The Sack of Constantinople, 1204
Runciman’s final two chapters chronicle the decline and fall of the Empire and the impact that the Empire’s decline had on Church-state relations. Since the time of the Iconoclasm Controversy, monasteries, especially those near Constantinople, increased in political influence. By the eleventh century, monastics formed a sort of political unit that frequently intervened in both Patriarchal and Imperial affairs. Monastics served as a check against Emperors’ efforts to increase their control of the Church. Together with the Patriarch, they succeeded in blocking the efforts of the Emperors Alexius, John II, and Manuel to improve relations with Rome. But in all other matters, these Emperors maintained a firm hold over the Church, who in turn willingly submitted to their control. The pendulum of Church-State power had returned to the Emperor.
After the sack and seizure of Constantinople by the Crusaders in 1204, Byzantine princes established three rival states in Nicaea, Epirus, and Trebizond. Of these, Nicaea proved to be the most influential and the residence-in-exile of the Greek Patriarch of Constantinople. Faced by hostile enemies on all sides and struggling just to keep their kingdom alive, the Emperors of Nicaea and the Patriarchs had no choice but to work in close concert. The Patriarchs of this period acknowledged the supremacy of the Emperors over nearly all Church affairs. Runciman summaries the views of the Church hierarchy at this time:
the Emperor was above the law, both secular and religious…he along could introduce religious as well as secular legislation. It was his business to care for the souls as well as the bodies of his subjects. The only thing beyond his power to dictate on was doctrine.The hierarchy officially supported the Nicaean Emperors, even if they disapproved of their efforts to court the favor of Rome.
Even though the Emperor was above the law in theory, his lay and clerical subjects still expected him to follow Christian moral precepts. After the death in 1258 of the Nicaean Emperor Theodore Lascaris, an Emperor’s moral lapses led to what Runciman calls “the last great quarrel between Church and State in Byzantium.” When Theodore died, his son and heir John IV was only eight years old. The general Michael Palaeologus murdered John’s regent and assumed his place. After his recapture of Constantinople three years later, Michael blinded John and had himself crowned as Emperor. Michael’s sins were too flagrant for the Patriarch Arensius, who excommunicated Michael and barred him from entering the Church of St. Sophia.
These actions led to a rift in Byzantine society. Most of the monks and the hierarchy supported Arsenius. Much of the aristocracy and the common people, however, while they acknowledged that Michael committed terrible acts, nonetheless supported him due in large part to his great ability as a general and a governor. The schism was party healed until six years later, when Michael publicly knelt before the new Patriarch Joseph and confessed his sin. The Chuch restored Michael to communion. Despite this, as Runciman writes, Michael’s confession was “a triumph for the Church as the guardian of morality. The Emperor had been forced to admit that he had sinned as a man.”
Still, the rift was not completely ended. Followers of the former Patriarch Arsenius, whom Michael had deposed, continued to protest against both Michael’s actions and the hierarchy’s rapprochement with him. The situation was further worsened when Michael sent representatives to the Council of Lyons, which brought about formal union between the Western and Eastern Churches on terms highly favorable to Rome. Only a handful of Byzantines accepted the Council’s decision, and Michael imprisoned and even tortured many of his subjects for their refusal to obey his religious policy. When Michael died in 1282, Church-State relations in Byzantium had seldom been worse.