Defending the Edge of the Empire

On my flight home from Greece, I read Fotini Kondyli’s recent(-ish) article in the The Annual of the British School at Athens 112 (2017), titled “Lords at the End of the Empire: Negotiating Power in the Late Byzantine Frontiers (14th-15th Centuries).”  It’s a nice article that explores the complex relationship between semi-autonomous rulers of the Byzantine frontiers and the Emperor as well as the techniques these rulers used to ingratiate themselves to the local populations and to organize their dominions.

I’m still thinking about the archaeology of islands in the Byzantine period and how insularity shaped the history of Late Roman and Early Byzantine Cyprus. Kondyli’s carefully researched paper argues that the weakened centralized state and Emperor encouraged the promotion of autonomous border lords who were given territory, land, and tax incentives to defend the frontiers. What interested me, in particular, was how the geography of the frontier supported the autonomy of these border lords. Kondyli examines the topography and view sheds of the border lords’ towers and fortification, for example, that allowed them to monitor traffic through and around their domains. In cases like this, a balance emerged between the political insularity that reinforced autonomy, and the discontinuous character of late Byzantine grants of land and the connections, however symbolic and tenuous, with central Byzantine state, that required connectivity.

While this doesn’t map neatly onto the situation on Cyprus at the end of antiquity, various officials did leverage the island’s insularity to buoy their claims to autonomy, from the bishops who demanded the island’s autocephalous status in the East to Heraclius using the island as a basis for his coup in 610 and later as the launching point for his military expeditions in the Levant. The usual political arrangement on the island at the end of the 7th century (whatever the specifics of the so-called “condominium” arrangement between the Byzantine state and the Califate) reinforced the islands frontier status and the distinctiveness of the arrangement would have encouraged the local elite to respond in ways that negotiated between their precarious status at the edge of the empire and the historical ties to Byzantine authority. The negotiation between the island’s status as a frontier and long-standing political ties to the capital culminated, perhaps, in the Middle Byzantine period with the rise of Isaac Komnenos whose ham-fisted efforts to secure Cyprus as a base for his ambitions and appetites both failed and brought grief to the island.

Kondyli’s article does not consider Cyprus, but her general observation that frontier border lords encouraged a tension between the autonomy of their domains and their ties to the imperial center provides a lens through which to consider Cyprus in the Late Roman and Early Byzantine period as both insular (literally and politically) and connected.   

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