This is one of several translated excerpts from Byzantine sources produced and mounted with historical introduction and commentary by Paul Stephenson.


 

THE LIVES OF SAINTS CYRIL & METHODIOS

 

INTRODUCTION

The two brothers, Constantine (b. 826/7) who took the monastic name Cyril) and Methodios (b. 815), were born in Thessalonika, sons of the droungarios Leo and Maria, who may have been a Slav. The "ethnicity" of the brothers has been much discussed, largely from modern national viewpoints. It is clear from the brothers' vitae that they were fluent Greek-speakers and educated in a Greek milieu: Constantine had no trouble with the works of Gregory of Nazianzos. However, they also grasped Slavic easily, and may have encountered it daily in the city, if not at home. Constantine proceeded to master a number of other languages, including, if we are to believe his biographer, Hebrew, Arabic and Swedish (the "Rus letters" he encountered in Cherson). Methodios was appointed to a position of authority in a Slavic-speaking area, probably Strumica, but possibly (A.-E. Tachiaos has argued) in Bithynia, where large numbers of Slavs had been resettled.

Constantine pursued his education in Constantinople, where he won himself a place in the classes of some of the most notable teachers and thinkers of the period: Leo the Mathematician and Photios, later Patriarch of Cple. Then, by the intervention of a powerful patron, one Theoktistos, whose niece he married, Constantine entered the civil service, and was appointed principal secretary to the patriarch. A position of great influence within both the Church and secular government, and one which obliged him to be ordained deacon. As many of the brightest and the best are foolish enough to do, however, he turned his back on this to become a teacher. According to his biography, he was appointed to a professorship "so that he may teach philosophy to both natives and foreigners." Aged 24, he was rescued from the obscurity of the academy to take part in a diplomatic mission to Samarra, at that time capital of the Abbasid Arab caliphate. Given the interests of Constantine's biographer, it is no surprise that we find our hero on this trip engaged in nothing but theological discussions. However, this life was written when Constantine was remembered as Saint Cyril. It is likely that his principal purpose was to engage in high-level discussion on a number of political and cultural issues.

It is possible that the mission was not a great success. At any event, Constantine fell out of favour, and retired from Constantinople to a monastery on Mt. Olympus in nearby Bithynia. Here he was joined by his brother Methodios, who had relinquished his administrative post. From here, back in favour, the brothers embarked on a further diplomatic mission, to the distant Khazar empire north of the Black Sea. The nature of the mission, where wide-ranging linguistic and philosophical skills were necessary made Constantine an obvious choice, and he took his older brother along as his assistant. The mission, according to the the life of Constantine, was prompted by a visit by a representative of the Khazar ruler, the Khagan, to the court of the Byzantine emperor Michael III. The khagan, it was announced, had determined to choose a religion, and invited embassies from the principal Christian and Muslim powers, and well as representative of the Jewish faith. In the event, Constantine was -- once again? -- unsuccessful. The khagan chose Judaism, reckoning that to adopt either of the other two faiths would leave him open to claims of subordination to the Byzantine emperor or Abbasid Caliph. Indeed, from a close reading of Constantine's biography, much clearly based on notes the subject himself took on his travels, the khagan had already converted to Judaism when the Byzantine mission arrived. Constantine's disputes, in Hebrew with the Jewish delegates, and Arabic with the Arabs, did not sway the khagan, although the vita claims 200 Khazars were consequently baptised as Christians. Still greater success was achieved in the political realm: an alliance against the further encroachments of nomadic peoples, Pechenegs and Magyars, was sealed, and both parties recognised the threat of a new people to both empires: the Rus, who had attacked Constantinople in 860.

Returning to Constantinople, Constantine and Methodios both, once again, retired from public life. However in 862, a message arrived which led them to undertake their most important diplomatic mission to date, to the Slavs of Moravia. This required meticulous linguistic preparations. Constantine, with the assistance of his brother and a research team of monks based on Bithynian Olympus, devised the first Slavic alphabet, which we call Glagolitic, for use in the mission to Moravia. Constantine did not invent the script called Cyrillic, a modified version of which is still used in, amongst others, Russia, Bulgaria and Serbia. Cyrillic is, however, named after Constantine.

According to Constantine's biographer, the following message had come from Ratislav, ruler of Moravia: "Since our people rejected idolatory and came under Christian law [i.e. they had already converted to Christianity], we have not had a teacher capable of explaining this faith to us in our own tongue ... Therefore send us lord [Emperor Michael III] such a bishop and teacher, for it is from you that the good law ever flows to all the lands." The location of Ratislav's realm, called by the Byzantines Megale Moravia has been disputed, and represents one of the most virulent and fascinating debates in Medieval studies. It may sound strange that we can know a fair amount about a medieval realm, but not be sure where exactly it was located. However, the written evidence, the principal sources being the lives of Constantine and Methodios, are ambiguous. Imre Boba provocatively suggested it lay south of the river Danube (in modern Serbia). His thesis, presented first in a monograph published in 1971, and sustained through dozens of subsequent articles, revived ideas mooted by Southern Slav nationalists in the nineteenth century. Boba's thesis has found qualified support in the work of Charles Bowlus. An alternative location has been suggested by Martin Eggers, who, drawing heavily on the Ljetopis Popa Dukljanina, locates the Kerngebiet of ninth-century Moravia on the Great Hungarian Plain. This ongoing debate continues to inspire comment from Czech and Slovak historians, Byzantinists and western medievalists. Naturally, scholars in the modern Czech Republic and Slovakia are keen for the medieval Moravia to be centred on the modern region of that name. Much of their national history, indeed identity has drawn on the stories of the activities of Constantine and Methodios. For it was as a consequence of the brothers' mission to Moravia that the Slavic peoples of this region, and consequently of all Slavic regions, gained the first Slavic alphabet, and thus the means to write their own language. And the first works translated into that language, by Constantine and Methodios themselves, were Christian texts to allow for the preaching of Eastern Orthodox Christianity to the Slavs first in Moravia, but subsequently also Dalmatia and Bulgaria, and later still Russia.

Archaeological finds throughout present-day Moravia suggest most strongly that a powerful and rich realm was established there in the ninth century, and those inclined to place medieval Moravia on the same land as modern Moravia have concluded that this is proof. Other have maintained that the artefacts and settlements are evidence for the slightly earleir Avar empire. However, the latter must find equivalent structures in the regions they suggest were Moravian fully to refute the former, and as yet they have not. And even if they do, there argument is not conclusive, since the Avars also dominated the region currently preferred by the advocates of a southern Moravia! It is possible, of course, that Moravia was extensive enough to embrace both areas, and a discussion of "The centre" is perhaps irrelevant since the ruler of Moravia is likely to have had to travel extensively, checking on and rewarding his subordinates to ensure their loyalty.

The mission undertaken by Cyril and Methodios to Moravia was an aspect of the Byzantine desire to bring order, taxis, to the lands which lay beyond the empire's northern frontier. It had the additional, and quite specific practical advantage of replacing German, Latin Christian influences -- to which Ratislav's Moravians had already been converted -- with those of the Eastern Church. Ratislav, like the Khazar khagan, realised the disadvantages of being considered subordinate to a powerful neighbour. German Christianity was preached in Latin, and Church services were performed in Latin by German bishops. This implied submission to Germany. By accepting the Byzantine missionaries, who were willing to preach in Slavic and devised a Slavic liturgy for Church services, Ratislav rejected his powerful neighbour for the more flexible Byzantines. Moreover, if the traditional location of Moravia, to the north, is correct, Byzantium was also considerably further away, allowing Ratislav much greater freedom of action.

Constantine died as the monk Cyril, aged 42. The last years of Methodios life were taken up with power politics, as he struggled against the German bishops he and his brother had displaced in Moravia. At one stage he ended up in gaol, and after his death his followers were forced to flee Moravia and head back towards Byzantium. With the two brothers dead, and the followers displaced from Moravia, the Slavic mission would appear to have failed. However, with the lessons learned in Moravia, and the language and texts produced for that enterprise, the brothers' followers successfully brought Slavic Orthodox Christianity to the Balkans.

 


Paul Stephenson, August 2001

Revised January 2012