proverbial saying attributed to Loukas Notaras, grand admiral in the years 1444–53
Between the recovery of Constantinople from the Latins in 1261 and its fall to the Ottomans in 1453, Byzantine foreign policy was dominated by the question of the union of the churches. Political considerations required emperors to pursue this policy because they desperately needed military help from the West to combat the Turks, and the spiritual leaders of the West had made the reunion of the churches, with Constantinople subordinated to Rome, a precondition of any assistance. After the crusaders’ actions in 1204, many in Byzantium considered this abhorrent, if not heretical, and consistently refused to support it. The Palaiologan emperors therefore found themselves in a cleft stick: if the price of an alliance with effective western military forces was reunion, then they had to find an ecclesiastical policy of compromise and agreement. But any such policy would be condemned by those concerned with correct theology, and by the great majority in Byzantium who remained devoted to their own church, icons and ideas of orthodoxy. Most Byzantines wanted support not subordination.
As the Christian oikoumene had expanded in the early medieval West, contracted in the East under the pressure of Islam, and then reunited during the crusading period, specific features of liturgical practice emerged as major differences. For the Byzantines, any change in the wording of the creed was always considered incomprehensible and unacceptable. The primacy of St Peter, as interpreted by his successors – the bishops of Rome – jarred with the eastern concept of the pentarchy, the rule of the five patriarchs. And in the different forms of the Eucharistic bread (leavened or unleavened), all Christians could appreciate a very obvious visual divergence. Whether all clerics were obliged to maintain celibacy, and whether all Christians fasted on the same days, was perhaps less of a problem. Similarly, geography accounted for the use of Greek or Latin in the liturgy and certain unfamiliar habits, which had given the churches distinct histories within the world of Christendom.
Nonetheless, there was a fundamental desire to sustain Christian unity, especially in the face of Muslim beliefs. Bishops of Old and New Rome traditionally accorded each other great respect and ensured that prayers for the other were included in their services. Despite a breakdown in these relations in the ninth century under Patriarch Photios and Pope Nicholas, and again in 1054, mutual excommunication did not last beyond the lifetimes of the individuals involved. When Alexios I Komnenos appealed to Pope Urban II to support the Christians of the East against the infidel Turks, he did so precisely because they shared a common faith. Whatever the divergences in their practices, the First Crusade was duly preached on this basis and Christian control over Jerusalem was restored.
The events of 1202–4, however, deepened the sense of profound difference and left both parties hostile and wary. The orthodox were particularly outraged by the crusaders’ occupation of their churches and monasteries, not to mention the desecration of Hagia Sophia. From the new centres established after the Fourth Crusade, Greek prelates denounced the Latin bishops and friars appointed to ‘their’ sees and monasteries in the occupied capital and conquered territory. Yet in the empire of Nicaea, John III Vatatzes and Theodore II Laskaris had supported contacts between Latin and Greek representatives, finding the western friars less dogmatic than Cardinal Humbert. Serious discussions took place about rebuilding unity among the Christians. After 1261, Michael VIII Palaiologos determined to intensify these contacts.
Political developments, however, continued to impede the process. When the last Latin emperor Baldwin II fled from Constantinople, Pope Urban IV received him at Rome and promised to restore him to his throne, a policy actively supported by his successor, Clement IV (1265–8). At Viterbo in 1267, the pope gave his blessing to a formidable anti-Byzantine alliance led by Charles of Anjou and sealed by political marriages: Charles married his daughter to Baldwin’s son, and his son to the daughter of William Villehardouin, prince of Achaia. Fortunately for Byzantium, Clement IV died, and after a papal interregnum of three years, Gregory X was elected in 1272. The new pope’s overriding concern was to plan a new crusade against the Muslims, and to this end he announced a general council of the Church which would impose ecclesiastical reforms and reunite the western and eastern churches.
This promising declaration encouraged Michael VIII to try to win over the clerics in Byzantium who had expressed doubts and even denounced the idea of reunion: Patriarch Joseph, numerous bishops and monks who were opposed to ‘submission’ to Rome. Against the emperor’s wish ‘to spare the Greeks the terrible wars and effusion of blood threatening the empire’, they considered his proposal for rebuilding Christian unity unacceptable, because it conceded the primacy of St Peter over all churches and the Latin wording of the creed. They had additional concerns, but because the declaration of faith was held to be a critical method of teaching and preaching Christianity, any disagreement over the text was bound to cause splits. During twelfth-century debates between western and eastern theologians, the filioque regularly formed a stumbling block: both Peter Grossolano and Anselm of Havelberg wrote about this after their visits to Constantinople and Thessalonike. In response, Niketas ‘of Maroneia’, later Archbishop of Thessalonike, wrote six dialogues which defended the western interpretation, although perversely he refused to add the clause to the creed.
With full knowledge of this background of disagreement, Michael VIII began a campaign to win over the Byzantine opponents of union. In 1273, he imprisoned Patriarch Joseph and obliged John Bekkos, archivist of Hagia Sophia and later patriarch, to spearhead the campaign. But very few clerics were won over to the Latin position by John’s treatise on the subject, even though the emperor and his son and heir declared their personal adherence to the Roman definition of the faith. It even became difficult to find high-ranking clerics to represent the Church of Constantinople at the General Council which Pope Gregory X had summoned to meet in Lyons in 1274. The Byzantine delegation was led by George Akropolites, the head of the government, the former Patriarch Germanos III (who held the authority very briefly in 1266) and Archbishop Theophanes of Nicaea. It was much stronger on the civilian than the ecclesiastical side.
After a difficult journey, in which all their gifts of icons and church treasure intended for the pope were lost at sea, they arrived at Lyons, where the Council had been opened with tremendous fanfare and ceremonial on 7 May 1274. In their two weeks at the council, the filioque, papal primacy and a relatively new aspect of western theology – the existence of Purgatory – were debated. Since the 1230s, theologians on both sides had been discussing what could happen to sinners who did not have time to repent before death. Pope Innocent IV (died 1254) and Thomas Aquinas in 1263 had elaborated on the purging of minor sins in the fire mentioned in the Gospels. But the Orthodox Church had no notion of an alternative post-mortem existence, as the soul would ultimately be judged and sent either to heaven or to hell, so it was unwilling to accept the new western definition. As a result, the compromise wording adopted in 1274 did not refer to Purgatory, though it stressed the power of masses, prayers and pious almsgiving to assist the souls of the departed, which both sides accepted.
At Lyons, the three Byzantine delegates signed the profession of faith previously agreed with the emperor, George Akropolites swore an oath of loyalty to the pope and the Roman version of the creed, and the Council duly accepted the ‘submission’ of the Emperors Michael VIII and Andronikos. The reunion of the churches was celebrated on 6 July 1274 in the cathedral of Saint Jean, and Pope Gregory welcomed the Greeks back into the fold. The Council was interpreted by Rome as the submission of the entire Orthodox Church, rather than of its rulers; in the East, Michael VIII was legitimized and could demand Christian support against the infidel, but he could not persuade the orthodox to accept the terms of union. After 1274, the emperor begged the pope that their church
be permitted to recite the sacred creed as it had been before the schism and up to our time, and that we may remain in observance of the rites we had before the schism – these rites not being contrary to the faith declared above.
In their later professions of faith sent to Rome, however, both Michael VIII and his successor Andronikos II accepted the existence of Purgatory, citing ‘penalties of purgatory or purification’.
The union was duly celebrated in Constantinpole by John Bekkos, who became patriarch in place of Joseph I, but George Metochites, one of the Byzantine delegation, recorded serious opposition:
Instead of a conflict of words, instead of refutative proof, instead of arguments drawn from the Scriptures, what we envoys constantly hear is, ‘You have become a Frank’. Should we who are pro-unionists… be called supporters of a foreign nation and not Byzantine patriots?
From Constantinople, where memories of the sack of 1204 were still vivid, to Epiros, where the despot presented himself as a true representative of orthodox tradition, an anti-unionist party was created. Serbia and Bulgaria also supported this view, which conveniently combined their political antagonism to Byzantium with correct theology. Nor did the union produce the promised military results, partly because Gregory X died in 1276 and Charles of Anjou continued to campaign for the restoration of the Latin empire. Eight years after the Council, when Michael VIII died, his unpopular policy was immediately abandoned. Andronikos II (1282–1328) took vengeance on John Bekkos, who was deposed, brought to trial and imprisoned; three years later the new patriarch, Gregory II, repudiated the union.
From texts that circulated in the East, it is clear that opposition to the union was based on numerous differences between Latin and Greek Church practice. On the issue of what bread should be used in the Eucharist, raised bread or the western wafer called azymes, because it lacked yeast, zymos, the Byzantines believed:
Those who still partake of the azymes are under the shadow of the Law and eat of the table of the Jews, not of the reasonable and living table of God nor of the bread which is both supersubstantial and consubstantial to us men… For indeed the azymes plainly are lifeless, as the very nature of things even more plainly teaches.
Later on this anonymous tract asks:
Why do you priests not marry?… The Church does not forbid the priest to take a wife, but you do not marry. Instead you have concubines and your priest sends his servant to bring him his concubine and puts out the candle and keeps her for the whole night.
The same text criticized the Latins for not venerating icons, calling the Theotokos ‘Santa Maria’, i.e. simply a saint, using two fingers to cross themselves from the other side, eating ‘strangled meat’ and numerous other habits which seemed strange and wrong to the Greeks. These differences would all re-emerge in the 1440s as the population of Constantinople disavowed the Union of churches negotiated by John VIII.
Although the attempt to achieve the union of churches had failed in 1274, the hope that western Christian forces with papal blessing would eventually come to the aid of the Byzantines was kept alive by a growing interest in Latin theology and the first translations of Latin Fathers by Greek scholars. Knowledge of medieval Latin in Byzantium, as well as the vernacular tongues spoken by merchants, crusaders, diplomats and pilgrims, had expanded from the eleventh century onwards. When the scholar and monk Maximos Planoudes (c. 1255– c. 1305) began to translate classical Latin authors and St Augustine, he revolutionized Byzantine understanding of the West. His complete prose version of Ovid’s Metamorphoses, Heroides and some amatory verses; Boethius’ Consolation of Philosophy; Cicero’s Rhetoric; Macrobius and sections of Augustine’s City of God: all of these made some fundamental Latin texts available to a Byzantine audience for the first time. The brothers Demetrios and Prochoros Kydones and Manuel Kalekas extended this work, while Gregory Chioniades demonstrated the importance of Islamic astronomy through his translations from Persian into Greek.
This was a new development in Byzantine culture which reflects an awareness of the value of foreign, non-Greek learning. It marked a departure from assumptions of intellectual superiority in all fields and shows that Byzantium could adapt and learn from both sides in the arguments over church union. Most of those who translated from Latin into Greek had learnt the new language from friars in Byzantium. Like the ‘Apostles to the Slavs’, they used their linguistic skills to enhance Byzantine culture. Planoudes also served as ambassador on a diplomatic mission to Venice in 1296. He drew upon a very broad interest in ancient Greek culture. He made an edition of Diophantos’ theorems and other mathematical works, as well as copying and adding to the Anthologia Graeca, the late antique collection of epigrams. In contrast, two generations later, Demetrios and Prochoros Kydones were primarily concerned with theology and were directly involved in fourteenth-century church politics. The brothers were responsible for translating St Thomas Aquinas’ Summa contra gentiles and Summa theologiae into Greek, works which infused new vigour into the unionist camp. They also devoted attention to the works of Augustine, Boethius and St Anselm of Canterbury, and translated a Refutation of the Qur’an by Ricoldo de Monte Croce.
Despite growing interest in western philosophy, the style of Aristotelian logic adopted in the nascent medieval universities of Europe did not make a great impact in Byzantium. The educational system had its own traditions, based on the original texts of Aristotle and enriched by many later commentaries devoted to metaphysics, cosmology, ethics and logic, which had always been taught in the East. Another reason may lie in the growth of hesychasm and the teaching of enlightenment through spiritual contemplation, which owed more to Plato than Aristotle. The hesychast monks of Mount Athos proved to be implacable opponents of church union on the terms negotiated at Lyons. On the other side, those Byzantine intellectuals who favoured union were more impressed by western argumentation based on Latin translations of Aristotle – a tradition of logic that ignored the eastern commentaries.
John V Palaiologos, however, sought to realize plans for western military cooperation against the Turks by making a personal conversion to Catholicism. His travels to Hungary and Italy in 1366–9 culminated in his submission to Roman authority. While this remained his own decision and did not involve the Byzantine Church, he hoped it would secure military assistance. But the fact that on his way home the Venetians arrested him for debts revealed the precarious situation in Byzantium. His son Manuel was forced to ransom him, and before John V could return the island of Tenedos had to be handed over to Venice in lieu of money owed. Although the promised military intervention took shape under Serbian leadership, the Turks defeated this Christian force at the Marica in 1371 and the emperor abandoned his pro-western policy. Several leading Byzantine intellectuals nonetheless converted to Roman Catholicism and continued to urge the reunion of the churches as the only way of defeating the ever-tightening Ottoman encirclement of Constantinople. One of them, Demetrios Kydones, wrote a treatise proposing terms for winning Latin help in 1389, but it was ignored. Divisions within the elite thus contributed to weakening Byzantium while the Turks concentrated on expanding into Europe.
In 1422, the capital survived a major siege, but eight years later Thessalonike was captured, enabling the Turks to surround Constantinople from the West as well as the East. In these parlous circumstances, John VIII Palaiologos began another attempt to reunite the churches and thus win a serious commitment to western military aid supported by the papacy. In 1438, he led a high-level delegation – including Patriarch Joseph II, the two chief spokesmen Mark Eugenikos of Ephesos and Bessarion of Nicaea, sixteen metropolitans, officials and monks, making up a party of over seven hundred – to Ferrara to meet the papal party. Patriarch Joseph was so incensed at the demand that he, like all officials, kiss the pope’s foot that he refused to leave the ship until the issue was resolved. As a result, Pope Eugenius IV accorded him only a private reception rather than a grand public ceremony. The Council opened officially on 9 April after twenty days of debate over where the thrones for the leading figures should be placed. After many delays and inconclusive meetings, an outbreak of plague and shortage of money forced the parties in January 1439 to move to Florence, where the Medici family supported the Council.
While detailed records of the long debates that preceded the agreement were kept, the most interesting account of the Council was written by Sylvester Syropoulos, a patriarchal official. His memoirs record impressions of the unofficial discussions which accompanied the negotiations: how the Byzantine participants argued among themselves (for there were major disagreements between John VIII and Mark Eugenikos) and picked topics for discussion which would not reveal these rifts (such as the existence of Purgatory); how it became ever clearer that if the Greeks knew no Latin, they could not debate with the western theologians, who countered every eastern text with an argument of their own, often drawn from unfamiliar writings.
The filioque addition to the creed remained a major barrier, both as an extra clause in the wording of the creed as agreed at the First and Fourth Oecumenical Councils, and as a statement of orthodox theology. After many months of Latin pressure, agreement was reached on the grounds that all saints are inspired by the same Holy Spirit, whether they are western or eastern, and their faith must therefore be the same in substance even if it is expressed differently in Latin and Greek. Disagreement over papal primacy proved more fundamental, however. While the words of the creed might be accepted, the power claimed by Rome meant subjection, which the Church of Constantinople found much harder to bear. After centuries of elaboration and reinforcement through Rome’s judicial position in the West, popes had asserted superior authority over all churches based on their founder St Peter. They considered that patriarchs in Byzantium should submit to Rome before the union of churches could be celebrated. This not only implied inferiority, it also denied the tradition of the five leading sees meeting in Council as the highest authority in Christendom. While New Rome/Constantinople recognized Old Rome’s higher place of honour, the eastern theory of the pentarchy was hard to reconcile with Rome’s claim to overall primacy.
Under pressure from John VIII, the eastern clerics were persuaded nonetheless to agree a form of words which permitted the Union to be drafted. Remaining issues, like the use of leavened or unleavened bread, the marriage of lower ranks of orthodox clergy, and fasting and genuflecting habits were identified as local customs, which could be accepted. When the Act of Union was finally read in Latin and Greek in Florence on 6 July 1439, and acclaimed by all present, the churches were formally united in one faith. John VIII was commemorated in miniatures, bronzes and a medallion by Pisanello, which show him wearing the large peaked hat then fashionable. The process of negotiating the Union took nearly three years; the imperial party only returned to Constantinople in February 1440.
As a consequence, the princes of central Europe – Hunyadi of Transylvania, Vladislav I of Hungary and George Branković of Serbia – led a crusade into the Balkans which defeated the Turks in 1443/4. Murad II agreed to a ten-year truce, which might have been effective had not some of the western crusaders broken the terms at Varna. In November 1444, they attacked the city and were defeated. Constantinople was now abandoned to its fate; the ‘crusade of Varna’ was to prove the last. Although Hunyadi remained committed to the policy of assisting Byzantium, and Branković, who had not participated in the attack, remained a Christian ally, Constantinople’s essential weakness was symbolized when John VIII Palaiologos was forced to congratulate the sultan on his victory.
Only Mark Eugenikos of Ephesos and one other metropolitan had refused to sign the Union, and Eugenikos became the spokesman of resistance to it. Claiming that he had signed under duress, Syropoulos later joined the majority of Greeks who felt that both their beliefs and their traditions had been abandoned. In 1452, Pope Nicholas V sent Isidore of Kiev, who had converted and become a cardinal of the Catholic Church, to preach the Union in the beleaguered Byzantine capital. He arrived with a body of two hundred archers recruited at his own expense, which initially cheered the inhabitants. The Greek historian Doukas, reported, ‘Of the greater portion of the sacerdotal and monastic orders, abbots, archimandrites, nuns… not one among them assented to the Union. Even the emperor only pretended to do so.’ Nuns, he said, were particularly hostile and they implored Gennadios Scholarios of the Pantokrator monastery in Constantinople to support them. He finally wrote his tract in opposition to the Union and nailed it to his door: ‘Wretched Romans, how you have been deceived… Together with the city which will soon be destroyed, you have lost your piety.’ As these monks and nuns spread news of the resistance, the people called on the Mother of God to protect them against the Turks as she had done in the past against Chosroes and the Avars and the Arabs. They also implored her to ‘Keep far away from us the worship of the Azymites.’
On 12 December 1452, the Union was celebrated in desperation in Hagia Sophia, with the Turks encamped outside the walls of Constantinople. Although Isidore of Kiev reported to the pope that the liturgy was a triumph, Gennadios and other monks failed to participate, and the Union was not widely accepted in Byzantium. Nonetheless, Isidore himself fought on the walls in 1453, was wounded and taken prisoner. By disguising himself, he managed to escape to Crete and constantly mourned the loss of the city. Bessarion, the other major proponent of the Union, also continued to support efforts to regain Constantinople after the fall. As cardinals who served as papal legates, they were considered traitors by the orthodox. Both, however, encouraged humanist scholarship, wrote numerous works of theology and contributed to the growth of Greek libraries in the West. Bessarion’s legacy to Venice in 1468 ensured that his collection would remain intact as the core of the Marciana Library, while Isidore enriched the Vatican library with writings of his own and scholia in numerous manuscripts.
Among those opposed to the Union, Gennadios was also taken prisoner in 1453 but was discovered in the slave market, ransomed and installed as patriarch by Mehmed the Conqueror. His fierce loyalty to what was the original and true Christian theology reflects contemporary opinion voiced by Loukas Notaras, an adviser to the last three emperors: ‘Better the Turkish turban than the papal tiara.’ Byzantium could not accept the theory of papal primacy and the subordination of Constantinople to Rome. The Byzantines, however few, remained faithfully committed to what they understood to be orthodox. They preferred to maintain their own theology under Ottoman rule than to suffer union with the Church of Rome and western rule. This was surely an echo of the sacrilege of 1204.