Tuesday, 3 September 2013

The 12 Byzantine families: a legend
recalled in the streets of Rethymnon

The story of the 12 Byzantine families, whether it is legend or history, is part of the story of Crete .... a window display in Omodamos shop in Souliou Street, Rethymnon (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2013)

Patrick Comerford

Walking around the side-streets and alleyways of Rethymnon this week, I have been curious about many of the street-names that recall ancient Byzantine families that have been prominent in political life in Crete for centuries, and that sometimes claim royal or imperial descent.

I often hear people in Crete claim they are descended from Byzantine imperial or royal families, or from Byzantine nobility. For many years, I was friendly with a family named Kallergis who ran the Semeli restaurant in Piskopiano, in the hills above Hersonissos. Like many families in Crete, they claimed Byzantine royal ancestors.

At least 12 families in Crete claim they are the descendants of Byzantine nobility who settled on the island in two waves in the 11th and 12th centuries. The second settlement gives rise to the story of the “Twelve Archondopoula,” which is part legend and part popular history.

After almost a century and a half of Saracen rule, the Byzantine general Nikephoros Phokas freed Crete from the Arabs in 961. When he became the Emperor Nikephoros II Phokas, the Byzantine court continued to be concerned about living standards and religious practices in Crete Eventually, at the end of the 11th century, the Emperor Alexios I Komnenos sent some prominent Byzantine families from Constantinople to settle in Crete.

This scheme had little impact, and a century later his great-grandson, the Emperor Alexios II Komnenos, sent another group of 12 Byzantine families with royal connections to Crete. In the χρυσὁϐουλλος (chrysoboullos), an imperial document with the emperor’s signature and sealed with gold, the emperor sent his son Isaakion to Crete as king and trustee, with the 12 archondes.

The Phokas and Skordilis families were in charge of the project. The island was divided between the 12 families into 12 districts, and the families were to establish strong links between Constantinople and Crete, increase the Christian population, defend the island from Arabs and pirates, and collect taxes.

It is said 850 ships were needed to transport the 12 families, their soldiers, supplies and horses to Crete. The story of their arrival has passed into Cretan legend as the story of the Twelve Archondopoula or petty lords.

The 12 families named in the imperial charter have been prominent in Crete ever since. They claim they are the descendants of:

● Ioannis Phokas – the family name was changed to Kallergis during the Venetian era;
● Marinos Skordilis, nephew of the Emperor;
● Philipos Gavalas;
● Thomas Archoleos;
● Eustathios Chortatzis;
● Leon Mousouros;
● Constantine Varouchas;
● Andreas Melissinos;
● Loukas Lithios;
● Nikiforos Argyropoulos;
● Dimitrios Vlastos;
● Matheos Kalafatis.

The family names crop up continually in the history of Crete, their coats-of-arms decorate churches and monuments across the island, and family members are still prominent in Greek life.

History or legend

No-one disputes that these families arrived in Crete from Byzantium, that they were from prominent noble Byzantine families, or that they formed a new elite when they settled in Crete.

However, some historians believe the families sometimes created their stories to convince the Venetian rulers of their aristocratic status in the hope of securing a place within the political elite.

They question the authenticity and date of the imperial document, and point out there is no original documentation of this settlement. The only accounts are Venetian records of supposedly translated Greek records or Greek translations of what are said to be earlier Venetian documents.
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The family stories

The Kallergis (Καλλέργης) family claims descent from Ioannis Phokas, the most senior member of the 12 archontopoula. He in turn was a descendant of Nikephoros Phokas, who freed Crete from the Arabs, and had one of the largest territories, covering the greater part of the present province of Rethymnon.

During the Venetian period, the family changed its name to Kallergis, which is derived from the Greek words kalon (beautiful) and ergon (work), so that Καλλ(ι)έργης became Καλλέργης. Families claiming descent from this dynasty are one of the largest family groups in Crete today.

The Skordili family claims descent from Marinos Skordilis, a nephew of Alexios II Komnenos. He came to Crete with his nine sons and brothers and their families. The Skordilis family district is in Sfakia.

Agiostephaniton Street in the old town in Rethymnon (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2013)

The Argyropoulos (Αργυρόπουλος) family is also known as Agiostephanites (Αγιοστεφανίτες). The leader of the family, Nikiforos Argyropoulos, moved to Crete with his seven sons and they settled in Mirabello and Sitia in eastern Crete.

The Vlastos family is descended from Dimitrios Vlastos and his seven sons. They settled south of Rethymnon, in the Amari area.

The Venetian conquest

The Church of Aghios Titos in Iraklion ... in 1363 an independent Cretan Republic was proclaimed here under the patronage of Saint Titus (Photograph: Patrick Comerford

Within a generation or two of these families arriving, two separate events unfolded that saw Crete being lost for ever by Byzantium.

Alexios II Komnenos was deposed in 1183. He was succeeded by three new emperors within a space of 20 years, and the Byzantine Empire began to fall into decline.

When Innocent III became Pope in 1198, he proclaimed another crusade, and the Fourth Crusade eventually sailed from Venice in November 1202. But it was underfunded and heavily indebted to the Venetians who had provided the fleet. Alexios Angelos was the son of the recently-deposed and blinded Byzantine Emperor Isaac II Angelos. He negotiated with the leader of the Crusade, Boniface de Montferrat, for the Crusaders to escort him to Constantinople and enthrone him. In return, he promised to end the schism between the Churches of the East and West, to finance the Crusade, and to provide 10,000 extra soldiers to assist in capturing Egypt.

He was enthroned as Alexios III Angelos, but the Crusaders were never paid. They attacked and sacked Constantinople in 1204, and in sharing out the spoils of war Crete was given to Boniface. However, he did not have the means to take control of the island and Crete was sold first to Genoa and then to Venice in 1212.

The Venetians began settling families from Venice to tighten their grip on Crete, Chandax was renamed Candia (today’s Iraklion) and became the seat of the Duke of Candia, and the island was known as the Regno di Candia or Kingdom of Crete.

The Venetians conceded many privileges to the descendants of the 12 archondopoula, and to the descendants of the first, earlier group of Byzantine families, who were known as the archondoromeoi – the Byzantines were known to the Venetians as Romeoi, from the Eastern Roman Empire.

Both groups of families were part of the privilegiati or privileged class. But these families, especially members of the Phokas or Kallergis and Skordilis families, often rebelled.

Argyropoulon Street is a tiny narrow street at the northern end of end of Arkadiou Street (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2013)

The first rebellion, led by the Aghiostephanites or Argyropouli family in 1212, was quickly quelled. A revolt led by Skordilis family in 1217 spread rapidly until a treaty was signed with a new doge.

Another large rebellion began in Rethymnon in 1230 after a gathering of the Skordilis, Melissinoi and Drakontopouli families and lasted for six years until Venice conceded lands and castles. The Chortatzes family led a rebellion in 1273.

In 1283, Alexios Kallergis began one of the longest rebellions that lasted for 16 years. Kallergis negotiated a settlement with the Venetians in 1299, in which the Venetian conceded “mixed marriages” and agreed to the appointment of a Greek bishop.

Kallergi Street, off Arkadiou Street in Rethymnon, recalls members of a family who led numerous revolts against Byzantine rule (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2013)

There were further rebellions in 1319, 1332/1333 and 1347. But the most important rebellion was in 1363, when an independent Cretan Republic was proclaimed in Iraklion under the patronage of Saint Titus. Marco Gradenigo was appointed governor of the island, and the other leaders of the rebellion were Luchino dal Verme, Tito Venier and John Kallergis.

In western Crete, the Kallergis family declared the struggle was for the Orthodox faith and for freedom from Latin rule. Soon, all western Crete was in rebels hands, and it took Venice five years to suppress the revolt.

Josef ‘Sifis’ Vlastos from Rethymnon led another revolt in the mid-15th century. But aal the leaders, including Josef Vlastos and his family, were executed in 1454.

The Cretan Renaissance

The great Monastery at Arkadi was restored and transformed by the Chortatzis family, and Klimis Chortatzis was the Abbot of Arkadi in the 1570s and 1580s (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

When Constantinople fell to the Ottoman Turks, many Byzantine scholars fled to Crete, bringing with them many ancient Greek and Latin texts that were then printed for the first time in Iraklion. A Cretan typesetter and calligrapher from one of the 12 families, Markos Mousouros (1470-1517), designed the typeface, based on his own handwriting, in which European readers first read these Greek classics.

The first edition of Plato’s Collected Works, printed in Venice in 1513, includes a ‘Poem to Plato’ by Markos Mousouros, in which he calls on Plato to deliver the book to Pope Leo X and seek reimbursement in the form of help to liberate Greece and cultivating Greek learning.

The language of the poem shows the influences of Homer, Euripides, Hesychius and Aristophanes, whose works were first published by Mousouros. The poem was reprinted and translated many times and has influenced later writers.

The Chortatzis or Hortatzis family in Rethymnon was associated with the Cretan Renaissance. The dramatist Georgios Chortatzis was the author of Erofili (Ερωφίλη), a tragedy set in Egypt and still performed in Crete. At the end of the 16th century, the great Monastery at Arkadi was restored and transformed by Klimis and Vissarion Chortatzis, and Klimis Chortatzis was the Abbot of Arkadi in the 1570s and 1580s.

Melissinou Street beneath the Fortezza in Rethymnon ... Cretan legend says the Melissinos family was related to the El Greco (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2013)

Some accounts say the Melissinos family was related to the Theotokopoulos family and so to Domenikos Theotokopoulos (1541-1614), better known as El Greco. His family fled Constantinople and found shelter in Fodele, the Melissinos stronghold in Crete.

Domenikos Theotokopoulos (1541-1614), better known as El Greco ... a statue in Iraklion (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Later history of the 12 families

Over time, the fiefs were subdivided and rivalries between the impoverished Cretan aristocrats sometimes turned to destructive blood-feuds such as that between the Pateroi of Sphakia and the Papadopouloi of Rethymnon. As time passed, it became possible to buy admission to the Nobilitas Cretensis. By 1573 there were 400 well-attested descendants of the archontopouli entitled to count themselves among the nobility.

But what happened to these 12 families after Crete fell to the Ottoman Turks in 1669?

Many family members remained in Crete, and their names survive throughout the island. But more fled Crete, so that members of the Kallergis family moved to the Ionian islands, Euboea, Venice and Russia. In Venice, their named changed to Calergi and survives in the name of the Palazzo Vendramin-Calergi on the Grand Canal.

Although many of the Skordilis family stayed in Crete, others moved to Constantinople or to the islands of Zakynthos and Patmos.

Konstatinos Mousouros (1807-1891), a descendant of one of the 12 families, was born in Constantinople and was Turkey’s ambassador in Athens from 1840 until the “Mousouros incident” in 1847 which broke diplomatic relations between Greece and Turkey. Later, he was the Turkish ambassador in London.

The Mousouros family is named in the blood-curdling lyrics of a rebel song from the Venetian period that was later adopted in the struggle against Turkish rule in Crete:

Πότες θα κάμει ξαστεριά, πότες θα φλεβαρίσει,
να πάρω το τουφέκι μου, την έμορφη πατρώνα,
να κατεβώ στον Ομαλό, στη στράτα τω Μουσούρω,
να κάμω μάνες δίχως γιούς, γυναίκες δίχως άντρες,
να κάμω και μωρά παιδιά να 'ναι δίχως μανάδες,
να κλαιν τη νύχτα για βυζί και την αυγή για γάλα
και τ' αποδιαφωτίσματα για την καημένη μάνα.

When will it be starry, when will it be February
So I can grab my gun, my beautiful cartridge belt
And walk down to Omalos on the Mousouros road,
I’ll deprive mothers of their sons and wives of their husbands,
I’ll deprive new-born babies of their mothers,
so they will cry for her breast in the night and in the early morning for milk,
and when the sun rises they will cry for their poor mother.


The song took on a new revolutionary meaning during the colonels’ dictatorship (1967-1974), when students revived it and sang it during their occupation of the Faculty of Law in Athens in 1973. But they changed the words “and walk down to Omalos” to the words “and walk down to the faculty of law.”

Vlastou Street is a quiet, narrow street off Arkadiou Street (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2013)

A small number of Vlastos families moved to Chios, others moved to Constantinople, Wallachia and Moldavia, or to Corfu and Venice. Today, there are about 400 Vlastos families around the world, half of them living in Crete.

These families and their names are reflected today in place-names throughout Crete, such as Kallergo near Rethymon, Kallergiana in Kissamos, near Kastelli, and Skordilo in Sitia, or Kallergis mountain peak (1,650 meters) in the White Mountains. Gavalochori, a village on Cape Drapanos, beyond Chania, is named after the Gavalas family.

A street name sign on Nikifórou Foká Street, long known as the Long Alley (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2013)

As I walk around Rethymnon this week, I notice the names of many of the 12 families on the streetnames, such as:

● Phokas: Nikiforou Foka, long known as the Long Alley, runs on a north-south axis, from the slopes of the Fortezza though the old town.
● Kallergis: Kallergi Street is a small street off the southern end of Arkadiou Street;
● Gavalas: Gavaladon Street is in the west of the new town;
● Chortatzis: Chortatzi is a long street leading south-east from Iroon Square;
● Melissinos: Melisinou Street on the northern edge of the old town runs beneath the Fortezza;
● Argyropoulos or Agiostephanites: Argyropoulon Street is a tiny narrow street at the northern end of end of Arkadiou Street, and there is an Agiostephaniton Street nearby;
● Vlastos: P Vlastou Street is a small street off Arkadiou Street and close to Kallergi Street, and S Vlastou Sreet is north-west of the Municipal Gardens;

. The descendants of the 12 families are found in every walk of life in Rethymnon today, and their names can be seen on plaques and doors for the practices of doctors, dentists, architects and managers, and on shopfronts.

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