Saint Cyril and Saint Methodius

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Saint Cyril and Saint Methodius

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2203

Article abstract: Through their spiritual commitment, Cyril and Methodius expanded Christianity in central and eastern Europe and established the foundations of Slavic culture and literature with the development of the Glagolitic alphabet.

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Early Lives

The brothers Constantine (Cyril was a religious name taken just before his death) and Methodius were born in the Greek city of Thessalonica (modern Salonika). At the time, Thessalonica was the second most important city of the Byzantine Empire and the provincial capital of the region to the west of Constantinople. Their father Lev (Leo) was a high-ranking military officer in the province and a man of some importance; he was known at the imperial court in Constantinople. Of the two brothers, Constantine, the younger, was the more gifted intellectually and socially. Certainly, he was better known. Methodius, by contrast, functioned in Constantine’s shadow until after the latter’s death in 869, despite his own considerable talents and intelligence. This lesser position is suggested by the facts that much more has been written about the early life of Constantine than has been about that of Methodius and that whenever their activities are discussed, Constantine is always cited first.

Following the death of his father in 841, Constantine was sent to Constantinople, where he became the protégé of Theoctistus, the legothete or imperial chancellor to the Byzantine empress Theodora. Impressed with Constantine’s intellectual and linguistic capabilities, Theoctistus arranged for him to study at the imperial court academy. There Constantine studied philosophy and theology under the tutelage of Photius, the most important Byzantine philosopher and theologian of his time and a future patriarch of Constantinople. By 849, Constantine had acquired not only a reputation as an outstanding scholar of philosophical and theological matters but also the exalted title “Philosopher.”

Cognizant of Constantine’s extraordinary skills, Theoctistus sought to utilize those talents for the empire by offering him a place at the imperial court and marriage to his adopted daughter. Constantine, however, spurned these worldly opportunities and opted instead for a life of spiritual piety. Undaunted, Theoctistus proposed to ordain Constantine as a deacon in the Church and to appoint him to the office of chartophylax (librarian) or secretary to Ignatius, the last of the Byzantine iconoclastic patriarchs. Although initially accepting this offer, because of his disagreement with Ignatius’ iconoclast policies, Constantine mysteriously disappeared. Finally, in 850, he was named professor of philosophy at the imperial academy where he had previously studied. He was only twenty-three years of age. Constantine remained at the academy until 855, when he retired to join Methodius in a monastery on Mount Olympus, near the Sea of Marmora in northwestern Turkey, which was the center of monastic life in the ninth century.

As to Methodius, very little is known of his early life. There are only brief references to his activities prior to 863; nothing exists to illuminate his formative years or his education. It is recorded, however, that he did serve as a provincial governor in the region where he was born. Despite this eminent position, however, Methodius tired of the vicissitudes of worldly life. He became a monk and entered a monastery on Mount Olympus, where he would be joined by Constantine.

Life’s Work

Constantine and Methodius’ main achievement centers on their activities among the Great Moravians of central Europe between 863 and 885. The focus of this effort was primarily religious and linguistic in that they sought to develop a Slavonic liturgy and to train an ecclesiastical hierarchy to support the emerging Christian church in Moravia. From the outset, their work was enmeshed in the religious and political rivalries involving the Byzantines, the German Franks, and the Papacy during the ninth century. Despite these difficulties, the brothers achieved their goals; their success gave rise to the later appellation “Apostles to the Slavs.”

In 862, Rostislav, the King of Great Moravia, appealed to the Byzantine Emperor Michael III for a group of missionaries to develop a liturgy and to train an ecclesiastical hierarchy for Moravia. In making this petition, Rostislav specifically requested the inclusion of Constantine and Methodius, since their reputations as scholars and linguists had spread well beyond Byzantium. Although Rostislav couched his plea to Michael in religious terms, he was motivated by his own political interests. At issue was his desire to reduce or even eliminate the influence of the Bavarian Franks in his kingdom, since their presence threatened Moravian independence. To achieve this goal, however, Rostislav needed to reduce Moravian dependence upon the Franks’ ecclesiastical leadership. For their part, the Byzantines were not oblivious to the political and religious advantages of Rostislav’s overture. It offered the prospect for expansion of the Byzantine rite into central Europe, where Rome and Constantinople were rivals for religious authority. At the same time, it presented an opportunity to forge an alliance with Moravia against Bulgaria, whose activities threatened Byzantium. Such were the circumstances confronting Constantine and Methodius as they began their Moravian mission.

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Upon arriving in Moravia in 863, the apostles were warmly received by Rostislav. Before they could begin their work, however, it was necessary to overcome the absence of a written Moravian language. To resolve this difficulty, Constantine turned his attention to the development of a Slavonic alphabet that would correspond to the spoken Slavonic language used by the Moravians. Constantine was well suited for this task; he was fluent in Slavonic since the language was common to Thessalonica.

To derive a Slavonic alphabet, Constantine used the letters of the Greek alphabet as a foundation. Spoken Slavonic, however, had numerous inflected sounds and diphthongs for which there were no Greek equivalents. Therefore Constantine was forced to create additional letters to represent the unique Slavonic sounds. The result was the Glagolitic alphabet, which became the basis for Old Slavonic or Church Slavonic and the precursor to the later Cyrillic alphabet. Constantine’s accomplishment meant that the Moravians now possessed the means to acquire their own liturgy and to educate an independent ecclesiastical hierarchy. The next four years saw the brothers translating critical elements of the Byzantine liturgy into the new Glagolitic script for this purpose. By the autumn of 867, their mission seemingly completed, the apostles departed from Moravia, returning to Constantinople with the new liturgy and a group of disciples who were candidates for ordination. Once ordained, these disciples were to return to Moravia and continue the work begun by Constantine and Methodius.

Unfortunately, the apostles never completed their journey to Constantinople; fate intervened in the form of an invitation from Pope Nicholas I to visit Rome. Turning toward Rome, the brothers intended to remain there briefly and then continue their journey to Constantinople. Instead, the Roman sojourn lasted more than two years and had a major impact on their work in Moravia. As in 863, the primary cause of this situation was the continuing rivalries in central Europe. Although Constantine and Methodius attempted to remain above these conflicts and intrigues, they could not escape the impact of events.

By the time the apostles arrived in Rome in late December, 867, or early January, 868, Nicholas was dead and Adrian II was the new pope. The brothers had accepted Nicholas’ invitation in part because they wished an opportunity to ordain the Moravian disciples. By doing that in Rome, the new clerics could return to Moravia and begin their work much sooner than had they proceeded to Constantinople. These hopes were quickly realized since Adrian approved not only the ordination but also Constantine’s Slavonic liturgy. Certainly the reputation of Constantine and Methodius contributed to Adrian’s decision. It is also possible, however, that Adrian sensed an additional political advantage for Rome. Granting a Slavonic liturgy and an ecclesiastical hierarchy for Moravia would neutralize Frankish influence there. Moreover, it afforded an opening for the extension of Roman ecclesiastical authority into the region by reversing the earlier rejection of Moravian requests for a religious mission from Rome, a rejection which had originally prompted the Byzantine mission.

Adrian’s actions marked the high point of the brothers’ stay in Rome as summer, 868, brought distressing news from Constantinople. Reports told of the overthrow and assassination of Michael III by his coruler, Basil I, in the previous September. No less disturbing was the deposing of Patriarch Photius and his replacement by the iconoclast Ignatius. The cause of these events was the conflict between Constantinople and the Papacy over Roman religious penetration of Bulgaria, a circumstance both Photius and Michael adamantly opposed. By removing the two men, the new leadership in Constantinople hoped to improve relations with Rome and to eliminate Roman influence in Bulgaria. The effect of the developments was to leave Constantine and Methodius in limbo. They were uncertain of their status in Constantinople and of the future of their work. Meanwhile, Constantine, already ill, continued to decline. He died in Rome on February 14, 869. Before he died, however, he became a monk and received the name Cyril in recognition of his new spiritual standing.

The burden of their work fell to Methodius. By now it was certain that he could not return to Constantinople, but he did not wish to see the work in Moravia disrupted. It was important, he believed, for the Slavs to have their own liturgy and ecclesiastical leadership. With this in mind, he accepted the appointment by Adrian to return to Moravia as papal legate. Methodius remained there until his death on April 6, 884. It was this final demonstration of spiritual concern that ensured the preservation of the Slavonic liturgy among the Slavic peoples.


In retrospect, the significance of the work of Cyril and Methodius was not confined to their activities in central Europe. Although their mission was a major factor in the development and expansion of Christianity among the Moravians and the other Slavic peoples that inhabited the region, the broader impact of the brothers was to the east in Bulgaria and Russia. The reason for this observation can be found in the historical events which transpired after the ninth century. First, Rome was able to assert its religious and ecclesiastical influence in central Europe. The effect was the latinization of these peoples culturally, linguistically, and liturgically. Byzantine influence, never really strong there, declined. Second, the disciples of Methodius, driven eastward in the late ninth and early tenth centuries, found refuge in Bulgaria, where their Glagolitic alphabet and Slavonic liturgy took root and flourished. During the next two centuries, these elements gave rise to a distinctive Slavic culture. For the first time in their history, the Slavs had a written language. In turn this language led to the evolution of a national literature in the form of hagiography and historical chronicles. The result was the emergence in Bulgaria of a Slavic unity where none had previously existed. In the twelfth century, the expansion of the Slavonic language and culture fostered a similar cultural and linguistic unity in Kievan Russia. Subsequently, this Slavic unity was transmitted to medieval Russia though the Russian Orthodox church and became one of the significant unifying forces of early Muscovite development. Thus, Cyril and Methodius richly deserve the appellation “Apostles to the Slavs.”


Alexander, Paul J. “The Papacy, the Bavarian Clergy, and the Slavonic Apostles.” The American Slavic and East European Review 1 (1941): 266-293. Alexander provides a concise analysis of the political and religious rivalries, conflicts, and intrigues surrounding the mission of Constantine and Methodius in Moravia.

Duichev, Ivan, ed. Kiril and Methodius, Founders of Slavic Writing: A Collection of Sources and Critical Studies. Translated by Spass Nikolev. New York: Columbia University Press, 1985. Contains a tenth century hagiography on the life and acts of Cyril by a probable disciple of Methodius. Also includes an encomium or eulogy by the same author on the death of Methodius.

Dvornik, Francis. Byzantine Missions Among the Slavs: SS. Constantine-Cyril and Methodius. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1970. The standard work on the activities of Constantine and Methodius among the Slavs by the leading scholar of Slavonic and Byzantine church history. It represents a major reinterpretation of earlier scholarship, including that of the author, and is coupled with supporting appendices, an exhaustive bibliography, and an index.

Dvornik, Francis. “Sts. Cyril and Methodius in Rome.” St. Vladimir’s Seminary Quarterly 7 (1963): 20-30. A detailed discussion of the events and circumstances surrounding the stay of Cyril and Methodius in Rome. Also discussed is the impact of these events and circumstances on the Moravians after 868.

Dvornik, Francis. “The Significance of the Missions of Cyril and Methodius.” Slavic Review 23 (1964): 195-211. A carefully developed discussion of the religious and cultural impact of the Byzantine mission on Moravia and Bulgaria.

Dvornik, Francis. The Slavs: Their Early History and Civilization. Boston: American Academy of Arts and Sciences, 1956. A broad general history of the Slavic people, from their origins to the mid-thirteenth century, which focuses on all aspects of their development. Also included are maps, an extensive bibliography organized by chapters, and an index.

Kantor, Marvin, and Richard S. White, trans. The Vita of Constantine and the Vita of Methodius. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1976. A complete and authenticated primary source on the lives of Cyril and Methodius which has been translated from the earliest extant and verified manuscripts. The introduction and commentaries are most helpful for an understanding of the actual textual material, which is presented in hagiographical form.

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