By the reign of Emperor Constans II of Constantinople (r. 641-668), the empire had long been plagued by fierce religious debates between the different Christian communities in the regions of the imperial realm, including increasingly heated arguments between the rival theologians of Constantinople and Rome. Areas of disagreement included topics such as the nature of Jesus’ being and how many wills (as in an entity’s disposition or inclination) he possessed in regard to his heavenly and earthly capacities. Emperors of Constantinople in the past had weighed in on religious arguments and championed certain sides, or, alternatively, discouraged or banned debate on controversial issues in hopes of preserving a semblance of unity. Emperor Constans II behaved no differently in this tradition of emperors injecting themselves into debates over the theology of the realm. In particular, Constans’ Heraclian Dynasty—named after his ancestor, Emperor Heraclius (r. 610-641)—at that time favored the Monothelite point of view, which held that Jesus had a single will. Imperial support for Monothelitism, however, did not end the debate over the issue among the rival factions of theologians in the empire. Eventually, this prompted Emperor Constans II to take the controversial step of outlawing any further debate on the topic of Jesus’ wills in 648. This brings us to the curious character of Maximus the Confessor, a prominent theologian who would be involved in dramatically challenging the emperor’s ban on debate by helping to convene a church council the very next year after the ban had been instated.
Maximus the Confessor was born around the year 580 and could usually be found moving between bases of operation in the Middle East, North Africa and Rome. He came to be a prolific theologian with prominence and influence in the scholarly circles of the Christian church. For most of his life, Maximus the Confessor was on good terms with the church authorities in Constantinople. This relationship changed, however, when debate over Jesus’ wills erupted between the different schools of thought in the church around the 640s. Whereas the early members of the Heraclian Dynasty and their supporters in Constantinople favored the Monothelite interpretation, Maximus the Confessor instead argued against it in favor of Dyothelitism, which envisioned Jesus having two wills. In this, Maximus the Confessor was aligned with Pope Martin I (r. 649-655) and the theologians of Rome. As a side note, it should be stated that these events were occurring at a time in history when Rome and Constantinople were still politically and religiously connected. Therefore, when Emperor Constans II made his aforementioned decree outlawing any further debate on the topic of Jesus’ wills in 648, this ban extended to Rome and its theologians.
Maximus the Confessor, disregarding the emperor’s decree, became a leading organizer of the Lateran Council of 649 in Rome, which spurned the ban on debate and went on to condemn Monothelitism. Emperor Constans II took notice of the council, becoming irate that his edict was disregarded and that his favored religious interpretation was condemned. Yet, at that time, religious scuffles were second in importance to the emperor than other geopolitical issues threatening the empire—namely, he had to defend his realm against Arab invasions, and he also had ambitions of reclaiming land from the Lombards in Italy. While focusing his own attentions elsewhere, Emperor Constans II sent officials to see to his religious interests in Italy. The first official was a man named Olympius, who apparently went rogue and died fighting in Sicily around 652. Next, Constans II sent a man named Calliopas to oversee things on the Italian front. Unlike the previous official, Calliopas was much more willing to pursue the emperor’s vendetta against the organizers of the Lateran Council of 649, and Calliopas was quick in his work. As soon as 655, both Pope Martin I (who was arrested in 653) and Maximus the Confessor had been captured by the emperor’s forces and were brought by force to Constantinople for trial.
Pope Martin I was allegedly tortured and then exiled to Crimea for his role in the Lateran Council. If a pope faced this treatment, it is no surprise that the less prestigious monks or theologians condemned in 655, like Maximus the Confessor and his colleagues, would face even harsher punishment from the emperor. According to later chroniclers of Constantinople—who had by then turned against Monothelitism—Maximus the Confessor was said to have been sentenced to mutilation. As told by the chronicler Theophanes (c. 750s-818), “in the same year occurred the matter of the holy Maximus and his pupils: they were struggling for the true faith against monotheletism. Constans could not shift them to his evil belief. He cut out the saint’s tongue, which was wise in God’s ways, and cut off his right hand, since Maximus (along with his pupils the Anastasioi) had written a great deal in opposition to the Emperor’s impiety.” (Chronographia, entry for Annus Mundi 6149 [657-658 CE]). Pope Martin I reportedly died in 655, not long after the trials. Maximus the Confessor, however, lived on for several years after the incident, albeit his life was limited by various states of exile and imperial supervision. By the time of his death in 662, Maximus the Confessor was said to have been put on trial in Constantinople on two occasions, and had been sentenced to exile three times. Thankfully for Maximus and his supporters, their reputation improved posthumously after Monothelitism was later condemned with imperial support during the Third Council of Constantinople (c. 680-681).
Written by C. Keith Hansley
Picture Attribution: (At the Pillory; In Irons, by Juho Rissanen (c. 1873-1950), [Public Domain] via Creative Commons and the Finnish National Gallery).
- Theophanes, The Chronicle of Theophanes, translated by Harry Turtledove. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1982.
- History of the Lombards by Paul the Deacon, translated by William Dudley Foulke (c. 1904). University of Pennsylvania Press, 1907, 1974, 2003.
- The Oxford Dictionary of Late Antiquity, edited by Oliver Nicholson. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2018.