The Byzantine Origins of Gun Control

by George Demacopoulos  |  ру́сский  |  српски

It would be difficult to overstate the significance of the Byzantine emperor Justinian for both Christian and political history because, more than any previous Christian ruler, he integrated Christian precepts into imperial legislation. Whether one looks favorably upon the Byzantine model of Church/State “symphonia” or prefers a Jeffersonian separation of Church and State, every modern formulation of Christianity in politics is, in one way or another, a response to Justinian’s legacy. Even the current debate on gun control was anticipated by a Justinianic law preventing citizens from owning weapons.

Justinian’s Novella 85 strictly forbade the sale of weapons to citizens. Only small knives and domestic axes were exempted from the regulation. The ancient Romans had previously forbidden the possession of weapons by citizens within urban areas, but the preface to Novella 85 highlights an explicitly Christian orientation in the formulation of the new and more comprehensive law.

Novella 85 begins: “Calling upon the great God and Jesus Christ, our Savior, and invoking His aid, we strive to keep our subjects, whom God has given to us to govern, from all damage and harm, and prohibit fights, which, undertaken through thoughtlessness, end in slaughter, and bring double penalty—that which the combatants bring upon themselves and that which the law visits upon them for their madness.”

Put simply, Justinian believes that it is his God-appointed responsibility to protect the welfare of citizens. He further believes that he can best ensure the welfare of citizens by criminalizing the sale of weapons to citizens. Novella 85 remained in effect for the final 900 years of the Byzantine empire.

Byzantium was a violent society—civil war, foreign invasion, and riots were routine. So why were the Byzantines so averse to weaponized self-defense?

Part of the answer is that their vision of government was authoritarian. They not only presumed that imperial authorities and the army were in a better position to defend its citizens than the citizens were themselves, but they also took careful steps to minimize the threat of insurrection by the citizenry. Bringing this into the American context, it is worth noting that both the initial advocates of gun rights in the 18th-century and the most vociferous defenders of those rights today believe that a well-armed populace helps to prevent authoritarian government.  In other words, the Byzantines thought their society was safer if citizens did not have weapons; modern advocates of gun rights believe that society is safer if the citizenry does possess weapons.

But authoritarianism offers only a partial explanation. Given the explicit invocation of Christian faith in Novella 85, we should also consider how Justinian’s law might reflect Christian ethical norms at the time. While our surviving theological sources do not directly ask or answer a question about the moral suitability of an armed citizenry, they do have plenty to say about the moral injury that occurs in the taking of another life. Believing that it would lead to spiritual healing, St. Basil famously prescribed that soldiers who had killed in the line of duty should not receive Eucharist for three years. For his part, St. Ambrose rejected out-of-hand the possibility that a Christian citizen might kill another in self-defense: “I do not think that a Christian, a just and a wise man, should save his own life by the death of another; just as when he meets with an armed assailant he cannot return his blows, because in defending his own life he would compromise his love for his neighbor.” (Ambrose, De Officiis, 3).

Justinian, of course, framed Novella 85 as a means to prevent violence among citizens rather than an effort to establish the legal parameters of killing in self-defense. But the moral trust of a theologian like St. Ambrose suggests that self-defense offers no justification for the ownership of weapons.

To be sure, Novella 85 has no direct legal bearing on the right to possess weapons in 21st-century America. But American Catholics and Protestants would do well to recall that Byzantium is part of their own cultural, political, and religious heritage. Not only is the Justinianic Code the foundation of modern law, but Orthodox Christianity and, especially, its political theology are more directly relevant to the modern West than is generally recognized.

For the Orthodox in America, the significance of Justinian’s Novellae is both more substantial and more complex. Many Orthodox across the globe look nostalgically to an authoritarian Byzantium or Tsarist Russia precisely because they offered a political space where Christian teaching could be enshrined in legislation. Perhaps there is no greater example than Justinian’s Novella 6, which decreed that the decisions of Church councils possessed the weight of imperial law. What often goes unnoticed is that this relationship was reciprocal, meaning that all imperial law had canonical bearing for Orthodox Christians living within the empire. The most famous interpreters of Canon law in later centuries of Byzantium made little distinction between laws that originated from Church councils and laws that originated from the government. In other words, Justinian’s Novella 85 would have been interpreted by Church officials in Byzantium as a canonical regulation for all Christians.

Given all of this, we might expect that those American Orthodox who are the most enthusiastic about the legacy of Christian Byzantium and those who are the most likely to affirm the traditional nature of their Orthodoxy would be the ones who are most enthusiastic to follow Justinian’s lead and push for the restriction of gun rights today. But this is rarely the case.  Instead, it would appear that American Orthodox who advocate for gun rights are as informed by a particular kind of Americanism as they are by their Orthodoxy. The irony, of course, is that the argument for gun rights is not traditional in any kind of long historical sense. It is, rather, distinctively modern and highly secular.

George Demacopoulos is the Fr. John Meyendorff and Patterson Family Chair of Orthodox Christian Studies and Co-Director of the Orthodox Christian Studies Center at Fordham University.

Public Orthodoxy seeks to promote conversation by providing a forum for diverse perspectives on contemporary issues related to Orthodox Christianity. The positions expressed in this essay are solely the author’s and do not necessarily represent the views of the editors or the Orthodox Christian Studies Center.