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Greece » Sterea » Attica » Athens » Athens History » The Christian Roman Empire and Byzantium (330-1204 A.D.)
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The Christian Roman Empire and Byzantium (330-1204 A.D.)

When the emperor Constantine had imposed Christianity as the official religion of the immense Roman Empire, numerous people in Athens had already adopted it; thus this news were very welcome. Also, the Athenians willingly offered a lot of sculptures, statues and architectural parts for the decoration of the new capital city that Constantine established, the so-called “New Rome”, that is to say Constantinople, at the region of Byzantium, the ancient colony of Megara. Of course these offers resulted in dismantling Athens from many treasures, but in this way the city gained the grace of the emperor.

In these times Athens was still one of the most important intellectual centers of the empire and offered superb studies; thus, many aristocrats, as well as the emperor himself, were chosing the city for the studies of their offspring. One of the most illustrious students of Athens is the emperor Julian the Apostate (361-363 A.D.) who tried, though without success, to restore paganism. Not only Julian had been a student in Athens in this period; eminent fathers of the Church as Basil of Caesaria and Gregory of Nazianzus had also studied there . Neo-platonic philosophy and ideas predominated in pagan thought and constituted the reaction to the rapidly expanding Christian religion. Several teachers of philosophy, as Plotinus, made Athens the heart of Letters and the city regained primacy from Alexandria that retained it for a while.
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The rapid development of Constantinople in all fields (economic, urban, social etc) led the once flourishing cities of Greece to decline; Athens did not escape this fate. By the end of the fourth century the roman wall of the city was restored, soon before the invasion of Alaric and the Goths, who besieged Athens and pillaged Attica. According to the local tradition, the Goths had ended the siege of the city after a miraculous event; a chronicle of the period reports that Alaric had seen the spectre of goddess Athena patroling on the walls of the city. Thus, he ended the siege and decided to proceed to Megara and Peloponnese at the South; before he left Athens, the Athenians gave him several gifts.

In 421 A.D. emperor Theodosius II got married to Athenais, the daughter of an important Athenian philosopher of the epoch. The new empress established several Christian churches, purposely constructed and not replacing ancient temples. The most well known of them are the one inserted into the Library of Hadrian, and the basilica dedicated to Leonides, the martyr-bishop of the town.   In 435 A.D. the emperor issued an edict according to which all pagan temples and sanctuaries were banished; almost all of them but a few that ignored the edict, closed. Travelers of the epoch report that in these times pagans worshipped their gods in caves and secluded places.

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The final blow to the ancient world in Athens was given in 529 with an edict of emperor Justinian: the Academia and the rest of the schools of philosophy closed and the ideas of antiquity ceded their place to the ideology and thoughts of Christianity. Ever since, Athens became a small, insignificant town of marginal importance, a province of the empire. Moreover, columns, sculptures and other artistic objects were removed and carried to Constantinople to decorate the city and the church of Ayia Sofia which was being constructed in this time. However, Justinian partly repaired the Themistoclean wall and founded the Monastery of Dafni on Iera Odos, the road leading to Eleusina.

By the end of the sixth century, Attica was invaded by the Slavs and once more the place was plundered. Following the invasion, several ancient temples were converted to Christian churches: the temple of Hephaistus, later known as Thessio, was dedicated to St. George, whereas the Parthenon became the cathedral of the town and was dedicated to Virgin Mary, the so-called “Panaghia Atheniotissa” (“Virgin Mary of Athens”). During the reign of Heraclius Athens belong to the “thema”(a new military and administrative unit) of Greece, whose seat was at Thebes. In 662 A.D. emperor Constas II spent the winter in Athens and Theodore of Tarsus, later archbishop of Canterbury, had chosen it for studies. In the eighth century, during the period of Iconoclasm, several monks persecuted for opposing to iconoclasts, had took refuge in the caves of Pendeli; the frescoes surviving on the walls of the so-called “Daveli’s cave” at Pendeli go back to this period.

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In 780 A.D. Irene the Athenian became empress of the Byzantine Empire and governed alone from 797 to 802. It is in this period that were constructed the churches of Aghioi Anargyri at Plaka and of Pantanassa, known as Monastiraki. In 807 another Athenian lady, Theophano, was married to the successor to the throne; she too took care of constructing churches in her home town. During the following years, the reports we have about Athens merely state it as a target of Saracen and the Bulgar invaders; these latter had attacked Athens only once, before they were totally defeated by the Byzantine emperor Basil II, the so-called “the Bulgar slayer”. After his victory, Basil during his tour in the empire, came to Athens, where in 1018 A.D. celebrated his victory at the Parthenon, in the church of Panaghia Atheniotissa.

In the same period it was established the monastery of Aghios Ioannis Kynigos (St John, “the hunter”) on mountain Hymettus. In the 11th century it was constructed the Rizokastro, to protect the buildings around the Acropolis; several ancient buildings as the Stoa of Eumenes and the Odeon of Herod Attic were incorporated to this low wall at the foot of the hill. The most important of the Byzantine churches still preserved in Athens are also dated in this epoch: the church of Aghioi Theodori beside Klafthmonos square, the church of Kapnikarea at Hermou Street, the churches of Agii Assomati at Thesseio and Aghioi Apostoli within the archaeological site of Ancient Agora, as well as the churches of Aghios Nicolaos Ragavas at Plaka, just below Acropolis and Omorfoklissia (“the beautiful church”) at the quarter of Galatsi. All of them replaced older and smaller churches, which had been constructed on the place of ancient temples. Emperor Basil II had also restored the monastery of Dafni and decorated it with excellent mosaics, many of them still preserved in good condition. Finally, two more monasteries were established on mountain Hymettus, the Monastery of Aghios Ioannis at the site of Kareas and the Monastery of Kesariani.

By mid-11th century Frank mercenaries, serving the Byzantine Empire plundered Athens which had revolted against the Byzantine authorities; their chief named Harald had incised a runic inscription on the big stone lion found at Pireaus; it is this that gave to the port its medieval name “Porto Leone” (“the port of lions”). In 1147 the town was once more plundered, this time by Norman troops in the service of Roger, the king of Sicily; leaving the town, this latter took with him a few silk manufacturers who taught the way of producing and working silk to Western Europe. The end of the century is marked by Michael Akominatos Honiatis, an eminent theologian, philosopher and bishop of the town who offered a lot to his town and very recently was canonized. The last invader of Athens before the Frankish occupation was Leon Sgouros, the lord of the castle of Nauplion; Sgouros besieged Athens for a while, but soon left it to attack the richer town of Thebes.

The Byzantine era of Athens comes to its end after the chute of Constantinople to the Crusaders; Athens was given to Catholic Franks, the Orthodox bishop was banished and the Orthodox churches were converted to Catholic ones. The next period, that of the Frankish domination, is a period of further decline of the once powerful city of Athens.
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