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E - 109 : Adriatic Sea - the Borderline between Catholics and Orthodox

Updated: Apr 16, 2021


Pope Francis and Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople meeting on 17 Sept 2019


Had Emperor Diocletian (244 – 311 AD) looked in his retirement from his Palatial Gardens (in today’s Split) over the sea, he would have seen the only surviving element of the many reforms he enacted during his reign (284 – 305 AD): the borderline between Eastern and Western Roman Empire. We cross this line at the end of our third week. It is still visible today. On either side of the Adriatic Sea, the shape and look of churches differ as does the way clergy men dress and preach.

The Remainders of Diocletian's Palace in Split today, August 2019


Diocletian came to power at the end of the “Crisis of the Third Century” (235 – 284 AD) during which Emperors barely survived a few years. Invasions from German tribes and the Persian Empire were frequent, separatism on a large scale in Gaul and Syria threatened the unity of the Empire, the first wave of plague ravaged the Mediterranean, rampant inflation ruined commerce leading to a deep economic depression. The Roman Empire was on his knees. Diocletian diagnosed the Empire’s inability to make decisions, its huge bureaucracy, the spiraling inflation, the permanent deficit and the undermining effects of the Christian message of peace and forgiveness as root cause for the “Roman malaise”.


To expedite Rome’s slow decision making process, he divided the Empire first by two – between East and West – in 286 AD and then into four seven years later. New capitals were built for the four sub-empires: Trevorum (Trier), Nicomedia (Izmit), Mediolanum (Milan) and Sirmium (Sremska Mitrovica) – all close to the unruly borders but bloating the bureaucracy further. He significantly increased taxes to close his budget gap and tied farmers to their land when they tried to escape to the tax free cities. He introduced price controls, debased the silver currency and launched the Empire’s most bloody prosecution of Christians. None of his reforms addressed the real issues and none survived. His successor, Constantine the Great, reversed them all. But the notion of Eastern and Western Rome stuck and was taken up again in the 4th century.

The Four Parts of the Roman Empire created by Diocletian which Constantine the Great reunited in 324 AD. Prosecution of Christians stopped in 311 AD

Defending the Western Empire - the borders in England and Germany – required as many military resources as defending the borders against the Persians in the East. But the western part of the Roman Empire was poor. The iron plow which made the farming of heavy, wet soils possible had not been invented yet. Most of today’s France, England and Germany were forested. Once on its own, the Western Empire run out of money to defend and organize itself and was simply taken over the Germanic Dukes who run Rome’s mercenary armies. In 476 AD, the Western Roman Empire was no more. The wealthier East on the other hand could always mobilize resources to defend itself – one of them was looting the pagan temples after Christianity became the state religion. Christianity was a modest religion – commemorating Jesus’ last supper was its highest form of worship and cost nothing. The gold and silver of pagan temples filled the coffers of the Byzantine Treasury.

Europe in 526 AD - 50 Years after the Collapse of the Western Empire


The absence of Imperial Power allowed the Pope who was just one of four patriarchs – the others were in Constantinople, Alexandria and Antioch – to claim superiority in rank as "Saint Peter's Successor" and “God’s Representative on Earth”. The other three patriarchs were appointed by the Byzantine Emperor. In 800 AD, Pope Leo III crowned Charlemagne as Emperor of the “Holy Roman Empire of German Nations” further separating Eastern and Western Rome. It was all about politics and power, never about religion. In 1054 AD, Pope Leo IX and the Patriarch of Constantinople, Michael I, had their terminal fall-out. Official claims state that it was about “the correct rites”. In reality it was about Southern Italy and the Norman conquests. Both sides excommunicated each other. The border between the Eastern and Western Roman Empire now became a religious border. Henceforth, Venice, Genoa and the Crusaders would use religion as a tool to further their commercial interests and undermine the Byzantine Empire.

Europe's Religions in 1054 at the Time of the Great Schism - the Orthodox regions of Southern Italy were integrated into the Catholic Church whilst maintaining their rites


From today’s perspective, the religious disputes between the two churches look ridiculous. Do we really believe that different interpretations of the “original sin” or who is enlightened enough to teach God or whether leavened or un-leavened bread was eaten at the last supper split churches? But it had real consequences like the sacking of Constantinople in 1204 by the 4th Crusade and Venice – the first step to open the gate for the Ottoman take-over of Anatolia. Sometimes I wonder about people’s sanity, disregarding the long-term consequences of short-term actions until it is too late. The fall of Constantinople in 1453 is a good example.


After 1543, the borderline between Eastern and Western Rome became the borderline between the Ottoman Empire and the Christian States. Numerous bloody battles were fought along this line. Otranto (1480), Prevezza (1538), Malta (1565) and Lepanto (1571) are names we already met in this blog.


As a matter of fact, the differences between Catholics and Orthodox Christians are minor and often of organizational nature:


§ The Orthodox Church is bottom-up governed and has many patriarchs. The Patriarch of Constantinople is only the Primus inter Pares. The Pope in Rome is the boss of the highly centralized Catholic Church

§ The Pope considers himself as successor of Saint Peter and representative of Jesus Christ. Patriarchs are just humans who believe in God and are allowed to marry

§ Also, Patriarchs do not consider themselves infallible as the Pope does

§ In religious matter, the Orthodox Church does not need the concept of Immaculate Conception since it considers Jesus Christ to be of human nature

§ Last but not least, the Orthodox Church believes that the Holy Spirit emanates from God, the Father, and is not on equal level with God and Jesus Christ


But this goes far too deep for such my short travel blog. We will have ample time to discuss these issues on the back of the AFAET. Emperor Diocletian could never have imagined that his borderline would once separate two great Christian Churches which he tried to suppress by brutal force.

The back of the AFAET in Portofino, July 2020

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