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History of the Byzantine empire
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The taking of Constantinople by the crusaders in 1204 took place against the will of Pope Innocent III. But after the foundation of the Latin Empire the pope clearly realized that the new state of things in the Near East, however disagreeable it might have been at first to the papal dignity, nevertheless had opened wide horizons for the further strengthening of Catholicism and the papacy. The main ecclesiastical problem of the epoch consisted in establishing intercourse between the eastern and western churches in connection with the political changes which had taken place in the Christian East. In the Latin dominions established by the crusaders on the territory of the Byzantine Empire, Catholicism was to be planted. The first task of the papacy was to organize the Catholic church in the regions conquered by the Latins, and then to clear up its relation to the secular power and to the local Greek population, both laic and ecclesiastic. The second task was to render subject to Rome, as far as ecclesiastical matters were concerned, the Greek regions which after 1204 had remained independent and at the head of which stood the state of Nicaea. In a word, the problem of the union with the Greeks became the keystone of all ecclesiastical relations of the thirteenth century.
At the beginning of the political existence of the Latin Empire the position of the pope was very complicated and delicate. According to the treaty concluded between the crusaders and Venice it was stipulated that, if the Emperor had been elected from the Franks, the Latin patriarch should be elected from the Venetian clergy. The interests of the Roman curia were not taken into consideration, for in the treaty there was no suggestion either that the pope should participate in the election of the patriarch or that any revenues should go into the treasury of the curia.
In the letter of the first Latin Emperor to the pope, Baldwin wrote of “the miraculous success” of the crusaders, of the fall of Constantinople, of the lawlessness of the Greeks, “who were producing nausea in God himself,” of a hope to go on a crusade to the Holy Land in the future, etc., but he did not mention the election of the patriarch. And when the new clergy of St. Sophia, consisting of Venetians, had elected to the patriarchate a Venetian noble, Thomas Morosini, the pope, though he at first proclaimed the election un-canonical, nevertheless was forced to yield and, “at his own initiative,” confirmed this choice.
The problem of the relation of the papal throne to the Greek clergy who remained within the Latin dominions is also interesting. It is known that a great number of bishops and the majority of the lower clergy did not abandon their places. In this case the pope held a conciliatory policy, allowing the Greek bishops to be ordained in the eparchies with an exclusively Greek population, and granting privileges concerning the preservation of the Greek rites and the church service, conceding, for example, the use of leavened bread for the Eucharist. However, the papal legates appeared in the Balkan peninsula and Asia Minor and tried to persuade the Greek clergy to join the union.
In 1204, a papal legate made the first attempt to obtain the consent of the Greek clergy to the recognition of the pope as the head of their church; the negotiations were held in St. Sophia, at Constantinople, and were of no avail. A very important role in the negotiations of that time was played by Nicholas Mesarites, later bishop of Ephesus, whose personality and activity were first elucidated by A. Heisenberg. In the years 1205-6 the negotiations continued their course. Nicholas of Otranto, abbot of Casole, of southern Italy, took part in them as an interpreter; holding the orthodox opinions, he recognized, like the whole church of southern Italy of that time, the papal primate and was an adherent of the union. Nicholas of Otranto, who has left many poems and prose works, almost all of them unpublished, deserves, as Heisenberg justly remarked, a special monograph. The position of the Greek clergy became more complicated when in 1206 the patriarch of Constantinople, John Camaterus, died in Bulgaria, having fled there before the crusaders. With the permission of Emperor Henry, the Greek clergy of the Latin Empire applied to Innocent III for authorization to elect a new patriarch, and Henry allowed them to choose the patriarch provided they would recognize the overlordship of the pope. But the Greeks wished neither subordination to the Holy See nor reconciliation with it. Therefore nothing came of the disputation held at Constantinople, in the same year, 1206, when at the head of the Latins stood the Latin patriarch, Thomas Morosini and, leading the Greeks, Nicholas Mesarites. The Greeks of the Latin Empire began to turn to Theodore Lascaris. In 1208 a new Orthodox patriarch, Michael Autoreanus, was elected at Nicaea, who crowned Theodore Lascaris the Emperor of Nicaea. This was a fact of great moment not only for Nicaea, but also for the Greeks of the Latin Empire.
The negotiations of 1214 held at Constantinople and in Asia Minor with the participation of Cardinal Pelagius, his delegates, and Nicholas Mesarites broke up without any result. Nicholas Mesarites, at that time metropolitan of Ephesus with the title of the exarch of all Asia, was profoundly discontented with the haughty reception accorded to him by Pelagius in Constantinople.
From the point of view of influence on the Latin clergy in the East, Innocent III, towards the end of his pontificate, obtained a brilliant victory: the Lateran Council, in 1215, recognized by the western church as an ecumenical council, proclaimed the pope the head of all the eastern Latin patriarchs, that is to say, those of Constantinople, Jerusalem, and Antioch, who from that time on were hierarchically under the jurisdiction of the Holy See.
But Innocent III was entirely disappointed in his idea that Constantinople would engage in the promised crusade. Secular, political, and international interests and problems absorbed the new Latin Empire to such an extent that the Latin rulers entirely put aside the plan of a crusade to the Holy Land and Innocent III began to aim at forming a new crusade from Europe, not through Constantinople.
The papal hopes were not satisfied by the external subjugation of the eastern Church to Rome; for complete victory a religious union was necessary, the spiritual subjugation of the Greek Orthodox population. But this could be attained neither by Innocent III nor by his successors.
The Empire of Nicaea had an Orthodox Greek patriarch of her own, who, residing at Nicaea, continued to bear the title of the patriarch of Constantinople. But the population of Nicaea regarded the patriarchal throne transferred to them as “alien and annexed,” and hoped that it would be later restored to its original place in Constantinople. The first Nicene ruler, Theodore Lascaris, was not recognized by Innocent III as emperor or even as despot and was called in his letter merely “the noble man Theodore Lascaris” (nobilt viro Theodora Lascari). In this letter to Lascaris, the pope, though he does not justify the violence of the crusaders at the taking of Constantinople, nevertheless refers to the fact that the Latins were the tool of Providence in punishing the Greeks for their refusal to accept the headship of the Roman church and that it would be desirable now for the Greeks to become obedient subjects of the Holy See and the Latin Emperor. But this papal admonition was of no avail.
Interest in the ecclesiastical relations in the Empire of Nicaea lies in the attempts by conferences and correspondence to find ways and means of closer intercourse between the two churches. In the very Empire of Nicaea there were men such as the metropolitan of Ephesus, Nicholas Mesarites, who were inclined to establish intercourse and agreement with the Roman church; but the Greek population never wished to accept the union. John III Vatatzes seemed to be particularly favorably disposed towards the recognition of the union, but he was influenced only by political speculations. First, he was alarmed by the election of the brave John of Brienne, formerly king of Jerusalem, first as regent and then as joint emperor with Baldwin II of Constantinople, at that time a minor. John of Brienne backed by the pope could carry out an aggressive policy against the Empire of Nicaea. Therefore, Vatatzes endeavored to divert the pope from his interest in the Latin Empire.
In 1232 five Franciscan monks (Minorites) arrived in Nicaea from Turkish captivity and opened negotiations with Patriarch Germanus II on the union of the churches. John Vatatzes and Germanus II treated them well, and the Minorites brought to Pope Gregory IX a patriarchal letter, in which the patriarch offered to the pope for consideration the subject of the union. Gregory IX acquiesced willingly in this proposal and in 1234 sent to Nicaea several delegates. The council was held first at Nicaea, and then transferred to Nymphaeum. In the disputation Nicephorus Blemmydes took a leading part. The course of the discussions at the Council of 1234 is very well known, because there is a detailed official report. But the negotiations met with failure, and the papal delegates were forced to withdraw, loaded with the curses of the Greeks gathered there, who shouted: “You are heretics. As we have found you heretics and excommunicated, so we leave you now as heretics and excommunicated!” In their turn the Catholic delegates cried to the Greeks: “You are also heretics!”
At the Council of Lyons, in 1245, Gregory’s successor, Pope Innocent IV, announced that he was afflicted “about the schism of Romania, that is to say, of the Greek Church which, in our own days only a few years ago, had arrogantly and foolishly seceded and averted itself from the bosom of its mother as if from its step-mother.” “Two states,” Luchaire wrote, “two religions, and two races, always deeply separated from each other, were maintaining towards each other the same attitude of enmity and distrust.” John Vatatzes’ alliance with Frederick II Hohenstaufen strained still farther the relations between Nicaea and the papacy, although towards the end of Frederick’s reign negotiations between Nicaea and Rome were reopened and an exchange of embassies took place.
But after Frederick’s death, in the last years of John Vatatzes’ reign, there seemed to come a decisive moment for the union of the Churches. The Emperor had submitted his conditions — the surrender to him of Constantinople, the restoration of the Constantinopolitan patriarchate, and the withdrawal from the city of the Latin Emperor and the Latin clergy — and Innocent IV acceded to them. For the restoration of the unity of the Christian world the pope was ready to sacrifice the state created by the crusaders. For the return of the capital to the Empire Vatatzes was ready to sacrifice the independence of the Greek church. Both sides definitely abandoned their traditional policy. But this agreement remained only a project. A very important letter of the patriarch of Nicaea to Innocent IV, written in 1253, gave to the Greek delegates full power to conclude with the pope the negotiations for union. But in 1254 both John Vatatzes and Innocent IV died, and their agreement, one of the most significant pages in the history of the negotiations for union between the East and West, remained only a project which was never realized.
Theodore II Lascaris, Vatatzes’ son and successor, professed to believe that he as Emperor should guide the ecclesiastical policy, take part in church matters, and preside at the ecclesiastical councils. Accordingly he did not desire a patriarch of great energy and strong will. Therefore, the candidature of Blemmydes was finally rejected, and Arsenius was promoted from layman to patriarch in three days. Under Theodore II the relations of Nicaea with the papal curia were closely tied up with the political concerns of the Emperor; as for his father, the union with Rome was for Theodore merely a step to Constantinople.
It is usually related that, in 1256, Pope Alexander IV suddenly sent a bishop of Orvieto, in Italy, to Nicaea to resume the negotiations for union interrupted by Vatatzes’ death. This sudden decision of the pope seemed to have no particular reason and remained unmotivated. But now, on the basis of some new documents, it is known that the initiative in resuming negotiations belonged not to the pope, but to the Emperor of Nicaea. In 1256, Theodore sent to the pope two nobles who begged Alexander IV to resume negotiations and send a legate to Nicaea. Alexander was overjoyed to acquiesce in the imperial proposal. Both sides wished to hasten matters as much as possible. The papal legate, Constantine, bishop of Orvieto, was to be ready to depart in ten days. It is interesting to note that the proposals made to the curia by the late John Vatatzes were now to serve as the principal basis of the new negotiations. The delegate was supplied with both official and secret instructions. The legate was given some special powers, the most important of which was the right to convoke a council, to preside over it as a vicar of the pope, and to draw up its decisions as he pleased.
This papal mission organized so energetically and hopefully ended in complete failure; the bishop of Orvieto was not even received by the Emperor, who had meantime changed his mind. On his way to Nicaea, in Macedonia, the papal legate was ordered to leave the imperial territory, and forbidden to journey further. Theodore II who, at that time, was taking the field against Bulgaria and was successful in his political enterprises, had come to the conclusion that he had no further need of the papal support. His final aim — the taking of Constantinople — seemed to Theodore entirely realizable without any new attempt to form the union, that is, without losing the independence of the Greek Church.
In 1258 Theodore II died. Michael Palaeologus, who usurped the throne of Nicaea in 1259, was dangerously threatened by the coalition formed against him in the West. The papal support was needed and Michael apparently sent envoys to Pope Alexander IV. But the latter lacked energy and did not take the opportunity of making use of Michael’s difficult position. Finally Michael succeeded in seizing Constantinople without any support from the Holy See. The Empire of Nicaea preserved the Orthodox church, and the Orthodox patriarchate, and restored them to Constantinople. During the Nicene Empire the plan for union had no success.