Decline, Fall and Reuse: Greek Nationalist Uses of Byzantine Archaeology since 1830

Written by Verity Limond

“Constantinople [after its fall in 1453] had been left naked and desolate, without a prince or a people.  But she could not be despoiled… the genius of the place will ever triumph.”

Edward Gibbon, Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, 1776-1788 (Chapter LXVIII)

After a long period of decline, the Byzantine Empire fell in 1453 when the Ottomans took Constantinople and expanded their own empire into the Balkans and Anatolia. By the time the Ottoman Empire itself fell apart after the First World War, many new nation states had emerged from its long-drawn-out decay. These nation states shared rich Byzantine heritage, especially Greece, which formally became independent from 1830. Attitudes towards and practices in archaeological research in modern Greece were largely determined by nationalist priorities in a newly formed state that sought to establish a unifying mythology. Despite its claims to scientific neutrality, the archaeological discipline is constantly selecting, framing, and recreating the past, meaning that it lends itself to nationalist interpretations and agendas. Investigation and preservation often neglected Byzantine archaeology in Greece because of the unclear position it held in the new Greek national story. It was particularly disadvantaged because it was placed in opposition to the study of the classical past, which had been given an important position in the national narrative of the country, although Byzantine archaeology was perceived to have useful applications for supporting Orthodox Christianity and legitimising territorial expansion.  

Encounters with the past are an everyday occurrence in modern-day Greece, where people are practically immersed in the legacies of the classical and Byzantine periods. A nation, meaning a group of people sharing commonalities such as language or culture, can use archaeology to glorify its past and bolster morale. Nationalists can also utilise archaeology to support territorial claims and legitimise new authorities. During and after the decade-long revolt against the Ottomans, Greek nationalists used archaeology to emphasise nineteenth-century Greece’s Hellenic ancestry and attract western European support for the independence cause. Most famously, that support came from the mad, bad but – for the Greek nationalists’ purposes – useful to know, George Gordon Byron [1788-1824] who loaned their cause money and credibility, before dying a singularly unpoetic death from disease.  Meanwhile, Byzantium was still burdened by the reputation for decadence, corruption and stifling religiosity it had gained from Enlightenment writers such as Edward Gibbon [1737-1794] and Voltaire [François-Marie Arouet; 1694-1778].  Real enthusiasm for Byzantine archaeology only emerged later in the nineteenth century when it became useful for the parts of the Greek national project concerned with Christianity and geographical expansion based on ethnicity. This increasing prominence often pitted it against the study of classical archaeology but seldom translated into effective archaeological research or preservation.  

When a nation acquires the political right to exist in an independent state, archaeology can be a valuable tool for creating coherent identities within its borders. While Hellenic advocates saw in the classical past a glorious ancestry, the church saw a pagan society devoid of Christianity. The Byzantine Empire, however, had swept away Graeco-Roman polytheism and guarded the church and the Greek language for centuries, which meant the clergy considered it an appropriate exemplar for modern Greek identity. The imported Bavarian king also recognised in Byzantium a model for the Greece over which he would rule: a theocratic monarchical state. Understanding that medieval Byzantine heritage could be useful, both the Orthodox Church and King Otto [Otto Friedrich Ludwig von Bayern; 1815-1867, reigned 1832-1862], tried to protect its archaeology. In 1834 recent buildings of historic interest became protected by royal decree and this was followed in 1837 by a further decree which aimed to halt the destruction of Byzantine antiquities and sites. The Christian Archaeology Society was founded in 1884 to research Byzantium, decades after the classically focused Archaeological Society of Greece had been established in 1837. The Byzantine and Christian Museum also opened in 1914 to display antiquities relating to Greece’s Christian heritage. Despite Greek nationalism initially negatively affecting the preservation of Byzantine archaeology, its study was advocated in some quarters. However, neither the king nor the church could do much to shake the classical past’s position as the mythological foundation of modern Greece. The royal decrees against the destruction of Byzantine monuments proved largely unenforceable, meaning many sites were lost amid a frenzy to purify the classical remains which Greek nationalists ultimately favoured. Archaeology was closely entwined with Greece’s attempts to expand during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries and was appropriated to uncover ethnic connections which could locate the Greek nation in certain regions. 

While not interchangeable, ethnicity and nationality are frequently co-constitutive. Greek nationalists envisaged an independent Greek state as a home for the nation of ethnic Greeks. The Megali Idea (Μεγάλη Ιδέα) which gained traction from the mid-1800s, held that Greece should expand beyond its limited territory to include all areas occupied by ethnic Greeks. As the civilisation which had disseminated Greek culture, Byzantium motivated the Megali Idea, which in its most extreme form regarded Constantinople as the future Greek capital. Shortly after the Greek military accepted the surrender of the Ottoman garrison of Thessaloniki in the First Balkan War (1912-1913), excavations began to prove ethnic links to the land which would enhance a claim of jurisdiction over Bulgaria.  

Although Greece’s irredentist aims were never truly fulfilled, archaeological knowledge was used as a legitimising force behind its gradual expansion, thus demonstrating the effect that Greek nationalism had on the development of Byzantine archaeology. Archaeology is one of many tools which can be exploited by nationalists to create an identity for a new nation state. The Byzantine Empire left such a significant legacy in the Balkans and Asia Minor that it inevitably became intertwined with nationalist projects in these regions. Despite Greece’s national devotion to its classical past, Byzantine archaeology has been put to work since the mid-nineteenth century to emphasise its Christian heritage and lend support to the Megali Idea, which can be seen through practices of preservation, dissemination of knowledge and excavation. Although the most vigorous identity construction occurred in Greece during the process of founding the state in the nineteenth century, archaeology can still be associated with nationalist sentiments today, in which classical archaeology remains a priority over Byzantine heritage. The long-running debate about returning the Parthenon Sculptures, which are among the most conspicuous example of Greece’s classical art, demonstrates the continued power and resonance that the custodianship and display of archaeology has to a national narrative and the strong feelings that it can provoke. 


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