THE HISTORY OF HELLENIC HERALDRY
by
Nicholas G. Milissis, J.D., K.S.M.A.
President, The Hellenic Armigers Society

  Hellenic Heraldry's roots are lost in the mists of time. It is believed by many that the ancient Greeks were the first to use symbols consistenly and over many generations to identify a warrior, clan or city state. In Aescylus' tragedy "Seven Against Thebes" we have the first record of a shield blazon.

   
ANCIENT PERIOD

   Aeschylus describes with detail the devices found on each general's battle shields and how they were recognized more easily with those devices in battle while wearing their classical Greek hoplite helmets. Armour was very expensive and the arms of each warrior were almost always passed down to his eldest son along with the devices painted on them. Soon each family was easily identified with its coat of arms. Thus, some have credited the ancient Greeks with the first hereditary use of familial arms.

   In addition, Greek city states are the first recorded use of state heraldry. Each city state in Ancient Greece had its own coat of arms. Athens had the Owl, symbol of the city's protector goddess Athena, and of wisdom. The island of Aegina, where the first coins ever used in the world were struck, had the sea turtle and so on and so forth. These emblems were placed on the coins of each city and were prominently featured at the entrance gates and ports of each city.

   The fearsome armies of Sparta marched into battle in formation carrying identical shields with a red Lambda painted on them which stood for Lakedaimon, the original name of Sparta, which serves as another example of well established military and state heraldry.

   The Roman occupation continued the tradition of state heraldry in the roman armies, who marched under the Roman eagle, but familial heraldry in Greece waned and all but dissapeared during this period because the Greeks no longer had arms to pass down to their sons. They were now citizens of the Roman empire and Greek Hoplite citizen armies ceased to exist.

   
BYZANTINE PERIOD

   When Constantine the Great moved the capital of the empire from Rome to the ancient Greek colony of Byzantium, which later was named Constantinople, he started a new period in Greek history. The Roman empire was Hellenized and its religion officially changed to christianity. This era ushered Heraldry back into the Hellenic world.

   The first few hundred years retained roman characteristics and thus not much use of coats of arms. However, interaction with the west and the introduction of the feudal system in Byzantium brought back the use of familial heraldry. The noble families, initially, of the empire began using heraldic devices to identify their families. There are many records of Byzantine heraldry which have survived, with modifications, to the modern era, still in use by Greek families.

   Byzantine heraldry flourished during the last two centuries of the empire. The empire was most commonly known by the double headed eagle corwned holding an orb on one claw and a sword on the other. This symbolized that the empire ruled the east and the west. The Imperial arms born by the emperor in battle consisted of a shield divided in four quadrangles by a cross, each quadrant containing and outward facing beta "B". This stood for "Basileus Basileon Basilevein Basilevonton" which means in ancient Greek: "King of Kings Ruling over Rulers". The double headed eagle made its way into many family arms. Initially it was only allowed to be used by families that at some point had given an emperor to the empire, but eventually other smaller branches of those families used a version of the eagle in their arms.

   The Byzantine empire inspired awe to the medieval world and the other rulers of the time. Even when its lands were slowly dissapearing its ammassed wealth, its court ceremony, huge churches and buildings left visiting dignitaries and diplomats awe struck. Byzantine princesses that would marry other kings would bring a piece of that pomp and ceremony with them to their new courts. The combination of these two would introduce elements of Greco-Byzantine  heraldry into the western world and the medieval kingdoms of Europe. Russian Tsars outright took the double headed eagle from Byzantium and used it as the arms of their empire. Many other rulers incorporated Byzantine heraldry into their arms after the fall of the Byzantine empire to the Turks.

   When Constantinople fell in 1453 all of the noble families of Byzantium fled to Europe and with them they brought their arms. Many went to Italy and France and the majority fled to the last remaining strongholds of Greece proper, mostly in the Peloponese, the Aegean Islands and the Eptanese Islands of Western Greece. The Turkish Ottoman occupation was a dark four hundred years for Hellenism but Greek Heraldry proved to be as resilients as its people.

  
FRANKISH AND VENETIAN OCCUPATION

   Before the fall of Constantinople Greece proper, a byzantine province at the time, fell piece by piece to crusading knights from western Europe. These European knights, mostly French and Italian, on their way back from the holly lands decided to settle in Greece and start new duchies and principalities there. Along with the European occupation came the heradlry of these nobles. Their coats of arms can still be found carved in many medieval catsles they built throughout Greece. These new princes granted titles of nobility to many of their new Greek subjects and along with the titles came grants of arms.

   When the Byzantine empire fell many of these principalities were swallowed up by the Ottoman onslaught. However, as mentioned earlier, a few areas remained independent of the Turks and under their former rulers. The Venetians consolidated their power over these few remaining areas and used them as trading posts and ports for their vast fleet. The Venetians granted nobility and arms to many Greek families. The most prolific arm-granting activity seems to have been in the Eptanese Islands (Corfu, Zakynthos, Kefallonia, Lefkada, Ithaca, Kythera) which was the region longest under the rule of Venice. Each island had adopted the Italian practice of keeping a libro d'oro (golden book) listing all the noble families, time of enoblement, and their arms. Unfortunately most of these books were burned publicly on the town squares of these islands in the 19th century during peasant revolts and after the independence of the islands from the Venetian rule. However, most of the families themselves kept their own archives and later crossreferenced them with records in Italy.

 
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