May 29, 2021

The Causes of the Fall of Constantinople, According to Joseph Bryennios

By Metropolitan Hierotheos of Nafpaktos and Agiou Vlasiou

The fall of Constantinople on May 29, 1453 was the culmination of the declining glory of the Roman Empire, the so-called Byzantium. Much has been written about the causes of this fall, which presents the situation in which the Roman Empire-Byzantium was at that time, since all of Asia Minor and Eastern Thrace was lost and only Constantinople and its environs remained. The occasional enemies had inflicted great damage, culminating in a final blow by the Frankish occupation of Constantinople during the Fourth Crusade on April 13, 1204. After a few years (1261) its recapture and liberation offered nothing really substantial, because the city was already destroyed and completely looted.

Apart from the political and social causes that contributed to the fall of Constantinople, special mention should be made of the spiritual causes to which we usually do not pay much attention.

After all, according to Orthodox theology, God directs the world with His uncreated energies, and His personal intervention is manifested in His good pleasure, His long-suffering, the allowance of various temptations, etc. To such spiritual causes refers the monk Joseph Bryennios, the teacher of the nation and confessor of the faith, who lived in the last moments of the Queen City's life and listened to the roar of her death.

Joseph Bryennios, a teacher of Saint Mark the Eugenikos, according to a study by the late Professor of the University of Athens Nikolaos Tomadakis, was born in Constantinople around 1350 AD, became a monk in the Stoudios Monastery, was an ascetic with a patristic mind, a great scholar, a teacher of the nation, advisor to Emperors and Patriarchs, sent by the Emperor on various critical missions such as to Cyprus and Crete, spoke on official days at the Palace, participated in the preparations for the discussion of the Orthodox for the "union of the Churches", and reposed around 1431, about twenty-two years before the fall of Constantinople. As Archimandrite Irenaios Delidimos wrote, in the introduction of his works published by the publishing house Vasilios Rigopoulos, "Joseph Bryennios during the years 1401-1431 was recognized as the leading scholar in Constantinople."

Joseph Bryennios on Great Friday (April 14) of the year 1419, about thirty-five years before the fall of Constantinople, delivered a speech in the Palace "in the presence of kings, and ultimately the assembly of the exceptional of our race, and the queen of these cities," as it is typically written in the title.

According to other texts, there were about 70,000 inhabitants in Constantinople at that time and he himself appealed to the people of Constantinople, without any response, to contribute to the reconstruction of its walls, in view of the great danger. But the inhabitants, especially the rich, engaged in increasing their personal income, were indifferent, with the result that the city resembled, as he says, a "wrecked" ship that was ready to sink.

In the speech we are referring to, this distinguished learned monk, speaking before the official rulers of Constantinople, explained vividly the spiritual causes of the coming fall of the Queen City. And this testimony is important because it comes from a learned monk and ascetic, with morals, education and a patristic mind, who was respected by all at that time and who lived in those years when the inhabitants saw the impending doom.

The content of this speech is analyzed in the headline: "The race is perishing and falling to the Ishmaelites, because the body and blood of Christ are sold by the so-called spiritual fathers and bought by us - woe is me!"

At the beginning of his speech, Joseph Bryennios expresses his pain, since the nation is surrounded by sufferings, which, as he says, "tears my heart, confuses the mind and hurts the soul." He speaks of the "whole-body wound" and the "universal disease". The race has fallen into various passions and sins. All Christians became "proud, arrogant, greedy, selfish, ungrateful, disobedient, despicable, desensitized, unrepentant, uncompromising." They became lawless rulers, responsible for seizures, bribe-taking judges, false mediators, immoral youths, drunk old men, gambling bourgeois, dumb peasants, "and entirely wicked." Simultaneously with the general collapse of the people, lost were the "pious from the earth, disappeared was the thinker, the wise cannot be found." This is the reason why various enemies have overtaken the west and east and are destroying the empire.

He then refers to the greatest sin committed in history, namely the betrayal of Judas, which consists in "selling honor and buying the Lord", that is, Judas sold the Lord, whom the Jews bought. This sacrilege, as he says, is done nowadays, since many of the so-called spiritual fathers sell the Lord and "the one who has silver buys it and willingly." Apparently this is because the so-called spiritual fathers granted remission of sins by receiving money. But also many of the priests are consciously abusive, since they too are possessed by these passions and come to liturgize at the revered altar in an impudent manner. He refers in detail to the downfall of the Church, since the pastors have moved away from the teaching and the limits set by the Fathers. But the monks have also lost their destination and are dealing with other issues, since there are monks "of three and five, and seven having an adelphate from various people left behind."

The term "adelphate" means "committee managing a charitable business" (Dimitrakou) which belongs to the municipalities. In a general sense, an adelphate is "an association with very close ties between its members" or "a committee with management duties in charities, churches, hospitals" (Babiniotis). In this case, the term "adelphate" probably means shares of the monastery that are received and held by the living monks outside the monastery who exploit them, so such a monk should probably be called a "robber" and this action "sacrilege", because he keeps the adelphate of the bankrupt monasteries pledged for interest. It is an alteration of monasticism, which lost its hesychastic tradition and was transformed into a material exploitation of monasteries.

And after making a great analysis of this situation that is observed in the rulers and the people, the clergy and the monks, the bourgeois and the peasants, he concludes in this wonderful and important speech in a summary, in which he gives the appropriate advice to avoid the evil, which he clearly sees coming.

He says that seeing forty years ago the cities were deserted, the countries were destroyed, the churches were burned, the saints were desecrated and the sacred vessels were given to the dogs and "all the mortal race, to slavery and the knife", he prayed to God to reveal to him the reason for this abandonment of the people and "God's indignation towards us." And after many prayers he found the cause and wants to reveal it, on this day, before the kings and the rulers and all the people, because he is afraid, lest he be punished if he is silent. And the cause of God's wrath and His righteous indignation against the Romans is "the body and blood of Christ are sold by the so-called spiritual fathers and bought by us Christians."

He protests against this fact and invokes as witnesses the chorus of saints and angels. He asks the rulers of the clergy and the people to repent and return to God for "the restoration of the nation" and for God to be with them, because otherwise they will suffer worse than those who suffered in the old Jerusalem, which was conquered by its enemies. Clearly here he refers to the fall of Constantinople, the new Jerusalem. He asks the inhabitants to repent, because if this does not happen, the catastrophe will be so great that all nations and future generations will say in similar cases: "Let it not happen to us as it happened to the Romans." It should be noted here that on the eve of the fall of Constantinople and the Empire, its inhabitants were not called Byzantines - which was a term later used by the Franks - but Romans.

However, Joseph Bryennios is not content with general exhortations to repentance, but he concretes it and in this way analyzes in reality what it means to sell the body and blood of Christ, that is, he refers to the unworthy reception of the body and blood of Christ, the committing of various sins by clergy, monks and lay people, which are not confessed, and the betrayal of the faith. In these ways there is irreverence towards the Body of Christ, the Church. He gives four pieces of advice and directions for repentance.

The first is for the clergy not to receive money from those who confess to them. The second piece of advice is that the priests should not hold collateral for interest, that a monk should not receive interest from the monastery, nor that those outside the monastery should hold more than two brothers each after ten years, and that no one should commune of the Immaculate Mysteries from those who are publicans and unjust, unless they restore and return the offense. The third piece of advice is not to partake of the body and blood of Christ, "while sin is active within you" - unless you have repented and been set free from sin; though this does not apply for those who after confession are seriously ill and near death. And the fourth piece of advice is "priests are not to co-liturgize with the priests of the impious [meaning the Latins and Latin-minded] nor with any of those who seek secular justice."

And because some argued that before death one should commune without the necessary preconditions, Joseph Bryennios says that no one went to hell because he did not have time to commune of the Immaculate Mysteries at the last moment - of course after living a life of repentance in the Church - but a myriad went to hell "for receiving unworthily." That is why he advises Christians to confess and observe the time of abstinence from Holy Communion that will be imposed by the spiritual fathers for the cure of each sin. He also says with certainty: "Know that it is better to abstain with reverence and fear, than to receive with boldness and unworthiness."

This speech of the great teacher of our nation before the fall of Constantinople is important, which shows what are the spiritual causes of the fall of the Queen of the cities and what should be the real life of the Clergy and Christians who want to be and are called Orthodox Christians.

The various afflictions have mainly and above all spiritual causes, even if we do not want to identify them. We must not only dwell on political, social and economic factors, but we must also look at the spiritual dimension of the issue, since God directs history. After all, the thousand-year-old Roman-Byzantine Empire was maintained for so many years, because it experienced the Orthodox faith, since its model, basically, was sanctification and participation in the glory of God.

Also, from this prophetic and patristic speech of Joseph Bryennios, it seems that we must learn "how people ought to conduct themselves in God's house, which is the church of the living God, the pillar and foundation of the truth" (1 Tim. 3:15). This refers to the proper way of approaching the Holy Mysteries, to striving to keep the commandments of Christ in our daily lives, and to the struggle to keep the Orthodox faith intact.

These words of Joseph Bryennios also refer to us, since in our national, family and personal life, we must rely on spiritual foundations. The passages "Blessed are the people whose helper is the Lord their God" and "Blessed are all who fear the Lord" have a spiritual application and constitute the so-called spiritual law. If we live improperly, then God for our education and love allows various sufferings so that we may repent.

The prophetic word of the teacher of our nation Joseph Bryennios is relevant.

Source: Translated by John Sanidopoulos.