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History of the Byzantine empire
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Most important of all, of course, was Justinian’s attitude toward the Monophysites. First of all, his relations with them were of great political importance and involved the extremely significant problem of the eastern provinces, Egypt, Syria, and Palestine. In the second place, the Monophysites were supported by Justinian’s wife, Theodora, who had a powerful influence over him. One contemporary Monophysitic writer (John of Ephesus) called her a “Christ-loving woman filled with zeal” and “the most Christian empress, sent by God in difficult times to protect the persecuted.”
Following her advice, Justinian attempted at the beginning of his reign to establish peaceful relations with the Monophysites, He permitted the bishops who had been exiled during the reign of Justin and at the beginning of his own reign to return home. He invited many Monophysites to the capital to a conciliatory religious conference, at which, according to an eyewitness, he appealed to them to discuss all doubtful questions with their antagonists “with all mildness and patience as behooves orthodox and saintly people.” He gave quarters in one of the palaces in the capital to five hundred Monophysitic monks; they were likened to “a great and marvelous desert of solitaries.” In 535 Severus, the head and “true legislator of Monophysitism,” arrived in Constantinople and remained there a year. “The capital of the Empire, at the beginning of the year 535, was assuming somewhat the aspect which it had presented under the reign of Anastasius.” The see of Constantinople was entrusted to the bishop of Trapezus (Trebizond), Anthimus, famous for his conciliatory policy towards the Monophysites. The Monophysites seemed triumphant.
However, things changed very soon. Pope Agapetus and a party of the Akoimetoi (extreme orthodox), upon arriving at Constantinople, raised such an uproar against the religious pliancy of Anthimus that Justinian was forced regretfully to change his policy. Anthimus was deposed and his place was taken by the orthodox presbyter, Menas. One source relates the following conversation between the Emperor and the pope: “I shall either force you to agree with us, or else I shall send you into exile,” said Justinian, to which Agapetus answered, “I wished to come to the most Christian of all emperors, Justinian, and I have found now a Diocletian; however, I fear not your threats.” It is very likely that the Emperor’s concessions to the pope were caused partly by the fact that the Ostrogothic war began at this time in Italy and Justinian needed the support of the West.
In spite of this concession, Justinian did not forsake further attempts of reconciliation with the Monophysites, This time he raised the famous question of the Three Chapters. The matter concerned three church writers of the fifth century: Theodore of Mopsuestia, Theodoret of Cyrus, and Ibas of Edessa. The Monophysites accused the Council of Chalcedon because in spite of the Nestorian ideas of these three writers, it had failed to condemn them. The pope and the Akoimetoi advanced very strong opposition. Justinian, greatly provoked, declared that in this case the Monophysites were right and the orthodox must agree with them. He issued in the early forties a decree which anathematized the works of the three writers and threatened to do the same to all people who might attempt to defend or approve them.
Justinian wished to make this edict obligatory on all churches and demanded that it be signed by all the patriarchs and bishops. But this was not easy to accomplish. The West was troubled by the fact that the willingness to sign this imperial edict might mean an encroachment upon the authority of the Council of Chalcedon. One learned deacon of Carthage wrote, “If the definitions of the Council of Chalcedon are being disputed, then is it not possible that also the Council of Nicaea might be subject to a similar menace?” In addition to this the question was raised as to whether it was permissible to condemn dead men, since all three writers had died in the preceding century. Finally, some leaders of the West were of the opinion that by this edict the Emperor was violating the conscience of members of the church. This view was not held in the eastern church, where the intervention of the imperial power in deciding dogmatical disputes was approved by long practice. The eastern church also cited King Josiah in the Old Testament, who not only put down the living idolatrous priests, but also opened the sepulchers of those who died long before his reign and burned their bones upon the altar (II Kings 23:16). Thus the eastern church was willing to accept the decree and condemn the Three Chapters; the western church was not. In the end, Justinian’s decree never received general church recognition.
In order to attract the western church to his support Justinian had to secure first the approval of the Pope of Rome. Consequently the pope of that period, Vigilius, was summoned to Constantinople, where he remained for more than seven years. Upon his arrival he declared openly that he was against the edict and excommunicated the Patriarch of Constantinople, Menas. But gradually he yielded to the influence of Justinian and Theodora, and in the year 548 he issued the condemnation of the Three Chapters, or the so-called “Judicatum,” thus adding his voice to the votes of the four eastern patriarchs. This was the last triumph of Theodora, who was convinced of the inevitable final victory of Monophysitism. She died in the same year. Upon the invitation of Vigilius, the priests of western Europe had to put up incessant prayers for “the most clement princes, Justinian and Theodora.”
The western church, however, did not approve of the concession made by Vigilius. The African bishops, having summoned a council, went even so far as to excommunicate him. Stirred by these events, the pope wavered in his decision and revoked the Judicatum. Justinian decided to resort to the aid of an ecumenical council, which was convoked in Constantinople in the year 553.
The problem of this Fifth Ecumenical Council was much simpler than the problems of the earlier councils. It did not have to deal with any new heresy; it was faced only with the problem of regulating some questions connected with the decisions of the third and fourth councils, relative partly to Nestorianism, but concerning primarily the Monophysitic faith. The Emperor was very desirous that the pope, who was in Constantinople at the time, be present at the Council, but under various excuses Vigilius avoided attending it, and all the sessions of the Council took place without him. The Council looked into the works of the three disputed writers and agreed with the opinion of the Emperor. The resolution of the Council condemned and anathematized “the impious Theodoret who was bishop of Mopsuestia, together with his impious works, and all that Theodoret had written impiously, and the impious letter, attributed to Ibas, and those who have written or are writing to defend them (ad defensionem eorum).” The decrees of this Council were declared obligatory, and Justinian instituted a policy of persecuting and exiling the bishops who did not agree with the condemnation of the Three Chapters. Pope Vigilius was exiled to one of the islands of the Sea of Marmora. In the end he consented to sign the condemnation and was then permitted to return to Rome, but he died on his way at Syracuse. The West did not accept the decisions of the Council of 553 until the end of the sixth century, and only when Gregory I the Great (590-604) proclaimed that “at the Synod, which was concerned with the Three Chapters, nothing was violated or in any way changed in the matter of religion,” was the Council of 553 recognized throughout the West as an ecumenical council on a par with the first four councils.
The intense religious struggle which Justinian expected would reconcile the Monophysites with the orthodox, did not bring the results he hoped for. The Monophysites did not seem satisfied with the concessions made to them. In the last years of his life Justinian apparently favored the Monophysites. The bishops who disagreed with him were exiled. Monophysitism might have become the state religion, obligatory on all, and this would have led to new and very serious complications. But at this time the aged Emperor died, and with his death came a change in the religious policy of the government.
In summarizing the religious and ecclesiastical policy of Justinian the question might be asked whether or not he succeeded in establishing a united church in the Empire. The answer must, of course, be in the negative. Orthodoxy and Monophysitism did not become reconciled; Nestorianism, Manichaeism, Judaism, and, to some extent, paganism, continued to exist. There was no religious unity, and Justinian’s attempt to bring it about must be admitted a failure.
But in speaking of Justinian’s religious policy we must not disregard his missionary activities. As a Christian emperor he considered it his duty to spread Christianity beyond the boundaries of his empire. The conversion of the Heruli on the Danube, and of some Caucasian tribes, as well as of the native tribes of Northern Africa and the Middle Nile occurred in Justinian’s time.