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BEING A PATRIARCH in Constantinople, seat of the Roman Empire, could be costly. John Chrysostom, for example, was exiled for upsetting an empress, and killed by forced marches. Patriarch Ignatius of Constantinople did not suffer quite so severely, but he barely escaped death.

Born near the end of the eighth century, he was the son of Emperor Michael I and Procopia, who named him Nicetas. When Leo the Armenian deposed Michael I, he feared that Nicetas might attempt to claim the throne so had him castrated and sent to a monastery. Nicetas took the name Ignatius and voluntarily embraced the religious life, eventually founding three monasteries and becoming an abbot.

Leo was murdered by a conspiracy led by Michael II. No assassination or revolt followed Michael’s reign and his son, Theophilos, succeeded him. The reign then passed peaceably to Theophilos’s son Michael III, who ascended the throne in 842. As he was underage, his mother, Theodora, was named regent and co-ruler. Upon the death of Patriarch Methodius five years later, Theodora exerted her influence to have Ignatius raised to the East’s most prestigious and powerful church post—Patriarch of Constantinople. 

Michael III fell under the influence of his maternal uncle, Caesar Bardas, who encouraged him in debauchery. (Caesar was his name, not his rank.) Michael wanted his mother to resign the regency and asked Ignatius to assist him in forcing her into a convent. Ignatius refused, earning the emperor’s enmity. Theodora abdicated of her own accord. Nonetheless the enmity between emperor and patriarch simmered and even increased. Bardas was living in incest with his own daughter-in-law, Eudocia, causing Ignatius to refuse him Communion. 

Bardas blamed a minor revolt on Ignatius, further poisoning the emperor against him. On this day, 23 November 857, Michael deposed and banished Ignatius. He made Photius, a scholarly layman, the Patriarch in Ignatius’s place. Pope Nicholas got involved, claiming precedence over the Patriarch of Constantinople and trying to extend his authority over the Eastern Church. He took Ignatius’s side, although his own legates to the East agreed that Ignatius had been properly deposed. Two church councils in the east pushed back against Rome, declaring Ignatius’s deposition legitimate. Meanwhile Bardas continued to allege crimes against Ignatius and finally obtained an order for his execution. Ignatius escaped death by fleeing and hiding. 

In 867 the tide turned for Ignatius. Basil I, “the Macedonian,” assassinated Michael III. One of his first acts as emperor was to depose Photius and replace him with Ignatius. Ignatius lived another decade, peaceably occupying the office of Patriarch until his death in 877. He recommended Photius as his successor, and Photius returned as ecumenical patriarch.

Dan Graves

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