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7-08-2015, 21:02

The mid-ninth-century upswing

A notable upswing in the empire’s missionary activities may be observed around the turn of the ninth century. A growing interest in converting the barbarians is traceable in the Life of Andrew the Apostle, written by the monk Epiphanios. The author made his own journey in the footsteps of the apostle, and his narrative combines hagiographic commonplaces with first-hand observations: ‘And from there he went to Bosporus . . . where we ourselves found Bishop Kolymbadios, who knew ten languages.’37 The emphasis which Epiphanios places on the bishop’s polyglot skills could reflect his own interest in the apostolic succession from St Andrew. Thus the ‘first-called’ apostle is regarded not just as a miracle-worker (his main characteristic in the apocryphal ‘Wanderings’) but as a practising missionary. Epiphanios’ text is also important as the first, albeit timid, attempt to describe a missionary as he ‘really’ was: ‘Seeing that the apostles were unselfish, exhausted, pallid, without even sandals on their feet and dressed only in tunics, and that despite this divinely inspired words issued forth from them – seeing this, people did not wish to part from them.’ The role attributed to Patriarch Photios (858–67, 877–86) in ninthcentury Byzantine missionary activity is usually exaggerated;38 we lack firm evidence as to any deliberate plans he might have had to convert the barbarians. However, several of the missionary undertakings of the period were initiated by Emperor Michael III (842–67). If we believe Niketas Byzantinos, 39Michael was associated with some kind of coordinated religious work among the Muslim Arabs.40 The ninth century also saw the beginning of missionary progress on the empire’s northern periphery. This is indicated by the celebrated episcopal notice outlining the ‘see of Gothia’: ‘The metropolitanate of Doros: [bishops] of the Chotziroi, Astel, Chwales, the Onogurs, Reteg, theHuns, Tamatarcha’.41 At the end of the notice, unconnected with the previous text, we find additional information: ‘the eparchy of Gothia: [the bishop of] the Chotziroi near Phoullai and near Charasion, which is called Black Water. [The bishop of] Astel: Astel is the name of a river in Khazaria, and there is a fortress there.’42 The metropolitanate of Doros, as described in the notice, encompassed an enormous territory including part of the Crimea, the northern Caucasus and the north-eastern Caspian region – that is, all the territory of the Khazar khaganate. Even if this list of bishoprics is in fact merely a rough draft, it is extremely revealing; its compilation implies expansive missionary ambitions on the part of the church of Constantinople. Hopes of converting the khaganate apparently rose in Byzantium at the start of the ninth century, in the course of a multifaceted diplomatic offensive to the north.43 Around 860, as part of the same initiative,Michael III sent Constantine the Philosopher (the future St Cyril) on a mission to Khazaria. Constantine saw it as an evangelising opportunity, if we may believe his Life. He said to the emperor: ‘If you command, lord, on such a mission I shall gladly go on foot and unshod, lacking all the Lord forbadeHis disciples to bring.’ The emperor answered, saying: ‘Well spoken, were you to do this [on your own]! But bear in mind the imperial power and honour, and go honourably and with imperial help.’44 This discussion neatly encapsulates two views of missionary activity: Constantine’s remark alludes to Christ’s instructions to his disciples (Matthew 10:9–10), whereas the emperor counters to the effect that a missionary from Byzantium is at the same time an ambassador, and so theGospel’s insistence on simplicity does not apply to him. Here mission manifestly merges with diplomacy. In the event, the results of Constantine-Cyril’s work among the Khazars were not particularly impressive: ‘about two hundred of these people were baptised, having cast off heathen abominations and lawless marriages’.45 Soon afterwards the Khazar khaganate adopted Judaism as its state religion. The Life of Constantine-Cyril also relates how the saint took time out from his Khazarian diplomacy to mount, at his own initiative, a missionary raid on the people of Phoullai in the Crimea, felling their sacred oak tree.46 Later Michael III ordered the brothers Constantine and Methodios to create a Slavonic alphabet for the translation of the Scriptures (see below, fig. 19). It was Michael who sent Constantine and Methodios to Moravia and who initiated the baptism of both the Bulgars and the Rus. Michael’s role in these missions has been somewhat overshadowed by Basil I’s subsequent successes, as Basil appropriated his predecessor’s initiatives for himself. However, Basil the Macedonian (867–86) seems to have been the first Byzantine emperor seriously to consider himself on a par with the apostles in missionary matters.47 It was during Basil’s reign that the feast of Pentecost acquired missionary connotations. In mosaics in the church of the Holy Apostles, which Basil extended and decorated, the apostles were clearly represented as missionaries. Similar representations can be found in miniatures48 and frescoes49 of the period. It is interesting, for example, that in the frescoes of the Tokale Kilise church in Cappadocia, the ‘peoples’, ‘tribes’ and ‘tongues’ who turn to the apostles are virtually obscured by huge depictions of emperors in Byzantine imperial ceremonial dress (fig. 17). In this sense the emperors are indeed ‘equal to the apostles’.50 The sources consistently stress the role of the emperor in the conversions of the Bulgars, Rus and the north-western Balkans.51 Byzantium’s religious embassy to Moravia in 863 and the activities of Constantine and Methodios laid the foundations of Slav written culture. Yet in no way does this justify the oft-made claim that theMoravian mission was the high-point of Byzantine missionary activity. Although the brothers are frequently labelled ‘apostles of the Slavs’, Moravia had in fact received Christianity without Byzantine involvement. True, Prince Rastislav’s letter to the emperor mentions that the Moravians had been visited by ‘many preachers . . . from the Greeks’,52 which might be taken to imply that there were Byzantine missionaries inMoravia before Cyril andMethodios.However, this phrase’s context undermines such an interpretation: the Byzantines are contrasted with all previous missionaries to Moravia, including ‘Greeks’; the implication is that these particular Greeks were not reckoned ‘Byzantines’. The Cyrillo-Methodian embassy itself should be viewed more as a unique event than as an integral part of an overall missionary strategy. The brothers from Thessaloniki did not undertake it as churchmen; when they did acquire ecclesiastical office, they observed the Latin rather than the Greek rite; and, yet again, the most striking feature of contemporary Greek sources is their total silence about the mission. Left to their own devices, lacking imperial assistance, the orthodox teachers also came into conflict with the German clergy – ‘the Franks’ – who were supported by the neighbouring east Frankish realm. The work of Methodios and his followers in Moravia can be pieced together from the Lives of Methodios and Clement of Ohrid, and also from the legal code known as the Court law for the people, which the Byzantines helped compile. These sources make clear that, although the brothers lacked political support for their activities in Moravia, from the start they made the same demands on the barbarians as they would have made on subjects of the empire. This concerned, above all, the laws of marriage: polygamy was forbidden, as was marriage to any relative, to godparents, and so forth. The Byzantine missionaries were admirably consistent: they made no distinction between the elite and the masses, between neophytes and Byzantines. Such an attitude was bound to make the Slav elite wary of orthodox churchmen. This was one of the reasons for the ultimate failure of the Cyrillo- Methodian mission. After Methodios’ death some of his followers were expelled from Moravia, others were sold into slavery. The empire, for its part, showed no interest in the fate of the enterprise. Constantinople made no attempt to absorbMoravia into its own sphere of ecclesiastical jurisdiction; it did not quarrel with Rome about the introduction of the Latin rite intoMoravia; nor did it intervene to defend its own envoys from harassment by the Franks. In the late seventh century, the Bulgars had seized much of the Byzantine province of Moesia south of the lower Danube. The conquests of Khan Krum (c. 803–14) greatly extended their dominions to the south, bringing a sizeable number of Greek-speaking Christians under Bulgar sway (see above, p. 257). The influence – including religious influence – of these Greek-speaking Christians on the incoming Bulgars can be traced in sources from the early ninth century. As usual, missionary activity was initiated by captives aswell as by local Christians. The Life of Blasios of Amorion53 and the tale of Prince Enrabotas illustrate this.54 The conversion of the Bulgars took place in the mid-ninth century in several stages and in complex competition with the church of Rome. Theophanes Continuatus claims that Boris of Bulgaria (c. 852–89) was coaxed towards Christianity both by his sister, who had spent some time in the empire as a hostage, and also by a Byzantine captive, a monk named Theodore Koupharas; however, he also alleges that Boris’ final decision to convert was made after a severe drought in 864 or 865.55 All the sources on the conversion of Bulgaria56 tend to stress the wonder of divine intervention, the role of famine, the emperor’s diplomatic skills or the persuasiveness of Boris’ entourage, but nowhere do we find a word about Byzantine missionaries. Indeed, the Greek sources make plain that the Bulgars would never have accepted Christianity were it not for exceptional circumstances. Photios himself calls the conversion of Bulgaria ‘improbable’,57 which supports the impression that it was not a pre-planned action. The first attempt to establish Greek Christianity in Bulgaria was a failure. The Greeks were obviously unprepared for the methodical persistence of missionary work. The extent to which the two sides spoke, as it were, different languages can be seen from the long letter sent by Patriarch Photios to the newly baptised Prince Boris.58 Photios’ arrogant tone, wholly unsuitable for a missionary epistle, reflects the general attitude of the Greek clergy in Bulgaria. Boris found the behaviour of the empire’s minions so irritating that as early as 866 he rejected their ministrations and turned instead to the Roman church. Vacillating between Constantinople and Rome, playing off one Christian centre against the other, Boris sent an extensive set of questions to Pope Nicholas I (858–67) in Rome. Boris’ letter has not survived, but we do have the pope’s answers. This document is in striking contrast to Photios’ epistle. The papal letter is respectful and specific. Through it, by inference, we can see which of the Byzantine demands the newly baptised barbarians had found most irksome. The Greeks fussed about Bulgarian marriage ritual;59 they forbade visits to the baths on Wednesdays and Fridays;60 they required worshippers to stand in church with their arms crossed over their chests; those without their belts fastened were banned from receiving communion,61 and so on. In some cases, Nicholas indicates that he understands the principles laid down by the Greeks, but that he disagrees with their rigorist approach which could scare neophytes away from Christianity altogether.He proposed distinguishing the essential from the secondary. Such flexibility was alien to the Byzantines of the ninth century. After an elaborate contest in ecclesiastical politics, Bulgaria returned once more to the fold of the Constantinopolitan church. Theophanes Continuatus writes that: through the emperor’s continual admonition, through formal receptions and still more through magnanimous generosity and gifts, [Basil I] made them accept an archbishop and agree to their land being filled with bishops. And through them, and also through the pious monks whom the emperor summoned from the mountains and from the caves in the earth and sent thither, this people . . . allowed itself to be caught in Christ’s net.62 Such meticulousness in carrying out a programme of conversion is due, above all, to the Byzantines’ strong sense that the Bulgarian land was originally theirs and must inevitably be returned to them in time. The Bulgarians were well aware how their country was viewed by its mighty neighbour, and they understandably regarded Byzantine Christianity as a potential threat. That is why in the 880s Boris was happy to receive Methodios’ followers after they were expelled from Moravia. The problem was that theGreek clergy did not know the Slavonic language. The training of local clergy reduced the Bulgarian church’s dependence on Byzantium. In 860 a people called Rus mounted an attack on Constantinople (see above, p. 299). And ‘soon’, according to Theophanes Continuatus ‘an embassy came from them to the ruling city, asking that they be brought into communion through divine baptism; and thus it came to pass.’63 In his circular to the eastern patriarchs, Photios depicts the Rus as under Byzantium’s spiritual authority; despite their previous reputation for savagery, the Rus were now ‘subjects and friends’,64 and had received a Byzantine bishop. A century later, a different version was concocted by Constantine VII Porphyrogenitus: through generous distribution of gold, silver and silk garments [Basil] also inclined towards compliance the invincible and godless people of the Rhos [Rus]. He concluded peace treaties with them and persuaded them to join in the salvation of baptism and to accept an archbishop ordained by Patriarch Ignatios; and the archbishop appeared in their country and the people loved him.65 Then we read of how the bishop was asked by the Rus to cast the Gospel into the fire, but the book would not burn. One mission is more likely than two; the embassy travelled to the Rus underMichael III, butMichael’s achievements were later attributed to Basil I. Whether this short-lived conversion occurred in 863 or 867, this is the earliest surviving Greek account of a religious mission dispatched to distant barbarians in the name of the central authorities in Constantinople. The mission brought no perceptible long-term results; in the tenth century, when Byzantine sources again begin to speak of the contemporary Rus, there is not the slightest hint of any ‘baptism’.

 

 

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