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University of St Andrews



The aim of this project is to advance an understanding of the changing processes involved in the Christianization of the Peloponnese with particular reference to the location and socio-political context of churches from the 5th to 7th centuries CE. An intensive topographic and archaeological study has made it possible to present a detailed image database of the Late Antique Churches of the Peloponnese and a clickable map based on GPS data. The results of the analysis of this work, which will be published shortly in three articles, have shown clearly the evidence for phased and largely peaceful Christianization of the Peloponnese with a considered use of memory and tradition at different times, rather than that of a violent transition, as is frequently portrayed in the historical literature.

The Acropolis Basilica, Sparta

Research context

While epigraphic evidence indicates a steady growth in a Christian presence throughout the 4th century, it is not until the end of the 4th to early 5th century that the monumentalization of Christianity makes its mark on the Peloponnesian landscape with the construction of at least 130 churches. Our knowledge of the Late Antique Peloponnese comes primarily from the excavated remains of ecclesiastical architecture as little secular evidence survives. There is a dearth of literary sources relating directly to the Late Antique Peloponnese for this period and much of the work undertaken (particularly in excavation publications) has focused on the local view rather than taking a more broad-ranging approach relating the church to the surrounding area or to the culture and religious practice of the Mediterranean as a whole.

While Late Antique studies are no longer dismissed as the poor relation to the Classical or Byzantine periods in Greece, the Christianization of the Peloponnese has been largely unexplored and often seen as a single process of unequivocal and forceful spread of Christianity with a complete intolerance of any pre-Christian religious practice. Moreover, preliminary research already suggests that the Peloponnese was not only different to other areas of the Empire, but also experienced a number of identifiable phases of cultural change throughout the period. Given the nature of the archaeological evidence, these changes are best traced through study of the architecture and topography of the Late Antique Churches. My recent study of the Peloponnesian churches (Sweetman 2010) offered an account of the chronology and topography of all the churches of the Peloponnese to contribute to an overall understanding of the processes of the Christianization of the area. Furthermore, while relating the architecture to different functions performed by the churches in question, it was possible to show how and why the momumentalization of Christianity spread throughout the Peloponnese from the 5th century onwards. More specifically, the study indicated that many of the pre-Christian sanctuaries remained in use even after Christianity became the state religion and also that there is a phased Christianization of the urban space as marked through the construction of numerous multifunctional churches in a single area.

Although some churches re-use pre-Christian sacred buildings, this is not typical and likely to represent a later phase in the Christianization process of the Peloponnese. It is clear that efforts were made to encourage communities to take up Christianity through a range of processes such as; the changing focus of sacred space and the creation of new memories and identities; the use of architecture to impress and create in-groups; and of course through the promise of everlasting life.