BMCR 2004.09.11

Emperor and Priest. The Imperial Office in Byzantium. Translated by Jean Birrell

, , Emperor and priest : the imperial office in Byzantium. Past and present publications. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003. xi, 337 pages : illustrations, map ; 24 cm.. ISBN 0521801230 $75.00.

Emperor and Priest is the English translation of Gilbert Dagron’s Empereur et prêtre: Étude sur le “césaropapism” byzantin, published by Éditions Gallimard in 1996. The book is divided into three parts and an epilogue, has eight plates, five plans and one simplified map of Constantinople, a glossary and an excellent index. There are three pages of bibliographical abbreviations, but most of the bibliographical references are contained in ample footnotes.

The subject of the book is Caesaropapism, as indicated in the title of the French original. In the introduction, Dagron acknowledges by way of dedication the seminal works of Marc Bloch, The Royal Touch (1924), and E. Kantorowicz, The King’s Two Bodies (1957). They have clearly been the source of inspiration for Dagron’s Emperor and Priest. On what model, asks the author, did the emperors of Byzantium base their dual claim of being king and priest. He develops his findings, based on thorough knowledge of the sources from legal texts to the commentary of Balsamon.

The book is divided almost symmetrically into three sections, each of which is further divided into chapters and subheadings. Part one, called “The Principles”, is about dynastic legitimacy and rules of succession (largely lacking in Byzantium), coronations and, finally, ceremonial and memory. In the first chapter titled “Heredity, legitimacy and succession”, Dagron takes a look at “power and dynasty”. Foreigners were duly impressed with the pomp surrounding the imperial office but were equally amazed by its instability. Although emperors tried to found dynasties, there was no officially accepted principle of succession from father to son. Dagron concludes that succession became more regulated from the time of Alexios Komnenos. The chapter “Family and dynasty” follows. Emperors tried to establish the legitimacy of their reigns using a strategy of intermarriage, but even so few were able to found a dynasty. Leo III succeeded, and it was during his reign that the office of emperor took on a quasi-priestly character modeled on the kingship of Saul, David and Solomon in the Old Testament.

In the last chapter of part one, Dagron analyses the ceremonial surrounding the coronation of a Byzantine emperor. As expected, much of this is based on a reading of De ceremoniis, a text that the author criticises for its lack of reliability. He concludes that when Constantine Porphyrogenitus was looking for a model of an imperial coronation, he found no established ceremonial but only some elements of ritual organised by each emperor “into a more or less theatrical ceremonial” (p. 78). The places for these ceremonies were invariable the same: the “Hebdomon, Tribunal of the Nineteen Couches, Hippodrome, St Sophia, or palace church,” but the coronation itself was varied in its ritual. The ceremonies illustrated the process by which real power acquired legitimacy. Dagron describes this process of legitimisation as a long road for the emperor, who won his appointment on the battlefield, and a short one for the son, who was legitimised by his birth, by virtue of being a porphyrogenitus. This discussion includes also a reference to the part played by the patriarch in coronation ceremonies but finds that the head of Orthodoxy had no institutionalised role.

The second part of the work is about “Emperors”. It begins, not surprisingly, with the founder of the Christian Empire, Constantine the Great. Chapter four characterises Constantine as quasi-bishop. Dagron stresses the Hellenistic origins of the idea that the ruler represented a deity on earth. In the following pages, the discussion turns to St Constantine. He is described by a mixture of phrases from both the Old and the New Testament as “the friend of men, [possessing] the wisdom of Solomon, the sweetness of David and the orthodoxy of the apostles.” He was thus “the equal of the apostles,” and since he had “emulated Paul” he had the right to the “same honour as an apostle” (p.143). The Actus Silvestri, on the other hand, belongs to the Latin West, and is portrayed as an attempt to counteract the growth of Caesaropapism. According to a legend that circulated widely, Pope Sylvester baptized Constantine in Rome before the emperor departed for the East. He then left the care of the western part of the empire in the hands of the pontiff. This story had far-reaching consequences and contributed to a growing concept of the dual power of church and state.

In Byzantium Constantine was rex perpetuus who sanctified the rulers who came after him. They would be hailed as “New Constantines”. Paradoxically, the loudly proclaimed sanctity of the founder of the Christian Empire did not set the tone, and few saints are recognised among the basileis of the Orthodox East. By contrast, we find a number of royal saints in the Latin West, who were miracle-workers or martyrs. The “Christian” sainthood of Constantine remained an exception. Byzantine emperors were not considered saints or even Christians like the rest. “They were seen … as players in a sacred history which went back to the Davidic alliance” (p.157).

Chapter five, entitled “Leo III and the iconoclast emperors: Melchizedek or Antichrist,” begins with “A Little Phrase”. This little phrase is no less than Leo III’s, the “heresiarch” emperor’s supposed answer to the Roman pontiff, “I am emperor and priest”. This expression appears in two possibly forged letters from Pope Gregory II, in which the pope requests that the emperor put away his arrogance or face the consequences of excommunication. Gregory reminds Leo “that the dogmas of holy Church do not fall within the province of the emperors, but of bishops” (p.160).

It is at this point that Dagron, departing from a chronological narrative, introduces Maximos the Confessor. Maximos is important as the first in Byzantium who defended the sacerdotal role of the emperor in the seventh century. In a subheading of chapter five, Dagron investigates the role of “Melchizedek, priest and king”, citing the relevant passages of the Old Testament, and the prominence that this obscure figure was to acquire in Christian thought. This was helped by the historicizing of Melchizedek by Flavius Josephus, in whose account King Melchizedek received the priesthood because he was just to the highest degree. Dagron concludes that after much exegesis and images involving Melchizedek, Leo III was no longer seen as a just king by comparison. It is this accusation that lay at the base of Pseudo-Gregory and the questionable letters. Chapter five concludes with the “Precursors of the Antichrist”. Leo III was punished for his pride; he was a false Melchizedek. There was now suspicion that the emperors, the “almost-priests”, were the precursors announcing the coming of Antichrist. Dagron sees this as a reason for the anxiety reflected in the ceremonial entry of an emperor into St Sophia. It gave the emperor a quasi-sacerdotal role but prohibited him to ever utter the “little phrase”, “I am emperor and priest”.

The last chapter of Part five “Basil the Macedonian, Leo VI and Constantine VII: ceremonial and religion,” begins with “models of kingship and dynastic saints.” It tells how St Diomedes called out to the hegoumenos of his monastery to open the gate to the vagabond at its entrance, “because he had been anointed by Christ to become emperor” (p. 192). The vagabond so anointed was no other than the future Basil I. Thus the supernatural had a hand in legitimising him well before his rise to the throne. Dagron ventures a guess that Basil himself may have believed the story to be true. Illustrations in the Homilies of Gregory of Nazianzus, and possibly commissioned by Basil, show Elijah, Gabriel or Michael intervening for the Macedonian dynasty at every turn. It was Elijah who first revealed the sainthood of Theophano, first wife of Leo VI, by a miracle. There were, furthermore, models of kingship that point to the Old Testament. Like king David, Basil, the founder of the Macedonian dynasty, came from a humble background. The Constantinian model, too, is attested in the iconography of the reign. Eventually, Leo VI organized the cults and ceremonials of the Macedonian dynasty. He pronounced homilies from the ambo of churches built by his ancestors. As stated by Dagron, “He was their cantor” (p. 211).

Part two finishes with taking a look at St Sophia and the Nea.The Nea took its name from a renewed pact between God and the imperial power. The two churches are compared in function. Dagron conceptualises the Nea as an imperial church while St Sophia is seen to reflect the sphere of the patriarch. Constantine Porphyrogenitus, the grandson of the founder of the Macedonian dynasty, defined what was right ceremony in his Book of Ceremonies. The model of Melchizedek’s kingship was abandoned, according to Dagron, for a greater mastery of the management of the sacred.

Part three is about the “Clergy”. Chapter seven titled “The kingship of the patriarchs (eighth to eleventh centuries),” discusses in its first subheading Theodore of Stoudios and Photios. In the wake of the early Iconoclasm, Theodore was able to demand equality of sacerdotium and regnum. The gain made by the church was to be a loss to imperial power. Photios was later to use examples from Hebrew history to claim royal functions for the priesthood. He was thus the first to initiate ideas that came close to those of the Latin Church and papal pretensions. Under the subheading “A two headed power?” Dagron takes a look at the Eisagoge, a legal manual compiled between 879 and 886 that has in its preamble a description of the new stature of the patriarchate of Constantinople. He thinks that Photios was “quite plausibly” the author of the relevant pages that discuss the two powers. The patriarch was now seen as a New Moses and a New Melchizedek. There follows a discussion about “Michael Keroularios and the purple sandals,” which characterises Keroularios as an ambitious patriarch who aimed at nothing less than making himself the supreme power in the empire. Taking his cue from the Roman pontiff, he donned the purple sandals reserved for the emperor. The pope justified his claims at imperial authority on the basis of the Constitutum Constantini. The chapter closes with “The use in the east of the Donation of Constantine”.

Chapter eight, “The canonists and liturgists (twelfth to fifteenth centuries)”, develops chronologically the changes that took place over time. Dagron sees the origin of these changes not in incidental confrontations like the one in the time of the patriarch Keroularios but in a major “renaissance” of spirituality in the east. It was during the reign of Manuel Komnenos that the emperor was seen as an ‘epistemonarchic’ ruler. In the following subheading, “Balsamon and the imperial charismata”, Dagron looks at the canonist Theodore Balsamon’s contribution to the debate of the nature of emperorship in Byzantium. According to him, the emperor stood in the tradition of the Biblical kings who, as the Lord’s anointed, had the right to engage in ecclesiastic matters. The anointment of the Byzantine rulers is described in “The unction of kingship”. The emperor— like the Messiah before him — was the anointed in a metaphorical sense. An actual anointment by the patriarch, based on a Latin model, is known in Byzantium only from the beginning of the 13th century. In “From the rod of Moses to the rod of the verger,” the emperor, having been deprived of his charisma, emerges at the low level of a verger in the Church of Christ.

Chapter nine “‘Caesaropapism’ and the theory of the ‘two powers’,” begins with a historiographical discussion of the meaning of Caesaropapism. Starting with the word theocracy coined by Flavius Josephus we arrive at “Papo-Caesaria” and “Caesaro-Papia” in the writings of Iustus Henning Böhmer (1674-1749), professor at the University of Halle, who in his manual of Protestant ecclesiastical law denounced both the pope who claimed political power and the ruler who tried to interfere in matters of the church. The chapter finishes with a renewed discussion of the powers of the basileus, concluding with the words of the patriarch, Antonios IV, who reproached the Grand Duke of Moscow for his views on the Christian emperorship. A single basileus was in his words a keystone of ecclesiology.

The Epilogue “The house of Judah and the house of Levi,” traces the century-old debate about single or dual power, about the king-priest, the priest-king or the king and the priest. Did the Messiah arise from the house of Judah or the house of Levi? Complicated genealogies were constructed to establish Christ’s ancestry and his role as priest-king. This role could not be transferred to Christian rulers since the spiritual part of Christ’s powers went to the church. This was established early in the west between the fourth and fifth centuries but later in Byzantium during the Iconoclast Controversy between the eighth and ninth centuries.

The translation of Dagron’s important work on “Caesaropapism” reads very well indeed, but there are some minor mistakes. For example, beaurocracy on p. 225 should read bureaucracy. A more serious error is on p. 24 where it says, “Constantine’s daughters, Helena and Constantina, were married to his half-nephews, the former to Julian, then Gallus, sons of Julius Constantinus, the latter to Hannibalianus, son of Flavius Dalmatius “. It is impossible that Helena was married first to Julian and after to Gallus. The latter was executed in 354, while Julian was elevated to Caesar in 355 at which time he received Helena as his bride. A quick look at the Prosopography of the Later Roman Empire would no doubt have avoided this mistake. All of this is minor and does not diminish the pleasure of reading Emperor and Priest. Andreas Schminck reviewed Dagron’s Empereur et prêtre in Byzantinische Zeitschrift 93, 2000, 197-204. In this review, he expressed his hope that the work would be translated into other languages, and become thus available to a wider readership. It seems to this reviewer that Emperor and Priest splendidly fulfills this wish.