Florin Curta

title.none: Koder, Tabula Imperii Byzantini 10: Aigaion Pelagos (Die Noerdliche Aegaeis) (Curta)

identifier.other: baj9928.9908.010 99.08.10

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Florin Curta, University of Florida,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 1999

identifier.citation: Koder, Johannes. Aigaion Pelagos (Die Noerdliche Aegaeis). Tabula Imperii Byzantini, Band 10. Wien: Akademie der Wissenschaften, 1998. Pp. iv, 351. $19.00. ISBN: 3-400-12694-8.

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 99.08.10

Koder, Johannes. Aigaion Pelagos (Die Noerdliche Aegaeis). Tabula Imperii Byzantini, Band 10. Wien: Akademie der Wissenschaften, 1998. Pp. iv, 351. $19.00. ISBN: 3-400-12694-8.

Reviewed by:

Florin Curta
University of Florida

Professor Koder's monograph on the islands of the North Aegean represents the most significant contribution to the literature on the Aegean islands during the Middle Ages since 1988, the publication year of Elisabeth Malamut's Iles de l'Empire byzantin, VIIIe-IXe siècles. It is also the most recent in the series Tabula Imperii Byzantini (TIB), published by the Austrian Academy of Sciences and devoted to the historical geography of the Byzantine Empire. Together with Johannes Koder's and Friedrich Hild's Hellas und Thessalia (1976) and Peter Soustal's Nikopolis und Kephallenia (1981) and Thrakien (1991), this volume focuses on the European part of the Empire, which has received much less attention than the East. On the southern Balkans alone, Soustal's volume covers the area to the north of the Aegean islands discussed by Koder. The intermediary position of the north Aegean islands with respect to Constantinople, Egypt, and Europe can be expressed not only in geographical, but also in political and cultural terms. These islands, particularly the large ones (Thasos, Samothraki, Imvros, Tenedos, Limnos, and Chios), were crucial for any attempt to control the entire east Mediterranean area. In his Buildings (V.1.7-16), Procopius described an enormous storage facility built by Justinian in Tenedos in order to accommodate the grain cargo of the entire fleet returning from Alexandria. The conquest of Chios (in 654, and again, in 672), just as that of Rhodes, Kos, and Crete, was an important step in the implementation of the Muslim control over the Aegean in the years preceding the siege of Constantinople (674-678). The control of the Maona over Chios was a key element in the Genoese domination of the Mediterranean trade of such strategic resources as alum and mastic. The conquest of Thasos, Samothraki, Imvros, and Limnos by the Ottomans immediately followed the conquest of Constantinople in 1453, while Skyros, Skiathos, and Skopelos remained in Venetian hands until 1538.

To a large extent, Koder's monograph follows the pattern already set by the previous volumes of the TIB series. An introductory chapter on terminology (pp. 49-56) is followed by a geographical survey, including a brief history of the North Aegean climate (pp. 57-70). The third section is a historical survey of this area between the Late Antiquity and the sixteenth century (pp. 71-88). In a separate section, Koder offers a basic narrative of the church history in the North Aegean (pp. 89-91). A fifth section deals with economic aspects (pp. 92-98), while the next examines navigation routes, wind directions, and ports (pp. 99-108). Finally, in the seventh section Koder deals with settlement history, both generally and on individual islands (pp. 109-119). The gazetteer represents the most important part of the volume, in terms of quantity (pp. 123-300) and importance. Each entry has a comprehensive survey of written and archaeological sources (often in separate sections: "History" and "Monuments"), followed by a detailed bibliography and accompanied by a rich set of illustrations at the end of the volume. Many pictures seem to have been taken by the author himself during his extensive field surveys on various islands, between 1967 and 1995. The maps of Chios, Limnos, Lesvos, Samothraki, and Skyros (1:400.000), and the general, separate map of the area (1:800.000) provide an excellent appendix to the gazetteer. For those not familiar with TIB graphic conventions, there are use indications for both maps and gazetteer at the beginning of the book (pp. 10-13). The volume also includes three indices, namely a general one, followed by two others for place and personal names, respectively. The way in which the information is presented makes this book, together with the other nine already-published volumes of the series, an indispensable tool for any Byzantinist, as well as for any medievalist with an interest in the East Mediterranean area. The gazetteer includes also buildings restored during the post-Byzantine era, i.e. before Abdul-Mecid I's hatt-i serif of 1839, which allowed Christians to erect new churches (until then, they were officially allowed only to restore already existing buildings). I believe, therefore, that many historians of the more recent past, particularly those studying the millet system under the late Ottoman empire, will find Koder's book very useful.

The word 'Aegean,' in itself a Middle and Late Byzantine creation, was most often used in combination with pelagos (island), which explains the Latinized form Agiopelagus, first attested in a letter of Pope Innocent IV (1244) (p. 51). The English noun 'archipelago' derives from this form, an indication of the importance of the area in the terminology of the late medieval European chanceries. Many historians of the Middle Ages will agree with Koder that the north Aegean islands represent a group in itself. Throughout the Late Byzantine period, they were under the control of the powerful monasteries at Mount Athos, with the exception of Lesvos and Chios (the latter controlled by the local and equally powerful Nea Mone monastery). In addition, during the Middle Ages, the north Aegean region remained outside the Venitian sphere of influence, despite the episodic presence of Venice in Chios during the twelfth century and at the end of the seventeenth century. The peculiar character of the medieval history of the north Aegean islands was given by the almost permanent Byzantine control, as well as by the Genoese presence following the treaty of Nymphaion (1261) (p. 50).

Like mainland Greece, the north Aegean islands suffered from frequent earthquakes. Koder has compiled a comprehensive list from 344 to 1981 (pp. 59-60). The seismic activity during the 500s is particularly interesting in this context. Quakes are mentioned as having taken place in Rhodes (514/6), in the gulf of Corinth (522 and 551), in the Aegean (533, 543, 554), as well as in and around Kos (558). Heavy destruction in 543 is further documented by an inscription at Samothraki. The evidence is too strong to simply dismiss the possibility that this activity was associated with the extraordinary volcanic eruptions of ca. 540, recently revealed by the analysis of tree-ring sequences. [1] While the center of volcanic activity in the Aegean was in Santorini (Thera), it is altogether not impossible that earthquakes have something to do with the rapid decline of settlements on the north Aegean islands, between the sixth and the ninth centuries. After all, in 726, according to Theophanes, pumice tephra from the eruption of Thera fell on Lesvos.

To Koder, the 'Dark Age' depopulation requires a different explanation. According to him, a climatic change combined with the catastrophic effects of the plague (especially that of 541) may explain the population decline after ca. 600. However, there is no indication that the Justinianic plague reached the Aegean islands. Theophanes mentions that the plague of 745-748 spread from Sicily to Constantinople via Hellas and the islands of the Aegean. But by 756, a large number of people from the islands were moved to Constantinople to replace the much decimated population of the city, an indication that the islands were not as heavily hit by the plague as were densely populated urban centers. Sometimes, Koder prefers an explanation based upon the Slavic invasions. The Miracles of St. Demetrius clearly indicate that in the early seventh century, the Slavic raids reached several islands near the Thracian coast. Patriarch Nikephoros' Short History mentions ransom payments, in 769, for 2,500 prisoners captured by Sclavene warriors on Imvros, Tenedos and Samothraki. It is hard to believe, however, that the small-scale raiding activity mentioned by these two sources could have been responsible for the sudden depopulation of the north Aegean islands, as Koder suggests (p. 75). After all, the Miracles of St. Demetrius also indicate that in ca. 680, Sisinnios, the commander of the Byzantine fleet, who landed on Skiathos on his way from Hellas to Thessalonica, found a deserted island. Sisinnios was the commander of the Karabisianoi, a term which Koder, following Hélène Antoniadis-Bibicou and Hélène Ahrweiler, rightly views as designating the fleet, not a theme (as used in the Byzantine administration in the early 700s). His interpretation of the written and sigillographic evidence (pp. 78-79) is a much needed corrective of the still widespread idea that the Karabisianoi was the name of a theme, since under Leo III, the Karabisianoi were divided into the naval theme of the Kibyrrhaiotai and the central imperial fleet based in Constantinople.[2]

In any case, the 'Dark Ages' coincided not only with a drastic demographic decline in the Aegean islands, but also with a resurgence of the local flora in areas previously affected by deforestation (p. 61). An intensified settlement activity both on the coast and in the interior is documented after ca. 900 (p. 70). According to Koder, on large islands, such as Chios, Imvros, Limnos, Lesbos, and Tenedos, a major habitation center survived in the coastal region. By contrast, after the 'Dark Ages,' Thasos, Samothraki, and Skyros received habitation sites in the interior, usually fortified at some point during the tenth or eleventh century, and then again, after the Fourth Crusade (p. 109). Indeed, on the site at Marmarolimen (Thasos), archaeologists found that any occupation ceased after 619 (the date of the latest coin found in the "aristocratic house" excavated to the north-east from the agora). The next habitation phase is from the early thirteenth century. In the case of large islands, however, there is a clear continuity in place names from Late Antiquity through the end of the Ottoman period, a continuity interrupted only recently by nationalistic renaming policies (e.g., Imvros, previously known as Imroz adasi, now officially renamed Gokceada).

Koder believes that the continuity in place names also indicates settlement continuity, especially in the case of Chios, Mitylene and Methymna (both in Lesvos). Various kommerkiarioi for Asia, Chios, and Lesvos, a kurator kai archon Chi(o)u, a dioiketes of Samos and Chios, and a basilikos kurator kai archon appear on late seventh-, eighth- and ninth-century seals. Moreover, Chios was conquered twice by Mu'awiya's fleet (654 and 672), with subsequent Muslim raids during the 700s. The archaeological evidence, however, does not support Koder's suggestion. The earliest fortification phase at Chios is from the late tenth century, with subsequent restorations under Alexius I and during the fourteenth century. By contrast, at Emporio, a site of secondary rank in the southern part of the island, the fortification may have been erected under Constans II (641-668) and destroyed at the end of the seventh century in connection with the Arab siege of Constantinople (p. 160). A second building and habitation phase may be associated with the emperors Nicephorus I and Leo V. Another 'Dark Age' settlement may have existed around the church H. Markella at Phanai, on the south-western coast of the island, which has been dated on stylistic grounds to the late seventh or early eighth century.

At Mitylene, the fortification is from the 500s and may have been built under Justinian. During the civil war between Michael II and Thomas the Slav, the Byzantine fleet gathered at Mitylene before attacking Constantinople (821). Forty years later, the fort was sacked by the Arabs. Again, the existing archaeological evidence cannot support the idea of continuity. No remains from the city walls survive, as the existing fortification was erected by Francesco I Gattilusi in 1372/3. Trial excavations within the fort produced few remains post- dating the Justinianic era. Among them, there are tenth- century coins, but no artifacts from the 'Dark Ages.' By contrast, at Methymna, which was fortified only after the Arab attack of 840 (with a restoration phase possibly from the eleventh century), H. G. Buchholz's research produced relatively large quantities of Middle Byzantine pottery remains.[3] Koder's continuity theory is not sufficiently supported by the archaeological evidence. It also contradicts his idea that the plague was responsible for the heavy depopulation of the islands between the sixth and the tenth centuries. If so, one wonders why those settlements were spared, for which he claims continuity. The answer may be at a more structural level, in connection with those changes discussed by Alexander Kazhdan and others, which transformed the Early Byzantine urban network of poleis into the Middle Byzantine world of kastra.[4]

Indeed, one of the most interesting results of this excellent settlement survey is the contrast between the Early, on one hand, and the Middle and Late Byzantine period, one the other. The demographic boom of the 400s and 500s produced a large number of settlements both on coasts and in the interior. Such a remarkable development is not matched by any other period until the recent past. In addition, this growth seems to have coincided with a considerable increase in the number of churches, both inside and outside city walls. In Lesvos, the number of Early Byzantine basilicas is particularly large. Koder explains this phenomenon in relation to the network of rural sites (p. 119). In fact, a close examination of the evidence included in his gazetteer points to a different solution. In the absence of systematic excavations, it is impossible to decide whether or not the basilicas discovered on Lesvos were associated with rural sites. Judging from the existing evidence, however, some of them may have been isolated shrines, with no associated settlements. The pattern is known on the continent, the most famous example being the so-called "Stag's Basilica" at Pirdop, in western Bulgaria.[5] This may also be the case for the H. Alexandros church near Lathionas, the monastery (or shrine) of SS. Cosmas and Damian on the neighboring Daskalio (Yumurta Adasi) islet, and the monastery with balaneion (bath) at H. Demetrius near Hypselometopon.

For Byzantinists and area specialists, Koder has furnished an excellent study for their ongoing discussion of the transition from Late Antiquity to the Middle Ages in the Mediterranean area. Historians interested in historical geography will rejoice in the book's detail. In an age of many theories and fads, Aigaion Pelagos may serve as another reminder that the primary task of any historian is that of bringing order and meaning into the chaos of the surviving sources. Throughout the various sections of the tenth volume of the TIB series, any experienced reader will discover the intricate world of a remarkable historian's laboratory.


[1] See M. G. L. Baillie, A Slice Through Time. Dendrochronology and Precision Dating (London, 1995), pp. 91-107.

[2] H. Antoniadis-Bibicou, Etudes d'histoire maritime de Byzance. A propos du "Thème des Caravisiens" (Paris, 1966), pp. 88-98; H. Ahrweiler, Byzance et la mer (Paris, 1966), pp. 19-31. Contra: Samuel Szádeczky-Kardoss, "Bemerkungen über den 'Quaestor Iustinianus exercitus'. Zur Frage der Vorstufen der Themenverfassung," in From Late Antiquity to Early Byzantium. Proceedings of the Byzantinological Symposium in the 16th International Eirene Conference, ed. by V. Vavrinek (Prague, 1985), pp. 61-64.

[3] H. G. Buchholz, Methymna. Archäologische Beiträge zur Topographie und Geschichte von Nordlesbos (Mainz, 1975), pp. 232-234.

[4] See, more recently, A. Dunn, "The transition from polis to kastron in the Balkans (III-VII cc.): general and regional perspectives," Byzantine and Modern Greek Studies 18 (1994), 60-80.

[5] See Richard Krautheimer, Early Christian and Byzantine Architecture (London/New York, 1986), pp. 251-252.