Marriages with Non-Christians in the Eastern Roman (‘Byzantine’) Empire

Byzantine law evolved from limited recognition of marriages between Orthodox and non-Orthodox individuals (including pagan) to a total prohibition of such marriages. The Basilics explicitly prohibited marriages only with Jews. Civil legislation evaded the question of marriages with pagans, apparently believing the direct prohibition of marriages with the non-Orthodox, in the 72nd rule of the Council of Trullo (692), was sufficient. Such marriages, regardless of whether the non-Orthodox was husband or wife, were considered a criminal cohabitation, because “one should not connect incompatible, combining the wolf with the sheep”.


However, in practice, such prohibitions were not always strictly observed. Canon law contained an authoritative contrary view authorizing marriages between Christians and infidels. It was based on the statement of the apostle Paul who admitted marriages in which one spouse was Christian and the other not if the spouses agreed to live together: “For the unbelieving husband is sanctified by the wife, and the unbelieving wife is sanctified by the husband: else were your children unclean; but now are they holy” (1 Cor. 7, 12–14). In other words, St. Paul saw in such unions at least partial sanctification of marriage, as well as, perhaps, a means to bring Christianity to the unbelieving spouse and children. In light of this contradiction, the prohibition on marriages with persons confessing other religions was not always observed, as is indicated by repetitive prohibitions of canonists in this respect, especially since the twelfth century.

A precedent was the decision of the patriarch Theodotos II (1151–54), who occupied the throne during the reign of Manuel I Komnenos. A certain imperial trumpeter (βυκινάτωρ/βουκινάτωρ), after he had converted to Christianity, was ordered to divorce his infidel wife who refused to heed the admonitions of her husband and to accept baptism. Judging by the fact that his wife was called “infidel” (ἀπίστου γυναικός), she and her husband were probably “Scythians” (Cumans). Belonging to the Armenians, Monophysites, Bogomils, or Anatolian Turks is less likely, because in these cases the source instead of ἄπιστος γυνή would likely have used either αἱρετικὴ γυνή, or Ἀγαρηνὴ/Ἀγαρηνικὴ γυνή. Balsamon in the end of the twelfth century and later Matthew Blastares in the fourteenth century referred to the decision of the patriarch Theodotos II as a precedent. Both canonists remembered that St. Paul allowed such marriages; however, St. Paul’s decision made sense only at the beginning of Christianity, while now such marriages had to be recognized as invalid.

Balsamon repeatedly mentions marriages between Christians and Hagarenes. In his interpretation of the 72nd rule of the Council of Trullo, as an example of unacceptable practices, he qualifies that of “Ivirons [Georgians], who without restrictions married off their own daughters to Hagarenes”. Indeed, Arabic, Persian, Turkic, and later Mongol names, which were widely spread in the Georgian milieu, indicated that marriages with Muslims in the Georgian lands had been the norm ever since the twelfth century.

The patriarch of Alexandria, Mark, asked Balsamon if it was allowed to administer communion to Orthodox women who were married to heretics and Saracens. Balsamon reiterated the 72nd rule of the Council of the Trullo, suggesting that these women could receive communion only after termination of unlawful cohabitation and their correction through penance. It is difficult to know which Christian women are meant here: those living in the territory of the empire or beyond. It seems, for the most part, those Orthodox women who lived in the Muslim Middle East and the Anatolian territories conquered by the Turks were implied. Orthodox women in the Muslim lands were frequently mentioned in the canonical literature of the time. It cannot be ruled out, however, that some precedents of marriages between Orthodox Byzantines and infidels may have taken place in the empire’s territories, where Muslim and pagan foreigners were always present.

Noteworthy in this respect is another answer of Balsamon to the patriarch Mark’s canonical question dealing with illegal cohabitation, i.e., fornication between Christians and Muslims. The question was worded as follows: “If an Orthodox gave himself to lewdness with a Jewish or Hagarene woman, must he be corrected by a penance or rebaptized?”. Balsamon answered that baptism was given only once in a lifetime and that a person desecrated by wickedness must be cleaned by an appropriate canonical punishment. It is evident here, as in the previous precedent, that the case could be applied to both Byzantine and Muslim territories.

In any case, the possibility of such marriages between Byzantines and infidels is testified by the practice of the Byzantine elite in the thirteenth to fifteenth centuries. The Palaiologoi and Grand Komnenoi concluded dynastic marriages with Turks and Mongols. For instance, in 1265 Michael VIII Palaiologos married his illegitimate daughter to the pagan Abaqa, while in 1346 John VI Kantakouzenos gave his legitimate daughter Theodora to the Muslim emir Orhan. However, if the Palaiologan dynastic marriages with Turkic and Mongol rulers were exceptional, in the Empire of Trebizond such marriages became the enduring and quite successful tool of imperial diplomacy. From the middle of the fourteenth to the mid-fifteenth century, at least eight despoinai, the daughters of the ruling emperors, were given to Muslims. Moreover, one of the emperors of Trebizond – John IV (1429–60) – was married to a certain Turkic lady who, however, most likely was first converted to Christianity. This was a specific practice of Trebizond, contrasting with the predominant Palaiologan tradition. In the precedent of Trebizond one may see a confirmation and some development of features noted by Balsamon: in the northeastern margins of the Byzantine Orthodox world, both Georgians and Pontic Greeks displayed a more liberal attitude to interfaith marriages. However, ideally the Byzantine legal system recognized Orthodoxy as the only legitimate religious affiliation for a subject and restricted communication between Orthodox subjects and infidels within and outside the space of the imperial jurisdiction. All sorts of infidels were subject to prosecution under civil law, while canon law, denying them the right to marry locals, denied them roots in society.

(Source: “The Byzantine Turks, 1204-1461”, by Rustam Shukurov)


Research-Selection for NovoScriptorium: Anastasius Philoponus

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