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.

The “Sinful” Soldiers of the Early Ottoman Military Structure: οι ἁμαρτωλόι

This short research blog focuses on the development of the word ἁμαρτάνω “to sin” from the advent of Christianity to the late Byzantine era. The word, ἁμαρτάνω, is widely used in the Bible as it appears forty-three times. To word’s primary meaning in the Bible was to “err and sin”; however, from time to time, it was also used to signify the action of offending. ἁμαρτάνω occurs in many different forms in the New Testament as we see it in aorist first-person singular active form Ἥμαρτον” eight times, second-person singular indicative middle six times, and second-person indicative active plural form three times.[1] I will trace the different nuances in the meaning of this word in the subsequent periods, especially in the late Byzantine period. My argument is that as several Greek and non-Greek sources indicate, the word ἁμαρτάνω began having a military connotation in this period as it was applied to the Christian military units who had cooperated with the enemy forces, especially the Turks.

Inscription, in The Collection of Ancient Greek Inscriptions in the British Museum

        In Homeric times, ἁμαρτάνω had no religious connotation. The Theological Dictionary of the New Testament suggests that, initially, the word was used to convey the action of “missing” i.e failure to follow rules and signify a moral deficit or immoral physical undertaking. [2] However, in the later periods (c. 400 BCE), we begin seeing a shift from legal to religious use since ἁμαρτάνω made its way to the Book of Kings in the old testament, meaning “to rebel” against the god and his order in the earth.[3] From a theological standpoint, rebelling against the will of God means to err from the true path and therefore to sin. In this way, those who had intentionally deviated from moral or religious standards came to be defined as αμαρτωλός “the sinful one” in the later Christian religious texts.[4]

Early Christian symbols on an Egyptian textile, the Cleveland Museum of Art, Cleveland, Ohio.

        ἁμαρτάνω is mostly used to signify the action of “sin” and neglecting the commands of God with an exception of “offending” in the New Testament.[5] In the Book of Romans, for instance, we see the following structure: “γὰρ ἀνόμως ἥμαρτον ἀνόμως καὶ” which means “Indeed without law I sinned without law also[…]”.[6] Here, ἁμαρτάνω was used in the aorist, active, and indicative form. In another example, this time from the Book of Corinthians, the word is used in such a construction: “οὕτως δὲ ἁμαρτάνοντες εἰς τοὺς” meaning “thus moreover sinning against those […]” in the participle, present, active form.[7] Besides the action of sinning, ἁμαρτάνω seems to be used in a different meaning, “to offend”, in the Book of Apostles although a minor disagreement exists between various interpreters. Regarding the following phase: “Καίσαρά τι ἥμαρτον[…]” while New American Standard Bible renders the word as “committing”, the King James version translate the term as “offending”. However, the new international version disagrees with these suggestions, interpreting the whole phrase as “Caesar [in] anything sinned […]”.[8]

Nicolle, David. Armies of the Ottoman Turks 1300-1774. London: Osprey, 1983.

        Besides its use in legal and religious spheres, towards the late Byzantine period, we begin seeing the word, ἁμαρτάνω, or its variants in Greek and Turkish texts in the military context. With the Turkish advance towards western Asia Minor and the Balkans in the later 13th and early 14th centuries, the local Greek-speaking people began adjusting to the newly established political reality in their respective territories by means of cooperating with their new rulers. A significant portion of the Greek population in these regions had converted to Islam, while others participated in the Ottoman military system as auxiliary units. As the later Byzantine writer Pachymeres states in his Ιστορία, the Greeks from Anatolia, “ἐπιμιξάντων καὶ Ῥωμαíων ἐξ ἀνατολῆς”, had occasionally joined the Turkish forces to raid the Byzantine territories in the hopes of acquiring material gain.[9] Besides Pachymeres, Doukas also refers to these Greek collaborators in his historical work, calling them “μιξοβαρβαροι” meaning half-Greek and half-Turks.[10] Although these authors shunned using the word, ἁμαρτωλός, several Turkish authors borrow this term from their Greek correspondents. An early Ottoman called Aşıkpaşazade reports that the founder of the Ottoman principality, Osman Gazi, had a “martolos” ( مارتلوس) by the name of Artun who acted as a spy in the Byzantine territories for the Ottomans.[11] After the Ottoman conquests in the Balkans, as the land surveys indicate, the Ottomans had given landed estates to several Christian military units who were also called “martolos”.[12]

Greek Armatolos by Carl Haag (1820–1915).

         Lastly, after the mid-fourteenth century, the Ottomans also formed provincial forces in mainland Greece named “armatolos” which had a clear phonetic resemblance with the word “amartolos”. Although several scholars argued that this term had derived from a medieval loan word from Latin arma “weapon” via Greek αρματολός it is also within the boundaries of possibility that the development of that word might have originated from αμαρτωλός since the use of the latter preceded the former. During the Greek War of Independence (1821-1828), these αρματολός units had actively participated in military encounters against the Ottoman forces as we are able to trace their role in Greek folk songs: “συλλογιστείτε το καλά, /ότι (: γιατί) σας καίμε τα χωριά· / γρήγορα τ’ αρματολίκι,/ οτ’ ερχόμαστε σαν λύκοι” “Think well, / that [why] we burn your villages; / quickly the armatoliki, / that we come like wolves”.[13]

        In sum, ἁμαρτάνω had no religious implications during Homeric times as it was used to convey the idea of “missing” (i.e. “missing the mark”). However, in the later periods, it started appearing in the Bible as the word began to signify the act of transgression against the word of God. In the late Byzantine period, however, a derivation of this word,  ἁμαρτωλός, was used for Christians who cooperated with the enemy forces since it was thought that they rebelled against God by aligning themselves with the non-Christian adversaries. 


[1] Thesaurus Linguae Graecae. Search for word: ἁμαρτάνω.

[2]Danker, Frederick W. et al., A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature (Exeter: Eerdmans, 1974) 44.

[3] Ibid. 43.

[4] Oxford Classical Greek Dictionary, ed. James Morwood and John Taylor, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002)

[5] Geoffrey W. Bromiley. Theological Dictionary of the New Testament. Exeter: William Eerdmen Publishing, 1985. 49.

[6] www.biblegateway.com, Romans 2:12-16.

[7] www.biblegateway.com, Corinthians 8-12.

[8] www.biblegateway.com, Acts 25:8.

[9] George Pachymeres, Relations Historiques, ed. Albert Failler, 5 vols (Paris, 1984–2000) 4:643.18.

[10] Doukas, Decline and Fall of Byzantium to the Ottoman Turks by Doukas, ed. Harry Magouilas. Detroit, 1975. 33.

[11] Aşıkpaşazade, Osmanoğulları’nın Tarihi ed. Kemal Yavuz and Yekta Saraç. İstanbul: MAS Matbaacılık, 2003. 324.

[12] Suret-i Defter-i Sancak-ı Tirhala, ed. Melek Delilbasi and Muzaffer Arikan, (Ankara: TTK, 2001) 296-334.

[13] Demetrius Petropoulos, ελληνικα δημοτικα τραγουδια Vol1 (Greek Popular Songs), (Athens: Βασικη βιβλιοθηκη, 1958): 3-65.

“To Hell or Heaven with the Greeks”: Common Apocalyptic Beliefs Between the Turks and the Greeks in the Late Middle Ages

        The expansion of the Oghuz Turks towards the Levant region in the early to mid- 11th century had crucial importance not only for the Middle eastern region but also world politics. The expansion of the Turkish political dominance in the region culminated in the Battle of Manzikert in 1071 which paved the way for various Turkish-speaking groups to migrate to Anatolia in the hopes of finding a new financial resource for their nomadic economic structure. The Turks conquereed to the region by the force of arms; however, as time passed, they began to adapt to the cultural, ecologic, politic and socio-economic realities of their new homelands. Their close interactions with the neighboring communities not only reshaped their physical appearances, economic structures, administrative and bureaucratic practices but also introduced them to new spiritual and religious beliefs. Contemporary scholarship in the area of interfaith and several cross-cultural studies have recently demonstrated how the Turks actually borrowed eschatological ideas and notions with respect to the end of the world and the developments that are expected to take place prior to this cataclysmic event.  

        Although interfaith and cultural exchange began taking place between the Greeks and Turks immediately after 1071 (and perhaps even before then), I would argue these interactions noticeably increased alongside the Turkish political expansion towards western Anatolia and Thrace especially after the late 1200s and early 1300s. The missionary activities of Turkish holy men and the tolerant attitudes of the state officials in these Turkish-controlled regions created an environment for Christians and Muslims to discuss various spiritual matters and learn more about each other’s faiths. In fact, one of the most influential Orthodox clerics, Gregory Palamas, was invited by the Ottoman court to converse about religion with a Muslim spiritual figure in the 1340s. Referring to several striking similarities between the Jesus Prayer and Dhikr practice, some scholars even argue that the influence of Islamic Sufi ideology encourages the appearance of Hesychasm in the Byzantine spiritual environment in this period.[1] Besides the Islamic ideological influence over Orthodox Christianity, it seems that some Christian beliefs also disseminated among the Muslim believers.

Christ as the apocalyptic Lamb with the cross on the throne surrounded with seven candlesticks. Chancel mosaic, 6th century CE.

        A certain Ottoman Sufi by the name of Ahmed Bican who lived in fifteenth century Gallipoli seems to have possessed an extensive knowledge about the Byzantine apocalyptic traditions. In his book, Dürr-i Meknûn, not only he did refer to several Byzantine messianic beliefs, but he also refashioned them with an Islamized veneer. For example, although there is no certain date regarding the end of the world in the theology, adopting the Byzantine tradition, adopted the opinion that doomsday will take place in 1492. What is even more noteworthy is his familiarity with the Byzantine liturgical calendar. It seems that he was personally aware of the Byzantine system since he states that Byzantine scholars determined the era of humankind as 7000 years; however, since Muslims use a lunar calendar instead of solar calendar, he notes that it should be regarded as 7200 years by the Muslims. 

        Furthermore, a general belief about the blonde people in Byzantine apocalyptic and messianic expectations can be observed in Bican’s work too. According to these, the Byzantine peoples believed that their capital, the city of Constantinople, will fall to their enemies one day; however, a blonde nation from the northern regions will soon appear to help the Greeks to ‘liberate’ their previous possession, expelling the Muslims as far as Syria. In his work, Bican also stated that one of the “blonde peoples” from the northern regions will indeed recapture Constantinople and expel the Muslims soon but he also made some additions to the story. Attributing a messianic role to the Ottoman ruler, he argued that the sultan will appear in this desperate situation and be able to defeat the blonde people by recapturing Constantinople for the second time, glorifying the religion of Islam.

Georgios Klontzas, “The Last Judgement” (1540-1608).

         Yet lastly, Bican seems to have been aware of a Greek messianic tradition prophesizing “the return of the king” which promises a rightful ruler will reclaim the throne of Constantinople.  The Laskaris dynasty which came to power in Nicaea after 1204 had a special importance for western Anatolians since Laskarid rulers initiated an economic development program in the region and successfully protected the eastern borders against the Turcoman incursions in this period. When Michael Palaeologus usurped the Byzantine throne in 1261 by imprisoning and then blinding John, the last Laskarid ruler of the empire, the western Anatolian Byzantines began developing stories, predicting his expected return. Cyril Mango argues this belief even spread to the European half of the empire since a prophecy which was circulated in the 13th century tells about a civil war that would take place in Constantinople. According to this prophecy, he argues, at the end of the civil war, as an old and shabbily dressed man, John Laskaris would appear in Constantinople to be crowned by the angels. His shabbily dress and his old age refers to the imprisonment case and signals that a civil war will take place in his later years. After the enthronement, the angels will give him a sword, saying; “Take courage, John, vanquish the enemy!”

Depiction of a Deviant Dervish from the Early Ottoman Period (Abdal-i Rum), in The Nauigations, Peregrinations, and Voyages, Made into Turkie by Nicholas Nicholay Daulphinois, trans. T. Washington the Younger, 103r.

        In Bican’s work, I think, it is possible to observe several clues about this late Byzantine apocalyptic expectation since Bican also talks about a civil war that would wake place in Constantinople. According to his interpretation, the fighting parties will be led by two military figures who have these initials in their name: “M” and “S”. Although, I think, “M” might represent Michael Palaeologus, “S” does not match with John’s initial. However, I argue that this letter might be modified in a later period due to Bican’s concern with adjusting it to a specific contemporary ruler. It is also within the boundaries of possibility that “S” stands for the second and last consonants of the dynastic name of John: Laskaris. Although the events were given in a very fragmented nature in this work, Bican also points out an imprisonment case, saying that the imprisoned will soon take the throne by defeating his enemy which has a clear resemblance with John Laskaris’ imprisonment by Michael.

Depiction of a Heterodox Dervish Figure (Portrait of a Qalandar), Timurid, 9th-15th century. © Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York (Cora Timken Burnett Collection, 57.51.30).

        Messianic and apocalyptical intellectual exchange constitute a small part of interactions between the various groups of Christians and Muslims, who have lived in the Middle East and the Balkans side by side for the centuries. There are many more cultural and religious interactions between these people in this regard including but not limited to spread of brotherhood (futuwwa) institutions from the crusader states to the Muslim world in the Levant region. Although scholars have begun turning their focus to these borrowings in the eastern Mediterranean in the last couple of decades, there are still a long way to traverse since western Anatolia and the Balkans have received less attention so far. Hopefully, as the winds of time are changing, more scholars and students will become curious about the relations, interactions and shared traditions between Christians and Muslims in Istanbul and beyond.

Husamettin Simsir
PhD Candidate in History
University of Notre Dame

Further Reading

Arnakis, G. Georgiades. “Gregory Palamas among the Turks and Documents of His Captivity as Historical Sources.” Speculum, Vol. 26, No. 1 (1951): 104-118.

Bican, Yazıcıoğlu Ahmed. Dürr-i Meknun. Trans. Necdet Sakaoğlu. İstanbul: Tarih Vakfı Yurt Yayınları, 1999.

Karamustafa, Ahmet. God’s Unruly Friends. Utah: University of Utah Press, 1994.

Preiser-Kapeller, J. “Webs of conversion. An analysis of social networks of converts across Islamic-Christian borders in Anatolia, South-eastern Europe and the Black Sea from the 13th to the 15th cent.” Workshop Cross-cultural life-worlds, Institute for Byzantine Studies, Austrian Academy of Sciences, Bamberg 2012.

Şahin, Kaya “Constantinople and the End Time: The Ottoman Conquest as a Portent of the Last Hour” Journal of Early Modern History 14 (2010): 317-354.

Shawcross, Teresa. “In the Name of the True Emperor: Politics of Resistance after the Palaiologan Usurpation” Byzantinoslavica 66 (2008): 203-229.

Spanos, Apostolos. “Imperial Sanctity in Byzantium: The case of the emperor John III Vatatzes” Research Gate 10.13140/RG.2.1.3635.6248.


[1] Nicol defines the prayer practice in the Eastern Christian tradition as follows: “in the solitude of his cell, the monk must sit with chin resting on his breast and eyes fixed upon his navel. Then, while carefully regulating his breathing, he must say over the Jesus-Prayer.” Donald M. Nicol, Church, and Society in the Last Centuries of Byzantium (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008) 38.