Just what happened in the Eastern Roman Empire in the period following the fall of Rome? We tend to think that the story is that of Constantinople, holding out alone against the Arab onslaught, but that is not quite the whole story. From the 5th to the 11th century, Anatolia – that is, modern Turkey – was part of the empire and it was not until the 11th century, at the Battle of Manzikert, that the Seljuk Turks finally took over almost the whole of modern Turkey apart from Constantinople itself. Up until then, it was full of Graeco-Roman cities, speaking Greek and practising Christianity and forming the Byzantine Empire. What is their story?
The answer is given in a very erudite, very expensive volume, The Archaeology of Byzantine Anatolia: from the end of Late Antiquity until the coming of the Turks, edited by Philipp Niewöhner, who is one of those ultra-learned scholars who can flit effortlessly between such institutions as Freiburg, Heidelberg, Göttingen, and Oxford, while holding fellowships at Dumbarton Oaks and Berlin. In this very valuable book, he has assembled accounts of 24 towns in Anatolia, mostly by German or Belgian authors, though with two accounts by our very own Jim Crow; these are prefaced by 14 syntheses ranging from architecture to (very important) pottery.
The story is one alternating between towns and country. The early 4th century should be a time of great activity. This was the time when the Emperor Constantine officially converted to Christianity and, according to the texts, lots of churches were built in Anatolia. Archaeology, however, tells a different story. This is a time of general decay and stagnation, when the cities shrank. What is more, two of the quarries that provided the materials for grand buildings were closed, or at least came to an end. Few churches can be dated to this early period.
The great revival came at the end of the 4th century in the reign of Theodosius the Great, the last emperor to rule over the united Roman Empire and the great persecutor of the pagans. This period from 379 to 450 saw a great revival of the cities in Anatolia: new city walls were built, often using spolia – that is, reusing parts of ancient buildings – which is why town walls are often a good source of sculpture. However, these town walls were only of limited defensive value, for they had few towers and were too long to have been manned against any determined invader.
From the mid-5th century to the mid-7th century, urbanism declined. Partly this may have been due to the great plague, which broke out in the 540s and wrecked the end of the reign of Justinian, and may have been more disastrous in the towns than in the countryside. But the decline is more deeply rooted. Churches were sometimes built in key positions, a mark perhaps of change in the urban function. In particular, the author notes that public baths stopped functioning. This, he argues, is significant because in the Roman world public baths were not just a place for getting clean, they were a place for socialising, for doing business, and for making cities function. Public baths are perhaps a more important indicator of civic life than is the forum or basilica. But in the 6th century the great public baths were replaced by smaller bath buildings known as balnea: a good indicator of urban decline.
The 7th-9th centuries were the invasion period. It began with Persian invasions from 610 to 620, as the dying Persian Empire made war on the dying Roman Empire. In the reign of Constans II (641-668), there are numerous coin hoards, which may indicate instability. But the decrepit Roman Empire and the decrepit Persian Empire were both overwhelmed by the young, vigorous and aggressive invaders from Arabia. Islam had arrived, and the Byzantines lost two-thirds of their empire as Egypt and Syria fell to these new empire-builders. Anatolia survived – just – though the enemy came right up to the walls of Constantinople itself, and were eventually repulsed only with the help of ‘Greek fire’. What the author does not mention is that this is the time of the iconoclastic dispute, and the conventional histories of the Byzantine world devote their pages to discussions about the minutiae of iconoclasm and whether the depiction of human figures should be allowed. Similar debates were going on in the Muslim world, but whereas among the Muslims the iconoclastics won, in the Byzantine Empire they lost, and human figures were allowed back into art. Nevertheless, archaeologically, this was a period of decline on both sides.
The story can be seen best in the city of Amorium, which was attacked and destroyed in 838. This is extremely valuable for archaeologists because it is a key event for the dating of pottery and other small finds. But when Amorium was eventually rebuilt, 50 years later, it was as a small but easily defended kastron (fort) with robust walls, while the settlement that sprang up outside it had no regular layout. And where churches were built or rebuilt, they were now surrounded by graveyards, a good indication that the old Roman prohibition on burying inside a town had been totally forgotten. Mind you, the archaeological dating of this period becomes difficult, because pottery dating goes wonky. The fine-ware traditions, where the white wares of Constantinople had replaced the African red-slip wares of the 4th century, now ceased to penetrate into the countryside, and local handmade pottery often took its place – which is hard to date. Moreover, the pollen record shows an increase in wild species, suggesting a less intensive land-use.
In the 9th century, the Byzantine world revived under the Macedonian dynasty (867-1056), and the traditional histories mark this as the time of the Middle Byzantine empire when art and literature revived. Archaeology, again, give a different account, with urbanism losing its attraction. Most cities were neglected and largely deserted, while the countryside flourished. It is argued that the taxation basics may have changed and that taxes were no longer paid to the cities but direct to the central state, and therefore the wealthy citizens saw no point in lavishing their wealth on building large churches in the cities, but instead built numerous smaller churches on their estates in the countryside.
There was also an outbreak of verse inscriptions, which the aristocrats saw as a status symbol. As archaeologists, we should also note that pollen analysis shows an agricultural recovery.
The 11th-14th century marked the coming of the Turks and the end of the Byzantine Empire. The traditional date is the Battle of Manzikert in 1071, though perhaps the more significant date is 1204, when the ruffian brigands who formed the Fourth Crusade captured and sacked Constantinople, which never really recovered. The initial Turkish threat led to a revival of the cities when the rural population flocked into them seeking safety and the defences were put in order, while the kastra were revived and rebuilt. But the pollen shows a reversal of prosperity.
Following the capture of Constantinople in 1204, two of the cities, Nicaea and Trebizond, became the head of principalities, and Nicaea in particular received a fine set of fortifications. After the Battle of Manzikert, some of the towns were hastily refortified. But the late building activity seemed to confirm that Anatolia had been largely deurbanised during the Middle Byzantine period. Anatolia had become predominantly a rural society, where aristocratic and monastic landowners were able to wield near absolute power – there are some hints that this may be the beginning of ‘feudalism’. But control was divided, and when the Turks arrived they had little difficulty in taking over.
This book shows archaeology at its best, laying before us accounts of all the major cities and then drawing conclusions. I would have liked an account of Constantinople itself and, perhaps more importantly, an account of the palynology, the pollen evidence which is only referred to briefly. But this is a book that rewrites history in a way hitherto only known to the few scholars; let us hope that it is soon reprinted in paperback, at a price that will give it the wide distribution it deserves.