One of the major obstacles in the path of Emperor Justinian’s (r. 527-565) ambition of rebuilding a happy and united Roman Empire was the religious differences that existed between his different provinces. Notably, the emperor’s reconquest of Italy seemingly became a catalyst for a new wave of animosity between the eastern and western Christian communities. At the core of this ecclesiastical issue was the Council of Chalcedon in 451, which had ruled that Jesus was both divine and human in nature. The council, in effect, rejected the Monophysite/Miaphysite Christian sect, which believed that Jesus was fully divine. Skipping ahead again to Justinian’s reign, around a century after the council, the debate over the conclusions from Chalcedon was still very much alive. In particular Egypt and Syria had strong Monophysite communities, and even Justinian’s own wife, Empress Theodora, was an admirer and defender of the sect. Justinian tried to force a compromise between the eastern and western churches, but his heavy-handed attempts at trying to bridge the gap only widened the divide.
Despite Justinian’s attempts at reconciliation, he personally favored the theology of the west, much to his wife’s annoyance. As such, when a pro-Chalcedon clergyman named Paul became Patriarch of Alexandria, in the heart of Monophysite-dominated Egypt, the emperor allegedly instructed an imperial governor of the region, named Rhodon, to assist the patriarch in his endeavor to make Egypt comply with the council. This alliance between Patriarch Paul and Rhodon, however, would turn out to be a mistake. Before long, the campaign of the patriarch and the governor shifted from debate to pure persecution. An ugly event soon became the infamous pinnacle to their partnership—as told by the contemporaneous historian, Procopius, a certain dissident priest named Psoes was arrested in Alexandria and was tortured to death by the patriarch and the governor.
Psoes’ torture and killing was said to have caused outrage in both the eastern and western churches. Pope Vigilius and Emperor Justinian both were said to have sent agents to investigate what was happening in Alexandria. Rome’s clergymen and Justinian’s investigators, suffice it to say, were not impressed. On the church’s side, a synod was convened that removed Patriarch Paul from power. As for the governor, Rhodon was relieved of his post and allegedly faced execution when he returned to the capital.
Written by C. Keith Hansley
Picture Attribution: (Anathematization of Nestorius at the Third Ecumenical Council. A fresco by the artist, Dionsysius, c. 1502, [Public Domain] via Creative Commons).
- The Secret History by Procopius, translated by G. A. Williamson and Peter Sarris. New York: Penguin Classics, 1966, 2007.