PLAYS OF EMPIRES: How Cyril Schooled Nestorius

January 24, 2022

Cyril of Alexandria vs. Nestorius of Constantinople

A case analysis of influence strategies in a pre-modern conflict.

by Guest Blogger Julian Köck

In the first couple of centuries of its existence, Christianity underwent a rather chaotic time of schisms and fights for influence. The interests of bishops for improving their status regularly led to prolonged power struggles. One well known case is the quarrel of two heads of the most important cities in the Eastern Roman Empire.

Patriarch Cyril of Alexandria (376 AD–444 AD) was eager to improve the standing of his diocese, which since 381 was formally subordinated to Constantinople and its archbishop, Nestorius.(386 AD–450 AD). His opportunity arrived when a priest of the lower-rung Antioch offered an unsanctioned rendition of scripture—that Maria (ie, Mary) could not have been the mother of God because God could not have been born. While Nestorius never followed this line of thought he too came to see Maria as mother of neither a god nor a human.

Seeing the potential of his rival’s deceit, Cyril made his move. First, by way of the strategy called Declare, he attributed the sentiment (that Maria was not the mother of God) to Nestorious. His play was not only that of the pressing variety but of the framing ilk, too, a Filter. Cyril, after all, omitted the fact that Nestorious did not agree with his Antiochian colleague.

To ensure his smear stuck, Cyril used another member of the framing family, the Label, calling Nestorius a heretic. To the bishop of Rome, Emperor Theodosius II, the emperor’s sister, the empress, and other bishops and abbots, the effect of Cyril’s cunning was tantamount to the most provocative of plays, the Call Out.

Of course, Nestorius answered immediately and voiced his own position, but to defend not prosecute. For that, he used the strategies Inform to educate his court, the Recast to reorder the narrative to his liking, and the Call Out to reverse Cyril’s insult, or try.

By way of the strategy called Pause, the emperor had until now withheld his judgment. But things became heated, so to settle the matter Theodosius called for a council. In 431 both parties were summoned to Ephesus.

Cyril and his merry band (surrogates of the Proxy type) arrived first and started the council by condemning Nestorius in absentia. His repeating Declares and Labels worked to block bishops sympathetic to Nestorius—the effect of the freezing strategy Jam. When Nestorius finally arrived, he and his own surrogates countered, again with defensive, predictable Inform-Recast-Call Out combinations.

The emperor was no longer amused and decided to put both bishops into custody. But Cyril was again ahead of the game. He had already taken refuge in Alexandria.

Visit here for another lesson in why responding is losing.

Thus, a new exchange of letters commenced, this time in the form of a bribery campaign by Cyril whose half ton of gold secured crucial power brokers. To secure his place in history, Cyril then convinced the important abbey Dalmatius to beleaguer the imperial palace with a mob of shouting monks—Proxies to his cause, recruited to effect the provocative strategy called Peacock.

The result was surrender by Theodosius II who revoked the condemnation of Cyril while keeping Nestorius’s. Saint Cyril would be remembered as a Church Father and a Pillar of Faith while Nestorius would be suffer in relative obscurity as an accused heretic.

This case demonstrated the usability of the Taxonomy of Influence Strategies for pre-modern times. One question, however, remains: Shouldn’t Bribe and Coerce also be included into the framework?

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About the author: Based in Germany, Julian Köck is a historian of culture and strategy. His commentaries can be seen in Small Wars Journal, Strategy Bridge, Wavell Room and other journals.
Editor’s Note: While bribery and coercion are inarguably persuasive and strategic their characteristics are similar to two members of the Playmaker taxonomy, Bait and Ping. Bribery relies on the luring of another player, and possibly against the self-interest of each party; hence, a form of baiting. Similarly, but at the opposite left side of the taxonomy, the technique of coercion relies on the power of suggestion, a principal feature in the definition of Ping.
Image credits: Cyril: Rousanu,, Nestorius: Romeyn de Hooghe,