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The Aegean under Byzantine Rule

      Το Αιγαίο επί Βυζαντίου (5/3/2006 v.1) The Aegean under Byzantine Rule (5/4/2006 v.1)

Author(s) : Pallis Georgios , Petraka Eleni , Banev Guentcho (8/3/2005)
Translation : Korka Archonti (6/29/2006)

For citation: Pallis Georgios, Petraka Eleni, Banev Guentcho, "The Aegean under Byzantine Rule", 2006,
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1. Early Βyzantine period

The Aegean Sea, with the seaways, the commercial stations and the safe ports, was particularly significant for the Roman Empire, when in 324, Constantine the Great founded his new capital, Constantinople, setting the milestone that today is considered to be the beginning of the Byzantine state. The commercial traffic that was directed towards the new capital would be now passing through the Aegean, for which the Early Christian period (4th-7th century) was a time of economic prime and overall prosperity. The undisturbed peace and security of the time contributed significantly to this prosperity. Administratively, the Aegean islands were divided between the Praefectura Praetorio per Illyricum and the Praefectura Praetorio per Orientem. The islands close to the European coastline belonged to the former, while the islands neighboring with the Asia Minor coastline and most of the Cyclades belonged to the latter. Although some bigger islands had particularly rich resources, their economic prosperity was based on commerce. The most important commercial way was the one connecting Constantinople with the Middle East coastline, Alexandria and Egypt, the richest province of the Byzantine State. This way was going across the Asia Minor coastline, between the shores and the islands of the Dodecanese and the northeastern Aegean. Rhodes, Kos, Samos, Chios and Lesvos, as well as some smaller islands, were important commercial stations and enjoyed great economic benefits. The capitals and great settlements of the islands maintained their old urban way of life, as this had developed during the Early Christian period.

Christianity was spread quickly in the Aegean and already in the First Ecumenical Council (325) the bishops of Rhodes and Kos participated. With the official acknowledgement of the new religion, the islands were systematically organized in bishoprics.

The amount of Early Christian basilicas that have been located even in the most remote small islands remains until today a truthful witness of the prosperity of the islands during the first centuries of Byzantium. Although – with very few exceptions– they are of small height, as they can be seen remaining today, their usually great dimensions, the use of luxurious marble, the carved decorations and the mosaic floors are impressive. Their dependence from the architecture in the capital and the Asia Minor coastline denotes the immediate contact and effect of the great centers in the empire.

2. Middle Byzantine Period

In the beginning of the 7th century, some islands were invaded by the Slavs, who were then everywhere in mainland Greece. However, the Arabs were the ones responsible for the end of the prosperity period in Early Christian Aegean and the beginning of the purely medieval period of the area’s history. Their victorious course, which deprived Byzantium of the immensely significant provinces of Egypt and the Middle East, would continue at sea. The Arab fleet formed by Muawiyah (the first caliph of the Umayyad dynasty) attacked and looted Rhodes in 654, while Kos and Chios followed. During the next centuries, with small intervals, the islands and the coastline suffered consecutive invasions and persecutions, either by the Arab navy or by Saracene pirates, who used Crete as their base since 820. The archaeological findings testify to the upheaval caused in the Aegean as a result of the threat posed by the Arabs. Many coastal cities that until then were prosperous business centers were deserted. In some of them, the excavation strata testify to disasters, results of invasions that caused violent changes to the lives of the islands. The residents went to the mainland, where they tried to find safety in embattled settlements. Urban life was interrupted. Characteristic of the existing insecurity are the so-called “treasures”, quantities of coins and objects made of precious metals that are found today in the locations where their owners had hidden them.

Nevertheless, activity in the Aegean did not cease. The traffic in the seaways might have recessed –especially after the loss of Egypt- and might have become dangerous, but it was not interrupted. The bishop catalogues, other written sources and archaeological data testify to the continuity of human activity in the area despite adverse circumstances. The Byzantine state kept most islands under its control and took measures for their organization. In the 7th century, the theme of the Karabisianoi was created, which was later divided into the themes of the Kibyrrhaiotai (southeast Aegean) and of the Aegean Sea (northeast Aegean). The islands that ecclesiastically belonged to Rome, together with all the themes of the state that were still subject to it, were passed to the jurisdiction of the Ecumenical Patriarchate. The islands were not neutral during the period of Iconomachy (726-843), as can be seen in the aniconic (non-image) art of churches in Naxos, Amorgos and Rhodes. Nevertheless, the humble and inept construction of the few monuments of this period is characteristic of the poverty in the islands.

In the end of the 9th century and the beginning of the 10th century, the Arabs started making new attacks against the islands and the coastline. Moreover, the fight between the Arabs and the Byzantines was particularly heightened and had ambiguous results. Nikephoros Phokas, who later became emperor, finally relieved the Aegean of the Arab threat with the re-acquisition of Crete in 961. The historical victory of Phokas resulted in the seaways being safe again; the commercial traffic was again unhindered. Moreover, there was care for the safety of the seaways towards Constantinople with fortifying works made in the main ports as well as the construction of a communication system and transmission of lighting signals (phryktories). The restitution of the Byzantine power in the islands can be seen in the monuments built during that time, mostly in the inscribed cross-type churches that are proving the reinstatement of relations with the empire’s great centers.

The central administration showed increased interest for the islands during the 11th century. Imperial sponsoring was used for the building of the Nea Moni in Chios (after 1042) and the Monastery of St John in Patmos (1088), as well as the Monastery of Panagia Hozoviotissa in Amorgos and Episkopi in Santorini, which were built, according to sources, with the support of emperor Alexios Comnenos I (1081-1118). On the other hand, the predominance of the Seljuks in Asia Minor (since 1071) caused, for a period of time, great upheaval in the commercial traffic in some islands, especially during the reign of Tzacha, the Seljuk emir of Smyrna (end of 11th century). Meanwhile, with the treaties that the Byzantine State started signing since 1082, the Italian naval states gradually started to gain control of the commerce, most notably Venice, which gained the privilege to trade products in all the ports of the empire, without paying taxes. Moreover, the decline of the central administration, mostly since the second half of the 12th century, led to the control of the provinces gradually passing over to powerful local families with autonomy tendencies. These lords replaced the emperor in the sponsorship for the construction of churches, as for example in Andros, where Konstantinos Monastiriotis and his wife Eirini Prasini built the wonderful church of Taxiarchis in Messaria in 1158.

The Fourth Crusade brought about significant changes in the islands, some of which can still be seen today, such as the presence of Catholic Christians in the Cyclades. The allocation of the Aegean islands among the conquerors of the Byzantine Empire was determined by the Partitio Romaniae, the treaty for the allocation of the territories among the victors: the Latin Empire of Constantinople would get the islands of the northeast Aegean, while Venice would get Crete and most of the Cyclades . The historic events that followed brought about changes that determined the history of the Archipelago during the following centuries.

3. Late Byzantine Period

Crete was under the Venetians’ direct control, but they used various families to which they recognized certain privileges in order to dominate in the Cyclades. Thus was created a series of autonomous states, which accepted the predominance of Venice. The greatest and most important was the Duchy of the Archipelago, which was founded by Marco Sanudo. Naxos was the capital of the Duchy and it was originally dependent on the Latin Empire of Constantinople. It included Paros and Antiparos, Kimolos, Milos, Amorgos, Ios, Sikinos, Syros and Sifnos. Andros, Tinos and Mykonos, Serifos and Kea, Anafi, Santorini and Astypalaia were separate autonomous hegemonies.

Byzantium regrouped its forces in Nicaea in Asia Minor, where the emperors of the house of Laskarides started their efforts to restitute the empire. Soon, they started recovering the lost territories, among which was Lesvos, Chios, Samos, Ikaria and Rhodes, where the Byzantine commander Leo Gavalas had formed an independent kingdom, but was forced to acknowledge the dominance of Nicaea. The re-occupation of Constantinople (1261) and the establishment of the Paleologeian dynasty by Michael VIII restituted the power of Byzantium in the Aegean for a short period of time. The Byzantine fleet, which since 1276was under the command of the Italian sadventurer Licario, regained many islands of the Cyclades, breaking most of the autonomous principalities and obtaining a great part of the territories of the Duchy of Archipelago.

Nevertheless, the recovery was temporary. The swift collapse and shrinkage of the state during the reign of Michael’s successors led most islands under Byzantine rule to be now under the command of the Venetians and the Genoese, who were monopolizing commerce in the Aegean. The Knights Hospitaller, who also took over many of the nearby islands, occupied Rhodes, which was only typically part of the empire, in 1309. In 1346, Chios was occupied by the Genoese, who also took over Samos in 1367, while in 1354 Lesvos was given to the Genoese family of the Gatiluzzi as an endowment. In 1376, Tenedos was occupied by the Venetians while in 1414 Thasos was given to the Gatiluzzi. Limnos and the Sporades islands remained almost until the end to the Byzantine Empire. From the mid 14th century, the Ottomans appeared in the Aegean Sea. In 1341, the first great looting of many islands by the Ottoman fleet took place, becoming a constant threat for the islands. By the 15th century, the Ottomans started occupying the islands; this enterprise was completed in 1669 with the fall of Crete.

The islands were under Frankish rule for more than four centuries. The Venetians and other conquerors imposed the feudal administration system, which was burdensome for the majority of the population. At the same time, they tried to impose Catholicism to the population, by displacing the Orthodox priests, therefore intensifying the hostile feelings of the people towards the Latin rulers. During the same period, not only did the cultural radiance of Byzantium not fade, but it was rather widely spread. In the 13th century and even later in the Aegean, tens of small churches were built and painted with frescoes, stating the persistence to the iconographic agenda and the style established in Byzantium. This phenomenon, which was widely popular in areas under Venetian rule, such as Naxos, can be seen as a reaction of the people to Frankish rule and an effort to re-enforce their identity and orthodox faith.

(Georgios Pallis)

4. Administrative organization in the Aegean area until the 13th century

During late antiquity, the islands of the Aegean Sea formed sections equivalent to the provinces of Achaia and the Islands (provincial insularum). In the second half of the 8th century, within the framework of the organization of new administrative and military units of the themes of Opsikion, Thrakesion, Anatolikon and Armeniakon, central administration also saw to the defenses of the marine area by establishing the Karavisianon theme which included the SW Asia Minor coast and the islands of the Aegean Sea. This reform in naval defenses is connected to the organization and activities of the Arab fleet in the SE Mediterranean after 650. Around the end of the 7th century, after the imposition of Byzantine control over central Greece, the Hellenic theme, to which certain islands with close proximity to the mainland also belonged, was established. At the beginning of the 8th century, the theme of the Kibyrrhaiotai (named after the town of Kibyrrha in Pamphylia), was created out of the theme of the Karavisianon; it included the SW areas of Asia Minor and the neighbouring islands. The strategic importance of the Aegean islands for the containment of the Arabs and the protection of Constantinople itself is testified by a number of military commanders, both noblemen and drouggarioi, mentioned in sources dating from the period from the 8th to the end of the 9th century. Here we come across noblemen from Cyprus, Crete and Chios. Directly responsible for commanding the fleets at local level and for defense were the drouggarioi. Mentioned specifically are the “drouggarios of the Gulf” (region of Nicomedia and Propontis), as well as of the North Aegean, “of the Dodecanese” (the wider area of the Cyclades together with Samos and Chios), and the “drouggarios of Kos” (the area from Kos to Rhodes).

In the 9th century emphasis was placed on the organization of the insular area. In 809 the theme of Cephalonia was established. In 842/3 during the reign of Michail 3rd the following themes were established: the theme of Dyrachion, the theme of the Aegean Sea and the theme of Crete. These were essentially naval themes. The entire Aegean came under the auspices of the “lissome and strategic Aegean Sea”, apart from the Dodecanese which were under the auspices of the theme of the Kibyrrhaiotai. Important information is offered by emperor Constantine 7th Porphyrogennetos (10th century), who mentions that the Cyclades, some of the Sporades, Mytilini, Chios and Limnos were under the command of the general of the Aegean Sea. This was a large administrative region which began from the shores of Ionia, included the islands of the eastern and central Aegean and reached the sea off Cyprus. At the end of the 9th century, during the reign of Leo 6th, the theme of Samos was established which included territories in Asia Minor and had Smyrna as its capital. From the end of the 10th to the end of the 11th century new insular themes appeared and political administration was consolidated. The themes of the Aegean and Samos shrank and the themes of Chios and the Cyclades appeared. The old, large naval themes are organized into smaller political and administrative units. This trend grew during the 12th century, at which time political and administrative fragmentation and the establishment of the duchy institution gained ground. In the period up to 1204 we come across the dukes of Cyprus, Rhodes, Karpathos, Crete, Samos, Kos, the Dodecanese (in the Cyclades), Chios, Mytilini, Cephalonia and Corfu.

5. The Byzantine Aegean

The Byzantine State was formed by three large zones with variable borders: Asia Minor, the Balkan Peninsula and the Eastern Mediterranean. The Aegean was situated in a central position and formed a “core” of primary importance for the safety of the capital and the empire’s financial life. Moreover, its 60 inhabited or habitable islands provided a complex and relatively safe network of sea routes, useful for the shipping and transport business.

The Byzantines themselves had identified the importance of the Aegean area. Characteristic remains the comparative presentation of differences between the empires’ various regions compiled by Ioannis Skylitzis, using similar older descriptions. The historian compares Asia Minor with a head, the European areas with a tail, and the archipelago’s islands with the waist of a body. Generally, Byzantium had a strong and close relationship with the sea. Notable is the observation by emperor Constantine 7th Porphyrogennetos that real power comes only to the emperor who can gain full command of the sea.

At an administrative level Byzantium regulated the organization of the Archipelago according to its specific needs and rarely as a unified geographical whole. During the early Byzantine period the Aegean offered a safe haven and security for the inhabitants of mainland areas which were threatened by the incursions of the Slavs and the Arabs. During the 5th and 6th centuries the islands experienced a period of growth and prosperity. During the middle Byzantine period, the Aegean Sea staged dramatic military conflicts with the Arabs, with dire consequences for the lives and financial situation of its inhabitants. The period from the end of the 9th century up to the 12th century is the golden age for the islands of the Aegean, which became a centre for intense economic activities, experienced political security and gave rise to important artistic expressions. During the 12th century, the islands of the Aegean were organized into many small administrative units. This development has led several researchers to support the opinion that the way of life and the organization of the area after the 4th Crusade and the establishment of the Franks did not greatly differentiate the existing state of affairs. In the period between the 13th and the 15th centuries Byzantium attempted, several time successfully, to impose its dominance over the Aegean, mainly its northern part, but the method of administration and financial management of the islands did not differ greatly from that of the Westerners.

Independent of political developments and specific conjunctures during the period between the 13th and 15th centuries, the islands of the Aegean formed part of the wider Byzantine cultural zone. Undoubtedly, apart from varied influences, in the areas of art and particularly in the varied artistic expressions there is a direct relationship with Byzantine architecture and painting.

(Eleni Petraka - Guentcho Banev)




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