BMCR 2002.09.28

Recent Research in Late-Antique Urbanism

, , Recent research in late-antique urbanism. Journal of Roman archaeology. Supplementary series, no. 42. Portsmouth: Journal of Roman Archaeology, 2001. 245 pages : illustrations, maps, plans ; 29 cm.. ISBN 1887829423

If Greco-Roman civilization (as we know it) was an urban phenomenon, then its history should be closely tied to the evolving economic, social, political, and topographic realities of the ancient city. Just as the rise of the polis was crucial to the genesis of archaic and classical Greece, so was urbanization a central feature of the expansion of imperial Rome throughout Italy and well beyond the shores of the Mediterranean. No wonder, then, that historians of late antiquity have long suspected that the distinctive features of that transitional age should find clear or corollary expression in the life (and health) of the empire’s urban centers. The economic power and social satisfaction of urban elites, the administrative functions and autonomy allowed to town councils, the quality and character of public building construction and repair, the organization of civic space and time, the relationship of center to hinterland, and the provisions made for the urban poor should all index the age’s balance of continuity and change, pointing to the past as they suggest the future. A better understanding of late antique urbanism, that is, must necessarily yield a richer appreciation of the profound cultural transformations that ushered so much of the Roman Empire out of the classical and into the early medieval and Byzantine worlds. Hence one motivation for the work undertaken by the contributors to this volume.

Efforts like those represented here have accomplished much in recent years, first because of the more systematic and serious archaeological interest in late antiquity and second as a result of cooperation and exchange among historians, archaeologists, epigraphers, and other specialists. Indeed, Recent Research in Late-Antique Urbanism, the published product of a series of multidisciplinary seminars held at Nottingham, Birmingham, and Oxford between 1997 and 1999, joins an expanding list of similar volumes, most also generated by conferences and working groups. The general format has become familiar. A programmatic essay introduces a series of local or regional studies. More synthetic and thematic studies pop up occasionally but the urge to generalize is more often stifled, in part due to the discomfort of the local specialist before other local specialists, in part out of recognition of the strikingly distinct regional and even local varieties of late antique urbanism.1 Such caution (on the current state of the evidence) is surely prudent. Although it is easy to overestimate the degree of civic homogeneity achieved across the diverse provinces of the early empire, whatever uniformity in urban forms and city life was then achieved was utterly shattered by the third century crisis, which was surely real in some regions (e.g., along the Danube) if not in all (e.g., the African Maghreb). It is the manifestly uneven, patchwork quality of difficulty and recovery, survival and disappearance, and adaptation and innovation from the fourth through the eighth century that is both the greatest lesson arising from the current state of research and the greatest frustration facing scholars seeking clear answers. Both lesson and frustration are evident in this volume.

Recent Research is distinct in several ways. While the volumes edited by J. Rich and by N. Christie and S. T. Loseby, for example (see note 1), are predominately western in focus, this work leans decidedly towards the eastern late Roman world. Recent Research is also more idiosyncratic in organization. Thirteen papers are apportioned among five subsections and prefaced by the editor’s bibliographic essay. This organizational scheme, however, is overly optimistic and clearly an afterthought: three of the subsections contain only a single paper and the other two (“Urban Topography” and “Regional Studies”) are catch-alls. Readers will quickly see other possibilities for categorization and note connections that the current categories obscure. Recent Research also frankly eschews “Christianization” in favor of more often neglected “secular” topographic issues (7). Abstracts follow.

Recent Research commences with Luke Lavan’s “The late-antique city: a bibliographic essay,” programmatic in its own way. Lavan not only maps a welter of recent and significant work but also frames a particular set of issues and problems relevant to most the volume’s essays. His piece concludes with a catalog of recent research on some forty specific sites.

Part One, “Political Life,” presents a single paper, Ariel Lewin’s “Urban public building from Constantine to Julian: the epigraphic evidence.” For Lewin the growing assembly of evidence, primarily epigraphic, for the “state of urban public building in the period from Constantine to Julian” (27) further contradicts A. H. M. Jones’ now otherwise widely challenged contention that Constantine’s (alleged) redirection of municipal revenues to the imperial treasuries led to a drastic curtailment of even essential municipal services. Lewin finds sufficient reason to assert that, “whether or not [Constantine] presided over a confiscation of civic finances” (28), he was a vigorous patron of public building (and a conscientious guardian of the cities’ fiscal heath) in many regions of the empire. Lewin detaches the question of the incidence of public building in the Constantinian period from the issue of the control of civic monies, though acknowledging that the record favors imperial (not civic) benefaction and centralized (not municipal) control exercised by provincial governors and other imperial officials. The mechanisms of finance and curatorship may have evolved, slipping out of the hands of town councilors and into those of the emperor and his governors (a shift with long pre-Constantinian roots), but that change did not entail “the terrible effects envisaged by Jones” (36).

Part Two, “Urban Topography,” consists of six papers.

1. Luke Lavan’s ” The praetoria of civil governors in late antiquity” surveys evidence that reveals the “spatial functions” of these residential / administrative complexes located, for the most part, in provincial capitals (for an archaeological “gazetteer” see Lavan, AnTard, 7 [1999] 135-64). Perhaps it is not surprising that what Lavan sees as the distinctive spatial functions of these praetoria derive from their dual role as living quarters and administrative center. Here, as elsewhere in the power arrangements of this age, the boundaries between private and public are blurry but because the governor is a (short term) appointee of the emperor who promulgates imperial dispatches, manages an officium, holds court, retains prisoners (sometimes in the praetorium itself), oversees public grain stores, and presides over imperial and civic ceremonies, his residence, with its dinner parties and salutationes, is rather more like an imperial palace than an aristocratic house. Lavan does not consider what it may have meant for the overall number of praetoria to have multiplied in the later empire but does suggest that the status of praetoria as “public buildings” may have been some compensation for the relatively low rank and prestige of many governors who came to live momentarily among the entrenched elites of a city.

2. William Bowden’s “A new urban elite? Church builders and church building in late-antique Epirus” thoughtfully complicates the historical implications of the archaeologically documented early sixth-century burst of church building in this region. Bowden asks whether this return to the construction of monumental architecture unequivocally signals an economic and urban revival in this area at that time. “There is no simple equation,” he concludes (with a lesson of more general import), “between the appearance of the churches and widespread economic vitality” (67). First the evidence for extensive (if relatively modest) church building must be set against that for a decline in the quality and forms of other, secular, public buildings. More significantly, he contends, this phase of church building may rather document the emergence of a new ecclesiastical elite capable of marshalling to a particular end the surplus resources extracted from the community as various forms of donations. That, as Bowden is well aware (but does not pursue here), has its own socio-historical implications, especially in comparison with the euergetistic practices of the curial elite of the early empire.

3. In “‘Decline’ in the ports of Palestine in late antiquity” Sean Kingsley sets out to examine the socio-economic significance of the deteriorated state of the harbor facilities at Dor(a) and Caesarea in late antiquity. Lamenting the failure of archaeologists to attend to the study of late antique ports despite their obvious importance to an economy seen as ever more active in trade, Kingsley notes the “solid evidence” (literary and documentary) for harbor construction elsewhere and for prosperity in late Roman Palestine generally and Caesarea more particularly. It would not seem, then, that the “structural decline” of these two harbor facilities is a straightforward index of “economic decline” at late antique Caesarea and Dor(a). Indeed, “it seems inconceivable that surplus funds could not have been raised to construct a sophisticated artificial harbor [at Caesarea] if one had been required” (83). The answer for Kingsley is otherwise. If it made sense within the cultural economy of the early imperial period for Herod to build a great artificial harbor (named Sebastos), the Byzantine city reverted to “more normal” methods of sheltered, offshore anchorage (archaeologically evidenced). Pragmatism won out over a monumental (and obviously futile) use of surplus resources. The discontinuity here is not economic but “ideological.” And again things are not quite what they seem.

4. James Crow’s “Fortifications and urbanism in late antiquity: Thessaloniki and other eastern cities,” while surveying a series of urban fortification systems strung along the “latitude of 41 N” from Barcelona “through Rome, to Dyrrachium, Thessaloniki and Constantinople, and ending with Nicaea and Nicomedia,” says rather little about “urbanism” (as I would understand that term). What Crow does argue is that city walls built in the late third and early fourth centuries to secure the imperial centers of Nicaea, Nicomedia, and Constantinople essentially transferred frontier defensive systems from the military zones of the periphery to the core of the empire, but that in the fifth century, at least with the construction of the Theodosian walls at Constantinople and the mid-fifth-century (if not late fourth-century [see also Provost’s discussion at p. 133]) walls of Thessaloniki, urban centers themselves became the context for innovations in defensive architecture (104). What Crow demonstrates most clearly, then, is the the evolution and development of wall towers. At Nicaea, for example, these are U-shaped (“the earliest known example of the application in an urban context of what had hitherto been a largely military form of towers and curtain” [90]). The tripartite wall system of Theodosius II at Constantinople, however, was “radically innovative” (92), while the triangular towers incorporated into Thessaloniki’s walls were both an effective development and the inspiration, perhaps (caution at 102), for the next generation of pentagonal towers. Crow does suggest that we should view such late antique fortifications as “positive features of the changing landscape of post-classical urbanism” (104), but this suggestion seems limited to recognizing improvements in the defensive capabilities of city walls from the third through the sixth centuries.

5. At least one reason Crow’s ideas might matter more generally for the study of the late antique city is suggested by Neil Christie’s “War and order: urban remodelling and defensive strategy in Late Roman Italy,” which explores the links between city wall construction and both frontier policy and urbanism. Christie first stresses the importance of seeing the construction, maintenance, and restoration of city walls within the context of imperial responses to security threats. It may be misleading, Christie notes, to speak of long-term strategies in this regard, especially after the fourth century, and the matter is bedeviled by a host of evidentiary problems, but it is made clear that assessing the coherence and meaning of this urban (military) remodelling will also require evaluating the aims and nature of contemporary defensive “systems.” This gaze outward, however, must be complemented by one that turns inward. Walls had symbolic value and provided an opportunity for displaying a particular urban image, but, Christie suggests, their construction also changed the contours of a city’s topography: affecting traffic patterns, disrupting through demolition and clearance inhabited or cemetery zones, encouraging the saints in their extra-mural tombs to become the “holy guardians” of the city, and dissecting urban and suburban space. Christie’s is largely a probing essay, but as such it sets out a viable agenda for further integration of city walls into the study of late antique urbanism.

6. City walls are again (strictly) the issue in Samuel Provost’s “City wall and urban area in Macedonia: the case of Philippi.” Provost surveys the history of the walls of Philippi from the age of Philip II through the Byzantine period, readjusting the chronology of restorations and renovations over the millennium-long history of the circuit. He presents a late Roman phase of rebuilding in opus incertum, noting similar techniques in late third- or early fourth-century walls elsewhere but (curiously) finding “the most promising parallel” (133) in the late fourth- or mid-fifth-century walls of Thessaloniki. The main change, however, the inclusion of an outwork (proteichisma), is identified as a late fifth-century addition. We end up with a more complicated mural history and the likelihood that the preservation (and strengthening) of the original wall circuit at late antique Philippi distinguishes it from other Macedonia sites where new city walls regularly encompassed a diminished urban area.

Part Three, “Regional Studies,” comprises four papers.

1. Mark Whittow’s “Recent research on the late-antique city in Asia Minor: the second half of the 6th c. revisited” presents one of this volume’s most stimulating discussions of evidence and its interpretation. Whittow asks whether the acknowledged seventh-century collapse in this region was anticipated by decline in the late sixth century. He tests C. Foss’ s earlier conclusion that “the real transformation of urban life in Asia Minor took place after 600” (138) through an even-handed discussion of what the last twenty years have revealed at Hierapolis, Aphrodisias, Sardis, and Ephesos.2 Results are mixed, partially confirming and partially modifying the image of continued economic and urban vitality in the later sixth century. Most useful here, however, is Whittow’s willingness to recognize the evidential shortfall (“peep holes” into the urban fabric) that precludes consensus and to turn to another period with similar questions and a lot more evidence: late medieval England. The comparanda naturally caution against any “monocausal explanation” (150) of change but more importantly encourage a search for parallel late antique “patterns of adjustment” rather than the simple traces of “decline” (151). The method offers a way to process seemingly contradictory “evidence,” suggesting that the flip side of urban recession after ca. 550 (acknowledged) may well be a prosperous countryside. “Decline” is again (in some ways) a more crude term than, say, transformation (or Whittow’s preferred “adjustment; see Liebeschuetz below) and there are still dangers in divorcing the town too sharply from its hinterland (see Trombly below).

2. Grégoire Poccardi’s “L’île d’Antioche à la fin de l’antiquité: histoire et problème de topographie urbaine” considers the evidence for the urban (and administrative) vitality and topography of Antioch’s island-based “New City” from the late third century through the reign of Justinian. Although severely damaged by an earthquake in 458 there is evidence (especially that supplied by the Megalopsychia Hunt mosaic) of rebuilding and use through the sixth century, though the island’s exclusion from the Justinianic system of fortifications brought its rapid decline. The island’s fortunes, like those of the city itself, were closely tied to Antioch’s status (largely fictional after Valens) as an imperial residence. The details of topography have always been ellusive: the excavations of the 1930s revealed the hippodrome, but the palace (initiated by Diocletian) and the “cathedral” (initiated by Constantine) are not archaeologically attested. Poccardi returns to the evidence of excavation to reject D.N. Wilber’s plan of the island, considered overly reliant on literary evidence and unaware of the local sense of orientation, and suggest modifications.

3. In “Evergetism and urbanism in Palmyra” J.-B. Yon surveys the evolution of that city across the first three decades CE with special attention to the stories revealed by the large body of Palmyrene inscriptions. This evidence, in conjunction with what can be determined of the topographical features of Roman Palmyra, illustrates how “indigenous elements” gradually fused with “the characteristics of the Greek cities of the Roman empire” (181) to produce the distinctive Palmyra of the third century. Herein, for example, local patterns of euergetism, in which elite civic donations are almost all religiously keyed, remain vital but are also extended well beyond the sanctuaries into generalized civic space (e.g., the Great Colonnade). At the same time, and contrary to expectations, there is almost no epigraphic attestation of elite “secular” building activity (though local benefactors, Yon notes, must have been responsible, e.g., for the theater and agora). The “increasingly classical city” of the third century (173), whose leading families preferred burial in Greco-Roman style temple-tombs on the edge of town, came to an abrupt end after 272, to be replaced under Diocletian by a “normal city” (181) of the fourth century. That descriptor hardly sits comfortably in this volume and, oddly, this late antique city proper, walled and home to a garrison and a bishop (and apparently less well documented) lies outside of Yon’s purview.

4.Olga Karagiorgou’s “Demetrias and Thebes: the fortunes and misfortunes of two Thessalian port cities in late antiquity” sets out with precision and clarity the known history and topography of these two centers (episcopal cities but not provincial capitals). Walled Thebes emerges as a relatively small but prosperous city heavily marked by Christianity (nine basilicas, an episcopal “palace,” and numerous bath complexes) from the fourth through the sixth century. Unlike Thebes, Demetrias, founded by Demetrios I, had a rich Hellenistic phase of development, supplying extensive spolia for reuse from the second-century through late antiquity, but the most distinctive feature of the city’s history may be its relocation to the neighboring hill of Iolkos. Rather than seeing this as a Justinianic phenomenon, Karagiorgou emphasizes the evidence for earlier (late fifth-century) monumentalization and then fortification of this acropolis outpost and stresses the coexistence of upper and lower Demetrias in late antiquity. Both port cities appear prosperous in the fifth century, especially relative to Thessaly’s inland cities, but suffered in the sixth: Thebes was (apparently) abandoned and Demetrias relocated, their fates, though different, reflecting the same regional instability.

Part Four, “City and Hinterland”, is devoted to Frank Trombley’s “Town and territorium in Late Roman Anatolia (late 5th-early 7th c.).” Trombley offers a series of illustrated observations (drawn from literary as well as epigraphic sources) on the physical, economic, cultural, and political interpenetration of cities and their territoria. This picture of local and regional inter-dependency is complemented by examples of the impact of the State upon a countryside often subject to the influence of the army, of traveling imperial functionaries, imperial property holding, and the effects of migration and trade. Trombley does not use his assembly of fifth- and sixth-century evidence to discuss change across those centuries but does wonder if continuity may not have been greater in the seventh-century countryside than in the Anatolian cities of the Byzantine “dark age” (231).

The volume concludes with a “Retrospective on Late Antiquity” (Part 5). In fact, this section is the presentation and discussion of J.H.W.G. Liebeschuetz’s “The uses and abuses of the concept of ‘decline’ in later Roman history, or Was Gibbon politically incorrect?” “Decline” (and fall), Liebeschuetz asserts, are valid concepts of historical analysis when responsibly employed. Because historians study change and because growth and decay are universal, historians are justified in measuring and assessing this process. Even Gibbon’s approach, though unfortunately polemical and one-sided, was not without insight and the new maturity of late antique studies now insures that the concept of decline can be redeployed with confidence that it will no longer be abused. Without it, as without the willingness to recognize that gradual change always involves both growth and decline, Liebeschuetz argues, we will fall back on “explanations based on catastrophe” (236), illustrating this with reference to the work of M. Whittow on the cities of Asia Minor and the wars of the early seventh century). Liebeschuetz would prefer an explanation that takes fuller account of long-term structural changes and points to a thesis of his (then forthcoming) Decline and Fall of the Roman City (Oxford 2001; see especially pp. 404-06): the “change from government by decurions to government by notables” made the cities less effective instruments of imperial administration. If scholars of late antiquity are too skittish before the concept of decline, if, for political reasons, they lack the backbone to be “judgmental” of social arrangements (238), they will never see the whole story (Gibbon’s problem in reverse). How deeply these comments cut can be gauged from the differently measured responses of Averil Cameron (categorically rejecting the reintroduction of the “subjectively-loaded” term decline), B. Ward-Perkins (sympathetic but recalling the evidence for fall as the forerunner of decline), M. Whittow (echoing in his own forceful terms Cameron and Ward-Perkins), and L. Lavan (insisting on more precise chronological markers and broader contextualization). The jury will surely return with reviews of Liebeschuetz’s book in hand.

The articles assembled here vary in design, depth, and scope. The most adventuresome, for example, the essays of Christie, Whittow, and Liebeschuetz, explicitly encourage engagement along late antique urbanism’s broad front; others, such as Bowden’s, suggest more narrow questions of general applicability. It will only be, however, through the further accumulation of the kind of local knowledge detailed in many of these papers that synthesis will advance and the fundamental historical issues implied (apart from the choice of language) in the arguments over the relative priority of “decline and fall” (or fall and decline) will be more satisfactorily resolved, which brings us back to Lavan’s similar observation in the final sentence of his “bibliographic essay” (24).


1. Obvious examples include J. Rich (ed.), The City in Late Antiquity (London and New York: Routledge, 1992; with an introductory paper by W. Liebeschuetz); N. Christie and S. T. Loseby (eds.), Towns in Transition: Urban Evolution in Late Antiquity and the Early Middle Ages (Aldershot: Scolar Press, 1996; with a cautionary introductory paper by B. Ward-Perkins); C. Lepelly (ed.), La fin de la cité antique et le début de la cité médiévale (Bari: Edipuglia 1996; less locally sited and more thematically varied); G.P. Briogiolo and B. Ward-Perkins (eds.), The Idea and Ideal of the Town between Late Antiquity and the Early Middle Ages (Leiden, Boston, and Köln: Brill, 1999); G.P. Brogiolo, N. Gauthier, and N. Christie (eds.), Towns and Their Territories between Late Antiquity and the Early Middle Ages (Leiden, Boston, and Köln: Brill, 2000); T. Burns and J. Eadie (eds.), Urban Centers and Rural Contexts in Late Antiquity (East Lansing: Michigan State University Press, 2001; with similar emphasis).

2. See also M. Whittow, The Making of Byzantium, 600-1025 (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1996) 53-68.