Jonathan Shepard

title.none: Dagron, Emperor and Priest (Jonathan Shepard)

identifier.other: baj9928.0412.006 04.12.06

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Jonathan Shepard, Oxford University,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 2004

identifier.citation: Dagron, Gilbert. Birrell, Jean, trans. Emperor and Priest: The Imperial Office in Byzantium. Series: Past and Present. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003. Pp. xiii, 337. $75.00 0-521-80123-0. ISBN: .

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 04.12.06

Dagron, Gilbert. Birrell, Jean, trans. Emperor and Priest: The Imperial Office in Byzantium. Series: Past and Present. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003. Pp. xiii, 337. $75.00 0-521-80123-0. ISBN: .

Reviewed by:

Jonathan Shepard
Oxford University

If Byzantium presents to modern observers a monolithic and rather flat facade, lacking in deep grooves or evident runnels of change, this owes much to the politico-religious Establishment's successful image-projection. The Byzantine ruler was still styling himself "emperor of the Romans" on the eve of the Turks' assault on Constantinople in 1453 and the "Roman" name carried connotations of impeccably legitimate authority, world hegemony and moral superiority. Constantinople was long supposed to be "the new Rome" and the adjective did not only refer to the city's claim to be successor to the original Rome. It also bespoke spiritual renewal and salvation, a prospect which the conversion of Constantine the Great to Christianity had opened up to his subjects and to all mankind. These themes were celebrated in the rounds of ceremonies, prayers and liturgical offices staged at the emperor's court and they were codified upon Constantine VII's command in the mid-tenth century. The Book of Ceremonies, the outcome of Constantine's initiative, conjures up a picture of unremitting routines performed by members of the Byzantine "Establishment." The cycles of Christian festivals, supplications, processions and banquets revolving round the emperor were designed to constitute a kind of virtual universe, reproducing "the harmonious movement" which the Creator has given to the universe as a whole. And at the centre of it all stands the emperor, playing the part of God.

This image of the smooth interaction of, among other spheres, the secular and the sacred is the target of Professor Dagron's work. This could even be termed a polemic, but for the courteous, even genial, tone, sustained throughout and his preoccupation with elaborating his own vision, rather than scoring points off the scholars who have been taken in by the facade of continuity in Byzantine institutions. But Dagron's iconoclastic agenda is set out plainly in his introduction, where he signals his intention of thinking in terms of the straining dynamics of power, of where power lurked in Byzantium, how it was exercised, and what there was to prevent the emperor, God's representative on earth, from laying claim to sacerdotal status or to act the priest.

The problem of the emperor's relationship with the Church, and specifically with patriarchs and other senior churchmen, has long been studied by scholars. But the problem is usually formulated in terms of political theory or institutions. The pronouncements of treatises on the emperor's rights and duties, Church canons, law-collections and individual decrees of emperors are compared and attempts have been made to reconcile contradictions and determine an underlying consensus. And precision has been sought as to how far the emperor could intervene in matters of Church discipline, or flout Church rules in his personal conduct or public policy. Dagron has little time for these essays in taxonomy, and through sharp-sighted surveys of particular episodes of usurpation or disputed successions to emperorship, he demonstrates the uncertainties and the range of options attendant upon most changes at the top. The dynastic principle was promoted, understandably enough, by those who stood to benefit from inherited power, and the notion that those "born to the purple" (porphyrogeniti) had been anointed from On High at the instant of being conceived in an empress' womb brought them undeniable mystique. Yet, as Dagron notes (35), the century during which the porphyrogenitus ideology was most elaborately articulated also saw several newcomers installing themselves in the palace and trying to create their own imperial regimes: Romanos I Lekapenos, Nikephoros II Phokas, John I Tzimiskes, not to mention multiple military rebellions against Basil II Porphyrogenitus. The notion of the mystical unction of infants born to those already seised of imperial majesty implies that lineage alone may not be enough, but that successful conception in "the purple" is itself a sign of divine approval. Such approval could, however, be claimed through radically alternative means, the successful marshalling of an army, the rallying of the "senate and people" behind the new leader, and their joint acclamations of him as the new emperor by God's will. An assortment of ceremonies, prayers and slogans were available to those ambitious and well-positioned enough to try and demonstrate that true basileia--a term meaning both imperial majesty and empire--was rightfully theirs. This theory of providential or "meritocratic" kingship was invoked by, for example, the Life of Basil I, in justification of Basil's ousting and murder of his patron and co-emperor, Michael III. The Life was composed under the aegis of one of the most emphatic exponents of the sacrality of the purple-born, Constantine VII. Thus, Byzantium's political culture contained the ceremonial props for dynastic continuity, brutal disruption and speedy and almost unconditional legitimization of the regime of the usurper who managed to gain control of Constantinople and at least some of its main interest-groups and symbolic spaces. Byzantine statesmen would have seen the sense of Sir John Harington's verses, even if they could not bring themselves to applaud: "Treason doth never prosper; what's the reason? For if it prosper, none dare call it treason."

Dagron demonstrates clearly the multiple means of legitimization available to early and middle Byzantine emperors. Through a set of case studies, he shows that the act of crowning of an emperor performed by the patriarch was not a defining moment: it did not transform an individual's status irrevocably, elevating him to a higher, priestly or quasi-priestly status. This is connected with the fact that physical unction with oil, Kaisersalbung, was only introduced in Byzantium at a late stage. The first emperor to be simultaneously crowned and anointed with holy chrism or myron may well have been Theodore Laskaris. Significantly, this aspirant to basileia was in acute need of additional props, seeing that a former emperor, Alexios III Angelos, was still on earth. Theodore's government in exile was perched in Nicaea, in the aftermath of the Latins' seizure of the formerly "God-protected city" of Constantinople in 1204.

Dagron reviews succinctly the various forms of inauguration ritual practised in earlier phases of the empire. The crowning of an emperor was habitually performed by the patriarch upon the accession of an emperor from the later fifth century onwards and from the seventh century the usual venue was the church of St. Sophia. But the patriarch was acting as a respected intermediary and orchestrator of prayers, rather than performing a unique consecration by dint of his office. Moreover, the coronation could be--and often was--carried out by an emperor who wished to designate a co-emperor and heir presumptive, whether his own son or a favored associate. In Dagron's words, the crowning "at most recognised an emperor who had received his power either on the day of his conception in the purple or on the day when his political ambition had been made public, with the backing of popular approval or acceptance from on high" (83). More telling than the placing of the crown on the emperor's head was its removal, an act punctiliously observed on the many occasions when the emperor entered St. Sophia for services. Dagron brings out the symbolic significance of the many thresholds crossed by the processions between the palace and the Great Church, summing up the emperor's position thus: "all signs of sovereignty were abandoned in the house of the King of Kings" (215). These boundaries between imperial authority and the clerical domain were highlighted in the Book of Ceremonies in the aftermath of a specific historical situation, the failure of the iconoclast emperors' attempts to suppress icon-veneration, and the need for subsequent emperors to show awareness of their limitations, if not downright humility. But profound differences between the imperial and the clerical outlook remained, and Dagron draws attention to the vigour with which Constantine VII sought to reinforce the sacrality of his own "house," recharging the palace churches with relics and elaborating upon the Christ-like part taken by the emperor in ceremonial on Easter Day: "ceremonial, like liturgy, was a simulation" (217) and, one might add, a re-enactment of sacred happenings.

The different starting-points of emperors and churchmen seldom led to systematically articulated confrontation or to prolonged, full-scale estrangement. But the depth of the underlying tensions and the strength of the emperor's predisposition to claim a pastoral role transcending that of priests and reflecting that of Christ are Dagron's most arresting observations and the main themes of his work. The empire could be viewed as the providential instrument of salvation, Constantine the Great having been chosen by God for a unique historical mission. The conversion of Constantine was seen by the man himself as momentous. He designed his mausoleum so that his tomb would be placed in the middle, surrounded by places (whether actual tombs, cenotaphs or plaques) for the twelve apostles, as if he were himself an apostle or even, in the midst of the apostles, Christ himself. As Dagron plausibly suggests, the implications of this design were not lost on Eusebius or other churchmen and the mausoleum was soon turned into a mere annex to a cruciform church built next to it.

The implications of the notion of the emperor as chief guide towards salvation were seldom followed through, in the face of the Church's keen sense of its separate composition, apostolic origins and higher calling. The most eloquent and drastic advocates of the idea of the emperor as God-appointed overseer of all mankind were the iconoclasts. Ultimately their efforts unleashed a counter-attack on the entire Constantinian project, summed up in Theodore of Stoudios' swingeing denunciation of emperors who flouted the Gospels: "The Antichrist, too, will be an emperor." Yet Scriptural examples of God-directed rulers endowed by Him with extraordinary powers continued to inspire emperors after the failure of iconoclasm, as they had the earlier emperors. Dagron underlines the fascination exercised on Byzantine emperors by the kings of Israel and neighbouring peoples and stresses that they looked to the Scriptures rather than to Hellenistic or imperial Roman rulers for precedents and role-models; the history of the Jews was regarded as prefiguring that of God's new people, the Christian empire.

Dagron's insights are summed up thus: "In Byzantium, the Old Testament had a constitutional value; it had the same normative role in the political sphere as the New Testament in the moral sphere." (50) The Church, in contrast, took on the role of unique interpreter and exemplary guardian of the New Testament. After the failure of iconoclasm, the emperor was obliged formally, repeatedly, to recognise that some divine things were, literally, out of bounds, notably the sanctuary of St. Sophia for most of the period of the celebration of the liturgy. This ceremonial constraint was still observed in the twelfth century but then, too, claims could still be made for the emperor as being responsible for souls as well as bodies, metaphorically anointed and thus in some sense bishop and priest. The last "heavyweight" exponent of this idea was the canonist, Theodore Balsamon, in the later twelfth century. Dagron brings out well the ingenuity and repeated revisions of Balsamon in arguing for the priestly status of the emperor: he argued that the emperor formally appointed the patriarch while invoking the Holy Spirit and, further, that the emperor was, like Christ (in the Greek sense of Christos) "the Anointed"; he therefore possessed the charismata of a bishop, just as Christ had been termed a bishop. As Dagron observes, Balsamon's repertory encompassed reputable precedents stretching back beyond Christ to David and Melchizedek, and viewed in that light his invocation of a title used by Emperor Claudius, with citation of Josephus' Jewish Antiquities "was not absurd" (267). Dagron recognises that Balsamon was bolstering imperial authority as a means of maintaining the unity of Christendom at a time when it seemed to be falling apart. But the rather frantic quality of Balsamon's researches and pleading would have gained in perspective from fuller coverage of the historical circumstances of twelfth-century Byzantium than is offered here: for example, the growing sense of the importance of family, determining an individual's status by that of his (or her) kin. Correspondingly, status in the form of office, title and insignia bestowed by the emperor was losing its cachet. The highly inflated rhetoric of court orators' praise for Manuel I Komnenos' Christ-like virtues and qualities as a wise teacher is quite consistent with this socio-political trend, while also offering a key to Balsamon's thinking.

To criticize Dagron for failing to bring out these aspects of his subject matter would, however, be off-target, since his prime concern is to trace a concept through the most important eras of Byzantine history. And in demonstrating the pervasiveness of the Old Testament model of the king-cum-priest--all the more resilient and contagious for seldom being systematically expounded by Byzantine writers--Dagron succeeds brilliantly. The English translation is for the most part accurate and clear, if sometimes rather too faithful to the syntax and word order of the French original. The text would benefit, in a second impression, from some editorial tidying up: for example, the spelling of the object with which the emperor carried out censing oscillates from the incorrect form censor (93, paragraph 1, line 5 from bottom), to censer (101, line 3 from page-bottom), to censor again (264, line 4 from page-bottom). And the reference to an illustration of St. Sophia's "imperial doors" (105, paragraph 2, line 2) as being on plate 3 is plainly wrong: these doors are, in this translation as against the French edition, illustrated in plate 1.

These shortcomings are little more than minor irritants. The availability of a mostly competent translation should stimulate western medievalists to further study of early medieval western potentates' interest in Byzantium; it invites further comparison between Byzantines' and westerners' penchant for role-models from the Old Testament. Carolingian rulers, too, were depicted by encomiasts as "Davids" and "Solomons," ruling over a new Israel. Dagron's study may also offer medievalists guidelines as to how ceremonial can be studied in conjunction with the liturgy and the topography of sacral centres. There may have been no exact, long-lasting counterpart in the west to the Constantinopolitan emperor's court or the Book of the Ceremonies. But this hardly renders irrelevant to medievalists the jockeyings for succession, coups d'etat, cycles of Christian festivals and rituals of majesty at Byzantium. On the Bosporus, too, there were improvisations, selective emphasis on particular gestures and ambivalence, yet also a common quest for divine endorsement and for credible manifestations thereof. Dagron's investigation--following in the trail of Michael McCormick, but on a broader front--shows clearly how much the ritual variations upon certain themes represented reactions to historical events or well-founded apprehensions as to future ones. The smooth facade presented by the text of the Book of Ceremonies is not impenetrable, and the dynamics of the interplay between actual events, accounts of those events in extant texts, and texts prescribing or describing acts of inauguration and other ceremonies are not irrecoverable. Dagron establishes this conclusively in the case of Byzantium; and the onus is on those who would contend that things worked wholly otherwise in the early medieval west. It is to be hoped that this translation will bring the basileus and his mechanisms for social control more centrally into the arena of debate as to the historical significance of ritual and its amenability to serious scholarly investigation.