Rules, chrysobulls and the wine trade on Athos

17 August 2014

The founders of the Athonite houses endowed them with vines, since they were well aware of their importance for the survival of the monasteries. First among these was Saint Athanasios, founder of the Great Lavra, who planted a vineyard at Mylopotamos, some 4 hours away, judging it a site suitable for cultivation.


The final page of The Typikon of 972, signed by Emperor John Tsimiskes

On the Holy Mountain, there were no large areas where grains could be grown, so viticulture would provide a product that could be exchanged for goods which the monasteries lacked. In a few years, the planting  of vines and the production of wine became overdeveloped. So in the Typiko [Rule] of 972, the first such rule for the Athonite communities, there were restrictions on trade and exchange. Monks were forbidden to sell wine beyond the river at Zygos and were allowed to swap surplus wine for other goods. Sale of wine to lay people visiting Athos was permitted so that monks living in penury would have the means to survive.

The boundary of the Zygos river was some 4 kilometers west of the boundary of the Holy Mountain itself, which had been set in 943 and stretched as far as today’s Nea Roda. So why did the Typiko limit the boundaries of the Athonites? In his study “The vine and wine in Medieval Halkidiki’ [in Greek], the archeologist Ioakeim Papangelos provides a very rational solution. The reason was the village of Komitissa, which had extensive vineyards and sat on Athonite land just outside the Zygos area. The Typiko wanted to protect the economy of the village and set a limit on Athonite land, leaving Komitissa on the outside, and thus free to sell its wine. With the passage of time, this became the boundary of the Holy Mountain as it is today.

It would appear however, that, rather than being restrained, commercial activities flourished, so a few years later, the Typiko of Emperor Basil II attempted to put a brake on these activities, which became subject to punishments including the possibility of permanent expulsion from Athos. This Typiko was very strict, but the phenomenon of making exceptions is not modern. In 984, Athanasios of the Great Lavra gave the abbot of Iviron a chrysobull (an official imperial edict) in which Basil II granted the Lavra tax exemption for a boat with a loading capacity of 6,000 bushels [the Greek says μοδι(ο)[ν], which means a unit of measurement, differing in value depending on where you came from]. Quite clearly a boat of this size was not going to be used merely for the transport of necessities.

vii Hilandar

Vineyard belonging to the Monastery of Hilandar

In 1045, the Typiko of Konstantinos IX, Monomakhos, was published, in which we are informed that the monasteries had in their possession boats which carried wine and other produce to many places, including Constantinople. The monasteries didn’t sell merely their own surplus wine but also that of other areas. The inhabitants of Halkidiki, who were wine-growers for the most part, sold their wines to the monasteries, either because it wasn’t worth their while to transport it to other markets or because they weren’t able to do so. The Typiko declared that the monasteries could maintain boats capable of carrying  up to 200-300 bushels and could sell their wares in Thessaloniki and as far east as the Balkans. They also had to sell their surplus wine to nearby towns, particularly those which other boats didn’t reach. In this way, the emperor took care of the survival of the townships and also protected the commercial zone of Constantinople from Athonite trade. Large boats were put out of service, with the exception of that of Vatopaidi and those to which were exempted by imperial edict.

The development of trade, however, also brought about the growth of the monasteries, which expanded their holdings, enriched their libraries and swelled their numbers. In about 1000 A.D. there were more than 3,000 on the Holy Mountain.

In the next century, in a chrysobull of 1102, Alexios I Komninos granted complete autonomy to the Holy Mountain, and exemption from all taxation, except for a 10% impost on the transport and sale of products.


Monastery documents include a wealth of information about viticulture, which at that time must have been the most important agricultural activity in the region of Athos and outside. Efstathios, who was Archbishop of Thessaloniki from 1180-1195, reckoned that monks (not only on Athos) had become corrupted by their concern with vineyards and trade: ‘They deliberate more on the vine than on theology’ he wrote.

The Byzantine emperors were generous to the monasteries because the monks had the people on their side and had an influence on political and administrative attitudes. From donations by emperors and officials, the monasteries had acquired lands beyond Athos, in Halkidiki, in Thessaloniki and in many other areas besides. The holdings outside the Mountain were dependencies of the monasteries. Most of Halkidiki was a Athonite dependency, with grapes as the basic crop. Trade and the land holdings caused many clashes between the monasteries, the residents and even the state.

There are a number of interesting points in this article. The first is the involvement of monks in trade, beyond any extent that might be thought permissible. More on this soon. The second is the concern of the monasteries for the well-being of the village of Komitissa. Elder Emilianos, the former abbot of the Holy Monastery of Simonos Petras, makes the point that: ‘Athonite dependencies were founded, according to circumstances, either to ensure financial resources or provisions or to meet local requirements- spiritual, liturgical and so on- to inject life and support into the collective mind of the population….. In this way, the peace which is experienced locally in the Bower of Our Most Holy Lady extends out into the world’. Unfortunately, to this day, what the article mentions as happening so many years ago, as regards clashes between monasteries, locals and the state, is still continuing. The monasteries on Athos, and indeed the Church of Greece as a whole, were extremely generous in accommodating refugees from the disaster in Asia Minor in 1921/22, which was not of their making. Huge tracts of lands were given away in Halkidiki and other locations. Unfortunately, a number of the descendants of those refugees have a greater sense of entitlement than of gratitude, and politicians are as they ever were. Look at the recent injustices perpetrated against Monastery of Vatopaidi.