Between Byzantium and Rome: Bulgaria in the Aftermath of the Photian Schism

Ian S. R. Mladjov (University of Michigan, Ann Arbor)


Bulgaria’s conversion to Christianity in 864 served as the catalyst for the so-called “Photian Schism” between Rome and Constantinople.  The Byzantine government was able to pressure the Bulgarian ruler Boris I (853–889) into accepting the Greek rite.  However, when the Byzantine church failed to grant Boris I an autocephalous archbishop for Bulgaria, he turned to Rome in 866.  Pope Nicholas I (858–867) and the East Frankish King Ludwig II (840–876) both sent priests into Bulgaria, to introduce the Latin rite.  Alarmed, Patriarch Photius (858–867) convoked a synod which condemned the western practices introduced into Bulgaria and informed Boris that he was being led astray.  This political maneuver backfired, causing a major quarrel between the Papacy and the Byzantine church.  Photius excommunicated Nicholas, who did not live to react, and Pope Hadrian II (867–872) excommunicated the now deposed Photius and his appointees in 869.  Emperor Basil I (867–886) and Patriarch Ignatius (867–877) reluctantly agreed to accept the papal decision at the Council of Constantinople in 869–870.  However, by now Rome too had failed to satisfy the Bulgarians, and Boris sent a delegation to the council inquiring whether Bulgaria belonged to Rome or to Constantinople.  The eastern prelates who constituted the majority of the participants voted in favor of Constantinople.  Consequently Bulgaria returned to the Greek rite and Boris expelled the Roman and Frankish missionaries from his lands.  Naturally, the Papacy vehemently opposed the council’s decisions, and Pope John VIII (872–882) continually tried to reverse the situation.  When Patriarch Photius was restored (877–886) he tried to conciliate Rome by surrendering Bulgaria to the Roman church in 878.  However, by this time Bulgaria was committed to the Byzantine church and unlikely to revert to the Roman fold.


This paper examines Bulgaria’s position between Rome and Constantinople during, and especially after, the Photian Schism.  While it is clear that the Byzantine concession of 878 was correctly calculated as purely symbolic, its on Bulgaria’s relations to the west has remained virtually unexamined.  I argue that, although the Bulgarian church remained faithful to the practices of the Greek rite—modified by Slavonic liturgy—some relations continued to exist between Bulgaria and Rome during the late ninth and tenth century.  The attempt of Patriarch Nicholas I (912–925) to enlist papal support in his diplomatic dealings with Simeon I (893–927) of Bulgaria in 923 suggests that the Papacy retained a certain amount of influence, if not outright leverage, at the Bulgarian court.  The papal intervention in the conflict between Bulgaria and Croatia in 926 also implies this.  Did the new relationship between Rome and Bulgaria extend any further?  In the mid 920s Simeon had come to terms with the Byzantines and agreed to a peace.  However, he repeatedly undercut the proposed peace by insisting that the Byzantines recognize not only his title of “Emperor of the Bulgarians”—which they were begrudgingly willing to do—but also that of “Emperor of the Romans.”  Could this barrier to peace have been inspired by something more than obstinacy?  Perhaps Bulgaria was once again vacillating between Constantinople and Rome in a quest for a new goal.  Possibly a pope interested in extending his authority into the Balkans, like John X (914–928), could have done what the later correspondence between Kalojan (1197–1207) of Bulgaria and Pope Innocent III (1197–1216) alleges—namely, that he confirmed the Bulgarian ruler as emperor and the Bulgarian archbishop as patriarch.  The sources are limited, but this course of action is plausible.  Moreover, the imperial throne in the west was vacant from 924 to 962, and the Bulgarian ruler could have claimed—even if he had not received—a Roman imperial title.  Regardless of the validity of Simeon’s claims as reconstructed in this hypothesis, it seems reasonable to imagine in the early tenth-century a broad southern Europe more integrated and aware of itself as such than before—and a Bulgaria still suspended, in terms of diplomacy, between Constantinople and Rome.