It is remarkable to consider how much has been written on the notion of the early Christian and Byzantine attitudes to political theory relying on the singularly useless concept of caesaro-papism. It illuminates nothing, apart from the standing-point of the user. It was, in origin, a term of disparagement, comparable in its intent to the scornful use of Byzantinism to signify all that was corrupt and devious. This bigoted Gibbonesque apologetic, so beloved of Protestant and Catholic theorists alike in their mutually conflicting critiques of Eastern Christian political theology, should by now have fallen into desuetude though a surprising amount of authors have still continued to use it well into the modern era; apparently unaware of the theological ‘animus’ that gave birth to the word, and even more so of the fact that it is hopelessly anachronistic. To try to explain the complexity of the Eastern Christian attitudes to political theory with such a term is doomed from the outset. One presumes from the context in which the word ‘caesaro-papism’ has largely figured, that it is supposed to connote ‘sacral autocracy’; but the whole point of any serious investigation would surely be to consider just how the dimension of religion overlaid itself onto political theory in antiquity, and how this went on, through the stimuli of controversy and considered reflection, to arrive at any kind of consensus in regard to a theory of church-state relations in Byzantium. Papism is hardly appropriate for the highly extended systems of episcopal collegiality and autonomy practised in the eastern churches , and the use of the designation ‘Caesar’ to connote autocracy is something that demands such extensive qualification as to make it all but useless as a definition. The Byzantine inheritors of the imperial title remained ‘Supreme Autocrat of the Romans’ to the end, but the amazing amount of those ‘Emperors dear to God’ who died prematurely and violently, more than demonstrated that the autocracy of a late Roman Emperor was ‘not as the world knows it’. The imperial power in Byzantium was, arguably, even more so than in the times of the pre-Christian empire, radically circumscribed by a volatile aristocracy, the stability of the city populations, the capacity to demonstrate fiscal and military success, and to some extent the pressures of the bishops and monastics who represented a considerable traditionalist consensus but who brought their influence to bear largely through indirect means.
On Byzantine political theory
By Sylvain Rey