BMCR 2007.06.05

Die Stadt in der Spätantike — Niedergang oder Wandel? Akten des internationalen Kolloquiums in München am 30. und 31. Mai 2003. Historia Einzelschriften Bd. 190

, , Die Stadt in der Spätantike -- Niedergang oder Wandel? Akten des internationalen Kolloquiums in München am 30. und 31. Mai 2003. Historia Einzelschriften Bd. 190. Stuttgart: Franz Steiner, 2006. 492. €68.00.

[Authors and titles are listed at the end of the review.]

In 1941, Jean Sauvaget published his landmark study Alep: Essai sur le développement d’une grande ville syrienne des origins au mileu du XIXe siècle (Paris, 1941). The study of Greco-Roman urbanism was on solid ground, but why was there a need to study the origins of the twisting streets and nucleated patterns of life so apparently typical of the modern Middle East? For Sauvaget, and for the contributors to this volume, the “change” or “decline” began in late antiquity, the period Sauvaget defines as 286 to 636. It was here that the “dangerous neglect of the regard for the principles of urbanism” and the “regression of urban life” began, well before Islamic rule. And yet, Sauvaget was interested not only in decline but also in the continuity of classical urbanism in the modern city. He highlighted the “persistence” of the regular bisecting street plan of the classical city as the basis for measuring and evaluating urban change. Now iconic is his graphic figure of how the colonnaded streets of antiquity slowly acquired secondary constructions and terminated in the modern suq.

After nearly 65 years there is still no agreement on the character of urban change, despite the steady publication of monographs and collections of essays, and convocation of international conferences. This volume represents one of the latest contributions to the vexing question of urban change in late antiquity: do the verifiable alterations in the form and institutions of the classical city represent “change/transformation” or “decline”? The question is posed in this fashion as a direct response to the publication of Wolf Liebeschuetz’s boldly titled The Decline and Fall of the Roman City (Oxford, 2001). Based on a colloquium held in Munich in May, 2003 (program online), the papers all address the question of “change/transformation” or “decline” by marshalling a variety of sources and interpretations, while keeping the parameters of the debate set by Liebeschuetz clearly in mind. The papers are divided into three sections: the late antique cities in the western empire, those in the eastern empire, and finally urban elites and institutions. Unfortunately, in this review all papers cannot be discussed in detail.

In the first section on the western empire, the regions covered are North Africa (Claude Lepelley), Italy (Federico Marazzi), Gaul (Simon T. Loseby, Jean Guyon), and Spain (Michael Kulikowski). The regional variety in the fate of the city is clear. Lepelley restates the particular and striking vitality of cities in North Africa well into the fifth century, when urbanism was at its “veritable apogee,” so much so that a city in the fourth century was nearly indistinguishable from its second-century counterpart. By the middle of the seventh century, there is an undeniable “end of the ancient city.” For him, and for most of the contributors, the most important measures of change include the production and circulation of trade goods, concentrations of coinage, the neglect and abandonment of civic buildings, the construction and destruction of churches, burial intra muros, and the vitality of Greek or Latin in the production of inscriptions. Decline is apparent in all these areas, but Lepelley stresses that the “end of the ancient city” does not mean the “end (or serious decline) of urban life.” In Italy and Gaul, Marazzi, Loseby and Guyon would agree. In Italy, Marazzi argues for the continuity of the value placed on decus, the pride in beautifying the city that now included Christian urban forms, into the fifth and sixth centuries, particularly in places like Milan and Ravenna that had close association with the imperial representatives. Urban forms in Gaul changed beginning in the third century with the appearance of city walls that encompassed smaller urban centers (Loseby). Walls and the building of churches and church-complexes (Guyon) actually represent what Loseby terms “simplification.” This engendered not decline as such but rather “a new conception of urbanism” (80), a “new urban aesthetic” (82), a “more utilitarian conception of urban form” (83), and consequently a new pattern of life that restructured not only the city but also the relationship between the city and its territory. Though the process of simplification in Spain begins even earlier than in Gaul, Kulikowski argues that this process is not one of decline but of “changing tastes” (134, 135) and “changing social needs” (136). Indeed changes in topography, such as city walls, church building, particularly prevalent as a suburban phenomenon, and the encroachment of structures on the street plan represent not a lack of civic mindedness. Such changes resulted from the “responsiveness” of local elites to changing fashions, namely a shift to private displays of wealth. By the middle of the fifth century, however, Kulikowski is comfortable with less generous terms, such as “decay” (139), “failure” (139), and “disintegration” (140), because there was no agency to the changes, no “reimagination of city plans,” but simply a “failure” to address decay.

The regions covered for the second section on the eastern empire are Egypt (Peter van Minnen), Syria and Palestine (Stephan Westphalen), Pisidia with a focus on Sagalassos and its territory (Marc Waelkens et al.), and Lycia (Werner Tietz). In most of these areas urbanism was, relative to the western provinces, booming along with an increasing population until the latter half of the sixth century, when the plague of 541 and earthquakes sapped the state and the elites’ ability to invest in their cities. Thus by the beginning of the seventh century urban life in the empire as whole can rightly be said to have declined or fundamentally changed. Even in Egypt, with its peculiar status as a land apart from the empire, Van Minnen, based on an analysis of taxation and land use records in papyri, concludes: “By the sixth century, cities elsewhere had declined to the level of Egyptian cities” (176).

For Syria and Palestine, Westphalen examines a range of sites, from regional capitals like Antioch, Apamea, Bostra, and Caesarea Maritima; large cities like Damascus, Palmyra, and Gerasa; to small cities and villages like Umm al-Jimal, Khirbet es-Samra, and Umm er-Rasas. The factors that led to the boom in urbanism include rebuilding after natural disasters; administrative restructuring following the Diocletianic reforms; defense; and pilgrimage. Westphalen focuses on the fate of colonnaded streets and street plans, here directly citing Sauvaget’s work. Building on Richard Bulliet’s The Camel and the Wheel (Cambridge, 1975), Westphalen suggests that the disintegration of colonnaded streets into marketplaces crowded with secondary constructions, like stalls, is not indicative of chaotic decline, but such agglomerations and intrusions on streets reflect a sort of “official development,” a creative solution to the changing modes of transportation in the region, from the wheel to the camel (and donkey). In other words, the index of decline is brushed aside as officially recognized and planned transformations, similar to Kulikowski’s “responsiveness.” The economic function of streets was therefore principally the same as was their function as religious processional ways. In the countryside, there was a boom in construction, resulting in the “urbanization of the steppe.” Here, the proliferation of churches even in a small military settlement like Umm er-Rasas shows that local traditions based on clan and tribal structures influenced building patterns. This insight leads to a larger, controversial point. For Westphalen, the classical city in the Near East constitutes the exception to the long history of the region. Changes evident in late antiquity show that the city was returning to an oriental conception of urbanism. Decline in this sense is not even a category for analysis.

Similar in conclusion, though for different reasons, is Werner Tietz’s study of Lycia. The focus here is on how geographical variety led to a variety of settlements. Mountain settlements developed more slowly than those on the coast, whose prosperity was based on sea trade and harbor facilities. While the boom in church building coincided with the decline of civic structures and cessation of minting coins, there is likewise evidence for the use, restoration, and renovation of buildings. Elite houses continued to be built inside cities and the cities themselves continued to act as political centers. In the countryside there was also a boom in construction, reflecting economic prosperity and a fairly dense population. Economic prosperity is further reflected in the nucleation of buildings into production quarters. Thus what is traditionally defined as decline—division, reuse, and secondary construction—here reflects prosperity and, borrowing Loseby’s term, a “utilitarian” view of the cityscape. In the latter half of the sixth century, plague and invasions caused a chain reaction that led to a general decline, first on the coast and then in the interior. Even so, Tietz concludes that there was no ideal classical city in Lycia that could be raised as a high point from which to posit decline. Insofar as cities continued to play their traditional role as centers of religious, political, and economic life, there was no decline before the confluence of problems at the end of the sixth century.

The city of Sagalassos in the Pisidian mountains is the subject of a lengthy collaborative study headed by Marc Waelkens. The paper includes contributions by F. Martens, J. Poblome, H. Vanhaverbeke, P. Talloen, T. Putzeys, T. van Thuyne, W. van Neer, N. Kellens, and P. Degryse. Together this team of authors summarizes the results (some still to be published) of excavations at the site that began in 1990. They report in incredible detail on the phases of the city; the archaeology of its surrounding territory; land use; pottery; mineralogy; and metallurgy. As elsewhere, decline is only evident in the seventh century, precipitated by the plague, an earthquake in 550, and the Isaurian raids. The city saw the nucleation of buildings, lack of repairs to roads and waste disposal systems; a dwindling water supply; and intramural burial. This “ruralisation” of the city is surprisingly evoked by careful study of land use. In the simplest sense, Sagalassos became smelly. By the seventh century, the city resembled a “large village where people discarded their waste wherever they could” (235). The relative comfort (and smelliness) of the city constituted a “refugee town” for its insecure inhabitants (238). But in the countryside, in settlements more isolated and less attractive to raiders, there was “rural prosperity” in ceramic production and metallurgy. Elite interest in these villages is likewise reflected in the construction of churches.

The third section is on urban elites and institutions. From buildings and abstract populations, those individuals suspected of decline are brought before the reader: the honoratus (Giovanni A. Cecconi), the public slave (Noel Lenski), the defensor civitatis (Avshalom Laniado), the clergyman (Jens-Uwe Krause), and the riotous circus hooligan (Michael Whitby). Rather than invoking the fugitive curialis so familiar from the legal codes, Cecconi shows that the honorati who came to dominate the fifth-century city were themselves from the curial class, whose status and worldview insured the continuity of urban administration and culture. Drawing on literary, legal, and epigraphic evidence, Lenski shows that public slaves ( servi publici) continued to be owned by cities, both in the east and west, in significant numbers into the fourth century and thereafter “declined” (351). The reason for this decline has to do with the decline of servile labor in general in favor of legally proscribed free labor. This economic logic was fueled by long-standing concerns over the reliability of slaves for sensitive tasks. Laniado follows the legal definition of those entitled to elect the defensor civitatis. By sorting out the stages of legal thinking and redaction that led to the legislation in Justianian’s Code, Laniado shows that the bishop in the fourth and fifth centuries was hesitant to act as a member of the city’s administration on an equal footing with honorati, possessores, and curiales. By the sixth century, however, the bishop is a fully-fledged, legally empowered public figure living in a fully Christianized city.

Whitby’s contribution examines the “significance of violence in the late empire” by considering the intersection of riots originating in the circus, local and imperial politics, and Christian factionalism. Whitby points out that factional violence erupted in places and times where the vitality of the urban elite is in evidence (Rome, Antioch, Constantinople, and Alexandria). The increasing presence of the emperor and imperial officials did not, as Whitby demonstrates, deny the possibility for local elites to garner public praise and glory in association with the games. Much more destructive were natural disasters. Finally, Whitby challenges the contention that Christianity disintegrated the “classical polis -centred world view”: “In the East cities survived as political institutions in larger numbers for significantly longer than in the West, and, although secular considerations such as the greater regional prosperity are relevant, the Church is likely to have made a positive contribution” to the integration of local communities around a “focus for collective action” (457, 459). Instead we should look to the political realm for the source of “change”: Caracalla’s citizenship law and then the rise of Constantinople with its own senate and bureaucratic apparatus “diluted the importance of the local at the expense of the imperial” and “provided clear targets for elite ambition” (458).

Krause, in perhaps the most stimulating contribution to the volume, analyses the importance of the clergy to the question of decline or transformation/change. Given the obvious privileging of the clergy in legal, economic, and social terms, in what sense was the rank-and-file clergyman actually part of the urban elite? His focus is on the Gaul, Italy, and to a lesser degree Spain, where there is a wealth of documentation and a dense network of urban and rural churches. After examining the social origins, financial standing and standard living of the clergy, and the relationship between the bishop and the clergy, Krause shows that by the sixth century the clergy were lowly in social origin, impoverished, subject to abuse by both bishop and secular authorities, and therefore alienated from urban culture and not representative of a “new elite.” They had the same level or lack of education as their parishioners; they could melt easily into their communities and indulge in vice; and their legal privileges were routinely abused. Even though they constituted part of the honorati of a city, such a status was merely a legal fiction.

The rate of the production of inscriptions—the epigraphic habit—is the subject of Christian Witschel’s essay. Like monuments, the production of inscriptions is regionally specific. Witschel’s focus is the Diocletianic province of Venetia et Histria in Italy with its capital Aquileia. Through charts and six detailed appendices, the author shows that within the province there is variety: Aquileia naturally produced the most inscriptions of the 26 urban centers, while as a whole the production of inscriptions fell off after the fourth century and those that were produced were of a different character. Christian inscriptions arrive in datable form by the 340s, while Christian buildings only appear around 400. Does the decline of the epigraphic habit mean the decline of the economic, political, and social life that defines the Greco-Roman city? Archaeology shows that economic decline is not the best explanation. As Lepelley shows for North Africa and Westphalen for the Near East, Venetia et Istria saw a significant and energetic building program that necessitated finances, economic vitality, collaboration with imperial authorities, and local initiative. A better explanation lies in a dramatic change in social and political life and in cultural changes that dictated to elites other forms of self-representation and praise. Church inscriptions, though motivated by a specifically Christian sense of euergetism, nevertheless continued the use of classical votive formulas and spoke to and for an urban public community. For Witschel, the epigraphic habit in late antiquity is “change” not “decline” (381).

As is fitting, Liebeschuetz has the last word in the volume. Instead of asking “change or decline,” he asks “are the two really incompatible.” In commenting on the various contributions to the volume, he sees much change: “transformation, innovation, growth.” But also he is resolute, insisting that there was also “destruction, shrinking, narrowing of horizons, in brief, decline” (472). He is on safe ground, of course. For all the contributions demonstrate change, and change, moreover that by the seventh century in east and west demonstrates contraction in urban life. Other approaches and subjects not included in the volume are listed, including Marxist interpretations of economies and “comparative models and the study of networks” to understand the economic relationship between city and countryside (475).1 But the large issue that Liebeschuetz’s Decline and Fall and the contributions in this volume highlight is the historiographical divide that has been taking root in the study of late antiquity. On the one hand, there is the so-called “Late Antiquity School,” inspired, it seems, by Peter Brown’s World of Late Antiquity (London, 1971). This “School” tends to a “synchronic” approach: “it provides an overall view rather than a sequence of events or developments in chronological order” (477 n. 92). On the other hand, there is Liebeschuetz’s own view that a diachronic approach clearly shows “origin, growth, and decline” (477). But this decline does not connote the same sense of loss as Gibbon’s Decline and Fall. The culture of Greece and Rome today is not valued as a source of inspiration as it was in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries: “we no longer consider the disappearance of the classical world an unmitigated disaster” (478). In this sense, decline is simply descriptive and not a moral statement on what is ultimately valuable. Others since the publication of this volume are equally vociferous in “decline” as an analytical label, e.g. Bryan Ward-Perkins’ The Fall of Rome and the End of Civilization (Oxford, 2005). Of course the opposing view is scattered throughout the volume.

Whether one chooses to call the demonstrable changes that did occur in this period “change/transformation” or “decline,” this volume and scholarship it relies upon demonstrate the need to process the minutiae of archaeological reports, textual criticism, a range of literary and sub-literary sources and the biases inherent in their production, as well as modern models and approaches. Despite the disagreement in the details and in the significance of the changes, all agree that the cities did not look, feel, smell, or follow the same administrative and cultural rhythms in the seventh century as they did at the beginning of third century. It is perhaps this general agreement that allows for a debate on the interpretation and evaluation of the changes that are indeed evident.

The editors and publisher have done an admirable job in assembling this collection. The brief foreword, however, is best read along with the introduction to the article by Waelkens and his team, where the debate on the late antique city is clearly summed up in a few pages (199-208). Bibliographies, though occasionally repetitive, are conveniently found at the end of the individual contributions. Included are several city plans, maps, and charts, as well as a general index of topics and a geographical index that is divided into two sections, the names of regions, provinces, and places; and the ancient names of peoples.


J.U. Krause, C. Witschel: Vorwort

C. Lepelley: La cité africaine tardive, de l’apogée du IV e siècle à l’effondrement du VII e siècle

F. Marazzi: Cadavera urbium, nuove capitali e Roma aeterna: l’identità urbana in Italia fra crisi, rinascita e propaganda (secoli III-V)

S.T. Loseby: Decline and Change in the Cities of Late Antique Gaul

J. Guyon: La topographie chrétiennes des villes de la Gaule

M. Kulikowski: The Late Roman City in Spain

P. van Minnen: The Changing World of the Cities of Later Roman Egypt

S. Westphalen: “Niedergang oder Wandel?” Die spätantiken Städte in Syrien und Palästina aus archäologischer Sicht

M. Waelkens et al.: The Late Antique to Early Byzantine City in Southwest Anatolia. Sagalassos and its Territory: A Case Study

W. Tietz: Die lykischen Städte in der Spätantike

G.A. Cecconi: Crisi e trasformazioni del governo municipale in Occidente fra IV e VI secolo

A. Laniado: Le christianisme e l’évolution des institutions municipales du Bas-Empire: l’exemple du defensor civitatis

N. Lenski: Servi Publici in Late Antiquity

C. Witschel: Der epigraphic habit in der Spätantike: Das Beispiel der Provinz Venetia et Histria

J.U. Krause: Überlegungen zur Sozialgeschichte des Klerus im 5./6. Jh. n. Chr.

M. Whitby: Factions, Bishops, Violence and Urban Decline

J.H.W.G. Liebeschuetz: Transformation and Decline: Are the Two Really Incompatible?


1. There is also increasing interest in an environmental approach: Concepts, pratiques et enjeux environnementaux dans l’empire romain, ed. R. Bedon and E. Hermon, Caesarodunum 39 (Limoges: Centre de Recherche André Piagniol, 2005).