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Greek Icon : St. Photios
The Great
Born c. 820, Constantinople
Died February 6, 893, Bordi, Armenia
Venerated in Eastern Orthodoxy, Eastern Catholic Church
Feast February 6/19

Photios I (Greek: Φώτιος, Phōtios; c. 810 – c. 893) also spelled Photius or Fotios and known by the Eastern Orthodox churches as St. Photios the Great, was Patriarch of Constantinople from 858 to 867 and from 877 to 886. Photios is widely regarded as the most powerful and influential Patriarch of Constantinople since John Chrysostom, and as the most important intellectual of his time, "the leading light of the ninth-century renaissance".[1] He was a central figure in both the conversion of the Slavs to Christianity and the estrangement of the Eastern Orthodox churches from the Catholic Church.[2] Photios is recognized as a saint by the Eastern Orthodox churches.

Photios was a well-educated man from a noble Constantinopolitan family. He intended to be a monk, but chose to be a scholar and statesman instead. In 858, Emperor Michael III deposed Ignatius, Patriarch of Constantinople, and Photios, still a layman, was appointed in his place.[3] Amid power struggles between the Pope and the Emperor, Ignatius was reinstated.[3] Photios resumed the position when Ignatius died (877), by order of the Emperor.[3] A new pope approved Photios's reinstatement.[4] Catholics regard an Ecumenical Council anathematizing Photios as legitimate.[3] Eastern Orthodox regard a second council, reversing the first, as legitimate.[3] The contested Ecumenical Councils mark the end of unity represented by the first seven Ecumenical Councils.


Secular life

Most of the primary sources treating Photios' life are written by persons hostile to him. Modern scholars are thus cautious, when assessing the accuracy of the information these sources provide. Little is known of Photios' origin and early years. We do know that he was born into a notable family; his uncle Tarasios had been patriarch from 784–806 under both Irene and Nikephoros I.[5] During the second Iconoclasm his family suffered persecution since his father, Sergios, was a prominent iconophile. Sergios's family returned to favor only after the restoration of the icons in 842.[6] Certain scholars assert that Photios was, at least in part, of Armenian descent. Byzantine writers also report that Emperor Michael III once angrily called Photios "Khazar-faced", but whether this was a generic insult or a reference to his ethnicity is unclear.[7]

Although Photios had an excellent education, we have no information about how he received this education. The famous library he possessed attests to his enormous erudition (theology, philosophy, grammar, law, the natural sciences, and medicine).[8] Most scholars believe that he never taught at Magnaura or at any other university;[9] Vasileios N. Tatakis asserts that, even while he was patriarch, Photios taught "young students passionately eager for knowledge" at his home, which "was a center of learning".[8]

Photios says that, when he was young, he had an inclination for the monastic life, but instead he started a secular career. The way to public life was probably opened for him by (according to one account) the marriage of his brother Sergios to Irene, a sister of the Empress Theodora, who upon the death of her husband Theophilos in 842, had assumed the regency of the empire. Photios became a captain of the guard (prōtospatharios) and subsequently chief imperial secretary (protasēkrētis). At an uncertain date, Photios participated in an embassy to the Abbasids of Baghdad.[10]

Patriarch of Constantinople

Photios' ecclesiastical career took off spectacularly after Caesar Bardas and his nephew, the youthful Emperor Michael, put an end to the administration of the regent Theodora and the logothete of the drome Theoktistos in 856. In 858 Bardas found himself opposed by the then Patriarch Ignatios, who refused to admit him into Hagia Sophia, since it was believed that he was having an affair with his widowed daughter-in-law. In response, Bardas and Michael engineered Ignatios's deposition and confinement on the charge of treason, thus leaving the patriarchal throne empty. The throne was soon filled with a Bardas's kinsman, Photios himself; he was tonsured on December 20, 858, and on the four following days he was successively ordained lector, sub-deacon, deacon and priest. He was consecrated as Patriarch of Constantinople on Christmas.[11]

The deposition of Ignatios and the sudden promotion of Photios caused scandal and ecclesiastical division on an oecumenical scale as the Pope and the rest of the western bishops took up the cause of Ignatios. The latter's deposition without a formal ecclesiastical trial meant that Photios's election was uncanonical, and eventually Pope Nicholas I, as senior patriarch, sought to involve himself in determining the legitimacy of the succession. His legates were dispatched to Constantinople with instructions to investigate, but finding Photios well ensconced, they acquiesced in the confirmation of his election at a synod in 861. On their return to Rome, they discovered that this was not at all what Nicholas had intended, and in 863 at a synod in Rome the pope deposed Photios, and reappointed Ignatius as the rightful patriarch. Four years later, Photios was to respond on his own part, excommunicating the pope on grounds of heresy—over the question of the double procession of the Holy Spirit.[12] The situation was additionally complicated by the question of papal authority over the entire Church and by disputed jurisdiction over newly-converted Bulgaria. As Photius had been targeted by Pope Nicholas to be removed from his position and to be subjected to vitriol attacks with charges of ambition for power.[13]

This state of affairs changed with the murder of Photios' patron Bardas in 866 and of the emperor Michael in 867, by his colleague Basil the Macedonian, who now usurped the throne. Photios was deposed as patriarch, not so much because he was a protegé of Bardas and Michael, but because Basil I was seeking an alliance with the Pope and the western emperor. Photios was removed from his office and banished about the end of September 867, and Ignatios was reinstated on November 23. Photios was condemned by the Council of 869–870. During his second patriarchate, Ignatios followed a policy not very different from that of Photios.

Not long after his condemnation, Photios had reingratiated himself with Basil, and became tutor to the emperor's children. From surviving letters of Photios written during his exile at the Skepi monastery it appears that the ex-patriarch brought pressure to bear on the emperor to restore him. Ignatios's biographer argues that Photios forged a document relating to the genealogy and rule of Basil's family, and had it placed in the imperial library where a friend of his was librarian. According to this documents, the emperor's ancestors were not mere peasants as everyone believed but descendants of the Arsacid Dynasty of Armenia.[14] True or not this story does reveal Basil's dependence on Photios for literary and ideological matters. Following Photios's recall, Ignatios and the ex-patriarch met, and publicly expressed their reconciliation. When Ignatios died on October 23, 877, it was a matter of course that his old opponent replaced him on the patriarchal throne three days later. Shaun Tougher asserts that from this point on Basil no longer simply depended on Photios, but in fact he was dominated by him.[15]

Photios now obtained the formal recognition of the Christian world in a council convened at Constantinople in November 879. The legates of Pope John VIII attended, prepared to acknowledge Photios as legitimate patriarch, a concession for which the pope was much censured by Latin opinion. The patriarch stood firm on the main points contested between the Eastern and Western Churches, the demanded apology to the Pope, the ecclesiastical jurisdiction over Bulgaria, and the introduction of the filioque clause into the creed. Eventually Photios refused to apologize or accept the filioque, and the papal legates made do with his return of Bulgaria to Rome. This concession, however, was purely nominal, as Bulgaria's return to the Byzantine rite in 870 had already secured for it an autocephalous church. Without the consent of Boris I of Bulgaria, the papacy was unable to enforce its claims.

During the altercations between Basil I and his heir Leo VI, Photios took the side of the emperor. In 883 Basil accused Leo of conspiracy and confined the prince to the palace; he would have even blinded him had he not been dissuaded by Photios and Stylianos Zaoutzes, the father of Zoe Zaoutzaina, Leo's mistress.[16] In 886 Basil discovered and punished a conspiracy by the domestic of the Hikanatoi John Kourkouas and many other officials. In this conspiracy Leo was not implicated, but Photios was possibly one of the conspirators against Basil's authority.[17]

Basil died in 886 injured while hunting, according to the official story. Warren T. Treadgold believes that this time the evidence points to a plot on behalf of Leo, who became emperor, and dismissed Photios, although the latter had been his tutor.[18] He was replaced by the emperor's brother Stephen, and sent into exile to the monastery of Bordi in Armenia. It is confirmed from letters to and from Pope Stephen that Leo extracted a resignation from Photios. In 887 Leo was put on trial for treason, but no conviction against the ex-patriarch had been secured; the main witness, Theodore Santabarenos, refused to testify that Photios was behind Leo's removal from power in 883, and after the trial faced the emperor's wrath. As a persona non grata Photios probably returned to his enforced monastic retirement. Yet it appears that he did not remain reviled for the remainder of his life.[19]

Photios continued his career as a writer in the reign of Leo who probably rehabilitated his reputation within the next few years; in his Epitaphios on his brothers, a text probably written in 888, the emperor presents Photios favorably, portraying him as the legitimate archbishop, and the instrument of ultimate unity, an image that jars with his attitude to the patriarch in 886–887.[20] Confirmation that Photios was rehabilitated comes upon his death: according to some chronicles his body was permitted to be buried in Constantinople. In addition, according to the anti-Photian biographer of Ignatius, partisans of the ex-patriarch after his death endeavored to claim for him the "honor of sainthood". Further, a leading member of Leo's court, Leo Choirospaktes, wrote poems commemorating the memory of several prominent contemporary figures, such as Leo the Mathematician and the Patriarch Stephen, and he also wrote one on Photios.[21] Shaun Tougher notes, however, that "yet Photios's passing does seem rather muted for a great figure of Byzantine history [...] Leo [...] certainly did not allow him back into the sphere of politics, and it is surely his absence from this arena that accounts for his quiet passing."[22]

For the Eastern Orthodox, Photios was long the standard-bearer of their church in its disagreements with the pope of Rome; to Catholics, he was a proud and ambitious schismatic: the relevant work of scholars over the past generation has somewhat modified partisan judgments. All agree on the virtue of his personal life and his remarkable talents, even genius, and the wide range of his intellectual aptitudes. Pope Nicholas himself referred to his "great virtues and universal knowledge." It may be noted, however, that some anti-papal writings attributed to Photios were apparently composed by other writers about the time of the East-West Schism of 1054 and attributed to Photios as the champion of the independence of the Eastern Church.

The Eastern Orthodox Church venerates Photios as a saint; he is also included in the liturgical calendar of Eastern Catholic Churches of Byzantine Rite, though not in the calendars of other Eastern Catholic Churches. His feast day is February 6.


Photios is one of the most famous figures not only of the ninth-century Byzantium but of the entire history of the Byzantine Empire. One of the most learned men of his age, he has earned his fame due to his part in ecclesiastical conflicts, and also for his intellect and literary works[23] Analyzing his intellectual work, Tatakis regards Photios as "mind turned more to practice than to theory". He believes that, thanks to Photios, humanism was added to Orthodoxy as a basic element of the national consciousness of the Byzantines. Tatakis also argues that, having understood this national consciousness, Photios emerged as a defender of the Greek nation and its spiritual independence in his debates with the Western Church.[24] Adrian Fortescue regards him as "the most wonderful man of all the Middle Ages", and stresses that "had not given his name to the great schism, he would always be remembered as the greatest scholar of his time".[25]


The most important of the works of Photios is his renowned Bibliotheca or Myriobiblon, a collection of extracts and abridgments of 280 volumes of classical authors (usually cited as Codices), the originals of which are now to a great extent lost. The work is especially rich in extracts from historical writers.

There has been discussions on whether the Bibliotheca was in fact compiled in Baghdad at the time of Photius' embassy to the Abbasid court in Samarra in June 845, since many of the mentioned works - the majority by secular authors - seems to have been virtually nonexistent in both contemporary and later Byzantium. The Abbasids showed great interest in classical Greek works and Photius might have studied them during his years in exile in Baghdad.[26]

To Photios we are indebted for almost all we possess of Ctesias, Memnon of Heraclea, Conon, the lost books of Diodorus Siculus, and the lost writings of Arrian. Theology and ecclesiastical history are also very fully represented, but poetry and ancient philosophy are almost entirely ignored. It seems that he did not think it necessary to deal with those authors with whom every well-educated man would naturally be familiar. The literary criticisms, generally distinguished by keen and independent judgment, and the excerpts vary considerably in length. The numerous biographical notes are probably taken from the work of Hesychius of Miletus.

The Lexicon, published later than the Bibliotheca, was probably in the main the work of some of his pupils. It was intended as a book of reference to facilitate the reading of old classical and sacred authors, whose language and vocabulary were out of date. The only manuscript of the Lexicon is the Codex Galeanus, which passed into the library of Trinity College, Cambridge.

His most important theological work is the Amphilochia, a collection of some 300 questions and answers on difficult points in Scripture, addressed to Amphilochius, archbishop of Cyzicus. Other similar works are his treatise in four books against the Manichaeans and Paulicians, and his controversy with the Latins on the Procession of the Holy Spirit. Photios also addressed a long letter of theological advice to the newly-converted Boris I of Bulgaria. Numerous other Epistles also survive.

The chief contemporary authority for the life of Photios is his bitter enemy, Niketas David Paphlagon, the biographer of his rival Ignatios.


Troparion (Tone 4)

Follower of the Apostles' way
And teacher of mankind:
Intercede, O Photius, with the Lord of all,
To grant peace to the world
And to our souls great mercy!

See also


  1. A. Louth, Greek East, 159; C. Mango, Byzantium, 168
  2. W.T. Treadgold, Review, 1100
  3. 3.0 3.1 3.2 3.3 3.4 "Photius." Cross, F. L., ed. The Oxford dictionary of the Christian church. New York: Oxford University Press. 2005
  4. Durant, Will. The Age of Faith. New York: Simon and Schuster. 1972. p. 529
  5. Photios, Epistola II, CII, 609
    * S. Tougher, The Reign of Leo VI, 68
  6. S. Tougher, The Reign of Leo VI, 68
  7. D.M. Dunlop, History of the Jewish Khazars, 194; A. Fortescue, The Orthodox Eastern Church, 146-147
  8. 8.0 8.1 V.N. Tatakis, Byzantine Philosophy, 102
  9. C. Mango, Byzantium, 168-169; W.T. Treadgold, Review, 1100
  10. I. Plexidas, Introduction, 17; J. Shepard, Spreading the World, 235
  11. S. Tougher, The Reign of Leo VI, 69
  12. A. Fortescue, The Orthodox Eastern Church, 147-148; A. Louth, Greek East and Latin West, 171; S. Tougher, The Reign of Leo VI, 69
  13. East and West: The Making of a Rift in the Church : from Apostolic Times Until the Council of Florence pg 146 By Henry Chadwick Published by Oxford University Press, 2003 ISBN 0199264570, 9780199264575[1]
  14. W. Treadgold, History of the Byzantine State, 457
  15. S. Tougher, The Reign of Leo VI, 70-71
  16. W. Treadgold, History of the Byzantine State, 460
  17. V.N. Vlyssidou, Nicholas Mystikos' Deposition, 33
  18. W. Treadgold, History of the Byzantine State, 461
  19. S. Tougher, The Reign of Leo VI, 84
  20. S. Tougher, The Reign of Leo VI, 85-86
  21. S. Tougher, The Reign of Leo VI, 87-88
  22. S. Tougher, The Reign of Leo VI, 88
  23. A Louth, Greek East and Latin West, 171; S. Tougher, The Reign of Leo VI, 68
  24. V.N. Tatakis, Byzantine Philosophy, 103
  25. A. Fortescue, The Orthodox Eastern Church, 138
  26. Gutas, Greek Thought, Arabic Culture; Jokisch, Islamic Imperial Law (2007), with discussions on the earlier standpoints of Threadgold and Lemerle (pp 364-386)


External links

This page uses content from the English Wikipedia. The original article was at Photios I of Constantinople. The list of authors can be seen in the page history.