The Marble King, The 100 Gates Church and More | Legends from Medieval Greece #1 (Byzantium)

People around the world read and narrate myths from ancient Greece or legends from Medieval Central and Western Europe. But stories from Medieval Greece are lesser known. Here are some legends from Greece’s Byzantine Past (Eastern Roman Empire). Keep in mind, that some of these legends are based on real historical events.

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The Legend of the Last Emperor (Constantine XI Palaeologus or…?)

Constantine Palaeologus is an important historical figure; he was the last emperor of the Byzantine Empire. His reign lasted for four years, from 1449 AD until his death in the battle of the Fall of Constantinople in 1453 AD. But Constantine is also known as the “Marmaromenos Vasilias” (Μαρμαρωμένος Βασιλιάς) – the “Marble King”.

According to a legend, when the Ottomans started taking over the city of Constantinople, an angel transformed the emperor into marble and hid him beneath the Golden Gate of Constantinople. The legend says that Constantine will be revived one day and return the city to the Greeks.

But is this legend really about emperor Constantine? Some scholars argue that the “Marble King” is Emperor of Byzantine Nicaea, John III Doukas Vatatzes, who died 200 years before the Fall of Constantinople. He is often called the “Father of the Greeks”, since he was one of the most peaceful and just emperors to have ever existed, according to the scholars.

Many people who have heard this story from their grandparents, mention certain signs and omens that will prepare us for the return of the king. For example, a bright star, probably the Star of Bethlehem that shined on the night Jesus Christ was born, will appear in the night sky.

Have you heard any other variations of the story? Feel free to share in the comment section down below.

The Church with 100 Gates

The story of the “Marble King” has inspired other legends across Greece. An example of that is the legend surrounding the historical church “Panagia Ekantotapyliani” (Παναγία Εκατονταπυλιανή) in Paros island.

 The Byzantine church is dedicated to the Dormition of the Mother of God and its name “Ekantotapyliani” means “100 gates”. The church reportedly has 99 visible gates and a hidden one that, according to the legend, it will be revealed when the marble king awakens.

In another variation of the legend, the 100th gate will be revealed when another hidden door will be found in Hagia Sophia, which is allegedly under the ground. This will be another omen that the Marble King will be awakened soon.

Kassiani’s Wit and the Emperor’s Ego

Kassiani or Kassia is a historical figure. She was a Byzantine abbess and poet who lived between 810 AD and 865 AD. According to an allegedly true story that has become a legend, Kassiani almost became the empress of Constantinople, but her wit and overall attitude scared away emperor Theofilos.

The mother of Theofilos, Thekla, had organized a “bride-show”, a Byzantine tradition that bears similarities with many other traditions around the world. The most beautiful maidens of the Byzantine Empire had gathered at the palace as soon as Theofilos was old enough to get married. Kassiani was rumored to be the new empress. She was the most beautiful and smartest of all the contestants.

The young woman immediately caught his attention and he approached her saying that the “worst things come through women” (Ἐκ γυναικὸς τὰ χείρω), referring to Eve. But Kassiani replied “the same for the better things” (Kαὶ ἐκ γυναικὸς τὰ κρείττω), referring to the birth of Jesus Christ by Mary.

Theofilos failed to understand Kassiani’s humor and became defensive. As a result, he rejected Kassiani and selected another woman, Theodora, instead. Kassiani ended up following a monastic life which is explained by scholars in two different ways. She either fell into depression after her public rejection or that was her initial plan anyways.

The Devilish Dog

A legend that has survived over the years is the one of a vicious black dog that would target monks and priests at Mount Athos. Some said that the dog was possessed, other that it was a demon residing in hell. But some believed that it was the devil himself.

Saint Parthenios, bishop of Lampsakos, who lived in the 4rth century AD in the Byzantine Empire, was allegedly attacked by this dog but managed to escape by blowing at it and making the sign of the cross. In his book “From the Holy Mountain: A Journey in the Shadow of Byzantium”, William Dalrymple briefly narrates this story.

If you liked these stories and you are interested in learning more about Greece’s Byzantine history, don’t forget to subscribe and stay connected. In next week’s episode, we will reveal the hidden secret of the Sea of Marmara, the dragon slayer Saint, and many more Medieval Greek legends.

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Is Byzantium Even Greek? | Introduction to Byzantine Empire (Eastern Roman Empire)

The term “Byzantium” often creates confusion when brought up in conversations. Was it a city-state or an empire? Was it inhabited by Greeks or Romans? And how did it get its name?

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Disambiguation of Byzantium/ Byzantion

The term itself is the latinized version of “Byzantion” (Βυζάντιον), which can refer to two different but connected things: the ancient Greek colony on the European side of the Bosporus, and the Byzantine Empire, which is another name for the Eastern Roman Empire.

The Ancient Greek Colony Named Byzantion

In 667 BC, a group of Dorian Greeks from the city-state of Megara, sailed in the northeastern Aegean to establish a colony. Their leader was allegedly Byzas, although some scholars are now doubting his existence. According to the legend, Byzas was informed by an oracle that he will establish a city opposite to the “Land of the Blind”, without providing more information. But now, let’s focus on the historical events that we know from the ancient historians Herodotus and Pausanias.

After some exploration, the Dorian Greeks of Megara found a perfect location for creating a port-city. The new Greek colony was located where the Sea of Marmara meets the Bosporus – where two continents, Europe and Asia, connect. The area allegedly took the name of Byzas and it was called “Byzantion”.

Along with the Chalcedonians, who were settled on the opposite side of the Bosporus, the Byzantines controlled the entrance to the Black sea. In fact, the Greeks of Megara were surprised to see that the Chalcedonians hadn’t sieged the opportunity to take full control of the area before they arrived there. They reportedly called Chalcedon “Land of the Blind” for this exact reason, fulfilling the prophecy.

Byzantion was a successful trading city, which comes as no surprise considering its location. It soon conquered Chalcedon and expanded. But in 513 BC, Byzantion was conquered by the Persians under the leadership of King Darius I. In 411 BC, it was taken over once more by the Greeks. First, at the hands of the Spartans, later at the hands of the Athenians. But Byzantion’s destiny forever changed in 196 AD.

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The Byzantine Empire (Eastern Roman Empire)

Outside of Europe, many scholars tend to focus on the Archaic, Classical, and Hellenistic periods of Greece’s history. Some even imply that Greeks vanished with the Roman conquest in 146 AD, after the battle of Corinth. But Greek populations continued living and thriving in the areas in which they resided in ancient antiquity.

The lyric poet Horatius (Horace) is quoted saying “Graecia capta ferum victorem cepit” (Captive Greece captured her rude conqueror). Indeed, the Greeks influenced the Romans culturally more than the Romans influenced Greeks. Many Roman Emperors were fond of Greeks, including Nero and Hadrian. During the Pax Romana, the Greek language became the lingua franca in the eastern part of the empire and Roman intellectuals would often produce their work in Greek.

As time passed by, the differences between the East and the West became more prominent. It was obvious that the areas that were inhabited by Greek populations before the Roman conquest, were under Greek rather than Latin influence.  Between the 3rd and 5th centuries, the Roman Empire’s structure changed, and two different administrations were established.

The Eastern Roman Empire included the Greek-speaking areas, and the grand majority of the population were of Greek origin. Byzantion (Byzantium in latin) was the most important city, due to its key location. The city was later named Constantinople, after the emperor Constantine the Great. The latter had moved the capital of the empire from Rome to Byzantion.

When it comes to religion, the Hellenistic polytheistic traditions had declined, and most people were now converting to Christianity. In 1054, the Great Christian Schism occurred, which resulted in the Catholic and Orthodox Churches. The differences between the Latin West and the Greek East were becoming more and more prominent. It is important to note that the Eastern part of the empire was conquered by the Ottoman Turks in 1453, changing the course of history.

Conclusion: Is Byzantium Greek?

Today, modern scholars refer to the Eastern Roman Empire as the “Byzantine Empire”. Modern Greeks study the history of the Byzantine Empire along with the history of Archaic, Classical, and Hellenistic Greece. It is the Medieval history of Greece and equally important to our ancient history.

From time to time, the Greek origins of Byzantium are disputed, mostly for geopolitical reasons. After the Greek War of Independence against the Ottoman Empire, the Greek populations were able to create an independent state. But not all Greek-populated regions were freed, including Constantinople. One of the arguments was that Byzantion was never Greek but Roman.

But not everyone who disputes that the Byzantine Empire is Medieval Greece is doing it for geopolitical reasons. The term “Eastern Roman Empire” implies that the people residing there were Romans. But the term “Roman” is used both for the people who belonged on the cultural and ethnic group of ancient Rome and those who lived under Roman rule. The Greeks living under Roman rule were also called Romans, although they did maintain their linguistic, religious, and cultural differences.

After this short introduction, more videos will be posted in the future on Greece’s Byzantine history. If you are interested in the Greek language, history, and culture, don’t forget to subscribe to stay tuned. Also, feel free to check the description for some helpful links and discounts.

The Rebirth of Greece (in 10 Minutes) | 200 Years since the Revolution of 1821 (Greek War of Independence)

greek war of independence

The history of Greece and the Greeks spans thousands of years. These include years of prosperity and decline, times of conquests, and revolutions. But there was a moment in time that is of great importance for modern Greeks. That was the spring of 1821, exactly 200 years ago.

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The Background – The Years Before the Greek Revolution

Many people outside of Europe know a lot about ancient Greek history, especially everything related to classical Athens. But fewer know the medieval history of Greeks, known today as Byzantium (395 AD – 1453 AD). During this time period, they lived in what was known as the “Eastern Roman Empire”.

Byzantium’s greatest city was Constantinople that you may know as Istanbul. The biggest population of the Eastern empire consisted of Greeks (Byzantine Greeks) who were now Orthodox Christians. An impressive feat of that time was the construction of the church of Hagia Sophia, which was the place of worship of the Christian Orthodox population.

The Byzantine empire had the strongest economy and military for many centuries, until 1204. The city of Constantinople was attacked by Latin crusaders and, since then, the empire started to weaken. It was separated in three Byzantine successor states (Nicaea, Epirus, Trebizond) and in 1341, a civil war ensued, weaking the empire even further. At the same time, a new empire rose in the East, the one of Ottoman Turks. On May 29, 1453, the city of Constantinople fell and was captured by the Ottomans, after a 53-day siege. What followed was the so-called 400 years of Ottoman rule, also known as Turkocracy.

Circumstances, Events, and Influences that Led to the Greek Revolution

During the years of the Ottoman rule, Greek peasants were generally allowed to maintain their Orthodox faith and the Greek Orthodox Patriarch was able to control the Greek population. But Orthodox Christians were often forced to convert to Islam in indirect ways, mainly through taxation. Greeks were extremely overtaxed: they paid a tax land, heavy trade taxes, and an extra tax (jizya) for having a different religion. Failing to pay the religion tax could lead to forced conversion, slavery, or even death. Some Greek peasants were therefore forced to convert, since they couldn’t afford paying these heavy taxes.

But there was another tax that was undeniably the worst: the devshirme or “blood tax”. Every family had to give a son to be raised as a Muslim and then join the corps of the Janissaries. Young girls would also sometimes be taken by force to live in harems. Greeks who rebelled against the blood tax were often beheaded.

The Greeks living under Ottoman rule did not only have to undergo heavy taxation and have their children taken away, but they also saw their economy deteriorating. Although Byzantine Greeks lived in prosperity in highly developed cities, they were now forced to live in rural areas, working as farmers. At the same time, they had to pay all the previously mentioned taxes.

In the 1600s, a new class of Ottoman landlords emerged. These were the owners of the so-called chifliks. Military officials now owned huge parts of land and Greeks and other minorities were forced to work for them. A large percent of their harvest was taken away from them and they were not allowed to work for their own monetary gain. All of the above, made the Greek populations feel oppressed in the areas where they resided for thousands of years. As a result, countless small riots occurred since 1457. But it was the 19th century during which all the Greeks in the Ottoman Empire and abroad were able to fully unite and fight against their oppressors.

Greek nationalism was the ideology that started in the 18th century and played a crucial role in the rebellion that started in the spring of 1821. Greeks had maintained their native language and a form of national identity with the help of the Greek Orthodox Church. Nationalism as a movement promotes the interests of a particular nation, the Greek nation in this case, to gain or maintain their sovereignty of its homeland. The idea of self-governance begins with the French Revolution, however, modern scholars disagree with each other on the possible connection between the Greek Revolution with the French Revolution. So, in an essence, the oppression, financial decline, and the creation of the Greek national identity were the three main forces that led to the Greek War of Independence.  

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Important Dates and Figures

A key-date in the history of the Greek War of Independence is the formation of the Philiki Etaireia (Friendly Brotherhood) in 1814. It was a secret society founded by the Greek merchants Emmanuil Xanthos, Athanasios Tsakalov, and Nikolaos Skoufas in Odessa. Their goal was to establish an independent Greek state and in 1820, the leadership of the Brotherhood was given to the officer Alexandros Ypsilantis. The latter launched the revolt against the oppressors in the spring of 1821.

By 1822, the Greeks, under the leadership of the Greek general Theodoros Kolokotronis, managed to gain control of the Peloponnese. Other revolts were suppressed by the Ottomans often with the help of the Egyptian navy. At the same time, tensions between the generals who led the revolution weakened the Greek forces. In 1826, The Ottomans with the help of the Egyptian navy successfully invaded the Peloponnese and the town of Athens. But in 1827, Russia, Britain, and France, known as the “Great Powers”, who favored the independence of Greeks, finally decided to intervene. They sent their naval fleets to Navarino to destroy the Egyptian forces, weakening the Ottoman empire. The war continued and in 1822 we had the First Hellenic Republic with Nafplio as the capital city.

Important figures of the revolution other than general national hero Theodoros Kolokotronis and the members of the Philiki Etaireia, are commander Georgios Karaiskakis and general Athanasios Diakos. There is also commander Odysseas Androutsos, admirals Constantine Kanaris and Andreas Miaoulis. Markos Botsaris, Laskarina Bouboulina, Manto Mavrogenous, and Papaflessas, among countless other heroes and heroines who fought in the war.

Greek writers and political thinkers also contributed to the revolution by keeping the Hellenic spirit alive. Such an example is Rigas Feraios, who is remembered as a national hero. Civilians also showed immense strength and courage before and during the war. Great examples of that are the massacre of Chios in the year 1824 and the siege of Messolonghi some years later.

These stories traveled outside of Greece. The Greek War of Independence was supported by an international community of people who called themselves “philhellenes” (admirers of Greeks). Important writers and poets, such as Lord Byron, advocated for the freedom of Greeks. Lord Byron himself even joined the war and died after contracting a disease.

The Rebirth of Greece

In 1830, Greece was declared as an independent state, under the protection of the European forces. With the Treaty of Constantinople in July 1832, the Turkish sultan had recognized the Greek independence. It is worth mentioning that not all areas that were originally inhabited by Greeks were recovered at that time. In 1832, the successor state of the First Hellenic Republic was established. That was the Kingdom of Greece. This was dissolved in 1924 with the Second Hellenic Republic, when democracy was restored.

The Controversies

The Greek War of Independence was about freedom. But freedom is an abstract idea. For some, the revolution was all about the sovereignty of Greece. Not paying taxes for your religion, giving away one of your children, or working for the chifliks. For others, especially those influenced by the ideas of the French Revolution, freedom was about leaving behind religion all together. As a result, historians and scholars often disagree regarding the role of certain ideas and figures in the rebirth of Greece. What was the stance of the Greek Orthodox Church towards the rebels? What were the motives of the Great Powers when they intervened? Which were the influences of the Philiki Etaireia? Were they connected to other secret societies?

Conclusion

The official commemoration of the Greek Revolution is on the 25th of March. 200 years have passed since then, which has prompted the incentive “Greece2021”. If you liked this video don’t forget to like and subscribe. You can also visit helinika.com and see more articles related to the subject.

St Basil the Great: The Greek Santa Claus

In most Western Christian cultures, children await for the arrival of the Santa Claus on the night of Christmas Eve. Depicted usually with a red outfit originating from a coke advertisement, Santa or Saint Nicholas is not the only person bringing gifts on Christmas. In Austria, Switzerland, and other neighboring countries, the gifts are brought by Christkind. In Italy, there is Babbo Natale and the Befana. In other countries there is the Christmas gnome and the Christmas goat… but what about Greece? Who brings the presents in Greece?

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Saint Basil of Caesarea is the Greek Father Christmas

In Greece, the most influential religion is Greek Orthodoxy, which is part of Eastern Orthodox Christianity. Greek Orthodoxy has its roots in Early Christianity in the Near East and the Byzantine Empire – which is described as the medieval history of Greece. The traditional gift-bringer in Greece could only be an influential figure from Byzantine history.

Basil of Caesarea, known also as Saint Basil the Great, was the bishop of Caesarea in Cappadocia – which is located in modern-day Turkey. He was an important theologian and one of the three Cappadocian Fathers. He had a huge influence on monasticism and the opposition against Arianism and other heresies. One of the most unique looking churches is the world, the Orthodox Cathedral on the Red Square of Moscow, Russia, is dedicated to St Basil.

He is usually depictedwith a medium complexion and dark brown eyes and hair, bearing few similarities to Santa Claus. Since he followed an ascetic lifestyle, he always looks very thin with protruding cheekbones. It is believed that he came from a wealthy family, but he always took care of those in need. This is why he is the holiday gift-bringer in Greece, although it is not clear when this tradition started.

It is important to note that gifts in Greece are exchanged on New Year’s Day, also known as “Saint Basil’s Day”, since St Basil was born on January 1st (330 AD). However, Hollywood has greatly influenced our perception of certain traditions, with many Greek families exchanging gifts on Christmas Eve or Christmas morning, instead of January 1st. Not only that, but Saint Basil, called «Άγιος Βασίλειος» in Greek, has been represented in a historically inaccurate way, when it comes to his clothes, silhouette, complexion, and general appearance.

When it comes to the exchange of gifts, the tradition varies. Children are sometimes told that St Basil enters the house through the chimney, however, fireplaces are not common in Greece nowadays. That is why parents usually say that St Basil leaves the presents at the doorstep of its house and leaves. Parents can be very creative with the stories they share and, sometimes, they tell their children that the Byzantine gift-bringer comes through the… radiators.

Children in Greece are rarely asked to leave a treat for St Basil, as in other cultures, and it is not clear how the gift-bringer travels around the world. An interesting fact here is that the story of the western Santa Claus, Saint Nicholas, arriving on a flying sleigh probably originates in ancient Greece and the myth of the flying chariot god, Helios (the Sun). However, in the Greek Orthodox tradition, it is prophet Elias, not St Basil, who chose this method of transportation.

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Santa’s Companions

Now, before we end this video it is important to acknowledge the presence of the malevolent companions of Father Christmas, who are present in almost every Christian culture. In central Europe, for example, there is Krampus, a horned monster that could be described as the anti-Santa. He and his minions punish naughty children by giving them coal instead of presents. In the Greek tradition, there are several such malevolent creatures, with the difference that, instead of punishing the kids who misbehave, they try to sabotage Christmas preparations.

These creatures are no other than the “kallikantzaroi”, who are notorious in Greece and some neighboring countries for misplacing items, stealing or spoiling food, and playing tricks on people. They can be compared to the “goblins” of other European cultures. As you might remember from another video by Helinika, these tricksters live under the surface of the Earth and resurface only between the 25th of December and the 7th of January, when the “Blessing of the Waters” takes place. “Kallikantzaroi” also aim at cutting down the “Tree of Earth”, which supposedly holds the planet together.

I hope you found the video helpful. If you did, don’t forget to like, share, and subscribe for more videos like this. Now, I am really curious to hear about similar stories from your culture, if you do celebrate Christmas. Who brings presents in your country and are there any myths about tricksters roaming around? Leave a comment down below!