Institute of Ancient History

Religious Conflict and Mobility

Byzantium and the Greater Mediterranean, 700–900


Emmy Noether Research Group (2021-6)

In Constantinople in AD 870, more than two hundred bishops, for the most part from Asia Minor and the Balkans, gathered in council at the Church of Hagia Sophia. Papal legates sat alongside imperial officials. The Kingdom of the Franks had sent emissaries. Even the eastern Christians of the Patriarchates of Jerusalem, Antioch, and Alexandria, under the rule of the Abbasid Caliphate, had sent representatives, who were given seats of honour at the gathering. Alongside their spiritual tasks, the latter were involved in negotiating an exchange of prisoners on behalf of an Emir. Things were similar for the Greco-Sicilian bishops, now likewise the subjects of an Islamic emir. The newly converted Bulgars were also granted presence. In addition to urgent matters of ecclesiastical policy, the council sought to resolve, once and for all, the greatest theological dispute in Byzantine history: that over the veneration of images, and the apparent revival of dualistic heresies. During the Council, the Constantinopolitan monk Peter remained on the Armenian border with the Caliphate, in an area controlled by religio-political sect, the Paulicians. Here, he gathered information about their alleged Manicheism, to aid the preparations for a military assault. Meanwhile, Jewish merchants, known to contemporary sources as “Radhanites” had entered the trading houses of the Byzantine capital, from which they would likely be expelled at the end of the council, as part of an Empire-wide forcible baptism of the Jews.

How do we make sense of these various events and their connections?

The Research Group will conduct the first detailed investigations into how religious conflicts were bound with the movement of people and ideas across the wider Mediterranean, including the Near East and Eastern Europe. Religious conflict is here understood as a pervasive, diverse phenomenon at a variety of interrelated levels, that proceed from the core of the investigation, “Orthodox” Christendom beneath the Patriarchate of Constantinople: inter- and intraconfessional conflict with other Patriarchates, particularly Rome and the ‘Melkites’; missionary activity; interreligious conflict between Christians, Jews, and Muslims. Religious conflict tended to provoke or accelerate a series of “mobility events” in the 8th and 9th Centuries: such as those of political and ecclesiastical emissaries; the production, copying, translation and dissemination of texts; the voluntary or forced migration of individuals and groups; the intensification of missionary activity and the exclusion of heterodox Christians and Jews, and internal Christian reflection as well as exchanges with the Caliphate. All of these “mobility events” induced, we propose, surprisingly positive cultural-historical consequences of a global significance, contributing, in particular, to the greater cohesion of the societies of the Mediterranean as Antiquity drew to a close. 

With a funding of over 1.7 million euros, the research group will produce, in addition to an overarching synthesis produced by the Project Leader, a Habilitation monograph and two doctoral theses on some currently underresearched aspects of the interrelation of religious conflict and mobility in the indicated period (e.g. on the emergence of the Melkite collection of canons), alongside the first critical edition and translation of the Acts of the final contested ‘ecumenical’ council of ancient Christendom (879–880). The synthesis will, among other things, interweave the results of the other sub-investigations, and thereby produce a new cultural history of the critical transition between Antiquity and the Middle Ages in the Mediterranean, with Byzantium at its core. Phenomena of cultural and ecclesiastical history, such as the iconoclast controversy, "early Byzantine humanism" and the so-called "Photian Schism" are now no longer seen as the beginning of new medieval constellations, but rather as the positive culmination of broader late antique religious conflicts. Finally, from this perspective, the usefulness of the historiographical division between Antiquity and the Middle Ages, as well as the concept of the ‘Dark Ages”, will be brought into question from a fresh perspective.


Introducing the team, the future Mercator-Fellows and our partner institutions.