C. SHORT HISTORICAL OUTLINE OF THE ATHOS PENINSULA (2.Paleochristian and early Byzantine period)
With the division of the Roman empire in various parts by M. Konstantinos (324-337), the peninsula of Athos was included in Illirico, which was later (379) separated in Eastern and Western Illirico. The region of Athos was brought back again within the limits of the Eastern part that in the beginning was under the jurisdiction of the bishop of Rome, however, around 421 was temporarily given – and then permanently during the era of Leon Isaaou (716-741)- to the bishop of Istanbul. Moreover, at that period, the residents of the peninsula had already been diminished due to the wars and the barbaric raids and their presence in the public life was almost insignificant. We can easily understand this by the silence of the historians and the lack of modern monuments in the region. Thus, currently at least, a kind of darkness covers the peninsula of Athos (from the 10th until the 7th century). Moreover, we do not know the exact time when the new faith was introduced to Athos, as well as the period when monastic life was introduced, developed and propagated. Neither the remaining cultural and economic situation of the region is known today regarding that era.
This gap that presents the history of the peninsula of Athos from the early Christian epoch until the iconoclasm movement is covered by devout traditions and guesses that are contained in various manuscripts of the Mount Athos dated since the 15th century and thereon. These are certain anonymous or signed stories and other documents that refer to the traditions of Agion Oros and in order to be considered as authentic and valid, they were presented as emanating from the official charter of the monastic Athonite State, the known Tragos. From these rich traditions, which are not substantiated historically, we mention the most appreciable ones:
There is a tradition saying that Virgin Mary and the Evangelist Ioannis circumnavigated Mount Athos after the Resurrection of Christ, while on their way to Cyprus, in order to visit Lazarus. However, a storm forced them to disembark on the street where today stands the monastery of Iveron.
Virgin Mary admired that place so much that she asked from her Son to offer it to her as a gift. After a relevant prayer, she heard a voice telling her: “This place is a plot and a croft and Paradise, a place for those who want to be saved”.
From that moment, the peninsula was established as a "lot" and "a garden of Virgin Mary ". For that reason, the settlers of Agion Oros especially honored her. Later, the bishop of Jerusalem Klimis (3rd century) arrived at that place, preached Christianity and founded a homonymous monastery! In this tradition, one can understand the first elements that interpret the exceptional honor of the monks of Mount Athos to Virgin Mary.
Another tradition says that Constantine the Great wanted to build the capital of his state near the Acanthius isthmus. He abandoned however his plans, after the intervention of a bishop and left after building three churches in the regions where the monasteries of Vatopediou, Protato and Iveron are placed today.
According to another tradition, the same emperor constructed the first monastery of Vatopediou. It was destroyed however by Julian the Offender and Theodosius the Great built it later on for the following reason: While his son Arkadios was sailing from Rome to Instabul, his boat fell on the abrupt coasts of the peninsula. He was not however drowned due to the intervention of Virgin Mary. He was transported to the beach, near a bramble (vatos), where people found him sleeping quietly. That is why this place is called Vatopedion.
Some stories attribute the foundation of the monastery of Konstamonitou to the emperor Constantine the Great and his son Konsta (4th century) and others present the Queen Poulheria, daughter of Arkadios, sister of Theodosios and spouse of Markianos as the first possessor of the monasteries of Xiropotamou and Esphigmenou.
There is also a tradition according to which, Constantine Pogonatos (668-685) transported the residents of Athos, the known Tzakonites or Tzakones, to Peloponnese and granted the peninsula to the monks.
Even if the aforementioned stories and all those similar to them were created clearly for reasons of prestige, as someone can easily understand, and consequently cannot tolerate any critical examination, however, in their total, we believe that they lead to the following safe conclusion: That the distribution of Christianity in this region had already taken place at the epoch of Constantine the Great (324-337) and that the monastic life started developing there since the end of the 5th century.
The first opinion is strengthened by the paleochristian “royal” monasteries recently discovered in the neighboring region of Thasos that belong one in the Constantineia period and others in the 5th and 6th century. The same correlation can also be made regarding all the great old Christian royal monasteries in the neighboring cities of Athos, that is to say the Philippoi and Thessalonica (5th and 6th century), the size of which and structure reveal definitely developed Christian life. Moreover, in these cities, as it is known, the Apostle Paul taught the new faith, (Prax. 16, 10-40, 17, 1-9).
The second opinion that refers to the spread of monastic life assists the fact that during the 5th century, we can find organized monastic life in Epirus. The region of Athos was appropriate for hermits since there were a small number of residents because the cities of Athos had been destroyed. The appearance and spread of the Arabs in the eastern and southern countries of the Byzantine empire dissolved a big number of monastic centers that existed there and monks found new places to continue their practice. According to various traditions regarding “transportation” to Athos of various icons during the period of iconoclasm as e.g. the icon of Portaitissa Iveron, of Glikofilousa Filotheos, of Saint Stefanos Konstamonitos and of others, in order to avoid iconoclasms hate, a developed tradition of about two centuries is proclaimed. If things are as we believe, then we reach the 5th century, when the first spread of the monastic life on the peninsula of mount Athos takes place.
The Byzantine historian Josef Genesios (10th century) provides us with a written testimony regarding the existence of monks on Athos. He informs us that among those who took part in the Assembly that was convened in Istanbul in 843 by the empress Theodora regarding the re-establishment of the icons, monks from Athos participated.
We believe that the fact that there aren’t any older testimonies regarding monastic life on Athos is because of the character monastic life presented from the end of the 5th until the beginning of the 8th century when, as it is known, monasticism was still unorganized and non systematized, it presented a hermitic and cameral form.
For the period of iconoclasm (726-780, 813-843), the silence is due to the escape of monks to isolated places and their effort to stay away from the persecutors iconoclasts.
In the middle of the 9th century, two distinguished personalities of monastic life acted in the region of Athos: Petros of Athos and Efthimios of Thessalonica. Both of them, after many adventures, lead a monastic life but of a different type. Petros, an officer from Istanbul, remained fifty three whole years in a cavern towards the edge of the peninsula (hermitic life) and Efthimios of Thessalonica founded a Lavra (monastery) near Vrasta (communal life).
Few decades later, the monks that lived in the region of Isthmus progressively began to advance towards the inland of Athos. They build small wooden huts around a bigger stone temple, Kyriako. Each hut accommodated a small number of monks, who were under the intellectual and administrative monitoring of the Elder, a person who had distinguished in virtue, prudence and sapience. The lavra constituted of many independent cells - huts. The Elders of the cells performed meetings three times a year under the presidenship of the "Protos", during the feasts of Christmas, of Easter and of the Assumption.
The "Protos" administrated the monks of his cell but at the same time oversaw and protected all the other cells of his region.
The first lavras are: the known as monastery of Klimentos that was near the monastery of Iveron and “the one on the Zygos”, meaning the one found in the smooth region from the crown of the peninsula towards its middle, which was the most important one. There, there was the center of the monks, the known as Seat of the Elders that had already been named since 934 (with a golden bull by Romanos Lekapinotou) as “ancient”; hence, it must have been constituted in the beginning of the 9th century.
Since then, monks progressively advance towards the inland of Athos and found lavres and few years’ later monasteries, where many new settlers gather.
This new situation undermined the Seat of the Elders and “Protos” transferred his Seat to the Middle of the peninsula, named later (1lth century) Karyes (= walnut in the Greek language, because of the many walnuts), where he founded a new lavra. As years passed, the monitoring of the Protos of the Lavra of Karyes was recognized by the administrations of all the other monasteries. Thus, the Protos of the monastery of M. Karyes became Protos (=first) of the entire peninsula of Athos and this title was maintained until the 14th century.
However, the coenobitic system of life was introduced in the region by Ioannis Kolovos, student of Efthimios of Thessalonica, who, after founding a monastery in Sidirokafsia near Ierissos, succeeded in the publishing of official documents in favor of it, the oldest of which (872) but not saved today being an imperatorial golden bull by Vasilios I the Macedonian (867-886) with which the monks of the monastery are recognized as the owners of the region and are protected against nuisances by neighbors and other clergymen .
The second imperatorial document is a golden bull by the same emperor (874), from which we cite, in translation, the following: “For those who prefer hermitic life and wish to remain alone on Mount Athos in poor huts they have built in order not to mix and be influenced by the closest residents and neighbors and live quietly and calmly, our King with the aid of God considered that it is fair, with the present golden bull to ensure a peaceful and calm life in order for them to pray in favor of our serenity and in favor of every Christian system … and no one should influence them … nor should shepherds entry Athos with flocks…” In this document, there is no reference to neither "monasteries» in their later sense or to "Agion Oros" as a mountain of Saints.
With a later golden bull by Leon the Wise (886 – 912), monks from the monastery of Kolovos were punished because they exhibited predatorial disposals. Some marginal differences between monks and the residents of the region of Ierissos were regulated with the help of a golden bull by Constantine Porfirogenitos VII (913 - 959).
It appears that during that period, several other communities were founded, as those of Xiropotamos, Iveron, Zografou etc. They presented the form of a developed cell and they had administrative independence. There usually lived 8-15 monks, who followed the coenobitic system of life. All of them were extended and constituted the homonymous monasteries we shall mention later on.