Today, February 6th, we commemorate a man who has been hated in the West and revered as a great saint in the East. Some historians say he was second to St. John Chrysostom in influence on the Constantinoplitan throne. On the other hand, some scholars call him the “Father of the Great Schism.” As of January 2019, I am working on a thorough research project regarding the life of Photius and will some day (in the distant future) post a greatly detailed biography. But for now, let this brief summary and report suffice for this man’s complicated life.
St. Photius came from a family of nobility. During the iconoclastic years, his family was sent into exile, though Photius probably managed to stay in or near Constantinople as is evident by his extraordinary education and learning, which would have been difficult to complete in exile. His parents likely died in exile. His uncle Tarasius was the Patriarch at the time of the Seventh Ecumenical Council.
After a career in education at the most prestigious university in the empire, he was elected as the Patriarch of Constantinople against his will in 858. His relations with Rome were complicated due to a couple of factors in the East and due to the ambitions of Pope Nicholas seeking to expand papal influence into Eastern Europe.
Photius’ time as patriarch was marked by great missionary activities including the baptism of King Boris and Bulgaria as well as sending Saints Cyril and Methodius to evangelize the Slavic people.
He was removed from the patriarchal throne twice and sent into exile each time. During the second exile, he died as an elderly man at the end of the ninth century.
FURTHER DETAILS AND POLITICAL DRAMA
In 858, St. Ignatius the Patriarch of Constantinople was removed from his throne, probably due to serious conflicts between himself and Caesar Bardas. They obtained a resignation letter from Ignatius and sent him to a monastery.
When the two opposing political factions in the Roman Empire couldn’t agree on a candidate, Photius was suggested as a neutral candidate who had stayed away from ecclesial politics. Both sides agreed, and he was raised from layman to Patriarch in six days, which happened infrequently and caused some controversy.
His quick elevation to the patriarchy was questioned by Pope Nicholas I, who sent delegates to investigate the matter. A council was held in 861 with the papal legates presiding, and after reviewing the facts, they returned to Rome and assured Nicholas that Photius’ appointment was legitimate. However, neither Photius nor Emperor Michael III would allow Rome to take possession of the church developing in Bulgaria, so Nicholas refused to recognize Photius as patriarch. Nicholas wanted Bulgaria for Rome’s prestige, but Constantinople needed Bulgaria as a partner for reasons of national security.
Years later, enemies of Photius stayed in Rome and managed to convince Nicholas to turn completely against Photius, feeding him all sorts of lies and misinformation. Nicholas held a council in 863 and anathematized Photius, which broke communion with Constantinople and caused a schism between East and West. While this should be known as the starting point of the schism between East and West during Photius’ life, this schism is usually overlooked since our history books have a Western bias.
In 867, Photius sent a famous Encyclical to the Eastern Patriarchs and held a great council with many hundreds participating. The council addressed errors in doctrine and practice being used by Frankish missionaries in Bulgaria and it reprimanded Pope Nicholas for ruling with an iron fist (Constantinople received many complaints from bishops and monastics in the West regarding Nicholas’ tyrannical reign as pope). This council is often called the Photian Schism in encyclopedias and other resources. However, at this point, Nicholas had excommunicated Photius and had broken communion with the Christian East four years prior. So blaming Photius for the schism is historically ignorant.
As the council came to a close, Caesar Basil assassinated Emperor Michael III. Basil pressured Photius to resign, brought St. Ignatius back to the patriarchy, and attempted to legitimize his murderous rise to power by inviting the new Pope Hadrian II to a council in 869.
At the Council of 869-870, Photius was condemned and sent to exile. The West considers this meeting to be the Eighth Ecumenical Council though the East obviously rejects this council as illegitimate. It had almost no support among the bishops or laity in the East; in fact, it costed Basil much popularity among his new subjects.
Several years later, Emperor Basil realized the error of his ways and brought Photius back from exile; Photius and Ignatius both became friends, the latter appointing Photius as his successor. Once Ignatius passed away, Photius was appointed as the Patriarch of Constantinople once again. A letter was sent to Rome; the new Pope John VIII sent legates. Another council was convened in 879. John VIII annulled the earlier papal decisions against Photius and came into theological and ecclesiastical agreement with him. At this council,
St Photius was acknowledged as the lawful archpastor of the Church of Constantinople. Pope John VIII, who knew Photius personally, declared through his envoys that the former papal decisions about Photius were annulled. The council acknowledged the unalterable character of the Nicean-Constantinople Creed, rejecting the Latin distortion (“filioque”), and acknowledging the independence and equality of both thrones and both churches (Western and Eastern). The council decided to abolish Latin usages and rituals in the Bulgarian church introduced by the Roman clergy, who ended their activities there. 
Two centuries years later, the Latin (Roman Catholic) church reversed their decision again, adopting the Council of 869-870. The move had nothing to do with Photius, but decided upon it due to canons that were passed that would help the pope combat Lay Investiture. Photius was never highly favored in the West, and over time, outlandish tales about him were fabricated in order to further tarnish his reputation. At some point, a Second Photian Schism was fabricated, though the events of that schism are completely fictitious.
After the death of Basil I, Emperor Leo VI wanted his sixteen year old brother to be patriarch. He ousted Photius and sent him into exile where he later died as an elderly man.
FILIOQUE: A strict upholder of the faith, St. Photius wrote against a growing practice in the Latin West of the insertion of the filioque into the Creed, stating that it distorted the harmony of the truth regarding the Trinity. Because it was not widespread, he did not condemn the Western church as a whole, just those groups who had changed the Creed. He wrote a book on this topic that is available in English entitled The Mystagogy of the Holy Spirit.
BOOK REVIEWS: Photius also wrote reviews and summaries of hundreds of books on theology, history, science, philosophy, geography, and mythology in a work that is entitled The Bibliotheca or The Library of Photius. Part of this has been translated into English. It is a valuable resource for scholars throughout the world because many books that he reviews and discusses are no longer extant. His Bibliotheca can be read here and here.
ECCLESIOLOGY: We see in St. Photius’ rival, Pope Nicholas, the evolution of thought in the West regarding the Roman See (bear in mind this is 200 years before the Great East-West Schism of 1054). Nicholas thought of himself, and all popes of Rome, as the head of every Christian in the world. His ambitious attitude was challenged by Photius, which caused difficulties between them.
UNIVERSAL SALVATION: One of many noteworthy entries from the Bibliotheca regards St. Gregory of Nyssa’s supposed support of universal salvation. I include this here because it is such a controversial topic today and I think it is good for us to see how these elements of St. Gregory’s writings were never widely accepted. St. Photius writes,
[I] read a book which has the name of St. Germanus… Bishop of Constantinople….”
The subject that defines this book, which is a polemical work, is to demonstrate that St. Gregory of Nyssa and his writings are free of any taint of Origenism. In fact those to whom this silly idea of the redemption of demons and men freed from everlasting punishment is dear are those, I say,…who have attempted to mix into his works, full of the light of salvation, informed, troubled and disastrous ideas from the dreams of Origen as part of the design to soil with heresy by a method which overturns the virtue and distinguished wisdom of the great man.
This is why, sometimes by faked additions, sometimes by their relentless efforts to pervert correct thinking, they have attempted to falsify many of his works which were beyond reproach. It is against these that Germanus, the defender of the true faith, has directed the sword sharpened with truth and leaving his enemies mortally wounded, he makes the victory apparent and his mastery over the legion of heretics who created these pitfalls. 
BIBLIOGRAPHY USED IN MY RESEARCH
- Dvornik, Francis. The Photian Schism: History and Legend. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1948.
- Every, George. “St. Photius: Patriarch of Constantinople.” In Encyclopedia Britannica. Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc. June 10, 2013. Retrieved from https://www.britannica.com/biography/Saint-Photius and accessed on January 15, 2019.
- Fortescue, Adrian. “Photius of Constantinople.” In The Catholic Encyclopedia, Volume XII. New York: The Encyclopedia Press, Inc, 1913. 43-46. Print.
- Gerostergios, Asterios. Photios the Great. Belmont, MA: Institute for Byzantine and Modern Greek Studies: 1980.
- Haugh, Richard. Photius and the Carolingians: The Trinitarian Controversy. Belmont, MA: Nordland Publishing Company: 1975.
- Mann, Rev. Horace K. The Lives of the Popes in the Early Middle Ages: The Popes in the Days of Feudal Anarchy. Volume IV, 891-999. London: Kegan Paul, Trench, Trübner & Company: 1910.
- Parsons, Rev. Reuben, D.D. Studies in Church History, Second Edition. Pustet & Co: New York & Cincinnati: 1896.
- Photios of Constantinople, The Mystagogy of the Holy Spirit. Trans. Joseph P. Farrell. Brookline, MA: Holy Cross Orthodox Press: 1981.
- Photios of Constantinople, The Encyclical Letter of 867, https://churchmotherofgod.org/salvation-history/new-life-church-history/6257-encyclical-letter-of-saint-photius-867.html. Accessed 2/10/2019.
- White, Despina Stratoudaki. Patriarch Photios of Constantinople: His Life, Scholarly Contributions, and Correspondence Together with a Translation of Fifty-two of His Letters. DS White. Brookline, MA: Holy Cross Orthodox Press: 1981.
- (Note: all of the above books are out of print, but if you can find one at a library, especially the first one, they are worthwhile reads)