Return to Home Page Harrys Greece Guide

Byzantine Athens History

Adapted from Athens: The First Six Thousand Years

Harry's Note: I am pleased to announce collaboration with renowned scholar and author John L. Tomkinson.

Mr. Tomkinson is the author of many books about Greece (and other subjects) and he has agreed to provide for us, some of his insights, on this page, as well as others throughout my sites. 

Please visit for more of his fascinating insights into Greek culture and history.

True lovers of Greece will be well rewarded by obtaining some of his very reasonably priced editions which are only available internationally, direct from the publisher.

His series Greece: Beyond the Guidebooks has been a source of inspiration to me personally. Major credit cards accepted - By John L. Tomkinson

In 364 the emperor Valentinian I divided the empire into two parts, the eastern half to be governed from Constantinople. The growth of the new capital was swift and phenomenal. It quickly became a large conurbation, sucking the rural population not only from eastern Thrace, but from the entire Greek world. This had the effect of diminishing the importance of all the cities within its sphere of influence, including Athens.

Alaric the Goth visits Athens
Towards the end of the century, the old Themistokleian defences were repaired. It was none too soon. In 396 there was another barbarian incursion. Alaric the Goth advanced upon Attica and devastated the countryside. According to a chronicler, there took place one of those “miraculous” events which seem not to have been uncommon in this age. Alaric and his soldiers believed that they had witnessed the goddess Athena, bearing arms and pacing the battlements. Impressed by whatever it was they had seen, the barbarian offered peace to the city. He entered with just a few companions, visited the baths, was entertained at a sumptuous banquet, and received impressive gifts. He then withdrew from Attica doing no further harm. Unfortunate as it always is to spoil a good story, recent archaeological evidence suggests that Alaric actually plundered the city before he departed. The Athenians once more repaired the damage as best they could. For educated Romans, Neo-Platonic philosophy was the chief rival world-view to Christianity at the time. There was a strong revival of this pagan philosophy, and once more, Athens became the most popular place for scholars from all over the known world to complete their education.

Theodosius II closes pagan sanctuaries and schools of philosophy
In 435 an edict of the emperor Theodosius II closed all the pagan sanctuaries, although it was largely ignored. Although Athens was a provincial city, several of its young women were to be raised to the imperial family. The first was the daughter of an Athenian philosopher, Athenais, who had married the emperor Theodosius in 421, whereupon she had converted to Christianity. She erected the first churches in Athens. One was inserted into the Library of Hadrian, and a shrine to the martyr-bishop Leonides erected on the banks of the Ilissos.
The death-blow to the intellectual life of the ancient world was delivered in 529 when, in an attempt to eradicate all traces of paganism, the emperor Justinian (527-65) closed the Academy, the last remaining of the philosophical schools. The function of Athens as a centre of learning, as a university town, was finally ended. From this point onwards, Athens began its long decline into an ordinary provincial country town: distinguished only by the magnificence of its ruins and by the imperishable glory of its reputation. 

Slavs visit Athens
In 580, Greece was invaded by Slavic tribes, many of whom settled in the region. Once again, the walls failed to secure the lower city, and it was sacked. There is reason to believe that on this occasion the damage was very extensive. There are few records from this and the following centuries. But it was probably during the 590s, when Athens was recovering from this disaster, that some of the ancient buildings still in a usable state began to be employed as churches. The ancient temple of Hephaestos, later mistakenly known as the Thiseion, was dedicated to Saint George. The Parthenon was dedicated to the Virgin of Athens (Atheniotissa), and functioned as the cathedral. A temple of Artemis of the Wilds on the Ilissos became the Panayia on the Rocks.In 780 a second Athenian woman managed not only to marry an emperor, but for a time to rule as empress herself (780-802), when she tried to resolve a dispute over the worship of icons. She is credited with the original foundation of the churches of Ay. Anargyroi in the Plaka and Pantassa in Monastiraki Square. Shortly afterwards, in 807, a third Athenian, Theophano, married a son of the emperor. She is also credited with the building of churches in the city.

Saracen pirates visit Athens
During the tenth century Attica was subject to sporadic attacks by Saracen pirates. Near the end of that century it is possible that for a brief time they actually captured the city and erected a mosque. Then in 996 the Bulgars plundered Attica and Boiotia. They were returning north from their campaign when they were attacked on the banks of the river Sperchios and defeated by the armies of the Byzantine emperor, Basil II. He followed up his victory by taking the war deep into Bulgar territory. In 1014 he caught the main Bulgar army in the valley of the river Strymon, and took 15,000 prisoners. He blinded all of them, except one man in every hundred, whom he left sighted to conduct his fellows home. In 1018 the defeated Bulgars accepted Byzantine rule, and emperor Basil “the Bulgar-slayer”, as he became known, travelled to Athens and celebrated his triumph in the Parthenon.The eleventh century seems to have provided a period of renewed prosperity, perhaps as a result of increased security. It was a period of intensive church building.

From this period date many of the small Byzantine churches of Athens which can still be seen today dwarfed by the modern concrete office blocks. It is likely that most were built on the foundations of previous churches or temples, following ancient practice. An unknown patron, possibly the “the Bulgar-Slayer” himself, cleared the ruins of Daphne Monastery, built a new church with an enormous dome, and embellished it with wonderful mosaics. Although more than three quarters of these have been lost, enough has escaped the ravages of time to inspire visitors to ecstasies of admiration. Kaisariani Monastery and the monastery of Saint John the Forerunner at Kareas, both on the slopes of Mount Hymettos, were also founded at about this time.

Athens Revolts against Byzantium
In the middle years of the century the city rose against Byzantine rule. The emperor used mercenaries under Harald Haardraade to subjugate the city. He left a runic inscription on the large stone lion at Piraeus which was to give that place its Medieval designation of “Porto Leone”. Harald was subsequently killed in 1066 in England at the battle of Stamford Bridge. In 1147, the city was again plundered, this time by King Roger of Sicily, who took away with him some silk manufacturers.

Just before the end of this difficult period, we have an account of life in Athens from the man appointed its archbishop, Michael Akominatos. He was not happy to take up residence in Athens. He described the inhabitants as “an uncivilised horde” whose uncouth accent, he claims, it took him three years to learn. His complaints were many, and paint a picture of a city which had suffered much from the deterioration in the security of the Aegean world.