Middle-Byzantine period

The Byzantine Empire slowly recovered from the tremendous blows it had suffered in the dark ages, but hardly resembled the empire that once ruled the Mediterranean. Asia Minor had been greatly impoverished by the countless invasions of the Arabs, the remote provinces of Crimea and southern Italy were leading their own lives, but Byzantine authority over Greece had been restored. The empire was in fact reduced to an empire with only one real big city, Constinople, which held the monopoly in cultural and artistic terms. The rest of the empire was in fact only an agricultural area, which slowly started to develop again under the influence of the capital. It is also important that the battle against icons had meanwhile ended in a grand victory for the icon worshipers. Icons and mosaics would also be given a place of honor in the Byzantine East.

In the field of church building, Greece experienced a true renaissance during this period. Of the approximately 230 Byzantine churches that have been preserved in Greece, 53 belong to the early Byzantine period (almost all ruins and only known from excavations), one (the Hagia Sophia in Thessaloniki) dates from the dark ages, 4 date from the 9th century, 15 from the 10th century, 33 from the 11th century and 49 from the 12th century. In almost all cases we are dealing with small churches, which can be explained by the fact that we are dealing with monastic churches and not with churches that had to serve a large city. The only real city that Greece still had was Thessaloniki.

Heyday: Basileios the Bulgarian slayer

The greatest emperor of the Middle Byzantine period is Basileios II, the Bulgar slayer. Basileios I (867-886) “the Macedonian” was born in Thrace or Macedonia. As wrestler and strongman, he was noticed by Emperor Michael III and married Eudokia Ingerina, Michael’s former mistress, he was crowned co-emperor  in 865, after killing his rival Bardas, and eventually killed Emperor Michael in his sleep. In this violent way the dynasty of the “Makedonians” came to power, which would give Byzantium a true renaissance. It was the Makedonians who would recapture Greece from the Slavs and Bulgars and who, in a war of attrition, would eventually destroy and incorporate the Bulgarian Empire of Symeon / Samuel. Basileios II, for example, would destroy the Bulgarians in a battle near the river Strymon near the city of Kleidon. He  took 14,000 prisoners of war. He had them divided into groups of 100, after which he had 99 men stick out both eyes from each group and only one eye of the last one. He then sent the entire group back to Ochrid, with each one-eye to guide his 99 blind comrades. When this mighty Bulgarian army entered Ochrid, Samuel suffered a heart attack, which he would not survive. Byzantium had (for the time being) proved the strongest in the battle with Bulgars and Slavs, and Basileios II, who entered Ochrid as victor in 1018, had gathered so many treasures that his relatives and descendants remained in luxury for decades but without any responsebility.


Right: Basileios II and his father Nikephoros II. Despite his proverbial cruelty, Basileios did his best to assimilate the Bulgars as much as possible into the Byzantine Empire. Apart from campaigns against the Bulgars, he fought against the Khazars, recaptured southern Italy and subdued the Serbs. At his death in 1025, an expedition against Sicily was just planned. See also R. Sutcliff, Blood Feud, 1976

The Middle Byzantine Monastery

Byzantine churches in Greece from the 10th century onwards are usually based on a Greek cross with a central dome. The dome or dome drum (usually with windows) rests directly on the walls of the Greek cross, either on free-standing pilasters or columns (or a combination of these). In most cases the weight of the dome was transferred to the load-bearing elements by means of pendentives, hollow triangles that collect the compressive forces of a quarter circle at one point. The arms of the Greek cross were covered with barrel vaults and the eastern vault has a semi-domed apse. Usually the cross shape was incorporated into a square, creating a square cruciform church (in English: cross-in-square). On the west side, an extension was usually added (narthex) and sometimes a second next to it (exonarthex). In most cases the aisles on the east side were also provided with (much lower) apsides with semi-domed. To underline the importance of the church, the architect could choose to add extra domes, but especially by including elaborate brick decoration (moldings, niches) on the outside. One of the earliest examples is the Theotokos Church in Hosios Loukas. Particularly striking is the decoration of the outer walls, executed in cloisonné technique, in which the rows of natural stones are all horizontally and vertically surrounded with bricks. In between the rows we see a kind of tooth list. Some horizontal bands are decorated (look carefully!) With stylized pseudo-Arabic letters (Kufic script). The “letters” on the church are purely decorative and cannot be read. We see such decorations on many 10th century churches in Greece and are reminiscent of the great Arab mosques in Spain and Portugal. The same Arab influence (possibly from stonemasons who fled Crete) can also be seen in the beautiful marble slabs on the outside of the dome, again with pseudo-Kufic letters. It is clear that Byzantine architecture in that period was strongly influenced by the Arab-Islamic culture.

A very complete program of decoration can be seen in the mosaics of the Katholikon, which are typical of a Middle Byzantine church. The highest positions represent the heavenly spheres. They are reserved for the most sacred of figures or events. In the central dome we find Jesus as Pantokrator (“All-Controller”), who embraces and protects the believers from his high position. The apse is reserved for Mary with the infant Jesus (Platytera) on her lap, while the dome above the apse is decorated with an image of the Easter miracle. The pendentives under the dome depict scenes from the life and death of Christ. The lowest decoration in a Byzantine church is dedicated to several saints, who, as it were, receive the faithful in their midst. The style is generally deliberately anti-classical. The saints are facing the visitor, with wide eyes that invite contact. There is also no background; As a result, we do not have a glimpse into the (daily) life of the saints, they step through the wall into the church and have a glimpse into our life. Together with the icons, these saints are an incentive not to forsake. Finally, in the narthex, the front hall of the church, where the monks gathered at night to pray, and where the death services were also held, we find saints again, but also scenes with the apostles (the washing of the feet, which the monks their duty of service must indicate) and the resurrection from the dead (which is to provide comfort in the death services).

fresco Vracha (Evrytania)

The Decline of Byzantium

source: Wikipedia
Turkish conquests after Manzikert
The Crusaders take Constantinople in 1204. Oil painting of Palma la Jeune (1544-1620). Source: Wikipedia.

The Byzantine history after Basileios II is primarily a rapid succession of coups and counter-coups. Two (partly) external factors would first seriously weaken the Middle Byzantine period and then end it: the arrival of the Turks and the fourth crusade.


The arrival of the Turks

The flourishing of the mid-Byzantine period was shattered when Turkish tribes led by Alp Arslan planned to move from the Russian steppes to Arabia via Armenia. Emperor Romanos Digenis encountered them in 1071 with a large but poorly organized army. They met at the town of Mantsikert, near Lake Van in Armenia. The Byzantine troops were devastatingly defeated and Emperor Romanos himself taken prisoner. Romanos managed to obtain very favorable conditions for his release with Alp Arslan, in fact nothing more than a tribute in gold. On his return to the capital, however, Romanos was captured and blinded by burning his eyes with a red-hot piece of iron. Subsequently, the new emperor refused to honor the agreements with Alp Arslan, even though they no longer had the troops to face Alp Arslan. The Turks responded by abandoning their march towards Syria and instead marching into Asia Minor. In a few years, almost the entire Asia Minor area of ​​Byzantium was overrun. And although especially the dynasty of the Komnenes, from Alexios I Komnenos to Andronikos I Komnenos (1081-1180) managed to achieve a certain restoration, the Turks would never leave the area.


The Fourth Crusade (1202-1205)

The famous call of Pope Urban II of Clermont at the Council of Clermont on November 27, 1095 to start the holy war against the infidels and to free Jerusalem and the holy places from the hands of the Arabs, has led to a long series of conflicts between the Arabs and knights, monks, but also ordinary citizens from the Catholic, “Latin” West.


The Fourth Crusade made an effort to avoid the difficult overland road. Proclaimed by Pope Innocent III, the crusaders, led by Boniface of Montserrat, gathered in Venice and, from there, sailed to Egypt. Not having the necessary money to pay the Venetian fleet for the crossing, the Crusaders concluded an agreement with Venice to sail first to the Dalmatian coast, to visit the city of Zara, which had rebelled against Venetian rule and defected to the Hungarians, to be conquered for the Venetians. Thus, although the inhabitants of Zara hung crosses on the wall to underline their Christian identity, the city was captured in 1202 and handed over to Venice.


Meanwhile, Alexios Angelos, the son of a deposed emperor of Byzantium, had enlisted the help of Pope Innocent III and some European princes to be installed as emperor of Byzantium. He promised the Crusaders enormous sums of gold, and submission to the Pope in Rome if they helped him to the throne, after which the Crusaders accepted and Alexios joined the Crusaders in 1203. Alexios’ plan worked, in a moment! When the crusaders appeared before the walls of Byzantium, the reigning emperor fled and Alexios was installed as Alexios IV along with his father Isaac II as emperor. However, there turned out not to be enough money to pay the Crusaders, while the proposal to submit to the Pope sparked riots, in which Alexios IV was killed and his father imprisoned. A raid by the new emperor Alexios V on the crusaders turned out to be disastrous: after several days of fighting, the crusaders managed to invade Constantinople, followed by days of looting of the city, in which numerous coastal works were destroyed or transported to Venice. After this sack, Boudewijn of Flanders was inaugurated in 1204 as emperor of the now “Latin” empire. In the wake of the Fourth Crusade, countless knights from Flanders, France and Italy would now migrate to Greece to claim territories for themselves.