Orthodox Outlet for Dogmatic Enquiries Historical - About God - Orthodoxy - Papism - Philosophy


Hesychasts and Zealots :
Spiritual flourishing and social crisis in 14th century Byzantium

 by Protopresbyter fr. George Metallinos
(f. Dean of the Athens University School of Theology

“Hellenism combatting”, Tinos Publications, Athens 1995.

The 14th century has been acknowledged as one of the most critical periods of “Byzantine” History.  It was marked by a peculiar paradox. Its socio-political crisis (evidence of its disorganization and decomposition) was interwoven with spiritual disputes (evidence of spiritual vigor and robustness).  The territorial shrinkage of the Empire may have been progressing (territories shared between Serbs, Bulgarians and Ottomans), however, a parallel rebirth of education and a theological-spiritual flourishing was also being noted. 

Civil upheaval peaked during the movement of the Zealots of Thessaloniki, while “Byzantium”/Romania was convulsed by the so-called “hesychast discord” which was nevertheless a confirmation of its spiritual consistency and continuance.  Socio-political issues and theology moved hand-in-hand and remained entangled in a prolonged crisis, thus becoming the two aspects of the same reality, i.e., that of the “Byzantine” society. Our endeavor in this article is to identify the crux of the theological and social conflict as well as the parallel spiritual flourishing.  We shall make an attempt to interpret the convergence of these two magnitudes as well as their implication.

  1. Barlaams failure to alter Orthodox Hesychasm

  2. The nature of the civil upheaval during the 14th century

  3. Assessments and conclusions regarding the role of Hesychasm  



In the last centuries of the empire of New Rome (Constantinople) three major theological conflicts shook Byzantine society: the Arsenian schism (13th century), the clash between the hesychasts and the anti-hesychasts (14th century) and the unification problem (15th century), which not only proved Orthodoxy’s robustness, but also its dynamic presence in the life of the Empire. The “hesychast discord” however, was the issue that had taken on the largest proportions.

a. Any conventional search for the causes of the 14th centurys theological conflict will most likely introduce prospects for theorizing rather than provide any interpretational justification thereof. It was therefore treated as a purely political conflict; a quarrel between lay clergy and monasticism, a conflict between Aristotelians and Platonics in the theological sphere, a juxtaposing of two different traditions in the bosom of Orthodoxy, etc.  In other words, this discord clearly appeared to be an intra-Byzantine matter, even in its causes.  Recent studies of the last decades have however convincingly confirmed that it was clearly a conflict between East and West; between the orthodox and the Frankish-Latin traditions which took place on “Byzantine” territory. This discord was not only provoked by a “fateful” person, a monk, Barlaam the Calabrian, who was also responsible for the acuteness of the discord, but whose very presence in the Hellenic East also confirmed the saying: contraria juxta se posita magis illucescunt” (contrary things, when placed opposite each other, are illuminated even more).

Barlaam (1290-1348),
a scholarly monk from “Magna Graecia” who was educated in Rome (mathematics, philosophy and theology), was an enthusiastic supporter of the revival of Platonic and Aristotelian philosophy (humanism). With this background, he stood fully compliant with the Paleologos era’s ideals; thus, when he visited (in 1330, emulating John the Italian) his paternal lands (Arta – ThessalonikiConstantinople), he was received with honours.  He was appointed as a professor in Constantinople (during the reign of emperor Andronikos III Paleologos) and he was entrusted with theological missions, because he was not only respected as a scholar, but was also believed to be orthodox.  Very soon however, it became obvious that his Orthodoxy was limited to words only and that the genuine theological prerequisites were in fact nonexistent in him.  The occasion that revealed his anti-orthodox ideology was his stance towards the hesychast lifestyle, even after his -rather sketchy- familiarization with it. The method, but more so the mentality, of the hesychast are familiar elements to those who live inside the orthodox reality, and only a true hesychast can comprehend them. Barlaam, as it came to be apparent, did not have the proper prerequisites for this. He brought with him to the East a different kind of Christianity, thus making it possible to determine the extent of the alteration and the alienation of the western Christian society, following the thorough “Frankish” overhaul it had undergone (11th century – Schism).  Barlaam’s idiosyncrasy and chiefly the self-importance that his education filled him with, led him to the decision to ridicule the Hesychasts and their hesychast lifestyle, by characterizing them, not only as fatalists (“navel-focusing souls”), but also as “heretics” (Massalians). In 1337, he came to Constantinople with the aim to secure a conciliar condemnation of the Hesychasts, claiming their tradition to be foreign to Orthodoxy - which he supposedly represented. This was the spark that set off the now open confrontation.

b. Ôhe defence of the Hesychasts and their hesychast lifestyle was undertaken by a monk of the Holy Mountain, Gregory Palamas. He was the son of a senator, born around 1296 and with impressive philosophical studies under the renowned humanist Theodore Metochite. But he was not won over by intelligentsia. He had turned to ascetic living at quite an early stage of his life and was initiated in the authentic ascetic tradition by prominent Elders (Gerons) such as Theoleptos of Philadelphia, Patriarch Athanasios and Neilos of the Italus lineage. His ascetic experience was already an extensive one, which he had acquired on Mount Papikion and from 1331 onwards, more permanently, on Mount Athos.

Gregory learnt in Thessaloniki of Barlaam’s positions on the matter of the ‘procession of the Holy Spirit’ (the Filioque; he thenceforth proved his Patristic standpoint, with his immediate detection of the anti-Patristic context of the theological prerequisites and criteria of the Calabrian monk, i.e., his substitution of the Patristic method with philosophical-dialectic contemplations; in other words, his preference to the dialectic (philosophical) method for theologizing.  Gregory responded to Barlaam’s anti-hesychast texts, with three “triads” written “in support of those living in blessed Hesychasm”, in which he not only proved the opponent’s anti-Patristic (and consequently anti-ecclesiastic) stance, but also the actual continuation of Patristic tradition by those very Hesychasts. This dispute, which quickly evolved into a broader argument, was transferred from Thessaloniki to the heart of the empire, Constantinople.  The dialogue began with the use of dialectic contemplations, then continued with theologizing (=the philosophizing of one’s faith) and finally advanced to the hesychastic ascetic method and its results (“theopty” =the experience of a ‘vision’ of God, hence the term “theology of theopty” – Stylianos Papadopoulos), the soteriological dimension of the problem, and chiefly the distinction between ‘essence’ and ‘energy’ in God, as well as the potential and the manner of attaining theosis (=communion between the created and the Uncreated.)

c. Hesychasm, as ‘the life in the Holy Spirit’, constitutes the quintessence of ecclesiastic tradition and relates precisely to that which the term ‘Orthodoxy’ embraces and expresses. Orthodoxy outside the hesychastic tradition is inconceivable and nonexistent. As for hesychastic practice, it is the “philosopher’s stone” which verifies the authentic Christian model.  By reciprocating to the purpose of the Church’s presence as the body of Christ in the world, Hesychasm can be characterized as an “ascetic therapeutic treatment” (fr. J. Romanides), which involves an attempt to restore the “noetic function” in the heart of the faithful. A prerequisite of hesychastic practice is the scriptural distinction between the ‘nous’ (the ‘spirit’ of man) and the ‘logos’ (intellect).  Ecclesiastically speaking, the ‘nous’ is the ‘eye’ of the soul, and the instrument of divine comprehension.  The normally functioning ‘nous’ should reside in the heart; however, when its function is rendered inert (by mankind’s fall), it becomes entangled with the intellect and the thoughts that are generated by it.  In its natural state, the ‘nous’ is replete with Grace (as a temple of God), and it prays incessantly. In other words, it possesses the “perpetual memory” of God (the mental prayer) and it prepares man for his union with God (=theosis).  Consequently, the mental prayer is the natural function of the ‘nous’ inside the heart, which, beyond its biological function, also has a spiritual function. The function of prayer by the ‘nous’ inside the heart is a mnemonic system that functions in parallel to the cellular and the cerebral ones, but it is imperceptible –and hence unacknowledged- by science. (In the bibliography below, one can find works by fr. John Romanides and fr. Hierotheos Vlachos, which provide extensive analyses on this subject)

The purpose of Hesychasm is the catharsis of the heart and the ‘nous’ respectively of their passions (transforming the reproachable passions into irreproachable ones) and of their thoughts (all of them, the good and the bad).  Patristically speaking, this procedure is called ‘therapy’, because through it, the ‘nous’ is healed and it regains its natural function. Thereafter, the Holy Spirit prays (resides – Romans 8:24) within the ‘nous’ “incessantly” (Thessalonians I, 5:17), while the intellect continues with its own natural function. In this context, it must be mentioned that Hinduism is also familiar with the existence of the ‘nous’ and its methods of vacating it of all thoughts. However, because of Hinduism’s ignorance of Christ and its idolatrous orientation, it is impossible to replete the ‘nous’ with (uncreated) Grace. Thus, the –scandalous to many- ‘coincidence of Orthodoxy and Hinduism’ is in fact limited to appearances only.  With the arrival (‘visitation’) of the Holy Spirit, which occurs after therapy, the ‘nous’ becomes the ‘temple’ of the Holy Spirit (Corinthians I, 6:19) and man becomes a member of Christ’s body (Corinthians I, 12:27, Romans 8:9).  In the language of Philokalia, this spiritual stage is called “enlightenment” and it is the prerequisite for theosis, or the glorification within the Uncreated natural Grace (energy) of the Holy Trinity.  In this manner, Christianity -as Orthodoxy- proves itself to be a transcending –a surpassing- of ‘religion’ (=the ritualizing of religious ‘obligations’).  The ‘religionizing’ of Christianity is equivalent to its radical alteration.

Professor fr. John Romanides has very discerningly pointed out Hesychasm’s methodological propinquity to the positive sciences, in whose realm he has included Theology.  The Philokalia texts (containing the Neptic tradition) all evidence this propinquity, with their referrals to the manifestations of theosis (in undeteriorated and miracle-working relics).

The mission of the Orthodoxparish’ (both secular and monastic) is a therapeutic one. However, in the 14th century –just like in our own time- this tradition was preserved mostly by the monastic parish and less by the secular one; this was precisely the tradition that the Fathers of the Holy Mountain had so fervently defended, with saint Gregory Palamas at the lead. «The central axis of Orthodoxy is not limited to the Holy Bible, the writings of the Fathers and the Local and Ecumenical Councils (Synods); it is chiefly the tradition of experiential theory (theosis), from one generation to the next. » (fr. J. Romanides).  Orthodoxically speaking, authority does not reside in the texts, but in those who possess the experience of theosis. In fact, it is the pre-eminence of the texts that leads to the ideologizing of tradition. The true theologian in Orthodoxy is the one who has experienced the “sighting” of God, while everything that pertains to God (=Theology) is the fruit of the experience of theosis. Without all these prerequisites, it is impossible for one to comprehend the 14th-century dispute.

From the end of the 13th century onwards, one can observe an intensifying of the hesychast tradition, as the continuation –through saint Symeon the “new” Theologian (+1022 or 1037)- of the apparent spiritual renaissance, with the Holy Mountain as its center. Orthodoxy’s Monasticism never lost its hesychast orientation, as opposed to the West where its more general alienation is directly linked to the alienation of its monastic element. This is the alienation that was also incarnated in the person of the monk Barlaam, in spite of the fact that he came from a place where authentic monastic living had flourished and had brought forth major saintly figures, up until the time of the Norman conquest of southern Italy (1071).  With his anti-hesychast stance, Barlaam proved that he was entirely foreign to the hesychast tradition, i.e., the ascetic-empirical founding of ecclesiastic theologizing, hence the reason that Gregory Palamas called him a “Latin-Hellene”, given that he clearly possessed a “Frankish-Latin” psychosynthesis.

d. The issue that was raised with Barlaam’s intervention, was whether the therapy of the “nous” (=catharsis) can be achieved through ascesis and the mental prayer (enlightenment), or through philosophy (intellectual contemplation). This however posed the problem -in practice- of the association between “divine” and “external” or “classically taught” wisdom.  Palamas discerned –patristically- two kinds of wisdom: the divine and the external kind, which are clearly discernible between each other as they each function in a different place (heart - brain).  The hesychast substitutes “the wisdom of this age” (Corinthians I, 2:6) with God’s wisdom when theologizing, which presupposes an active presence of God’s uncreated energy inside the heart of the faithful.

«External education assists the natural kind (of wisdom), but the spiritual kind it cannot ever (assist), unless it is accompanied by faith and a love for God; even more so, unless it is reborn unto love and that which is produced by it and has become something other than what it formerly was - common and divine in semblance, pure, peaceful, lenient - which therefore must be named "wisdom from above" (Jam,3:17) and "God's wisdom" (1 Cor.1:21,24 and 2:7), and by being something spiritual and a wisdom that is subjugated to the Spirit, it knows and accepts the gifts of the Spirit.  One (education) that is not thus, is inferior; it is physical and demonic (James. 3:15) as the apostolic brother of Christ says, which is why it cannot relate to the writ.»                                                     (In support of those living in blessed Hesychasm, 1st Triad, 9,1).

The Revelation of God cannot become the object of man’s intellect, because it lies beyond every human comprehension. That is why education and philosophy do not comprise a prerequisite for one’s knowledge of God. In the Western theological tradition, the notion of “credo, ut intelligam” (Augustine) prevails. According to this idea, one progresses in faith through philosophy and the Scriptures - to a logical conception of that revelation. Priority is given to the intellect - not only to natural knowledge but also to supernatural knowledge.  To the orthodox-hesychast, “external” wisdom with regard to the knowledge of God is an indifferent magnitude. That is why theosis can be common to both the literate as well as the illiterate (examples: Basil the Great - Anthony the Great)

In Hesychasm, these two kinds of knowledge are prioritized and distinguished, without confusing the boundaries of their reach and their energies (created-uncreated). But Barlaam had in practice questioned the issue of fullness and self-sufficiency of ecclesiastic tradition, by relativizing it and by supporting the need to supplement it with “external” wisdom. He named the wise men of the world “wondrous”, “God-seeing” and “enlightened”, thus acknowledging that they had risen to the highest levels of divine knowledge. He regarded secular education’s knowledge as “the most mystical and loftiest theory”, maintaining that “one cannot be holy, who has not acquired a knowledge of things, and is cleansed of this ignorance”. The reason for this, was because he believed that “without the (Hellenic) lessons, the commandments of God cannot cleanse and perfect man.” In other words, he attributed a soteriological significance to “external” wisdom, thus impoverishing and marginalizing ascetic practices.

Of course other, analogous ideas like Barlaam’s were also expressed on this subject by the “humanists” of Byzantium, who had likewise supported the need for scientific knowledge for the catharsis of the “nous”, thus proving that despite their awareness of the purpose of a spiritual life, they had lost contact with its practices. However, they did not mix this philosophy into theology, nor did they attach any soteriologcal significance to it. For them, the realm of metaphysics was covered by the revelation in Christ. The only one who had overstepped these boundaries was Nicephoros Gregoras, who tended to relate more to Barlaam’s views. (A specialized treatise on this subject was compiled by a young and promising theologian, Mr. Demetrius Moschos). It is a fact, that the hesychasts did not reject “education” and “external wisdom” (Gregory Palamas: “we are not simply referring to philosophy at present, but to the philosophy on these matters” - as above, A.1.16) when continuing the respective Patristic tradition (Gregory the Theologian: “therefore education is not a dishonorable thing, just because some believe it to be”. - Epitaph to Basil the Great, chapter 11).

The alteration of theological criteria by Barlaam is discernible in other areas as well. Barlaam saw a difference between “incessant prayer” and “mental prayer”, when in fact these two coincide patristically. He confused mental prayer with the ecstasy (detachment) of the nous from the body (=neo-Platonism).  According to Palamas however, “ecstasy” of the nous does not imply a departure from the body, but from “bodily convictions”. Nor does “ecstasy” relate hesychastically to theosis itself, but to the incessant or mental prayer which can lead (when God so desires) to theosis. The hesychast strives for an involvement of the nous, not only within the body or the heart, but in itself also. («For we not only turn inwards to the body and the heart, but also re-direct the very nous inwardly» (Á', 2, 4). Barlaam on the other hand taught that «they are wrong who hasten to enter the body [..] by also including the nous», instead, «they should by all means push it (the nous) out of the body». Barlaam’s position is judged by Palamas as «demonic» and «a Hellenic delusion» (idolatry).  Besides, the hesychasts maintained that Platonism led to idolatry.

e. One could ask “What tradition did Barlaam represent?”, because an allegation had been expressed, that Palamas was biblically Patristic, whereas Barlaam belonged to a "Hellenizing patristic" tradition. Barlaam was regarded as belonging to the tradition upheld by Dionysios the Areopagite, Evagrios of Pontus, Gregory of Nyssa and Maximus, while Palamas was characterized as the one who continued the tradition of Makarios of Egypt.  Besides, Barlaam and his followers are often portrayed as simple humanists, Platonists and Nominalists. It was in the midst of this hermeneutic perspective that Gregory Palamas appeared, supposedly heading the biblical, hesychastic order that crushed Barlaam’s Hellenizing, Patristic, Hesychast tradition. This indicates that there were two endo-Byzantine hesychast traditions in dissent.

Fr. Romanides studies proved this dichotomy of hesychast tradition to be entirely mistaken; the treatises of Dionysios the Areopagite and Saint Maximus the Confessor are both acknowledged as authorities in Palamas’ theology. Barlaam was nothing more than a conventional bearer of the Frankish-Latin theological tradition, which was the offspring of the substitution of Patristic theology with scholastic theology.  But Hesychasm is essentially non-metaphysical, because it rejects every analogy (ratio) between the created and the Uncreated (analogia entis or analogia fidei). Metaphysics on the other hand presupposes it. The communion of the Uncreated with the created is possible, only through the uncreated, divine energies. This position, just like the distinction between the essence and the energy of God, are fundamental prerequisites for patristic theologizing. That is why it has been included in the topic dealing with the Barlaam-Palamas dispute.

Absorbed in its scholasticism, the West lost the ability to discern between the essence and the energy of God; as for Thomas Aquinas –scholasticism’s top-ranking personage– maintained that God is “pure energy” (actus purus); Aristotle’s “the first, motionless mover” (đńţôďí ęéíďýí áęßíçôďí). The knowledge, therefore, of God entailed a knowledge of His essence. The root and the source of this teaching on God was Augustine. The relating of essence and energy in God is an Augustinian concept, just like the possibility of knowing the Divine Essence (Eunomianism).  In his teaching on God, Augustine was paralleled to the extreme Arianist, Eunomius. Scripturally and Patristically speaking, Divine Essence is inaccessible and incommunable; Divine Energy, however, is (under certain prerequisites) accessible and communable. Historical evidence on this kind of experience is Moses’ “sighting” of God on Mount Sinai, the Transfiguration of the Lord on Mount Tabor as experienced by His disciples, and the Pentecost. Augustine acknowledges in these instances (also) a revelation by God; not as a direct one, but one that was given through intermediary creations.

According to fr. John Romanides, Barlaam was a bearer of this tradition. That is why he had called the revelation through the Light of Mount Tabor «worse than intellect», ie., something inferior to a product of intellect - in fact, even of simple thinking.  Patristically however, the Taborian light is the uncreated divinity and the glory (realm) of the Holy Trinity.  This explains why the true nature of the light of Tabor found itself at the epicenter of theological speculation in the dispute between Barlaam and Palamas.  Barlaam could not comprehend - let alone accept - the hesychast tradition to which he had no affinity whatsoever.  His feelings towards it were the same as those of a westerner in our day, or a westernizer.  He accepted the Patristic tradition, but interpreted it with western criteria - with the prerequisites of franco-latin theology. The mentality that was incarnated by Barlaam later culminated in Gibbon. This English historian (1737-1794) - who expressed in a classical manner the conscience of the West with regard to the Romaic East - looked upon hesychasm in a manner similar to that of Barlaam. To him, the inner light of the Hesychasts was the «product of a caprice in bad taste; the creation of an empty stomach and a hollow brain». He then accepts that hesychasm is the culmination «of the religious nonsense by the Greeks»! These prejudices - permanently resident in the European conscience through education - have shaped the western stance towards the Orthodox East, and especially towards Hellenism, to this day. Consequently, to show "surprise" at the stance of the Western Leaderships towards Greece today merely betrays an ignorance of History.



a. Barlaam's departure (1341) did not also signal the end of the theological dispute, which was perpetuated as an endo-byzantine affair, with the intervention of "byzantine" Scholastics like Palamas' former student, Gregory Akindynus and the scholarly Nicephoros Gregoras.  The literary personages who had lost every living relationship with the empirical patristic manner of theologizing or had continued in the manner of a pundit (which had already been incarnated in the person of Michael Psellos and even more in John Italus) in certain topics as, for example, in the assessment of "externally-acquired" wisdom, the distinguishing between essence and energy in God, etc. had aligned themselves with Barlaam and had thus ensured the continuation  of his anti-hesychast stance.  Furthermore, the involvement of a few - but greatly influential - monks (who were mostly dear to the people) caused the crisis to expand into the broader basis, the laity, because the «byzantine man was a religious animal» (Nicol), thus making the implication of ecclesiastic and political matters a permanent social practice. Society - mostly that of Constantinople and Thessaloniki - was divided into Hesychasts and Anti-hesychasts, pro-Palamas and anti-Palamas. Thus, the tear that was observed in the fabric of society was what characterized the permanently prevalent "dualism" of "byzantine" intelligentsia in the stance towards Patristic tradition.

Gregory Palamas was repeatedly accused of being the cause of this spiritual dispute, just as Hesychasm was accused of supposedly being the cause of the weakening of the Empire; however, it has now been ascertained that Barlaam was the one who had incited the polemics against Palamas, and that Hesychasm was in fact the unifying element that had held the overall Nation together, on its continuing course.  In essence, the problem lay elsewhere. The theological dispute had coincided with a severely acute political-social crisis, which had culminated in an unprecedented social explosion, whose spiritual dimension rendered the chasm even deeper, albeit without being responsible for it.

Already in 1321, the first civil war between Andronicus II and Andronicus III had broken out, on the matter of succession. Furthermore, at the end of 1341, a new dimension of the Empire presented itself: a second civil war (the confrontation between I. Kantakouzinos and I.Palaeologos).  On the 26th of October 1341 the usurper of the throne, Kantakouzinos, was proclaimed by the army at Didymoteichon as the king, and on the 19th or 20th of November, I.Palaeologos was crowned king in Constantinople by Patriarch John Kalekas. During that very same period, Gregory Akindynus revived the theological dispute by utilizing as his instrument against Palamas the theologically illiterate and fanatically anti-Palamas Patriarch, John Kalekas.  The theological problem during this phase was focusing on the relationship between divine essence and energy, thus the theological dispute continued on, in parallel with the political conflict, with obvious allowances being made by both sides.

The second civil war - far more violent and broader than the first - had taken on a purely social character, so that it could boldly be referred to as a «social war».  A leading role in this war was played by the lay strata, which the conflicting powers had, from the very beginning, hastened to "utilize". The Viceroy John Apokafkos - a supporter of Palaeologos - had roused the public of Constantinople in 1341 against Kantakouzinos. The looting of the latter's home functioned like something programmed, because very soon, an even broader civil uprising took place - one that went entirely out of control. However, the social turn of this social conflict was sealed with the appearance and the involvement in the lay masses of a group in Thessaloniki, who bore the name "Zealots".  Their intervention (1342) and its consequences were the coarsest expression of political ideology in "Byzantium" (Romania).

The hierarchically second and essentially first city of the Empire during this period - Thessaloniki - became the epicenter of social uprising. The city had already (as of the 7th century, with the expansion of the Arabs) proved itself to be the second centre of the Empire, and in the 10th century its citizens numbered 200.000. In the 14th century, it continued to be a densely populated city and a flourishing urban centre (international marketplace), with powerful guilds (naval, mercantile), but also with glaring social antitheses (many poor - wealthy aristocrats).  The Zealots succeeded in rallying the indignant lay forces and utilizing them for the achievement of their goals.  

b. But what was the identity of the Zealots?  Bibliographical research is convinced, that a definite answer has not yet been given to this question.  Sources make mention of «rabble-rousers and the stand of exarchs» (Bios of Saint Isidore) and of «new people», who previously had no involvement in governing (D. Kydonis).  Gregoras characterizes them as a «riffraff lot». The Patriarch Filotheos (a hesychast) calls them «outsiders» and «barbarians», adding that: «who have come together [...] from our outermost reaches». The view that is prevalent today is that they were a «stratum» of society, which «they could tell apart from the remaining population (A. Laios).  It has also been recorded that they were named «Zealots», because they placed the interests if the populace above their own (Thom. Magistros).

The term «zealots», already familiar from the Old Testament (Exodus 20:5, 1Esdras 8:72,  2 Maccabees 4:2) and the New Testament (Acts 21:20, 1 Corinthians 14:12, Galatians 1:14, Titus 2:14), also passed into «byzantine» social reality with its religious connotation - as evident even in the New Testament (Romans 10:2): «...they have zeal, but it is a mindless one») from where it also took on its negative hue, which remains strong, even to this day. From the beginning of the 12th century, two ecclesiastic factions were active in byzantine society, which did not coincide between them and were both competing against each other in their attempts to influence the organization and the administration of the Church. Their appearance in the life of the Empire can be seen as early as the 9th century: they were the "Zealots" and the "Politicals".  The former were supporters of the Church's independence from the State; they undervalued education and displayed a fanatic loyalty towards ecclesiastic tradition.  With the majority of monks at their side, they influenced the People very noticeably.  The "Politicals" had a diametrically opposed ideology: they were tolerant towards the separation of State and Church, they were in favour of school education, they were loosely tied to tradition, they had influence among the secular clergy and the educated ranks of society.  With regard to the West, the Zealots were against unification, while the Politicals were in favour.  One of the first clashes of these two factions can be seen in the Fotios-Ignatios dispute (9th century), but their opposition took on even larger proportions during the time of Michael Palaeologos (the "arseniates" schism) and the pseudo-union of Lyons (1274-1282).  The battle at the time leaned in favour of the Zealots. It was maintained (Vasiliev) that this religious faction had regrouped in the 14th century and had involved itself in political life, by projecting reformatory trends and by having popular support on account of social disorder.  But is that really how things were?

It is indeed clear that - in spite of the confusion in the sources - the Zealots of Thessaloniki constituted a «social group», as discerned by the People. It had ties to seamen (the "maritimers") - a well-known guild with Palaeologos family members at its head.  The collaboration between Zealots and maritimers was obviously a coinciding of mutual interests.  In other cities, merchants also participated in this collaboration.  The presence of aristocracy (Palaeologos family) in its leadership should not disorient us. This was a common phenomenon in Western Europe also, in analogous situations.  The Zealots identified with the people and they expressed the demands of the lower social strata, which partially coincided with those of the army as well.

It is our estimation that the Zealots of Thessaloniki were a particular kind of social group, one that was basically comprised of monks - which was the reason that it had acquired its name from the already familiar religious faction in Byzantium; ie, on account of the trends and analogous psychology (=fanaticism) that they had in common. However, this was a clearly politically-oriented faction, with clear-cut social motives and demands: against rich landowners and in favour of the hungry and oppressed.  That non-political "Zealots" may have quite possibly collaborated cannot be excluded, given that the majority of the Zealots' ranks was comprised not only of monks but also of beggars and poor. The presence of a large number of monks also explains the absence of anti-religious trends, as well as the existence of a social ideology, which is permanently preserved in an Orthodox monastic coenobium.

When the hesychast Patriarch Filotheos refers to them as «apostates from the Church», this probably refers to their vehement stance which according to a general perception had overturned the "God-sent" established order, or, because of their negative reaction towards Palamas, the canonical metropolitan of Thessaloniki, whom Filotheos supported, as one who was like-minded.  At any rate, it has been testified that the Zealots did not hesitate to use a Crucifix (which they had snatched from a holy altar) as a flag and that they had attacked the governor Synadinos and the aristocracy.  Their lay "backup" also reinforces the view that the monks were the majority among them.  The crimes that were committed do not exclude something like that, inasmuch as fanaticism can blind a person.  Monks and non-monks (but definitely politically-minded individuals with rabble-rousing capabilities) consequently appear to have been in the leadership of the Zealots' movement.

c. The causes of this stand were sought out and were located by many researchers. Almost all of them converge on the position that there were social reasons:  the wretched state of the populace and a request for a more democratic organization of society.  The influence of analogous movements in Italy (revolution of Genova, 1339) is not regarded as decisive (per Charanis), given the democratic spirit, together with the broader participation of the people in the choice of emperor.  Politically speaking, Kantakouzinos' coup was a provocation to the lay conscience and mentality (a respect for God-given monarchy and legality).   Besides, the Zealots were sentimentally linked to the Palaeologos family, because some of its members governed Thessaloniki. And then, even though Kantakouzinos was clearly in favour of centralized administration, the Zealots strove for autonomy.  Furthermore, Kantakouzinos' descent and the support he had by the aristocracy had intensified the reactions against him.  The People found an opportunity to demonstrate its anti-aristocratic or even its anti-plutocratic conscience on account of the oppression they were under, and their financial wretchedness.  Visions for a radical change, economic upgrading and social restructuring had become linked to the Zealots' stand. This - as things have shown - was an eruption of proto-Christian (cf. Acts 2, 4 and 6) common ownership or at least communality
, opposite the increasing social inequality and injustice, because of the accumulation of lands and wealth in the hands of the few "pronoiarioi" etc.. 

Naturally the attempt to give a Marxist interpretation of the events in Thessaloniki was not omitted (for example G.Kordatos), within the limits of researching the historical backings of the Marxist ideology's prehistory.  However, although the existing sources may allow for a verification of common points, still, they exclude every certainty of a complete coincidence of ideological presuppositions.  The absence in "our East" of Frankish-German "racial" presuppositions precludes the relating - even the event itself - that the stand of the Zealots in Thessaloniki did not begin as a social revolution with an independent organization and a pre-designed goal, but that it was merely a circumstantial movement and an aspect (or phase) of the civil war (per P. Christou).  Underlying social antitheses and demands had also manifested themselves during the course of the civil war. 

The People had participated in the revolution, only for the resolving of their own problems, with no connection whatsoever to the familiar "agrarian uprisings" of history.  The character of this stand remained purely urban and social. Furthermore, there are no testimonies which indicate that the Zealots had basically turned against the churches and the monastic holdings; on the contrary, they remained faithful to the legal emperor and the Patriarch's supporter, I.Kalekas.  According to professor Nicol, what is strange is that the rich landowners (aristocrats) and the military aristocracy were the ones who were opposed to the church and her holdings.  But there is also the view - which has been witnessed in contemporary sources - that refugees from lands which had been conquered by the Serbs had been added to the poor of Thessaloniki and that it was they who had pressured the Zealots into turning against the rich, with lootings as the end result.  Because it is a fact that heinous crimes were not absent from the overall procedure.  In 1347-49, when the Zealots had taken full command of Thessaloniki, they had hurled rich people from atop the city walls, while they had murdered others who were in hiding inside the city.  This was the most violent aspect of their revolution, but also of the overall war.

d. After Thessaloniki, the stand extended into other cities of the Empire, and as far as Trebizund. This signifies that the social clime of Thessaloniki was more of an overall phenomenon, and this is confirmed by many testimonies.  The reaction was focused on the person of I. Kantakouzinos and the aristocracy. But in 1345, a crisis regarding the Zealots and their authority was noted, because the situation had begun to lean in favour of Kantakouzinos.  The head of the Zealots - Michael Palaeologos - was assassinated, Zealots were arrested, imprisoned and/or exiled.  Andronicus Palaeologos was proclaimed the new leader of the Zealots; an aristocrat, unassertive, and head of the maritimers' guild.  The People once again regained power. New slaughters of aristocrats are noted, one being of I. Apokafkos. And the uprising against the rich takes on a more general character; now out of control, the People resort to an orgy of blood and looting, thus securing power for the Zealot leaders.

As surmised from the sources, the Zealots were in favour of decentralization. Even though their ideology is difficult to determine amd in spite of the limited information, the same did not apply to their political plans.  Already in the summer of 1342 an unprecedented government was established in Thessaloniki: the independent Republic of Thessaloniki, with self-government and the exercising of external politics. Thsi was probably a kind of "commune"; one that endured up to 1350. However, the precise character of their polity is difficult to determine. It is a fact, that when threatened with a fall, the Zealots turned to Serbia's "kraly" (regent) Stefan Dusan for help, but this displeased the People to such an extent, that they had approached Kantakouzinos and had looked upon the aristocrats with sympathy. Apart from the existence of a powerful patriotic sentiment, what else could this signify, other than the absence of a class conscience?  The People had never ceased to look upon the overall matter as an opportunity to improve their living conditions and nothing more.

e.  The coincidence of the stand by the Zealots of Thessaloniki with the climax in the theological dispute eventually led to their implication, but not because the Zealots had actually become involved in the theological (hesychast) dispute. As previously mentioned, even though the Zealots had been named «apostates of the church», they had not included anti-ecclesiastic or anti-religious activities in their political agenda, nor does it appear that Theology had developed any particular dynamic with their activities. Their contrary views, which were valid in the past, were attributed to an erroneous linking of a text by N. Kavasilas to the Zealots, when in fact it was referring to a different case altogether. The engagement of theology and politics was the fruit of interdependence and inter-concessions between these two areas of byzantine life. However, the search itself for some kind of association between them  is proof of the absence of every notion of a concentrated anti-hesychast ideology on the part of politicians (or politics) with an anti-hesychast ideology within the ranks of the Hesychasts.

Besides, it was not a rare phenomenon to have the adversaries of one area having a common stance with the other area; the protagonists of the civil war, I.Kantakouzinos and I.Apokafkos, had coincided in their friendly stance towards hesychasm.  N. Gregoras and D. Kydonis - both against Palamas in their convictions - were nevertheless friends and followers of Kantakouzinos on account of their common interests.  The Patriarch I. Kalekas and the empress Anna of Savoy had collaborated in the political area, but the Patriarch had remained fanatically anti-Palamas, while the empress had for a time supported Palamas.   As usual, the People were dragged in every direction during this entire tragedy.  Initially (in 1341), a large part of the People had shown an anti-hesychast disposition, which may have made the Hesychasts turn in favour of Kantakouzinos. But no-one can assert that all the Hesychasts followed Kantakouzinos, or that all of his followers were declared anti-hesychasts.  D. Kydonis and Ni.Kavasilas for example were amicably disposed towards Kantakouzinos, but theologically belonged to opposing sides.  Besides, there were many humanists who supported Palamas.

The Zealots - at least all those with an ecclesiastic origin (monks) - had preserved from the time of the Iconomachy a fondness towards Old Rome and that brought them closer to the pro-union Palaeologos family, even though Rome had now become Frankish and heretic.  As is known, the emperor John Palaeologos had attempted to realize a union with Rome and had eventually become a papist.  This element alone was enough to make the Zealots turn against the Hesychasts. Furthermore, their associating Palamas with Kantakouzinos (on account of the hesychast phronema of both men), had made them - as was expected - hinder the enthronement of Palamas when he was elected metropolitan of Thessaloniki (in 1347).

For the entire duration of that social turmoil, Gregory Palamas had remained a genuine hesychast and Patristic in his choices. It would be a huge injustice to Palamas, if one were to ascribe aristocratic ideas to him.  By placing the tradition of theosis (deification) above political fluidity, he remained friendly towards John Palaeologos and the empress, himself behaving like a genuine "byzantine", within the clime of lawfulness.  His correspondence with monks of the Holy Mountain is proof of his pacifist endeavours. He never moved between opposing sides and he avoided every involvement in favour of the one or the other side.  His perseverance to the hesychast tradition and his opposition to Barlaam and the byzantine anti-hesychasts (e.g. Gregoras) had the exclusive objective of the continuation of patristic tradition and the preservation of the Empire's spiritual identity.   He exiled himself to Heracleia, where he was often annoyed by (but not involved in) political disputes. His sympathy towards Kantakouzinos was attributed to Kantakouzinos' dedication to the tradition of Orthodoxy; there were no political motives.  It must be regarded as certain, that the presence and the activities of Barlaam in the East had convinced Palamas of the inherent danger of subjugation to Rome, whose spiritual alienation had been exposed by his Calabrian opponent. This explains why he appeared friendly towards Kantakouzinos, even when he was still a friend and supporter of Barlaam and the protector of the humanistic renaissance. It is also known that Palamas had contributed towards the reconciliation between I. Kantakouzinos and John Palaeologos.

The People, with their infallible sensor had correctly interpreted Palamas' stance and had diagnosed the sincerity in his intentions.  After the fall of the Zealots - whom Palamas had treated in a pacifist manner - the People welcomed him into Thessaloniki (December 1350) with jubilations.  Palamas condemned the crimes that had been committed by the Zealots, but entered as a peacemaker into Thessaloniki, which had regained its normal rhythms.


The surveys into the 14th century of the Empire of New Rome that we have so far offer us the potential to evaluate  both the theological dispute and the civil conflicts of the time, but also their dynamics in the pursuant life of the Empire and the continuation of the Nation.

It is of course a fact, that the consequences of the ideological disputes were horrific. The empire, already diminished geographically, gradually weakened even more and was left unprotected from the expansionist dispositions of its neighbours, and especially the Ottomans.  In 1354 the Turks took over Gallipoli, their feet firmly planted in the European side of the Empire. The failed movement of the Zealots was unable to heal the malfunctioning society and abolish the economic inequality.  The Empire was heading towards a decline. In 1402 it was limited to the City (Constantinople), the islands of Thasos, Samothrace, Lemnos, Tenedos and the region of Mystras on the Peloponnese. From there on, it was to be a sad relic of its old glorious self.  Hesychasm, however, as patricity and an existential truth, was to survive as a spiritual trust of Romanity.  Hesychasm was to preserve the phronema robust and the spiritual drive unflagging, especially during the pursuant, lengthy period of slavery.  But these positions need a certain amount of analysis.

In the 14th century, the first in-depth confrontation between East and West took place, in ecclesiastic tradition. From the 9th through to the 11th century, eastern and western theologians had clashed on the issue of the "Filioque", indicating a latent antithesis between the two theologies; however, it was in the 14th century that for the first time an opportunity had presented itself - with the presence of an authentic "western" theologian in the East, Barlaam - for those theological presuppositions of East and West to come to the surface, and for the radical differentiation of the one from the other to be discerned, as well as their lack of coincidence.  The western (Frankish-Latin) theology and the European (Frankish-German) civilization that originated from it, proved to be the offspring of an altered christianity, which could no longer be called Christianity.

As aptly noted by professor Chr. Yannaras, «perhaps it is in saint Gregory Palamas that there is an even clearer awareness that in the case of the innovations of the western church we do not merely have a new 'heresy' of Christianity [...], but [...] a radical alteration of the very nucleus of ecclesiastic truth - a different 'Christianity' at the antipodes of the evangelical way of life and salvation of man...». The West had shaped - within the rationalizing maze of Scholasticism - another "Christianity", one that was entirely non-coincident with that of the East.  Hesychast theology through its self-expression had revealed Orthodoxy's difference from the West, as a «juxtaposing of experience to abstract religious conviction».

The renowned German byzantinologist Gelzer had conceded that Hesychasm «belongs to the most noteworthy - both from a historical as well as a cultural aspect - and most interesting phenomena of all time».  The roman Hesychasts of the 14th century - with saint Gregory Palamas as pioneer - had proven the unbroken spiritual continuance of "Byzantium"/Romania.  Palamas re-formulated the Orthodox tradition, revealing its patricity.  The Hesychasm that Palamas embodied and defended was the backbone of life in Romania for one thousand long years, and its pedestal and also the source of its civilization.  However, the long drawn-out theological dispute had proven - above all - that which even today is acknowledged throughout: that Hesychasm did not constitute an innovation, as unsuspecting Barlaam had imagined. Even the Scholastics of "Byzantium" who for various reasons had sided with him had not doubted Hesychasm. That is, they had never doubted its method, but had only disagreed about its consequences - that is, "with regard to the theological evaluation of its fruits" (Vlassis Feidas).  The opposition of certain bishops towards Hesychasm has been interpreted - with a considerable dose of truth - as an expression of fear that the authority of the monks would increase.

With the hesychast synods (1341, 1347, 1351) and with the proclamation of Gregory Palamas as saint (1368), Orthodoxy removed the danger of philosophizing the Faith and its latinization (rendering it Frankish). Along with the soteriological power of its tradition, the East had also preserved its governmental independence.

For "Byzantium"/Romania, the persistence in Hesychasm did not only have a religious or political significance but also a cultural one, because it had determined the stance thereafter, not only towards the West, but also towards Hellenic antiquity.  The West - as was made apparent - not only was no longer spiritually congruent with the East, but continued to threaten it beyond its spiritual hypostasis, in its cultural one also. On the other hand, Hellenicity (which was embodied by the scholastics of "Byzantium" such as Gregoras, who outrightly proclaimed that he was a "Hellene") was differentiating itself from Hellenicity the way it had been assimilated in Patristic tradition (which did not constitute a simple continuance of hellenic antiquity, but a transcendence of it, into the new composition of the Romaic civilization).

Hesychasm proved to the greatest spiritual force for the survival of the Nation. Politically speaking, "Byzantium" was heading towards its fall, but spiritually speaking, it remained robust and unconquered.  After the sacking of Constantinople only the political aspect of the Nation's life was affected; the spiritual aspect was not affected, given that the «core of Romanity is the theumen (the deified one), who reaches theosis in any period or situation - state or political» (fr. John Romanides). It was only the westernizing ones - the pro-union and like-minded with Barlaam - who had looked upon the fact that the East did not have a scholastic theology as a decadence, and who had arranged to introduce it into the life of the Nation. The Orthodox East of the 14th century had, however, rejected Barlaam and had forced him to depart, rejecting his tradition also.  Barlaam left, because he felt literally like a stranger in the East. Later on, as the Turkish threat approached, the antiquity-loving anti-hesychasts either abandoned "Byzantium" or remained West-inclined and relating themselves to it.

Hesychasm however was to play an important role in the politically turbulent and splintered Balkans also, where, as in Russia, Hesychasm was already familiar, mainly through Gregory of Sinai. The Hesychasts would move freely throughout all of the Orthodox East, from one place to another, above boundaries and ethnic differences.  This fact made the important hagiologist Fr. Halkin speak of a "Hesychasm International".  When, in our day, mention is made of an "Orthodox arc" as a bastion against the "Muslim arc" of the Balkans, one should not overlook hesychast spirituality, which is the only kind that can secure a true unity within the boundaries of the Orthodox-Romaic, supra-national and supra-racial union of hearts.  It is in the hesychast tradition that our inter-Balkan unity forms its foundations.

While the civil clashes, the social inequalities and the hostile offensives were to gradually weaken the already decayed Empire, the spiritual powers of the Nation - within the Patristic hesychast tradition - averted the danger of turning "Byzantium"/Romania into a Frankish protectorate, but also preserved the spiritual fortitude of the Nation so that it would remain only physically enslaved by the Ottoman barbarity.  During the entire period of its prolonged enslavement, the monasteries with their hesychast tradition had maintained the soul of the Nation unshackled. However, the prevalence of the anti-hesychast spirit in the realm of intelligentsia and politics upon the founding of the Hellenic State (1830), may have led to liberation from the Turks' enslavement, but not so from the Franks' one.  The Barlaamic West will take its revenge!  The publication of the works by saint Gregory Palamas (under the direction of professor P.Christou) in the 1960s decade, and the scientific input by theologians such as fr. John Romanides in the research of the hesychast tradition, were to help rediscover our Romaic-Orthodox foundations. This would be the revival of a conscience that is spreading incessantly among our generation - a true gift of God in our times.  Our era has something significant in common with the 14th century and the era prior to the sacking of Constantinople: the tragic confusion and the numbing of our traditional criteria.  The hesychast tradition, which is continually reborn, is for that reason especially important today, where everything points to our approaching the final fall.

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Sevcenko É., Nicolas Cabasilas «Ánti-Zealot» Discourse: A Reinterpretation, D. Ď. Ń. 11 (1957) 79-171.
Ibid, Alexios Makrembolites and his «Dialogue» between the Rich and the Poor, Zbornik, Radova 6 (1960) 187-228.
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Vassiliev A.A., History of the Byzantine Empire, 324-1453 AD (transl. Dem.Savramis), Athens 1954.
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Weiss, G., Joannes Kantakuzenos- Aristocrat, Staatsmann, Kaiser and Mönch - in der Gesellschaftsentwicklung von Byzanz im 14. Jahrhundert, Wiesbaden É969. Werner Ĺ., Gesellschaft und Kultur im XIV Jahrh. “Sozial- Ökonomischen Fragen”, Actes du XIVe Congrés International des Etudes Byzantines, 1, Bucarest 1974, 93-110.
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Translation: K.N.                                                                        

Article published in English on: 27-3-2008.

Last update: 29-3-2008.