Politics Foreign Affairs Culture Fellows Program

Byzantine Empire—or Republic?

Eastern emperors were accountable to their people and the public good without being democrats.

The textbooks say the Byzantine Empire was a theocratic autocracy uniting church and state under an all-powerful emperor believed by the Byzantines to be God’s viceroy and vicar. Nonsense, says Anthony Kaldellis, professor of classics at Ohio State University. The Byzantine Empire was a continuation of the Roman Empire and even of the Roman Republic. Its political ideology was fundamentally secular and grounded in the ancient Roman republican belief that government exists to serve the common good. Its people no longer had a legal role in the election of leaders or legislators, but they often played an extralegal role in the making and unmaking of emperors, whose legitimacy depended on popularity and not on a claim of divine right or constitutional correctness. Emperors therefore ruled pragmatically and not fanatically, often disappointing the Church to please the people.

This is fresh air for Orthodox Christians, who have had to bear the accusation of Byzantine theocracy longer than Western Christians have had to bear the accusations of the Crusades and the Inquisition. But Kaldellis’s The Byzantine Republic also provides useful criticism of modern Western political thinking, as well as portentous, if inadvertent, insight into progressive democratic thinking and where it will take us.

His book is a frankly revisionist attack on the field of Byzantine studies, which has perpetuated age-old Western prejudices at odds with the historical record. Kaldellis takes aim mostly at academics of the 1930s and their imitators, but the roots of prejudice go back much further to the anti-Orthodox propaganda of the Middle Ages. The Orthodox Byzantines refused to recognize the supremacy of the Pope of Rome over all things sacred and secular, and they allowed their emperor far more authority over the Church than papal partisans could countenance. Later, during the Enlightenment, as the West moved to exclude religion from politics, the Byzantines were held up as the prime example of “caesaropapism” under the mistaken belief that the Byzantine emperor ruled as both king and pope, with no separation of church and state.

As Western political thought evolved, more faults were found in the Byzantine model. The empire lacked a written constitution with enumerated rights, separation of powers, democratic procedures, or any other explicit limits on the authority of the emperor, who seemed to rule by divine right as an absolute monarch. By then, the empire had ceased to exist, so Westerners with no knowledge of Greek or access to the relevant documents had no way of checking the historical reality against the disparaging claims of Edward Gibbon and others, for whom the Byzantines served as a convenient starting point for the Whig writing of history—the primeval nightmare of superstitious despotism out of which the Western world awoke and arose.

Some kinder 20th-century scholars have offered modest corrections to the conventional narrative, denying the accusation of caesaropapism and celebrating Byzantine art and culture, but no one has gone as far as Kaldellis in asserting the secular basis of Byzantine politics or in demonstrating the blindness of Western historians who only understand politics according to Enlightenment categories of thought.

Reading Roman history, but not rightly, early modern Western political theorists divided governments into two basic categories, monarchies and republics, defining the latter as self-governing polities without a monarch and understanding the former as either absolute or constitutional. As Kaldellis explains, the ancient Greeks and Romans saw things differently. Their two basic categories were kingdoms and commonwealths. A kingdom, in their experience, was the possession of a king ruled by his might for his own satisfaction. A commonwealth—res publica in Latin, politeia in Greek—was an independent polity variously governed but administered for the good of all. Commonwealths could therefore be monarchies, aristocracies, or democracies. Cicero himself said as much, even while bewailing the waning of senatorial power. 

The standard story that the Roman republic ended with Caesar Augustus becoming emperor is therefore simply wrong, says Kaldellis. The republic lived on, albeit in a new phase, the Principate, in place of the earlier Consulate. Historians call the republic’s later, third phase the Dominate—during which military emperors, ruling from wherever military necessity demanded, came to be addressed for the first time in Roman history as Domine, or “Lord.” The fourth, final, and longest phase, by far, was Byzantium, lasting from the fifth to the 15th century, during which emperors ruled as civilians from the city officially named New Rome but commonly called Constantinople (“Constantine’s city”) and founded originally as Byzantion (Byzantium in Latin).

All along, the empire’s people called themselves Romans. (The term “Byzantine” is a modern Western invention.) And all along these Romans identified their empire as a res publica or politeia, boasting that unlike other empires theirs was committed to the common good. From beginning to end, “Byzantine” Roman emperors were obliged to justify their actions by appeals not to divine right or divine law but to the common good, and the undisputed arbiter of the common good was the politeia, which included everyone—the aristocracy, the bureaucracy, the army, the clergy, and the various classes of people: merchants, tradesmen, farmers, etc.

Any one of these could challenge an emperor’s right to rule on the basis of his failure to serve the common good. Byzantine emperors therefore lived in fear of the people and did whatever they could to keep the people happy, presenting themselves as civil servants working tirelessly for the public’s benefit.

The people did not live in much fear of the emperors, however. They were often irreverent and disloyal, verbally abusing the emperor in public, even in his presence, and disregarding new laws they didn’t like. “Byzantine history abounds in instances of men and women who refused to obey an emperor’s orders, mostly on religious grounds,” writes Kaldellis. With a single exception, popular uprisings succeeded in forcing emperors to make concessions or else be deposed. The one exception in the empire’s thousand years was the Nika revolt of 532, when Justinian the Great, at the urging of Empress Theodora, sent soldiers to slaughter the murderous mob assembled in the Hippodrome to acclaim another emperor. (There were earlier instances of such brutality, but they fell under the Dominate of the third and fourth centuries.)

Harder for modern Westerners to appreciate is the relationship between the emperor’s authority and the empire’s laws. Romans of every age prided themselves on their respect for law, which was closely related to their belief in the common good and one of the features of Romanity that they believed set them above other nations. Their emperors were also expected to respect the law, yet there was no law they could not change. In Western eyes, this made the emperor not just an autocrat whose word was law but an unlimited autocrat—an absolute monarch. thisarticleappears

Yet this common Western view is based less on Byzantium than on the “New Absolutism” of the early modern West, which grew out of early efforts by Western princes to theorize their claims of “sovereignty” against papal claims of the same. With the Reformation, these peculiarly Western claims on sovereignty became more urgent and expansive, producing both Catholic and Protestant justifications for the “Divine Right of Kings,” according to which the king, as sovereign, is accountable to no one but God. For the French Catholic Jacques-Benigne Bossuet, the king personified the state: “Tout l’État est en la personne du prince,” he wrote, or as the Sun King would say, “L’État c’est moi.”

Against this New Absolutism came counterclaims subjecting the king to other sovereigns: common law, natural rights, constitutions written or unwritten, the will of the people. Continued religious and political contention drove Westerners toward opposite poles of political idealism, pitting the monarchical idealism of Divine Right against anti-monarchical “republican” idealism variously conceived. The arguments in favor of the latter are more familiar to us today. Our Founding Fathers availed themselves of all of them, with scant regard for consistency and without really solving the practical or theoretical problem of limited sovereignty. For if the people are sovereign, what is to protect us from democratic absolutism since the people decide what laws to make, what rights to respect, and even how to read the Constitution? Who is to tell the people they are wrong, and who is to stop them when they don’t listen?

The Byzantines never bothered to ask such questions because they never needed to. Their concern was not the source of government—sovereignty—but, says Kaldellis, the purpose of government. They did not therefore absolutize the emperor. They knew him to be a mere mortal and a sinner accountable to both God and the politeia. They did not believe in Divine Right.

They believed that God ordained rulers as “revenger[s] to execute wrath upon him that doeth evil” (Rom. 13:4), but they also knew that God often un-ordained rulers for His own reasons. They were tempted like many people to believe in royal blood, but that didn’t stop them from throwing over incompetent emperors “born in the purple.” And if any Byzantine emperor had declared, “The state is me,” everyone in earshot would have thought him insane.

Without a monarchical ideal, the Byzantines never needed an anti-monarchical ideal. They never absolutized natural rights or Roman law or even the Roman people. They, too, were mere mortals and sinners, and what mattered most was the good of the politeia, not the will of the people. Their will was not even the only will that mattered: There was God’s Will to consider, and God was understood often to give people not what they wanted but what they needed. He dealt with people not according to fixed principles of justice but in ways that would best bring about each soul’s salvation. The Byzantine term for this was oikonomía, and it is still an important aspect of Orthodox Christian pastoral theology.

The Byzantine approach to politics was likewise “economic.” The supreme law was the safety of the commonwealth. Everything else was discretionary. The emperor’s divine warrant as a “revenger” of evil was understood pragmatically to mean that rulers were to restrain evil, not eradicate it. Allowance was made for “humanity, commonsense, and public utility,” in Justinian’s words, with the understanding that some evils are not easily outlawed. Christian emperors were therefore slow to ban many evils condemned by the Church but popular with the people such as slavery, prostitution, pornography, and gladiatorial games.


Kaldellis admits that Christian teaching supported the Byzantines’ republican commitment to the common good, and he judges Christian Byzantium more republican than the two previous phases of the republic—the Principate and the Dominate. But in his eagerness to argue against the conventional theocratic reading of Byzantine history, he errs in the opposite direction toward an essentially secular reading. “The Roman polity was only accidentally Christian,” he writes, and the result was a fundamentally secular monarchical republic “masquerading, to itself as much as to others, as an imperial theocracy.” The Byzantines were confused, given to “conflicting modalities of thought” and to shifting “situationally” between secular thinking and religious thinking. Their pragmatism and their republicanism were both products of secular thinking, at odds with Christianity’s supposed idealism and imperialism.

Here Kaldellis’s own reliance on modern Western conceptions of Christianity interferes with his analysis. He writes, for instance, that “secular” is a “fundamental category of Christian thought.” This is arguably true of Western Christianity, which is prone to distinguish sharply between the categories of sacred and profane, natural and supernatural, clergy and laity, “religious” clergymen and “secular” clergymen, “lords spiritual” and “lords temporal,” the City of God and the City of Man. But it is not obviously true of Orthodox Christianity. The Orthodox have no exact theological equivalent of “secular” and think Catholics make too much of such categories.

Kaldellis’s use of “secular” is even further away from Orthodox thinking. He seems to limit Christian thinking to thoughts about the Christian religion, as if all other thoughts are not Christian and therefore “secular.” So when a Byzantine source attributes a victory to divine intervention, he’s thinking religiously, and when the same source attributes a victory to superior generalship, he’s thinking “secularly.” Kaldellis therefore cannot understand how Byzantine Christians could reconcile the deposition of an emperor by the people with the ordination of that emperor by God. He can only understand them as inconsistent—and more truly secular than Christian.

Surprisingly, Kaldellis identifies Jean-Jacques Rousseau as the Western theorist closest to the Byzantine tradition, citing passages from The Social Contract that do sound somewhat Byzantine. Rousseau defines a republic as “any state ruled by laws, whatever may be the form of administration.” He assigns sovereignty to the people and makes government their minister. And he stresses the importance of moral consensus and sees a need for a civil religion. When he writes that the most important laws are not those written down but those “in the hearts of the citizens,” Kaldellis says, Rousseau “reveals himself a classical rather than a modern thinker.”

This is a rather superficial reading of Rousseau. Byzantium was an actual, historical reality—a particular people with a particular past, religion, and legal, political, and cultural tradition—whereas Rousseau’s republic is yet another modern Western theoretical ideal, based on a very un-Roman, un-Christian, and un-Byzantine understanding of human nature and history. In his theoretical republic, all issues of value defining the common good are settled by the “general will,” which is not bound by any religion, tradition, institution, constitution, contract, or even reality. The people are free to build a new civilization as they please; they just need an enlightened lawgiver to show them how. (Rousseau saw himself in that role and actually offered his assistance in revolutionary lawgiving to Poland and Corsica.)

But what Kaldellis sees in Rousseau—the idea of a people expressing their will in the Byzantine way, asserting their sovereignty over the government extralegally—is why Rousseau still rivals Marx as the chief prophet of progressivism, and why progressive academics can be expected to embrace Kaldellis’s recasting of the Byzantines as secular democrats. Kaldellis shows that democracy can mean different things to different people. To American conservatives, it means orderly elections and strict adherence to written law and legal precedent, but to many American progressives it means public demonstrations, civil disobedience, and mob intimidation. The left understands that if the will of the people alone decides the common good, then the raised fist is a better gauge of good than a show of hands, for when the system fails to satisfy, some people will riot and some people won’t.

Brian Patrick Mitchell is the author of Eight Ways to Run the Country and a protodeacon of the Orthodox Church.