Most of the primary sources treating Photios's life are written by persons hostile to him. Modern scholars are thus cautious when assessing the accuracy of the information these sources provide.b[›] Little is known of Photios's origin and early years. It is known that he was born into a notable family and that his uncle Saint Tarasius had been the Patriarch of Constantinople from 784–806 under both Empress Irene (r. 797–802) and Emperor Nikephoros I (r. 802–811). During the second Iconoclasm, which began in 814, his family suffered persecution since his father, Sergios, was a prominent iconophile. Sergios's family returned to favor only after the restoration of the icons in 842. Certain scholars assert that Photios was, at least in part, of Armenian descentc[›] while other scholars merely refer to him as a "Greek Byzantine". Byzantine writers also report that Emperor Michael III (r. 842–867) once angrily called Photios "Khazar-faced", but whether this was a generic insult or a reference to his ethnicity is unclear.
Although Photios had an excellent education, we have no information about how he received this education. The famous library he possessed attests to his enormous erudition (theology, history, grammar, philosophy, law, the natural sciences, and medicine). Most scholars believe that he never taught at Magnaura or at any other university; Vasileios N. Tatakes asserts that, even while he was patriarch, Photios taught "young students passionately eager for knowledge" at his home, which "was a center of learning". He was a friend of the renowned Byzantine scholar and teacher Leo the Mathematician.
Photios says that, when he was young, he had an inclination for the monastic life, but instead he started a secular career. The way to public life was probably opened for him by (according to one account) the marriage of his brother Sergios to Irene, a sister of the Empress Theodora, who upon the death of her husband Emperor Theophilos (r. 829–842) in 842, had assumed the regency of the Byzantine Empire. Photios became a captain of the guard (prōtospatharios) and subsequently chief imperial secretary (protasēkrētis). At an uncertain date, Photios participated in an embassy to the Abbasids of Baghdad.
Patriarch of Constantinople
Photios's ecclesiastical career took off spectacularly after Caesar Bardas and his nephew, the youthful Emperor Michael, put an end to the administration of the regent Theodora and the logothete of the drome Theoktistos in 856. In 858, Bardas found himself opposed by the then Patriarch Ignatios, who refused to admit him into Hagia Sophia, since it was believed that he was having an affair with his widowed daughter-in-law. In response, Bardas and Michael engineered Ignatios's deposition and confinement on the charge of treason, thus leaving the patriarchal throne empty. The throne was soon filled with a kinsman of Bardas, Photios himself, who was tonsured a monk on December 20, 858, and on the four following days was successively ordained lector, sub-deacon, deacon and priest, and then on Christmas Day, the patronal feast of Constantinople's cathedral, Hagia Sophia, Photius was consecrated as patriarch.
Photios baptising the king of Bulgaria and the Bulgarians.
The deposition of Ignatios and the sudden promotion of Photios caused scandal and ecclesiastical division on an ecumenical scale as the Pope and the rest of the western bishops took up the cause of Ignatios. The latter's deposition without a formal ecclesiastical trial meant that Photios's election was uncanonical, and eventually Pope Nicholas I sought to involve himself in determining the legitimacy of the succession. His legates were dispatched to Constantinople with instructions to investigate, but finding Photios well ensconced, they acquiesced in the confirmation of his election at a synod in 861. On their return to Rome, they discovered that this was not at all what Nicholas had intended, and in 863 at a synod in Rome the pope deposed Photios, and reappointed Ignatius as the rightful patriarch, triggering a schism. Four years later, Photios was to respond on his own part by calling a Council and excommunicating the pope on grounds of heresy – over the question of the double procession of the Holy Spirit. The situation was additionally complicated by the question of papal authority over the entire Church and by disputed jurisdiction over newly converted Bulgaria.
This state of affairs changed with the murder of Photios's patron Bardas in 866 and of Emperor Michael III in 867, by his colleague Basil the Macedonian, who now usurped the throne. Photios was deposed as patriarch, not so much because he was a protégé of Bardas and Michael, but because Basil I was seeking an alliance with the Pope and the western emperor. Photios was removed from his office and banished about the end of September 867, and Ignatios was reinstated on November 23. Photios was condemned by the Council of 869–870, thus putting an end to the schism. During his second patriarchate, however, Ignatios followed a policy not very different from that of Photios.
Not long after his condemnation, Photios had reingratiated himself with Basil, and became tutor to the Byzantine emperor's children. From surviving letters of Photios written during his exile at the Skepi monastery, it appears that the ex-patriarch brought pressure to bear on the Byzantine emperor to restore him. Ignatios's biographer argues that Photios forged a document relating to the genealogy and rule of Basil's family, and had it placed in the imperial library where a friend of his was a librarian. According to this document, the Byzantine emperor's ancestors were not mere peasants as everyone believed but descendants of the Arsacid Dynasty of Armenia. True or not, this story does reveal Basil's dependence on Photios for literary and ideological matters. Following Photios's recall, Ignatios and the ex-patriarch met, and publicly expressed their reconciliation. When Ignatios died on October 23, 877, it was a matter of course that his old opponent replaced him on the patriarchal throne three days later. Shaun Tougher asserts that from this point on Basil no longer simply depended on Photios, but in fact he was dominated by him.
Photios now obtained the formal recognition of the Christian world in a council convened at Constantinople in November 879. The legates of Pope John VIII attended, prepared to acknowledge Photios as legitimate patriarch, a concession for which the pope was much censured by Latin opinion. The patriarch stood firm on the main points contested between the Eastern and Western Churches: the demand of an apology to the Pope, the ecclesiastical jurisdiction over Bulgaria, and the addition of the filioque to the Nicene creed by the Western church. Eventually, Photios refused to apologize or accept the filioque, and the papal legates made do with his return of Bulgaria to Rome. This concession, however, was purely nominal, as Bulgaria's return to the Byzantine rite in 870 had already secured for it an autocephalous church. Without the consent of Boris I of Bulgaria (r. 852–889), the papacy was unable to enforce its claims.
During the altercations between Emperor Basil I and his heir Leo VI, Photios took the side of the Byzantine emperor. In 883, Basil accused Leo of conspiracy and confined the prince to the palace; he would have even have Leo blinded had he not been dissuaded by Photios and Stylianos Zaoutzes, the father of Zoe Zaoutzaina, Leo's mistress. In 886, Basil discovered and punished a conspiracy by the domestic of the Hikanatoi
John Kourkouas the Elder and many other officials. In this conspiracy, Leo was not implicated, but Photios was possibly one of the conspirators against Basil's authority.
Basil died in 886 injured while hunting, according to the official story. Warren T. Treadgold believes that this time the evidence points to a plot on behalf of Leo VI, who became emperor, and deposed Photios, although the latter had been his tutor. Photios was replaced by the Byzantine emperor's brother Stephen, and sent into exile to the monastery of Bordi in Armenia. It is confirmed from letters to and from Pope Stephen that Leo extracted a resignation from Photios. In 887, Photios and his protégé,
Theodore Santabarenos, were put on trial for treason before a tribunal headed by senior officials, headed by Andrew the Scythian. Although the sources sympathetic to Photios give the impression that the trial ended without a conviction, the chronicle of Pseudo-Symeon clearly states that Photios was banished to the monastery of Gordon, where he later died. Yet it appears that he did not remain reviled for the remainder of his life.
Photios continued his career as a writer throughout his exile, and Leo probably rehabilitated his reputation within the next few years; in his Epitaphios on his brothers, a text probably written in 888, the Emperor presents Photios favorably, portraying him as the legitimate archbishop, and the instrument of ultimate unity, an image that jars with his attitude to the patriarch in the previous year. Confirmation that Photios was rehabilitated comes upon his death: according to some chronicles, his body was permitted to be buried in Constantinople. In addition, according to the anti-Photian biographer of Ignatius, partisans of the ex-patriarch after his death endeavored to claim for him the "honor of sainthood". Furthermore, a leading member of Leo's court, Leo Choirosphaktes, wrote poems commemorating the memory of several prominent contemporary figures, such as Leo the Mathematician and the Patriarch Stephen, and he also wrote one on Photios. Shaun Tougher notes, however, that "yet Photios's passing does seem rather muted for a great figure of Byzantine history [...] Leo [...] certainly did not allow him back into the sphere of politics, and it is surely his absence from this arena that accounts for his quiet passing."
The Eastern Orthodox Church venerates Photios as a saint; his feast day is February 6.