The summer 2011 project

As presumably the three people who actually read this know, I spent the first month of my summer this year in Turkey examining late Roman and early Byzantine cities. Private donors associated with the University of Calgary’s Greek and Roman Studies Department provided some very generous funding for this trip, and thus I am now onto the bookwork section of my project. As I intended anyway to write something this summer to submit alongside my graduate school applications that will be going out this fall, I figured that I may as well kill two birds with the same stone and combine the two projects, thus allowing me to spend a great deal of time working on a single project. Time is, of course, rather limited during the summer months due to the training and employment, but I am confident that I can get through most of the material I intend to and produce a document on par with anything that I have ever written before. It also will not be about Alexander the Great, which is a enormous relief to me, and presumably, the individuals on the graduate student selection committees who will have to read it. Additionally, I am not starting on the very bottom, either. I have a fair degree of experience with the late Roman and Byzantine context to the project, and some experience working on this topic as I examined an aspect of it for my term project in Dr. Humphrey’s Byzantine Archaeology course last fall. Still, the bibliography of works I intend to read for the first phase of this project alone is well over 2500+ pages, and that is before I get into the more site-specific literature.

The goal of the project is not to demonstrate that I am able to recognize a few interesting facets of Roman cities from what is often little more than a few stones hidden amongst overgrown grass. (Despite the Turkish government’s claims that it cares for its historical sites, the number of Romano-Byzantine sites that are virtually unprotected and left in the open to rot is astounding. It is hardly surprising to see Brubaker’s figure that only some 20% of known Byzantine pectoral crosses come from known archaeological investigations. See Brubaker and Haldon (2011), pg. 356, n. 422.) The origins of the project actually lie in my criticism of the classical thesis of urban decline that I first read about in Cyril Mango’s The Empire of New Rome, which existed for some time before that book was written. While it certainly raised some initial questions like “where did all of the people go?” and “what about regional differences and sub-Roman west?” I quickly encountered dissenting opinion. For one, in 1979, Clive Foss, a well-known Byzantine archaeologist published a paper arguing that the end of urban life in Asia Minor came with the destruction brought on by the Persians in the early seventh century. Mark Whittow, another Byzantine archaeologist, had better ideas in which he argued that Byzantine cities appear to be in decline because they are primarily excavated by classical archaeologists who are looking for classical indicators of decline. Part of the problem with evaluating these is that I have no training in archaeology, but I do have some limited formal training in history, which is where my project comes in.

Although it is clearly impossible in such a small space (most of the graduate schools do not want a writing submission of more than 5000 words, so that is where I am setting the limit) to cover the change of cities while citing specific examples from the places that I went. What I am arguing is that the classical model of late Roman urban decline, in which cities tended to abandon their lower areas and retreat to their akropoleis in the wake of the plague and violence from the Slavs/Avars/Bulgars/Persians/Arabs, etc., is insufficient, not necessarily incorrect. This is not a totally original idea, and I only learned the other day that in a 2011 publication Dr. John Haldon has made virtually the same argument. There is no way that even with the enormous bibliography sitting before I will be able to survey even more than a fraction of the literature in English, but my selections should allow me to approach the problem from a different angle and gain a lot of experience with the literature. Even with my limited reading, I can clearly see that my ideas are not new, although my approach is unlike any study that I have read to date. The rationale is that the classical model is insufficient because it fails to take into account the variation experienced in Byzantine Anatolia and a lack of appreciation for the complex variety of changes that went on in the late Roman period. Amorion is perhaps the best example of this, as it appears to have thrived during the seventh and eighth centuries, but this is not the time to discuss details. The other aspect that is being taken into account is Christianity. While modern studies have demonstrated that the Christianization of the Roman world was neither a clean nor a short process, the Christianization of the cities can raise important questions: is it fair to judge a classical Roman city as “in decline” because values have changed and thus the indicators of the vitality of a classical city are no longer present? Of course it is not; historians are supposed to assess continuity and change and the factors that cause and interact with them, not make value judgments. Nor do I think that Christianity had anything to do with the changing nature of the towns, since the idea of the classical city seems to largely be alive in the sixth century, despite seeming very anachronistic. Rather, the Christian character of towns is a largely a responding variable and indicator of the times for there is no evidence to suggest that it is responsible for the urban transformation that we see. This is how I am attempting to evaluate late Roman and early Byzantine cities: not merely by what is or is not present in relation to classical urban models, but rather why. This is why the project is so hopelessly ambitious, because it chronologically covers a vast swathe of late antique and early Byzantine history, and requires that changes in attitudes brought on by Christianity and the changing nature of imperium be assessed. In sum, the question is enormously broad; what happened to the city between the age of Constantine (4th century) and iconoclasm (8th century) while accounting for the numerous changes in a dynamic period. While the context is an enormous part of the project, the areas of the cities themselves that will be examined are primarily large public structures, as they indicate where the wealth of the city’s elites and the government was allocated, and thus their priorities. This includes classical structures, and raises the question of what happened to numerous baths, theaters, and stadia throughout the eastern part of the Empire as attitudes towards classical urbanism changed, and the strategic situation of the Empire became more desperate. Should any results be found, they are likely to provide some useful indications about changing priorities and social structures in the late ancient period.

Over the summer, expect some more updates on things like this. However, I do have a few more visual posts planned. As my sister and her husband gave me some more Byzantine coins for my birthday (they really know what to give!) I will hopefully have another numismatic post identifying the coins once I have figured out exactly what they are. I also have some great colour photographs of the hidden mosaics in the Hagia Sophia! No luck yet with the John V Palaiologos mosaic, but the hidden mosaics are still well worth a look and I’ll post them up in a little bit.

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6 Responses to The summer 2011 project

  1. Shelly Reid says:

    Luke I would love to see the pic of the Mosaics
    Oh and I guess now you can say 4 people read this lol

  2. Jonathan Harper says:

    I’m pretty sure overambitious essay topics are the mark of a good undergraduate, and I’m only partly saying that because it bolsters my own ego. Should be an impressive study, though I believe it may all come to naught should you begin habitually referring to the scholars on the graduate student selection committees as “suckers”. Particularly to their faces.
    PS: Was I one of the three?
    PPS: How the hell are you going to be concise with this project if you can’t even be concise in a blog post about it? [Still, following the same formula as above, verbosity is clearly the mark of an emergent scholar. 😉 ]

  3. nick says:

    This sounds like the sort of thing that I would never have the patience to write, but would be fascinated to read. Isn’t it amazing how easy it is, when interpreting anything, to find what one is looking for and little else? Best of luck to you in setting the record straight.

  4. Lucas says:

    Thanks, Nick. Progress is slow due to the summer work/training, but the 5000 absolute word limit should mean that it is fairly readable.

  5. David Smith says:

    Thought I’d return the favor and check out your site, since you were kind enough to take a look at mine… I too would be curious to read your paper, if and when you complete it. I’m familiar with the Amorion project, and have even traded a few e-mails with Dr. Lightfoot, trying to dig up more details about the status of the city in the mid-710s, so I can entirely sympathize with the kind of mine fields you’re wading into. (Dr. Lightfoot, for the record, was incredibly kind and helpful, and very open to exchanging e-mail with a complete loophead off the internet.)

    Based on my reading to date, I too think the idea of “urban decline” is highly oversimplified. Amorion is just one example of a counterargument – Nicomedia would be another. And even under extreme pressure from “invading” tribes (the idea of a Slavic invasion, in any classical sense, as opposed to a gradual and sometimes conflict-ridden assimilation over decades, has also been challenged), Thessalonike managed to remain a vibrant urban center throughout the Byzantine period. Just to pick two examples not quite at random.

    If you happen to get any insight into the status of Ikonion, Nicomedia, Nicaea, or other Anatolian cities in the early 8th century in the course of your work, I can promise you a rapt audience of one, at a minimum. :^)

    I wish you well in your work, envy you the chance to be “over there” with your fingers in the dirt and a chance to cavort over ancient ruins in between digging your nose into books, and hope you’ll stay in touch.

    – David

    • Lucas says:

      I’ve had some contact with Dr. Lightfoot as well when I was working on Amorion and Nikomedeia for the Byzantine archaeology course I took last fall and also found him to be very helpful. Amorion was one of the projects that I was interesting in volunteering to participate in, (as well as the Avkat Project with Dr. Haldon), but new laws by the Turkish government made it impossible for foreigners to excavate this year. Still, I’m not in the least disappointed with the vast quantity of fantastic ruins that I saw in Turkey. Perhaps I’ll post some photos and brief site descriptions when I get around to that phase of the project, which is still a solid three or four weeks of reading away. The seventh and eighth centuries are getting a fair bit of attention simply because I do not believe that they have been treated sufficiently for the changing nature of cities, despite the fact that urban change did not just happen overnight (as Clive Foss would have us believe) at the beginning of the seventh century in Anatolia and earlier in the Balkans.

      For your book, did you manage to get ahold of Nikephoros’ ‘Historia Syntomos’? I assume that you are familiar with the ‘Parastaseis Syntomoi Chronikai’ as well?

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