Liturgy in Service of Imperial Authority

As an integral part of the Church ritual, liturgical hymns provide what is possibly the most effective means of communicating dogmatic truths and conveying ethical ideals to the congregation. Combining words and music, hymns can produce a strong impression upon the minds of the faithful and play an important role in their spiritual edification. However, it would not be correct to assume that their content is exclusively spiritual. Rather, due to a specific relationship between the state and the church in the Eastern Roman Empire, better known as Byzantium (330-1453), it is not surprising that liturgical hymns contain many references to the emperor. In the aftermath of the legalisation of Christianity with the issuance of the Edict of Milan in 313 CE, and especially when Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire in 380 CE, the liturgy was regularly used to support imperial authority.

The promulgation of the Edict of Milan and the conversion of the emperor Constantine the Great (d. 337) to Christianity completely changed the position of the Church in the empire. After a period of persecutions, the Church became the second most important pillar of society, with the imperial power being the first. Especially important for the construction of this new reality was the production of the discourse surrounding Constantine’s conversion. This discourse was based on the cross, the supreme Christian symbol, and on several prominent Old Testament leaders of the chosen people, especially Moses, David, and later Joshua. The contribution of Eusebius (d. 339), sometimes characterised as “court theologian,” to the creation and dissemination of this discourse was enormous, and this laid the foundation for what would be later known as a ‘symphony’ or the harmonious coexistence of state and church.

The cross, initially understood as a symbol of Christ’s victory over the Devil and death, became closely related to the emperor and transformed into a symbol of imperial victories and prosperity of the empire with divine assistance after Constantine’s victory under that sign against Maxentius (Eusebius, VC 1.27-39).

The Vision of the Cross. Apostolic Palace, Vatican. Circle of Raphael (1520-1524).

This idea, after being developed in various literary genres, especially panegyrics, found its way into liturgical hymns. Hymnographers frequently eulogise the cross as a powerful weapon, which brings victories to the emperor and secures peace in the empire. Liturgical hymns for the Exaltation of the True Cross (14 September), the central annual feast of the cross in the Byzantine tradition, repeatedly stress not only the spiritual dimension of the cross in Christian life but also its military and triumphant functions. The best example is probably the apolytikion, as the main celebratory hymn for each feast is called, for the feast of the Exaltation: “O Lord, save your people and bless your inheritance, grant victory to the emperor against the barbarians, and guard your empire through your cross” (Festal Menaion, September 14). The hymn strongly emphasises the close interrelation between the cross, the empire and the church community. The community prays to God to save and protect the subjects of the empire through his cross, which secures imperial victories against the barbarian enemies (cf. Demacopoulos, 123). Similar references to the cross abound in hymns for this feast. However, for this occasion I will include only two more examples, both taken from an unpublished hymn attributed to Germanos I, Patriarch of Constantinople (d. 740), and preserved in an eleventh-century manuscript from the collection of Mount Sinai. The first one reads as follows:

“We pray, grant to the most pious emperor your power, through your life-giving cross, O Christ; he boasts about you and, placing his hopes in you, will be saved.”

Sinait. gr. 552, f. 129

In the second one, the invocation of the cross’s might is not phrased in generic terms; rather, the hymnographer makes specific references to the power of the cross against the Arab Muslims.

“Let us bow before the wood of the Cross, which provides the power to the most pious emperor against enemies, and subjects to him the foolish offspring of Hagar.”

Sinait. gr. 552, f. 128v

The cited example shows how a reference to the cross becomes part of inter-religious polemics. The author praises the cross as a source of power for the emperor to defeat his foes who are denoted as descendants of Hagar. The word “Hagarenes”, designating the offspring of Abraham’s slave Hagar in its biblical usage (Gen. 16; Chr. 5:19, and Ps. 82:7), was commonly employed by Christian authors to denote the Arabs both before and after the appearance of Islam, as they were believed to be the offshoot of Hagar’s son Ishmael.

In Byzantium, the emperor was also frequently related to distinguished Old Testament figures, especially to prominent leaders of the Israelites. Byzantine rhetorical treatises, such as the tenth-century On the Eight Parts of Rhetorical Speech, provide clear instructions to panegyrists to compare the emperor with Moses, David and Joshua the son of Nun. This practice gradually found its way to liturgical hymns. The aforementioned manuscript from the Mount Sinai collection transmits a hymn for the annual celebration of Joshua the son of Nun. Intriguingly, in the Christian tradition of the first millennium, Joshua was rarely regarded as a model warrior or related to the emperor. This perception changed from the ninth century onwards, especially at the time when Byzantine emperors attempted to recapture Palestine from the Arabs.

Joshua. Hosios Loukas Monastery, Greece, 11th c.

Having as the point of departure Joshua’s accomplishments and military exploits against the Amalekites, and especially the narrative that he led the Israelites into the Promised Land (Joshua 3:1-14), the author of the hymn from the Sinai manuscript puts Joshua’s leadership and military exploits in the foreground, directly associating him with the emperor.  Thus in one of the stanzas, the poet appeals to God as follows:

“You who were fellow-general of your servant Joshua against his opponents in the past, now in a similar way be fellow-general of the emperors against [their] enemies.”

Sinait. gr. 552, f. 11

There is little doubt that this and other references to Joshua need to be seen within the broader historical context of the Middle Byzantine period, especially in relation to the Byzantine-Arab wars during the reign of the emperors from the Macedonian dynasty (867-1056) who sought to return Palestine to Byzantine control. Joshua’s leadership skills and military prowess, which he demonstrated in warfare against the native population of the Promised Land, became a source of inspiration for Byzantine authors and artists during the same period. As a result, visual representations of Joshua appear with some frequency in monumental painting and on portable objects produced during the so-called Macedonian Renaissance.

The Joshua Roll, 10th century, Tempera and gold on vellum, Vatican City, Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana, MS Pal. gr. 431.

Hymnographic texts, addressed to a wide audience, could also be effectively mobilised to reinforce imperial authority among imperial subjects. Even more so when a good opportunity was available, as in the present case, namely on the feast day of one of the most prominent leaders of God’s chosen people. Since the Byzantines regarded themselves as the New Israel, with the pious emperor as their leader comparable to the Old Testament leaders, the author of the kanon exploited this to relate the emperor to Joshua. In this respect, the hymn can be compared to other genres of Byzantine literature whose main purpose was to glorify the emperor.

Scenes from an Ivory Casket with Scenes of the Story of Joshua, The Metropolitan Museum of Art (10th c.).

As a conclusion, it can be said that the New Testament commandment to pray for those in power (1 Tim 2: 1-2) from the time of Constantine developed into the concept that the emperor is the chief protector of the church and orthodoxy and has to be glorified in liturgy. In addition, imperial success in wars against those of a different religion was understood as a guarantee for the freedom of the Christian faith in the empire. Moreover, by comparing the warfare between the Eastern Roman Empire and their enemies, particularly against the Persians and Arabs, with the wars that the biblical chosen people of ancient Israel waged against the Amalekites, Byzantine authors situated those wars within the biblical context attaching a sacred character to them. In that way, the Byzantines became the New Israel, and their emperors were understood as the successors of the Israelite leaders. Consequently, their inclusion in liturgical texts and the ritual was considered legitimate.

Kosta Simic
Byzantine Postdoctoral Fellow, Medieval Institute
University of Notre Dame (2021-2022)

Further Reading:

Eusebios, Eusebius Werke I. Über das Leben Constantins. Constantins Rede an die Heilige Versammlung. Tricennatsrede an Constantin, GCS 7, edited by I. A. Heikel, Leipzig: J. C. Hinrichs’sche Buchhandlung, 1902. English translation: Life of Constantine, trans. A. Cameron and S. Hall, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1999.

Demacopoulos, George. “The Eusebian Valorization of Violence and Constantine’s Wars for God”. In Constantine: Religious Faith and Imperial Policy, edited by Edward Siecienski, 115-128. London: Routledge, 2017.

Schapiro, Meyer. “The Place of the Joshua Roll in Byzantine History,” Gazette des beaux-arts 35 (1949) 161–176.

Rapp, Claudia. “Old Testament Models for Emperors in Early Byzantium”. In The Old Testament in Byzantium, edited by P. Magdalino and R. Nelson, 175-197. Washington: Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collections, 2010.

Simic, Kosta. “Remembering the Damned. Byzantine Liturgical Hymns as Instruments of Religious Polemics”. In Memories of Utopia: The Revision of Histories and Landscapes in Late Antiquity, edited by Bronwen Neil and Kosta Simic, 156-170. London: Routledge, 2020.

The Festal Menaion, trans. Mother Mary and Archimandrite Kallistos Ware, London: Faber and Faber, 1969.

Thierry, Nicole. “Le culte de la croix dans l’empire byzantine du VIIe siècle au Xe dans les rapports avec la guerre contre l’infidèle”. Rivista di studi bizantini e slavi 1 (1980/81) 205-228.

“Rome Under Heaven:” The Place of the Roman Empire in Accord with the Chinese Concept of Tianxia

A page from Ma Duanlin’s Wenxian Tongkao
A page from Ma Duanlin’s Wenxian Tongkao

“Their king [the kings of Daqin] is not a permanent one, but they want to be led by a man of merit. Whenever an extraordinary calamity or an untimely storm and rain occurs, the king is deposed and a new one elected, the deposed king resigning cheerfully. The inhabitants are tall, and upright in their dealings, like the Han [Chinese], whence they are called Da-Qin, or Han [1].”

Ma Duanlin

This description of the Byzantine Empire by the 13th-century Chinese historian Ma-Duanlin would startle his Byzantine contemporaries used to palace intrigues worthy of the finest episodes of a popular tv show.

Chinese literati and intellectuals identified the ancient Roman Empire as Da Qin 大秦 or Great Qin. The term which emerged during the Han Dynasty (202 BC – 220 AD) is evocative of China’s perception of their western counterparts whom they regarded as equal to themselves. Whereas China ruled over the eastern parts of the world, somewhere far in the west, a counter China held the balance of the world. Under the Tang, another, more phonetically accurate term, Fu Lin 拂菻, emerged to describe Byzantium, the medieval iteration of the Roman Empire. Chinese historians probably adopted the more accurate Fu Lin from their Eastern Iranian and Turkic neighbors (Middle Persian: Hrum; Bactrian: φρομο), who were used to trading with the Byzantine Empire in the 6th and 7th centuries.

A Ming map of Europe
A Ming map of Europe

Even though Chinese historians knew that Da Qin and Fu Lin were the same entity, knowledge of a powerful empire far in the west did not prevent them from intermixing facts and fictions. According to an eleventh-century account, the mighty Fu Lin could field a large army of a million men. At the head of such an immense army, the kings of the Romans ruled supreme. Fu Lin enjoyed the rule not only of astute military kings, but also of the wisest men in Western Eurasia. Unlike the hereditary Chinese monarchies, Chinese historians claim that the Romans elected their kings from among the wisest and most meritorious. Deposed kings did not oppose their fate, but resigned quietly. Rather than causing considerable troubles and protesting, they stepped down and cheered for their successor, a testimony of their great wisdom.

Ma Duanlin presents Da-Qin/Fu-Lin as a utopia ruled by competent, quasi-philosopher kings. Ironically, the Chinese historian who died in 1322, was a (very distant) contemporary of some of the most gruesome depositions to take place in Byzantium. Among the many examples, and a list far too long for a blog post, stands the infamous Michael VIII Palaiologos (r. 1261-1282). Michael emerged as the sole emperor of Byzantium after brutally blinding his rival, the very popular John IV Laskaris, an eleven-year-old child. Michael’s contemporaries vilified the emperor for his wretched behavior. Arsenios Autoreianos, the patriarch of Constantinople, excommunicated Michael as a response to the blinding of Laskaris. One may also be tempted to summon the case of John Kantakouzenos who ruled between 1347 and 1354. Kantakouzenos, who became emperor after six years of civil war, triumphed over his rivals thanks to the help of the Turks of Orhan Ibn Osman, the son of the founder of the Ottoman Beylik. The early Ottomans benefited from the Byzantine civil war and gained a European fortress for the first time. Could Ma Duanlin, who relied on sources tracing back to the Han Empire, have seen Roman institutions as immutable and expected the emperors of the 13th century to be elected in like fashion to the consuls of the Roman Republic? Nevertheless, the cold reality of palace coups in 13th-century Byzantium was a far cry from the elective utopia described by the Chinese historian.

Perhaps more tantalizing are the many fantastic elements found in Chinese descriptions of the Roman Empire and Western Eurasia. The same Ma Duanlin claims that the Romans were fond of a highly peculiar type of pearl. The Romans collected these pearls of jade, not from mollusks, but from the saliva of a curious species of bird. Likewise, according to Chinese historians, the Romans lived near a mysterious group of dwarves. These dwarves, a far cry from Tolkien’s rugged miners, were allegedly so small that they constantly looked towards the skies, fearing cranes who dined on their kin. The dwarves relied upon the Roman armies to fend off the cranes. As a compensation for their help, it is said that they paid their Byzantine benefactors with many precious jewels and gems.

Although we may never find out where Chinese historians got some of this information, the far west of Eurasia fascinated the imagination of generations of Chinese literati who saw it as a land of myths and legends where wise kings cohabitated with fantastic birds and mysterious dwarves.

R.T., PhD Candidate
University of Notre Dame

Read more:

In English: Friedrich Hirth, China and the Roman Orient Researches into their Ancient and Mediaeval Relations as Represented in Old Chinese Records, (Leipsic and Munich, 1885).

In Turkish: Bahaeddin Ögel, “Göktürk yazıtlarının Apurimları ve Fu-Lin Problemi,” Türk Tarih Kurumu Belleten 9 (1945): 63–89.

In Chinese: Jianling Xu, “Bàizhàntíng Háishì Sài Ěr Zhù Rén Guójiā? Xī ‘Sòng Shǐ·fú Lǐn Guó Chuán’ de Yīduàn Jìzǎi,” The Journal of Ancient Civilizations 3/4 (2009): 63–67.



[1] Original text and translations in Friedrich Hirth, China and the Roman Orient Researches into their Ancient and Mediaeval Relations as Represented in Old Chinese Records, (Leipsic and Munich, 1885). Translations are from Hirth.

Moral Self-determination and the Byzantine Christian Tradition

Though diverging with regards to detail, most historians of intellectual history would readily acknowledge that the advent of Christian antiquity coincided with a new concept of moral self-governance and, consequently, individual culpability.[1] Antique and medieval Christian thinkers cultivated a universal notion of ethical self-determination, affirming that all possess an inherent and unnecessitated capacity for the recognition and pursuit of the good regardless of one’s social upbringing or physical circumstances. A prima facie examination of these late antique and medieval Christian notions might seem to suggest many common features with post-Enlightenment and contemporary conceptions of moral autonomy, which emphasize self-legislation and independently-derived moral criteria. Nevertheless, a closer reading of these sources discloses a mindset that grounds moral self-determination in an ethic of co-governance, establishing the heteronomous “other” as an indispensable aspect of the quest for the good.

A significant exemplar of this “ethic of co-governance” can be found in the corpus of the early Byzantine monk, Maximus the Confessor (c. 580–662 AD), a figure revered by both eastern and western Christian traditions. Imbued with the spirit of the eastern ascetic tradition, the Confessor draws upon both monastic literature and the Hellenic philosophy of the Alexandrian intellectual tradition in order to synthesize his theological vision. Prominent among the doctrines prized by the eastern monastic tradition is indeed the idea that every rational agent possesses a free will, a notion that Maximus himself would also ardently defend and develop. Equally prominent, however, is the practice of “obedience” (hypakoē) to a spiritual guide or superior. This practice became an indispensable aspect of spiritual life in the eastern monastic communities that coalesced in the fourth and fifth centuries, and it remained a venerated feature of eastern monasticism through the end of the Byzantine era. Though not a central motif in his spiritual writings, Evagrius of Pontus (345–399 AD), a pioneer of eastern monasticism, is careful to exhort both male and female monastics living in community to attend to the words of their spiritual guides.[2]

Constantinople. Source:

The most well-known literary source providing an exposition of obedience is The Ladder of Divine Ascent, authored by John of Sinai (c.579–659 AD).[3] In the fourth chapter or “step,” John addresses the practice, defining it thusly: “Obedience is absolute renunciation of our own life, clearly expressed in our bodily actions…Obedience is the tomb of the will and the resurrection of humility.”[4] His endorsement of the renunciation of “will” may sound odd to many readers, especially given the Christian emphasis upon moral self-governance. Nevertheless, John is not denying the concept of free will as such, nor is he suggesting that the volitional faculty must atrophy into non-existence. Scholarly evidence suggests that the term John uses here for “will,” thelēma or thelēsis, comes to be associated with the volitional faculty in a philosophical sense in the writings of Maximus the Confessor, whose engagement with the Christological controversies of the seventh century provided the impetus for the standardization of the expression.[5] Thus, when John speaks of “will” and its denial, he is arguably referring to what Maximus the Confessor and his theological progeny would call gnomē, which in the idiom of the time refers to a private or particular disposition of will, or even to a personal opinion.[6]  John’s monk is not so much denying his own intrinsic freedom of will as he is seeking the co-governance and insight of those who are more advanced in virtue, and, through them, struggling to direct his volitional disposition such that it harmonizes with the other members of the community.

Maximus discloses a similar approach to moral self-determination by establishing his ethical teaching on “love” or agapē, which figures prominently in his philosophical and dogmatic treatises as well as his ascetic writings.[7] Agapē is no mere private sentiment but constitutes the impetus and ground for moral practice as a whole, thereby suggesting that moral judgment and orientation presuppose an awareness of one’s community and the persistent presence of a real, tangible “other.” In this way, Maximus retools an older Aristotelian paradigm, exchanging justice for love as the central and all-defining virtue.[8] Insofar as agapē is the chief virtue, narcissistic self-love, or filautia, is its inverse and the progenitor of all vice. As he demonstrates in one of his earliest works, The Ascetic Life, ascetic discipline should not be considered a private enterprise intended primarily for the sake of internal moral perfection.[9] Rather, its purpose is the effacement of filautia and the diachronic restoration of temporal and eternal relationships with the creator and one’s fellow creatures. To quote the Confessor directly: “He who is unable to separate himself from the passionate yearning for material things shall neither love God nor his neighbor authentically.”[10] Defining this activity in ontological terms, Maximus argues that divine love shall eschatologically gather together the fragmented portions of human nature into a functional unity, existing as a single mode in solidarity of will and disposition.[11] If love is the metaphysical impetus for the pursuit of virtue and the ground of morals, mimēsis or “imitation” is the pedagogical means by which it is recognized and acquired. Creatively appropriating and redeploying principles of Neoplatonic philosophy, the Confessor establishes the imitatio Christi, the existential imitation of Christ and his virtues, as the epistemological core of his ethics.[12] True followers of Christ imitate his mode of existence, disclosing through their lives and examples divine virtue. The lives and modes of these “exact imitators” are in turn imitated and imparted unto the morally immature.[13]

When viewed through a contemporary lens, we might say that Maximus’ view and the tradition that informs him entail the recognition of “autonomy”—as we would construe it now—as the point of departure for human agency. However, the ideal of agapē calls for the voluntary sacrifice of autonomous moral space for the sake of moral co-governance and a reciprocal unity of wills, which depends upon the concrete example of Jesus Christ and his “exact imitators.”

Demetrios Harper
Byzantine Studies Post-doctoral Fellow

[1]This is strongly reaffirmed by Kyle Harper (From Shame to Sin: The Christian Transformation of Sexual Morality in Late Antiquity[Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 2013], 80-133), who objects to Michael Frede’s assertions that the concept of free will is not unique to the Christian tradition but can, in fact, be attributed to Epictetus. See Frede’s A Free Will: Origins of the Notion in Ancient Thought, Sather Classical Lectures 68, ed. A. A. Long(Berkeley: University of California Press, 2011), pp. 66-88.

[2]See The Two Treatises: To Monks in Monasteries, and Exhortation to a Virgin, in Evagrius of Pontus: The Greek Ascetic Corpus, trans. Robert Sinkewicz (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003), 127-28, 131.

[3]These dates are based on what still remains tentative conjecture. Cf. Alexis Torrance, Repentance in Late Antiquity: Eastern Christian Asceticism and the Framing of the Christian Life c. 400-650 CE (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013), 158-60.

[4]The Ladder of Divine Ascent 4.3, revised edition, trans. Lazarus Moore (Boston, MA: Holy Transfiguration Monastery, 1991), 21. For the original text, I consulted the Κλίμαξ, in Ἰωάννου τοῦ Σιναΐτου ἅπαντα τὰ ἔργα, Φιλοκαλία τῶν νηπτικῶν καὶ ἀσκητικῶν πατέρων 16, ΕΠΕ, Ἐλευθέριος Μερετάκη (Θεσσαλονίκη Πατερικαὶ Ἐκδόσεις Γρηγόριος ὁ Παλαμᾶς, 1996).

[5]John D. Madden is among the first to argue for the originality of Maximus’ contribution to the genealogy of the concept of will. Cf. his “The Authenticity of Early Definitions of Will (thelēsis)” in Maximus Confessor: Actes du Symposium sur Maxime le Confesseur, Fribourg (2-5 Septembre 1980), eds. Felix Heinzer and Christoph Schönborn (Fribourg: Éditions Universitaire Fribourg, 1982), 61-82. Madden’s “originality thesis” is defended by David Bradshaw, St Maximus the Confessor on the Will, in Knowing the Purpose of Creation Resurrection, Proceedings of the Symposium on St Maximus the Confessor, ed. Maxim Vasiljević (Alhambra: Sebastian Press, 2013), 143–58 For an up-to-date and comprehensive overview of Maximus’ view, see Ian McFarland, “The Theology of Will,” in The Oxford Handbook of Maximus the Confessor, eds. Pauline Allen and Bronwen Neil (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015), 516-32.

[6]Ian McFarland, “The Theology of Will,” 520-522. Cf. for the context and background of “will” and its correlative expressions in Maximus, cf. Paul Blowers, Maximus the Confessor: Jesus Christ and the Transfiguration of the World (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016), 156-65.

[7]Cf. Maximus’ Four Hundred Texts on Love, in The Philokalia, eds. and trans. Kallistos Ware et al., vol. 2 (London: Faber and Faber, 1981), 48-113; Letter 2: On Love,in Maximus the Confessor,The Early Church Fathers, trans. Andrew Louth (Abingdon: Routledge, 1996), 84-93.For a systematic account of Maximus’ aretology and its foundations, see Demetrios Harper, Chapter 4, The Analogy of Love: St. Maximus the Confessor and the Foundations of Ethics(Yonkers, NY: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2018).

[8]See Maximus’ Quaestiones ad Thalassium I 40.60-70, Corpus Christianorum, Series Graeca 7, eds. C. Laga and C. Steele (Turnhout: Brepols, 1980), 269-71.

[9]Liber asceticus 100-115, CorpusChristianorum, Series Graeca40, ed. P. Van Deun (Turnhout: Brepols, 2000), 17. Cf. also the introduction to the Quaestiones ad Thalassium I 380-390, 39-41.

[10]Liber asceticus 100-110, 17. The translation is mine.

[11]Letter 2: On Love, 88.

[12]Cf. St. Maximus the Confessor’s Questions and Doubts III, 1, trans. Despina Prassas (DeKalb: Northern Illinois Press, 2010),156-57;Ambiguum 48.6,in On Difficulties in the Church Fathers II, Dumbarton Oaks Medieval Library 29, ed. and trans. Nicholas Constas (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2014), 218-20.

[13]Liber asceticus 635-665, 73-74.