More on Islands in Late Antiquity

Yesterday evening, I finished reading Miguel Angel Cau Ontiveros and Catalina Mas Florit’s new edited volume, Change and resilience: the occupation of Mediterranean islands in late antiquity (2019). It’s pretty good and filled with things that I should follow up on as I try to reconstruct a bit of what I used to know about Late Antiquity.

As I noted yesterday, most of the contributions don’t so much explicitly address the interpretative potential of insularity (change or resistance, for that matter), as offer case studies on the archaeology of various Mediterranean islands from the Balearics in the west to Cyprus in the East. The book represented a few interesting trends in how we think about islands in Late Antiquity, but these trends have to be sussed out across various contributions. I try to do some of that here:

Islands as Islands. In most cases, the authors took the integrity of the insular space for granted. In other words, even when contributors considered the coastal islands like those along the Adriatic littoral of Croatia, the islands themselves remained the primary interpretative lens through which to understand the history of settlement in the Late Roman period. It is assumed, for example, that the Cyclades or the islands of the southern Adriatic enjoyed similar historical trajectories, which is fair enough, but that these played out in similar ways over the varying landscapes. 

Island Refuges. Anyone who has worked on Late Roman Greece has undoubtedly thought a bit about Sinclair Hood’s famous “islands of refuge” theory. He argues that small islands near the coast often served as refuges for a cowering population faced with the Slavic depredations of the 6th century. By the mid-1990s, scholar had begun to challenge Hood’s arguments and instead suggested that coastal islands in the Saronic and the Gulf of Corinth were the opposite of refuges. Instead, these islands represented a last gasp of economic expansion where mainland dwellers sought to utilize marginal lands – such as the waterless and desolate near coastal islands – to feed their flocks and to engage in other activities best conducted at a distance from more productive lands. This interpretation accounts for the significant quantities of Late Roman ceramics often found on these islands and the presence of church, cisterns, and other buildings perhaps best suited to the needs of a season community. Whatever the interpretation, these islands were understood in a context that depended, at least in part, on the nearby mainland and their insularity was less a concern per se, than the absence of water and limited vegetation. 

Churches. At one point, I had considered including the Cyclades in my dissertation which I ultimately decided to confine to the mainland of southern and central Greece. I am glad that I didn’t do that. The Cyclades have well over 100 known churches. Islands have so many churches and both Crete and Cyprus have over 100 as well. The density of church building across a diverse range of island communities in the Eastern Mediterranean (simply because am not sufficiently familiar with the island of the Western Mediterranean) clearly mark economic prosperity as well as the emergence of new religious and political institutions across the region. If these buildings reflect the needs of congregations (either as space of worship or as a expressions of piety by other means), there is reason to suspect a diversity of communities both on the larger islands of Cyprus and Crete, and across the smaller islands of the Aegean. Whether this reflects fragmented identities on these islands that either complement or complicate notions of a larger insular identity is difficult to know.     

Identity. Cau and Mas offer the observation in their brief introduction that islanders often have a sense of identity that ties them closely to their island homes. Unfortunately, few of the contributors take their personal perspectives explicitly to heart when considering the character of Late Roman islands. That being said, its intriguing to speculate whether the reuse of Nuragic structures on Sardinia, for example, represents an explicit effort a cultural continuity and Sardinian identity. Do efforts to build churches in places that are visible from the sea reflect efforts to announce an identity defined by the insular landscape? Are the political claims of large islands like Crete or Cyprus distinct results of their insularity and do they leverage a sense of identity?    

Historicizing Islands. It’s hard to divorce discussions of insular identity from modern concepts of culture and politics. For places like Cyprus, there is no doubt that its insularity formed part of strongly articulated political claims over the course of the 20th century. It may be that Crete and Sardinia explored similar claims to political sovereignty – if not outright independence – during their long histories. While it is easy enough to fall back on essentialist claims that assert islands have similar political, social, economic, and even cultural characteristics, I wonder how much of this is shaped by political aspirations in the modern era. 

~

Whatever the complications surrounding the notion of insularity, resilience, and change in the Late Roman Mediterranean, the book represents a useful survey of the island landscapes of Late Antiquity. The references throughout will add significantly to my “I feel a need to read” pile and probably shape future posts here on the ole bloggeroo!

Is Cyprus an Island?

With the lovely fall weather, I’ve been taking the dogs on some long walks lately. This has not only given me the headspace to solve the world’s problems (if I only had a pen to write down the solutions before I forgot them all) and to work on a few papers that are looming in the near future. 

The one paper that has troubled me the most is one on the archaeology of Byzantine islands that I’m scheduled to give at a conference called “The Insular World of Byzantium” at Dumbarton Oaks in November. The question that I keep circling back to is whether it makes sense to think about Cyprus as an island during the Late Roman and Early Byzantine period. In other words, I’m thinking more and more about insularity as a historical situation rather than a geographic reality. 

This is not some kind of massive mental leap. After all, since the 1980s, folks have referred to Cyprus as a “matchbox continent” (Held in the 1989 RDAC seems to be the first use of this term in this context; it seems to be used to describe Madagascar as well) as a way to challenge its insularity and, instead, see it as a more or less self-sustaining entity. In this context, it might even be desirable to see the cities on Cyprus as a kind of archipelago gracefully defined by the regular distribution of cities along the southern coast. In the kind of connected world proposed by Horden and Purcell, for example, insularity may best define the microregion that could be more or less autonymous parts of proper islands or even represent groups of closely interdependent islands or units of islands and the mainland (in the case of near coastal islands in, say, the Peloponnesus).

On the other hand, places like the Peloponnesus could be easily seen in many periods as an island (as its name implies!). Watford City, North Dakota, was once known as the “Island Empire” (defined evidently by the Yellowstone and Missouri rivers) despite its location near the geographic center of North America. Likewise, Cold War-era West Berlin was sometimes thought of as “an island of freedom” surrounded by “the sea” of the DDR. 

These observations are not meant to diminish the significance of islands as an interpretative category, but to suggest that the concept of insularity is only as useful for any particular situation (whether formally an island or not) as it serves an interpretative function. For a place like Cyprus, this means thinking seriously about what aspects of the Late Roman and Early Byzantine history and archaeology of the island (or matchbox continent) would benefit from an approach that emphasizes their insularity and which do not. For example, understanding the claims of Cypriot ecclesiastical autonomy benefit from understanding the insularity and particular history of the island and its relationship to the Holy Land and the Levant in Antiquity. Insularity also plays a obvious role in considering the arrival of bishops on the island. Barnabas and Lazarus, to the most important and apostolic bishops on Cyprus, hail from the Levant. The 4th century bishop, St. Epiphanius of Salamis died on a sea journal as he was returning to Cyprus from Constantinople. St. John the Almsgiver, retreated to Cyprus across the sea, when his See of Alexandria was lost to the Persians in the 7th century. The sea both defined the island’s autonomy and became a medium through which the island received sanctifying visitors.

If one was to consider the material culture of Cyprus on a more granular level, however, insularity feels less compelling. For example, the ceramic artifacts preserved the sherds scattered in the plow zone or in buried strata produce assemblages that appear to vary as much across the island as between the island and elsewhere in the Eastern Mediterranean. Does thinking about Cyprus as an island help us understand this variation any more than thinking of a coastal site as part of a larger landmass or as a node in a dense network of connections? 

In the end, the concept of insularity is only as good as the questions that it helps to answer. This then brings me back to the basic struggle that I have with this paper: how does the concept of the insular help me understand Early Byzantine Cyprus?

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?