• Henry Hopwood-Phillips

Balkan Christianity: The Early Years


House of Dionysios, Archaeological Museum of Delos


Whenever the clash of paganism and Christianity is discussed, minds jump to the easy flash-points. Constantine’s refusal to sacrifice to Jupiter after his victory at Milvian Bridge, the aggressive antics of the parabolani in Egypt, the closing of the Platonic school in Athens, or Symmachus’ wrangling over the Altar of Victory in Rome, for example.


Though these confrontations undoubtedly make better print, the slow grind of religious tectonic plates is lost. Indeed, while some scholars such as Peter Brown (Through the Eye of the Needle, for example) have painstakingly charted the evolution of single ideals (wealth in Brown’s case), other historians tend to miss the granular shifts of changing behaviours by assuming the discrepancy between norms and the ideals of legislation was slim.


To address such shortcomings, below is a snapshot of the Balkans that I hope captures the grey of the fourth and fifth centuries rather than the black and white of the third and sixth.


Asklepieion of Athens


Long after Theodosius I had reinforced the prohibition of pagan cults and sacrifices with another series of edicts, the Balkans stubbornly continued to celebrate several gods. The most popular being iatric deities such as Asclepius, Hygieia, Apollo, Dionysus, the Nymphs and the Thracian Rider (Heros). Countless votive plates discovered in sanctuaries dedicated to Zeus, Hera, Hekate, Artemis, Epona and Silvanus support such a conclusion.


Moreover, the followers of the oriental cults continued to increase.[1] Most popular were those of Cybele and Attis, Isis and Serapis, Mithras and Theos Hypsistos. Indeed, as late as the fourth-century ancient oracles still operated. The Delian (which ranked among those at Delphi, Dodona and Olympia), for instance, issuing an oracle that concerned the campaign of Julian the Apostate against Persia.[2]


Such was the fervour that even emperors who sought to pour cold water on paganism’s embers found themselves venerated by adherents of the imperial cult, which was powerful enough in certain locations (such as Philippopolis and Thessalonica) to aquire the status of neokoroi (cities that had a specific temple for the imperial cult). In such formidably ambivalent times even the pious Theodosius I was browbeaten into accepting his title as a living divinity (comparable to Hercules).

Significantly, too, when monumental buildings associated with pagan learning were destroyed by barbarians, most inhabitants of the Balkans were willing to invest in their rebuilding despite exorbitant costs. The Library of Hadrian (destroyed in the raids of Alaric, r. 395-410) being a famous example.


Tetraconch Basilica in Courtyard of Hadrian's Library


The mass Christianisation of the Balkans did not start in earnest until the middle of the fourth-century, aided no doubt by the transfer of the capital to Constantinople. Cities were, after all, where Christianity first established itself. In the Balkans, its numbers were located in the coastal cities of Thrace and the military camps that necklaced the Danube.


At first, little changed in newly converted cities. Street systems were rarely altered, the location of necropolises remained etc. Indeed, if the character of agorae shifted, it had less to do with Christianity (though an increasing reorientation around churches was notable) than greater government centralisation in which the raison d’etre of bouleuteria vanished.


Squished between eastern and western halves of the empire (which is why it yields such a heterodox smattering of Christian inscriptions in the field today),[3] the ecclesiastical architecture of Eastern Illyricum was originally related to the liturgy of the Roman type as described in the Traditio apostolica (attributed to Hippolytus c. AD 220). Gradually, an autonomous liturgical practice developed, expressed in the Testamentum Domini and Apostolic Constitutions. At the end of the fifth century, there were further alterations in church architecture, which clearly took Constantinople as their model.


Ruins of Justiniana Prima, modern Serbia


Meanwhile, in the Thracian diocese there was a mishmash of liturgical traditions. Its ecclesiastical architecture was Constantinopolitan in the interior and coasts, Syriac in cities that possessed a Levantine diaspora and Latin/Western in places close or related to Eastern Illyricum. There was a change in ecclesiastical jurisdiction too in which Thrace moved from Rome to Constantinople after Chalcedon (451). Still, there wasn’t an abrupt transition and both liturgies (Roman and E. Roman) co-existed until the end of the iconoclast crisis.[4]


The transformation to Christianity was not always smooth, however. For instance, Athens – a city “so full of idols” (Acts 17:16-17) – proved reluctant to convert (Acts 17:19-21) even when a preacher no less than St Paul harangued them from the Areopagus. Perhaps poverty and low social standing contributed to the small number of Christians in the couple of centuries. Despite the slow start, however, many of the city’s earliest Christians made big impressions. Take Aristides, who lectured Hadrian on Christianity on his visit to Athens AD 124-125, for instance, or Athenagoras who addressed Marcus Aurelius in AD 177.


Corinth had its own laurels too in the form of its massive basilica at Lechaion – one of the first monumental Christian structures in southern Greece. Probably built after the AD 525 earthquake, it was swiftly followed by the Skoutelas, Kodratos and Kraneion basilicas.


Basilica b, Philippi


Back in Athens, during the second half of the fifth-century pagan activity still monopolised its ancient civic centre, which Christians avoided. The closest the latter got to contaminating themselves with their compatriot’s idolism was the erection of a tetraconch basilica in the courtyard of the Library of Hadrian and the demolition of the Ionic temple of the Olympian Zeus (at the Ilissos River) to make way for a church cemetery. But by the end of the century most of these scruples had evaporated and the Parthenon and Asclepeium were both converted into churches, while the Erechtheion and the Hephaisteion were forced to wait another century.


It was initially a fear of demons that prevented Christians from occupying these sites or taking spolia for their churches (Theodoret of Cyrrhus, Therap. 8.68) but such horrors were slowly allayed through the practice of consecration and the linking of the qualities of gods to saints, as for example when the Asclepieum was turned into the church of the healing saint Andrew.


That paganism remained a force to be reckoned with in the fifth century can be deduced from inscriptions on the catacombs at Melos. One belonged to a presbyter named Melon who sought to curse any pagans who attempted to place their own in his family tomb. He also cursed any (he was an equal opportunity discriminator) who dared to put someone else there “in the name of a guardian angel,” echoing a Jewish tradition (Pss. 34:7; 91:11) that blended with Christianity at an early stage. Indeed, there were enough cross-overs between the two faiths for the historian Sokrates to mention a considerable number of conversions from Judaism to Christianity on Crete (Hist. Ecc. 7.38).


Catacombs of Melos


Judaism wasn’t the only belief-system to provide fodder for syncretism. The practice of crowning tombs with flowers, for instance, continued among Christians as a sign of divine protection, but its original pagan reasoning was that the gods had been reincarnated into plants.


Moreover, in the early nineteenth-century a cruciform baptismal font (and probably a baptistery) as well as a large Christian tomb, were found to have incorporated (mainly as parts of the foundation) a number of mutilated ancient statues from Melos’ agora, indicating that from a Christian standpoint pagans still harnessed powers that needed to be neutralised before being put out of sight and mind.


Meanwhile, outside the cities there were highlanders (“mountain wolves” according to Balkan bishops) such as the Bessi in the Rhodopes who had barely even encountered Christianity until the mid-fifth century.[5] The tardiness of the faith in imperial backwaters can be quite fairly gauged by the dedications of their churches, which rarely boasted the prestigious apostles (as, say, Philippi, Thessalonica and Athens could revel in visits by St Paul) but tended to fall back on second-rate legendary followers of the apostles, like that of the martyr Amplias (Rom 16:8) from Odessos (Varna).


Mosaic of Philippi's "Octagonal Floor"


Just north of Odessos, some preferred to hedge their religious bets by decorating their tombs with not just the chi-rho monogram but the sun and moon, as well as the pagan chthonic symbols: turtle and snake.[6] Others such as the Christians of Philippi preferred an odd triumphalist cum hybrid approach, which incorporated a pagan heroon into their cathedral. While at the painted tombs of Viminacium (Stari Kostolac, Serbia) pagan iconography that glorified the hunt was neutered by a Chi-Rho and the apocalyptic letter alpha and omega.


By the mid-fifth century, then, the Balkans could be described as a majority Christian society – a fact that threw up its own set of political problems. Thessalonica became the seat of the prefecture of Illyricum at the expense of Sirmium (which was sacked by Huns in AD 441 and definitively destroyed by Avars in 583), from where the relics of St Demetrius were transferred. Thessalonica was also the seat of a powerful bishop who, from the last quarter of the fourth century, was under the authority of the pope.[7] Despite the attempts of the patriarch of Constantinople to limit the bishop’s prerogatives in his capacity as vicar of the pope, it was only in AD 535 that this power was shared with the head of the archbishopric of Justiniana Prima before being definitively transferred to the Constantinopolitan patriarchate in AD 732 by order of Leo III.


[1] See the EPROER series, edited by M. J. Vermaseren. For a discussion of monotheistic cults, see Mitchell and Van Nuffelen (2010).

[2] Significantly, the Temple of Apollo on Delos was never converted into a Christian church as was, for example, the Temple of Apollo at Delphi.

[3] The majority of Christian inscriptions are in Greek, the minority in Latin. There are a few bi-lingual ones and even some in Latin that’ve been transliterated with Greek characters. Only a few, however, are pre-Constantinian. One of which is the bronze ship lamp of Smederevo Serbia (Vinceia, Moesia Superior), which explains that Termogene made an offering to God: “Dei in domu Termogenes votum fecit” alongside coins that date to mid-third century i.e. the period of the Decian persecution.

[4] Churches in which the Constantinopolitan liturgy was used did not have pastophoria (flanking chambers north and south of the apse) as was the tradition in the pre-iconoclastic churches of Constantinople. The erection of an ambo in the middle of the nave was also a mark of Constantinopolitan influence. The tripartite sanctuary was typical of Syrian early Christian architecture. In this type the central apse is flanked by two chambers rrelated to the Preparation of the Fifts. A large number of Byzantine churches found in Bulgaria display this type of sanctuary.

[5] The first successful missionary in the area was Nicetas of Remesiana (d. 414).

[6] A marble reliquary found in the crypt of the church on the hill Djanavar-tepe in the Odessos hinterland also revealed objects of hybrid beauty such as a golden casket ornamented with swastika-shaped beds of garnets and blue emeralds (neutered by an outer silver reliquary box decorated with Latin crosses).

[7] This was ultimately a political matter. The bishoprics in Illyricum were originally under the control of the episcopate of Rome. At the same time, the provinces of Illyricum were under the secular administration of Constantinople, which presupposed that their episcopates were religiously bound to Constantinople’s patriarchate.

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