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Yet it is in Greece’s medieval monasteries — Daphni, Hosios Lucas, Mount Athos and Nea Moni — where the richest concentration of Greece’s Byzantine legacy survives. Founded during the empire’s zenith (10th to 12th centuries), the churches, refectories and treasuries of these foundations house some of the greatest works of what is now called Byzantium. Long after its collapse, monks kept it alive, commemorating in their liturgies and prayers emperors and empresses, saints and scholars, iconographers and philosophers.

Greece’s position in Byzantium grew in the 11th century as the Seljuk Turks overran Anatolia, which had once provided the empire with grain, soldiers and tax revenue. The heartland of the Greek world prospered, providing markets with grain, oil and wine as it filled the coffers of the imperial treasury with revenue. But this financial success, coupled with dynastic chaos in Constantinople, eventually proved its downfall.

Relations between Byzantium and Latin Europe had never been strong. The papal coronation of Charlemagne as Emperor of the Romans on Christmas Day in the year 800 incensed the Byzantines, whose emperors identified themselves as Romans. Relations eroded further as Charlemagne’s successors, buttressed by the papacy, seized parts of Magna Graeca — Sicily and southern Italy — which historically belonged to Byzantium.

Disputes between the heads of the churches of Constantinople and Rome exacerbated relations between the Christian East and the Christian West. But the Great Schism of 1054, in which the ecumenical patriarch and the pope excommunicated each other, definitively severed full communion between the churches, thus drawing a faithline through the ancient Roman prefecture of Illyricum, of which modern Greece was a part.

Using the schism as justification, Catholic Norman knights sacked Thessalonica in 1185. Bands of Latin Crusaders commissioned to recapture the Holy Land from the Muslims — financed by the merchant city-states of the Italian peninsula — threatened other Byzantine cities with the same. In 1204, the Crusaders stormed Constantinople, the greatest prize of all, looting its palaces and churches, even desecrating the Great Church of the Haghia Sophia.

Byzantium collapsed in the ensuing confusion. Greek city-states — some ruled by exiled members of the Byzantine imperial family, others by Crusader knights — sprouted and vied for control of commerce and territory. This Latin occupation of Byzantium deepened the schism between the Orthodox East and the Catholic West and did not evaporate after the Latin occupation of Constantinople ended in 1261.

Greek Catholics. Despite a renaissance in the arts, learning and spirituality, a revived Byzantium failed to reclaim its power and awealth. And church councils held in 1274 and 1439 failed to heal the breach between Catholics and Orthodox. Meanwhile, as Genoese, Pisan and Venetian bankers purchased properties and privileges from cash-poor emperors, the Ottoman Turks conquered what remained of Byzantine-controlled lands in Greece. Eventually, only a few fortified castles and the city of Constantinople remained.

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Tags: Christianity Church history Greece Byzantium