BMCR 2020.06.18

L’empereur et le moine: les relations du pouvoir impérial avec les monastères à Byzance

Rosa Benoit-Meggenis, L'empereur et le moine: les relations du pouvoir impérial avec les monastères à Byzance (IXe-XIIIe). Travaux de la Maison de l'Orient et de la Méditerranée, 73. Lyon: Publications de la Maison de l'Orient et de la Méditerranée, 2017. 304. ISBN 9782356680570 €32,00.

Open Access

The complex and often difficult relationship between imperial authority and the institutional church (and—within the latter—the ongoing tensions between the secular and the monastic clergy) is indisputably a perennial research topic in Byzantine Studies. Rosa Benoit-Meggenis’ new monograph nicely illustrates that these interactions cannot be studied in generalistic and abstract terms (“the state” vs. “the church”), but only as a tightly-knit web of fluctuating friendships and enmities, spiritual and familial obligations, patron-client relationships, and shifting political and economic interests of specific persons or groups. The book explores how the emperors of the middle Byzantine period constructed and maintained close personal ties with members of the monastic order and what these connections can tell us about the ideological, political, and social changes characteristic of this historical epoch. Aside from individual agents, due attention is given to monasteries as institutions that were engaged in an exchange of services and duties with the emperors. Geographically, Benoit-Meggenis covers not only Constantinople and the surrounding regions (Greece, the Balkans, Asia Minor), but also the major Aegean and Mediterranean islands, as well as Byzantine Italy. The temporal framework extends from the end of the Iconoclastic period to the Fourth Crusade, with a noticeable emphasis on the period between ca. 950 and 1150.

In the Introduction, the author first provides a brief summary of recent scholarship on the role of monks and monasteries in late antique and Byzantine society, arguing that despite the fundamental insights of Évelyne Patlagean, Rosemary Morris, Bernard Flusin, Michel Kaplan, and others, the relationship between imperial authority and the monastic order is still insufficiently understood (p. 10). This leads Benoit-Meggenis to introduce the main intention of her investigation: to show how and to what extent monks participated in, and contributed to the legitimacy of imperial power in Byzantium (p. 11). Next, the author lists the main primary sources she draws upon for her analysis. These are: the major Byzantine chronicles of the ninth to thirteenth centuries, an impressive number of hagiographic accounts, monastic typika and other documentary and juridical sources, manuscript illuminations (e.g., pp. 39, 94), and some evidence from archaeology and architecture (e.g., pp. 21–22, 150–151). Occasionally, Latin, Castilian, Armenian, Georgian, and Arabic sources are also taken into account (p. 12).

The book is divided into three parts of two chapters each. Part I discusses the role of monks and ascetics as confidants of the Byzantine emperors and analyzes the type of authority on which these privileged relationships were grounded. Using a wealth of hagiographic material, Benoit-Meggenis argues that, unlike the Lives of Saints in late antiquity, the biographies of monastic saints written between the ninth and the thirteenth centuries often focus on the family wealth and social standing of their heroes, but also on their closeness to the emperor’s household or to the local aristocracy. Sometimes, this close personal connection to the emperor is facilitated precisely by the pre-existent personal networks of the saint’s family. One textbook example, quoted extensively throughout the book, is St. Athanasius the Athonite and his connection to emperor Nicephorus Phocas via the latter’s uncle and abbot Michael Maleinos (p. 26, et passim). In other cases, monks of non-aristocratic origins such as Basil the Younger or Cyril Phileotes could succeed as “social climbers” in Constantinople through a series of (more or less conjectural) personal recommendations (pp. 23–24). Once part of the intimate circle of the emperor (as commensals, confessors, etc.), monks would play key roles as spiritual, but also as political and even military counselors (pp. 29–39). Chapter 1 closes with an excellent discussion, based on many pertinent examples, of parrhesia (“frankness of speech”), a privilege that some ascetics could use as a tool to both persuade and criticize the emperor (pp. 40–47).

In Chapter 2, Benoit-Meggenis appeals to the Weberian category of “charismatic authority” in order to explain the unique status of Byzantine monks, who were often in a position to challenge the secular clergy, the church hierachy, court officials, and even the emperor. This enhancement of monastic authority reached its high point in the Macedonian and Comnenian periods. On the one hand, cases such as Symeon the New Theologian show that the source of monks’ charisma lay in their privileged access to divine grace, which was made possible through ascetic renunciation (see pp. 53–55). On the other hand, the author argues that the most important and politically relevant source of charismatic authority was the gift of prophecy. Hagiographic sources of this period often insist on the dioratic power of their protagonists, a power to which emperors could appeal in order to reach important political and military decisions. Nevertheless, as Benoit-Meggenis briefly notes, monastic prophecy could, in turn, be challenged by other forms of divination, such as pagan oracles or astrology (pp. 74–80). Here, the author’s analysis would have greatly benefited from Andrei Timotin’s 2010 monograph on the role of dreams and prophecies in middle Byzantine hagiography.[1]

The presence of monks and ascetics in the imperial palace also led to an important modification of imperial self-representation. Thus, one can observe the tendency for ostentatious and pathetic displays of imperial piety (pp. 55–67), which Benoit-Meggenis links to the need of the Byzantine homines novi (cf. p. 69) to add legitimacy to their disruptive rise to power. Another effect can be gleaned from the change in imperial lifestyle: several emperors and empresses were known for leading a quasi-monastic life in the palace (Nicephorus Phocas, Basil II, Mary of Alania), while others actually became monks after their political careers ended (Romanus IV Diogenes, pp. 64–65).

Part II starts from an apparent paradox that characterizes the middle Byzantine period: while the eleventh- and twelfth-century emperors tried to optimise state income through fiscal reforms and/or heavier taxation, the monasteries were not only to a large extent exempted, but also usually drew substantial benefits from imperial patronage (p. 81, cf. p. 151 for some limitations imposed by the Comneni). In order to explain this peculiar situation, Benoit-Meggenis presents an in-depth study of the multiple and, in many ways, necessary services that monastic institutions and individuals could provide for the empire. On a spiritual and ideological level, examined in Chapter 3, the most important service was communal prayer on behalf of the empire’s political security. Especially in the context of the tenth-century wars with the Arabs, Benoit-Meggenis argues that this activity served precise propagandistic purposes and carried explicit military overtones (pp. 85–86). More important in the long term was the monastic duty to commemorate the emperors, not only as sovereigns, but also as benefactors and donors, e.g., of precious relics (pp. 97–106). Furthermore, due to their training, reputation, and experience, monks were able to play key roles in various missions on behalf of the Byzantine empire. These could include evangelizing missions in neighboring kingdoms (the Bulgars, the Rus’, the Khazars, pp. 89–93) and the fight against heresies (pp. 93–94), but also more “practical” services, such as diplomacy and even espionage (pp. 108–121).

Under this latter, “practical” category of services, the use of monasteries as places of detention is of particular interest. Benoit-Meggenis masterfully presents a wealth of hitherto little-explored sources on Byzantine monasteries functioning as prisons, especially for political prisoners of higher ranks (pp. 121–136). However, her analysis is almost totally disengaged from the extensive academic literature on late antique and medieval forms of corrective monasterial emprisonment. This is unfortunate, since the important finds presented here complement the results of the recent scholarship on monastic confinement in other areas and periods.[2]

The third and final part concentrates on the imperial patronage of monasteries and seeks to clarify the meaning and use of the problematic term of “imperial monasteries” (basilikai monai). Reviewing all the literary evidence from the ninth to the thirteenth century, Benoit-Meggenis first provides a comprehensive list of the monasteries that are called “imperial” (basilike) or “venerable” (sebasmia) in the sources. The author systematically covers Constantinople and its environs (pp. 139-152), Mount Athos (pp. 152–159), Asia Minor, the major islands (Patmos, Chios, Cyprus), and Italy (pp. 159–171). At the end of this survey, the author concludes that these titles are very rarely attested at the foundation of the monasteries (e.g., in the typika), that their use is often unsystematic, and that it indicates diverse types of patronage relations between the emperor and the monastic settlements. Although not subject to local episcopal authority and exempt from multiple fiscal duties, these autonomous monasteries were nevertheless bound to provide specific services for their imperialktetors, who still held exclusive rights over their foundations (pp. 187–199). Thus, members of the imperial household could own large, luxurious apartments on monastery grounds and pass these properties on to their successors (pp. 188–189). The middle Byzantine period also witnessed the spread of the practice of burying emperors on monastery grounds, most famously the Pantocrator monastery in Constantinople for the Comneni dynasty (pp. 189-191). Benoit-Meggenis also singles out a number of military obligations that imperial monasteries in particular were expected to fulfil, e.g., lodging soldiers, furnishing supplies, providing horses, etc. Finally, emperors could freely confiscate monastery properties, if required (pp. 194–195).

In the short Conclusion, Benoit-Meggenis summarizes the main arguments of the book and closes by sketching the Byzantine ideal “philosopher-emperor,” who embodies both the monastic virtues and the charismatic, sacerdotal kingship of ancient Israel. The volume contains an extensive and useful appendix, which includes: (1) a table with all the monasteries that had some tie to the emperor (patronage, imperial prisons, etc.); (2) a selection of sources in French translation (mainly chrysobulls), although the criteria of selection is not really clear; (3) maps with the locations of the monasteries that had close relations to imperial power in the middle Byzantine period.

Overall, this monograph is certainly an indispensable contribution to the history of the relationship between monks and emperors in Byzantium. The author’s knowledge and critical use of the vast source material is exemplary. However, in its commendable attempt to be as exhaustive as possible, the book can at times appear cumbersome to its readers. One wonders if, for some parts, it would have helped to focus on some representative case-studies and discuss them in more depth and detail, instead of leaping through all the extant sources. On a few occasions, the texts quoted required a more careful reading: thus, the Life of Nikon the Metanoite does not state that the Christians of Crete converted to Islam, but only that they adopted some Muslim customs (pp. 91–92), while the end of the quotation from Theophanes Continuatus on Romanos’ repentance is apparently left untranslated (pp. 58, 219). A final point: The parallels drawn by the author between the Byzantine and the Carolingian and Ottonian situations (pp. 81–82, 87–88, 136, etc.) and the study of intersectional zones, such as Italy, could form the basis for a more comprehensive comparative study of the relationship between monks, monasteries, and imperial power in the Middle Ages.


[1] Andrei Timotin, Visions, prophéties et pouvoir à Byzance. Étude sur l’hagiographie méso-byzantine (IX-XI siècles), Paris: Centre d’études byzantines, néo-helléniques et sud-est européennes, 2010 (Dossiers byzantins, 10).

[2] See e.g. Julia Hillner, “Monastic Imprisonment in Justinian’s Novels,” Journal of Early Christian Studies 15 (2007), 205–237; id., “Gregory the Great’s ‘Prisons’: Monastic Confinement in Early Byzantine Italy,” Journal of Early Christian Studies 19/3 (2011): 433–471; Guy Geltner, “‘Detrusio’: Penal Cloistering in the Middle Ages,” Revue Bénédictine 118 (2008): 89–108.