BMCR 2000.06.02

The Idea and Ideal of the Town between Late Antiquity and the Early Middle Ages

, , The Idea and Ideal of the Town between Late Antiquity and the Early Middle Ages. Leiden: Brill, 1999. xvi, 265. $92.00.

The book is the result of two workshops of an international research group (historians, archaeologists, art historians, philologists) studying towns and urbanism within the European Science Foundation’s project “Transformation of the Ancient World”. The subject “transformations of ideas and ideals of the town” is treated in different ways: reflections of this process in physical changes within cities; the reliability and significance of different sources which express ideology and perception of cities; and transformations of the economic, fiscal, legal, administrative and social background which might have caused changes in settlement patterns, the appearance and perception of towns. Nine of the ten contributions of this volume discuss the theme in a more general manner mostly with a regional focus, one discusses the unfinished Umayyad foundation ‘Anjar.

J. Haldon, “The Idea of the Town in the Byzantine Empire” (1-23), treats the way in which urban centres were perceived or described from the later sixth to the tenth century. He focuses on two aspects, first the use of the terms polis, polisma, polichnion, kosmopolis, kastron to describe cities, and second the relation between Constantinople and provincial centres. According to Haldon, the emergence of the new centre had dramatic consequences for patterns of exchange, re-distribution of goods, as well as the mode of socio-cultural investments in the provinces. Changes in status and privileges of cities are mainly interpreted as an attempt to adapt settlements to the demands of new administrative and fiscal structures. The inability to handle the state’s fiscal requirements is presumed to be one of the main reasons why cities lost functional relevance. Though they continued to serve as military, fiscal, and administrative foci, they had lost any autonomy or semi-autonomy. Haldon states that cities’ elites had already disappeared or changed their interests towards the imperial court. The perception and definition of a settlement as a town was increasingly bound to episcopal presence. As for the rest, the term kastron dominates from the ninth and tenth century onward as a terminological recognition of the abolition of city rights by Leo VI (AD 886-912).

W. Brandes, “Byzantine Cities in the Seventh and Eighth Centuries — Different Sources, Different Histories” (25-57), discusses methodological questions concerning the different views and treatments of written sources ( polis, kastron terminology; description of plagues; episcopal lists of Church Councils), numismatic (supposed mint reform of the mid-7th century), and archaeological (in comparison to texts) sources.

W. Hillenbrand, “‘Anjar and Early Islamic Urbanism” (59-98), argues that the layout of the Umayyad foundation of ‘Anjar followed a new concept of multipurpose settlement: Arab misr, mini-city, Roman colony, castrum and royal residence. Though never completed or copied as model and having space for only about 26 families, Hillenbrand unconvincingly speculates that it was a failed experiment for a distinct policy of segregation (with different proposals as to who was to be segregated from whom) and an attempt to Islamicize the Syrian countryside.

G. Brogiolo, “Ideas of the Town in Italy during the Transition from Antiquity to the Middle Ages” (99-126), compares archaeological data with some of the texts revealing how ideas of the city were transformed. The Ambrosian description of urban crisis in Italy at the end of the fourth century fits the archaeological evidence only in some regions. As the new urban role was primarily defensive, the renovatio urbium of Theoderic meets this need and is evidenced mainly through renovated or new fortifications. The catastrophism in literary sources of the sixth and seventh centuries is due to war experience or natural disasters. The extent of destruction and the detailed description of massacres may be questioned. But at least in some regions the well documented dramatic settlement changes can be explained as a reaction to violent destruction of sites. In Lombardian Italy troops were stationed within cities. According to Brogiolo the supposedly exceptional high degree of military, political, economic, and social control during Lombard occupation is reflected in Brescia’s urban development.

C. Bertelli, “Visual Images of the Town in Late Antiquity and the Early Middle Ages” (127-146), presents the apparently quite traditional painted representations of cities as Tyche or with prominent (secular) buildings in Regionaria of Rome and Constantinople, the Calendar of 354 and the fifth century Tabula Peutingeriana. These two types of representation (Tyche / significant buildings) dominate the image of the town into the Early middle ages and are to be found on silver objects, coins, consular diptycha and other ivory artefacts, mosaics and paintings. Regional and ideological differences and aims in the visual depiction are obvious as the images differ from the actual features of towns in these centuries.

G. Cantino Watagin, “The Ideology of Urban Burials” (147-180), discusses the shifts of burial grounds from the late third century and the much later occurrence of intramural burials in the West. The formation of new necropoleis fits into the process of reshaping and reuse of space in the cities. Christian beliefs and post-mortem expectations might have led to a growing preference for ad-sanctos burials, but Cantino Watagin underlines the wish to be close to ecclesiastical power manifested in burials inside churches (at least since the fifth century in Italy). These burials were explicitly prohibited by ecclesiastical texts as were burials intra urbem in legal documents. The archaeological evidence shows two different forms (contra legem) of burials within towns: isolated burials from the fourth century and cemeteries with a certain period of use, which are documented only later. It is only in Carolingian times that urban necropoleis are organised around churches, and suburban burials cease to exist.

A. Maria Orselli, “L’idée chrétienne de la ville: Quelques suggestions pour l’antiquité tardive et le haut moyen age” (181-193), focuses on the dominance of bishops and saints in urban space and life. The saints protect towns with their corpses, martyria placed round a settlement like a defence, a city-wall. Even towns’ economic interests could be linked to saints, the panégyreis supposedly giving occasions to hold markets and fairs. Bishops take over the role of city-patrons, giving charity and buildings. From the sixth century hagiographic literature and gesta municipalia sometimes claim the bishop as a protector of town and citizens, visualised in iconography only from the twelfth century onwards. The two-cities idea, city of god and city of men, enabled even monks with anti-urban attitudes to choose the image of a city to characterise their way of life.

N. Gauthier, “La topographie chrétienne entre idéologie et pragmatisme” (195-209), argues that there was no need for a specific christian topography. The so-called ideological features of fora of Roman imperial times are not replaced with a new kind of monument or a specific creation of space. Churches are built wherever there is easily accessible room, often in suburbs. Except for Jerusalem as the city of God and the main churches in Rome, no specific christian iconography was used in late antiquity. Symbolic representations of churches within other cities on maps, paintings, mosaics etc. are often recognisable only by inscriptions. Later development of self-representation gets a more ideological touch, characterised by the ambiguity of manifestations of ecclesiastical power through wealth as rich decoration and equipment of churches on the one hand, and the claim for poverty and charity to the poorest on the other. Finally Christian topography consists mainly in the growing part of saints as protectors, the placement of their basilicas and burials.

P. Castrén, “Paganism and Christianity in Athens and Vicinity during the Fourth to Sixth Centuries AD” (211-223), claims that between ca. AD 500 and 600 Athens was transformed from a pagan cultural-philosophical centre into a mediocre Christian town, the closing of the Platonic school by Justinian in AD 529 being an important milestone in this process. The fifth and sixth centuries see significant changes in the Agora (“industrialisation”), in the Akropolis’ slopes (villae, burials), the Hadrianic library (tetraconch), and the Parthenon becomes a church. According to Castrén a new elite favoured the country, no longer did imperial subsidies maintain Athens’ grandeur, the state policy encouraged agricultural production, and the living resources of the Aegean area were deverted to Constantinople. In Castrén’s eyes it was no wonder Athens had no chance to escape the other cities’ destiny though it took more time to get Christianised and become a modest town.

B. Ward-Perkins, “Re-Using the Architectural Legacy of the Past, entre idéologie et pragmatisme” (225-244), exemplifies the possible motivations of late antique and early medieval builders for using architectural spolia. The interrelationship and inextricable links between ideology and pragmatism is obviously different from building to building and time to time. Though as always in history it is impossible to be sure about motivations behind decisions and actions, Ward-Perkins gives a range of plausible reasons (ideological and pragmatic) to explain the reuse of earlier material in the Arch of Constantine in Rome and in the conversions into churches through complete reshaping (Aphrodision in Aphrodisias) or minor remodelling (Parthenon in Athens). The use of spolia had different reasons and was not automatically due to a bad economic situation. Ideology and pragmatism as well as order and disorder in the development of late antique and early medieval building were linked to each other and motivated urban development.

The book provides a good overview of discussions about cities and urbanism in late antique and byzantine studies. The contributions concentrate on the appearance and the ideological-religious background of cities and settlements. Though the economical and fiscal basis for the transformation of cities and living conditions is often cited and contested, it is not the proper subject of the book. This makes some of the arguments difficult to understand and weakens conclusions or even makes them unconvincing: the supposed fiscal and monetary reforms; the alleged radical change of army supplies; the moloch Constantinople which is claimed to have changed the whole Aegean region, demanding a great part of the living resources and most of the former local elites; a more centralised economy (Phocaean red slip ware dominating the market) marginizing former centres of production; lack of imperial subsidies, which are claimed to have maintained cities like Athens during the Empire etc.

The strength of this collection lies in the interdisciplinary debate about possible pragmatic and ideological reasons for thet ransformation of cities visible quite early and the slow transformation of ideas about cities and its reflections in literature and art.