Hagith Sivan

title.none: Brogiolo and Ward-Perkins, eds., The Idea and Ideal of the Town (Sivan)

identifier.other: baj9928.0003.016 00.03.16

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Hagith Sivan , University of Kansas,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 2000

identifier.citation: Brogiolo, Gian and Bryn Ward-Perkins,eds. The Idea and Ideal of the Town Between Late Antiquity and the Early Middle Ages. The Transformation of the Roman World, Vol 4. Leiden: Brill, 1999. Pp. xvi, 265. $92.00. ISBN: 9-004-10901-3.

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 00.03.16

Brogiolo, Gian and Bryn Ward-Perkins,eds. The Idea and Ideal of the Town Between Late Antiquity and the Early Middle Ages. The Transformation of the Roman World, Vol 4. Leiden: Brill, 1999. Pp. xvi, 265. $92.00. ISBN: 9-004-10901-3.

Reviewed by:

Hagith Sivan
University of Kansas

If you travel north from Israel to Lebanon via the protruding finger of the frontier between the two countries you reach (providing you have successfully dodged stray bullets and other road hazards) the Lebanese Biqa, The Valley, a stretch of land that lies between the mountain ranges of the Lebanon and the Anti-Lebanon. This is an alluring but dangerously poised plain, as a recently published Israeli novel about its horrors in the last two decades amply illustrates (Y. Yovell, Helen on the Roof, Tel Aviv 1998).

This unusual opening of a book review is not meant to promote such a risky trip. What it intends to do is to highlight the range of erudition that hides behind the innocuous title of the book. In fact, this collection of essays, the fruit of one of many workshops generously sponsored by the European Science Foundation around the theme of the Transformation of Roman World, stretches its arms beyond the predicable late Roman and early Medieval cityscape in the west to early Byzantine and early Islamic urbanism. Herein lies both its strength and its weakness. This alluring and ambitious product contains, for example, a lengthy article about Anjar. But how many readers of this list know where (and what) Anjar is? No map is provided. How many of you were located in Jerusalem when asked to review this book, at the Hebrew University where noted specialists of early Islamic urbanism such as Amikan Elad and Nimrod Luz are within a stone's throw, so to speak?

Focusing on a single case of one city, remote as this location may be from the usual purvey of medievalists, is nevertheless a salubrious reminder of the opposite, namely the hazards of over-simplifications based on broad and general surveys. Indeed, besides the articles on Anjar and Athens, all the other articles provide overviews of themes ranging from Byzantine urbanism to urban burials. Perhaps this curious juxtaposition is due to the current state of research into Byzantine, late ancient, early medieval and early Islamic urbanism or to individual scholarly preferences.

As the ample footnotes attached to each article illustrate, the subjects covered in this book have received a great deal of scholarly attention in recent years. And, of course, there is no full understanding of the complexities of the late Roman, Byzantine, early Medieval and Islamic world without a detailed examination of what happened to cities, how were cities perceived during this period and what did it mean to live in a city, to be a member of a transformed, and sometimes new urban community. The chosen subject, then, is full of promise. The editors signal the originality of their collection by insisting, somewhat misleadingly, on a chronological focus between the fourth and the sixth centuries, as well as on an emphasis on the Mediterranean, and on the "trauma of the dissolution" of the Roman framework (xv-xvi), a conclusion not entirely born out by the individual articles.

The first two articles (John Haldon, "The Idea of the Town in the Byzantine Empire", pp. 1-23; and W. Brandes, "Byzantine Cities in the Seventh and Eighth Centuries-Different Sources, Different Histories: Some methodological observations on the relationship between written, numismatic, sigillographic and archaeological sources used in research into Byzantine urbanism in the seventh and eighth centuries", pp. 25-57) overlap to a large extent. The second (Brandes') constitutes a plea for collaboration between historians and other professionals who are researching similar topics, correctly pointing out the shortcomings of a research based mostly on a single type of source material. Haldon's overview of the idea of the Byzantine town between the sixth and the eleventh centuries uses mainly literary sources while pointing out (14), once, to an "impressive" discrepancy between "Byzantine conceptions, Arab or Persian geographers' descriptions, and archaeological evidence on the ground."

Haldon's article addresses questions such as "what did members of the culture in question think of towns, what terms they used to describe them, and with what intentions, and what changes in the use of words for towns took place, for what reasons?" (1). The legislation of the emperor Leo VI (886-912) is viewed as the official recognition of a far-reaching urban transformation that had taken place since the seventh century, at least, and that witnessed the shrinking of poleis into kastra (fortified settlements) (16-18). This shift and "the change in emphasis and cultural interests" of new urban elites are also reflected in the disappearance of the genre of ekphrasis (laudes urbium). This is important, for panegyrics of this type were not only popular in late antiquity but also appear to indicate an intimate relation, visual, verbal and ideological, between their audience and the urban landscape, real or imaginary, that is captured in contemporary literature. Haldon's survey of various literary and juridical sources shows how sensitive to, or remote from, these were in relations to what was happening on the ground. Juridical sources, notoriously conservative and slow to adjust, continue to use the term 'polis' to describe towns and villages till well into the ninth century, thus reflecting a corporate mentality of sorts that bridged distinct villages through a notional affiliation with a 'city'. Needless to say, the terms of the debate are anchored in classical perceptions of the city and of civic attitudes.

Both Haldon and Brandes agree on a significant change in the scope of early Byzantine urbanism as cities shrank into kastra (32). Medievalists may be interested in knowing that the mid-seventh to mid-eighth centuries are regarded as the Byzantine "dark ages", presumably because only a few settlements retained the characteristics of a town or a city. Brandes, like Haldon, notes the imprecise way in which literary sources describe 'urban' settlements (27). He draws attention to a seemingly curious phenomenon, namely the continuous urban thriving in peripheral regions, such as Sicily (31), when compared with the urban decline at the heart of the empire, in a region such as Asia Minor. In the main, Brandes highlights a series of scholarly reconstruction construed, or rather misconstrued, on the basis of a single type of source material. Thus he claims that what has been regarded as a cataclysmic demographic reduction in the sixth century in the wake of the 541/2 epidemic, was in reality just one in a long series of epidemics that continued well into the eighth century (35).

How, then, does one measure an urban decline? Some aspects are evident--reduction in size of settlement, in number of its inhabitants, in a change of 'urban' functions, and also in the understanding of what it meant to be a member of an 'urban' community. Brandes claims that "the process of decline, as articulated in a change of function, could already be observed from the third and fourth centuries onwards, at least as regards the military aspect (i.e. the increasing role of urban fortification) (37). There is something to be said for this, although it must also be emphasized that scholars of Late Antiquity have long realized that the phenomenon of girding cities with walls did not always reflect protective and military needs, nor were cities invariably abandoned in violence and turmoil. The all-pervasive use of the third century as an all encompassing point of departure must be reconsidered. Some cities already declined from the second century CE through voluntary abandonment, for example.

Haldon and Brandes concur, in the main, that "by the second half of the sixth century...the process of decline of Byzantine towns was already at an advanced stage" (36). I hardly think that any reader of this list will contest Brandes' conviction that interdisciplinary cooperation between specialists is bound to advance our understanding of complex development. To an extent, this book bears out the advantages of this sort of collaboration by mapping a tentative chart of areas of further research into urban history in the east and the west between the fourth and the tenth centuries.

Two articles (G. P. Brogiolo, "Ideas of the Town in Italy during the Transition from Antiquity to the Middle Ages", 99- 126; C. Bertelli, "Visual Images of the Town in Late Antiquity and the Early Middle Ages", 127-146) provide broad overviews of their respective themes. Bertelli gathers a series of well- known artistic objects, from monumental church (wall) mosaics in Rome to a modest (floor) mosaic in remote Madaba (Jordan), and from illuminated manuscripts produced for the Roman senatorial aristocracy (such as the 354 Calendar) to hypothetical maps of the Holy Land, in order to show how art reflected urbanism. But it is very difficult to draw any firm conclusions from such a varied group, and easy to fall into numerous traps. Artistic objects capture the image of a town at a specific moment, real or illusionary. They hardly ever reflect a process.

I own that I found it disturbing to read Bertelli's statements on a variety of topics ranging from the destruction of the Temple of Solomon "more than a century after the birth of Christ" (137) to the place of Caesarea as a Christian (?) center of learning. That temple was destroyed in the early sixth century BCE. Nor was the Caesarea of Origen and Eusebius the "first center of biblical studies" (133) presumably in Roman Palestine. The first Christian center, perhaps. But according to Eusebius (HE 6.20.2) there was a Christian library in Jerusalem, founded on the initiative of Clement of Alexandria and of Alexander, its bishop, decades before the establishment of great library of Caesarea.

Artistic reflections of Jerusalem, whether terrestrial or heavenly, of which the Madaba map and the mosaics of Santa Maria Maggiore and Santa Pudenziana are only a few examples, provide indeed important indications of a process that has yet not been fully comprehended. It is linked, inter alia, with rival concepts of ecclesiastical authority (as shown by H. Chadwick's inaugural lecture in 1959, Bertelli 136 note 31). But the history of Jerusalem as a Christian symbol is considerably more complex than presented in Bertelli's few paragraphs. Already in the second century CE, the historical, eschatological and ecclesiastical position of the city were linked with schismatic or heretical movements. Priscilia the prophetess, Montanus' companion, claimed that Jerusalem will descend in the end straight into Pepuza in Asia Minor (Epiphanius, Pan. 49.1.1). In preparation, presumably, for the event, the Montanists named two small Phrygian towns Jerusalem (Eusebius, HE 5.18.2). Such associations may account, in part, for the 'relegation' of the earthly Jerusalem into an insignificant place in Christian thought and for the elevation of a heavenly one. Few would contest Bertelli's general conclusion that "the image of the town cherished in late antiquity and the early Middle Ages had very little to do with actual experience" (145). Naturally.

Somewhat more controversial is Brogiolo's reconstruction of the urban landscape of early medieval Italy. The history of that period is like a worn oriental carpet, full of holes but tantalizing in its remaining portions. Brogiolo believes that it is possible to divide urban history in late ancient and early medieval Italy into five neat periods based on an array of literary texts that either reflect "pessimistic vision of a dying world (4-5th centuries); a propagandistic view in which the activities of kings and military commanders reverse disaster (6th century); "or more tranquil tones" (7-9 centuries) (100-101). The subsequent survey is based, specifically, on what he calls "descriptions of urban crisis at the end of fourth and into the fifth century"; Theoderic's renovatio urbium; lament over destroyed cities in the sixth and seventh centuries; "the eclipse of the symbols of the classics city" in Lombard Italy, and another Lombard development: "new ideas for the early medieval city" (101).

Like Bertelli, Brogiolo takes his clue, so to speak, from a random collection of sources that happen to deal with urban destruction or renovation, some in passing and others more substantially. To illustrate urban decline in Italy in the fourth and the fifth century he chooses, for example, a reference to Vercelli in Jerome's first letter. This letter has nothing whatsoever to do with cities, declining or otherwise. It focuses on a curious case of adultery that relates how a local Vercellan woman who remains anonymous throughout the retelling of the events was accused by her husband of an affair. As a result of the accusation, done in perfect accord with late Roman law on adultery, the woman and her alleged lover were tortured. He confessed to a crime that he may have never committed. She remained steadfast, asserting her innocence. The two were condemned to public execution, an event of major entertainment value in the life of a late Roman city. Jerome, perhaps an eye witness of the events, is clearly more interested in the intricate web of relationship between the woman and her inquisitor (the governor); the 'crime' and its public; and the role of the urban landscape, from prison cells to the public place of execution, in the narrative. To embed his gruesome description in an appropriate context he refers to the urban context of the tale (Vercelli) as a half- ruined city (semiruta). Whether or not this is indeed a correct reflection of late fourth century Vercelli is another question. Viewed from an Antiochene point of observation, where the letter was probably composed, most Italian cities would have emerged as half desolate.

Brogiolo provides an important illustration of the relationship between literary and archaeological sources with a reference to the erection of flimsy walls inside large houses possibly designed to accommodate the military (104). If this was the case, and there is no reason to contest the link, it highlights the working of hospitalitas, or the late Roman institution of billeting soldiers in private houses and the modifications it introduced into existing domestic architecture. Literary sources for the period of Theoderic the Ostrogoth indicate a limited scope of urban revival but the information, as Brogiolo admits, is limited. In a way, his reign can be regarded as a prelude to the 'catastrophe' of the sixth and seventh centuries. In reviewing the Byzantine-Gothic wars and the Lombard conquest of Italy Brogiolo insists on distinguishing between several types of urban destruction, namely "destruction in the heat of the moment, fired by the desire for revenge or booty, or by random savagery"; and destruction "that was planned in cold blood and carried out systematically and forcefully" (109). I doubt if such a neat distinction can be made or how critical it is for an understanding of the landscape. Thus a systematic execution of the majority of the inhabitants of a city would fall under the first Brogiolo category, while the burning of a city, the dismemberment of their territory and a lack of reference to massacre of inhabitants would fall under the latter. The point is that we depend on a series of tendentious sources for an evaluation of the nature and extent of destruction.

As a comparison I can point to the famed Persian (Sasanid) conquest of Jerusalem in 614 CE. Practically all the Christian sources emphasize the massacre of the Christian inhabitants of Jerusalem, and the role of the Persian-Jewish collaboration in these events. In other words, the fall of Jerusalem to the Persians was inextricably linked with Jewish-Christian hostility and polemics. Jewish sources, by contrast, far fewer than the surviving Christian ones, emphasize the hopes that the conquest of Jerusalem inspired of rebuilding the Temple and the community in the city after centuries of forced separation. Their scattered references to Christians and Christianity focus on the vanquished Byzantines (=Edom) and on the staggering disillusion that had settled when the Persians transferred their support from the Jewish to the Christian community of Jerusalem.

Whatever the causes of urban destruction and decline might have been in late ancient and early medieval Italy, and the picture is by no means clear or uniform, the edict of the Lombard king Rothari (643), like that of his later Byzantine counterpart Leo (above) does not refer to towns but reflects "an exclusively rural vision of culture" (120). Whether it means, as Brogiolo claims, that "the idea of the town was intimately linked to the parameters of military power" I do not know. Perhaps the edict, like Leo's novellas, marks the end of a process and the death of the classical city. Perhaps not. By the early eighth century it is possible to discern "a new model of town in which the power of the ecclesiastical hierarchy equaled, or even surpassed, that of the lay nobility" (124). All this is interesting but highly tentative. For a radically different understanding of urban Lombard Italy see Dick Harrison, The Early State and the Towns. Forms of Integration in Lombard Italy 568-774 (Lund University Press 1993), where the notion of a common decline is eschewed and regional variations emphasized.

G. Cantino Wataghin's "The Ideology of Urban Burials" (pp. 147- 180) provides a complement to Bertelli's and several contradictory points. She locates the reshaping of the urban landscape in a general process of the reuse of space in conjunction with the establishment of new necropoleis. Wataghin ascribes the transformation to the shift in use from traditional civic centers to Christian places of worship. In her conclusion she calls attention to the striking variety of funerary choices which, to her mind, "conforms to a social structure that is highly fragmentary and unsteady" (162). Once more I am uncertain if such an interpretation of physical remains is valid but it is certainly possible and well worth further study.

The articles of Alba Maria Orselli ("L'idee chretienne de la ville: quelques suggestions pour l'antiquite tardive et le haut moyen age", pp. 181-193) and of Nancy Gauthier ("La topographie chretienne entre ideologie et pragmatisme", pp. 195-209) appear complementary. Gauthier, relying on primarily Gallic examples, emphasizes the personalization of the urban landscape through localities linked with cult of saints while discussing the relationship between cities and religion, and specifically between late ancient urbanism and the introduction of Christianity into the cityscape. She advances the intriguing idea that the ideology of a Christian city followed, rather than preceded, the pragmatic modification of the urban space through building projects sponsored by the church. Christianity, then, did not set out to change the classical city as a projection of its urban ideology. The process may be characterized as a manipulation rather than a deliberate modification of the urban space.

By contrast, Orselli emphasizes the role of Christian ideology and specifically of a heavenly Jerusalem as a key to the relationship between 'citizens', namely the inhabitants of an urban space and their religion. Once more, it is necessary to clarify the specific understanding of what, precisely, does Jerusalem stand for. Like Gauthier, she emphasizes the reorganisation of space around saints and their cults and holds "the circulation of codes of communication" (187) as a key concept in deciphering verbal geography, namely the intricate relationship between humans and the landscape in all its various manifestations. She correctly points out to the staying power of the classical ideology of a city qua city. As her wonderful citation from the Historia monachorum in Aegypto (Orselli p. 192) shows, the Egyptian city of Oxyrhinchus in late antiquity becomes a city within a city by virtue of being surrounded by a chain of monasteries forming an 'external' city to the Oxyrinchan 'internal' city.

Bryan Ward-Perkins' "Re-Using the Architectural Legacy of the Past" (pp. 225-244) sets out "to concentrate on the interrelationship between ideology and pragmatism that lay behind the decision of late antique and early medieval builders when they chose to use architectural spolia" (226) through several critical examples. One controversial and much discussed example is the arch of Constantine. Here Ward- Perkins' most important observation emphasizes the complementary rather than contradictory employment of ideology and of practicality. The cases of the Aphrodision (Asia Minor) and of the Parthenon deal with the reuse or rather the conversion of entire buildings rather than with architectural fragments. In Aphrodisias the temple-turned-church was radically modified while in Athens modifications were minimal. Speculations regarding the reasons for these vastly different attitudes are problematic because the dates of the conversion are unknown. That of the Parthenon belongs somewhere between the end of the fifth and the beginning of the seventh century, possibly the former rather than the latter. Like Gauthier, Ward-Perkins tends to regard pragmatism, rather than ideology, as the key to the fate of ancient monuments and buildings. Both may be right.

One important aspect of Ward-Perkins' article (besides excellent captions for each of the illustrations chosen) is the way in which it ties with the two articles that focus on specific urban examples, namely on Athens and on Anjar. P. Castren ("Paganism and Christianity in Athens and Vicinity during the Fourth to the Sixth Centuries AD", pp. 211-223) is full of interesting observations. Thus, "not a single Christian artefact securely datable to the fourth century has been found in Athens" (213), perhaps not surprisingly. Another relates to the curious picture of a bustling countryside versus a decaying urban center, in other words the contradiction between rich landowners and poor urban dwellers, the former getting richer, the latter poorer in late ancient cities like Athens. Castren tends to emphasize the critical impact on Athens of the Herulian sack of Athens in CE 267 and the minimal one of the sack of Alaric in CE 397. But note the vastly different opinions regarding the damage and restoration of the Parthenon's cella (219-220), which some date to the late third century, others to the late fourth, and yet a third party to the second. Castren believes, correctly, I think, that the Christianization of Athens followed the disintegration of the city, the flight to the countryside, imperial neglect and Slavic raids. It was a belated process, by all accounts, and one hastened, as it seems, by the presence of great pagan intellectuals, such as Proclus, Damascius and Isidore. (R. Lamberton, Review of P. Athanassiadi's Damascius, The Philosophical History, Bryn Mawr Classical Review, Friday January 21, 2000). The longest article in this collection is dedicated to an assessment of early Islamic urbanism through one specific example (R. Hillenbrand, "Anjar and Early Islamic Urbanism", pp. 59-98). To begin with, this study must be inscribed within larger theoretical issues relating to the very existence of an Islamic city. In other words, is there such an entity as an Islamic city before Baghdad? Anjar appears to provide not "the best claim of any Islamic (rather Umayyad, pre 750) foundation to be a city" (59) but it certainly constituted a case worthy of attention. It is impressively large, with 11,470 square meters in size (370 by 310 metres) with numerous gates, shops, a mosque, and a royal or gubernatorial palace. The diagrams on page 81 illustrate Anjar's extraordinary dimensions when compared with Roman, 'transitional' and Islamic foundations. Most intriguingly, Anjar enjoyed a very brief life, having been abandoned some forty years after its foundation. It may be termed, therefore, a single-period urban foundation.

To understand Anjar (Ayn al-Jarr in the Lebanon Biqa) it is useful to look at al'Ramla, a princely town that, like Anjar, appears to have been built as a lasting monument to its royal patrons, in the same period and for the same purpose (N. Luz, 'The Construction of an Islamic City in Palestine. The Case of Umayyad al-Ramla', Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society 7 (1997), 27-54. The choice of the location of either Anjar or Ramla reflects careful planning both with regards to its topography and its proximity to building materials, Roman spolia featuring conspicuously. And both appear to imitate Roman-Byzantine models with modifications to suit the demands and style of its new inhabitants. Hillenbrand expresses doubt about the function of Anjar, "an urban settlement-with attached palace, mosque, residential and presumably administrative quarters, commercial structures-set within agricultural context" (61). But its establishment as an administrative center, like Ramla in Palestine, need not be doubted. Much more doubtful is the notion of mounting an expedition to capture Constantinople from Anjar (66). There is simply no evidence whatsoever to attest this kind of strategic role for Anjar.

Hillenbrand presents Anjar as "an intermediate stage in the journey from the classical to the Islamic city" (76-7). But is there an Islamic city, as such, with the exception of Baghdad? But he is quite right to claim that "the classical model is being transformed from within" (77) and Ramla, no less than Anjar, if not more, provide a test case. One aspect of the new emphases brought with the new settlers is reflected in the number of shops. Those at Anjar are probably not as "disproportionate" as Hillenbrand asserts (83) since the city served the needs of the urban population as well as of the rural hinterland. Yet, Hillenbrand also insists that "the crucial point is that in established centers of population the Umayyads had no appreciable scope for town planning." This statement is, to say the least, controversial, and the case of Ramla does not lend it support. Important and far-reaching conclusions are provided for Anjar and, above all, for the transformation of the classical into a post classical city. Hillenbrand, probably correctly, sees it as "gradual and unplanned" (84), with inevitable destruction as the natural step in the life span of cities and with no help at all from the Arabs (one notes Hillenbrand's own switch from 'Islamic' to 'Arab' in the transition from page 84 to 85).

Why, then, was Anjar founded? Hillenbrand suspects that it served to implement a policy of segregation, specifically serving one tribal grouping (89). Perhaps. There is no such evidence for Ramla, for example. Nor is it clear that "motives of group solidarity, political cohesion and a desire to assert Arab apartness could well coalesce in an experimental foundation of the Anjar type--a place where selected Muslims could live apart from the Christian majority in an environment of their own fashioning" (91). The opposite happened, for example, in Ramla where Christian were actually invited to join the Muslim settlers. But perhaps most controversial of all is Hillenbrand's description of Anjar as a "part and parcel of a grandiose attempt to Islamize, to colonize, the Syrian countryside" (91). In all the treaties signed in the course of the conquest of Syria the local population was allowed to maintain its cult centers. Even in Jerusalem the church of the Holy Sepulchre was left intact. In other words, there is no trace of an Umayyad attempt to convert locals to Islam or to use urban foundations such as Anjar (or Ramla) as centers of missionary activities. Was Anjar, then, "a combination of a frontier fort and a city"? (96). Perhaps. But where is the frontier? Certainly nowhere near Anjar.

None of the comments made in this review is intended to detract from the enormous value of this volume. Its variety, the scope of the erudition displayed by the contributors, and its contribution to better understanding of the intricate process of the transformation of the idea and the ideal of the classical and post classical town need not be doubted. When read in conjunction with other volumes published in the series, it remains only to congratulate and envy the scholars who were fortunate enough to participate in the stimulating and valuable workshop that the European Science Foundation sponsored.