Byzantium for Beginners at Holy Trinity Cathedral in Manhattan

Left to right: Nektarios Antoniou, Frank Padavano, Vassilios Chrissochos, Jeannie Kouros, and Fr. John Vlahos following the presentation Byzantium for Beginners. Photo by Eleni Sakellis

NEW YORK – The Greek Literature Book Club presented a lecture, Byzantium for Beginners, at the Archdiocesan Cathedral of the Holy Trinity in Manhattan, on November 11. The presentation featured a distinguished group of speakers, Rev. Fr. John Vlahos, Nektarios Antoniou, Vassilios Chrissochos, and Daniel Padavano.

The Greek Literature Book Club’s Jeannie Kouros told The National Herald that many of the books on the club’s list are deeply connected to the history of Greece from modern times going back to the Middle Ages and even to antiquity, and in an effort to familiarize the members with some of the major historical issues, the presentation by experts in the field was organized. “We hope to shed some light into this fascinating world,” she said of the discussion.

Dr. George Liakeas welcomed everyone to the event and introduced Kouros who gave the welcoming remarks. She then introduced Chrissochos who offered a brief overview of Byzantium, the city which eventually became the capital of Rome during the reign of Emperor Constantine the Great who renamed it Constantinople after himself, and the empire which lasted about 1100 years.

Rev. Fr. John Vlahos spoke about the rise of the Byzantine Empire and religion.Photo by Eleni Sakellis

Byzantium later lent its name to the Byzantine Empire, which is a relatively new term in history. The first use of Byzantine was probably in 1558 when German historian Hieronymus Wolf published his work Corpus Historiae Byzantinae, a collection of historical sources. However, the term did not gain popularity until the mid-19th century to refer to what was known at the time and to the people who lived within it as the Roman Empire or Eastern Roman Empire. Chrissochos noted the multi-ethnic character of the empire throughout its history and that it maintained Greco-Roman traditions, connecting the learning and achievements of ancient Greece, through the Hellenistic period, and into the Middle Ages.

Fr. Vlahos spoke about religion in the empire, especially Sts. Constantine and Helen, called Equal-to-the-Apostles for their contributions, ending the state persecution of Christians and of course, St. Helen’s journey to the Holy Land and finding the Holy Cross. She built as many churches as there are days in the years, Fr. Vlahos noted, and though none of them remain standing, completely intact, there are many tile floors and columns that remain. He also spoke about the First Council of Nicaea convened by Constantine in 325 which was an extraordinary achievement, with St. Nicholas of Myra, St. Athanasios, and St. Spyridon among those in attendance.

Padovano, a historian who currently serves as Bursar Manager at CUNY City College of New York, spoke about the Emperor Justinian I and Empress Theodora, whose reign was marked by some of the most dramatic events in history. Justinian is probably best known for the uniform rewriting of Roman law, the Corpus Juris Civilis, which is still the basis of civil law in many modern states. His reign also marked a blossoming of culture and his building program included such masterpieces as the church of Hagia Sophia.

Nektarios Antoniou, the Principal Cantor at the Archdiocesan Cathedral of the Holy Trinity, spoke about Romanos the Melodist. Photo by Eleni Sakellis

Antoniou, the Principal Cantor at the Archdiocesan Cathedral of the Holy Trinity, spoke about St. Romanos the Melodist who flourished during the sixth century, considered the “Golden Age” of Byzantine hymnography. Romanos, early on, was not considered a good singer or reader in the church, as Antoniou explained, noting that after being ridiculed for his reading, he sat down humiliated in one of the choir stalls. Romanos fell asleep and the Theotokos appeared to him with a scroll in her hand which she told him to eat. After he did so, he awoke and after receiving the Patriarch’s blessing, he sang the Kontakion for the Nativity which he composed on the spot and could sing beautifully from then on. Romanos composed 1,000 kontakia, 80 of which survive to this day with some attributed to him that may not actually be his work. His Kontakion of the Nativity is considered his masterpiece, and up until the twelfth century, it was sung every year at the imperial banquet on that feast by the joint choirs of Hagia Sophia and of the Church of the Holy Apostles in Constantinople. Antoniou pointed out that the first part of each kontakion embodies the entire piece, but is only the “tip of the iceberg.” He also noted that Romanos’ works have been published in translation for those interested in further reading.

A slide showing Emperor Basil II Porphyrogenitos. Photo by Eleni Sakellis

Chrissochos, the primary composer, historical consultant, and producer of Anna and Vladimir, the rock opera about the marriage of Princess Anna Porphyrogenita and Grand Prince Vlad of the Kievan Rus, then spoke about the Macedonian Renaissance, focusing on the reign of Basil II Porphyrogenitos, also known as the Bulgur-Slayer. The son of Romanos II and Theophano, Basil was crowned co-emperor along with his brother Constantine, and extended imperial rule in the Balkans, especially in Bulgaria, and also into Mesopotamia, Georgia, and Armenia.

In her closing remarks, Kouros thanked all those who participated in the event, everyone at Holy Trinity Cathedral, and those who helped make the event possible, including the members of the book club.

A Q&A session followed the presentation as well as food and refreshments. Many noted that they are looking forward to the next presentation.

A slide showing the Emperor Justinian and Empress Theodora from the famous mosaic in the Church of Aghia Sophia in Constantinople. Photo by Eleni Sakellis

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