For I have done your bidding, I have
slain mine enemies in your name. I have put women and
children to death in your honour, I have caused great
pain among them, for your glory.
one of the branches of the Christian Church became the official
Church of the Roman Empire, the Emperor soon became its official
head. He occupied a position as a sort of supreme patriarch
among patriarchs, and supreme bishop among bishops. On 27 February
380, the Emperor Theodosius I formally established Nicene Christianity
as the state church of the Roman Empire with the Edict of Thessalonica.
From now on, this one form of Christianity would be the sole
permissible religion Justinian definitively established a system
of church government, now called Caesaropapism, believing "he
had the right and duty of regulating by his laws the minutest
details of worship and discipline, and also of dictating the
theological opinions to be held in the Church". 1
The Emperor exercised absolute control over the Church just
as he exercised absolute control over the state, and it was
not long before the arrangement was confirmed by declaring the
Emperor to be infallible. For many centuries it was accepted
Christian doctrine that the Emperor was the head of the Christian
Church - Pontifex Maximus and Bishop of Bishops, that senior
churchmen could be appointed by him, or at least appointed with
his approval, that he alone convoked and presided over Universal
Church Councils, that he enjoyed privileged direct communication
with God, and that he was able to declare doctrine without reference
to anyone else. Emperors such as Basiliscus, Zeno, Justinian
I, Heraclius, and Constans II convoked councils to issue the
edicts they had written, and in some cases they issued edicts
themselves without reference to Church council or anyone else.
The Emperor protected and favoured the Christian Church, and
managed its administration. He not only appointed Patriarchs,
but also set the territorial boundaries of their Patriarchies.
The system of Caesaropapism extended throughout Christendom.
At this time The Western ("Roman Catholic") Church
was still one of the Patriarchies of the Orthodox Church, and
was subject to caesaropapism just as much as the Eastern patriarchies.
Bishops of Rome often took advantage of disputes between the
East and West to try to escape from the power of the Emperor
based in Constantinople, but without success. When the Emperor
Justinian I reconquered the Italian peninsula in the Gothic
War (535-554) he reestablished traditional arrangements, and
appointed the next three bishops of Rome. This practice was
continued by his successors and was later delegated to the Exarch
of Ravenna. Once again, popes required the approval of the Byzantine
Emperor for their Episcopal consecration, and a long string
of them were appointed from the East. With the exception of
Pope Martin I, none of the 33 popes during this period questioned
the authority of the Byzantine monarch to confirm the election
of the bishop of Rome before consecration could occur2,
and it is instructive to review what happened to Martin.
Martin I was consecrated without waiting for imperial approval.
He also convoked a purported Church Council on his own authority.
As a result, he was arrested by imperial troops, taken to Constantinople,
tried and found guilty of treason, and exiled to Crimea where
he died in 655. While he still lived a replacement pope, Pope
Eugene I was appointed to replace him.
After 752, the Emperor was not able to enforce the traditional
caesaropapal system, and soon the Papacy was finding ways the
exploit the power vacuum. Instead of the Church being subject
the Emperor, it would be much better for the Western Church
to have the Empire being subject to the Bishop of Rome. This
was the occasion for the creation of a forgery known as the
Donation of Constantine. According to this eighth century forgery,
the Emperor Constantine had given the papacy supreme temporal
power, including the right to appoint Emperors. Church and State
were still one, but now the caesaropapal system was replaced
by a theocracy. All that was needed now was an unsuspecting
ruler to play the part of subordinate Emperor. Charles I, King
of the Franks and King of Italy, was duly crowned as a Holy
Roman Emperor in the year 800. Charlemagne, as he is better
known, became first emperor in western Europe since the collapse
of the Western Roman Empire three centuries earlier. A long
line of German successors were also considered to be Roman Emperors.
It is for this reason that up until 1918, the King of the Germans
was styled caesar, or in German, Kaiser.
The prerogatives of the real emperors still resident in Constantinople
in AD 800 were now claimed by the papacy. Now the Pope was Pontifex
Maximus and Bishop of Bishops. Now he was supreme head of the
Church. Now, he appointed Patriarchs and convoked Church Councils.
Now, he enjoyed direct communication with God. Now, his opinions
were infallible. Of course, the Eastern Emperor and his patriarchs
immediately saw the imposture, but they were powerless to react.
Soon, the Kings and nobles of Europe would feel the implications
too. For centuries they had regarded Church offices as their
personal possessions, to be awarded as gifts, bribes and prizes.
Normal practice had been for a ruler to appoint his second son
to the local bishopric. Soon the Church would be preventing
rulers from appointing their own nominees, and reserving this
lucrative practice to the Church. This so-called "investiture
controversy" was in fact a number of controversies spread
across Christendom, over many centuries.
On the left a coin of Caesar Augustus.
27 B.C. - A.D. 14: Lugdunum (Lyon) mint.
On the right a coin of Pope Leo XIII
They both bear the abreviation PONT MAX, standing for
- one of many examples of popes apropriating imperial
The first controversy arose because in practice the new Emperors
soon became more powerful than popes, and much preferred a version
of the traditional arrangement where Emperors appointed puppet
popes, rather than the new arrangement, which they correctly
suspected of being fraudulent, where popes appointed puppet
emperors. A crisis was precipitated when a group within the
church appropriated the power of investiture from the Holy Roman
Emperor and handing it to the Church. This had not been possible
as long as the emperor maintained the physical power to appoint
and depose the pope, so a first step had been to remove the
papacy from the control of the emperor. An opportunity came
in 1056 when Henry IV became German king at the age of six years.
Churchmen seized the opportunity to take the papacy by force
while Henry was still a child and unable to react. In 1059 a
church council in Rome declared, with In nomine domini,
that members of the secular nobility could have no part in the
selection of popes. They created a new electoral college, the
College of Cardinals, made up entirely of church officials.
They now had a new alternative method of creating popes.
Bolstered by forgeries and his College of Cardinals, Pope Gregory
VII was soon in a position to assert his new authority against
the now adult emperor Henry IV. In 1075 Gregory claimed in his
Dictatus papae that the deposition of an emperor lay within
the sole power of the pope. The document declared that the Roman
church was founded by God alone and that papal power was the
sole universal power. A council held in the Lateran in February
the same year decreed that the pope alone could appoint or depose
churchmen or move them from see to see.
Fantasy recorded as fact. The Emperor
Constantine hands his tiara (phrygium) to Sylvester, Bishop
of Rome - ceding temporal power.
This fresco of the imaginary donation is in Santi Quattro
Coronati, Rome, and dates from 1246
Henry IV continued to appoint his own bishops and reacted to
Dictatus papae by sending Pope Gregory VII a letter in
which he withdrew imperial support. His letter started, "Henry,
king not through usurpation but through the holy ordination
of God, to Hildebrand, at present not pope but false monk".
It called for the election of a new pope. His letter ended,
"I, Henry, king by the grace of God, with all of my Bishops,
say to you, come down, come down, and be damned throughout the
ages." The situation was exacerbated when Henry IV installed
his chaplain, Tedald, as Bishop of Milan. Gregory responded
in 1076 by excommunicating Henry and purporting to depose him
as German king. Both King and Pope ended up humiliated in the
battles that followed. At one stage,Henry was forced to beg
forgiveness (a favourite theme in Catholic art). At another,
to save his life, Gregory VII called on his Norman allies who
rescued him in 1085. While doing this, the Normans sacked Rome,
causing the citizens to rise against Gregory. The pope was forced
to flee Rome and died soon afterwards. For the moment, the problem
was resolved, but Investiture controversies would continue for
centuries. The final compromise was that neither pope nor emperor
purported to have the right to appoint the other, and both accepted
that the other did have a right of veto over elections. So it
was that for centuries reigning popes held a right of veto over
the election of new emperors, and reigning emperors held a right
of veto over the election of new popes.
The Holy Roman Emperor Henry IV was at
one stage reduced to begging for mercy from Pope Gregory
Here he is, along with his wife and young son, being watched
by those inside the Pope's residence,, spending three
days barefoot in the snow at Canossa before the door is
opened to him.
In the Languedoc, investiture controversies provided a sub-text
to the crusade against the Cathars
in the first half of the thirteenth century. Assisted by the
might of crusaders, the traditional practice of noblemen appointing
family members to bishoprics was replaced by a new practice
of papal nominations. Soon the French Kings would be challenged
in a similar way, but the immediate challenge was overcome by
the expedient of imposing a distinctively French form of caesaropapism,
where French Kings appointed a string of seven puppet Popes
and kept them under a watchful royal eye, close at hand, in
Avignon. This was the period of the so-called Babylonian Exile
of the papacy which lasted from 1309 to 1376. Once the papacy
escaped French control, the French investiture controversy continued
up until the French Revolution.
The Palace of the Popes, in Avignon,
now in France
idea of caesaropapism had a clear appeal to anyone who stood
to benefit from it, and in different forms it appeared not only
in the French Church, but also Russian and English Churches.
Back in the East, the original form of caesaropapism continued
in Constantinople, with Byzantine Emperors heading and controlling
the Orthodox Church. When Constantinople fell to the Moslem
Turks in 1453, caesaropapism did not end. By 1554 it had been
revived, later to multiply into Greek, Cypriot and Russian variations.
Within the Greek Orthodox Church it morphed into a strange
new form of Caesaropapism inside the Ottoman Empire with a Muslim
Emperor (the Sultan) appointing the Orthodox Patriarch of Constantinople.
The Sultan was called Kayser-i-Rûm "Caesar
of Rome", while the Patriarch was the millet-bashi
(Ethnarch) of the Millet of Rûm. Under the Sultan,
the Patriarch administered a separate Orthodox legal system,
based on Justinian's code, enjoying the power to fine, imprison
and exile. This system continued until 1923, and even today
the Patriarch retains control over Mount Athos, more properly
known as the "Autonomous Monastic State of the Holy Mountain".
Another caesarolopalist system survived even longer in Cyprus.
When Michail Christodolou Mouskos became Archbishop Makarios
III of Cyprus in 1950 his role was not only the head of the
Orthodox Church in Cyprus, but also the Ethnarch, the secular
leader of the country. This dual role survived up until his
death in 1977.
After it became clear that Constantinople would never be recovered
for Christendom, the Russian Orthodox Church adapted itself
to the new reality. Moscow was declared the "Third Rome"
- the third Christian capital after Rome and Constantinople.
At the same time Russian rulers became Emperors. They referred
to themselves as Caesars, or in the Russian form, Czars.
Ivan IV (Ivan the Terrible) formally assumed the title Czar
in 1547 and subordinated the Russian Orthodox Church to the
state, in imitation of the original Orthodox model. In 1721,
Peter the Great abolished the patriarchate and made the church
a department of government, copying the original model even
An Orthodox Bishop
wearing a distinctive mitre-crown
A Russian Czar,
also wearing a distinctive mitre-crown
In England, kings had always enjoyed jurisdiction over the
Christian Churches, both Celtic and Roman. This was made explicit
in law by the first line of Magna Carta:
In primis concessisse Deo et hac presenti carta nostra confirmasse,
pro nobis et heredibus nostris in perpetuum, quod Anglicana
ecclesie libera sit, ...
First, We have granted to God, and by this our present Charter
have confirmed, for Us and our Heirs for ever, that the Church
of England shall be free ...
The intention is ambiguous, but one fact is clear - the Church
of England was seen as the king's to dispose of as he wished
- it did not belong to pope; it did not even belong to God;
it belonged to the English Crown. For most of the time the question
of who owned the Church of England was academic as long as the
king and the pope shared common opinions. The question of caesaropapism
and investiture bubbled under the surface for many centuries,
erupting when kings appointed bishops of whom the pope did not
approve, or when popes appointed bishops of whom the king did
not approve, or when Archbishops of Canterbury fell out with
the King. The question had already exploded under King Henry
II when Henry had wanted Thomas Becket to reform the dysfunctional
application of Church Law in England. It exploded again under
King John over the appointment of Stephen Langton as Archbishop
of Canterbury (one of the factors that would lead to the creation
of Magna Carta). The question famously exploded once
again under King Henry VIII, when the question of supreme authority
over the church in England became critical. The king had no
difficulty in finding precedents to prove that he, and not the
pope, was the head of the Catholic Church in his own realm,
and that the Bishop of Rome had no authority there. Henry claimed
to enjoy direct communication with God, so as Supreme head of
the Church in England, he was able to determine Church doctrine
Of course, caesaropapism is now something of an embarrassment
to the Christian Churches, Orthodox and Catholic alike, and
to a lesser extent the Anglican Church as well. The idea that
God might give Emperors absolute jurisdiction over His Church,
and provide them with infallible doctrine is now widely regarded
as absurd. Consequently, historical examples are downplayed
by modern Churches. Most Christians are unaware that Caesaropapism
was part of standard Christian doctrine for many centuries,
nor that significant Christian doctrine was determined by lay
Emperors, some of whom had no understanding of theology and
all of whom tended to fix doctrine in accordance with their
own political interests. Neither the Orthodox nor Catholic Churches
are willing to publish a list of doctrines declared by infallible
Emperors, and much ink is dispensed by Christian apologists
in giving the impression that various forms of caesaropapism
were curious aberrations with no implications on Christian history.
Vestiges of caesaropapism have become ever more ethereal as
France, Russia, Germany, Turkey, and Cyprus successively became
republics, and the French caesar, Ottoman Kayser-i-Rûm,
Russian Csar, and German Kaiser were consigned
to history along with the Cypriot Ethnarch.
A Holy Roman Emperor tried to veto a papal election in the
early twentieth century, but now the Austro-Hungarian Empire
has gone too, along with any possibility of an emperor trying
that again. The only significant vestige today is the British
Monarch. British Kings and Queens are still Supreme Governors
of the Church of England, and they still undergo a special sort
of religious ordination and anointing during their coronation,
based on the anointing of Jewish priest-kings and early Christian
emperors. In practice the British monarch "rules"
the Church through Parliament and other organs of state. Questions
of doctrine such as the reality of hell are determined by the
Privy Council, so the Church of England is in reality a department
of state, just as the Orthodox Church was under the Christian
Emperors of Rome.