The Insular World of Byzantine in Review

On Friday, I enjoyed a day of thinking about Byzantium. The collegiality of all those involved and the polished setting of Dumbarton Oaks made it all the more pleasant. Luca Zavagno and Nikos Bakirtzis provided supportive and deeply knowledgable leadership and imparted the entire proceedings with a kind of thoughtful informality that encouraged wide ranging conversation.

The papers themselves, of course, were the stars of the show. They approached Byzantine insularity through perspectives ranging from literary sources to excavation, survey, ceramic study, architectural history and, sigillography. Many papers offered an integrated view of island space in the Byzantine view and emphasized how the changing political, social, cultural, and economic contours of the empire and the Eastern Mediterranean shaped the diverse roles played by Byzantine islands.

The papers prompted five lines of thinking.

1. In Search of Insularity. First, the papers nearly all acknowledged that insularity was not a clearly defined status for any space in the Byzantine world. Even places that clearly fit a geographic and topographic definition of insularity showed considerable variation for how they fit into the history of the Byzantine era. Large islands, as my paper proposed, could often demonstrate significant variation. Small islands were idiosyncratic in their own ways. In general, the papers skewed toward the larger islands of the Mediterranean which naturally produced the most evidence, but even here, they demonstrated a range of different historical trajectories owing as much to their location in the Mediterranean as their historical and strategic roles in the Byzantine world.  

2. Political Spaces. Despite starting with the idea that islands were spaces of dynamic cultural interaction as “hubs,” many of the papers emphasized the political role that islands played in the “long Late Antiquity.” Some fo this, invariably, has to do with the political character of the time frame under consideration. Since the conference looked at islands during the Byzantine period, it is difficult to avoid thinking in terms of the political life of the Byzantine state.

That being said, it was particularly intriguing to understand more clearly how the Byzantine state both depended on islands as “pillars of empire” and engaged with their distinct geographic character in a range of different and distinct ways. The strategic importance of Cyprus, Sicily, and Crete, for example, required unique forms of political and military governance designed in part to ensure the islands’ persistent utility to the state and the loyalty of the islands’ inhabitants.     

3. Changing Landscapes. There was less discussion of island landscapes over time than I would have expected considering the scale of rural and urban archaeology on Crete and Cyprus, in particular. To be fair, it appears that western islands – Sardinia, Sicily, and the Balearics – have seen less survey in the countryside, and this has limited what we can say about large scale change in settlement and land-use over time.

At the same time, part of the paradigm of island archaeology and island studies more generally is the persistence of some core characteristics of island life. On Cyprus, for example, the basic settlement structure of the island appears to have emerged at the end of the Bronze Age or beginning of the Iron Age to facilitate the extraction and redistribution of copper from the Troodos mountains. The persistence of this landscape both reflected the continued importance of the extractive economy for the island as well as historic investment of particularly places on the Cypriot coast. In short, insularity was manifest, in part, on the structure of settlement on the island. 

4. Connectivity. The study of islands in recent decades has emphasized the connectivity at the expense of their insularity. To my mind, this reflects our own fascination with our deeply connected society. In fact, we have increasingly come to treat connectivity as virtue in and of itself with isolated and insular being almost synonymous with backward, materially poor, and disadvantaged.

Ironically, recent scholarship on the Late Antique world has emphasized ways in which the connectedness of Late Antiquity introduced diseases to the communities across the empire. Moreover, the vulnerability of coastal settlements made them particularly vulnerable to attacks and their dependence on extensive networks of trade made them susceptible to economic disruption. In other words, isolation in the Early Byzantine and Late Roman period may not conform to our ideal vision of a dynamic, diverse, and deeply connected world, but it may have benefited local residents and formed the basis for the resilience of the Byzantine state over time. To be clear, I’m not proposing this as a well-researched perspective on islands in Late Antiquity, but as a hypothesis that was not very thoroughly considered by the papers at the conference (including my own!).    

5. Island Society. Finally, Nikos Bakirtzis noted in his concluding remarks that despite the range of interests and evidence available for the insular world of Byzantium, there was relatively little discussion of the nature of insular society during these centuries. There were, of course, some mentions of cultural and political interaction between Christians and Muslims on Sicily, which offered some provocative insights into Sicilian society in the 8th and 9th centuries, but beyond that, islands were largely reduced to economic and political stations within the larger Byzantine state. 

To be clear, this shouldn’t necessarily be seen as a criticism. It was a small conference and the papers cohered remarkably well. At the same time, it was clear that we only scratched the surface of Byzantine island society. The potential and gaps exposed in the papers offered a clear template and a number of provocative positions that will shape future work.

I’ve posted my paper here

One Comment

  1. Bill: Nice and thoughtful take on the symposium. I also was very impressed with Nick Bakirtzis’ thoughts and points on early Christian basilicas architecture and their style prevalence in Cyprus. Further, the use of the Byzantine power structure to use the ‘far beyond’ Orthodox monasteries as a means to manage political, social control, even to this day, struck me. Maybe insular is not so bad. You get pure illustrations, uncorrupted, of ‘their’ world view, insular as it may be.

    Reply

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