1902 Encyclopedia > Photius

(Photius I of Constantinople)
Patriarch of Constantinople
(c. 810 – c. 893)

PHOTIUS, patriarch of Constantinople from 857 to 867 and again from 877 to 886 A.D., the most eminent literary and ecclesiastical character of his age, was probably born between 820 and 825. If we could credit the assertions of his adversaries, his father, an official of the imperial court, named Sergius, was of heathen extraction, and his mother, Irene, a faithless nun. It is more certain that he displayed from an early age the most extraordinary talent and appetite for knowledge, and that, having mastered whatever Greek literature could give him (Latin and Hebrew he never acquired), he began to teach with distinguished success grammar, rhetoric, divinity, and philo-sophy. The way to public life was probably opened for him by the brilliant marriage of his maternal uncle to the princess Irene, sister of the empress Theodora, who, upon the death of her husband Theophilus in 842, had assumed the regency of the empire. Photius became captain of the guard and subsequently first imperial secretary. Some-where about 850 he was entrusted with a mission to the " Assyrians," by whom the Saracens must be meant, pos-sibly to the court of the caliph of Baghdad. Just previous to his departure on this mission he compiled his Bibliotheca, or Myriobiblion, the noblest monument of his erudition, and, from the number of classical authors whose writings it has partially preserved, by much the most important of his works.
Some time after his return from this embassy an un-expected path was opened to Photius's ambition by the dissensions between the patriarch Ignatius and Bardas, the uncle of the youthful emperor Michael IIP, who had suc-ceeded to the regency on the disgrace of Theodora. Ignatius,

a man of austere morals and apparently not exempt from spiritual pride, had excommunicated Bardas on the ground of an alleged incestuous connexion with his daughter-in-law. Bardas retorted by an accusation of a conspiracy. Ignatius was arrested and imprisoned (November 857), and upon his refusing to resign was illegally deposed, when Photius, receiving all the necessary sacerdotal orders within six days, was installed as patriarch in his place. This sudden elevation of a layman to the highest ecclesi-astical office could not but provoke scandal, even though the laic, as was actually the case, might be the first theo-logian of his age. Ignatius, continuing to refuse the abdi-cation which could alone have given it a semblance of legality, was treated with extreme severity, and a violent persecution broke out against his adherents. Photius urged clemency in his epistles to Bardas, probably with sincerity, but shrank from taking the only step which could have effectually repressed the persecution and healed the schism,—the resignation of the patriarchate. In judging his conduct, however, two circumstances have to be borne in mind,—the fact that the party of Ignatius dwindled away so rapidly as to flatter Photius with the hope of its extinction, and the espousal of his competitor's cause by Nicholas, bishop of Rome, in a manner highly offensive to the independent feeling of the Eastern Church. Photius felt himself the champion of Eastern Christianity against Latin pretensions; and, when in 863 Nicholas finally anathematized and deposed him, he replied by a counter-excommunication. He also sought to ally himself with Western bishops who had been displaced or suspended by the arrogant Nicholas, and with the latter's secular adver-saries, while at the same time he was more honourably engaged in endeavours to reunite the Armenians to the Eastern Church, in combating the Paulicians, and in success-ful missions to the Russians and Bulgarians. While these transactions were proceeding the situation was suddenly changed by the murder of Photius's patron, Caesar Bardas, by order of the emperor Michael, who was himself assassin-ated by his colleague Basil in the following year (867). The fall of Photius immediately ensued, but the attendant circumstances are exceedingly obscure. According to Georgius Hamartolus, or rather his continuator, the cause was Photius's stern reproof of the crime by which Basil had obtained the throne. As the only definite testimony of any kind, this statement cannot be wholly disregarded, but it is certainly difficult to reconcile it with the general suppleness of Photius in his relations with the Byzantine court. Whatever the cause, Photius was removed from his office and banished about the end of September 867, a few days after the accession of Basil, and the deposed Ignatius, brought back from his exile, was reinstated on 23d November. The convocation of a general council followed, to give the restoration of Ignatius a character of indisputable legality. This synod, regarded by the Latins as the eighth oecumenical council, but rejected as such by the Greeks, met in October 869. The attendance of Eastern bishops was relatively very small; Photius's friends and creatures generally remained faithful to him; and the ostentatious patronage of Pope Hadrian must have been irritating to the Orientals. Photius, when brought before the assembly, maintained a dignified silence, which per-plexed his accusers, but could not avert his condemna-tion. It seems, nevertheless, to have been generally felt that the proceedings of the council were entitled to little moral weight. The usurper, for such he unquestionably was, had successfully identified himself with the cause of his church and nation. In his captivity, which, notwith-standing his complaints, the extent of his correspondence proves to have been mild, he maintained the same unbend-ing spirit, and rejected all overtures of compromise. About 876 he was suddenly recalled to Constantinople and en-trusted with the education of Basil's children. A tale of his having regained favour by forging an illustrious gene-alogy for the upstart emperor may be dismissed without hesitation as an invention of his enemies. The cause was in all probability Basil's recognition of the fact that he had disgraced and banished the ablest man in his dominions, and the best qualified to fill the patriarchate upon the decease of the aged Ignatius. This event soon occurred, probably in October 877, and after a decent show of reluct-ance Photius again filled the patriarchal throne. Accord-ing to his own account, which there seems no reason to discredit, he had become fully reconciled to his predecessor, and had shown him much kindness. Photius now proceeded to obtain the formal recognition of the Christian world. In November 879 a synod, considered by the Greeks as the eighth oecumenical council, and far more numerously attended than the one by which he had been deposed, was convened at Constantinople. The legates of Pope John VIII. attended, prepared to acknowledge Photius as legiti-mate patriarch, a concession for which John was so much censured by Latin opinion that Baronius rather fancifully explains the legend of Pope Joan by the contempt excited by his want of spirit. John, however, was firm on the other two points which had long been contested between the Eastern and Western Churches, the ecclesiastical juris-diction over Bulgaria and the introduction of the "filioque" clause into the creed. He disowned his legates, who had shown a tendency to yield, again excommunicated Photius, and thus kindled smouldering ill-will into the open hostility which has never been appeased to this day. Strong in the support of the council, Photius simply ignored him. He has been accused of interpolating John's letters, a charge not improbable in itself, but which can neither be proved nor disproved at this date. At the height of glory and success he was suddenly precipitated from his dignity by another palace revolution. Archbishop Theodore Santa-baren, his confidant and favourite, had accused Basil's son, Leo, of a conspiracy against his father. Leo owed his liberty and eyesight to Photius's entreaties; nevertheless, on his accession in 886, he involved his benefactor in the ruin of his accuser. Arrested, degraded from the patri-archate, banished to the monastery of Bordi in Armenia, Photius, as if by magic, disappears from history. No letters of this period of his life are extant, which leads to the inference that his imprisonment was severe. The precise date of his death is not known, but it is said to have occurred on 6th February 891.

For long after Photius's death his memory was held in no special honour by his countrymen. His literary merits were obscured by the growing barbarism of the times, and the anarchy and apparent decrepitude of the Itoman Church made his protest against its pre-tensions seem superfluous. But, when, in the crusading age, the Greek Church and state were alike in danger from Latin encroachments, Photius became a national hero, and is at present regarded as little short of a saint. To this character he has not the least pretension. Few men, it is probable, have been more atrociously calumniated ; but, when every specific statement to his prejudice has been rejected, he still appears on a general review of his actions worldly, crafty, and unscrupulous. Yet, however short he may fall of the standard of an Athanasius or a Luther, he shows to no little advantage when regarded as an ecclesiastical statesman. His firmness was heroic, his sagacity profound and far-seeing ; he supported good and evil fortune with equal dignity ; and his fall was on both occasions due to revolutions beyond his control. If his original elevation to the patriarchate was unquestionably irregular, his re-enthronement was no less certainly legal ; he began as a usurper and ended as a patriot. His zeal for the promotion of learning, education, and missions was most genuine, and fruitful in good. In erudition, literary power, and force and versatility of intellect he far surpassed every contemporary. The records of his actions are so imperfect or so prejudiced that in endeavouring to judge his personal character we have to rely principally upon the internal evidence of his own letters. With every allowance for their ex parte and rhetorical character and the writer's manifest desire to display himself in the most favourable light, they nevertheless seem to afford sufficient testimony of a magnanimous spirit and a feeling heart.

The most important of the works of Photius is his renowned Myriobiblion, a collection of extracts from and abridgments of 280 volumes of classical authors, the originals of which are now to a great extent lost. Dictated in haste immediately before his departure on his Eastern embassy, it is open to the charges of imper-fect recollection and hasty criticism, but these are as nothing in comparison with its merits. It is especially rich in extracts from historical writers. To Photius we are indebted for almost all we possess of Ctesias, Memnon, Conon, the lost books of Diodorus Siculus, and the lost writings of Arrian. Theology and ecclesi-astical history are also very fully represented. The best edition is Bekker's (Berlin, 1824-25), which, however, has neither notes nor a Latin version. The next of his works in importance is the Amphilochia, a collection of 333 questions and answers on difficult points in Scripture, addressed to Amphilochius, archbishop of Cyzicus. This valuable work has exposed Photius to charges of plagiarism, which, as he does not claim entire originality, are wholly undeserved. The only complete edition is that published by Sophocles CEconomus at Athens in 1858. Photius is further author of a Lexicon (London, 1822), of a Nomocanon or harmony of the ecclesiastical canons with the imperial edicts relating to the discipline of the church, a work of great authority, but based on the labours of his predecessors, and of numerous theological writ-ings. The more important of these are his treatise Against the Politicians, in four books, and his controversy with the Latins on the procession of the Holy Spirit. His Epistles are valuable from their contents, but the style is often affected or unsuitable to the subject. The most complete edition is Valetta's (London, 1864). Many of Photius's works yet remain in manuscript. The only complete edition is Bishop Malou's in Migne's Patrologia Grwca,, and this is very imperfect and unsatisfactory.

After the allusions in his own writings the chief contemporary authority for the life of Photius is his bitter enemy Nicetas the Paphlagonian, the biographer of his rival Ignatius. In modern times his life has been written with great prejudice and animosity by Baronuis, and by Weguelin in the Memoirs of the Berlin Academy, and more fairly by Hankins (De Byzantinarum Rerum Scriptoribus, pt. 1). But all previous writers are superseded by the classical work of Cardinal Hergenrother, Photius, Patriarch von Constantinopel (3 vols., Ratisbon, 1867-69). As a dignitary of the Roman Catholic Church Cardinal Hergenrother is inevitably biassed against Photius as an ecclesiastic, but his natural candour and sympathy with intellectual eminence have made him just to the man, while his investigation of all purely historical and literary questions is industrious and exhaustive in the highest degree. (R. G.)

The above article was written by: Richard Garnett, LL.D.

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