Vatopaidi and the Greek Cultural Tradition: The contribution of the Athonite Academy

1 November 2011

The 18th and 19th centuries could be regarded as ‘centuries of greatness’ in the history of the Monastery of Vatopaidi. This was a time at which the Monastery played the role of leader at many levels in the life of the Holy Mountain. The measure of its renown, but also of its sense of responsibility towards the Holy Mountain and to the enslaved Greek nation which stemmed from this position of leadership can be seen with some clarity in the story of the Athonite Academy – the ‘Athonias’. The beginnings of the Athonias cannot be documented historically with absolute accuracy. However, they are linked with the need obviously felt in the mid 18th century by the Great Church and the Fathers of Vatopaidi to establish a spiritual and intellectual training-ground on the Holy Mountain capable of supplying both the Church and the education of the Orthodox people with suitably qualified leaders. This need had already been recognised and thought about on the Holy Mountain in the early decades of the 18th century1, and it was natural that the stirrings of awareness in this connection should find Vatopaidi, the leading monastery in this holy place, particularly responsive. It is with this climate of thought that the initiative taken by Meletios of Vatopaidi should undoubtedly be linked: he envisaged, with the agreement of the Brotherhood, the setting up in the environs of the Monastery of an institution for higher education, to serve as a spiritual and intellectual focus for the whole of Orthodoxy2. These ambitions seem to have begun to take form in the thinking of the fathers of Vatopaidi around 1748. A change in the leadership of the Church in the same year soon gave the stimulus for the thinking of Meletios and his companions to come to fruition. Soon after his elevation to the patriarchal throne, Kyrillos V adopted the proposals of the Vatopaidi Fathers within the framework of a more general ecclesiastical strategy. The coincidence of intentions and the identity of the visions entertained by the Great Church and the Monastery of Vatopaidi took the road towards successful realisation with the resolution of the Holy Synod of 1749, setting up on the Holy Mountain “a school such as there has never been among the Greeks in their distress”, in the words of Sergios Makraios3. The school was set up at Vatopaidi, which provided a site for the purpose on which accommodation of some grandeur could be built, and responsibility for it was entrusted to the originator of the idea, Meletios of Vatopaidi. A patriarchal sigillium* of May 1750 regulated matters concerning the functioning, supervision and revenues of the school4.

Neophytos Kafsokalyvitis, perhaps the most learned of the Athonite monks of the period, was appointed its first headmaster. Neophytos concluded an agreement on the matter with the Vatopaidi Monastery. In accordance with this agreement, he was to take up his duties and teach Ancient Greek in the school as of 1 December 17495. However, the teaching of Neophytos does not seem to have been crowned with particular success, which is reflected in the fact that around the end of his term of office the school had no more than 20 students. The governors decided to replace him, and then made a truly venturesome choice of his successor: their nomination went to Archimandrite Agapios Aghiotafitis, probably a former pupil of Evyenios Voulgaris at the Maroutsaia School at Ioannina, and certainly acquainted with modern philosophy, according to the testimony of Nikolaos Barkosis, teacher at the school in Kozani. Voulgaris expressed his satisfaction at this development in a letter to Agapios in April 17526. The choice of Agapios is indicative of the ambitions of those responsible for the founding and operation of the school: their vision was of an institution of up-to-date higher education which would meet intellectual needs beyond the limited cycle of conventional education in grammar. However, a cruel and ill-omened fate prevented the fulfilment of the expectations associated with the choice of Agapios Aghiotafitis, who “was killed outside Thessaloniki by criminal murdering Janissaries”7 on 14 August 1752. Thus, three years after its foundation, the Athonias was left without a head. In the meantime, the Patriarch Kyrillos V, who had been ousted in March 1751 before he was able to complete his programme, was restored to the patriarchal throne in September of 1752 for a relatively longer term of office (until January 1757). Among the first projects which he undertook with particular zeal during his second patriarchate was that of setting the Athonias on its feet again. His fervour for this task manifested itself in the choice of the new head of the school. On 7 July 1753, the Patriarch and Synod of Constantinople issued a sigillium by which they appointed “the most holy among deacon-monks and wisest of teachers kyr Evyenios […], a man educated and cultivated and capable of training the pupils not only in grammar and the art of logic but in philosophy and the mathematical sciences and in theology and those things which belong to moral philosophy, as being in all these things manifestly initiated […], teacher of this school established at Vatopaidi8.

The patriarchal sigillium of 7 July 1753 is important as a historical source for three main reasons. First, because it contains in effect the basic provisions of the regulations of the Athonias; second, because it clearly attributes in its introductory paragraphs the paternity of the idea that there should be set up at Vatopaidi “a tutorial school […] of Greek lessons, and of education and teaching of every kind of the sciences of logic, philosophy and theology ”9  to the “divine zeal” of the fathers of the Monastery, and thus clarifies the issue of the first initiative for the setting up of the Athonias, and, third, because it confirms in the most innovatory manner the will for renewal both of the Brotherhood and of the Head of the Church, as they express themselves on what they envisaged as the educational mission of the school and in the choice of Voulgaris to take charge of these efforts. On this matter, the sigillium is clear: Voulgaris’s commission is to bring about changes and to establish the school “improved and ameliorated by alterations and reforms10.

The School was housed in an imposing building which was built on a hill near the Vatopaidi Monastery, at its expense.

In the form which it finally took, the three-storey building contained 170 rooms for the students, a refectory, quarters for the headmaster, a library, and classrooms. The entrance was dominated by an impressive tower, while the residents’ needs were supplied by a large acqueduct. In the middle of the inner courtyard there was a chapel dedicated to the Prophet Elijah. This building complex, whose ruins the visitor even today finds striking, was a clear indication of the ambitions which the founders associated with its work. In their present form, the ruins of the Athonias allow us to distinguish with some ease two phases in its building the earlier stage seems to have included the chapel and the nearby building which occupies the western part of the north side of the complex.

This section could be dated to the 1750s, and is connected with the initial phase in the operation of the School. We can with a fair amount of certainty regard this part of the building as having been the Athonias of Voulgaris. The later phase is connected with the restoration of the school in the 1780s. The building programme in this phase produced in the rectangular building complex the final three-storey form, with the walls enclosing the inner precinct on all the sides, the tower at the eastern entrance, and the acqueduct, which bears the easily-read date of 1785. This is the school of Kyprianos of the last 20 years of the 18th century11.

Evgenios arrived on the Holy Mountain enjoying the trust of the Church’s highest authority in order to create a new model for higher education for the Orthodox. The euphoria which accompanied this ambition is perceptible in the letter which Voulgaris wrote to his friend, and, probably, former pupil in Ioannina, Kyprianos of Cyprus. In this letter, dated 1756, Voulgaris invites Kyprianos to come to the Holy Mountain from Constantinople to replace Neophytos Kafsokalyvitis, who had retired from his position of teacher of grammar in the school. Evyenios describes to his friend both the paradisal natural environment and the intellectual climate of the school. He informs him that “the great Academy” of which both of them had dreamed so often in their private conversations in the past was now a reality, and he calls upon him to choose the “courts of the comely Athonite Academy” rather than the “idle chatter of the world”, and to contribute to “the drawing of the plough for the benefit of the nation12. In his efforts to persuade Kyprianos to join him, Voulgaris sketches the beauties of the place:

Here there are fair-flowing streams and most temperate air and a sea breeze which cools our environment, thick-growing and shady woods on all sides, and ever-verdant flora, delighting the sight, plants of every kind, olives, vines, laurels, myrtles. I pass over the rest in silence – some being for nourishment, and others for delight, the shoots from the health-giving earth and the hordes of sweet-singing birds, among which the nightingales and the blackbirds and the swallows are numerous, with their voices ringing round here and there, and vying with these youths, nourished by the Muses, as they study in all freedom”13.

However, the most important part of the letter is the description of the curriculum at the Athonias, clearly the material which Evyenios taught himself:

And there strives Demosthenes against the Macedonian, giving courage to the Athenians, and there Homer sings the acts of courage below Ilium, there Thucydides describes with sublimity the strife of Greece, there the father of history tells in Ionian style of antiquities and trophies won from the barbarians, and here Plato theologises and Aristotle subjects nature to his wide-ranging curiosity; and the French and Germans and English advance their novel systems”14.

This is indeed a noteworthy programme of secular education: classical literature, ancient and modern philosophy. There is no reference to sacred literature and theology in Voulgaris’s letter, while the presence of the Moderns is stressed: here the nationalities of the “novel systems” indicate the teaching of the philosophy of Descartes, Leibniz and Wolff, and of Locke. It is precisely these founders of the philosophy of the Enlightenment who are the protagonists in the pages of Evyenios’s Logic. This work was published ten years late, but we know that Voulgaris was already using the manuscript as the basis of his teaching at the Athonias. This explains the manuscript transmission of the text in numerous Athonite codices15.

As well as philosophy and classical literature, Voulgaris also taught mathematics, particularly geometry on the basis of ancient Greek and of modern mathematical treatises, as his pupil Iosipos Moisiodax testifies16. The teaching of Latin had also been introduced, and at the time a German academic was being sought to undertake this task17.

Voulgaris was not alone on the teaching staff of the Athonite School. As we have already noted, grammar was initially taught by Neophytos Kafsokalyvitis. In addition to Neophytos, or in place of him, Panayiotis Palamas also taught grammar. The innovativeness of Voulgaris’s teaching, and probably his whole attitude, caused friction, which was echoed in the student body, among whom differences of opinion and divisions made their appearance. The opposition, made up of the supporters of Palamas, created difficulties in the work of Voulgaris, who, in a letter to the Patriarch Kyrillos V on 25 February 1756 sought his intervention, with the warning that “we are greatly storm-tossed and all but lost”18. However, Patriarch Kyrillos, after being deposed afresh from office in January 1757, retired to Mount Athos and began to involve himself in the affairs of the School, which merely intensified the problems which Voulgaris was facing19. The situation finally forced Evyenios to resign; he retired for a while to the Monastery of Iveron, where his friend Theoklitos Polyeidis was residing. In February 1759 he left Athos for good and took refuge in Thessaloniki20.

Worthy of special attention is the letter addressed by 34 students of the Athonias on 8 January 1759 to Patriarch Kyrillos, asking him to intervene and persuade Voulgaris not to go ahead with his resignation, which he was already contemplating21. Such an intervention by the Patriarch obviously did not take place, to judge by the “letter of account” addressed to him by Voulgaris on 29 January 1759. In this important text, Voulgaris explains the reasons for his departure from Athos and with some frankness blames his former patron for being the principal cause of the situation which had compelled him to resign22.

The Athonias did not cease to function on Voulgaris’s resignation, though his departure marked the beginning of the end. Patriarch Serapheim II (1757-1761) attempted to breathe new life into it by the appointment as its head of Nikolaos Zerzoulis of Metsovo23, a philosopher, able mathematician, professor at the Patriarchal Academy in Constantinople, and the man who introduced Newtonian physics into Greek education. The choice of Zerzoulis demonstrated the will of the Church not to give way in the face of the reaction against the modernisation of the curriculum which was associated with the educational policy of Voulgaris. Zerzoulis, however, was not able to stay at the Athonias after Serapheim lost his throne. In 1761 he resigned and returned to Metsovo; from there he was invited to Jassy to be the head of the Princely Academy. After the departure of Zerzoulis, the remaining students abandoned the Athonias to go to Constantinople and attend the lessons at the Patriarchal Academy, where the “renowned” Evyenios had been teaching since 1759. This was the end of the Athonite Academy. In 1765, Iosipos Moisiodax, a student at the Academy in 1753-1756, recalled the golden age of Voulgaris at the school, which had now declined into a “nest of crows24.

The subsequent history of the Athonite Academy is made up of repeated, but mostly stillborn, efforts to revive it. In 1769, during the patriarchate of Theodosios II, the former Patriarch Serapheim II, who was living in retirement on Athos, attempted to set the school in operation again. To this end, he summoned the master of the school in Kozani, Kyrillos, who arrived on the Holy Mountain accompanied by his assistant, Ioannis Pezaros. However, the Fathers of Vatopaidi reacted against the Patriarch’s initiative and the re-functioning of the Athonias came to nothing25. However, in 1782, the Patriarch Gavriil IV, to whose interest in the revival of Athonite monasticism the return of the coenobitic way of life on the Holy Mountain was due, made himself responsible for the re-endowment of the Athonite School26. It seems to have functioned without interruption during the last two decades of the 18th century, under Kyprianos of Crete27, until his death in 1799. The work of Kyprianos at the school is mentioned by Kaisarios Dapontes, while in 1787, 1793, and 1798, the school features in the financial transactions of the Holy Community in Karyes28.

Testimony to the concern of the Fathers of Vatopaidi for the Athonite School is contained in a large number of unpublished letters preserved in the old correspondence archive of the Monastery, but these have not yet been made use of in research. These document the serious efforts made by the Brotherhood from 1782 onwards to restore the school to working order. These written testimonies coincide with and confirm the eloquent, if mute, evidence of the ruins of the Athonias, where, as we have noted, the restoration and extension carried out between 1782 and 1785 are easily traced. Of the unpublished evidence, the most important item could be considered to be the letter which the Vatopaidi Fathers addressed to the Great Dragoman of the Porte, Constantine Ipsilantis (so the letter can with certainty be dated between 1796 and 1799)29. In this letter the Fathers inform its “most illustrious” recipient that the School, which had once risen “even above the very Academy of Plato and the much-vaunted Lykeion of Aristotle”, continued to function, and that “there are both teachers in it and pupils in sufficient number, divided into four classes, and lessons are at present taught – grammar and the logic of kyr Evyenios”. However, the school, the teachers and the students are in difficulties, the Fathers report, and they request that the Great Dragoman will “concern himself with the school’s existence”. Copies of this letter were also sent to the prelates of the senior metropolitan sees in the Patriarchate of Constantinople, to Samouil of Ephesus, Athanasios of Nicomedia, Ieremias of Chalcedon, Makarios of Derkoi, and Gerasimos of Thessaloniki. This noble attempt to save the school does not, however, seem to have borne fruit.

The last great initiative made to revive the school is associated with Patriarch Kallinikos IV, in 1800. An appeal of the Patriarch and the Synod for the re-endowment of the Athonias was received with enthusiasm throughout the Greek world and in the communities of the diaspora30, while Adamantios Koraes, not in other respects a particularly warm friend of Mount Athos, hastened to proclaim in Paris the intention of the Patriarchate to set up “a university on Athos”31. However, this effort was no more successful than its predecessors, and the Athonias finally closed in 1809, on the initiative of Grigorios V, on his return to the Holy Mountain after his second patriarchate.

Thus, at the dawn of the 19th century, 50 years of effort to create a school of higher education of Mount Athos seemed to have ended in failure, drawing pessimistic comment from learned clerics of importance in their time, such as Dorotheos Proios and Neophytos Doukas, as to how receptive the monastic republic was to the benefits of education32. However, the experience of the Athonias under Voulgaris is not merely an isolated episode without historical significance. The importance and the consequences of the decisions of the Vatopaidi Fathers to found the Athonite Academy in the middle of the ‘century of enlightenment’ are demonstrated particularly by the dominating presence of former students of the Athonias during that short period in the intellectual life of the nation in the years which followed. From the ranks of the students of the Athonite School were drawn some of the most dynamic representatives of the conflicting intellectual, ideological and political trends which shaped the collective life of the nation during the years which preceded the national resurrection. Here we can only mention some of the most important. Among the leaders of the Enlightenment movement and that of cutural and social criticism were important alumni of the Athonias, such as Iosipos Moisiodax, Christodoulos Pamplekis, and Gavriil Kallonas. Also among the ranks of former students were the champion of traditional education Sergios Makraios, to whom we owe one of the most important sources for the church history of the period, and Athanasios of Paros, a protagonist in the spiritual ferment on the Holy Mountain in the 18th century and a strenuous opponent of the upholders of the secular ideas of the Enlightenment. Without doubt, the most important spiritual figure associated with the Athonite Academy was St Cosmas the Aetolian. Unfortunately, as is the case with many other details in the troubled life story of Father Cosmas, the dates when he was studying at the Athonias are not known with certainty. That is to say, it is not clear whether he studied at the School before or after his tonsuring as a monk at the Philotheou Monastery and whether he attended under Voulgaris or under Zerzoulis. Be that as it may, his undeniable bond with the Athonias is yet another testimony of historical significance to the great contribution made by Vatopaidi to the efforts of the enslaved nation to achieve its spiritual and intellectual recovery at moments critical for the future.


1. See, for example, Gedeon, 1916, pp. 3-5. Cf. Gedeon, 1917, pp. 29-30.

2. Meletios, Prohegoumenos of Vatopaidi, was a dominant figure at the Monastery during the middle years of the 18th century. His activities and his constant concern for the Athonias are evidenced by many unpublished documents in the archives of the Monastery. Prohegoumenos Meletios is also stated to have been proprietor of codices in the Monastery’s library (e.g., of Codices 1161 and 1186, inter alia, according to information kindly supplied by Mr E. Lamberz). On the basis of these and other related documentation, a biography, in every way desirable, could certainly be compiled and the spiritual and intellectual world of the founder of the Athonias reconstructed as far as possible, so that one of the leading personalities in the education of the nation in the 18th century would be rescued from oblivion.

3. Makraios, 1872, p. 219.

4. See Phoropoulos, 1900, pp. 395-398.

5. The information that Neophytos was the school’s first teacher is given by the oldest reliable source for the history of the Athonite School. See Meyer, 1890, pp. 554-560, particularly pp. 555-556.

6. Angelou, 1963, pp. 91-92.

7. This testimony is from the Ms. Codex in the National Library of Greece (EBE) 3053, f. 282a.

8. On the text, see Smyrnakis, 1903, pp. 143-147. The quotation is on p. 144.

9. Ibid., p. 143.

10. Ibid., p. 147.

11. For relevant photographs, see Ktenas, 1928, opposite pp. 16 and 32. A general topography and a view from the north, together with photographs from the archive of Prof. Pavlos Mylonas are published in Kitromilides, 1985, Figs 4-7. Details of the School’s building complex are also supplied by Smyrnakis, 1903, p. 442. The only real depiction of the school building before it fell into ruins is that by the British artist Thomas Hope. See Hope, 1985, p. 151. A full architectural survey of the building complex of the Athonias was made in spring 1995 by Stavros Mamaloukos. Two of these plans appear in the present volume. The remarks on the phases of the building of the complex were derived from Ploutarchos Theocharidis and Stavros Mamaloukos in the course of a joint visit which we made to the Academy premises on 25 February 1995.

12. See Voulgaris, 1830, pp. 80-91.

13. Ibid., p. 88. Cf. also the commentary of Voulgaris on Virgil, 1786, Book 1, p. 46.

14. Ibid., p. 91. On the teaching of Voulgaris, see also Angelou, 1963, pp. 93-100, and Kitromilides, 1992, pp. 29-35.

15. E.g., Ms. Codices of Xenophontos 73, Gregoriou 103, Aghiou Panteleimonos 223.

16. Moisiodax, 1780, pp. 16-18.

17. See Angelou, 1963, p. 96.

18. See Gedeon, 1883, pp. 699-700.

19. These are referred to by Pamplekis, 1793, pp. 74-80. See Ladas-Hatzidimos, 1970, pp. 216-217.

20. See Mertzios, 1956, pp. 3-6.

21. The text is quoted by Aravantinos, 1960, pp. 31-33. Of particular importance is the list of signatures, which preserves 34 names of students at the Athonias. Cf. Aravantinos, 1986, pp. 90-93.

22. See Ainian, 1838, Vol. 1, pp. 54-64. This text could be regarded as a ‘manifesto’ of the Greek Enlightenment and was widely disseminated, as can be seen from the many manuscripts which preserve it. Inter alia, see Ms Codex of Dionysiou 250, ff. 45b-49b and EBE Ms. Codex 2390, pp. 750-757.

23. See Aravantinos, 1960, p. 62.

24. Moisiodax, 1780, p. 128.

25. Aravantinos, 1960, p. 97.

26. See Gedeon, 1903, pp. 124-129.

27. Dapontes, 1872, p. 133. On the last years of the School, see also Gedeon, 1903, pp. 124-129.

28. See Gasparis, Athens 1991, pp. 15, 68, 186.

29. Vatopaidi Monastery, Old Correspondence Archive, Codex 1 (1645-1799), f. 248.

30. See Dimaras, 1957, pp. 141-171.

31. Coray, 1803, pp. 65-66.

32. Dorotheos Proios in his letter of 14 July 1805 to Moysis Kritskis, Hellenic Literary Association of Constantinople 13 (May 1878-May 1879), p. 238, and Doukas, 1815, pp. 54-55.