• Henry Hopwood-Phillips

The Trisagion Riots: Sanctified Violence

If challenged, most Byzantinists will have at least a couple of popular riots on the tip of their tongues. Nika (532) remains preeminent but there’s a secondary league too that includes events such as the revolt of Gainas (400), Thomas the Slav’s rebellion (821-23) or Zoe’s revolt (1042). In each the community’s sympathies are stirred by nakedly political acts in which they felt they had a large stake.

Theology, however, is portrayed in typical historiography as an elite endeavour, a lofty notion that hovers above the heads of violent simpletons. Sure, some lip service might be paid to Gregory of Nyssa’s remarks about the common people foisting their theological opinions on market transactions but then the natural order is resumed and such matters are framed as suitable mainly for bishops in councils or imperial diplomats pinging around the Mediterranean like pinballs.[1]

Indeed, once the pagans had been symbolically crushed at the Serapeum and the Arians had been faced down by Chrysostom’s gangs, the theology of the people receives remarkably little attention. Even during iconoclasm, the plebs are viewed more as pawns of fanatical monastics rather than actors in their own right.

So it’s time to throw one of the least familiar Constantinopolitan ructions beneath the spotlight: The Trisagion Riots (512). Which throws up a question: how could a hymn called “Thrice Holy” cause a riot? The answer is that popular theology mattered – a lot.

The Trisagion’s key passage – taking inspiration from the Book of Isaiah (6:3) – describes God thrice: “Holy God, Holy Almighty, Holy Immortal.” Interestingly, the same passage is echoed in Revelation (4:8) which has creatures that sound remarkably like seraphim praising God as “Holy, holy, holy.” The One who “was and is and is to come.”

Its importance in the first centuries derived mainly from the fact folk like Origen thought it was a rather powerful formula that appealed directly to the Father. Antioch – taking Revelation’s additional remarks as references to the incarnation – preferred to claim it formed a direct line to Christ. The Trisagion’s triple-barrelled description of God then lent itself to a Trinitarian interpretation, which in turn meant it became powerful ammunition in the fight against Arians.

The Trisagion didn’t enter the liturgy, however, until the third century in Egypt and the fourth century elsewhere. At Constantinople it was certainly in use by the fifth century when it’s contained in Proclus’ (434-446) response to the earthquake of 438, recorded by John of Damascus:

“The people of Constantinople were making public entreaty [to Proclus] to avert the threat of divine wrath, and it happened that a child was taken up out of the crowd [in the Hebdomon] and by some angelic choirmasters was taught the Trisagion after the following fashion: “Holy God, Holy Almighty, Holy Immortal, have mercy upon us.” When the child came back again and told what he had been taught, the whole crowd sang the hymn and the threat was averted.”[2]

While the closest source to the event, the Bazaar of Heracleides – written by the exiled patriarch of Constantinople Nestorius (d. 451) – reported that in order to demonstrate his authority God shook the earth until his people had adopted the correct form of the Trisagion prayer.[3]

This addition (“have mercy upon us”) suggests Proclus wanted the hymn to become liturgical in nature. Just as a single reference to “The Creed” refers to both the Symbol of the Apostles and the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed, so the Trisagion from thenceforth referred to the hymn and its liturgical version.[4] It’s the latter that’s still sung today in the Divine Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom (accompanying the entrance procession).

What elevated an innocent hymn into a war-chant? The death of the patriarch of Constantinople Flavianus during the Lactrocinium Ephesinum of 449.[5] Beaten by monks led by an Alexandrian named Barsumas (and clergy led by the presbyter Harpocration) at the “Robber Council,” he died shortly after from his wounds, prompting Marcian to convene Chalcedon (451) which condemned Dioscurus of Alexandria and set Proclus’ Trisagion as a symbol of Constantinople’s newfound supremacy.

The victory didn’t last for long. Peter Fullo (Peter the Fuller) managed to have himself made patriarch of Antioch and made another addition: “Thou who was first crucified for us, have mercy upon us” to the Trisagion c.468-488. Calendion, his successor, added “Christ the King” at the beginning of Peter’s addition to make “Christ the King; Thou who was crucified for us, have mercy on us.”[6] Making the Trisagion the first hymn to be modified for Christological reasons. To generalise – in a thick sea of shifting theologies and identities – some understood the hymn as referring to the Son, others to the Trinity.

Peter, however, wasn’t allowed to unilaterally amend the Trisagion with impunity. The deposed Martyrius was reinstated by the emperor who sent an imperial force to ensure Antioch heeded him. Martyrius, however, had abandoned the city after an abortive attempt and at the arrival of the army Peter fled to Constantinople where he was granted refuge among the Acoemetae (Sleepless Ones) in return for his silence.[7]

When Zeno died the empress Ariadne married Anastasius (491-518). The Illyrian steered a theological middle way until the arrival of a rabidly Monophysite monk called Severus in Constantinople (508) with a small army of non-Chalcedonian monks. At this point the emboldened emperor tried to force his patriarch (Macedonius) to move against Chalcedon to little avail. As matters moved to a head, he had Macedonius deposed and exiled (511) and Severus and his followers took to singing the Trisagion of Peter Fullo in the capital’s churches.

The people of Constantinople, however, refused to kowtow to the new (presumably pro-Monophysite) patriarch, Timothy. But Anastasius dug his heels in and resolved to make Fullo’s version the official Trisagion by imperial edict (November 4th, 512). It was at this point that point Hagia Sophia erupted into chaos. At one end the pro-imperial crowd sang Fullo’s version, at the other the people of Constantinople chanted Proclus’ Trisagion. Finally, like football hooligans, they clashed in brawls that resulted in dozens of deaths, arrests and a temporarily quelled crowd.

On 6th November, the people re-organised themselves and made sure that

“Those in authority came into mortal peril and the prominent places in the city were burned. When they found in the house of Marinus a Syrian monk, they chopped off his head, saying that [Fullo’s addition] had been made at his suggestion. After affixing his head to a pole they contemptuously shouted ‘This indeed is the conspirator against the Trinity.’”[8]

In fact, so dire did the situation become that it compelled Anastasius to piteously present himself without his crown and ready to abdicate in the hippodrome. This ruse – sincere or otherwise – worked and the people fell back into line.

If the violence ended, however, the theology rumbled on. It was the restoration of the Trisagion of Proclus, for example, that the rebel general Vitalian demanded from his perch in Scythia, Moesia and Thrace. Despite his death in 516, it was the Chalcedonians that won in the end thanks to the accession of the orthodox Justin I and deposition of Severus as patriarch of Antioch.[9]

Back in Constantinople, 25 September – the day the child had been raised aloft when the world shook – was chosen to celebrate the divine approval of the Trisagion. Each year (after an orthros at Hagia Sophia) a procession would lead to the Forum of Constantine to the accompaniment of the Trisagion. A Gloria Patri was then said at the forum and the procession continued (still chanting the Trisagion) along the Mese to the Golden Gate and thence to the Hebdomon where the liturgy was celebrated at the church of St John the Apostle.[10]

[1] “Everywhere, in the public squares, at crossroads, on the streets and lanes, people would stop you and discourse at random about the Trinity. If you asked something of a moneychanger, he would begin discussing the question of the Begotten and the Unbegotten. If you questioned a baker about the price of bread, he would answer that the Father is greater and the Son is subordinate to Him. If you went to take a bath, the Anomoean bath attendant would tell you that in his opinion the Son simply comes from nothing.” Gregory of Nyssa, Oratio de deitate Filii et Spiriti Sancti, PG 46, col. 557, B.

[2] John Damascene, An Exact Exposition of the Orthodox Faith, trans. F. H. Chase (1958), 288-289. The other details such as the location are added from the letter of Pope Felix III to the monophysite patriarch of Antioch, Peter, which sought to prove to the latter that Proclus’ version had divine approval.

[3] B. Croke, “Two Early Byzantine Earthquakes,” Byzantion, Vol. 51, No. 1 (1981) 127.

[4] K. Ginter, “The Trisagion Riots as an example of Interaction Between Politics and Liturgy,” Studia Ceranea 7 (2017), 46.

[5] H. Chadwick, “Exile and Death of Flavian of Constantinople,” The Journal of Theological Studies, Vol. VI, 1 (April 1955) 17–34.

[6] M. Severios, Word Became Flesh: The Christology of Philoxenus of Mabbug (2020) 49, note 294.

[7] Peter had three stints as patriarch of Antioch, the final one lasting until his death in 488 at which time he had busied himself by unsuccessfully demanding the return of Cyprus to his patriarchate, which the first council of Ephesus had removed from its obedience in 431.

[8] Evagrius Scholasticus, III, 44, p. 146; trans. M. Whitby, The Ecclesiastical History of Evagrius Scholasticus (2000), p. 196

[9] The final nail in Fullo’s coffin was the condemnation of his addition at the Council of Trullo (691-2).

[10] Typikon I.44.24-48.14. By the tenth century this route had changed. Though the processions still began with an orthros at Hagia Sophia, from the Forum of Constantine they moved on via the Hexakionion (where a Gloria Patria was said to the Helenianai) before a liturgy was celebrated in the church of the Virgin (Typ. I.212.1-2). It may have been an attempt to reduce the number of processions to the Hebdomon, which had become too burdensome for aged patriarchs.

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