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.