Cyprus in the 7th and 8th centuries

Over the past week or so, I’ve worked my way through Luca Zavagno’s new book, Cyprus between Late Antiquity and the Middle Ages (AD 600-800): An Island in Transition (Routledge 2017). As the title suggests, the book examines the 7th and 8th centuries on the island and brings together in a single volume arguments that Zavagno had made in a number of significant articles in Dumbarton Oaks PapersReti Medievali Rivista, Byzantion, and the Mediterranean Historical Review. He argues that the position of Cyprus in the Eastern Mediterranean allowed it to enjoy significant interregional connectivity with Asia Minor, Egypt and North Africa, the Aegean, and the Levant throughout this period, and this allowed for a remarkably resilient economic and social structure on the island that allowed it to survive the disruption of the weakening Roman trade networks (particularly the annona), Arab raids and other military interventions, and the island’s changing place within the political organization of the Mediterranean. Zavagno builds his argument on archaeological sources and challenges ideas grounded in texts that by the late-7th century, the island and the ancient Mediterranean had entered a period of terminal decline.

In many ways, Zavagno’s book will complement David Metcalf’s recent effort to aggregate evidence for Byzantine Cyprus, and follow current trends toward reconsidering the 7th and 8th century Eastern Mediterranean in light of revised ceramic chronologies that have fueled a renewed skepticism toward the apocalyptic narratives so common in textual sources. In many ways, this work is bringing to fruition Peter Brown’s famous arguments for a long late antiquity extending the basic sinews of the Roman (and ancient world) in the 8th century across the Eastern Mediterranean.

I won’t write a full review of this book (yet?), but have a few bullet point type observations:

1. Middle Ground. Like Greg Fisher’s recent book on the Late Roman Near East, Zavagno draws upon  Richard White’s idea of “middle ground” to describe the generative character of the encounter between the Late Roman, Christian, Greek-speaking polities and economic networks of antiquity, and the emerging Arab, Muslim, polities of the Levant and North Africa over the course of the 7th century. To Zavagno’s credit, the manages to avoid a view of the middle ground that essentializes the influences on Cyprus as Christian/Muslim, Greek/Arab, Byzantine/Islamic. In fact, Zavagno recognizes the echoes of the recent political situation in Cyprus in the interpretations of the so-called “condominium” period on the island when scholars speculated that Byzantine and Arab states jointly administered the island’s fiscal and political organization. This arrangement is unlikely, and in its place, Zavagno suggested a more fluid political and economic structure where various relationships across the region, including, but not limited to those mediated by centralize political entities in Constantinople or Damascus, constantly negotiated their stake in the island. The residents of the island itself and its institutions – ranging from the church to imperial and local elites – also contributed to this network of negotiated arrangements which occasionally produced relatively large-scale violence, like raids, and the payments of taxes, but often resolved itself in myriad local actions across a range of institutions and communities, including visits by Arab merchants, Arab settlers on the island, and not excluding the possibility of an Arab garrison.

2. Political and Economic Continuity. As one might expect, Zavagno sees the fluidity of the middle ground as allowing for a remarkable level of political and economic continuity. By examining the archaeological record carefully and with particular attention to recently revised ceramic chronologies, Zavagno is able to argue that the economic relationships between Cyprus and the surrounding regions persisted in the late-7th and 8th centuries. Late Roman D ware, for example, once thought to fall out of producing by the late 7th century has not been shown to persist into the 8th or even 9th. Our ability to recognize and date various forms of Late Roman amphora dating to the late 7th and 8th centuries have similarly allowed archaeologists to trace the persistence of economic connection in the region in new ways. Recently published seals, for example, have demonstrated that continued institutional relationships between Byzantine institutions and local elites as well as between ecclesiastical communities and various elites. These have, in turn, thrown the limited evidence in textual sources (particularly hagiography) for continued contact across the region into higher relief. 

This persistence of ties between Cyprus and institutions, individuals, and communities, almost certainly supported some continuity in settlement both in urban and rural areas. The decline of rural and coastal communities – like our site of Pyla-Koutsopetria – or more marginal settlements like Kalavassos-Kopetra, may reflect shifts in the intensity of economic connections with the surrounding regions and the emergence of a more contingent and dynamic rural settlement structure designed to take advantage of the middle ground of the 7th and 8th century while continuing to exploit longterm environmental and cultural resources present on the island. Cities likewise enduring the changing access to administrative resources and institutional patterns while continuing to function as population centers and nodes of local authority across the island well into the 8th century. 

3. Political and Economic Contingency. Continuity on Cyprus, then was mitigated by the needs to be responsive to the contingent world of White’s middle ground. I was particularly intrigued by Zavagno’s use of the term “resilience” to describe Cypriot communities and institutions. Too often, I think, we imagine local economies and institutions as the products of centralized fiat, and this is certainly true for Late Antiquity where so much archaeological and historical visibility for regions like Cyprus depends upon systems shaped by administrative connections or texts that provide glimpses of the margins from the center.

For Zavagno, the visibility of this evidence presents an illusory stability for Cypriot landscapes. As the relationship with the center – particularly the core imperial lands of the Aegean and Asia Minor – underwent change, the visibility of the connections between Cyprus and the wider region became more contingent and fluid. This is different from arguing that these connections disappeared. In fact, Zavagno insists that connections between Cyprus and the region continue to function but in more contingent and fluid ways that speak to the resilience of Cypriot communities, cities, and settlements as they negotiated new economic relationships amid various competing influences. 

This is clever stuff and while the argument is not entirely compelling (other than as a salutary reminder that the absence of evidence is not the evidence for absence), it offers a persuasive hypothesis that should shape continued scrutiny of Cypriot material culture. Hand-made vessels, objects like cooking and utility wares, and less visible (or widely recognized) activities associated with building traditions, decorative arts, and agricultural production may well provide hints at contingent practices engaged on a generational scale that often go overlooked in textual studies and archaeology’s tendency to privilege long-term economic and social trends.   

4. The Long Late Antiquity. This book represents a really nice contribution to recent trends toward a longer Late Antiquity. From the 18th century, scholars have seen Late Antiquity as both a period of decline and a period that generated many of the core institutions of the Western world. The break between the ancient world and the Middle Ages reflects no only a key chronological division in our understanding of the past, but one that defines disciplinary boundaries among academics with Classicists working before the Middle Ages and the Medievalists working after. Moreover, since the early 20th century, the division between the ancient and Medieval world has also been geographic with the loss of the Near East and North Africa to the Roman Empire marking a more or less permanent break between the Western, Christian world, and the Eastern, Muslim one.

By challenging the tidiness of this break on the island of Cyprus (and by implication and comparison elsewhere), Zavagno’s book (and the other major and minor works dealing with the 7th century) begins to pick at the very seams of both our academic discipline-making and our definition of what it means to be “western” and “eastern.” Zavagno does not go in for sweeping statements, but on a granular level he is clear. Cyprus in Late Antiquity absorbed influences from around the Mediterranean through travelers, trade, institutional ties, and economic relationships. This was both a characteristic of Cyprus and its insular location, but not also reflected larger trends in connections between regions in the wider Mediterranean. As a result, the long-standing idea of a break between east and west, Christian and Muslim, ancient and Medieval increasingly appears to be gentle elision throughout the 7th and 8th centuries where cultures mingled and mediated in local ways. The birth of the West (if this retains any value), then, comes from myriad local engagements that defied any simple dichotomies.  

5. What is Culture? The biggest critique that I have with this book, which is remarkably detailed and valuable, is that the island of Cyprus sometimes comes across as too unified an object of study. The sites on Cyprus, as some of our work at Pyla-Koutsopetria showed – had remarkable variation in terms of material culture. The distribution of fine wares, alone, suggest that issues other than access and chronology shaped the preference for one kind of table ware over another. The same can probably be said for church decoration, architecture, and other aspects of daily life (particular that associated with display).

The variation across Cyprus, of course, speaks to the varying levels and kinds of engagement with other regions, but also undermines the idea that Cyprus is a useful object of study. The tendency to conflate or attempt to synthesize settlement types on the island, material culture, and even the fate of cities and the countryside, reflects a concession to modern political boundaries that might at times subvert his larger argument for middle ground. 

Moreover, I wonder whether the tendency to see Cyprus as an place unto itself (in an insular ways, as it were), has limited the impact of the remarkable archaeological work on the island in larger considerations of the Late Roman Near East. Zavagno does a great job looking beyond the shores of Cyprus for comparanda and evidence for larger trends and connections. At the same time, I wonder whether our view of Cyprus would be much improved if we considered the sites on the island as extensions of the Levant, Anatolia, and even Egypt and North Africa? 

6. An Archaeological Quibble. This is really just a quibble, but at times, I found Zavagno’s description of archaeological contexts occasionally not compelling. While the book is not, strictly speaking, the publication of a site, but a book that uses a range of published archaeological data to make an argument, there were times when I wondered whether the quality and character of the excavations would sustain the kind of arguments that Zavagno was building. For example, late examples of Late Roman D ware (Cypriot Red Slip) in a sealed deposit with late-8th century with glazed white wares from Constantinople does not make a compelling case for LRD wares being 8th century without much more detail. In fact, all things being equal it would seem that the LRD wares are residual, but without more detail, it is impossible for me to know for certain.

In the end, this is quibble and my other critique has more to do with the book that I’d write than an actual critique of Zavagno’s book. As it stands, this book is a useful addition to the growing body of work on the 7th century. 

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