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.   

Some Fragments on Early Byzantine Islands

One of my tasks this summer is to think more seriously about islands, and being on Cyprus and reading some of the recent scholarly work on islands in Byzantium seems to have stimulated this some. Go figure.

(To be clear, I have to write an abstract for a conference on islands by May 30th. In other words, this isn’t just a casual musing.)

So far I have a few observations.

First, Cyprus is a large island. This means that variation across the sites on the island will obscure some of the island’s ability to articulate a distinctly insular identity. In other words, if sites at opposite ends of the island or if a inland site and a coastal site show too much variation, it is reasonable to ask whether they’re on the same island at all. Of course, there are administrative ways that unify Cyprus with the autocephalous status of the Cypriot church being near the top of that list. At the same time, there’s always a certain tension between the idea of Cyprus as a single island rather than as a series of connected cultural, economic, and perhaps even political islets is reasonable.

Second, islands in the Early Byzantine period inevitably require us to attempt to synthesize the patchy and complicated history of settlement change during these centuries. With several exceptions, areas in Cyprus that were urbanized in antiquity tend to remain so today making it difficult to unpack the process of urban change in the Early Byzantine period. Cyprus has enjoyed rather extensive research in its rural areas, but so far, this work has only offered fleeting glimpses of the process of rural change over the 6th to 9th centuries. For better or for worse, archaeologists will have to write settlement history at any scale through proxies and comparisons rather than on the basis of direct evidence. 

Third, the obscurity of rural change and the challenges of understanding urban change on Cyprus has much to do with our inconsistent understanding of the material culture of these centuries. In particular, our ceramic chronologies continue to require refining and the relationship between various classes of small finds – coins, lamps, pots, seals, et c. – has to continue to inform critically our understanding of architecture, settlement, and regional and island wide change.

Fourth, while the study of islands has always involved attention to the place of human society within the environment, recent attention to the environment in a Mediterranean context has brought a new sense of sophistication and historical context to changes in climate. For Cyprus, for example, historical variability in rainfall either on the island or in the larger region can have dramatic impacts on agricultural production and the place of the island within the regional economy. It’s not just agricultural productivity and shifts in climate, of course, but also understanding how various external influences refract through the distinctive environmental resources available to island communities.

All this points to the larger question that’s clogging my head as I think about Cyprus and insularity: how does thinking of Cyprus as an island produce new ways of understanding the Cypriot and Mediterranean past? What does insularity bring to the the interpretative table for Roman and Byzantine antiquity?