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

An Island Archaeology of Early Byzantine Cyprus

My paper for Friday’s colloquium, The Insular World of Byzantium, is finally done. I’m not entirely happy with it. At best, it offers a minor update to some of the work I’ve been doing on Late Roman Cyprus and incorporates some arguments that I’ve worked on in our effort to publish the basilica at Koutsopetria. Unfortunately, it also draws perhaps a bit too heavily on stuff that Scott Moore, Amy Papalexandrou, and I published in Hesperia this past year. In other words, people who know my work aren’t going to hear anything that they don’t already know.

More bothersome is that I found myself really struggling with the concept of island archaeology in the case of Cyprus. The idea of connectivity has started to get on my nerves. Maybe it’s because I’ve been reading too much about flow and logistics in the digital world and have started to see our fixation on connectivity as a way to project a certain set of values from our world to the ancient world. Of course, I recognize that modern connectivity and ancient connectivity are fundamentally different, but, at the same time, there is a move to think about globalization in antiquity. This feels bound up in efforts to conflate modern and ancient connectivity and to naturalize social, political, cultural, and above all economic links across regions. This isn’t to suggest that these links didn’t exist, that they were somehow “bad” or that human society doesn’t share fundamental characteristics over the millennia. Instead, I suppose struggling a bit with the assumption that connectivity or globalization should garner the same weight in how we understand antiquity as it does in how we understand our world today. 

This is not something that I can resolve, of course, and to some extent all historians all operate under paradigms informed by our contemporary situation. I will continue to be vaguely unsettled by it even as I work within these paradigms.

Here’s a link to my paper and the associated “powerpointer.”

Here’s the final slide:

IMG 3916

Islands and Scale

Over the last couple of weeks, I’ve been working on my paper from next week’s Dumbarton Oaks colloquium titled The Insular Worlds of Byzantium. My paper is a bit of a rambling affair which seeks to consider whether island archaeology is a useful way to think about the island of Cyprus in the Late Roman and Early Byzantine period.

My paper looks at two fairly well-known sources of archaeological evidence: fine ware ceramics and the architecture of Early Christian basilicas. To narrow the scope of my study further, I also focuses primarily on two sites: Polis Chrysochous and Pyla-Koutsopetria. My paper begins (and stay tuned for a draft of it, probably early next week), with a reflection on island archaeology in the context of studies of the Mediterranean by Braudel and subsequent scholars informed by the Annales School concerns for geographically and chronologically expansive readings of history and archaeology.

I then pivot to the island of Cyprus and, narrowing my scope further, to the two sites of Polis and Koutsopetria. This shift from the macro to the micro paralleled the interest among Annalistes in detailed microhistories which might reveal the workings of long term trends (although it is telling that Braudel hesitated, in his master work, The Mediterranean World in the Age of Philip II, to connect the day-to-day events of Philip’s reign to the longer term trends that defined his Mediterranean World). 

As one might expect, the character of fine ware assemblages and Early Christian architecture at the two sites (and across the island) did not reveal a cohesive “island identity” for Late Roman and Early Byzantine Cyprus. Instead, it demonstrated variability across micro regions and connections with both other sites on the island and wide networks for change and culture. Island archaeology, of course, might suggest that the connections between these sites and the wider networks is a feature of insularity itself. At the same time, this is a rather low threshold for insularity or the interpretative significance of island archaeology. In fact, most island archaeologists consider the oscillation over time between phases of isolation and connectivity to be a feature of island communities. 

This led me to several general conclusions about scale and island archaeology. These are not profound, but they help me organize my thoughts for the final push in writing this paper.

1. Islands and Time. The insular character of communities on any given landmass is most likely visible only over the longue durée. Period specific studies of islands during, say, Late Antiquity or the Early Byzantine period is likely to only capture one phase of the oscillation between isolation and connectivity. As a result, the distinctly insular character of the population, developed in periods of isolation, may be in abeyance at any given period.

2. Insular Islands. Studying one or two islands may not be the ideal way to reveal much about  insularity for any particular period. Insularity might be best understood across larger groups of islands (as well as over long periods of time). Any one island at any one period of time might be more or less connected or more or less isolated. The range of isolation and connectivity is best understood only over a larger body of islands at the scale of, say, the Aegean or the Mediterranean. 

3. Big Islands. It may also be that larger islands will tend to look less like islands and more like “mainlands.” Small islands, with fewer sites, more limited immediate hinterlands, may have more insular trajectories through time. This got my wondering what the breaks are on the concept of insularity. In other words, what historically stopped large islands from functioning in the same basic ways as smaller island. On the one hand, the ecological and environmental diversity of an island like Cyprus might set it apart from smaller, less diverse islands. It also seems that a more nuanced understanding of overland transportation and the ways in which medium and long distance road networks provided forms of connectivity between sites in ways that are distinct from maritime networks.     

4. Periods of Insularity. Jody Gordon, Derek Counts, and Bernard Knapp have argued that during particularly periods in the history of Cyprus — the Hellenistic and Roman periods, the Iron Age, and the Bronze Age respectively — a hybrid character of Cypriot identity becomes visible incorporating both distinctively Cypriot elements (defined as such not be any kind of racial or narrowly ethnic criteria and more as elements consistently visible in Cypriot culture over the longue durée) and with aspects imported from outside of the island during periods of intensified culture contact. By the Late Roman period, however, the distinctive integration of long-standing markers of Cypriot identity and the larger Hellenized Late Roman koine appears indistinct at best. Perhaps we could argue that settlement patterns persisted and accommodated the rise of the Early Christian ecclesiastical hierarchy on the island. We might also point to a shift away from the islands close economic and social relations with areas along the Levantine Coast and toward the Aegean, Anatolia, or the Western Mediterranean, but there is no real reason to imagine these relationships as mutually exclusive.

~

As I noted, these are pretty rough notes toward a conclusion for a fairly ragged paper, but I think my paper is finally heading someplace if not productive, at least rhetorically complete.

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?