicholas had proved before that he was not afraid to buck unfavorable odds in the name of principle, and it wasn’t long before he had resolved to repudiate his legates and rally to the cause of Ignatius, whether the crusty ex-patriarch liked it or not. Thus it was that in 863, Nicholas took the fateful step of calling a council in Rome that restored Ignatius to power and excommunicated Photius, unless he resigned his see at once.

Official Constantinople was shocked at the news from this Lateran council, but stewed in silence for nearly two years, until at last the emperor–no doubt in concert with Bardas–could stand it no longer. He dispatched to Rome what the historian Owen Chadwick calls “one of the rudest letters of Byzantine history,” denouncing the pope for cultural backwardness and ignorance of Greek, and threatening to march on Rome if the pope didn’t abandon his allegiance to Ignatius. Nicholas softened a bit at this thunderbolt, but his official reaction was as symbolic as was the emperor’s threat of a military campaign. Come to Rome, Nicholas urged Michael and Photius, and we will examine the matter again, together.

Photius of course had no intention of prostrating himself in such fashion, and in any event, had a scheme afoot involving overtures to Western bishops who chafed under Nicholas’s aggressive leadership. In effect, the patriarch was betting on a putsch within the Latin Church. But Photius’s patience was not boundless, and he watched with increasing irritation as Western missionaries made inroads among the Bulgars, whom he felt by proximity and imperial right ought to cleave to Constantinople (and eventually would; see chapter 8). Since Photius by this time had given up all hope that Nicholas would ever come round to his side, the patriarch decided to force the issue and see if the pope could survive the resulting furor. He summoned a synod, which met in the fall of 867, to consider the pope’s responsibility in permitting a number of heresies to take root in the West and be exported to Bulgaria. Photius enumerated these outrages in a letter sent to the other three Eastern patriarchs before the council got under way. They included the West’s exemption of milk and cheese from the Lenten fast; its ban on married clergy; fasting on Saturdays; and the insistence that bishops alone apply the chrism of confirmation.3 But the greatest offense by far, according to Photius, was the teaching by Frankish missionaries that the Filioque clause belonged in the creed. The Filioque clause, which describes the Holy Spirit proceeding not only from God the Father but also from the Son, “merits a thousand anathemas,” Photius solemnly proclaimed.

With the emperor Michael presiding, the synod of 867 condemned the pope in what later would be seen as the major watershed leading ultimately to the final break between the Eastern and Western churches.

Western church historians have often been tempted to view Photius’s indignation at the Filioque as a cynical means of elevating a power struggle into a doctrinal clash and thus give it more substance, but subsequent events left little doubt regarding his sincerity. As far as the patriarch was concerned, the Filioque amounted to rank heresy. Never mind that it did not belong in the creed; in his view, it did not belong in Christian theology. Did not Scripture itself say that the Holy Spirit proceeded from the Father (John 15:26)? From the Greek Church’s perspective, moreover, Photius seemed to have a monopoly on the arguments. The Filioque did not appear in the creed as it emerged at the Second Ecumenical Council in Constantinople in 381, where the phrases referring to the Holy Spirit were added to the Nicene version.4 Nor had any of the early Greek fathers accepted the dual procession, although several popes and fathers of the church in the West clearly had. The Latin model of the Trinity had in fact been decisively shaped by the writings of Augustine, but such was the intellectual isolation of East from West that his works were still unknown to Eastern clerics, except by reputation. Incredibly, given Augustine’s immense prestige in the West, no one had yet bothered to translate his works into Greek.

The first insertion of the Filioque into the creed occurred in Spain, as a way to emphasize the divinity of Christ against the Arian heresy. From there the practice seems to have migrated by way of Ireland and England to the Carolingian Empire, where the Franks became the Filioque’s untiring, uncompromising promoters. Realizing that Rome still resisted the Filioque as an addition to the creed, the Franks had dispatched a delegation to Rome in 810 to urge its adoption. But Pope Leo III felt so strongly that it did not belong in the liturgy–although he absolutely agreed with its doctrinal truth–that he told them such a design was “illicit” and later had two silver shields engraved with the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed installed on either side of the Confession of St. Peter. However, the Franks ignored the pope’s admonitions and the Filioque continued to gain ground in the West throughout the ninth century.5

Pope Nicholas died in the same year he was condemned by Michael and Photius. But soon, fortune turned against them as well. Michael’s great favorite, the capable but ruthless Basil the Macedonian, demonstrated his gratitude first by murdering Bardas with his own hands, and then conniving to have the emperor killed, too. (See subchapter, page 137.) At this point, Photius could not have been hopeful about his own chances–Basil disliked him and had allied himself with the Ignatians–and soon his premonition would prove correct. Photius was banished to a monastery as Ignatius was tapped once more to lead the Eastern church.

It was Rome’s hour again, too. The emperor Basil was intent on reconciliation with Rome, and Pope Adrian II was more than happy to oblige–but on his own triumphant terms. Adrian shared his predecessor’s expansive vision of the papacy, and was also determined to be the instrument of Nicholas’s vindication. After presiding over a synod in Rome that reaffirmed the condemnation of Photius, Adrian sent representatives to Constantinople to lead a council there on the same issues. Here again, however, conflicting goals between East and West led to friction. Basil wanted Rome’s support for deposing Photius and elevating Ignatius. He did not want to prostrate the Eastern Church before papal authority–which was, as it happens, exactly what Adrian’s legates insisted upon. Not only was Photius condemned anew and his ordinations rejected at the Synod of 869, but also every Eastern bishop in attendance was required to sign a document pledging obedience to the decisions of the Roman see in order to restore relations. Such was the resentment at this last demand that these signed statements at one point were stolen from the legates’ quarters and “recovered” only after tremendous furor. The skullduggery may not have ended there, either. The legates were delayed on their way home and then waylaid by Slav pirates who seemed to exhibit a curiously intense interest in the papal archives. In any event, the papers were seized and lost to posterity, with the only surviving account of the synod being a Latin translation carried independently to Rome by an alternative route.

As unlikely as Ignatius’s ecclesiastical resurrection had been, it was followed by one even more extraordinary: that of Photius himself. Byzantine politics being what they were, the emperor found he needed the moderate wing of the clergy in his corner, too–or at least not chafing in resistance to his every move. And so within a few years, Photius found himself being eased back into respectability, even to the point of being able to offer comfort to Ignatius on his deathbed in 877. “When he fell ill and asked to see us,” Photius later wrote, “we visited him, not once or twice, but frequently, doing everything we could to relieve his suffering.”6

By this time, no one in Constantinople was surprised to see Photius regain the patriarch’s throne, but his appointment did of course present a most delicate problem: What about Rome? How would it react to news that the arch-schismatic had clambered back into Basil’s good graces? Fortunately for Basil and Photius, Pope Adrian’s successor, John VIII, had more important things on his mind than nursing grudges. The Arabs were on the attack again in southern Italy, and the Franks were tied down elsewhere and unable to come to Rome’s aid. John was willing to smooth over clashes of the past in return for assistance from the emperor’s fleet and a proper apology from Photius for his conduct a decade earlier. So once again, a pope’s legates headed east with instructions that could not possibly be followed to the letter, given attitudes in the imperial capital. Photius had no intention of apologizing; in his mind he had nothing to apologize for, and had suffered much too much humiliation already. Instead, he orchestrated a synod in late 879—880, with the legates in attendance, from which he emerged not only with recognition of himself as ecumenical patriarch (although East and West differed as to what precisely this phrase meant) but even with an agreement that nothing be added to the Nicene Creed “provided that the devil starts no new heresy.”

The triumph of Photius was now complete, and he was able to savor it for a few more years before another shudder in Byzantine politics put his position in peril again. Basil’s death in 886 catapulted to the throne an illegitimate son, Leo VI, who despised Photius, and the young emperor lost no time in charging his former tutor with various intrigues. Photius was stripped of his title and sequestered in a monastery, where he died a few years later.

For all the Eastern accolades and Western imprecations that would rain down upon Photius’s memory in the centuries to follow, it remains a remarkable fact that Rome and Constantinople were in communion during all but a few months of his career. So what then accounts for his reputation through the ages as chief author of the Great Schism that was still to come? As the historian J. B. Bury explains, Photius “formulated the points of difference between the two churches that were to furnish the pretext for the schism; he first brought into the foreground, as an essential point of doctrine, the mystery of the procession of the Holy Ghost.” Photius was not in fact the first Eastern churchman to object to the Western attachment to the Filioque, but he attacked it with a gusto and sophistication that were to remain unmatched for all time. Easterners increasingly recognized in Photius a model of fearless independence from what they considered Rome’s bullying pretensions, while westerners came to view him as the crowning example of how unprincipled ambition hitched to imperial power would shatter the unity of the church.

Even so, since Photius and Ignatius both died completely reconciled to Rome, optimists were confident the East-West controversy would die with them. But of course it did not, since its central issue–what are the powers of the patriarch of the West over the church of the East?–was no closer to settlement. For more than 150 years, the question lay smoldering, while Rome endured the era of what even some Catholic historians call “the bad popes” (see sidebar page 78). None seemed capable of ruling in the West, let alone the East. Meanwhile at Constantinople, Basil’s descendants, despite court feuding that made the word “Byzantine” synonymous with “treachery,” provided the Eastern empire with its golden era, raising it to economic, military and cultural heights it would not surpass in its entire eleven-century history. Certainly none of the “bad popes” was ready to challenge it.

Indeed, the Roman see reverted to such indifference regarding its rights that by 1024, Pope John XIX was prepared to embrace a declaration suggested by an Eastern embassy that read, in part, “the church in Constantinople should be styled universal in its sphere”–a concession of nearly full autonomy. But then something occurred that warned of a sea change to come in the Western church’s attitude: Disciples of the Cluniac reform movement raised such a din of protest over this perceived affront to papal authority that John had little choice but to repudiate the deal.

This time, church reformers had flexed their muscles as outsiders. The full force of their campaign for the renewal of Christian life and an end to such practices as simony and clerical marriage would only be felt, however, when they gained control of the papacy itself. This was not far off, either. Beginning in 1046, the German emperor Henry III began appointing a series of such reformers to the papacy, the greatest of whom by far was the third, Pope Leo IX (1049—1054), a relative of his and a distinguished churchman.

Like Nicholas nearly two centuries before, Leo set the tone of his papacy at once. He surrounded himself with talented advisers–the first Roman Curia with a truly international flavor–and embarked upon a whirlwind schedule of travel throughout Italy, Germany, and France that included numerous synods at which he would condemn such corruptions as simony and the practice of laymen appointing bishops. Leo’s travels helped him appreciate the growing threat of the Normans, too–freebooters who would smash the Muslims in Sicily but whose incursions into southern Italy threatened both Byzantine lands and the pope’s own patrimony. Leo could hardly face them alone, however. When sufficient help from Henry failed to materialize, the pope parleyed with General Argyos, a Lombard in Byzantine pay who favored a partnership. Not that the resulting deal did Leo much good. When the pope dashed south in 1053 to protect his interests, he ended up sending his own makeshift army into battle against a combat-hardened Norman force. The pope’s troops were an untested if fervent multitude of volunteers leavened with a few hundred fearsome Germans, and despite stout resistance from the latter, the Norman surge turned into a blood-soaked rout, with the pope escaping just ahead of the slaughter.

In the history of medieval warfare, Pope Leo’s quixotic venture might rate a footnote at best, but its implications for church unity turned out to be profound. Leo had already irritated the Eastern patriarch, a formidable churchman named Michael Cerularius, by holding councils condemning the creeping acceptance of Byzantine-rite ceremonies in Latin parishes in the south, and by appointing an archbishop to Sicily, once part of the patriarch’s domain. Leo’s hobnobbing with General Argyos had gone down hard with the patriarch, too, who had clashed with the general over his preference for unleavened bread. Moreover, the patriarch was understandably concerned the emperor might reward the pope for any assistance he could muster in holding the Normans in check. Leo’s foray south compounded these unintentional affronts by reconfirming the pope’s unquenchable interest in an arena in which the patriarch deeply feared Latin hegemony.

In Cerularius, Leo now encountered a rival every bit as remarkable as himself, and every bit as attentive to his own interests. Indeed, for a brief spell, the patriarch would prove even more successful than the pope at achieving his ambitious goals. No Byzantine patriarch, before or after, would ever accumulate the power that Cerularius eventually wielded. Critics would cite this as a testament to his personal ambition and pride, noting for example his stated belief that his position was “not one whit inferior to that of the purple or the diadem,” as well as his penchant for wearing boots of royal crimson. Admirers, on the other hand, would insist Cerularius sought nothing more than the sort of ecclesiastical autonomy that eventually prevailed in the West, and which had been pursued ever since Ambrose. If we are left guessing regarding the patriarch’s true motives in the imminent drama of the schism, it is in part because he authored no body of writing comparable to that of Photius. Yet Cerularius’s personal qualities, including high intelligence, decisiveness and a penchant for intrigue, are not remotely in doubt.

Cerularius first bolts into historical view as a patrician conspirator in an unlucky plot to topple the emperor Michael IV in 1040; it seems probable Cerularius hoped to occupy the imperial throne himself. But the fiasco propelled him into a different career: He was banished to a monastery, where he took up the religious life with characteristic seriousness and lofty aspiration. Such were his talent and force of personality that he was impossible to overlook when a new emperor, Constantine IX Monomachos (1042—1054), sought learned advisers, and by early 1043, when the patriarchate became vacant, Cerularius was poised to be elected to that office.7

However irritated Cerularius might have become with Rome, the opening broadside from the East was unleashed not by the patriarch but by a Bulgarian archbishop, Leo of Ohrid, who fired off a testy letter in 1053 to the Greek bishop of Trani, Italy, warning him against Latin rituals and disciplines, most notably the use of unleavened bread. The letter was copied and passed around, as it was meant to be, and soon wound up in the hands of the pope. Did Cerularius put his friend Leo of Ohrid up to this stunt? Possibly. Even if he did not, he certainly agreed with the letter’s contents, although he most likely failed to realize the degree to which they would incite Western resentment.

Cerularius likewise lent support to a far more truculent anti-Western treatise composed by the Studite monk Nicetas Stethatos, who interspersed discussion of various intolerable practices–the use of unleavened bread, the Saturday fast, priestly celibacy–with naked insult. Finally, the patriarch seems to have ordered the closing of Latin-rite churches in Constantinople, although the evidence for this is not quite so clear-cut as has sometimes been portrayed.

In any event, Pope Leo concluded he must act. He ordered letters drafted for the emperor and the patriarch, and designated three trusted advisers, including Cardinal Humbert of Silva Candida, to carry them to Constantinople on his behalf. Leo’s choice of Humbert, while understandable given his loyalty and many talents, proved fateful, as the cardinal’s zeal for a reforming, unchallenged papacy may have exceeded that of the pope himself. Humbert had earlier been tapped to impose the new papal discipline on various Western prelates and was more than willing to test his blunt methods in the East. Certainly, he was not prepared to treat New Rome’s patriarch with anything approaching the respect Cerularius usually commanded.

Since Cerularius was not even notified that a papal legation was on the way, he seems at first to have mistaken Humbert’s group for imposters in league with his antagonist General Argyos. It did not seem possible the pope would adopt such a severe and peremptory tone with a fellow patriarch, and he was taken aback to read in Leo’s letter that any dissent from Rome amounted to a “confabulation of heretics, a conventical of schismatics, and a synagogue of Satan.” Understandably, the Roman see’s letter to the emperor was far more respectful, and for a while it appeared Humbert’s delegation might succeed in prying Byzantium’s secular and religious leaders apart. Constantine Monomachos understood full well that his only chance of holding on to lands in southern Italy was through an alliance with the papacy against the Normans. The emperor even agreed to suppress an offending tract by the monk Nicetas Stethatos after Humbert penned a savage rebuttal that included such crude gibes as “You should be called ‘drunk’ rather than ‘monk’!” and “One would not think that you live in the Studite monastery but in a circus or brothel.”

True to his aggressive nature, Humbert then proceeded to overplay his hand. On July 16, 1054, he and his fellow legates strode into Hagia Sophia as astonished clergy were preparing to chant the Liturgy and placed on the altar a bull of excommunication against the patriarch, the archbishop of Ochrida and their adherents. Upon leaving the church, the cardinal and his companions stopped, shook the dust from their sandals and exclaimed, “May God behold and judge us!”

But if the legates thought they could treat the patriarch as they might an upstart bishop in the West, they were grossly mistaken. When the populace heard of the curse on their patriarch, they rallied to his support, leaving the emperor no choice but to abandon hope of an anti-Norman alliance. Pressured by growing demonstrations, he bowed to Cerularius’s wish to convene a synod, at which Humbert and his associates were condemned and excommunicated. Each side had now pushed the other to the edge of a total rupture. Thanks to Humbert, moreover, the doctrinal issue of the Filioque clause had been resurrected as a major obstacle to reconciliation; Humbert seemed to think the Eastern Church had deleted it at some point from the creed, and leveled this baseless charge in the document the legates left in Hagia Sophia.

Had either side wanted to, there was still opportunity to pull back from the brink. Pope Leo had died before his legates even reached Constantinople, so technically they were in no position to excommunicate in his name. And the patriarch’s condemnation was confined for the moment to the legates themselves; it did not extend to the entire Latin Church. But such was Humbert’s prestige in Rome that Leo’s successors reflexively endorsed the view that he had done little more than discipline a contumacious bishop and that it was up to Cerularius or a successor to seek forgiveness.8 Easterners were of quite the opposite view: they believed the first conciliatory move should come from Rome. Cerularius, in any case, had a more ambitious project in mind. The confrontation had confirmed his belief that the patriarch must wrest independence from the emperor, lest the church be hostage to mere politics, and so, fearless intriguer that he was, Cerularius organized a conspiracy to replace Constantine Monomachos with Isaac Comnenus, after extracting a promise from the latter that he would stay out of ecclesiastical affairs. This pledge, however, turned out to be worth just about what one would expect; Cerularius was deposed one year later by the new emperor, and died shortly thereafter.

The decisive significance of the Schism of 1054 is occasionally disputed by those who note that relations periodically thawed between Rome and Byzantium in the years that followed. But the eleventh-century clash between pope and patriarch deserves its traditional prominence, for it dispelled all lingering doubt on both sides regarding the range of differences that separated them, while sharpening the arguments for each contested practice and belief. The Greek and Latin Churches had been diverging for centuries without fully realizing it; now that their eyes were opened, they were appalled by what they saw, and yet lacked the historical context to grant validity to the other’s tradition. Disagreement over the correct form of sacramental bread might seem relatively trivial to a later age, for example, but as Mahlon H. Smith observes, for these disputants, the issue “penetrated practically every area of theology.” The Filioque, of course, seemed to raise an even more fundamental doctrinal divide. Meanwhile, overshadowing everything was the question of authority. To Catholics in the West, it was perfectly obvious the pope was the successor to Peter, to whom Christ had left the church, and that Cerularius and his defenders were thus in rebellion against a divinely proclaimed order. To Eastern Christians, it was equally apparent that authority was shared by the patriarchs, Rome included, and that while the Roman see might be first among equals, it did not follow that the pope could simply dictate without collegial support.

It is not as if many Christians on both sides, from humble lay folk to theologians and mighty bishops, did not often yearn for a restoration of unity. And attempts were made to achieve it. Even the First Crusade in 1095 was motivated at least in part by a Western desire to defend Eastern Christians from the relentless Muslim pressure. Unfortunately, the crusaders had their own definition of what comprised ecumenical spirit: They drove the Greek patriarch out of Antioch in 1098, and replaced him with a Latin bishop, then compounded this outrage in 1204 with a horrific sack of Constantinople. After that disaster and the humiliating occupation that followed, only military desperation would ever again prompt an emperor to engage in talks aimed at bridging the divide.

The West’s response over the centuries has wavered from outright challenges to Orthodoxy, with the establishment of churches under Rome in Orthodox countries, to the Second Vatican Council’s positive assessment of the Orthodox faith in the twentieth century and the establishment of a Joint International Commission, which has declared the Catholic and Orthodox “Sister Churches” that are both responsible for maintaining the “one Church of God.” However, full rapprochement between East and West still appears distant. None has striven more tirelessly for it than John Paul II, the pope when this chapter was written. Though his efforts met with mixed responses in Athens, Moscow and Sofia, Christians both Orthodox and Catholic pray for and expect reunion as an inevitability. In the words of G. K. Chesterton, they wait for it to happen “like the coming of the comet or the freezing of the star.”

This is the end of the Council of Constantinople 869 category article drawn from Chapter Six, beginning on page , of Volume Six, The Quest for the City. To continue reading more about Council of Constantinople 869 from The Christians, Their First Two Thousand Years we suggest experiencing the rest of the book, complete with hundreds of magnificent illustrations, by ordering it at