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A.A. Vasiliev
History of the Byzantine empire

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The ecclesiastical policy of Justinian.

            As the successor of Roman Caesars, Justinian considered it his duty to restore the Roman Empire, and at the same time he wished to establish within the Empire one law and one faith. “One state, one law, and one church” — such was the brief formula of Justinian’s entire political career. Basing his conceptions on the principle of absolute power, he assumed that in a well-ordered state everything is subject to the authority of the emperor. Fully aware of the fact that the church might serve as a powerful weapon in the hands of the government, he used every effort to bring it into subjection. Historians have tried to analyze the motives which guided Justinian’s church policy; some have concluded that with him politics was foremost and religion only a servant of the state,[58] others that this “second Constantine the Great was ready to forget his direct administrative duties wherever church matters were concerned.”[59] In his desire to be full master of the church, Justinian not only aimed to keep in his own hands the internal administration and the fate of the clergy, even those of highest rank, but he also considered it his right to determine a specific dogma for his subjects. Whatever religious tendency was followed by the Emperor had to be followed also by his subjects. The Byzantine Emperor had the right to regulate the life of the clergy, to fill the highest hierarchic posts according to his own judgment, to appear as mediator and judge in the affairs of the clergy. He showed his favorable attitude toward the church by protecting the clergy and by promoting the erection of new churches and monasteries, to which he granted special privileges. He also exerted much effort in attempting to establish a unity of faith among his subjects. He frequently participated in dogmatical disputes, passing final decisions on debatable questions of doctrine. This policy of temporal authority in religious and ecclesiastical affairs, penetrating even the deepest regions of inner religious convictions of individuals, is known in history as Caesaro-papism, and Justinian may be considered one of the most characteristic representatives of the Caesaropapistic tendency.[60] In his conception the ruler of the state was to be both Caesar and pope; he was to combine in his person all temporal and spiritual power. The historians who emphasize the political side of Justinian’s activities claim that the chief motive in his Caesaropapism was a desire to make secure his political power, to strengthen the government, and to find religious support for the throne which he had procured by chance.

            Justinian had received a good religious education. He knew the Scriptures very well, was fond of participating in religious discussions, and wrote a number of church hymns. Religious conflicts seemed dangerous to him, even from a political point of view, for they menaced the unity of the Empire.

            Although two predecessors of Justin and Justinian, Zeno and Anastasius, had followed the path of peaceful relations with the eastern Monophysitic church, thereby breaking away from the Roman church, Justin and Justinian definitely favored the Roman church and renewed friendly relations with it. This state of affairs was bound to alienate the eastern provinces, a fact that did not harmonize with the projects of Justinian, who was exceedingly anxious to establish a uniform faith throughout his vast Empire. The achievement of a church unity between the East and the West, between Alexandria, Antioch, and Rome, was impossible. “Justinian’s government,” said one historian, “was in its church policy a double-faced Janus with one face turned to the west, asking for direction from Rome, while the other, looking east, sought the truth from the Syrian and Egyptian monks.”[61]

            The fundamental aim of Justinian’s church policy from the very beginning of his reign was the establishment of closer relations with Rome; hence he had to appear as the defender of the Council of Chalcedon, the decisions of which were strongly opposed by the eastern provinces. During Justinian’s reign the see of Rome enjoyed supreme church authority. In his letters to the bishop of Rome, Justinian addressed him as “Pope,” “Pope of Rome,” “Apostolic Father,” “Pope and Patriarch,” etc., and the title of pope was applied exclusively to the bishop of Rome. In one epistle the Emperor addressed the Pope as the “head of all holy churches” (caput omnium sanctarum ecclesiarum),[62] and in one of his Novels he definitely stated that “the most blessed see of the archbishop of Constantinople, the New Rome, ranks second after the most holy apostolic see of Old Rome.”[63]

            Justinian came into collision with the Jews, the pagans, and the heretics. The latter included the Manichaeans, the Nestorians, the Monophysites, the Arians, and representatives of other less significant religious doctrines. Arianism was widely spread in the West among the Germanic tribes. Survivals of paganism existed in various parts of the Empire, and the pagans still looked upon the Athenian school as their main center. The Jews and the followers of minor heretical movements were centered primarily in the eastern provinces. The widest following was, of course, the Monophysitic. The struggle with the Arians in the West assumed the form of military undertakings, which ended in the complete or partial subjection of the Germanic kingdoms. In view of Justinian’s conviction of the necessity of a unified faith in the Empire there could be no tolerance toward the leaders of other faiths and heretical teachings, who consequently were subjected during his reign to severe persecution carried out with the aid of military and civil authorities.


The closing of the Athenian school. — In order to eradicate completely the survivals of paganism, Justinian in the year 529 closed the famous philosophic school in Athens, the last rampart of effete paganism, the decline of which had been already precipitated by the organization of the University of Constantinople in the fifth century during the reign of Theodosius II. Many of the professors were exiled and the property of the school was confiscated. One historian writes, “The same year when St. Benedict destroyed the last pagan national sanctuary in Italy, the temple of Apollo in the sacred grove of Monte Cassino, saw also the destruction of the stronghold of classical paganism in Greece.”[64] From this period onward Athens definitely lost its former importance as a cultural center and deteriorated into a quiet, second-rate city. Some of the philosophers of the closed school decided to migrate to Persia, where, they had heard, King Chosroes was interested in philosophy. They were received in Persia with great esteem, but life in a foreign country was unbearable to these Greeks, and Chosroes determined to let them go back to their land, first arranging a treaty with Justinian by which the latter promised not to persecute them or force them to embrace the Christian faith. Justinian kept this promise and the pagan philosophers spent the rest of their lives in the Byzantine Empire in complete peace and safety. Justinian failed to bring about the complete eradication of paganism; it continued to exist secretly in remote localities.

            The Jews and their religious kinsmen, the Samaritans of Palestine, unable to be reconciled to the government persecutions, rose in rebellion but were soon quelled by cruel violence. Many synagogues were destroyed, while in those which remained intact it was forbidden to read the Old Testament from the Hebrew text, which had to be replaced by the Greek version of seventy translators (the so-calledSeptuagint”). The civil rights of the population were curtailed. The Nestorians were also severely persecuted.



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