Bekkos on Photius’s motives

November 3, 2007

John Bekkos, De pace ecclesiastica. Translated from the Greek text in V. Laurent and J. Darrouzès, eds., Dossier Grec de l’Union de Lyon (1273-1277) (Paris 1976), pp. 435-437.

As for the historical account, to speak of it concisely, the course of events went like this. The patriarchal throne was adorned by Ignatius, a man who had attained to such a state of holiness that, to this day, his memory is celebrated in the Church according to the dignity allotted to those who have been well-pleasing unto God. Photius had his eyes on the throne; but, although he was a man of eminent culture and not ignoble with respect to wisdom, still, he did not do well to thrust off him who sat upon the throne, and to install himself there. Ignatius refers an account of the violent act to Pope Nicholas, who at that time adorned the apostolic see. There followed the requisite defense of the wronged party by the holy defender, a defense of which the saint surely was in need. A letter came to Photius enjoining that he restore to the victimized man his honor and his see. The letter provokes Photius’s anger — and why wouldn’t it, since it did not allow him free enjoyment of the things he coveted? — he conceives a grudge against the Roman Church, but, nevertheless, he does not yet allow the birthpang to break forth, but he still holds the wicked embryo of dissention in his belly; and, while he remains suspended with hopes, he takes counsel with himself in this way: either, if he should attain his desires’ object, to let his heart’s embryo die unformed; otherwise, if he should fail of this, to let the baby loose and bring forth the offspring of strife unto the manifest division of the Churches — which in fact took place, to the destruction, alas! of our nation and our sovereignty.

For after he had sent Pope Nicholas his epistolary greetings, and had seen that the latter’s lionlike stance against injustice was not weakened by foxy stratagems, Photius roused himself to make a defense; and, since he had no means of defending himself before this pope who so troubled him — for what means had he to take action against the pope’s own person, when he could offer not the slightest resistence because of the immense distance? — he conceives a mutual war between the two Churches and kindles an unflagging conflict between them. And how was this to be done? Knowing that the Italians’ addition of a word to the Creed had taken place quite some time before, as the letter of the great Maximus to the priest Marinus of Cyprus testifies, and knowing, furthermore, all the other customs, adapted to their own society, wherein they appear to differ from us, and tacitly accepting all these things, not, perhaps, out of any generosity towards the Romans, but simply because it was right — if indeed it was right for him to follow in the steps of all those who, before him, welcomed peace with the Romans — after the outbreak of animosities (or rather, of this God-loathed mania, to give it its more proper name), he trots out all these matters as so many legal infractions, and, lumping them all together into a single, composite portrayal, by means of a circular letter he posts up this said, composite portrayal like a poster in the eyes of the churches throughout the civilized world.

9 Responses to “Bekkos on Photius’s motives”

  1. Wei Hsien Says:


    A post that is sure to draw fire, so I wish you all the best.

    What do you think of Bekkos’ evaluation of the historical situation here?


  2. […] I have neither the ability nor the desire to step into any erudite debates about the filioque, but the most recent post on Peter Gilbert’s excellent De unione ecclesiarum led me to a brief letter written by St. Maximos the Confessor on the subject. Here is the text of […]

  3. bekkos Says:

    Dear Mr. Hsien,

    The history of Patriarch Photius, with all its twists and turnings and all the disputed claims that have been made about him, is one of the most complicated and ideologically-charged historical questions I have ever encountered. Bekkos acknowledges here that he is giving only the briefest summary of the facts. And these facts are strictly related to the argument Bekkos is going to pursue in this book; he wants to show, through documentary evidence, that Photius’s attitude towards Rome, his assessment of its orthodoxy, changed back and forth according to whether or not Rome recognized him as legitimate Patriarch of Constantinople. When the question of his status as patriarch was still up in the air, Photius paid Rome all the traditional compliments, but issued subtle warnings; when Rome rejected his legitimacy, Photius charged Rome with heresy (on some of the very matters on which, in the earlier letter, he had argued that there is a legitimate diversity of practices, e.g., fasts on Saturdays, shaving of the beard, married clergy, etc.); when Rome later accepted him, he acknowledged Rome as orthodox and as head of all the churches. In other words, Bekkos wants to show that Photius, for all his brilliancy, had deeply personal, self-interested motives in raising church-dividing issues with the Roman see. I think Bekkos does in fact show this.

    It should be stressed that what Bekkos says here is only part of the story even of what Bekkos says about Photius. He is by no means unequivocally anti-Photian. In particular, he applauds the fact that, at the Council of 879/80, Photius patched things up with Rome; he wishes Photius’s followers would do the same. He also suggests that Popes Nicholas I and Adrian II reacted to Photius in a heavy-handed way that only made matters worse.

    There are many complications to this subject, and a lot more could be said about it; for the time being, this will have to suffice.


  4. Wei Hsien Says:


    Thank you for your informative response. I am learning a great deal from your website.

    If it not too burdensome for you, I will probably ask for commentary on your subsequent excerpts of Bekkos. Let me know if you’d prefer to let the texts speak for themselves. I understand that too.


  5. Susan Peterson Says:

    Is there any independent history which sheds light on the truth of what Bekkos says about Photius?
    How did Photius expel Ignatius from the patriarchate?
    By using the power of the state? In other words, by getting the emperor on his side? Is there any other view of Ignatius? What excuse was used to justify putting out one patriarch and putting in another?
    Is there any reason to think that maybe Photius, although by this account a political schemer, also had strong beliefs about the falsehood of the filioque or about the wrongness of inserting it without another counsel?

    And…do the Energies of the Trinity people know about this blog?
    (preparing to take shelter)
    Susan Peterson

  6. Susan Peterson Says:

    I see you have them linked, so I guess they do. Since Photius is one of their heroes, I expected to see a strong response.


  7. bekkos Says:

    Dear Susan,

    You ask important questions. Unfortunately, it is almost impossible to answer them in a brief way without oversimplification, and I have neither the time nor the inclination to enter into long debates about what Photius did or did not do. Rather than try to answer your questions in my own words, I will respond by posting to the web an article written by the late Prof. Francis Dvornik, S.J., unquestionably the chief Photian scholar of the 20th century. It summarizes Dvornik’s own positions on Photius, most of which have become the scholarly consensus, although I frankly have my doubts about some of them. [See the article at ]

    To state briefly why I have doubts about some of Dvornik’s positions, I think his reconstruction of events gives too little credence to any historical evidence that puts Photius in a bad light. His magnum opus, The Photian Schism: History and Legend (Cambridge 1948), bases its argument to a great extent upon a sharp distinction between two political/religious factions in ninth-century Byzantium, which Dvornik calls the “moderates” and the “extremists” (in the encyclopedia article I am posting, he uses slightly less emotive language, calling them “liberals” and “conservatives”). His assumption throughout that book, spoken or unspoken, is that the “moderates” (Photius’s party) can always be trusted, the “extremists” (the supporters of Ignatius) are always to be suspected of having falsified the evidence. Here is, for example, what he says about these parties on pp. 8-9 of this book:

    “These incidents only illustrate the new ferment that was stirring both laity and clergy and throwing Byzantine society into rival camps — the Extremists and the Moderates. The Extremists were generally to be found among the monks, chiefly the reformed monks of the monastery of Studion, and their spiritual clients, the devout, the traditionalists and the ultra-conservatives, elements which in virtue of the norms that will always prevail as long as there exist rich and poor, must necessarily preponderate among the leisured and bourgeois classes. The Moderates, on the other hand, belonged to classes more in touch with the humdrum of daily life and were for this reason more inclined to compromise. They also numbered many well-wishers among the secular clergy, who were in closer contact with the world than cloistered monks, and among higher clergy, who were conscious of heavier responsibilities. Intellectual circles were all the more in sympathy with the latter tendency as the Extremists persisted in their obstinate prejudices against all profane knowledge. Finally, iconoclasts who had returned to Orthodoxy with more or less sincerity, could not but support the Moderates in their own interest.”

    There is much that could be said even about this brief quotation. First of all, it should be noted that nobody, in the ninth century, identified himself as belonging to an “Extremist” party or to a “Moderate” party; these are Dvornik’s terms, and they plainly carry an emotive, rhetorical burden — they imply a foregoing judgment on the part of the author. Secondly, when Dvornik attempts to substantiate this judgment through the sociological claim that the rich are always conservative, the poor are always liberal and inclined to compromise, I have to say, first, that this observation does not completely agree with my own experience of political life, and, secondly, it does not make obvious sense of the facts of Photius’s history, since Photius himself was hardly a proletarian, and monks, in general, are not plutocrats. It seems clear to me that Dvornik is appealing in this passage to the political sympathies of his readers, whom he assumes are educated, liberal people who would like to think of themselves as “moderate” and “intellectual” and not “extremist,” “ultra-conservative,” “obstinate,” or “cloistered.”

    In short, Dvornik’s discourse in this paragraph is highly rhetorically charged. It seems to me that that is true of much of the argumentation of his book. And the rhetoric of Dvornik’s argument often leads him to dismiss evidence about Photius that would lead to different conclusions.

    Take, for example, Dvornik’s dismissal of the accusations against Bardas, which started the movement to oust Ignatius and find a more acceptable replacement. Bardas, who at this time held real power in the state, was the Emperor Michael III’s uncle. After sending his sister, the Emperor Michael’s mother, into a nunnery, Bardas reportedly took his daughter-in-law Eudocia as a mistress. Ignatius refused Bardas communion. In his New Catholic Encyclopedia article, Dvornik says that Ignatius “gave credit to slanderous stories about Bardas’s private life, circulated by his opponents.” Why are these stories “slanderous”? Why not simply factual? In his book The Photian Schism, p. 37, Dvornik explains:

    “The new regime had little reputation left; but on the face of it, Ignatius seems to have carried his zeal too far. There is a simple and natural explanation for Bardas’ affection for his daughter-in-law: after losing a son he loved dearly, he transferred his paternal affection to the son’s wife, who in her bereavement needed it. Such cases are fairly common.”

    This seems like special pleading. Dvornik implies, either that Ignatius was simply too stupid to realize that, in Bardas and Eudocia’s cohabiting with each other, there was nothing sexual going on between them, or else that, even if there were something sexual going on between them, it wouldn’t matter and wouldn’t merit any reproof. The former alternative is, to my thinking, historically dubious, the latter morally so.

    The two men who prepared the Greek edition of the text of Bekkos that I translated, Vitalien Laurent and Jean Darrouzès, were themselves very distinguished Byzantine scholars. They had their own doubts about some of Dvornik’s historical assessments. On an article by Dvornik titled “Photius, Père du Schisme ou Apôtre de l’union?” [Vie Intellectuelle 13 (1945), 16-28], Laurent wrote:

    “L’auteur croit pouvoir répondre par le second membre, en interprétant les textes et les situations dans le sens toujours le plus favorable à Photius. Il passe ainsi sous silence les attaques contre le Filioque dans la lettre à Valpert d’Aquilée et dans le Mystagogie” [“The author thinks he is able to reply with the second alternative (i.e., that Photius is an ‘Apostle of Union’), by interpreting texts and situations always in the sense most favorable to Photius. He thus passes in silence Photius’s attacks against the Filioque in his letter to Valpert of Aquileia and in the Mystagogy.” Cited from: Byzantinische Zeitschrift 43 (1950), p. 172].

    Similarly, J. Darrouzès said of him:

    “Dvornik a certainement fait un grand travail de déblaiement; mais, dans le détail des événements, il a des jugements assez rapides et des préventions pour Photius ou contre d’autres” [“Dvornik certainly has performed a great work of clearing the ground; but, in his details regarding events, he makes rather hasty judgments and intervenes prejudicially in favor of Photius or against others.” Cited from: 1274 Année charnière (Paris 1977), p. 205].

    Another French Byzantinist, Daniel Stiernon, in his history of the anti-Photian Council of 869/70, emphasizes that Dvornik still needs to be read together with older authors like Joseph Hergenröther (author of Photius, Patriarch von Konstantinopel, 3 vols., Regensburg, 1867-9). For what it’s worth, I would agree with that assessment.

    Finally, I would say that, for Bekkos’s argument, these historical disagreements have only peripheral importance. Bekkos does not base his argument upon theoretical reconstructions of events, but upon Photius’s own words. His claim is that Photius changes his story, regarding the orthodoxy of Rome, and that he changes it according to whether Rome does or does not recognize him. I think Bekkos makes a very strong case that that is so.

    At the same time, I would add that there is an anonymous tract against Bekkos, written probably around 1275 or 1276, which disputes Bekkos’s reading of Photius. The text of this tract is found in Laurent and Darrouzès, Dossier Grec de l’Union de Lyon, pp. 528-537. The author argues that, when Photius early on recognizes Rome’s orthodoxy, he does so by way of “economy,” i.e., with the hope of them mending their ways later on; when he excommunicates them, it is because they deserve it; and when, later still, he communicates again with the Roman Church, it is because the Romans had abjured the heresy of the filioque at the Council of 879/880.

    Did the Romans abjure the filioque at the Council of 879/880? That is another hotly debated question, which at this point I have no energy to discuss.

    Dvornik’s article should be compared with older treatments of Photius, some of which may be found here: (Catholic Encyclopedia article, by Adrian Fortescue) (article by F. Kattenbusch) (Wikipedia article) (OrthodoxWiki article) (book by Despina Stratoudaki White)

    See also: (text of Photius’s encyclical letter to the Eastern Patriarchs) (text of Photius’s Mystagogy)


  8. […] is a wonderful place to start.  Anyway, over at De union, the author has a blog entry entitled, Bekkos on Photius’ motives.  Read it.  Here is an excerpt.  As for the historical account, to speak of it concisely, the […]

  9. […] He carries on this critique in different ways in different works of his; for instance, in the work On Peace (De pace ecclesiastica), Bekkos presents documentary evidence to show that Photius’s attitude […]

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