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Between History and Ecclesiology

The Short history of Nikephoros of Constantinople covers the so called

Dark Centuries of Byzantium’s history, the 7th and 8th century.

Being a work of secular provenance, praised for its high literary style by

patriarch Photios of Constantinople later in the 9th century, the picture and

representation of heretical patriarchs in the Short history is complex and appears

to be modeled by the author in order to highlight a specific idea of freedom and

authority of the Church opposite the Emperors. In that sense, even heretical

patriarchs of the 7th and 8th centuries became positive individuals and

ecclesiastics, while their heresy was shifted in the second narrative plan of the

Short history.

The specific sociopolitical and spiritual milieu from which Nikephoros

appears as a historical figure – he was a born Constantinopolitan with a highly

prolific secular career at the imperial court of the empress Irene, nevertheless

managing to become patriarch of Constantinople, calls for a deeper and

systematic analysis of literary techniques and different narrative structures

which Nikephoros extensively used in order to present his history of the


The framework of our paper presents the results of our research and

historical analysis of Nikephoros’ only secular work – Short history. The images of

eastern patriarchs mentioned in the narrative represented one aspect of our

research. Thus the title of our paper Between History and Ecclesiology, since it is

revealed that the same author didn’t cherish the same attitude to the

personalities of the patriarchs of Constantinople in his theological writings, and

in his secular work. And, more precise, it is revealed that his history telling about

the role of patriarchs in Byzantium's history had a strong ecclesiastical meaning

and a specific message for his own time. In this inquiry the later echoe of

Nikephoros’ Short history among none other than his ideological successor – the

patriarch Photios of Constantinople a very interesting detail. Namely, Photios

will mention Nikephoros’ Short history in his voluminous Bibliotheca giving a

highly favorable estimation of his work. While later on, he himself being the

patriarch of the Church of Constantinople will accentuate his personal

connection, both spiritual and in kinship, with the late Nikephoros.

All this indicates various outlines in which the research of our topic can be

conducted and which we will now begin to introduce.

1. Nikephoros and his specific socio political background prior to his

patriarchate (758 – 806)

According to Nikephoros’ later hagiographer – Ignatios the Deacon, the

author of the Short history was a born Constantinopolitan. His father Theodore

was holding a post of a imperial secretary at the imperial palace during the reign

of the iconoclastic emperor Constantine V. Due to Theodore’s profession of

iconodule doctrine; the emperor ousted him from Constantinople and

Nikephoros’ family endured persecution and banishment.

However, after receiving a complete and rounded education, Nikephoros

held the exact same office as his father previously. He was an asekretis himself at

the imperial palace. For our topic it is a significant detail that Nikephoros entered

the imperial chancellery at the time when iconoclasm was still an official dogma

of the Byzantine Empire and forced upon the Church of Constantinople as well.

In fact, Ignatios the Deacon tells us in Nikephoros’ vita that his hero was acting

as a sort of a mediator between the iconoclasts and iconodules, trying to “quieten

the tempest” of the theological dispute over icons. It must be noted that all the

later leaders of the iconodule revival, which will ensue on the Seventh

ecumenical council in 787 were actually involved in the system of the officially

iconoclastic imperial administration, headed by the future patriarch of

Constantinople – Tarasios, whom Nikephoros will later succeed on the throne of

the Church of Constantinople. This link of the moderate pro iconodule imperial

officials with the iconoclasts of the palace, and the link between the iconodules

between themselves – namely Tarasios was actually Nikephoros’ superior in the

office of the sekretis, is both very telling and significant for the future

ecclesiastical policy these two will later lead.

The great revival of orthodoxy on the Seventh ecumenical council brings

forward our Nikephoros as an active participant. His hagiographer Ignatios

writes about his participation in a very commendable way. He points out that

Nikephoros was in a position to expose the true orthodox faith regarding the

icon worship alongside the patriarch Tarasios and representatives of other great

sees of the Christian church.

After the Seventh ecumenical council Nikephoros’ life fades away from

the spotlight and just a few significant moments are possible to identify. He left

Constantinople and the post of the imperial secretary in order to lead a life of

solicitude and contemplation. At that time he founded two monasteries as well.

However, there are indirect hints that Nikephoros the layman entered into

conflicts, or at least that he suffered consequences as a result of his political

stance, primarily in regard of the political clash between Empress Irene and her

young son Emperor Constantine VI in the 790’s. The new Emperor Nikephoros I

later compelled Nikephoros the former asekretis to return to Constantinople and

invested him with the office of administrating of one of the largest poorhouses in

the city. Thus Nikephoros became ptochotrophos and it was not unusual in the

Byzantine Empire that the patriarchs of Constantinople were chosen among the

ptochotrophoi. These indications about Nikephoros’ deep involvement in major

political and ecclesiastical flows of the Byzantine late 8th century are a sufficient

motive for an analysis of his Short history and the images of Byzantine patriarchs

and emperors presented within.

2. Literary works of Nikephoros of Constantinople, dating and


Since Nikephoros the layman was in many ways linked with the main

church officials of his time, and they were all orthodox icon worshipers, the

image of patriarchs in his Short history cannot be viewed as totally secular, or

unbiased, but rather as a picture carefully shaped to respond to the main

ecclesiastical ideas of the renewed Church of Constantinople after her

rehabilitated orthodoxy during and after the Ecumenical Council of 787. In order

to accomplish the ideological and ecclesiastical requirements of his group

Nikephoros used the genre of history, rather than of theology.

However, what distinguishes Nikephoros as a writer, even from the

writers of his own time and of the same iconodule posture, is that he managed to

overcome the strictly negative theological formulation of images of heretical

patriarchs by using the historical genre which was appropriate in several ways.

First, to some extent this relieved Nikephoros of the strict theological framework

of narration and expression of thought, and secondly, his historical narrative by

itself implied truth, thus providing him with a different type of argumentation

for the ideas he wished to emphasize.

3. Images of byzantine patriarchs from the 7th and 8th centuries in the

Short history of Nikephoros of Constantinople

There are two levels of narration in Short history. The first one and the

main narration level is the story telling about the reigns of byzantine emperors of

the 7th and 8th centuries of Byzantium. The main characters of this level of

narration are the first and the last emperor mentioned in the work, Heraclius and

Constantine V. Both were heretical emperors with strong influences on the

Byzantine church, and they both receive almost the same amount of attention

and space on the pages of the work. Both were victorious warriors managing to

introduce peace in the affairs of the state regarding their enemies.

The second level of narration is rather a metanarrative and it appears only

if the questions of the portrayals of patriarchs in the work are viewed separately

from the main story. These two narrative plans are mutually interwoven.

So when one reads Nikephoros' description of the downfall of the

heretical monothelite patriarch Pyrrhos of Constantinople, which is portrayed

with a great amount of disapproval regarding the reaction of the boorish citizens

of Constantinople, and unconcealed sympathies of the author towards the

deposed patriarch, one must ask a question about the reason and the true literary

intention of Nikephoros. A hypothesis that the author was uneducated and

basically unaware that Pyrrhos was a condemned heretic is not convincing

enough, especially when this account comes from a person who was reliable

enough to be trusted a significant role on the Seventh ecumenical council.

Nikephoros first brings forward the image of patriarch Sergios of

Constantinople in the narration about the long reign of emperor Herakleios.

What is most significant for the image of patriarch Sergios in Short history is the

political role of Sergios in the numerous affairs of the Empire described in the

work. The patriarch is directly named as emperor’s φίλος – friend in Herakleios’

response to patriarch’s objections towards his incestuous marriage with his niece


This emphasis on the symphony between the emperor and the patriarch,

Church and the Empire, certainly has a great importance in context of the wider

designation and message of the work which by the time when it was composed

brings forward an idea of the renovation of ecclesiastical independence of the

Church towards the secular power represented in the image and institution of

the Byzantine emperor.

The political role of patriarch Sergios is the main motive in Nikephoros’

narration about the involvement of this patriarch in the reign of Herakleios. He is

first mentioned as someone who receives the new emperor in front of the city

together with the citizens when Herakleios ascends to the throne of Byzantium in

610. He is later mentioned as present at the imperial palace together with other

lay officials of the Empire in the conflict with the inconstant imperial official

Priscus whom Herakleios punishes for the insults of the imperial dignity. Sergios

is also mentioned in the segment where the beginning of Herakleios’ Persian

campaign is described, as someone who consults the emperor together with the

lay imperial dignitaries. He is mentioned as ἱερομύστης, a specific term which

highlights the patriarch’s role of liturgical reform, since the term implies his

contribution to the shaping of orthodox Eucharist worship during the reign of


Proportionally to the space given to the reign of emperor Herakleios, the

amount of information on patriarch Sergios in the Short history surpasses any

other patriarch mentioned in the work. However, all the other patriarchs

mentioned in Short history receive the same ideological treatment by Nikephoros.

Thus it can be said, that in the terms of Nikephoros' modes of narrativity, he

brought forward his main idea in the beginning of his work, later on just shaping

his narrative in accordance with the set up in the images of the first two


The φιλία – friendship between Sergios the patriarch and emperor

Herakleios which was introduced in the image of Sergios, is even upgraded as an

idea in the image of Sergios’ successor, patriarch Pyrrhos of Constantinople. PP6

Thus it can be said that according to this two accounts all the other patriarchs in

the Short history will later be pictured and evaluated. Namely, Nikephoros writes

that after Sergios had reposed, the emperor elected Pyrrhos as the new patriarch

of Constantinople, and one of the main reasons for this choice is, that Pyrrhos

was Herakleios’ ἀδελφός - brother.

On the other hand, both images, of Sergios and of his successor, Pyrhhos,

who where monothelites, are placed in the second narrative plan regarding their

heretical doctrines which they professed publicly as hierarchs of the Church.

First of all, the mention of peace which has prevailed in the Byzantine

empire during the reign of Herakleios’ grandson – the emperor Constantine IV.

However, it seems that this peace was broken by the schism which occurred in

the Church of Constantinople in regard to the monothelite conflict. But

Nikephoros only says that this heresy began in the days of emperor Herakleios.

He refers neither to Herakleios nor to patriarch Sergios as the originators of this

heresy. Nikephoros explains in brief the orthodox formulation which was

established on the Council regarding the two wills and two natural energies of

Christ, adding that the leaders of the heresy were condemned to anathema. In

fact these leaders were patriarchs Sergios and Pyrrhos of Constantinople but

Nikephoros avoids mentioning them by name at that specific place in his work.

That this was probably his conscious and deliberate literary act we are inclined to

conclude from yet another remark of Nikephoros. Namely, after he described the

unlawful deposition of patriarch Pyrrhos by the unruly and boorish mob of

Constantinopolitan citizens, Nikephoros proceeds to explain that the patriarch

was engaged in a dialogue with Maximos the Confessor in North Africa.

The closing part of this account, the interrogation of Pyrrhos regarding the

monothelite doctrines, is presented in a neutral way. Nikephoros doesn’t

mention the results of this interrogation of Pyrrhos, so the reader remains unsure

whether he was actually a monothelite heretic. As for the larger part of this

quotation describing the occasion of Pyrrhos overthrow from the

Constantinopolitan see, it has roused confusion in offering a solution by C.

Mango who published the first critical edition of Nikephoros’ Short history. The

unbelievers mentioned in the description are actually referred to in Greek as

κακόδοξοι. In this description Nikephoros uses terms with a strong notion and

meaning of disorder and unlawfulness, such as: ἡ ταραχή (disorder), ἡ στάσις

(rebellion), στασιάζω (to rebel), as well as ἡ κακοδοξία by which he maintains to

highlight the opposite ideal of order and justice, which are the main obligations

of the imperial administration to be cared of.

Viewing this passage of Nikephoros’ Short history from a strictly orthodox

view point, which by itself implies that Nikephoros wrote his work in a strict

orthodox manner and with an orthodox idea invested in it, actually implies that

the boorish mob of unbelievers were actually Chalcedonians and that

Nikephoros was unaware of a grave mistake he introduced in his work. It seems

to us that this kind of outlook presents more a prejudice which actually imposes

our expectations of what a Byzantine writer should write in his work from where

afterwards arouse false indecisions.

In fact, if we continue to apply this analysis of the image and place of

Byzantine patriarchs in the Short history, we can see that even iconoclast

patriarchs such as Constantine II, who presided over the see of the Church of

Constantinople in the reign of the iconoclastic emperor Constantine V, receive

similar literary treatment as well.

The image of the iconoclast patriarch Constantine II represents a segment

of a complex picture of the heretical emperor Constantine V and his ἀσέβεια –

that is, his cruel treatment of the pious Christians and iconodules, but not only

them, but even the patriarch appointed by him, who professed iconoclasm as

official doctrine in an atmosphere of organized state persecution of all icon


What is of great importance in the analysis of the image of patriarch

Constantine II is that the description of his later public humiliation and execution

by the orders of the iconoclast emperor, is in fact placed among the chapters of

the Short history which describes the persecution of orthodox iconodules, monks

and laymen, among which the description of martyrdom of St. Stephen the

Younger is also portrayed.

In brief, the story of patriarch Constantine’s humiliation and execution is

presented as such. The emperor brought forward friends of the patriarch. They

concocted a sworn accusation against the patriarch that he was participating in a

plot against the emperor Constantine V. The emperor then exiles the patriarch

out of Constantinople, to a palace on the opposite shore of Bosporus. Not long

after that event Emperor Constantine brought the patriarch back to capital. The

patriarch was sent to a church, escorted by one of the imperial secretaries who

carried and read the accusations against the patriarch before the gathered people,

striking the patriarch on the face for every item of the accusation he read.

Patriarch Constantine was then deposed. On the next day patriarch Constantine

was publicly humiliated and executed. His body was dragged through the city of

Constantinople and later cast in to the tombs known as those of Pelagios.

Both descriptions, the execution of the iconoclast patriarch, and the

martyrdom of St. Stephen the Younger have the same character of public

suffering. Namely, St. Stephen the Younger endures public humiliation and

execution by the mob on the streets of Constantinople. In both cases individuals

and groups of people participate in the punishment of both the iconodule monk,

and the iconoclast emperor. But both represent a literary depiction of emperor

Constantine’s irreligion and his persecution of the Church, which was important

for Nikephoros to stress in his Short history.

With its specific content, Nikephoros’ Short history actually presents a

source for the epoch of its author, the late 8th century and the time of the

iconophile revival of the Constantinople church around the year 787. In that

specific context the images of past patriarchs of the Church of Constantinople, of

which we have presented some evidence and examples, in fact present the image

of a appropriate relationship between the state and the Church personified in the

images of Byzantine emperors and patriarchs such as Herakleios and Sergios and

Pyrrhos, and Constantine V and patriarch Constantine II. Thus, we can say that

Nikephoros’ Short history really presents the ideological stance of the

rehabilitated Constantinopolitan church during the first iconophile revival

around the year 787, namely, that the Church is independent and not

subordinated to the empire. As an author, Nikephoros was a person who had a

rare opportunity to observe the events and the processes from both perspectives,

as a lay man, an official of the imperial administration, but also as a person who

was also involved in the spiritual circle which will later lead the ecclesiastical

revival on the Nicaean council of 787. That’s why his literary presentation of the

images of patriarchs in his only secular work presents a quite nuanced approach.

Through the image of varied mutual relationships between the emperors and

patriarch, Nikephoros managed to present his history of the Church of

Constantinople in a particular time and specific ecclesiastical process and to

create essentially a convenient literary work in which heretical patriarchs, of

which we have presented three, became role models of the preferred standard as

it was established in his own time.

The above stated indicates a designed and a complex approach in the

creation of a work such as Short history in which the images of heretical

patriarchs were used by its author in a precise ideal about the place and the role

of the Church and the patriarch within the complex relations with the Empire. In

such literary approach, benevolent descriptions of heretical patriarchs were

possible, since Nikephoros was guided by the idea to highlight the dignity of the

institution of the patriarchal power, at the same time avoiding to engage himself

in the analysis of dogmatic peculiarities of individual patriarchs.