Byzantine Empire — or Republic?

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. Keep reading . . .

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3 Responses to Byzantine Empire — or Republic?

  1. That sounds similar in theory (though different in practice, of course) to the Soviet theory of “Democratic Centralism”.

  2. Isaac Crabtree says:

    How does one depose an Emperor? Did the saints ever endorse such a thing, except through prayer and disobedience to anti-Christian laws?

    • Pdn. Patrick says:

      The Church allows that bishops, even patriarchs, may be deposed. Is an emperor more sacred? It is true that few saints can be heard advocating the overthrow of an emperor, but it is also true that many have rejoiced to see bad emperors overthrown. To think it always wrong to overthrow the monarch, one must equate civil law with divine law. Thank God that He does not demand that of us.

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