Byzantine missions among the Slavs. SS. Constantine-Cyril and Methodius

Francis Dvornik




Appendix I. The Embassies of Constantine-Cyril and Photius to the Arabs



Among the problems concerning the career of Constantine-Cyril in Byzantium, the question of his participation in an embassy to the Arabs has not yet been answered satisfactorily. It is related in chapter six of the Vita Constantini, [1] in which the author speaks of an invitation being sent by the Arabs to Constantinople to hold a religious disputation, with particular reference to the Holy Trinity and belief in one God. The emperor thereupon is said to have convoked the Senate in order to deliberate as to what should be done. He asked Constantine, at that time only twenty-four years old, to go to the Arabs and to take part in the religious discussion.


What are we to think of this? Is this a story invented by the biographer anxious to extol the scholarship of his hero as being superior to that of his opponents? There are so many details which cannot be substantiated. First of all, it is unlikely that the Arabs would have requested the emperor to arrange a dispute on the subjects of Islam and Christianity. Also, the biographer’s affirmation that Constantine headed the embassy sent to the Caliph is unacceptable, and his pretension that the Arabs intended to poison Constantine when the council ended, during which he had shown his superiority over the Arab theologians, is hardly tenable.


These are all inventions of the author for the glorification of his hero. [2] On the other hand, they correspond to the spirit of Byzantine hagiographical writings. Nevertheless, the story does have an historical background. We do not know of an embassy sent to the Arabs in 851, when Constantine was twenty-four years old. However, it is not absolutely impossible that there was a series of pourparlers between Byzantium and the Arab Caliph Mutawakkil (847-861) in that year.







The most recent exchange of prisoners made between Byzantium and the Arabs took place in the year 845-846. [3] From this time on we do not hear of any military action taking place on the Arab frontier up to the year 851, for during this period the Byzantines were heavily engaged in fighting the Arabs in Sicily. [4] It is possible that in 851 the Byzantines attempted to renew the truce with the Caliph so as to leave their hands free for their operations in Sicily, which were not going well.


There are details in the account of the disputation which favor the assumption that such an event as a religious discussion really did take place in 851. First, the biographer’s description of the city in which the conference was held corresponds to what was known at the time of the residence of the Caliphs, which, from 836 to 889, was in Samarra, near Baghdad. Another point mentioned in the recital could be regarded as confirmation of the hypothesis that some kind of pourparlers had taken place between the Arabs and the Byzantines in 851, for Constantine was asked by them why it was that the Byzantines refused to pay tribute to them.


Constantine replied that Christ had paid tribute only to the Roman Empire, and that therefore tribute should be paid only to the Romans. It could be deduced from this that the Arab request for tribute was a condition for continuance of the truce, and that the ambassadors had refused. Another detail referred to by the author of the Vita points out that such an incident could have taken place in the first years of the reign of the Caliph Mutawakkil.


The Caliph manifested a keen interest in religious matters, and showed his hostility to the Christians by promulgating, in 849850, several edicts restricting the free movement of his Christian subjects. One of these anti-Christian measures is mentioned in the Vita. The Arabs are said to have pointed out that a figure of the devil “adorned” the doors of all Christian houses, and to have asked Constantine what this meant. He is said to have answered cleverly that the devil, being expelled from the interior of the houses of Christians, was hanging onto their doors, while he was not to be seen on the doors of the Mussulmans because he was inside their houses. It was to be expected that the religious disputes would take place at the court, and therefore the philosopher Constantine was asked to accompany the ambassador.


Constantine’s replies to certain objections made by the Arabs,





preserved or imagined by the biographer, disclose a clever mind. Christian doctrine is compared to a large, deep sea. Only strong souls are able to penetrate its depths and sail to its coasts. The feeble spirits fail and become heretics, because they master only a small part of the sea. The doctrine of Mohammed is a small, shallow lake which anyone can subdue. In defending Christian doctrine on the Trinity, Constantine is said to have quoted Sura 19, 17 of the Koran, where the incarnation of the Word through the Spirit of God is described. This passage was often quoted in Byzantine polemic literature.


If such an embassy took place in 851, Constantine certainly did not lead it. We are told by the hagiographer that the emperor sent with him the asecrete George, who was probably the senior envoy. Since it was expected that religious problems would be discussed at the Caliph’s court in view of Mutawakkil’s great interest in these matters, Constantine, as a young cleric and scholar, was present.


If this embassy did take place, it did not fulfill the hopes of the Byzantines. This would seem to be indicated by the biographer’s report of the Arabs wanting to poison Constantine. According to Tabari, the Arab historian, hostilities between the Byzantines and the Caliph were initiated in the summer of 851, by an incursion into Byzantine territory, a move which was repeated in 852, and again in 853. [5] It is thus quite possible that diplomatic negotiations were opened between the Byzantines and the Caliph in 851, and that a religious dispute did take place at the Caliph’s court, during which Constantine defended the Christian faith.


Because Constantine was a disciple of Photius, one is tempted to associate him with an embassy to the Arabs in which Photius participated. Unfortunately, the manuscript tradition of the passage in the Vita referring to his participation in such an embassy is rather confused. I was tempted to follow another manuscript which seems to suggest that a personage with the title of palata (palatine) who was perhaps Photius, took part in this embassy. Such a reading, however, is problematic. It is safer to read simply: “They attached to him the asecrete George and sent them” (asikrita Georgia i poslaše ja). [6]


It is an established fact that Photius was a member of a Byzantine embassy sent to the Arabs. He himself says so in the introductory letter addressed to his brother Tarasius, to whom he dedicated





his Bibliotheca, composed at his brother’s request before his departure on a mission to the “Assyrians.” [7] Photius excuses himself from not describing in more exhaustive fashion the books read by the members of his circle, during Tarasius’ absence, and he promises to continue the work after his return. It is evident from the contents of the Bibliotheca that the work is incomplete. If the embassy, of which Photius was a member, did occur in 851, he would have had enough time to finish his promised continuation before his elevation to the patriarchate in 858. If we accept Photius’ testimony as genuine, then the embassy to which he was attached must have taken place between the years 851 and 858.


However, because to some scholars it seems impossible that he could have accomplished such a literary achievement in the short time before leaving Constantinople on a diplomatic mission, they have advanced the hypothesis that the letter to Tarasius, which opens and closes the Bibliotheca, is fictitious. Krumbacher [8] himself was of such an opinion. A similar view was ventured recently by F. Halkin in his paper, “La date de composition de la ‘Bibliothèque’ de Photius remise en question.” [9] He bases his conclusions of the Greek Life of St. Gregory the Great, from which Photius quotes certain passages in his Bibliotheca (codex 252). Since it has been shown that the Greek Life of St. Gregory was based on the Latin Life of the saint, composed between 873 and 875 by the Roman deacon John Hymnonides, at the invitation of Pope John VIII, [10] Photius could not have known of the Greek Life before 877, and therefore the composition of the Bibliotheca should be dated somewhere between 877 and 886.


This argument, however, is unconvincing. We are not certain that the passages quoted by Photius are extracted from the Βίος ἐνσυντὀμῳ which a Greek monk had taken in shorter form from the Latin Life, which contained four books. St. Gregory the Great was popular also in Byzantium, and it is not improbable that the authors of both the Greek Life (known to Photius) and the Latin Life used an older source which has not been preserved. [11]


The author affirms that Photius added the fictitious letter to his work, written during his second patriarchate (877-886), in order to escape the criticism of his enemies [12] who would attack him because, as patriarch, he was reading and propagating works of a profane, and even heretical, nature. In order to protect himself





from this accusation, Photius is said to have fabricated a letter to his brother, Tarasius, in which he gives the impression that it was in his youth, and before he entered holy orders, that he read the books about which he was writing.


Such an interpretation is preposterous. On the other hand, it has been shown that Photius’ opponents were not numerous, consisting mostly of intransigent monks and bishops. [13] After his reconciliation with Ignatius, which took place before the death of the latter, [14] and after his rehabilitation by the synod of 879-880, Photius was almost unanimously reinstated. He was therefore able to ignore the small number of fanatics whose attitude continued hostile.


The fact that Photius had reviewed the writings of certain heretics induced M. Hemmerdinger [15] to state that it would have been impossible for Photius to have found such books in Constantinople, since the works of heretics were condemned. But such books could have been found in Baghdad, where, in the ninth century, lived many Greeks, famous scribes and translators. These works were kept in the Caliph’s library (which was destroyed in 1258) and Photius had access to what he could not find in Constantinople, while staying in Baghdad during the negotiations with the Caliph. This explanation may be ingenious, but cannot be accepted. The writings of heretics were obtainable in Constantinople, and from 836 to 889 the residence of the Caliphs was not in Baghdad, but in Samarra, which is some distance from Baghdad. It is difficult to understand how members of the embassy, who were there to negotiate with the Arab authorities, could absent themselves for so many days in Baghdad.


The theory that Photius had taken his library with him and that he finished his Bibliotheca while travelling to Samarra, or that he took some of his students with him, cannot be accepted. [16] Ziegler, in his study on Photius, has already rejected this fantastic explanation. [17] All these difficulties can be explained if we suppose that Photius, after reading or studying a work with his friends, made notes as to the content, author, and style, to which he added his own criticism. It would then be easy to assemble his notes in a reasonably short time before his departure with the embassy.


Thus it remains established that Photius wrote his Bibliotheca





before leaving with the embassy to the Arabs, and that both parts of his letter to his brother Tarasius, the introduction and the postscript, are genuine.


However, we still have the problem of when the embassy, to which he was attached, took place. H. Ahrweiler, in her recently published paper, thinks that it occurred in 838, before the capture of Amorion by the Arabs, during the first half of August, or soon after the disastrous defeat of the Byzantine army. Her main argument is to be found in her interpretation of Photius’ letter to Tarasius. She quotes Photius’ words describing to Tarasius the difficulty of such an enterprise, and she deduces from them that Photius was afraid, even for his survival. This would, so she thinks, fit in very well with the embassy sent by Emperor Theophilus to the Caliph after the loss of Amorion. [18] In reality, this embassy was badly received, and suffered mistreatment from the victorious Arab ruler. [19] On the other hand, the fact that Photius does not give his brother the title of patricius, which he had done in previous letters, indicates, according to H. Ahrweiler, that Tarasius was too young at that time, and that Photius was not very far along in his career in the imperial service. But she thinks that he was already an asecretos, or, perhaps, decanos in the imperial chancellery. In this function he would accompany the emperor on military expeditions, and he would be in charge of the official papers which were transported in a special vehicle. The young Photius would thus be able to hide his own notes on the books he had read among the official documents, and he would be able to find time during the expedition to finish the work he sent to his brother in Constantinople. This interpretation is believed to explain why it was so difficult for Photius to find a scribe to whom he could dictate his comments. Although there would be no difficulty in finding one in Constantinople, it was not easy to do so in a military camp in Asia Minor.


Although very plausible, this interpretation cannot be accepted. Photius may have had difficulty in finding a good scribe even in Constantinople. He may have tried out several, and, at last, found one who was qualified for the task for which he was hired. Photius was in a hurry and wanted to finish up his domestic affairs while he was still in Constantinople, and he was anxious to send his composition to his “dear” brother as early as possible. It is not easy to find a good secretary for an urgent task.





The fact that Photius does not give his brother the title of patricius should not be exaggerated. It was his last letter to Tarasius; it could have been his very last, since travelling to an enemy country, at that time, was dangerous and might have ended tragically. Photius was well aware of this and preferred to write to his brother quite simply as “my beloved brother.” There is a tenderness in this address felt by all of us when leaving our families for some time, and when the future is uncertain. Photius writes to Tarasius, “You who are dearest to me of all who were born from the womb of the same mother as myself.” These words are very indicative.


But again, H. Ahrweiler is faced with the difficulty of explaining how a work of such dimensions as the Bibliotheca could have been written in the tents of military camps. The supposition that Photius was only twenty-five years old at that time, and that neither he nor his brother held a prominent place in Byzantine society, is unwarranted and hangs in the air. However, the author is right when she affirms that Photius was not at the head of that embassy. She is also correct in saying that it is necessary to distinguish between simple exchanges of prisoners between the Arabs and the Byzantines on the frontier, on the one hand, and between embassies which represented the emperors at the Arab court, on the other.


Because of this, she rejects the possibility that Photius was attached to an embassy in 855-856, since the Byzantine authors speak only of an exchange of prisoners during that time. However, may we not suppose that such exchanges were sometimes prepared by negotiations conducted by an embassy? Such seems to be the case in 855. Photius says, when speaking of his participation in the embassy, that not only was he encouraged to join it by the members already selected, but that the emperor himself chose him, as he had chosen the others. Such ceremonial practice was unnecessary when an exchange of prisoners took place, as this function was carried out by the strategos and the officers of the Asiatic theme. In reality, the exchange of prisoners which took place on the River Lamos was directed—according to Tabari—by one such officer called George, but it was effected after the embassy had finished its negotiations with the Arabs in Samarra. Arab sources, in particular Tabari and Yaqūb­ī, [20] speak of embassies sent by Theodora to the Caliph, and of the Arab envoy Ibn





Farag whose task it was to discover how many Arab prisoners were held captive by the Byzantines. Both sources—especially that of Yaqūb­ī [21]—mention an exchange of gifts by the embassies to both courts. It is thus established that an exchange of prisoners in 855-856 was arranged by a solemn embassy sent by the Empress Theodora and her prime minister, Theoctistos, to the Caliph Mutawakkil. It was to this embassy that Photius was attached.


There is yet one more fact which supports the dating of Photius’ embassy in 855-856. At this time an important political upheaval occurred in the capital in 856. The logothete Theoctistos, Theodora’s prime minister, was murdered by the supporters of Theodora’s brother, the ambitious Bardas, with the consent of the young Emperor Michael III, who was distrustful both of his mother and of Theoctistos. Other events followed. The Senate put an end to the regency of Theodora in the same year and, to prevent a counter-revolution by her partisans, she was expelled from the palace at the end of the summer of 857. Patriarch Ignatius, a supporter of Theodora, became embroiled with the new regent, Bardas, and, in order to avoid an open clash between the Church and the new government, the bishops advised Ignatius to resign his patriarchate. This he did in 858. The local synod elected as his successor Photius, the chancellor of the Empire. [22] The consent of all the bishops was given to the election of the new patriarch, even by those who most fervently supported Ignatius, their attitude having been influenced by the fact that Photius was not involved in any way in the upheaval of 856, since he was absent from the city and on his way back from the embassy to the Arabs. He may not have returned until the early part of 857, thus giving the followers of Theodora time to become reconciled to the idea of Photius as the successor of Ignatius. Had he been present in Constantinople at the time of the disturbance, it is possible that the reactionary members of the clergy would have refused to accept Bardas’ proposal to elevate him to the patriarchate, for it was Bardas who was responsible for the changes in the government, and who was favorably inclined to the intellectual circle of which Photius was the center.


Let me recall two other Byzantine embassies to the Arabs which show that discussions of a religious character really used to take place at the courts of the caliphs with members of the Byzantine embassies. In 905 Leo Choerosphactes was sent as





ambassador to the Caliph Al-Muqtafi (902-908) and was charged to negotiate an exchange of prisoners. His mission was successful, but the Byzantines saw themselves forced to stop the exchange because of the revolt of Ducas against the emperor. The ambassador had to return to Constantinople. It appears that during the winter of 905-906, the Vizir of the Caliph—not the Emir of Damascus—addressed a letter to Choerosphactes reproaching him for interrupting the exchange of prisoners, and also criticizing certain articles of the Christian faith. This would seem to indicate that the vizir, and the ambassador, had discussed at Bagdad not only political matters but also religious beliefs.


Leo sent the vizir a long missive in which he defended the Christian teaching and attacked some of the beliefs of the Mussulman religion. This letter is preserved among the writings attributed to Arethas of Caesarea and has been dated by specialists from 918 to 923.


Recently A. Canard discussed the whole problem in the Appendix to his Byzance et les Arabes. [23] He gives a résumé of the letter and compares the different opinions concerning its authorship and date. Canard seems to have shown definitely that the author of this letter was Leo Choerosphactes, who may have written it, probably in Constantinople, before his second embassy to the Arabs in the spring of 906, during which the agreement to continue the exchange of prisoners was concluded, or after his return from the second embassy. Both missives should be regarded as the echo of religious discussions which took place at the Caliph’s court during the first embassy of Choerosphactes. The exchange of prisoners took place in 908 on the river Lamos.


Let us recall in this connection the report on an embassy sent by Constantine Porphyrogenitus in 957-58 to the Fatimid Caliph al-Mu’izz proposing a perpetual truce between the Caliph of Ifrigiya and Byzantium. [24] The reply given by the caliph to the ambassador contains several quotations from the Koran forbidding perpetual peace with unbelievers. The caliph refused to send an embassy to the emperor because


“he was not in need of him, neither was he in any way obliged to him. ... It would be, of course, quite a different thing if we had to correspond with him in a matter touching religion. Now, although such a correspondence is permitted to him by his religion, we think he [the emperor] would dislike it. If we knew that he would accede to our





demand if we sent an envoy in that matter, we would find it possible to send an ambassador as he [the emperor], and you [the envoy], have asked. We would not do that, were it not for the sake of Almighty God and His religion. . . .”


The editor of this document, S. M. Stern, remarks that the last sentence is not clear. It may mean that the caliph invited the emperor to accept Islam or, perhaps—and this seems more probable—to take an active part in the religious disputation conducted by letter.


This discussion was written by a contemporary Arab writer called al-Nu’man, and the information should be complemented with that given by a fifteenth-century author, Imad al-din-Idris. He mentions the Byzantine embassy to al-Mu’izz and gives information about the curious attempts of al-Mu’izz to convert the emperor. He says, “The Commander of the faithful al-Mu’izz composed a book and sent it to him [the emperor]. It contains an exposition of the errors of the Christians and proves the prophecy of Mohammed which they deny. . . . This book composed by the Commander of the faithful al-Mu’izz for the ruler of the Byzantines is well known and is still in existence.” The editor, S. M. Stern, has at last discovered some traces of this book composed by al-Mu’izz, in an Arabic manuscript at the Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris.


All this is instructive and shows us that the presence of Byzantine ambassadors at the Arabic courts very often led to the discussion of religious matters. This also indicates that among the members of these Byzantine embassies there must have been some attachés well versed in theology, like Constantine-Cyril called the Philosopher. It is quite probable that the choice of Photius to participate at the embassy of 855 was motivated by the same need.





1. P. A. Lavrov, Materialy po istorii vozniknovenija drevnejšej slavjanskoj pismennosti (Leningrad, 1930), p. 7 ff., p. 45 ff.


2. H. H. Schaeder, “Geschichte und Legende im Werk der Slavenmissionare Konstantin und Method,” Historische Zeitschrift, CLII (1935), p. 232 ff., thinks that the whole story was invented by the hagiographer who wanted to ascribe three disputations to the hero, because of his predilection for the sacred number three. This, however, cannot be the case. Not three, but four disputations are attributed to Constantine,





one with the ex-Patriarch John, the second with the Arabs, the third with the Khazars, and the fourth with the Venetians, as described in chapter 14 of the Vita.


3. A. A. Vasiliev, H. Grégoire, M. Canard, Byzance et les Arabes (Bruxelles, 1935), I, p. 19S ff.


4. Ibid., p. 204 ff.


5. Ibid., p. 214 ff.


6. F. Dvornik, Les Légendes de Constantin et de Méthode vues de Byzance (Prague, 1933), pp. 93, 94. See ibid., pp. 104-111, on theological controversies between the Arabs and the Byzantines. Cf. also A. Abel, '“La lettre polémique d'Aréthas à l'émir de Damas,” Byzantion, XXIV (1954), pp. 344-370; J. Meyendorff, “Byzantine views of Islam,” Dumbarton Oaks Papers, XVIII (1964); pp. 115-132.


7. The letter is written as an introduction and conclusion of the Bibliotheca, PG 103, cols. 41, 44; 104, cols. 353, 356. Cf. J. Hergenröther, Photius, Patriarch von Konstantinopel (Regensburg, 1867-69), III. p. 14. The latter is not to be found in the manuscripts used by the modern edition. Hergenröther found it in Codex Vallicellanus graecus 125 (R2 6) which contains only the letter to Tarasius on folio 50. It is known that the letter is found only in a few manuscripts of the Bibliotheca. It is quite possible that the manuscript of the Vallicellanus contains an authentic version which was abridged in other manuscripts. On the manuscripts of the Bibliotheca, see E. Martini, Textgeschichte der Bibliotheke (= Abhandlungen der sächsischen Akademie, phil. hist. CL, vol. 28, no. 6) (Leipzig, 1911). On the Vallicellanus, see ibid., p. 46. A new edition with a German translation is to be found in K. Ziegler, “Photios,” Paulys Real Encyclopädie, XXXIX (Stuttgart, 1941), cols. 685-688; R. Henry, Photius Bibliothèque (Paris. 1959). (Collection byzantine de l’Association Guillaume Budé), vol. I, p. XIX ff., p. 1 ff.


8. Geschichte der byzantinischen Litteratur (Munich, 1896), p. 519.


9. Analecta Bollandiana, LXXXIII (1963), pp. 414-417.


10. PL, 75, cols. 59—242; H. Delehaye, “S. Grégoire le Grand dans l’hagiographic grecque.” Analecta Bollandiana, XXIII (1904), pp. 449454.


11. This was rightly pointed out by H. Ahrweiler, “Sur la carrière de Photios avant son Patriarcat,” Byzantinische Zeitschrift, LVIII (1965), p. 538.


12. F. Halkin, “La date,” p. 417.


13. See my book The Photian Schism. History and Legend (Cambridge, 1948), p. 39 ff., p. 159 ff.


14. See F. Dvornik, “The Patriarch Photius in the Light of Recent Research,” in Berichte zum XI. Internat. Byzantinisten-Kongress (Munich, 1958), pp. 34, 35. According to the Sinaiticus graecus, no. 482 (1117) fols. 357r-365v, Photius did not only reconcile himself with





Ignatius, but even canonized him after the latter s death. The manuscript contains another version of the Synodicon Vetus published by J. Pappe in J. A. Fabricius and G. C. Harles, Bibliotheca graeca, XII (Hamburg, 1809). Another manuscript containing the same information as the manuscript of Sinai has been found. The document will be published by Dumbarton Oaks.


15. “Les 'notices et extraits’ des bibliothèques grecques de Bagdad par Photius,” Révue des études grecques, LXIX (1956), pp. 101-103. Cf. R. Henry, Photius Bibliothèque, LI, LII.


16. Put forward especially by E. Orth, Photiana (Leipzig, 1929).


17. “Photios,” cols. 689, 690.


18. “Sur la carrière de Photios,” p. 360.


19. The Byzantine sources are unanimous in describing the humiliating reception of the embassy by the Caliph. See Genesios, Bonn, pp. 64, 65; Cedrenus, Bonn, II, pp. 531, 532; Theophanes continuatus, Bonn, pp. 129, 130.


20. A. A. Vasiliev, H. Grégoire, M. Canard, Byzance et les Arabes, I, p. 224. It is not certain that this George is the same person as the official mentioned in the Life of Constantine, but it is possible.


21. See ibid., p. 224 ff., pp. 276, 277. An exchange of prisoners during the reign of Leo the Wise was also prepared by solemn embassies, as is described by George the Monk (Bonn), p. 868.


22. For details, see F. Dvornik, The Photian Schism, p. 39 ff. Cf. also, idem, “Patriarch Ignatius and Caesar Bardas,” Byzantinoslavica, XXVII (1966), pp. 7-22.


23. Vasiliev, A. A., Canard, M., Byzance et les Arabes, vol. II, 1 (Bruxelles, 1968), p. 399 ff.


24. Stern, S. M., “An Embassy of the Byzantine Emperor to the Fatimid Caliph Al-Mu’izz,” Byzantion 20 (1950), pp. 239—258. Cf. also M. Canard, Byzance et les Arabes, p. 420 ff.


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