Empire of God: Conversion Propaganda in the Christian Roman Empire

(…) historical research has shown that Christianity on the Northern shores of the Black Sea did not take root until well after the time of the apostles. The first traces left to us point to the end of the third century, and the most ancient Christian inscriptions in South Russia are of the fourth. Among the martyrs of the persecution under Diocletian, we find the inhabitants of the Crimea town Kherson. The Bishop of Bosporus (=Kerch) was present at the Council of Nicaea in 325, so that several Christian Churches must have existed there at that time. In the course of the fourth century, Christianity becomes very strong on the Crimean Peninsula. We have quite a number of Christian relics from this period from Crimean Greek towns, the oldest of them a Kerch epitaph from 304. It was under the influence of the bishopric of Bosporus that the so-called Crimean Goths – who had settled down on the Peninsula about the middle of the third century and who had, as early as the beginning of the fifth century, a separate bishopric which was to play an important role in spreading orthodox Christian faith among barbarians in later centuries- had become Christians.’ Christianity had taken early root on the Eastern shores of the Black Sea also. A Christian gathering at Phasis dates back to the times of the apostles, and the bishop of the town Pityus was present at the Nicaean Council.


As a result of the Apostle Paul’s activity, a number of congregations had been formed in Asia Minor in the time of the apostles. On the Southern shores of the Black Sea Christianity had predominated as early as the second century, and its advanced outposts approached the foot of the Caucasus. From here its doctrines oozed into Armenia in the course of the first two centuries. The converting of the whole of the Armenian people was the work of Gregory the Illuminator. He baptized King Tiridates, who converted his people to the Christian religion about 285. The Armenian Church then spread the new faith among the neighboring peoples, so that the people of Georgia also became Christians. Thus Christianity reached the line of the Caucasus in the course of the fourth century.

In the fifth the work of conversion was for a while impeded by conflicts with the barbarians, but the next century saw great progress. Conversion-propaganda was an organic part of Emperor Justinian’s political conception, which aimed at restoring the Roman World Empire. The efforts to assure and expand the Eastern frontiers of the empire were the natural complements of the battles fought in the West. True to old Roman traditions, the Byzantine Empire strove to build up a system of vassal-states for the defense of its frontiers. The auxiliary troops provided by these peoples increased the defensive power of the Empire, and might besides be compelled to fight against other barbarian peoples. The policy of conversion, an indispensable element of the efforts to surround the Byzantine Empire by a whole chain of allied and Christianized “frontier states,” also served this defensive policy and imperialistic purpose. Thus the Byzantine missionaries were serving not only the Empire of God but also the Roman Empire which, in Byzantine opinion, meant the same thing. As a result of their activity, barbarian princes from remote countries came to the Byzantine Court to be baptized and overwhelmed with presents and distinctions from the Emperor, to return to their countries and there represent the Christian religion as well as the interests of the Byzantine Empire.


The people of the Lazis, who lived on the Eastern shores of the Black Sea, between ancient Colchis, on the river Phasis, and the Caucasus, had been converted as early as the reign of Justin I, the predecessor of Justinian. Their prince Tzathius had come to Constantinople in 522-523 to be baptized. The emperor gave him a wife of distinguished family, acknowledged him as sovereign of the Lazi, and provided him with the insignia of sovereignty. So the Lazi, previously under Persian political influence, now became the allies of Byzantium. Justinian had an old, mouldering Christian church restored in their country. Phasis became the episcopal residence of the new Christian country, and in the seventh century four bishoprics belonged to the Phasis metropolitanate.” The savage people of the Tzani, who were wedged in between the Lazi and the Byzantine Empire, were con- quered by the force of Justinian’s arms. After their defeat by the By- zantine army they yielded and became Christians. In his novella of 535, Justinian proudly refers to them as subjects of Byzantium.’ North of the Lazi, between the Caucasus and the Black Sea, lived the Abazgians, in whose country Christianity had taken root at an early period in the town of Pityus. But the conversion of the whole nation took place only in the time of Justinian. The Emperor sent to them Euphratas, a eunuch of Abazgian extraction, who, with some Byzantine priests, saw to the task of converting them. They adopted the Christian religion, drove away their heathen princes, and placed themselves under the protection of Byzantium. The Emperor had a church built for them and sent them priests. Abazgia became a stronghold of Christianity and took an active part in converting other peoples.’ Thus Christianity on its way to the North reached the Caucasus, and spread even to its northern slopes. According to apocryphal tradition it was the apostle Andrew who had planted the first seeds of the new creed among the Alans. According to Arabic and Armenian sources, Gregory the Illuminator had also obtained good results in converting them. As early as the sixth century, they are called Christians by a Byzantine authority, although the whole people seems to have been finally converted only at the end of the ninth century when the Abazgian prince had been efficiently supporting the work of Byzantine missionaries. But it is beyond doubt that at the beginning of the tenth century the prince of the Alans himself was a Christian and the High Priest was consecrated by the Patriarch of Constantinople.” The Zikhi lived north of the Abazgians by the furthermost hills of the Caucasus, on the shore of the Black Sea. Evidence for the spread of Christianity is provided by the fact that the bishop of Zikhia was present at the Council of Constantinople in 518 as well as at that of 536. His residence was the seaside town of Phanagoria on the Taman Peninsula. This bishopric was to do the work of converting the peoples living at the foot of the Caucasus and by the river Kuban.” Thus, about the middle of the sixth century, we meet Christian peoples everywhere on the Northern and Southern shores of the Black Sea.

But Byzantine Christianity reached the Eastern peoples not only by official organs of the orthodox Church. Its influence on them was rivalled by that of some heresies. The tremendous conquests made by the religion of the Manichaeans are generally known. Its followers were being persecuted in the fourth century when they fled in masses to the North, and, after arriving as far as Transoxania and Turkestan, they exercised a deep cultural influence on the local peoples and in the neighborhood. Through them Manichaeism reached even China. The heresy of the Nestorians was extended from Byzantium to Persia, and was supported by the Persian sovereigns against Byzantium. We know that Chosroes II, the Persian king, had the orthodox churches destroyed in his empire, and supported Nestorianism – by now spread in Middle and Northern Asia as well – with all his might, so that at the beginning of the seventh century Nestorian congregations are to be found even in China. The Nestorian heresy exercised a profound cultural influence of long standing on the Asiatic peoples.’


(…) According to known sources, the Huns came into contact with Christianity at the time they lived near the Caucasus. Their first missionaries were the Armenians whose apostle Gregory the Illuminator (+331) himself was spreading the new religion among the neighboring peoples and the Huns.” His work was continued by his grandson Gregory jun. who, on visiting the king of the Massagetae, leader of the Hun troops, died a martyr in 343. Armenian missionary work was not without good results, as seen from one of Jerome’s letters: “Hunni discunt psalterium.”‘ This early missionary work was continued. About 523, an Armenian bishop and his priests were spreading Christianity among the Huns and translated some parts of the Holy Scripture into the Hun language. Later (about 682) the bishop Izrael in Albania, by the Caspian Sea, pursued missionary work among the Caucasian Huns. He succeeded in converting them and their prince, and later on became their bishop.’ Other masses of Huns which were pressing forward to the West also came in contact with Byzantine Christianity. These, as we know, reached the Danube about the end of the fourth century, and their troops were, about 384, already pillaging and ransacking in Thrace. So it is not surprising when we read a Greek report that Theotimus, bishop of the Church of Tomi and of so-called Scythia, was looked upon by the Huns with such awe and admiration that they called him “the God of the Romans.” As seen from several miraculous contemporary stories, he tamed the wild, fierce Huns, and he probably won many of them for the Christian religion. Later, in Attila’s time, the Huns achieved even closer relations with Byzantium. Their envoys often turned up in Constantinople whereby they had – although sources make no special mention of it – ample opportunity to become acquainted with Christianity.

The new faith had apread also among the Turkish peoples living farther East of the Caspian. The iranizated Turks, the so-called White Huns, or Ephthalites, northeast of Persia, were Christians as early as at the end of the fifth century, and Nestorians at that. At their request the Syrian patriarch sent them priests in the middle of the sixth century. Cosmas Indicopleustes’ words in his work written about 547-49 (according to which the Huns had flourishing Christian churches in their country) probably refer to them.

These are not the only records of the success of Christianity among the Turks. According to Byzantine records, the Turks taken prisioners in 591 by Chosroes, the Persian king, and sent subsequently to his confederate Emperor Maurice, had the sign of cross incised upon their foreheads. In answer to questions as to the origin of these signs, the Turks explained that their mothers had been advised by Christians to tattoo the cross in their children’s skin in order to avoid their falling ill at the time of a devastating epidemic. The Christians from whom the Turks living north of Persia had learned to employ the cross were probably the converting Nestorian monks. Several remarkable contemporary records on the spread of Nestorian heresy among Turkish peoples are left to us, and one of them, a Syriac one, is particularly interesting. According to this text Elie, the metropolite of Merve, in 644 was about to baptize a Turk prince who, however, refused to let him do so unless he worked some miracles which the Turk priests (shamans) could not perform. When the shamans evoked the devil amid thunder and lightning, Elie, with help of the sign of the cross, stopped all these phenomena. This miracle had its due effect, and the prince as well as his people adopted the Christian religion.

Conversion activity was very successful everywhere among the peoples along the frontier of the Empire, and its influence was also felt among the “Huns” on the northern shores of the Black Sea. In sixth- century Byzantine records the word “Hun” is, as we know, a collective name including different Turkish peoples, as e.g., the Ogur tribes driven from the Ural towards the Caucasus and the Sea of Azov by the great stream of migration of the nations after the collapse of Attila’s empire. Thus when “Huns” living on this territory are mentioned, it means primarily the Ogurs, Utigurs, Cutrigurs, Onogurs and the Bulgars.

Many foreign elements are met with in the Byzantine Empire of the sixth century. The army was full of barbarians who fought partly in separate divisions, partly dispersed in Byzantine troops. As members of the Byzantine forces they were, of course, Christians. Beside the barbarians conquered, or taken prisoners and settled in the Empire in the course of wars, many foreigners voluntarly joined the Byzantine forces, and after being christened, often rose to high positions in the army or at the Imperial court. There were some Huns among them. Some Huns serving in the forces are even mentioned by their names in contemporary records, so for example Akum, “magister militum” of Illyricum in 536. He had been lifted from the baptismal font by Emperor Justinian himself, that is, the Emperor was his god- father.


But beside Christianizing the Huns living within the frontiers of the Empire, missionary work was very successful among the different Hun tribes on the northern shores of the Black Sea. Archeological finds constitute evidence for closer contact of the Cutrigurs with Byzantine Christianity.

(…) In Cosmas Indicopleustes’ work referred to above, mention is made of the Bulgars as one of the peoples with whom Christianity found welcome. This fact is affirmed in a later eastern record.’ The “Huns” – whose prince in 619 had come to Constantinople, where he was christened and where he attained the rank of patricius – are apparently to be identified with the Bulgars. This Hun prince was probably no other but Organa, whose nephew Kobrat, founder of “Great Bulgaria,” had spent his childhood at the Imperial court of Byzanium, where he became a Christian and a friend of the Emperor Heraclius. A similar case is recorded later, in the eighth century, when Telerig, prince of the Danubian Bulgars, had to flee from his country in 777. He went to Constantinople where Emperor Leo IV welcomed him cordially, became his godfather, made a patricius of him, and married him to a relative of his wife’s.

Summing up all these data, it may be established that traces of Christian Missionary activities among Turkish peoples are to be found everywhere on the territories between the Caspian and the Danube from the fourth to the eighth century. Among the Turkish peoples living east of the Caucasus, the heresy of the Manichaeans and Nestorians made conquests while the orthodox Church con- verted the “Huns” living North of the Caucasus and the northern shores of the Black Sea, and the Bulgars.

(Source: The very interesting paper “Byzantine Christianity and the Magyars in the period of their migration“, by Gyula Moravcsik)


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