By Roger Pearse

Photius of Constantinople, chief author of the great schism between East and West, was b. at Constantinople c. 815 (Hergenröther says “not much earlier than 827”, “Photius”, I, 316; others, about 810); d. probably 6 Feb., 897. His father was a spatharios (lifeguard) named Sergius. Symeon Magister (“De Mich. et Theod.”, Bonn ed., 1838, xxix, 668) says that his mother was an escaped nun and that he was illegitimate. He further relates that a holy bishop, Michael of Synnada, before his birth foretold that he would become patriarch, but would work so much evil that it would be better that he should not be born. His father then wanted to kill him and his mother, but the bishop said: “You cannot hinder what God has ordained. Take care for yourself.” His mother also dreamed that she would give birth to a demon. When he was born the abbot of the Maximine monastery baptized him and gave him the name Photius (Enlightened), saying: “Perhaps the anger of God will be turned from him” (Symeon Magister, ibid., cf. Hergenröther, “Photius”, I, 318-19). These stories need not be taken seriously. It is certain that the future patriarch belonged to one of the great families of Constantinople; the Patriarch Tarasius (784-806), in whose time the seventh general council (Second of Nicæa, 787) was held, was either elder brother or uncle of his father (Photius: Ep. ii, P. G., CII, 609). The family was conspicuously orthodox and had suffered some persecution in Iconoclast times (under Leo V, 813-20). Photius says that in his youth he had had a passing inclination for the monastic life (“Ep. ad Orient. et Oecon.”, P. G., CII, 1020), but the prospect of a career in the world soon eclipsed it.

He early laid the foundations of that erudition which eventually made him one of the most famous scholars of all the Middle Ages. His natural aptitude must have been extraordinary; his industry was colossal. Photius does not appear to have had any teachers worthy of being remembered; at any rate he never alludes to his masters. Hergenröther, however, notes that there were many good scholars at Constantinople while Photius was a child and young man, and argues from his exact and systematic knowledge of all branches of learning that he could not have been entirely self-taught (op. cit., I, 322). His enemies appreciated his learning. Nicetas, the friend and biographer of his rival Ignatius, praises Photius’s skill in grammar, poetry, rhetoric, philosophy, medicine, law, “and all science” (“Vita S. Ignatii” in Mansi, XVI, 229). Pope Nicholas I, in the heat of the quarrel writes to the Emperor Michael III: “Consider very carefully how Photius can stand, in spite of his great virtues and universal knowledge” (Ep. xcviii “Ad Mich.”, P. G., CXIX, 1030). It is curious that so learned a man never knew Latin. While he was still a young man he made the first draft of his encyclopædic “Myrobiblion”. At an early age, also, he began to teach grammar, philosophy, and theology in his own house to a steadily increasing number of students.

His public career was to be that of a statesman, coupled with a military command. His brother Sergius married Irene, the emperor’s aunt. This connexion and his undoubted merit procured Photius speedy advancement. He became chief secretary of State (protosekretis) and captain of the Life Guard (protospatharios). He was unmarried. Probably about 838 he was sent on an embassy “to the Assyrians” (“Myrobiblion”, preface), i. e., apparently, to the Khalifa at Bagdad. In the year 857, then, when the crisis came in his life, Photius was already one of the most prominent members of the Court of Constantinople. That crisis is the story of the Great Schism (see GREEK CHURCH). The emperor was Michael III (842-67), son of the Theodora who had finally restored the holy images. When he succeeded his father Theophilus (829-842) he was only three years old; he grew to be the wretched boy known in Byzantine history as Michael the Drunkard (ho methystes). Theodora, at first regent, retired in 856, and her brother Bardas succeeded, with the title of Cæsar. Bardas lived in incest with his daughter-in-law Eudocia, wherefore the Patriarch Ignatius (846-57) refused him Holy Communion on the Epiphany of 857. Ignatius was deposed and banished (Nov. 23, 857), and the more pliant Photius was intruded into his place. He was hurried through Holy Orders in six days; on Christmas Day, 857, Gregory Asbestas of Syracuse, himself excommunicate for insubordination by Ignatius, ordained Photius patriarch. By this act Photius committed three offences against canon law: he was ordained bishop without having kept the interstices, by an excommunicate consecrator, and to an already occupied see. To receive ordination from an excommunicate person made him too excommunicate ipso facto.

After vain attempts to make Ignatius resign his see, the emperor tried to obtain from Pope Nicholas I (858-67) recognition of Photius by a letter grossly misrepresenting the facts and asking for legates to come and decide the question in a synod. Photius also wrote, very respectfully, to the same purpose (Hergenröther, “Photius”, I, 407-11). The pope sent two legates, Rodoald of Porto and Zachary of Anagni, with cautious letters. The legates were to hear both sides and report to him. A synod was held in St. Sophia’s (May, 861). The legates took heavy bribes and agreed to Ignatius’s deposition and Photius’s succession. They returned to Rome with further letters, and the emperor sent his Secretary of State, Leo, after them with more explanations (Hergenröther, op. cit., I, 439-460). In all these letters both the emperor and Photius emphatically acknowledge the Roman primacy and categorically invoke the pope’s jurisdiction to confirm what has happened. Meanwhile Ignatius, in exile at the island Terebinth, sent his friend the Archimandrite Theognostus to Rome with an urgent letter setting forth his case (Hergenröther, I, 460-461). Theognostus did not arrive till 862. Nicholas, then, having heard both sides, decided for Ignatius, and answered the letters of Michael and Photius by insisting that Ignatius must be restored, that the usurpation of his see must cease (ibid, I, 511-16, 516-19). He also wrote in the same sense to the other Eastern patriarchs (510-11). From that attitude Rome never wavered: it was the immediate cause of the schism. In 863 the pope held a synod at the Lateran in which the two legates were tried, degraded, and excommunicated. The synod repeats Nicholas’s decision, that Ignatius is lawful Patriarch of Constantinople; Photius is to be excommunicate unless he retires at once from his usurped place.

But Photius had the emperor and the Court on his side. Instead of obeying the pope, to whom he had appealed, he resolved to deny his authority altogether. Ignatius was kept chained in prison, the pope’s letters were not allowed to be published. The emperor sent an answer dictated by Photius saying that nothing Nicholas could do would help Ignatius, that all the Eastern Patriarchs were on Photius’s side, that the excommunication of the legates must be explained and that unless the pope altered his decision, Michael would come to Rome with an army to punish him. Photius then kept his place undisturbed for four years. In 867 he carried the war into the enemy’s camp by excommunicating the pope and his Latins. The reasons he gives for this, in an encyclical sent to the Eastern patriarchs, are: that Latins

1. fast on Saturday
2. do not begin Lent till Ash Wednesday (instead of three days earlier, as in the East)
3. do not allow priests to be married
4. do not allow priests to administer confirmation
5. have added the filioque to the creed.

Because of these errors the pope and all Latins are: “forerunners of apostasy, servants of Antichrist who deserve a thousand deaths, liars, fighters against God” (Hergenröther, I, 642-46). It is not easy to say what the Melchite patriarchs thought of the quarrel at this juncture. Afterwards, at the Eighth General Council, their legates declared that they had pronounced no sentence against Photius because that of the pope was obviously sufficient.

Then, suddenly, in the same year (Sept. 867), Photius fell. Michael III was murdered and Basil I (the Macedonian, 867-86) seized his place as emperor. Photius shared the fate of all Michael’s friends. He was ejected from the patriarch’s palace, and Ignatius restored. Nicholas I died (Nov. 13, 867). Adrian II (867-72), his successor, answered Ignatius’s appeal for legates to attend a synod that should examine the whole matter by sending Donatus, Bishop of Ostia, Stephen, Bishop of Nepi, and a deacon, Marinus. They arrived at Constantinople in Sept., 869, and in October the synod was opened which Catholics recognize as the Eighth General Council (Fourth of Constantinople). This synod tried Photius, confirmed his deposition, and, as he refused to renounce his claim, excommunicated him. The bishops of his party received light penances (Mansi, XVI, 308-409). Photius was banished to a monastery at Stenos on the Bosphorus. Here he spent seven years, writing letters to his friends, organizing his party, and waiting for another chance. Meanwhile Ignatius reigned as patriarch. Photius, as part of his policy, professed great admiration for the emperor and sent him a fictitious pedigree showing his descent form St. Gregory the Illuminator and a forged prophecy foretelling his greatness (Mansi, XVI, 284). Basil was so pleased with this that he recalled him in 876 and appointed him tutor to his son Constantine. Photius ingratiated himself with everyone and feigned reconciliation with Ignatius. It is doubtful how far Ignatius believed in him, but Photius at this time never tires of expatiating on his close friendship with the patriarch. He became so popular that when Ignatius died (23 Oct, 877) a strong party demanded that Photius should succeed him; the emperor was now on their side, and an embassy went to Rome to explain that everyone at Constantinople wanted Photius to be patriarch. The pope (John VIII, 872-82) agreed, absolved him from all censure, and acknowledged him as patriarch.

This concession has been much discussed. It has been represented, truly enough, that Photius had shown himself unfit for such a post; John VIII’s acknowledgment of him has been described as showing deplorable weakness. On the other hand, by Ignatius’s death the See of Constantinople was now really vacant; the clergy had an undoubted right to elect their own patriarch; to refuse to acknowledge Photius would have provoked a fresh breach with the East, would not have prevented his occupation of the see, and would have given his party (including the emperor) just reason for a quarrel. The event proved that almost anything would have been better than to allow his succession, if it could be prevented. But the pope could not foresee that , and no doubt hoped that Photius, having reached the height of his ambition, would drop the quarrel.

In 878, then, Photius at last obtained lawfully the place he had formerly usurped. Rome acknowledged him and restored him to her communion. There was no possible reason now for a fresh quarrel. But he had identified himself so completely with that strong anti-Roman party in the East which he mainly had formed, and, doubtless, he had formed so great a hatred of Rome, that now he carried on the old quarrel with as much bitterness as ever and more influence. Nevertheless he applied to Rome for legates to come to another synod. There was no reason for the synod, but he persuaded John VIII that it would clear up the last remains of the schism and rivet more firmly the union between East and West. His real motive was, no doubt, to undo the effect of the synod that had deposed him. The pope sent three legates, Cardinal Peter of St. Chrysogonus, Paul, Bishop of Ancona, and Eugene, Bishop of Ostia. The synod was opened in St. Sophia’s in November, 879. This is the “Psuedosynodus Photiana” which the Orthodox count as the Eighth General Council. Photius had it all his own way throughout. He revoked the acts of the former synod (869), repeated all his accusations against the Latins, dwelling especially on the filioque grievance, anathematized all who added anything to the Creed, and declared that Bulgaria should belong to the Byzantine Patriarchate. The fact that there was a great majority for all these measures shows how strong Photius’s party had become in the East. The legates, like their predecessors in 861, agreed to everything the majority desired (Mansi, XVII, 374 sq.). As soon as they had returned to Rome, Photius sent the Acts to the pope for his confirmation. Instead John, naturally, again excommunicated him. So the schism broke out again. This time it lasted seven years, till Basil I’s death in 886.

Basil was succeeded by his son Leo VI (886-912), who strongly disliked Photius. One of his first acts was to accuse him of treason, depose, and banish him (886). The story of this second deposition and banishment is obscure. The charge was that Photius had conspired to depose the emperor and put one of his own relations on the throne—an accusation which probably meant that the emperor wanted to get rid of him. As Stephen, Leo’s younger brother, was made patriarch (886-93) the real explanation may be merely that Leo disliked Photius and wanted a place for his brother. Stephen’s intrusion was as glaring an offence against canon law as had been that of Photius in 857; so Rome refused to recognize him. It was only under his successor Antony II (893-95) that a synod was held which restored reunion for a century and a half, till the time of Michael Cærularius (1043-58). But Photius had left a powerful anti-Roman party, eager to repudiate the pope’s primacy and ready for another schism. It was this party, to which Cærularius belonged, that triumphed at Constantinople under him, so that Photius is rightly considered the author of the schism which still lasts. After this second deposition Photius suddenly disappears from history. It is not even known in what monastery he spent his last years. Among his many letters there is none that can be dated certainly as belonging to this second exile. The date of his death, not quite certain, is generally given as 6 February, 897.

That Photius was one of the greatest men of the Middle Ages, one of the most remarkable characters in all church history, will not be disputed. His fatal quarrel with Rome, though the most famous, was only one result of his many-sided activity. During the stormy years he spent on the patriarch’s throne, while he was warring against the Latins, he was negotiating with the Moslem Khalifa for the protection of the Christians under Moslem rule and the care of the Holy Places, and carrying on controversies against various Eastern heretics, Armenians, Paulicians etc. His interest in letters never abated. Amid all his cares he found time to write works on dogma, Biblical criticism, canon law, homilies, an encyclopædia of all kinds of learning, and letters on all questions of the day. Had it not been for his disastrous schism, he might be counted the last, and one of the greatest, of the Greek Fathers. There is no shadow of suspicion against his private life. He bore his exiles and other troubles manfully and well. He never despaired of his cause and spent the years of adversity in building up his party, writing letters to encourage his old friends and make new ones.

And yet the other side of his character is no less evident. His insatiable ambition, his determination to obtain and keep the patriarchal see, led him to the extreme of dishonesty. His claim was worthless. That Ignatius was the rightful patriarch as long as he lived, and Photius an intruder, cannot be denied by any one who does not conceive the Church as merely the slave of a civil government. And to keep this place Photius descended to the lowest depth of deceit. At the very time he was protesting his obedience to the pope he was dictating to the emperor insolent letters that denied all papal jurisdiction. He misrepresented the story of Ignatius’s deposition with unblushing lies, and he at least connived at Ignatius’s ill-treatment in banishment. He proclaimed openly his entire subservience to the State in the whole question of his intrusion. He stops at nothing in his war against the Latins. He heaps up accusations against them that he must have known were lies. His effrontery on occasions is almost incredible. For instance, as one more grievance against Rome, he never tires of inveighing against the fact that Pope Marinus I (882-84), John VIII’s successor, was translated from another see, instead of being ordained from the Roman clergy. He describes this as an atrocious breach of canon law, quoting against it the first and second canons of Sardica; and at the same time he himself continually transferred bishops in his patriarchate. The Orthodox, who look upon him, rightly, as the great champion of their cause against Rome, have forgiven all his offences for the sake of this championship. They have canonized him, and on 6 Feb., when they keep his feast, their office overflows with his praise. He is the “far-shining radiant star of the church”, the “most inspired guide of the Orthodox”, “thrice blessed speaker for God”, “wise and divine glory of the hierarchy, who broke the horns of Roman pride” (“Menologion” for 6 Feb., ed. Maltzew, I, 916 sq.). The Catholic remembers this extraordinary man with mixed feelings. We do not deny his eminent qualities and yet we certainly do not remember him as a thrice blessed speaker for God. One may perhaps sum up Photius by saying that he was a great man with one blot on his character—his insatiable and unscrupulous ambition. But that blot so covers his life that it eclipses everything else and makes him deserve our final judgment as one of the worst enemies the Church of Christ ever had, and the cause of the greatest calamity that ever befell her.


Of Photius’s prolific literary production part has been lost. A great merit of what remains is that he has preserved at least fragments of earlier Greek works of which otherwise we should know nothing. This applies especially to his “Myriobiblion”.

1. The “Myriobiblion” or “Bibliotheca” is a collection of descriptions of books he had read, with notes and sometimes copious extracts. It contains 280 such notices of books (or rather 279; no. 89 is lost) on every possible subject—theology, philosophy, rhetoric, grammar, physics, medicine. He quotes pagans and Christians, Acts of Councils, Acts of Martyrs, and so on, in no sort of order. For the works thus partially saved (otherwise unknown) see Krumbacher, “Byz. Litter.”, 518-19.
2. The “Lexicon” (Lexeon synagoge) was compiled, probably, to a great extent by his students under his direction (Krumbacher, ibid., 521), from older Greek dictionaries (Pausanias, Harpokration, Diogenianos, Ælius Dionysius). It was intended as a practical help to readers of the Greek classics, the Septuagint, and the New testament. Only one MS. of it exists, the defective “Codex Galeanus” (formerly in the possession of Thomas Gale, now at Cambridge), written about 1200.
3. The “Amphilochia”, dedicated to one of his favourite disciples, Amphilochius of Cyzicus, are answers to questions of Biblical, philosophical, and theological difficulties, written during his first exile (867-77). There are 324 subjects discussed, each in a regular form–question, answer, difficulties, solutions—but arranged again in no order. Photius gives mostly the views of famous Greek Fathers, Epiphanius, Cyril of Alexandria, John Damascene, especially Theodoret.
4. Biblical works.—Only fragments of these are extant, chiefly in Catenas. The longest are from Commentaries on St. Matthew and Romans.
5. Canon Law.—The classical “Nomocanon” (q. v.), the official code of the Orthodox Church, is attributed to Photius. It is, however, older than his time (see JOHN SCHOLASTICUS). It was revised and received additions (from the synods of 861 and 879) in Photius’s time, probably by his orders. The “Collections and Accurate Expositions” (Eunagolai kai apodeixeis akribeis) (Hergenröther, op. cit., III, 165-70) are a series of questions and answers on points of canon law, really an indirect vindication of his own claims and position. A number of his letters bear on canonical questions.
6. Homilies.—Hergenröther mentions twenty-two sermons of Photius (III, 232). Of these two were printed when Hergenröther wrote (in P. G., CII, 548, sq.), one on the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin, and one at the dedication of a new church during his second patriarchate. Later, S. Aristarches published eighty-three homilies of different kinds (Constantinople, 1900).
7. Dogmatic and polemical works.—Many of these bear on his accusations against the Latins and so form the beginning of the long series of anti-Catholic controversy produced by Orthodox theologians. The most important is “Concerning the Theology about the Holy Ghost” (Peri tes tou hagiou pneumatos mystagonias, P. G., CII, 264-541), a defence of the Procession from God the Father alone, based chiefly on John, xv, 26. An epitome of the same work, made by a later author and contained in Euthymius Zigabenus’s “Panoplia”, XIII, became the favourite weapon of Orthodox controversialists for many centuries. The treatise “Against Those who say that Rome is the First See”, also a very popular Orthodox weapon, is only the last part or supplement of the “Collections”, often written out separately. The “Dissertation Concerning the Reappearance of the Manichæans” (Diegesis peri tes manichaion anablasteseos, P. G., CII, 9-264), in four books, is a history and refutation of the Paulicians. Much of the “Amphilochia” belongs to this heading. The little work “Against the Franks and other Latins” (Hergenröther, “Monumenta”, 62-71), attributed to Photius, is not authentic. It was written after Cærularius (Hergenröther, “Photius”, III, 172-224).
8. Letters.—Migne, P. G., CII, publishes 193 letters arranged in three books; Balettas (London, 1864) has edited a more complete collection in five parts. They cover all the chief periods of Photius’s life, and are the most important source for his history.

A. Ehrhard (in Krumbacher, “Byzantinische Litteratur”, 74-77) judges Photius as a distinguished preacher, but not as a theologian of the first importance. His theological work is chiefly the collection of excerpts from Greek Fathers and other sources. His erudition is vast, and probably unequalled in the Middle Ages, but he has little originality, even in his controversy against the Latins. Here, too, he only needed to collect angry things said by Byzantine theologians before his time. But his discovery of the filioque grievance seems to be original. Its success as a weapon is considerably greater than its real value deserves (Fortescue, “Orthodox Eastern Church”, 372-84).

Editions.—The works of Photius known at the time were collected by Migne, P. G., CI-CV. J. Balettas, Photiou epistolai (London, 1864), contains other letters (altogether 260) not in Migne. A. Papadopulos-Kerameus, “S. Patris Photii Epistolæ XLV” (St. Petersburg, 1896) gives forty-five more, of which, however, only the first twenty-one are authentic. S. Aristaches, Photiou logoi kai homiliai 83 (Constantinople, 1900, 2 vols.), gives other homilies not in Migne. Oikonomos has edited the “Amphilochia” (Athens, 1858) in a more complete text. J. Hergenröther, “Monumenta græca ad Photium eiusque historiam pertinentia” (Ratisbon, 1869), and Papadopulos-Kerameus, “Monumenta græca et latina ad historiam Photii patriarchæ pertinentia” (St. Petersburg, 2 parts, 1899 and 1901), add further documents.


“This long work is divided into chapters, which are called ‘codices’, each chapter being a codex that Photius read.  Here is the one for Justus of Tiberias in the only English version made.

XXIII.  Read the Chronicle of Justus of Tiberias, entitled A Chronicle of the Kings of the Jews in the form of a genealogy, by Justus of Tiberias. He came from Tiberias in Galilee, from which he took his name.  He begins his history with Moses and carries it down to the death of the seventh Agrippa of the family of Herod and the last of the Kings of the Jews.  His kingdom, which was bestowed upon him by Claudius, was extended by Nero, and still more  by Vespasian.   He died in the third year of Trajan, when the history ends. Justus’ style is very concise and he omits a great deal that is of utmost importance.  Suffering from the common fault of the Jews, to which race he belonged, he does not even mention the coming of Christ, the events of his life, or the miracles performed by Him.  His father was a Jew named Pistus; Justus himself, according to Josephus, was one of the most abandoned of men, a slave to vice and greed.   He was a political opponent of Josephus, against whom he is said to have concocted several plots; but Josephus, although on several occasions he had his enemy in his power, only chastised him with words and let him go free.   It is said that the history which he wrote is in great part fictitious, especially where he describes the Judaeo-Roman war and the capture of Jerusalem.

From: J.H.Freese, The Library of Photius, vol. I, SPCK, London (1920).  This includes an English version of codices 1-165 only; vol. II was never made, and there is no complete version in English.

N.G.Wilson has given a selection in English in Photius: The Bibliotheca, Duckworth (1994), which includes some of the Josephus portions: 47, 48 and 76. There is no bibliography – the reader is left to wonder what the Greek text translated is – and the notes and introduction are frustratingly scanty.

The complete critical edition is that of R. Henry, in Greek and French:  René Henry, Photius: Bibliothéque, CNRS, Paris (1959), many volumes, with an index volume.  Vol. I contains a good introduction, a discussion of the manuscripts and editions, and a bibliography.  The volumes have facing Greek and French text.

The Josephus reviews are codices 47 (on The Jewish War), 76 and 238  (Antiquities). c.48 (on The Universe) which Photius ascribes to Josephus is actually by Hippolytus.

c.47 mentions only a couple of incidents from the siege of Jerusalem.

c.76 deals only with one incident that interested Photius from Antiquities 20.9-11, 20, and does not attempt to give any picture of the rest of the work.

c.238 (not available in English) describes the reign of Herod and after, and so could contain a reference, but does not.  It does however include a reference to the execution of James the brother of John.”

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06 Nov 2003


Hello, Very glad to see this here, and you’re very welcome of course. However since it comes from my site, you might want to add my name at the bottom as the guilty party responsible for the statements! (But don’t feel any obligation — you’re quite welcome to use it as you like). All the best, Roger Pearse

(TDD: Many thanks for the heads-up!)

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