Born Constantine and Michael, the two brothers are more commonly known today by the names they took as monks, Cyril and Methodius. Their missionary activities among the Slavic peoples of Europe earned them a lasting place in history and an important role in Orthodox Christianity.
Yet their actually missionary trips both ended in failure. Around 860 Cyril was sent by Photios, Patriarch of Constantinople, to prevent Judaism from taking hold in the Khazar Khanate. The Khazars were a semi-nomadic people on the northern shore of the Black Sea, and an important strategic people in the region. Cyril’s efforts among the Khazars failed, however, and the Khazar khan made Judaism his people’s religion.
The mission for which Cyril and Methodius are famed began in 862 and took them to Great Moravia, whose prince, Rastislav, had requested missionaries from the Byzantine Emperor Michael III and Patriarch Photios. Moravia roughly covered today’s Czech Republic, Hungary, and surrounding border regions at its height. The motive behind this request was political: Rastislav was trying to escape from the influence of his German neighbors, whose own German missionaries in Moravia threatened Rastislav’s hold on power. The Byzantine response was also political: the request presented an opportunity to further expand Byzantine influence into Central Europe at the expense of the Germans and Franks.
Cyril and Methodius knew the Slavic language, and were selected to travel to Moravia. Cyril devised a written language for Slavonic, known as Glagolitic. He then translated the liturgy from Greek into Glagolitic. Glagolitic was used to write out what is now known as Old Church Slavonic, most likely adapted from the Slavic language spoken by locals around Thessalonica, where Cyril and Methodius were born. This was a natural step for the Byzantines, as they believed in different peoples having access to liturgical material and the Gospels in their vernacular language. In comparison, the Pope in Rome wanted to use Latin for everyone. In fact, services were held in Latin in Catholic Churches, no matter one’s native tongue, up until Vatican II in the second half of the 20th century.
These differences, combined with a distrust of Cyril and Methodius by the Germans, led to problems for the brothers. The Germans resented the threat the missionaries posed to their established hierarchy in Moravia, and the Pope disliked the expansion of influence of his rival see, the Patriarchate of Constantinople. The brothers were called to Rome, but Pope Adrian II allowed the Slavonic liturgy and ordained Cyril and Methodius bishops due to their missionary actions. Before returning to Moravia, however, Cyril died in Rome in 869. It was Methodius’ role to continue their work by himself.
Although they had made inroads in Moravia, the betrayal of Rastislav by his nephew and increasing political problems meant that Methodius had to continue his missionary work just to the south of the Moravian heartland in Pannonia, where the local prince, Kocel, had taken an interest in his work. Methodius’ status as Archbishop of Sirmium ran counter to the German Archbishopric of Salzburg, which had previously held power over the region of Pannonia. German bishops summoned him to a synod, where he was deposed and imprisoned. The Pope later secured his release and he was reinstated as archbishop. Moravia had also defeated the Germans, securing their independence, but in exchange they could no longer celebrate the liturgy in Slavonic, thus securing a piece of remaining influence for the Germans.
But Methodius continued his work. His translations for church literature into Slavonic continued and the disciples of him and his brother continued to work as missionaries in the native Slavonic tongue even after Methodius died in 884. The Magyar invasions of Moravia in the early 10th century, however, destroyed the missionaries’ work in Moravia. Although the region of Moravia would become Christian again, it would be under the power of Rome, not Constantinople, and its liturgy would be in Latin, not Slavonic.
But although the great project in Moravia failed shortly after Methodius’ death, the brothers’ disciples then continued their work. Some went to Bulgaria, where they further worked on the Glagolitic script and developed the Cyrillic alphabet, which, although adapted further over the centuries, is still used for many languages in Eastern Europe and Central Asia, including Bulgarian, Serbian, and Russian. The development of a script for the Slavs not only increased their access to Christian scripture, but also proved a vehicle for national development and conscience further down the road.
The Cyrillic alphabet takes its name from Cyril, to whom, along with Methodius, it owes its existence. As the official script in twelve countries today, Cyrillic has a notable presence in the world, even being included as the third alphabet of the European Union after the Latin and Greek alphabets. Given the epithet Apostles of the Slavs, Cyril and Methodius indeed played an important role in Slavic history. Although their actual missions ended in failure, Cyril and Methodius have had an enduring legacy. Although their journey to Moravia was based on political interests of monarchs, their work there continues to exert a substantial influence on the religion and language of the Balkans, and Eastern Europe more broadly.