History of Catholic Church in Athens
Athens, CHRISTIAN.—Christianity was first preached in Athens by St. Paul. He came to Athens from Bereea of Macedonia, coming probably by water and landing in the Peiraeevs, the harbor of Athens. This was about the year 53. Having arrived at Athens, he at once sent for Silas and Timotheos who had remained behind in Bercea. While awaiting the coming of these he tarried in Athens, viewing the idolatrous city, and frequenting the synagogue; for there were already Jews in Athens. He also frequented the agora, and there met and conversed with the men of Athens, telling them of the new truths which he was promulgating. Finally, at the Areopagos, he spoke to them the sermon which is preserved in the seventeenth chapter of the Acts. The Athenians did not enthusiastically accept this first preaching of Christianity. The Acts mention, however, that a few believed in Paul's teaching. Amongst these were Dionysios, a member of the Areopagite court, and Damaris, or Thamar possibly, who may have been a Jewess. A tradition asserts that St. Paul wrote from Athens his two letters to the Christians of Thessalonika. Even if this be so, his stay in Athens was not a protracted one. He departed by sea, and went to Korinth by way of Kenchreie, its eastern harbor. It seems that a Christian community was rapidly formed, although for a considerable time it did not possess a numerous membership. The commoner tradition names the Areopagite as the first head and bishop of the Christian Athenians. Another tradition, however, gives this honor to Hierotheos the Thesmothete. The successors of the first bishop were not all Athenians by lineage. They are catalogued as Narkissos, Publius, and Quadratus. Narkissos is stated to have come from Palestine, and Publius from Malta. In some lists Narkissos is omitted. Quadratus is revered for having contributed to early Christian literature by writing an apology, which he addressed to the Emperor Hadrian. This was on the occasion of Hadrian's visit to Athens. Another Athenian who defended Christianity in writing at a somewhat later time was Aristeides. His apology was directed to the Emperor Marcus Aurelius. Athenagoras also wrote an apology. In the second century there must have been a considerable community of Christians in Athens, for Hygeinos, Bishop of Rome, is said to have written a letter to the community in the year 139. It is probable that the early Church of Athens did not have many martyrs, although Dionysios himself graces the martyrs' list. Under Decius, we find recorded in the catalogue of martyrs the names of Herakleios, Benedimos, Pavlinos, and Leonides with his followers, the holy woman Charissa, and her companions. One reason why the martyrs were few is that the Christians were also few. Besides, the spirit of the Athenian pagans and philosophers was not one of blood; and it is probable that the persecutions in Athens were rather of the social and scholastic kind. This would account for the writings of the apologists who thus would defend themselves by weapons similar to those which their opponents used. The philosophers of the Athenian schools did not indeed admire Christianity, as they understood it; nevertheless there is some ground for believing that amongst the teachers who occupied the official and historic chairs of philosophy at Athens there later was at least one who was a Christian, Prohxresios, the sophist. Be this as it may, it is certain that the teaching of the philosophers was not rudely anti-Christian. Otherwise the presence of Christians amongst the students could not be understood. Sixtus II, or Xystos, who suffered martyrdom in Rome about A.D. 258, also may have studied in Athens and is called "the son of an Athenian philosopher". But the most noted men who frequented the schools here were Basil from Kaesareia, and Gregory from Nazianzos, about the middle of the fourth century. These schools of philosophy kept paganism alive for four centuries, but by the fifth century the ancient religion of Elevsis and Athens had practically succumbed. In the Council of Nika there was present a bishop from Athens. In 529 the schools of philosophy were closed. From that date Christianity had no rival in Athens.
Down to the time of Constantine, and later, there were no large Christian temples in Athens. Like the Jews, whose synagogues in pagan towns were small and unpretentious, the first Christians did not erect sumptuous temples. With their worship they did not associate splendor of temple and sanctuary as indispensable. In the time of Basil and Gregory, there were surely numerous church edifices in Athens, but they were not spacious temples. They are called ieroi oikoi and probably were not much larger than the ordinary dwelling-houses of the inhabitants. The first magnificent churches in Athens were, therefore, the Greek temples which, after the disappearance of paganism, were transferred to the use of the Christian rites. It must have been about Justinian's time when the most of the ancient temples were converted into churches. Churches or ruins of churches have been frequently found on the sites where pagan shrines or temples originally stood. This is in part due to the fact that the sites were first sanctified for Christian tradition by these pagan temples or sanctuaries being made into churches. It is also to some extent true that sometimes the saint whose aid was to be invoked at the Christian shrine bore some outward analogy to the deity previously hallowed in that place. Thus in Athens the shrine of the healer Asklepios, situated between the two theatres on the south side of the Akropolis, when it became a church, was made sacred to the two saints whom the Christian Athenians invoked as miraculous healers, Kosmas and Damian. Amongst the temples converted into churches were the Parthenon and the Erechtheion on the Akropolis, and the yet well-preserved Hephsteion (or "temple of Theseus", as it is incorrectly called) near the ancient agora. The Hephaesteion was, in later times, sacred to St. George. Pittakis, a noted epigraphist of Athens in the early half of the last century, published an inscription which purports to state that in the year 630 the Parthenon was consecrated under the title of "the church of Divine Wisdom" (tes Agias Sophias). But Pittakis was very careless or credulous at times in the copying of inscriptions. So we do not know with certainty what was the original title of this church. Possibly, from its first conversion the Parthenon had been dedicated to the Panagia. At least we learn from Michael Akominatos that in the twelfth century it was sacred to the Mother of God. On the columns of this church, and on its marble walls, especially around the doors, are numerous graffiti inscriptions which record various events, many of them important for sacred and profane history, such as the names and deaths of bishops, and public calamities. In these graffiti inscriptions, this church is called "the great church", "the church of Athens", and the cathedral church, or katholike ekklesia. All these appellations show that it was the metropolitan church of the city. In Greek usage, the name katholikon or katholike ekklesia, was a title applied to churches which were the sees of bishops or archbishops.
That the Parthenon was a church as far back as the sixth century is proven by the cemetery which lay along its south side. This region was filled with Christian graves, in some of which were found coins of a date as early as the reign of Justinian. In order to fit the Parthenon for a church, changes had to be made in it; an apse was built at the east end, and a great entrance door was placed in the west end. The interior walls were covered with fresco paintings of saints. After the conversion of these Greek temples into churches, perhaps two or three centuries elapsed before the Athenians found it necessary to lavishly add to the number of large church edifices by erecting many new ones. Then they followed the styles of ecclesiastical architecture which had been developed elsewhere, and had become prevalent throughout so much of the empire. From about the end of the eighth century they erected new churches more frequently. Perhaps the Empress Eirene, who was an Athenian, gave some impulse to this tendency. As years went on, Athens and the surrounding villages of Attika, and the fields were filled with churches, many of them veritable gems of Byzantine comeliness. The churches which were built in Athens and vicinity during the Middle Ages numbered hundreds. Likewise many monasteries were founded, both in Athens itself and in the country of Attika, especially on the slopes of the surrounding mountains of Hymettos, and Pentelikos, and Parnes. A complete list of the Bishops of Athens could not be made. But as time goes on, and seals and manuscripts and inscriptions are deciphered, the list of names will grow. Pistos, Bishop of Athens, was present at the Council of Nika in 325. Bishop Modestus was at the Council of Ephesos in 431. John, Bishop of Athens, was amongst the Fathers who signed the Acts of the Sixth Ecumenical Council. He was present as "Leggate of the Apostolic See of ancient Rome". From the graffiti on the Parthenon a number of other names and dates are already known. In these graffiti we read names of bishops prior to the exaltation of Athens to the rank of an archbishopric, then the names of archbishops, and finally those of metropolitans. The time of the elevation of this see to an archbishopric cannot yet be fixed. Gregory II, who was pastor of the Athenians during the first patriarchate of Photios, bore the title of archbishop. But it is not known whether or not he was the first who had that title. This was about 857-867. Shortly afterwards the archbishops received the higher title of metropolitan. Niketas who took part in the Eighth Ecumenical Council under Basil the Makedonian, which closed February 28, 870, and who signed the acts of that council as "Niketas by the grace of God, Metropolitan of Athens", on his seals, or leaden bulls, simply places the inscription "Niketas, Bishop of Athens". Amongst the signatures to the acts of this council, that of Niketas stands twenty-second in order. But in a full assembly of metropolitans he would not rank so high. According to the list made by Emperor Leon the Wise (886-911), a list intended to show the relative rank of each ecclesiastical dignitary under the Patriarch of Constantinople, the Metropolitan of Athens is relegated to the twenty-eighth place. Just what sees were under the Archbishop of Athens prior to Photios is not easy to discover. After the changes brought about by Photios and his successors, the sees that were suffragan to Athens varied in number from time to time. But in general it may be stated that all of Attika belonged directly to the Archbishop of Athens, after the abolishing of the See of Marathon, about the middle of the ninth century. And under Athens were, besides other bishoprics, the Sees of Evripos, Oreos, Karystos, and Porthmos in Evbcea; Avlon; Diavleia in Phokis, and Koroneia in Bceotia; Andros, Skyros, Syros, and Seriphos of the islands; and, later, Keos and Aegina.
From Photios down to the Franks the Metropolitans of Athens were all of the Greek rite, naturally. Likewise their sympathies were rather with Constantinople than with older Rome. Their metropolitan church continued to be the ancient Parthenon. It seems that the residence of the bishops was on the Akropolis, in the great Portals, or Propylaea, and that in these Propylaea they had a private episcopal chapel. In these days education was not held in very general esteem in Athens. No special erudition characterized the clergy. Even the inscriptions which decorated the seals and bulls of bishops and abbots were often most childishly misspelled. From the time of Photios to the Franks the most noted ecclesiastic was probably the last bishop, Michael Akominatos. He, however, was Athenian neither by birth nor by education. He came to Athens expecting great things in the city of ancient wisdom, but was disappointed. Still it is wrong to say that Athens of the Middle Ages produced no scholars and noted personages. Athenais, who became queen to Theodosios in 421, and Eirene, who became empress in 780, were Athenians. From the sixth to the thirteenth century Athens was out and out a provincial town, exercising no influence on the world at large, and almost unheard of in the politics of the day. Nevertheless, the Emperor Konstas on his way to Sicily in 662 spent the winter in Athens; and after his victories over the Bulgarians in 1018, Basil II visited this city to celebrate his triumphs. When, under Constantine, the Empire was divided into governmental dioceses, the close relations which then were created between the Church and the State caused the ecclesiastical divisions to be often identical with the civil. By this system all of Achaia, wherein was Athens, was included within the Diocese of Eastern Illyria, of which Thessalonika was the capital. All of this Diocese of Eastern Illyria was under the direct jurisdiction of the Bishop of Rome. And so it remained until the reign of Leo the Isavrian. This emperor, incensed at Pope Gregory III, because of his strong opposition to Leo's iconoclastic passion, retorted against the pope by transferring these countries of the Illyrian diocese from the jurisdiction of the Bishop of Rome to that of the See of Constantinople. This occurred in the year 732. In this great struggle between the iconoclasts and the adherents to the use of the icons, the Athenians placed themselves on the side of iconolatry. While accepting without any recorded protest their transference to the jurisdiction of the Eastern patriarch, they retained the images in their churches and continued to venerate them. All the inhabitants of Greece north of the Korinthiac Gulf, who then were called Helladikoi, or Helladians, were opposed to the iconoclasts. And their opposition was so determined that they fitted out an expedition and manned a fleet, intending to attack Constantinople, depose Leo, and place their leader, Kosmas, on the throne. In this expedition, in which the Athenians doubtlessly had an important part, assistance was given by the inhabitants of the Kyklad islands, who probably furnished most of the ships. The attempt, however, was futile. The fleet was easily destroyed by the imperial ships in April, 727. The mutual bitterness which was evinced in Constantinople by the contending parties of Photians and Anti-Photians was reflected here in Athens. Gregory II was archbishop when Ignatios was restored to his throne as Patriarch of Constantinople. Ignatios deposed him as being an adherent of Photios. His successor, Kosmas, was also later deposed. Then Niketas, a Byzantine, came to Athens as archbishop with the title of metropolitan. This Niketas was a supporter of Ignatios. His successor, Anastasios, was a follower of Photios. Sabbas, who succeeded Anastasios, was likewise a Photian and was one of those who signed the acts of the synod which closed in May, 880, by which Photios was again recognized as patriarch. A bull of his still exists, whereon he designates himself as "Metropolitan of Athens".
Throughout the East there was a peculiar type of Panagiaicon, copies of which might be seen in monasteries and churches in many places. This was the Panagia Gorgoepekoos. This Panagia Gorgoepekoos seems to have been originally an Athenian icon, and was probably identical with an icon which was called the Panagia Athenceotissa. The Athenceotissa was the Madonna of the church in the Parthenon. This icon is mentioned by Michael Akominatos.
After the conquest of the Byzantine Empire by the Europeans of the Fourth Crusade, in the partitionment which followed, Athens and the rest of Greece were given to Boniface, King of Thessalonika. Boniface gave Athens to one of his followers, Otho de la Roche. At their coming to Athens the Franks found it small and insignificant. They chose Thebes to be the seat of civil power rather than Athens. Thebes was a more important trade center than was Athens. Athens, however, was considered important enough to be continued as an archbishopric. It thus was ranked in equal dignity with the other larger cities of Greece, such as Thebes, within de la Roche's dominion, and Patrae and Korinth in the Morea. The conquest of Greece was accomplished in 1204 and 1205. The first Latin archbishop introduced the Latin ritual into the cathedral, the Parthenon, in the year 1206. This was Archbishop Berard. Thus after a lapse of centuries from the time of Leo the Isavrian, Greece and Athens were again placed under the jurisdiction of the Bishop of Rome. During the Frankish rule the archbishops of Athens were without exception of the Latin Rite, and were of Western lineage. Likewise the canons of the cathedral, in the Parthenon, were of Latin Rite, and were Franks. Their number was fixed by Cardinal Benedict, papal legate in Thessalonika, by order of Pope Innocent III. But the ritual of the common priests was not disturbed. The people continued to enjoy their own rites, celebrated by Greek priests in the Greek language. These Greek priests had, however, at least outwardly, to acknowledge the jurisdiction of the Latin archbishop. Amongst the sees which were suffragan to the Archbishop of Athens were those of Chalkis, Thermopylae (or Bodonitsa) Davleia, Avlon, Zorkon, Karystos, Koroneia, Andros, Skyros, Kea, and Megara. The last bishop of the Greek Rite was the learned Michael Akominatos, who, when the Franks came, retired to the Island of Keos, after first visiting the cardinal legate of the pope in Thessalonika to impetrate certain favors for those formerly under his charge who wished to adhere to the Greek form of worship. In Keos he lived as a monk in the monastery of St. John the Baptist. To support the Latin archbishop, and the canons, and the cathedral church, a number of possessions were given to him. Amongst these was the monastic property of Ksariane, and the island of Belbina, which Pope Innocent III gave to the Archbishop of Athens in 1208. The Frankish cavaliers lived in splendor in Thebes and Athens. The dignitaries of the Church lived in ease. Along with the coming of the Franks and the Latin Church there came also Latin monks. The Cistercians established themselves near Athens in 1208 in the beautiful monastery of Daphne, which previously was in the possession of Greek Basilian Fathers. The Franciscans were the most active religious order in Greece during this period. There were also Dominican convents.
In the year 1311 another great change came over Athens. The Franks were defeated by the Catalans in the swamps of the Kephisos in Bceotia. Athens, with Thebes, became their possession. Under their sway, which lasted more than seventy-five years, the higher dignitaries of the Church continued naturally to be Latins. In these days there were fourteen suffragan sees under the Archbishopric of Athens, and at the cathedral there were eleven or twelve canons. In 1387 another change overtook Athens. The Catalonian possessions came under the ownership of the Acciajoli, Florentines who had risen to eminence as bankers. The Acciajoli retained possession of Athens until driven out by Omaer Pasha, who in June of 1456 entered the city and, in 1458, took possession of the Akropolis for his Sultan, Mohammed II. The only notable change in ecclesiastical matters under the Acciajoli was that they permitted two archbishops to reside in Athens, a Greek dignitary for the Catholics of the Greek Rite, and a Latin for the Franks. In this way the defection of the Greeks of Athens from Roman jurisdiction was again a fact. The Latin archbishop lived in the Castro, that is, the Akropolis, and the Greek prelate had his residence in the lower city. Franco Acciajoli was the last Duke of Athens. The last Latin archbishop was Nicholas Protimus. He died in 1483. After his death Rome continued to appoint titular Latin archbishops to the See of Athens. Under Turkish domination the Church and all its property again became Greek. All the suffragan sees were again filled by Greek bishops, and the monasteries were again occupied by Greek monks. The Parthenon, however, was appropriated by the conquerors, who converted it into a mosque. The Greek bishops continued to live in the lower town, and during the latter half of the Turkish supremacy they usually resided near the church of the Panagia Gorgoepekoos, which they used as a private chapel. They lived elsewhere at times, however, for Father Babin mentions Archbishop Anthimos as living near the church of St. Dionysios, which was at the foot of the Areopagos Hill. In Turkish times, as previously, the sees under Athens were not always the same in number. Nor were they all identical with those that had been under the Latin archbishops. Some of them were Koroneia, Salona, Bodonitsa, Davleia, Evripos, Oreos, Karystos, Porthmos, Andros, Syra, and Skyros.
Amongst the religious orders that lived in Athens under Turkish rule were the Franciscans. They were there as early as 1658. But they had already been in Greece under the Franks. The Franciscans are to be mentioned with the Dominicans as being the first Western Europeans who sent students to Athens and other places in the East for the purpose of studying the language and literature of the Greeks. Another fact to the credit of the Franciscans of Athens is that, although not primarily interested in antiquities, they fruitfully contributed to the awakening of our interest in such studies. There appeared in Paris in the second half of the seventeenth century, a book by Guillet or "de la Guilletiere", which is entirely based on information received from the Franciscans of Athens. Franciscans sketched the first plan of modern Athens. Considering how suspicious the Turks were of any kind of description of their possessions and castles, it was quite a feat for the Franciscans to have made so good a plan as they did. It was published by Guillet in his book, "Athens, anciennes et nouvelles", 1675. In those days the Capuchins had a comfortable monastery in Athens, which they built on ground bought from the Turks in 1658, behind the choragic monument of Lysikrates. The monument itself served them as their little library. In this monastery many a traveller found hospitality. It was destroyed by fire in 1821, and the site is now owned by the French Government. The Jesuits were also active in Athens. They came in 1645. It must be noted that it was Father Babin, a Jesuit, who wrote the first careful account of the modern condition of the ruins of ancient Athens. This he did in a letter to the Abbe Pecoil, canon of Lyons. This letter was written October 8, 1672. It was published with a commentary by Spon in 1674 under the title of "Relation de l'etat present de la vine d'Athenes". The Jesuits finally withdrew from Athens, leaving the entire field to the Franciscans. The Franciscans remained until the beginning of the war of the revolution. In the time of Babin and Spon there were about two hundred churches in Athens, all of the Greek Rite, except the chapels in the monasteries of the western monks. With the war of the insurrection, in 1821, ends the history of the older Church of Athens. A new Latin archbishopric has again its residence in Athens. (See Diocese of Athens.) Since 1833 the Church of the Greek Rite has undergone serious changes of jurisdiction, for it, no longer recognizes the leadership of the Patriarch of Constantinople, but is a national autocephalous church.