By John Sanidopoulos
When we think of heretics being burned alive, most people think of the time of the medieval Inquisition. Civil authorities indeed burned persons judged to be heretics under the medieval Inquisition. William Graham Sumner says burning heretics had become customary practice in the latter half of the twelfth century in continental Europe, and that death by burning became statutory punishment from the beginning of the twelfth century. But why such a punishment for heresy?
The historical origins for such a punishment goes back to the third century, shortly after the death of Mani, founder of the dualist heresy known as Manicheism. In 297, Emperor Diocletian went to war with the Zoroastrian Persians. By this time Manicheism had infiltrated the Roman Empire. Since there was an element of Zoroastrianism in Manicheism, Diocletian persecuted them also. He viewed them as a “malignant serpent” poisoning the Roman people with the customs and laws of the Persians. Evidently, because Zoroastrians were perceived to worship fire and refused to cremate bodies or bury them, due to the fact that they considered fire and earth too sacred to have contact with dead bodies,1 Diocletian enacted a law which ordered all leaders and propagators of the Manicheans to be put to death by burning together with their sacred books. This law or similar laws was to be renewed off and on by Roman emperors throughout the centuries against the Manicheans and those perceived to be Manicheans.
"This edict remained at least nominally in force under Constantine and Constantius. Under Julian the Apostate, Manicheism seems to have been tolerated. Valentinian I and Gratian, though tolerant of other sects, made exception of the Manicheans. Theodosius I, by an edict of 381, declared Manicheans to be without civil rights and incapable of testamentary disposition. In the following year, he condemned them to death under the name of Encratites, Saccophores, and Hydroparastates. Valentinian II confiscated their goods, annulled their wills, and sent them into exile. Honorios in 405 renewed the edicts of his predecessors, and fined all governors of cities or provinces who were remiss in carrying out his orders; he invalidated all their contracts, declared them outlaws and public criminals. In 445, Valentinian III renewed the edicts of his predecessors; Anastasios condemned all Manicheans to death; Justin and Justinian decreed the death penalty, not only against Manicheans who remained obstinate in their heresy, but even against converts from Manichaeism who remained in touch with their former co-religionists, or who did not at once denounce them to the magistrates. Heavy penalties were likewise decreed against all State officials who did not denounce their colleagues, if infected with Manicheism, and against all those who retained Manichean books. It was a war of extermination and was apparently successful, within the confines of the Byzantine Empire."2 Justinian’s crusade against the Manicheans pretty much extinguished it from the Roman Empire, though it is unlikely that he had any Manichean burned to death.
Because later dualist sects such as the Paulicians and Bogomils followed a similar template of beliefs with the Manicheans, with some Messalian and Gnostic additions, it is no surprise that they also were referred to as Manicheans and suffered a similar fate. Primarily referring to the Paulicians, John of Damascus wrote: "It is better to convert to Judaism and to die a Jew than to have any fellowship with the Manicheans." This was because the Paulicians were absolute dualists, despising the material world, the rulers and the clergy. We have extremely few references to the possibility of punishment of burning being meted out, but when we do it is usually a punishment issued by civil authorities. Christian leaders usually had one of three responses to this: either they were obedient to the laws of the state, they urged the civil authorities to proceed with the persecution for fear of the spread of heresy, or they opposed it. For example, opposition to the death penalty for Paulicians came from the abbot of Studios Monastery and fierce opponent of Iconoclasm, Theodore the Studite3 in his letter to Theophilos the Ephesian, who feared that with the tares the wheat also would be rooted up and thrown into the fire.
The fears of Theodore were heeded by Emperor Alexios Komnenos (1081-1118 A.D.), when during his reign a leader of the Bogomils named Basil entered Constantinople with his twelve disciples and won a multitude of converts, including some from the upper class in society. The Bogomil movement borrowed heavily from the Paulicians and Messalians as well as other dualist sects, and were anti-clerical and anti-establishement, though they outwardly appeared to be pious Orthodox Christians, many even infiltrating various monasteries to spread their heresy. Emperor Alexios sought to convert Basil to Orthodoxy by inviting him to dinner in his palace and housing him near the palace. This was initially done to cunningly extract from Basil his secret teachings through deceit. When this was done, Basil promised "that he was ready to undergo fire and scourging, to die a thousand deaths."4 Anna Komnena gives us some interesting information which is confirmed by Euthymios Zygabenos, saying that Bogomils believed they could endure punishment without pain thinking angels would pluck them from the funeral pyre, which is a logical conclusion to the Bogomil disdain for the material creation.
It was decreed after this by Alexios that all the Bogomils, in particular Basil’s twelve apostles, from all over the empire were to be summoned to him for trial. We are not told how many Bogomils were brought forth, but Anna tells us they were a great number and it even included many high-standing nobles. Some confessed to their Bogomil beliefs, while others denied the charges completely. Alexios, not wanting to falsely accuse a Christian, devised a plan to sift the wheat from the tares by lighting two pyres, one with a cross next to it and one without. It was believed that the true Christian would desire to be burnt to death next to the pyre with a cross rather than without. This event took place before a large crowd in a place called Tzykanisterin, which was the palace polo ground. We are told the crowd felt sympathy for the Christians who were possibly about to be burnt and they were filled with indignation against the emperor, not knowing his plan. After giving each person the choice of pyres, except the twelve apostles, the separation was done. The Christians were set free while the Bogomils were sent to prison for life. We are not told if this satisfied the crowd. Alexios would summon some of the Bogomils daily to exhort them away from heresy, while Church leaders were sent to the rest. Some converted, while others eventually died in prison though they were supplied with plentiful food and clothing.
Following this, a unanimous decision was made by the Holy Synod, the Patriarch Nicholas and the chief monks to have Basil burnt to death. After Alexios approved this vote, a huge fire was kindled in the Hippodrome as tall as the stone obelisk which stood at its center. The crowds gathered and many Bogomils were in attendance. A cross was set up near the fire in case, for dread of the fire, Basil decided to recant and escape.
This is considered the first and perhaps only inquisition-like event to come out of the Roman Empire of the East. The Roman Empire viewed heresy as treason and a threat to the unity and government of the empire. Since the unity and laws of the empire rested in its Orthodox Christian beliefs enacted into its law code through its prior Eight Ecumenical Synods, to cause a wide disturbance was viewed as a threat. Having just suffered much under Iconoclasm which had penetrated the aristocracy, now that Bogomilism was doing the same both the Church and the empire were threatened with another disturbance and possible persecution. This is why Alexios was praised by both Euthymios Zygabenos and Anna Komnena for ratifying the ecclesiastical and civil decision to put Basil the Bogomil to death and imprison his followers, who had plagued the empire for decades. Furthermore, since Basil based the proof of his belief in Bogomilism on the theory that if put to death he would feel no pain or fear, the best apologetic against Bogomilism was for the Emperor Alexios to publicly display Basil’s pain and fear in the Hippodrome of Constantinople.
Both Anna and Zygabenos proceed to tell us with unusually vivid detail not only the atmosphere of the proceedings, but of Basil’s reaction to the verdict pronounced against him as well as the emotions he felt as he approached the pyre. Whereas Zygabenos describes Basil as being very fearful, faint of heart and hysterical with slight moments of strength and courage, Anna describes Basil as haughty in the beginning until the time came for him to approach the pyre. She says that he was then plainly troubled like a man at his wits end and began to flinch before the fire, striking his hands together as well as his thighs. The purpose for such vivid descriptions was the fact that Bogomils believed they could approach death without pain or fear; it was purely apologetic. The emperor would send him messages to recant, but Basil was hard as steel. Gaping back and forth between the pyre and the crowd, Basil stood motionless upon his first entrance into the arena. There was also a rumor among the crowd of a miracle Basil might perform to help him escape from the fire as he had prophesied. To test this the executioners threw his woolen cloak to the fire, and Basil confidently said: “Look! My cloak flies up to the sky!” But when it landed in the center of the pyre, the executioners were confident to lift Basil up in the air and throw him into the flames; he was so thoroughly consumed that only one thin smoky line arose. We are further told that the crowd got so excited that they wanted to throw all the Bogomils into the flames, but the mild Emperor Alexios would not allow them. Instead the emperor had the Bogomils placed in custody in the porticoes and colonnades of the Great Palace, until they were placed in maximum security for a long time until they died.
Alexios sought to root out the Bogomil sect in the Roman Empire, and in his endeavor he was partly successful. After the death of Basil, Bogomilsm began to lose much strength within the empire and it never recovered, except for a short outburst between the years 1140 and 1147 which witnessed a series of Bogomil trials and the official condemnation of Bogomilism in 1143. The sect tried to continue its influence in Asia Minor, especially in Cappadocia where the heretical bishops Clement, Leontios and Niphon taught. In Constantinople it was almost entirely suppressed out of fear following the death of Basil. However, Bogomilism was to have its greatest resurgence in its motherland of Bulgaria and Macedonia and still did remain the heresy par excellence within the Roman Empire as well in the twelfth century.
At this time also, the Bogomils began to move westward, first into Serbia, Bosnia and Hum, and had considerable influence in western Europe as well. These Bulgarian Bogomils who moved westward came to be known by various names such as Cathars, Albingensians, and Patarines, and were condemned by the Latin Church and heavily persecuted. They first spread into France where they were known as the Bulgarorum haeresis and often called Bulgari, Bolgari, Bogri and Bugres. In fact, the French word “bougre,” which is synonymous with “sodomite”, was the name the Latin Church used against the Cathars. Furthermore, in the second half of the twelfth century the Catharist bishop Nazarios brought to the Italian Patarines the Bogomil Secret Book or Liber Sancti Johannis from Bulgaria, and in 1167 another Bogomil bishop named Niketas came from Constantinople and presided over the synod at St-Felix-de-Caraman in southern France. In the middle of the thirteenth century Reinerius Sacchoni stated that the origin of the Cathar heresy was in the Balkans. The extremely violent Albigensian Crusade or Cathar Crusade lasted from 1209 to 1229. It was a twenty-year military campaign initiated by the Latin Church to eliminate the heresy of the Cathars of Languedoc. Significantly, the Albigensian Crusade had a role in the creation and institutionalization of both the Dominican Order and the medieval Inquisition which had hundreds of thousands of Cathars burned to death and was fairly successful in the elimination of this heresy. Many were also converted to Islam or died by the Arab sword.
By recalling this history we see how the punishment of burning heretics alive came into the medieval West, and was later adopted by the Catholic Church in the Inquisition. It was originally a secular instituted punishment in the Roman Empire for those who subscribed to dualist beliefs that had their origins in Persia, the avowed enemies of the Romans, and it remained as such, off and on, for the next thousand years or so until the rapid expansion of the Albigensians and Cathars in the West, who fled there following a successful expulsion of the Bogomils from the Roman Empire in the East. It was believed that what worked for Constantinople in eradicating this heresy with the burning of Basil, would also work elsewhere. To some extent, it did.
1. Zoroastrians would leave dead bodies out on their rooftops until the flesh vanished from the bones either by weather or by vultures, then the bones would be placed in ossuaries.
2. Catholic Encyclopedia, 1913, by the Encyclopedia Press.
3. Theodore lived from ca. 758 – ca. 826. His letter to Theophilos the Ephesian is recorded in Hamilton, Christian Dualist Heresies, p. 61. Theophilos eventually was martyred by the Iconoclasts.
4. Alexiad, 15.8 in P.G. 131.
5. The Dogmatic Panoply, 27 in P.G. 130.
John Sanidopoulos is the author of the book titled The Rise of Bogomilism and Its Penetration into Constantinople.