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  • Print publication year: 2011
  • Online publication date: June 2012



Caesaropapism The term ‘caesaropapism’ was coined in the late nineteenth century by western scholars to refer to the supremacy of the civil authority (viz., ‘Caesar’) over the Church in the Byzantine Empire and throughout Orthodox (especially Russian) Christianity more broadly. Its aim was primarily contrastive: to distinguish the situation in the western Church, where the papacy was able to secure a high degree of autonomy in ecclesiastical matters, from that in the East, where the emperor effectively displaced the patriarch of Constantinople as the head of the Church. The sixth-century mosaic of the Byzantine imperial court in the Church of San Vitale in Ravenna is often cited as an illustration of this development, with the Emperor Justinian I (r. 527–65) in the centre, crowned with a halo, flanked by twelve attendants (including the local archbishop, standing well to the side), and performing the priestly function of carrying bread (or possibly the paten) for the Eucharist.

The roots of this imperial ascendancy in Byzantine ecclesiastical matters go back to the Emperor Constantine I (ca 275–337). Portrayed by Eusebius of Caesarea (ca 260–ca 340) in quasi-messianic terms for his support of the Church, Constantine set a precedent followed by successors like Justinian in convening and chairing the first ecumenical council at Nicaea. At the same time, the fact that Byzantine theologians like Theodore the Studite felt it appropriate to criticize the imperial attempts to decide (rather than simply to enforce) orthodox teaching shows that imperial claims to full authority in Church affairs were not uncontested.

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