The Dramatic Downfall Of Patriarch Tryphon of Constantinople

 

Emperor Romanos I was a brilliant political maneuverer who arose out of obscurity to become, for a time, one of the strongest men in the Mediterranean world. Although he held the title of emperor for decades, Romanos had no genuine claim to the throne—his remarkable rise to power came through the marriage of his daughter, Helen, to the child-emperor Constantine VII on May 4, 919. The very next year, Romanos climbed his way to the top of the child-emperor’s regency council by forcing Constantine’s mother into a convent and similarly disposing of other nobles who posed a threat to his ascendance. Romanos at first took the title of ‘caesar,’ but he quickly became a co-emperor, and by 921 he had gained enough power to supersede Constantine VII as First Emperor in the political hierarchy.

Romanos, however, did not ascend alone up the political ladder; he also brought his children along for the ride. Romanos’ son, Christopher, was similarly named a co-emperor in 921 and in 924, Romanos similarly crowned two other sons, named Stephen and Constantine. Romanos further increased his power in 927 by having Christopher named Second Emperor, pushing the original ruler, Constantine VII, down one more rung on the ladder of political hierarchy.

Another of Romanos’ sons, by the name of Theophylact, drew the metaphorical short straw when it came to high office appointment. While his brothers were named caesars and co-emperors, Theophylact was sent to join the church. Yet, for Romanos, only the position of Patriarch of Constantinople would do for his son. Nevertheless, there was a problem—when Theophylact was sent to join the church in 924, he was only seven years old. Although Romanos could not immediately place his young son at the head of the church in Constantinople, he was able to rush the boy through the hierarchy of the clergy. Theophylact was appointed as a cleric and put in the position of synkellos, a lofty title that made the young boy an assistant to the patriarch of Constantinople. It was an important appointment, as the synkellos was often considered the heir to the patriarchal throne. The newly appointed clergyman, however, was still a child, so he remained in the role of synkellos during the reigns of Patriarch Nicholas (d. 925), Patriarch Stephen (d.927) and Patriarch Tryphon. Emperor Romanos apparently had agreements with these patriarchs that they would step down when Theophylact finally came of age. Although Patriarch Tryphon had supposedly agreed to this plan, he was said to have become hesitant to relinquish power as the young synkellos began to reach his mid-teens.

The power struggle between Patriarch Tryphon and Emperor Romanos came to a head around 931, when Theophylact was about 14 years old. Medieval historians who wrote about the incident recorded differing accounts of the episode. Leo the Grammarian, Symeon the Logothete and the Theophanes Continuatuspresent the occasion dryly or in passing. The so-called Pseudo-Symeon (whose identity remains anonymous) and the historian John Skylitzes, however, recorded a much more dramatic tale. Whatever the case, bland or embellished, all of the scholars came to the same conclusion—Patriarch Tryphon ultimately resigned from his post in 931.

The story presented by the Pseudo-Symeon and John Skylitzes about the downfall of Patriarch Tryphon is one of subterfuge and trickery. As the patriarch had done nothing to merit his resignation from the leadership of the church of Constantinople, Tryphon reportedly tried to delay or break his deal to step down. As the story goes, Romanos became impatient with the stubborn patriarch and he and his allies soon began to spread rumors about Tryphon to make the man’s position at the head of the church untenable. One such accusation that was reportedly spread insinuated that Tryphon was illiterate and did not know how to write. In 931, so the story goes, the patriarch convened a synod to disprove these rumors. Before the eyes of his peers, the patriarch was said to have written down his name and title on a document and handed it over to an acquaintance who would bring the proof of Tryphon’s literacy to the emperor. The messenger, unfortunately for the patriarch, was alleged to have been an agent of Emperor Romanos. Therefore, as soon as he had the chance, the mischievous messenger supposedly added a forged letter of resignation to Patriarch Tryphon’s signed document. According to John Skylitzes, before the clergymen of Constantinople left the meeting, the tampered document was brought back in and, “This ‘resignation’ was presented to the Synod and Tryphon was put out of the church, bitterly decrying the deceit which had been practiced on him” (Synopsis historian, chapter 10, section 26).

Whatever the truth behind Tryphon’s resignation, he indeed stepped down in 931. Although Romanos’ son was the successor to Tryphon’s position, young Theophylact was still not old enough to take up the role as Patriarch of Constantinople until 933, when he reached the age of sixteen. Theophylact would continue to oversee the church of Constantinople until his death in 956.

Written by C. Keith Hansley

Picture Attribution: (Second Ecumenical painted by Vasily Surikov, c. 1876, [Public Domain] via Creative Commons).

Sources:

  • A Synopsis of Byzantine History by John Skylitzes (c. 1040-1101), translated by John Wortley (Cambridge University Press, 2010).

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