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The problem of the research so far
Basic Bibliography on the problem of cities in Asia Minor
  Thursday, May 19, 2005 17:30 p.m.

Byzantine Cities of Asia Minor. An Historical Analysis of the Surviving Data: Observations on the Problem and Future Directions

Faculty Tower, Room #409


Efthymia Ragia


This lecture will discuss the problem of the continuity or discontinuity of late antique cities of Asia Minor in the early Middle Ages (7th-9th centuries). The transformation of the Byzantine Empire during this period, its economy and institutions, will be examined in order to draw some conclusions on their influence on provincial cities. The physical remains and the archaeological record are of particular interest in the treatment of this subject, with four case studies: Ankara (province of Galatia Prima), Amorion (province of Phrygia/Galatia Salutaria), Miletos (province of Caria) and Ephesos (province of Asia).


i. The problem. The research so far. The theories of A. Kazhdan and Cl. Foss.

ii. The cities of Asia Minor in late antiquity: general overview; founding or re-founding and its implications; couriae, economy, and the “epigraphic habit”.

iii. Cities and bishopics; size and the population; the plague of the 6th century; influx of populations from countries under arab domination (second half of the 7th century); the episcopal net.

iv. Enemy attacks. The Persians and Arabs in Asia Minor (7th century). Conquest invasions, booty raids. General discussion.

v. The physical remains. The destruction by Byzantines and Turcs; excavations.

a) The walls. The castles. Implication of the themes. Castles and the population.
b) Dating. Ceramics/numismatics.

vi. four cases in study:

a) Ankara
b) Amorion
c) Ephesos
d) Milet.

vii. Conclusions. Future directions

The problem of the research so far

The Book of the Prefect of Constantinople, composed in the 10th century, comprises regulations on the professional (economic/social) activities of the guilds of the Queen of Cities. The legal stipulations it contains cannot apply to any other city of the time, and this simply because there is no evidence in the sources that economic activities of such a large scale were pursued in provincial towns and cities of the Byzantine Empire. Between the 7th and 10th centuries, the urban character of those settlements is gone: there are no social strata, no physical splendor, the archaeologists are not finding any datable remains, and numismatic finds (if there are any) are negligible. These settlements seem to be of predominantly agrarian character. In contrast to information on the cities of Asia Minor from the 4th to the 6th century, the sources of the 7th to 10th centuries mention only castles and fortresses. Did a transformation take place during this time? If yes, what was the reason of the change, which were the processes/mechanisms of it, and what ultimately constitutes a city in the middle byzantine period, from the 7th to the 10th centuries?
The discussion on the fate of late antique cities of the Roman Empire in the early Middle Ages, is a long-standing one. The development of the cities during the protobyzantine period (4th-6th centuries) has been treated in detail by A. H. M. Jones in three major works, published from the late 1930s to the late 1960s, that have become the basis for further research. The real controversy begins in 1954, with the publication of an important study by A. Kazhdan. Kazhdan denied the cities the continuity in the early Middle Ages. The important contribution of this great Byzantinist to the problem was the methodology he used, drawing into the discussion data provided by the archaeological research and numismatics. G. Ostrogorsky answered to this study in 1959, in an article published in Dumbarton Oaks Papers, making himself another important contribution, by using elements of historical geography and by distinguishing the types of coins that are found in excavations. But already, one year earlier, one of the most significant, and since then most cited, treatises on the problem was presented at the 11th International Congress of Byzantine Studies in Munich by E. Kirsten. Kirsten focused on four points: a) on the relation between city and state power, in other words on the question of municipal autonomy in a centralized state; b) on the social-economic structure of the cities, the origins of the population and employment possibilities, the economic activities and the relation between the city and its surrounding district; c) on the type of city according to its geographical position; and d) on the physical appearance of the city (whereby public buildings and city layout are meant). Kirsten came to the conclusion that the cities of the late Roman Empire declined in the early Middle Ages; they were transformed into simple castles because of the two centuries of constant warfare and were for that reason incorporated in the defensive system of the empire.
Since then there have appeared several studies by some of the most distinguished Byzantinists, P. Lemerle, Sp. Vryonis, J. Koder, J.-M. Spieser, W. Treadgold and J. Haldon being only some of the researchers that have dealt with the issue. The most important studies, in which an entire theory on the development of late antique cities in the Middle Ages is formed, are those of the American Clive Foss, who is following the same course of research as Kazhdan and Kirsten, using extensively the data of archaeological excavations (himself being an archaeologist) and numismatics, combined with historical evidence. In the article with the impressive title “The Persians in Asia Minor and the End of Antiquity”, Foss tried to prove in which way the persian and arab invasions of the 7th century literally destroyed the ancient civilization of Asia Minor. This treatise was followed shortly by another, on the twenty “episemoi poleis” (celebrated cities) of the Thrakesion theme that the emperor Constantine VII is mentioning in his work on the themes of Asia Minor (De thematibus) as still being important in the 10th century. At almost the same time, C. Foss published two monographies on the cities of Ephesus and Sardis in western Asia Minor. The general impression that one may have on reading Foss’s work, is that the greatness of cities and their prosperity in late antiquity lies in the erection of new buildings, while the absence of this phenomenon in the age that follows is a sign of decay, which finally finds its expression in the erection of castles, that quite often are built on the remnants of more important, ancient buildings. The so far most thorough treatise on the cities in the Middle Byzantine period is, however, the work of the historian W. Brandes, and was published in 1989. Brandes is following Foss’s guidelines in using extensively archaeological and historical material, but critique, either of the historical, or of the archaeological record, is minimal. The development of cities falls into four categories: reduction in size, displacement, abandonment and continuity. The diversity of the material and the possible extensions of the phenomena mentioned by Brandes however, are such, that render the issue of cities impossible to deal with in depth. After having 188 pages of printed data that are an excellent example of the way of work of the German School, the conclusions are practically non-existent. It seems to me that none of the two scholars has avoided the danger of this difficult issue, namely the trap to treat the subject through a personal preference of style. Especially the archaeologist C. Foss cannot hide his admiration of late antique cities, the physical appearance of which contrasts sharply with the cities of the Middle Byzantine period (at least it is thought so). Consequently, the expressions on “continuity” or “decline” derive exactly from what is considered to be an indication of continuity and decline.
Objections to this method of approach have been raised recently. J. Haldon has once again stressed the fact that the functions of the city have changed greatly during the protobyzantine period, which led to their ultimate decline in the 7th century. J. Russel has questioned the decisiveness with which the results of the archaeological research are used in drawing conclusions on the fate of cities in the early Middle Ages. Russel is basically doubting the capacity of archaeologists to date the findings, and is rejecting the value of coin finds in dating, while emphasizing the point that the total surface of the cities excavated so far is too small to allow discussion on continuity, discontinuity or even reduction (an example: in Sardis the area that has been brought to light is only 3% of the surface enclosed in the walls of the city). Russel draws attention to the results of surface archaeology, as was conducted in Balboura, one of the cities of Cibyrhatis in south-east Caria . Russel’s views, even though very recent, have not remained unchallenged. The main focus of researchers who deal with late antiquity is now to prove that the reasons of the decline do not lie in late antiquity itself, but in the 7th century, as Foss has postulated, and this in spite of the thorough treatment by Jones of the radical changes the cities went through between the 4th and 6th centuries, a work that, as implied earlier, is still unsurpassed.


This lecture is far from being a detailed analysis of the problem of the cities of Asia Minor in the middle Byzantine times. To the contrary, it constitutes only a different approach based on preliminary observations that have been made during the composition of my Ph.D. on the Maeander valley and during my work on the cities of western Asia Minor at the National Hellenik Research Foundation under the directions of prof. E. Chrysos. This approach is mainly historical; besides considering the sources under a different perspective (with the purpose of finding out their meaning, set in a wider context, rather than deriving the exact literal information, that has been dealt in detail by other researchers), the methods of historical geography have been widely used and combined with purely historical and archaeological data.
The problem of the cities of Asia Minor in middle Byzantine times, as elaborated by C. Foss, seems to be a purely archaeological one. The deficiency of archaeology to explain the transformation of the cities and the lack of evidence has resulted into drawing into the archaeological discussion data provided by the historical record. The result of this method was the formation of a more or less totalitarian theory on “the end of antiquity”, attributed to the wars of the 7th century. This is rather misleading. I think it has been made clear, during the treatment of this subject, that a) not all the cities/towns are of the same significance in the late antique world, and that b) not all the regions of Asia Minor were affected the same way by the wars. Research is directed mostly to the greatest cities, disregarding the smaller settlements, that constituted the majority of the civic landscape of Asia Minor. In those settlements the functions of the city proper must have been reduced to minimum already in the protobyzantine period (324-610). There is no evidence to suggest that those towns were in the 6th century anything more than large rural agglomerations. The epigraphic record –whatever survives of it- confirms, I think, the conclusion that in small towns only the bishop maintained a role of some significance.
Historical research, on the other hand, should not have a problem tracing down the evolution of the provincial landscape. This is because expressions of admiration in the sources are confined only to very few cities from the very beginning. Even though we would like to have more evidence on the transformation of social and economic structures between the 6th and 10th centuries, it is clear that, in spite of the cruel war confrontations, the cities and towns of the empire were in most cases continuously inhabited until the arrival of the Turks. Of predominantly agrarian character (of which we have now more evidence than in the protobyzantine period), the middle Byzantine towns/castles should rather be considered as successors of the rural agglomerations of the 6th century, than of the great cities of late antiquity. There is no static and uniform development of the provinces: the declined by the plague of the 6th century population was revived by the arrival of new settlers from the eastern provinces, that were not used in invigorating the decaying city structures, but were incorporated in the more promising for the future of the empire (considered the huge challenge that it was facing) framework of the agrarian societies of Asia Minor.
So what is finally proposed in this lecture is a new method of approach, that could lead to a new, historical theory of considering the problem: the surviving epigraphic record can offer a view of medium and small cities of late antiquity. A mapping of new bishopics of the 7th century (a result of the influx of population from the eastern provinces) can be attempted with the help of the acts of the ecumenical councils. Critically revising the historical data is necessary; not all information given by the oriental sources can be accepted, since their legendary character is obvious. The archaeological record can even offer, in some cases at least, an idea on the physical outlook of these minor towns that were the majority of “civic” formations of Asia Minor. The four case studies that have been presented here show clearly that the evolution of cities in the middle Byzantine times depended not only on the historical events, but also on their localization: Ankara, the great city of Galatia, severely struck by the enemy, evolved into a mighty fortress; Amorion, never a big city, grew into an important military and civic stronghold of the borders of the highlands; Ephesus seems never to have lost its important economic role for western Asia Minor, in spite of the fact that the city shrank and was divided in two different centers; and Milet, always remembered for its glorious ancient past, seems not to have been important in late antiquity; it shrank and it developed into a purely agrarian town in the Byzantine times. All this, of course, should be considered under, and combined with, the gradual militarization of the provinces, that spread slowly from the east to the west of Asia Minor during the seventh century, and brought with it radical changes in the structures of the local societies.

Basic Bibliography on the problem of cities in Asia Minor

W. Brandes, Die Städte Kleinasiens im 7. und 8. Jahrhundert, Amsterdam 1989.

The Economic History of Byzantium from the Seventh through the Fifteenth Century, ed. Angeliki Laiou, vol. I-III, Washington, DC, 2002.

C. Foss, The Persians in Asia Minor and the End of Antiquity, English Ηistorical Review 90, 1975, 721-747.

C. Foss, Byzantine and Turkish Sardis, Cambridge Mass.-London 1976.

C. Foss, Archaeology and the “Twenty Cities” of Byzantine Asia, American Journal of Archaeology 81, 1977, 469-486.

C. Foss, Ephesus after Antiquity: a Late Antique, Byzantine and Turkish City, Cambridge 1979.

A. H. M. Jones, The Cities of the Eastern Roman Provinces, Oxford 1971.

A. H. M. Jones, The Greek City from Alexander to Justinian, Oxford 1940.

A. H. M. Jones, The Later Roman Empire, 284-602; a Social, Economic and Administrative Survey, Oxford 1964.

A. Kazdan, Vizantijskie goroda v VII-XI vekach, Sovetskaja Archeologija 21, 1954, 164-183.

E. Kirsten, Die byzantinische Stadt, Berichte zum XI. Internationalen Byzantinisten-Kongress, München 1958, 1-48.

G. Ostrogorsky, Byzantine Cities in the Early Middle Ages, Dumbarton Oaks Papers 13, 1959, 45-66.

Recent Research in Late antique Urbanism, ed. L. Lavan, Journal of Roman Studies Suppl. 42, Portsmouth 2001.

J. Russel, Transformations in Early Byzantine Urban Life: the Contribution and Limitations of Archaeological Evidence, in: The 7th International Byzantine Congress, Major Papers, N. York 1986, 137-154.

J. Russel, The Persian Invasions of Syria/Paestine and Asia Minor in the Reign of Heraclius: Archaeological, Numismatic and Epigraphic Evidence, in: Οι σκοτεινοί αιώνες του Βυζαντίου (7ος-9ος αι.), ΕΙΕ/ΙΒΕ Διεθνή Συμπόσια 9, Αθήνα 2001.

The Idea and Ideal of the Town between Late antiquity and the Early Middle Ages, ed. G. P. Brogiolo-B. Ward Perkins, The Transformation of the Roman World 4, Leiden-Boston-Köln 1999.

Reports on Ankara appear in various turkish periodicals. The history of the medieval city of Ankara is excellently given by C. Foss, Late Antique and Byzantine Ankara, Dumbarton Oaks Papers 31, 1977, 27-87.

Annual reports on the excavations in Amorion appear in Anatolian Studies and lately in Dumbarton Oaks Papers.

The archaeological material on Ephesus is published in the series Forschungen in Ephesos. Annual reports appear in Anzeiger der Akademie der Wissenshaften in Wien, Phil.-Hist. Klasse.

The archaeological material on Milet is published in the series Milet. Ergebnisse der Ausgrabungen und Untersuchungen seit dem Jahre 1899. Annual reports appear in Istanbuler Mitteilungen.

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