Constantinople of emperors and Rome of popes in 6th-8th centuries

Here we present selected parts of the very interesting paper “Constantinople of emperors and Rome of popes in 6th-8th centuries: dialogue and separation“, Procedia – Social and Behavioral Sciences 236 ( 2016 ) 327 – 332, by Maria Grafova.

From the first centuries of Christianity the Western and Eastern Christian world felt they were different; they differed by language and mentality. Since the 5th-6th centuries Rome and Constantinople had been in a unique situation. On the one hand, Constantinople actually became the capital of the Empire, having concentrated the power and strength. Rome became a distant province lapsing into barbarism, which, like the whole Latin West, had to attain to the high standards of wealth, culture and taste set by Byzantium.


Since the 6th-7th centuries, out of all members of Justinian pentarchy, which was the union of the five main patriarchal Sees, only Rome and Constantinople had remained unconquered by Muslims (Meiendorf, 2005), and the older Rome had more spiritual authority as the seat of St. Peter, but the younger Constantinople dominated in terms
of political and economic potential. The dialogue between the West and the East was basically carried on by Rome and Constantinople as long as the latter had retained its status of the Christian capital of the empire.

(…) Roman frescoes, whose style and composition reveal dialogue and interaction between the two cultures, belong to this period (6th to 8th centuries). The task of the article is to analyze this material which, as of present, has been little used in the study of the iconoclasm era in a broader historical and philological context. The innovative aspect of the research is an attempt at making use of such artistic sources as 6th-8th c. Roman frescoes in the historical study. The history of political and theological controversy between Rome and Constantinople, as well as the artistic influence of late classical art in its early Byzantine version on the Roman tradition of painting can be traced on the basis of this material. The very issue of constructing relationships and finding reference points between cultures, related, yet distinct in the light of objective historical conditions, is itself interesting and relevant.


It is the time when paintings of an entirely different type of expression appear at the background of the Roman artistic tradition time and interact with it. Their style is clearly associated with the art of classical antiquity, whose continuity had been broken on the Roman soil long ago.

(…) The history of the Roman state for many centuries was endless expansion. And yet, at a certain point the empire began to crumble under pressure of circumstances which may be equally seen as political, social, and global demographic. Initially, Constantinople was never intended as a rival to Rome. The new capital was designed to increase the power and glory of the unified Roman Empire (Dagron, 1974).

Even before the barbaric conquests separated Italy from the Eastern Roman Empire for long, the separation process had been perceptible both in the East and the West. One of the clearest indicators of increasing alienation was gradual growth of the language barrier. In the West, Greek was almost forgotten and Latin was artificially maintained as the formal language of the empire in the East (Ostrogorsky, 2011), although it was still spoken by family members of the senatorial aristocracy that had moved to Constantinople. However, from the Byzantine point of view, the lost territories of the empire remained an inalienable part of it and returning them was considered a sacred duty (Ostrogorsky, 2011).


The 6th century saw crucial events in the history of relations between Rome and Byzantium that seemed to change the vector of their development. After the death of Theodoric the Great, King of the Ostrogoths, who sympathized with the members of old Roman families and had them involved in the management of his domain (Von Falkenhausen, 1982), a dynastic strife began, and Justinian considered it to be the best time for a successful reclaim of the Italian territory.

(…) Pope Gregory the Great (590-604), a prominent politician and church leader, was a staunch proponent of Latin. For example, having spent many years as an apocrisiarius (a permanent representative of the papal curia) in Constantinople, he never learnt Greek well (apparently, on purpose) and once did not respond to a letter of a noble Byzantine lady who wrote in Greek, although she was of Latin origin (Berschin, 1980). It is
significant that nearly all secular correspondents of the 850 surviving letters of Gregory the Great lived in Constantinople or Sicily, but wrote to him in Latin (Von Falkenhausen, 1982). By the end of the 6th century, there was so much non-assimilated old Roman nobility in Constantinople that even the unfortunate Emperor Mauritius, being a native of Cappadocia, claimed that he came from an old Roman family, following the fashion. Many of these families moved away from the turbulent Rome and especially from the Lombards, to the south, to their Sicilian domains, and most typically, to Constantinople in the 6th century (Von Falkenhausen, 1982). And yet, even in the early 7th century it was a matter of communication between parts of a single old senatorial class, now divided
between the old and the new capitals. By the end of the century the situation changed radically.

(…) As early as in the first half of the century Italy had gone from the foreground of the Byzantine politics, after the Arabian invasion. It was at that point that Greek became the official language of the empire, and the old Roman aristocracy had to assimilate. Sources from Byzantium and Rome have little awareness of each other, except as far as any dispute between the Pope, the Patriarch and the Emperor is involved (Von Falkenhausen, 1982). The most notorious of these disputes of the 7th century was the debate about monothelitism, a theological doctrine which was the imperial power’s attempt to find a
compromise solution to the dispute that divided the supporters of Chalcedonian Orthodoxy and Monophysites who comprised most of the Christians of the East (e.g. Ullmann, 2003). As a result of the conflict, Pope Martin was displaced by the Emperor’s orders and died in exile as a confessor.

Not only was Constantinople still keenly watching its formal prerogatives in Rome, it also was able to have its will for the time being. However, it was probably the empire’s last efficient intervention in the life of what later became Papal State. After this incident the two sides had diligently maintained parity for some time: the relationship of the Pope and the Emperor remained, in general, formally polite. Emperor Constans II, whose discord had proved so costly to Pope Martin, even made a pious visit to Rome in the second half of the 60s. However, when at the end of the 7th century the messenger of the Emperor Justinian II arrived in Rome to urge the Pope to clarify some controversial theological questions, the latter had to rescue the envoy from an infuriated mob that threatened to kill him (Noble, 1984).


(…) Life in Italy also changed. Since the time of Gregory the Great, Papacy was being established as the de facto principal source of power on the Apennine peninsula. This process of power accumulation started by the 5th century and had a completely objective basis: Church appropriated many of the most important functions previously incumbent on the Empire, such as, for example, public charity (Noble, 1984). It happened, in general, for a simple reason: there was no other institution to perform them. By the end of the 7th century political, social and economic leadership in Italy had been transferred to the new military aristocracy, whose wealth, family connections and careers were linked with the interests of local communities, and was not necessarily identified with the imperial
aristocracy (Noble, 1984). Proficiency in both languages was apparently so rare at that time that the Liber Pontificalis highlights knowledge of Latin and Greek among special virtues of Pope Leo II (682-683), despite the fact that Leo was ethnically Greek (Berschin, 1980).

(…) in the first half of the 8th century, the most important thing for any pope, whoever he was by birth, were the interests of Rome. Therefore, even the proclamation of the iconoclastic policy by the Byzantine emperor itself did not prevent acts of political cooperation between the Popes and Constantinople, although it caused protests from the Papacy. If it was profitable, they would put up with heretical policies of Constantinople, and if the Emperor demanded, for example, too many taxes, protests and uprisings would start (Von Falkenhausen, 1982). It was only after the middle of the 8th century that concerns of the impertinence of the heretic Emperor’s claims raised, when there emerged an urgent need to protect the Papal State from the Lombards. Byzantium helped with advice at best, but Pipin, King of the Franks, provided actual help, that is why the Pope made a bet on the Franks and their protection. Now they openly designated their breaking-off with Byzantium that proved to be useless for solving their problems, the much more so that they had the excuse of the iconoclastic heresy at hand. In the documents of the Roman Chancery, the name of iconoclast emperor Constantine is only mentioned before the year 772. From 781 on, the emperor’s name was replaced by the name of the Pope, that is, Adrian I. But even before the death of Constantine in 775, the coins minted in Rome had the profile-view bust and the name of the Pope (Von Falkenhausen, 1982).


(…) Early Middle Ages are relatively poor in written sources. Thus data which can be obtained from unconventional source material, for example, art, is especially valuable. Firstly, this option is more habitual to a historian, and can be considered from both historical and archaeological point of view. The iconography, composition, selection of
saints, donor portraits and inscriptions can be very informative. The 6th-8th century Roman art bears many interesting implications about the dialogue, or rather, dispute between Constantinople and Rome. Given how little of Rome’s early medieval monumental art has survived, the fact that many of the extant artworks bear clear polemical, as well as theological and political connotations, suggests that this component was very important.

(…) in the 7th-8th centuries Rome (and Constantinople) the opinions of authorities on political and theological differences (which at that time were almost synomymic) were often expressed through art.

(…) The dialogue of Western and Eastern Christianity may be traced by using purely artistic material as a historical source. Since Late Antiquity, Rome had a distinct tradition of painting whose main features can be characterized, basically, as a taste for rigid shapes, stylized outlines, exaggerated details, intense colors.

(…) All this is at odds with the traditional Greek orientation towards reproducing ideal, harmoniously balanced shapes and elaborate rendition of colour and air. This “hellenizing” trend was transferred to the Constantinople soil, but in Rome, it had been lost for about two hundred years. Yet at some point during the second half of the 6th century or at the beginning of the 7th century frescoes appeared in Rome, the closest parallels to which can be seen only in late antiquity.


(…) In general, what is undeniable is that a wave of high-quality hellenized art arose in the rather barbaric early medieval Rome during the Byzantine conquest. By the mid-8th century – the time of strong political disengagement of Rome and Constantinople – there
were, one may safely assume, no monuments of this tradition in Rome anymore. Roman artistic tradition continued to evolve following its own inherent laws, but the direct impact or admixture from the Hellenistic tradition in its Byzantine form never happened again.

(…) Artwork sources are considered from both historical and archaeological point of view: while few frescoes of this era survive in Rome, some of them clearly express political and theological positions. This understanding of art as a means of dialogue is rather explicit and needs historical and iconographic analysis for its identification and
interpretation. Our analysis shows that painting was frequently and persistently used to highlight the position of the papal Rome in disputes with Constantinople.

(…) Frescoes of the 6th-7th centuries in Rome which obviously look like frescoes of the Late Antiquity at the level of methods and techniques, are the continuation of an authentic tradition preserved in Constantinople and brought back to Rome through the Byzantine influence. There had been nothing of the kind in Rome for a long time, which precludes the possibility of local imitation. Therefore samples of “antique-like” painting preserved in Rome from 6th-8th centuries are also a kind of historical evidence. Moreover, it was not so much political and theological dialogue between Rome and Constantinople as cultural.

Research-Selection: Anastasius Philoponus

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