The Byzantine Empire

Start Free Trial

How does caesaropapism relate to the power of the Byzantine emperor?

Expert Answers

An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

The term caesaropapism suggests the dominance of the state over the church, and, conversely, the term papocaesarism refers to the dominance of the church over the state.

In principle, the church-state relationship in the Byzantine Empire (or Eastern Roman Empire) was symphonic. As one Byzantine emperor explained, the church was entrusted with the care of the soul and the emperor with that of the body. Both were necessary, and the responsibilities of each were ordained by God. They had to work together.

Some scholars see the application of the concept of caesaropapism to Byzantine church-state relations as misguided because the term itself is of Western origin and cannot do justice to the Byzantine realities. (See the first link below.) Certainly, over the empire's more than thousand-year existence, emperors could and did coerce the church or even dictate church practices, but the church also exerted no small degree of influence over the state: the emperor had to make a profession of faith prior to coronation, was anointed by the patriarch, and despite certain liturgical privileges, always remained a layperson.

Even in exploring individual rulers and policies, the astute observer will find more complexity than can be accommodated by the term caesaropapism. One could begin by exploring in more depth some of the better-studied chapters in Byzantine history which seem at first glance to point to state dominance over the church, such as the prolonged Iconoclastic Controversy or the Council of Ferrara-Florence and its aftermath. The fact that the church in the Byzantine Empire was not just the patriarch or even the episcopate, but also the lower clergy, monastics, and laypeople, further complicates the picture. On the role of monks as intermediaries between ruler and people and the survival of the eastern half of the Roman Empire in the fifth century, see the second link below.

Approved by eNotes Editorial
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

The Byzantine Emperor wasn't simply a temporal ruler; he was a spiritual ruler as well. This meant that, as well as being head of state, he was also head of the Church. It was the promotion of Christianity by the emperor Constantine that had turned what had previously been a marginalized Jewish cult into a powerful political and spiritual force. And the close link between state power and Christianity established by Constantine was strengthened and reinforced by his successors.

In those days, there was no meaningful separation between church and state as we understand it today. Religion was a vitally important political issue and nothing less than the stability of empires and kingdoms depended on keeping religious conflict to a bare minimum. To that end, Byzantine emperors regularly intervened in theological disputes, laying down the law to ensure that the often heated debates that regularly took place between clerics didn't undermine civil order.

Constantine himself famously intervened in the Council of Nicaea in 325 AD for just this reason. The Council established the orthodox Christian doctrine that the Trinity consists of one substance in three persons or hypostases. But this was only after Constantine's direct intervention. He ruled, in his capacity as both Emperor and head of the Church, that the majority opinion should be formally adopted. In this way, the Emperor hoped to put an end to the fractious theological disputes that threatened to erupt into civil disorder at any moment.

Approved by eNotes Editorial
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

Caesaropapism is related to the power of the Byzantine emperor because it increased that power.  Caesaropapism is the idea that the head of a country (in this case, the Byzantine emperor) should also be the head of that country‚Äôs religion.  This idea is most closely connected with the Byzantine Empire.  In that empire, the emperor was also the head of the Orthodox Church.  He had the power, for example, to appoint the Patriarchs of the church.  This increased the power of the emperor because he had control of the spiritual institutions of the empire, not just the secular ones.  He could use his power to make sure that the teachings of the church would not undermine him in any way.  He could also use his control over the church to appoint people to high positions.  This gave him political power because it would allow him to have more ways to reward supporters by putting them in positions of power.

Thus, caesaropapism was an idea that increased the power of the Byzantine emperors.  It gave them control over the church, which helped them have secular power as well.  It also gave them an aura of divinity because they were also seen as the head of the church.  This further legitimated their power. 

See eNotes Ad-Free

Start your 48-hour free trial to get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

Get 48 Hours Free Access
Approved by eNotes Editorial