The Byzantine Dark Ages, by Michael Decker

Sean Kingsley explores a long-needed audit of the Byzantine world that uses archaeology to ask big questions about the end of antiquity and the rise of the medieval Mediterranean.

The Dark Ages conjures up images of an end of days – barbarian hordes ransacking Rome, Vikings storming across the North Sea, and medieval villages spluttering their way through rock-bottom lives. The sunshine states of the east Mediterranean, becalmed under blue skies, have tended to escape being tarred and brushed in such terrible terms.

A new book by Michael Decker, Maroulis Professor of Byzantine History and Orthodox Religion at the University of South Florida, has now dropped the Dark Ages bomb on the eastern world of Byzantium, ruled from Constantinople from AD 324 to 1453. Decker’s audit of wide-ranging archaeological evidence – cities, countryside, coins, metalware, amphorae, and fineware – in The Byzantine Dark Ages sets a scene to consider forensic evidence for a devastating decline and fall in the east during the critical 7th century.

‘Dark Ages’ has largely fallen off-trend as an historical term because of its negative overtones. Coined by the medieval scholar Petrarch in the 14th century, the Dark Ages was the derogatory flipside to the enlightened Roman Empire and Renaissance humanism. It was a world of barbarism, what the French still call Bas-Empire, a social low to contrast with the highs of Rome. Professor Decker does not apply Dark Ages lightly, acknowledging that the label ‘comes with a great weight of responsibility; nationalism, religion, and other cultural forces are ever in tension with scientific endeavour and academic integrity’.

There are far fewer problems assessing what life was like at the bookends of the Byzantine Empire’s millennial history. However, the years spanning AD 600-900, the focus of this book, are contested ground. While broad consensus sees state structures severely straining by the second half of the 6th century, exactly when, why, and how the next three centuries should be defined is one of Mediterranean history’s hottest topics. The decadent reign of the Emperor Justinian, combining beating drums of war with courtly intrigue and empire-world monument building to equal King Herod’s building boom, is a convenient point to mark the beginning of the end.

Powerhouse to pauper

Despite being Byzantium’s best-renowned ruler thanks to the writings of Procopius, including the poison-penned Secret History, Justinian’s reign witnessed endemic shock. Costly wars with Persia stripped the Imperial coffers, while at home the bubonic plague sailed into town on the back of Egyptian ships in 542. Infectious outbreaks hammered the Empire into the 8th century. Meanwhile, earthquakes levelled Antioch and parts of Syria, the Levant, Cilicia, Syria, and Mesopotamia between 526 and 570. Perhaps the gods were warning the Empire in 536-557, when the rays of the sun were blocked by a dust-veil that stunted plant growth, evidenced in texts and tree-ring dendrochronology. ‘When the year 600 arrived, the Empire was a morass,’ Decker concludes.

By the time Heraclius took the throne in 610, the Persian Sasanian dynasty occupied the whole Roman East. When Heraclius melted down church silver in AD 621 to remedy massive Imperial shortages from the loss of income from the eastern provinces, the legend ‘God help the Romans’ struck on silver hexagram coins was particularly apt. After the Arab Conquest of the 640s, the great cities of Antioch, Edessa, Damascus, Jerusalem, Caesarea, and Alexandria were lost to Byzantium forever. The outstanding image is one of ‘Byzantium reduced from powerhouse to pauper’.

The archaeological trail on which the theory of a Dark Age between AD 600 and 900 hinges is disparate and understood in varied focus. Like Rome, Byzantium was an empire of cities. But by the mid-7th century, coins vanished from the markets and pockets of Athens, Corinth, Aphrodisias, Ephesus, Pergamon, and Sardis. In 629, the Eastern mints of Cyzicus and Nicomedia had ceased output, plunging the highly monetised world into an ‘economic chasm’. The tap of imports of North African red-slip plates and semi-luxury oils was turned off. The bottom fell out of the age-old marble trade and the circulation of classy copper bowls and flasks. Government and god abandoned the polis.

The fate of the city was no overnight tragedy. Different towns exhibit different rhythms of change. At Nicopolis-ad-Istrum in Bulgaria, the Roman villas were abandoned as early as the mid-5th century. By the first quarter of the 6th century, at the impeccably excavated city of Butrint in Albania, fishermen and craftsmen had taken over the grand domus in the Triconch Palace, before its noble ruins were stripped and filled with burials in the 7th century. As Richard Hodges and William Bowden conclude, by AD 700 Butrint fell under the spell of an historical Ice Age, as commerce was reduced to ‘to a scale of prehistoric proportions’.

At Corinth, the capital of the province of Achaia, the Lechaion road was blocked by a lime kiln and the latrine went out of use by the early 7th century, as the countryside invaded the city. By the end of the 7th century, Aphrodisias was reduced to a skeleton crew of clergy and local civilians. A graphic indication of the depopulation of town and country has been captured by the Southern Euboea Exploration Project, where just 2.5% of Late Roman sites continued into the Early Byzantine era between 700 and 1000. In Greece, only seven hoards are known for the period 711-811, compared to 82 hoards for the century spanning 518-618.

Surviving underground

How rocky Cappadocia managed change serves as a metaphor for the entire Byzantine world – society literally went underground. Environmental samples from Lake Nar dated 670-950 show a pronounced decrease in olive and cereal pollen, and a rise in grass, pine, and oak, reflecting an abandonment of arable land across much of Asia as the weather became cooler and wetter. The Cappadocians adapted by moving into underground cave-homes to stay warm and safe from Arab raids. The rock-cut villages of Ovaˆren and Filiktepe developed into sizable troglodytic settlements during the 7th and 8th centuries, boasting religious and economic infrastructure, churches, stables, and defensive features – notably millstone doors to block passages from attackers. These rock-cut towns could host populations of over 1,000 people – and, in the case of the 2,500m² site of Derinkuyu, up to 20,000 people.

Whether history applies the term ‘Dark Ages’ or kinder ‘transition’ to Byzantium AD 600-900, it was undoubtedly the end for Rome in the East. Big-picture trends make it obvious that the change was colossal. The Plague of Justinian alone wiped out a third of the Mediterranean population around AD 541, including 40% of Constantinople. After the Arab Conquest of the 640s, the Byzantine Empire’s population fell from an estimated 26 million to 7 million in the 780s. State taxation had accounted for 57% of the coins in circulation and 38% of total money supply. With the loss of the provinces and their lucrative taxes, the Imperial coffers were left high and dry.

Constantinople did not fall on its sword, but, as with the future Venice and Genoa, started to resemble a city-state, and like Cappadocia became introverted. When the city’s lights came back on, it was mainly thanks to relations with the upcoming West. Under Basil I (r. 867-886), population, economy, learning, and political influence grew. The dark days were over. Excavations at the Theodosian Port in Istanbul have stunningly revealed the quality of ships, galleys, and produce from the Black Sea and Marmara Sea that flowed once again into the capital.

The story of how the East was won and lost, and Byzantium’s waxing and waning fortunes, is one of world history’s great intellectual episodes. Professor Decker asks a host of difficult questions about history and data in a highly accomplished, wide-sweeping, and non-judgemental way, with the concluding hope that ‘As the late Roman era has finally emerged from the dustbin where it was once relegated based on scholarly constructions of “barbarism” and backwardness, so too scholars will increasingly turn their focus to the world after late antiquity.’

The Byzantine Dark Ages by Michael J Decker,  is published by Bloomsbury (ISBN 978-1472536037)