Cyril of Alexandria buys the government

The collection of letters of Cyril of Alexandria that has come down to us is really a dossier of materials surrounding the Nestorian controversy.  That unedifying story has many low points.

One that sticks in my mind is letter 96.  This consists of a list of bribes of courtiers in Constantinople.  I found a copy online today, and I thought I would share it.  The translation must be that of the Fathers of the Church series, and if so must be copyright to them. So don’t treat this as public domain: it isn’t mine to give you.  But I imagine a quotation of one letter should be within fair usage.

It is possible that the court was so corrupt that no-one could be heard unless “presents” were given.  The phrase “customary gifts” noted in the footnotes tends to suggest this.  All the same, it’s not nice reading.  Bribes to one official, to act as mediator with another official, all of it simply to do whatever business a major dignitary of the empire thought right to do.  Um.


A catalogue of things dispatched from here to the following who are there, by my lord, your most holy brother Cyril. 1

To Paul the Prefect: four larger wool rugs, two moderate wool rugs, four place covers, four table cloths, six larger bila (rugs or curtains), six medium sized bila, six stool covers, twelve for doors, two larger caldrons, four ivory chairs, two ivory stools, four persoina (= pews?), two larger tables, two ostriches (= pieces of furniture?); and in order that he would help us in the cause about those matters which were written to him: fifty pounds of gold. 2

(2) And to his domestic, one wool rug, two rugs, four bila, two stool covers, and one hundred gold coins.

(3) To Marcella, the chambermaid, the same as was dispatched to him, and that she would persuade Augusta 3 by asking her: fifty pounds of gold.

(4) To Droseria, the chambermaid, the same as was dispatched to Marcella, and that she would help her as was written to her: fifty pounds of gold.

(5) To the prefect Chryseros, that he would cease to oppose us, we were forced to dispatch double amounts: six larger wool rugs, four moderate rugs, four larger rugs, eight place covers, six table cloths, six large bila rugs, six medium sized bila, six stool covers, twelve for chairs, four larger caldrons, four ivory chairs, four ivory stools, six persoina, four larger tables, six ostriches; and if he shall have acted in accordance with what were written to him by the most magnificent Aristolaus with the lord Claudianus intervening as mediator: two hundred pounds of gold.

(6) And to Solomon, his domestic, two larger wool rugs, four place covers, four table cloths, four bila, four stool covers, six covers for chairs, six caldrons, two ivory chairs, two ostriches; and just as was written to lord Claudianus, so he may use persuasion to forward the proposal: fifty pounds of gold.

(7) To lady Heleniana, who is [the wife] of the prefect of the praetorian guard, the same in all things which were dispatched to Chryseros, so also to her; and in order that the prefect, persuaded by her, would help us: one hundred pounds of gold. As to her assessor, Florentinus, just as the things sent to Solomon, equally the same also to him and fifty pounds of gold.

(8) And to the other chamberlains customary suppliant gifts 4 have been dispatched.

To Romanus the chamberlain: four larger wool rugs, four place covers, four bila, four stool covers, six covers for chairs, two caldrons, two ivory chairs; and so that he would aid in our cause: thirty pounds of gold.

(9) To Domninus the chamberlain: four larger wool rugs, four larger rugs, four medium sized bila, four table covers, four medium sized bila, six stool covers, six covers for chairs, two larger caldrons, two ivory chairs, two ivory stools, four ostriches; and so that he may help us according to those things which were written to lord Claudianus: fifty pounds of gold.

(10) To Scholasticius, the chamberlain, the same in all things as those which were dispatched to Chryseros: and one hundred pounds of gold. And to Theodore, his domestic according to the promises of lord Claudianus, if he should persuade Scholasticius that he desist from friendships with our adversaries: fifty pounds of gold. We have directed also gifts4 to him which ought to persuade him that he should think in our favor: two wool rugs, two place covers, four table cloths, four rugs, four stools, six stool covers for chairs, two caldrons, two ostriches.

(11) To the most magnificent Artaba the same in all things as those which were dispatched to Scholasticius both in kinds: and that he would help us as was written to him: one hundred pounds of gold.

(12) To Magister, the same in all things as were dispatched to Artaba, in the same kinds: and one hundred pounds of gold. And to his domestic equally in all things as those dispatched to Rufinus.

(13) And to the quaestor, the same as those things which were destined for Magister: and one hundred pounds of gold. And to his domestic Ablalius equally in all things as Eustathius.

(14) A letter was written by your brother to the most reverend clerics so that all these things be dispatched, if anything was done out of devotion to my holy lord and should happen to be accomplished, and that is what is necessary, with the good will and advice of the lord Philip and the lord Claudianus.

1  For the critical text of this letter see Schwartz, ACO 1.4 pp. 224-225. Geerard numbers this letter 5396 in CPG.
2  The libra was the Roman pound of 12 ounces.
3  Pulcheria, elder sister of Theodosius II. She received the title Augusta when she became regent in 414.
4  The word eulogiae, here translated “gifts,” appears to be a diplomatic phrase actually meaning. “bribes.” It is difficult to pass judgment on this matter. The court at Constantinople evidently was corrupt. One very revealing item is found on p. 224, line 28: eulogiae consuetudinariae supplices, “customary suppliant gifts.” If this was customary, the action of Cyril was not so unusual. How this treasure was transported to the capital is an unanswered problem. The date of this catalogue was during the time of the council or soon after it. Wickham, Select Letters, 66, note 8, translates persoina as possibly “pews” or “benches,” and suggests that the ostriches must be pieces of furniture or of upholstery. See P. Batiffol, “Les présents de Saint Cyrille à la cour de Constantinople,” Bulletin d’ancienne littérature et d’archéologie chrétienne, 1 ( 1911), 247-264 (= Etudes de Liturgie et d’Archéologie Chrétienne, Paris, 1919).


10 thoughts on “Cyril of Alexandria buys the government

  1. The Orient, and Byzantium I believe was part of it, has two different words (in whatever languages it spoke) for money given to those in authority: one is akin to the bakshish and the other takes a more serious meaning equivalent to bribing. Bakshish is money spent to lubricate your way through all who have power over you – they will deliver a service you deserve but at a cost; a bribe is usually reserved to situations when money is given to alter a policy or dictate of law, and is usually seen as corruption of somebody in a position of power.

    Bakshish was demanded by all officials, high or low, of all people who approach them for a service. It has to be paid or else nothing will be delivered. Egyptians say that by giving bakshish you buy your own life from those in authority.

    I think Cyril I was giving Bakshish to lubricate his way through the Byzantine officialdom. He was just doing what the custom dictated in Constantinople. Had he refused to give these “presents” and “gifts” he would have reached nowhere.

  2. Dioscorus, this is really helpful as to how things work in a state that is institutionally corrupt, and what even honest men are forced to do. Thank you!

  3. Apparently this is also how you navigate the Japanese medical system, which has universal medical insurance and fees set by law.

    You give someone gifts to get an introduction to a Really Good doctor’s practice, then you give him gifts to take you on. Then your medical insurance pays his normal fee as set by law. Then you give him thank you gifts, and then you give the introducer thank you gifts. Doctors who don’t participate in this system are kinda cut off from working in classy hospitals or practices.

    This all explains why, in anime, good guy doctors in small local family practices are always shown as a bit worried about money; and why Black Jack is so righteous for having set fees, even though they’re incredibly high fees.

  4. David P. Charles, a senior in Comparative Literature at Brigham Young University, wrote an article: “You Had the Alps, but We the Mount of Olives”: Mormon Missionary Travel in the Middle East (1884–1928). In it, inter alia, he discusses the missionaries’ experience in Istanbul of the constant demand for Bakshish, “the one Arabian word” that a tourist “very soon becomes familiar with travelling in this part of the world . . . provided he be not both blind and deaf.” p. 97

    Visitors to the Middle East quickly learned the importance of bakshish—that is, a small amount of money given as gratuity for services provided or as alms to the sick and the elderly. The word has “many different applications,” notes Karl Baedeker in his 1894 Handbook for Travellers to Palestine and Syria. “Thus with bakhshish the tardy operations of the custom-house officer are accelerated, bakhshish supplies the place of a passport, bakhshish is the alms bestowed on a beggar, bakhshish means black mail, and lastly a large proportion of the public officials of the country are said to live almost exclusively on bakhshish.” P. 96

    Throughout the course of LDS missionary work in the Middle East, bakshish proved a cultural obligation, the keeping of which furthered the work and facilitated everyday life. P.99

    “A Turkish official,” another missionary wrote in frustration to the Deseret Weekly, “is one of the slowest and most dilatory of mortals, and it makes no difference how many rooms you run into, nor how excited you get, if you stub your toe or fall down he takes the world easy, and goes on with his meditations.” In dealing with such officials, a little bakshish could help “grease the wheels” of the establishment and advance the cause at hand. It should also be noted, however, that the LDS missionaries were careful to avoid paying illegal bribes. When Church meetings were stopped by order of the vilay, or governor, in 1900, “we could do nothing else but close, and refer the matter to [mission] President [Albert] Herman, as we have not been advised to give ‘bribes’, and that is what it means” . p. 120

    I think Constantinople was as bad as Istanbul when it came to bakshish. St Cyril had to do what the Byzantine staff expected him to do if he would ever dream of securing a hearing at the court in Constantinople. Thesec were the social rules which everyone had to follow.

    The whole article could be found at:

  5. I suspect Istanbul was far worse. The appalling state of anyone living in the Turkish empire under its greedy and corrupt officials is remarked on by all the 19th century travellers I have seen. Everything was for sale.

    I think this culture, where being in charge meant merely opportunities to take bribes, rather than a requirement to do your duty, is a the foundation of all the backwardness in the Middle East, including in Egypt. If a man is appointed to do a job which involves preventing people doing this or that, he doesn’t worry about doing the job. Instead he sees it merely as a chance to demand bribes to allow people to do what he has been paid to prevent. Taking photographs in tombs springs rather readily to mind.

  6. Absolutely agree. I give one example which is so obvious to travelers from the moment they take a taxi from Cairo airport to their hotel – the traffic chaos. It is not because Egypt doesn’t know how to organise its traffic or that it is not aware of the problem or that there are no enough regulations in place to sort it out – the real cause is that Cairo’s traffic chaos is a huge field of profit from bakshish and bribes for all those who are legally responsible in making the streets safe and smoothly drivable.

  7. I had not known, but I believe it. It is an utter mess.

    What can be done I know not. Misgovernment is the curse of Africa; but what does one do, when the curse runs right the way through a society? The Victorians would have said “Reform that society”, and would have done it too! But Britain only ruled Egypt for 50 years, and the last 30 of those they were really just trying to tread water. And with them went the only honest government the country has ever had. And we’re not coming back; we aren’t even the men our grandfathers were, if we did.

  8. I agree, though it is painful, but with one major disagreement – the best government Egypt ever knew was government by the pharaohs. All governments from c.1000 BC, notwithstanding short periods of independence, and until now, have been foreign, either by blood or allegiance and ideology, and were moved by their own interests more than by the interests of the true Egyptians; but the French (1798-1801) and particularly the British (1882-1952) had been the best of them as their self-interest did not displace altruism entirely from them.

  9. I wondered about including the Pharaohs. I decided that I wasn’t sure that we knew enough about how that worked on the ground to say, tho.

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