Was the Byzantine State a Theocracy?


WAS THE BYZANTINE STATE A THEOCRACY?
ANASTASIOS PHILIPPIDIS
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 Patriarchical 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 Paul, Deacon Peter, Paulinus, etc.).  This was a development with enormous consequences in Western history. This was not only because it was maintained for a thousand years and marked the character of the 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 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 West.  As it is known, for many centuries in the 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 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 thousand 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, 425AD), 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 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.


Footnotes
1a) It is remarkable that the only two anticlerical currents that appeared in Greece are mere "translations" of Western currents, without having any contact with a Greek reality. The one is the liberal Enlightenment as expressed, for example, by the anonymous author of the "Greek Prefecture", and the other, Marxism. The first is so detached from Greek reality, such as to speak of "orders" of priests and archimandrites, an institution completely unknown in our country – but very widespread in the West.  The leading researcher (and enthusiastic supporter) of the Modern Greek Enlightenment, K. T. Dimaras, accepts that "the possibility of a writer deprived of Greek schooling should not be ruled out" (see K.T. Dimaras, 1977, pg. 48).  On the other hand, Marxism, with its rigid, ideological patterns, which were based solely on Western experience, tried to overcome the ongoing "difficulties" encountered in the interpreting of Greek society of such phrases as "ideological confusion of the Greek ruling class" or "false awareness of the working class."  What would be needed, without a doubt, is a complete study related to the utter unawareness of the Greek peculiarity from these two currents.
2 Bl. Buckler, pg. 309.
3. ibid., pg. 295.
4. Vl. Ransiman (1979), pg. 250.
5. Ibid., pg. 250.
6. Vl. Yiannakopoulos (1966), pg. 54.
7. Vl. Buckler (1986), pg. 310.
8. Vl. Lemerle (1983), pg. 89-90.

Translated by Catherine Penney

 


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