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Athens during the Middle Byzantine period



Athens during the Middle Byzantine period

During the first years of the Middle Byzantine period, after the schools of Athens had closed and Christianity replaced paganism, Athens became a provincial city disconnected from the centre of power and with limited strategic significance.

Little is known about the city life during that time. Emperor Constans II spent the winter of 662-663 in Athens on his way to Sicily. The bishopric of Athens became a metropolis in about the mid-9th century. The city came under the Theme of Greece (an administrative district in the Byzantine Empire) seated at Thebes whereas the local power was exercised by the archon of Athens (athenarchos).

Apparently the economy of the city was mostly based on agriculture. However, the fact that two Athenian women ascended the throne of the Easter Roman Empire, testifies to the existence of aristocratic families. One of these Athenians was the Empress Eirene of Athens, wife of Leo IV the Khazar and mother of Constatine VI. She was the first woman to ascend the imperial throne (797-802). The other was her niece Theophano, wife of Emperor Stavrakios (811).

Eirene of Athens (752-803)

Eirene was Empress of Byzantium, born in Athens, wife of Leo IV and mother of Constatine VI. After Leo’s dead she came into power as the guardian of her young son. Later she removed him from the throne and became the first Empress (797-Empress Eirene of Athens802). She lost her throne to Nikephoros I in 802 and was exiled to Lesvos.

Eirene restored the icon worship which had been banned in the Byzantine Empire by the so-called “eikonomachi”, (inconoclasts), people who destroyed icons. Emperor Leo III ordered the destruction of all icons of Jesus, the Virgin Mary, and the Saints in his empire. She was active in charitable work and her international policy was quite successful. Her financial policies, however, proved damaging to the public in the long run. Top

The tomb of Leo, the strategos (general) of Greece who died in 848, situated on the Acropolis, reveals that, from the 9th century, the city probably became the seat of the Theme. The development of Athens also is established by the reissue of the folles, which were bronze coins for everyday transactions, and by the extensive building activity shown by archaeological research.

Panagia Gorgoepikoos –Agios Eleftherios – Mitropoleos Square, Athens A great number of churches from the 11th and 12th century have survived. They have given shape to the so called Athenian type: small-sized cross-in-square churches with an exquisite eight-sided dome, fine cloisonné masonry and brickwork decoration with dentils and kufic motifs. The use of these motifs suggests possible relations with Arabs and perhaps even the existence of an Arabic community in Athens.

Typical churches of that period are the Holy Apostles of Solakis (Agii Apostoli Solaki), Kapnikarea (Panagia Kapnikarea), the Holy Incorporeal (Agii Assomati) at Thissio etc. Many of these were founded by members of the Athenian aristocracy which had acquired affluence in a growing city.

The centre of the city covered the area around the Agora and the Acropolis. An important district was the Tzykanisterion, named after the place where the tzykanion game was played which resembled today’s polo. Another district was that of the Konchyliarioi, the purple dyers, and that of Elafos near the Saint Marina church.

Economy was based on agriculture and industry, more precisely, pottery, oil-industry, the production of soap and purple dye. Trade was also a growing sector. In the 11th century, the Venetians obtained the right to conduct free trade in the city.

At times there were severe tensions as a result of the heavy taxations. One such incident occurred in 915 when the Athenians rose in rebellion and stoned the administrator at the Parthenon because they held him responsible for the state policy. Another event was the visit of Emperor Basil II in 1018 to the church of the Virgin Mary of Athens (Panagia Athiniotissa) in the Parthenon, where he prayed for victory against the Bulgars. Panagia Athiniotissa had become an important shrine that was visited by important clerics.

Until 1203, Athens had not been greatly affected by the general instability of the Eastern Mediterranean and continued to act as the peripheral centre of the Easter Roman Empire facing Michael Choniates (1140-1220), archbishop of Athensoccasional difficulties such as the Norman and Arab invasions in 1147 and in the second half of the 12th century. Descriptions of the city, such as that of the Arab geographer Al-Idrisi, in the 12th century, present Athens as a greatly populated city surrounded by a rich country.

Influenced by Athens as a cultural centre in the past, Michael Choniates who had profound knowledge of classical literature came to the city in 1182 in the capacity Timelineof archbishop. He was disappointed by the poverty and the illiteracy with which he was confronted. His term of office as archbishop coincided with very difficult times for the city. In 1203, Leo Sgouros, ruler of Nauplion, attacked Athens whose inhabitants, with the help of Choniates, withstood the attack. Ultimately, in 1204, the city was seized by the Frankish crusaders led by Boniface of Monferrat as part of the Fourth Crusade. This event introduced a new phase in the history of the city. Top

For typical words, please consult our Greek Glossary



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