BMCR 2020.04.49

Change and resilience: the occupation of Mediterranean islands in late antiquity

, , Change and resilience: the occupation of Mediterranean islands in late antiquity. Joukowsky Institute publication, 9. Oxford; Philadelphia: Oxbow Books, 2019. xxviii, 308 p.. ISBN 9781789251807 $45.00 (pb).

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

Since Horden and Purcell published their Corrupting Sea in 2000[1] there has been increased interest in larger syntheses that focus broadly on the Mediterranean and strive to make the concept of connectivity heuristically fruitful. Simultaneously, interest in the characteristics and periodization(s) of the Late Antiquity remains unabated. The book reviewed here is committed to both trends. On one hand, the specific socio-geographic location of islands represents the tension between isolation and connectivity in a nutshell. On the other hand, the focus is on change and how to deal with it – specifically how islands are socio-politically positioned in a volatile late antiquity. As a contrast, Luke Lavan’s book on the economy of inland regions comes to mind, as it deals specifically with landlocked regions in late antiquity.[2]Combining both books provides an even more holistic picture of the Mediterranean, its networks, and the question of integration.

This book is the result of a conference that took place at Brown University’s Joukowsky Institute for Archaeology and the Ancient World in 2017. It consists of 12 contributions, all in English, as well as a short foreword from the editors, an introduction to the authors, and a particularly useful index. Eleven of the authors are men and five are women. The contributions, which are in most cases squarely rooted in archaeology, are organized geographically from West to East and cover the wide geographical area from Mallorca to Cyprus. They consider not only the larger islands of the Mediterranean but also smaller ones, such as the Adriatic islands off the Dalmatian coast and Naxos.

The short foreword introduces the topic, however apart from David Abulafia’s contribution (see below), a genuine synopsis of the essays is missing. Therefore, the opportunity for a comparative contextualization or—above all—an in-depth conceptual examination of insularity, change, or resilience has been missed.

Islands were chosen as the subject of the study because, although integrated into the wider Mediterranean, they offer the possibility to study individual developments in phases of transformation and change. The stated aim is not just to deal with late antiquity as a period of change, but to rethink change, its conditions, and consequences in general, without a rigid and specific definitional framework. Resilience, a relatively new concept in ancient studies, is understood both as the type of change (“how things changed”, p. xxiv) and the ability to react to change (“what the adaptations were”, p. xxiv). Therefore, resilience becomes a general ability to deal with and react to change without normative-adaptive transformations. Although this seems inconsistent with usual definitions, which see resilience in relation to vulnerability and crisis,[3] it is probably due to the effort to remove the negative connotations surrounding late antiquity. Unfortunately, only a few essays explicitly deal with the concept of resilience, and some do not use it at all. Zanini, however, conceptualizes resilience and change as a dichotomy analogous to Horden and Purcell’s distinction between micro-ecology and macro-economy. Resilience is most extensively discussed by Rebecca Sweetman, who programmatically combines it with complexity theory. She defines resilience as “the ability to absorb and adapt to change” (p. 196). For islands and archipelagos in particular, she highlights two aspects: First, the importance of strong community identities, which can become a resilience factor. Second, the special socio-ecological position of islands, which were not only particularly sensitive to natural events but also to changes in communication networks and thus exposed to constant uncertainty. This could lead to a “sense of readiness” and a “natural resilience” (p. 196).

The first four contributions concern the Western islands of Mallorca, Corsica, Sardinia, and Sicily. They were all part of the dominion of the Vandals in late antiquity, but to very different effect. Catalina Mas Florit and Miguel Ángel Cau Ontiveros focus on rural areas and the spread of early Christianity in their contribution on Mallorca between the third and ninth centuries AD. For example, they show that in the middle of the fifth century, at the time of the Vandal conquest, there were massive changes in the settlement system: the Roman villa-system disintegrated, there was a strong increase in rural sites, and urban life declined significantly from the sixth century AD. Corsica, on the other hand, which is discussed by Gabriele Castiglia and Philippe Pergola, saw a revival of its economy and a strong continued involvement in the trans-Mediterranean flow of goods under the Vandals. Furthermore, the construction of churches from the early sixth century AD could indicate a somewhat later Christianization. In Sardinia, which generally saw great continuity in land use during late antiquity, exiled clerics can be found during the Vandal reign in addition to 3,000 deported Mauri. Pier Giorgio Spanu connects the latter to the Barbarikinoi/Barbaricini, which owe their name to the geographical region of the Barbaria, which existed from the third-second century BC and where Palaeo-Sardinian names were preserved in Roman times. Alessandra Molinari emphasizes that the changes in Sicily were not directly correlated to the different conquests; rather, the eighth century, prior to the Islamic conquest of AD 827, seems to mark a decisive turning point with a decreasing density of settlements, drastically declining imports from North Africa, and a decline in cereal pollen. However, the so-called agro-towns showed great continuity. Social cohesion could have worked as a factor that increased the resilience of these agro-towns.

Miljenko Jurković writes the only contribution on the Adriatic Islands. He focuses primarily on the general settlement development of the north Dalmatian islands of Kvarner Bay. The sixth century saw not only the construction of defensive structures as a result of the Gothic War, but also a large number of churches. In contrast, the seventh and the first half of the eighth century AD are characterized by a noticeable contraction of settlements. It was only in the later eighth and early ninth centuries, in connection with Carolingian expansion, that the reconstruction and furnishing of churches increased again. The author also succeeds in showing that there were quite different developments between the north Dalmatian and the central and south Dalmatian islands.

This is followed by two articles on Crete. In the wake of Horden and Purcell, Enrico Zanini details the history of Crete by using Gortyn as an example. Here, he describes a wave motion which decreases (fourth century and late sixth to eighth century) and increases (fifth-sixth century) connectivity in addition to highlighting the constantly changing tension between micro- and macro-economies. In the end, however, there was a fundamental realignment in the new Aegean-Anatolian reality of the middle Byzantine empire, replacing the previous all-Mediterranean perspective. Christina Tsigonaki uses Gortyn, Eleutherna, and Polyrrhenia as three case studies to investigate the construction of early Byzantine fortresses on the island, which she wants to date to the seventh century AD. Even if this date cannot be archaeologically proven at the moment, she interprets the construction of the fortresses as part of a bigger response strategy to the Arab threat. The fortification of individual areas of the cities (Gortyn and Eleutherna) follows state-of-the-art urbanistic schemes of the time, as can be seen elsewhere, e.g., at Iustiniana Prima. The construction of a church in honor of the Theotokos of Blachernai in the early eighth century has been associated with a change in mindscape in the face of constant Arab raids and threats.

Rebecca J. Sweetman details how the first church buildings in the Cyclades emerged exceptionally early (for islands) in the late fourth and early fifth centuries AD. This is attributed to the particular character of the islands, which were, at least partially, integrated into larger Mediterranean communication-flows and had always been open to change and innovation. Continuity of and in the settlements is seen as an indicator of a high level of resilience to the change caused by Christianity. Another angle is taken by Sam Turner and Jim Crow, who examine the Christianization of Naxos. They discuss the methodological problems of identifying and dating early medieval churches in depth. In their case study of Naxos between AD 600 and 1000, they find a surprisingly dense network, particularly comprised of rural churches associated with small and medium-sized settlements.

Natalia Poulou studies the Dodecanese, the Cyclades, and Kythera from a comparative perspective. From the seventh century AD onward there was marked change in the cities, which in most cases contracted while simultaneously erecting and/or strengthening fortresses. In the eighth century, Arabic graffiti proved the presence of Arabs on some islands. In the eighth and ninth centuries, economic activity increased, which is particularly evident in new finds from amphora workshops, and which indicate the supraregional importance of the shipping routes in the south Aegean. Based on new landscape-archaeological research, Athanasios Vionis and Giorgos Papantoniou can trace an articulated settlement hierarchy for Cyprus for the period from the fifth to the middle of the seventh century—a time of general economic prosperity and dense settlement. From the seventh century on, there were significant changes which mainly affected cities. Meanwhile, in rural areas, the overall settlement system became less hierarchical. The authors argue that Cyprus should be seen as a buffer space between the two empires which also saw a degree of cooperation and permeability in this period.

The last essay is by David Abulafia, who gave the keynote address (not printed here). Instead, he wrote a kind of comparative comment reflecting on the present volume. As the author of one of the great syntheses of the Mediterranean, he is particularly suitable for this.[4] Abulafia sketches a broad panorama of the development of the Mediterranean between 400 and 1000 AD, in which he elegantly weaves the results of the individual papers. In his essay, he traces the ebbs and flows of regionality and connectivity. He highlights how the middle of the sixth century represented a turning point, which also saw the beginning of a clearly divergent development between East and West. Overall, the eastern Mediterranean appears to be more resilient under the Islamic and Byzantine empires. Abulafia sees Amalfi and Venice and their increasing importance to the Mediterranean trade-flows from the ninth century onwards as the first presages of the economic revival of western Europe.

Overall, reading this book creates a differentiated picture that reveals both similarities and differences in the development of the Mediterranean islands in late antiquity. Some aspects are recurring and form sort of a through-line. These include church-building and Christianization, production and trade, the (sometimes non-)impact of military conquests, the reach of the networks in which the respective islands were integrated, and diachronic change. Due to these recurrent themes, it is worth reading the book front-to-back despite the diversity of the individual chapters. Doing so also takes the favorably-inclined reader on a journey through the entire Mediterranean—starting with Mallorca and ending with Cyprus—all while drawing the picture of diverse and changing Late Antique land- and mindscapes. However, the opportunity for a more thorough conceptualization of change and resilience was missed, as was an examination of the specific relationship between the different islands, their changing roles in Mediterranean networks, and what connectivity means in detail for the individual islands.

Overall, this book is a welcome contribution to the most recent trend of looking at the Mediterranean region from different angles and exploring the tension between local developments and their (supra-)regional embedding. Or, to phrase it differently by borrowing the last sentence of David Abulafia: “The history of islands is, by and large, a history of variety and, to repeat an over-used term, connectivity” (p. 295).

Table of Contents

Foreword: Islands, Change and Late Antiquity / Catalina Mas Florit and Miguel Ángel Cau Ontiveros
1. The Occupation of Mallorca (Balearic Islands, Spain) in Late Antiquity: Tracing Change and Resilience / Catalina Mas Florit and Miguel Ángel Cau Ontiveros, 1
2. Between Change and Resilience: Urban and Rural Settlement Patterns in Late Antique Corsica / Gabriele Castiglia and Philippe Pergola, 25
3. Procopius’ Barbarikinoi and Gregory the Great’s Barbaricini: Mauri and Sardinians in the sixth and seventh Centuries A.D. / Pier Giorgio Spanu, 51
4. Sicily from Late Antiquity to the Early Middle Ages: Resilience and Disruption / Alessandra Molinari, 87
5. The Transformation of Adriatic Islands from Antiquity to the Early Middle Ages / Miljenko Jurković, 111
6. Macro-economy, Micro-ecology, and the Fate of Urbanized Landscape in Late Antique and Early Byzantine Crete / Enrico Zanini, 139
7. Crete, a Border at the Sea: Defensive Works and Landscape – Mindscape Changes (Seventh–Eighth Centuries A.D.) / Christina Tsigonaki, 163
8. Islands and Resilience: Christianization Processes in the Cyclades / Rebecca J. Sweetman, 193
9. The Christianization of Island Landscapes in Late Antiquity and the Early Middle Ages: New Perspectives from Naxos in the Aegean / Sam Turner and Jim Crow, 217
10. The Islands of the Southern Aegean from Late Antiquity to the Early Middle Ages: The Archaeological Evidence / Natalia Poulou, 235
11. Economic Landscapes and Transformed Mindscapes in Cyprus from Roman Times to the Early Middle Ages / Athanasios Vionis and Giorgos Papantoniou, 257
12. Islands in Context, A.D. 400–1000 / David Abulafia, 285


[1] P. Horden – N. Purcell, The Corrupting Sea: A Study of Mediterranean History (Oxford 2000).

[2] L. Lavan (ed.), Local Economies? Production and Exchange of Inland Regions in Late Antiquity (Leiden 2015).

[3] Bradtmöller et. al., ‘Resilience Theory in Archaeological Oractice – An Annotated Review,’ Quarternary International 446, 2017, 2 f.

[4] D. Abulafia, The Great Sea: A Human History of the Mediterranean (London 2011).