14.02.12, Veikou, Byzantine Epirus

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Marcus Rautman

The Medieval Review 14.02.12

Veikou, Myrto. Byzantine Epirus: A Topography of Transformation: Settlements of the Seventh-Twelfth Centuries in Southern Epirus and Aetoloacarnania, Greece. The Medieval Mediterranean. Leiden:Brill, 2012. Pp. 900. ISBN: 9789004221512.

Reviewed by:

Marcus Rautman
University of Missouri

The towering Pindus mountains made a dramatic backdrop to the cities of ancient Greece, sheltering distant places of sanctuary and hazard little known to inhabitants of the Aegean coastlands. Stretching from the high lakes of Albania and west Macedonia to the Gulf of Corinth, this rugged, rocky landscape constitutes a world of isolated valleys that are joined by the Achelous river or face onto the Ionian Sea. Steep relief and scarce resources have always shaped local lifeways, with pastoralist traditions changing little over the centuries. Outside of Ioannina and Agrinion, points of habitation remain small and far-flung. Epirus and the Ionian islands remain some of the most sparsely populated parts of modern Greece.

This remote corner of the east Mediterranean lies at the center of Myrto Veikou's study of regional habitation during the early Middle Ages. The seventh to twelfth centuries constitute an awkward if formative interval, stretching from the waning of late Roman hegemony through the so-called Dark Ages to Byzantium's legendary "imperial centuries." The author's decision to forego the fifth and sixth centuries is understandable since the earlier history of the area, never extensively urbanized outside Nikopolis, has been discussed recently by William Bowden (Epirus Vetus: The Archaeology of a Late Antique Province, London, 2003). Taken together, these two books provide a considered if selective introduction to the rural Balkans over the span of nearly a millennium. How representative this picture is of other Roman or Byzantine territories remains open to discussion.

The questions and methods underlying Byzantine Epirus were developed by the author during graduate studies at Birmingham, Paris, and Athens, and have appeared in earlier form in Archeologia Medievale (2009) and Byzantinische Zeitschrift (2010). This revision of her doctoral dissertation combines a more leisured consideration of the historical process along with detailed review of regional topography, monuments, and literary sources. The multilayered, occasionally repetitive approach underlies the book's organization, with wide-ranging commentary on conceptual issues alternating with substantial blocks of documentary material.

The book opens with a systematic overview of the study area (3-48). A brief meditation ("On the Remains of Byzantine Epirus") introduces the problems posed by topographic marginality, textual scarcity, and inadequate archaeology. Geographical parameters are sketched with respect to the area's complex and changing geomorphology, shifting political boundaries, and occupation history. The challenges posed by inconsistent terminologies become increasingly apparent through rhetorical slippage between Epirus or Southern Epirus, which at times may or may not include parts of Aetolia, Akarnarnia, and the western islands.

The book's substantial second part (51-270) offers an analytical summary of the region's material culture, beginning with buildings and their decoration, and concluding with portable objects of diverse media. The author's approach is based her idea of "extensive non-systematic survey making optimal use of privileging local descriptions" (10), a broadly inclusive method that stands in the tradition of Greek landscape studies pioneered by W. M. Leake, N. G. L. Hammond, and others. Conscientious reading of the published sources (which are gathered in a dense bibliography of more than 40 pages) guides the author's forays into the countryside, her interviews with local inhabitants, and personal inspection of sites and artifacts. The primary data to emerge from these encounters are standing monuments: fortifications, religious buildings, places of burial, secular and industrial facilities, and projects of physical infrastructure including water conduits, roads, and harbors. Defensive works, churches, and monastic structures constitute the best-preserved and most informative evidence and are discussed at length. After a fairly traditional presentation of standard building types--mainly multi-aisled basilicas, chapels, and domestic remains--comes an ambitious summary of masonry styles distinguishing no fewer than eleven distinct approaches to wall construction (112-121). Materials and methods can be instructively compared among neighboring settlements or valleys, which form the natural catchments of vernacular experience, but it is not always clear that similar ties cross the formidable barriers separating western Greece from Macedonia, Thrace, and Asia Minor, especially during times of political upheaval and unreliable communication. The risk of optimism detracts little from the author's main achievement, however, which is to sketch the outlines of a regional building koine and to urge others to look closer at similarly unprepossessing remains.

Other visual evidence gets more summary treatment (and is revisited in an appendix, 521-551). The epigraphic corpus of this vast area amounts to little more than eight fragmentary texts, of which only six can be plausibly assigned to the tenth to twelfth centuries. Traces of monumental decoration are surprisingly slight, with few known examples of opus sectile, inlaid marble, floor mosaic, and wall painting. Such scarcity puts particular weight on roughly 200 fragments of architectural sculpture, whose analysis is left to Catherine Vanderheyde's recent study, La sculpture architecturale byzantine dans le thème de Nikopolis du Xe au début du XIIIe siècle: Épire, Étolie-Acaranie et Sud de l'Albanie (BCH Suppl. 45, 2005). A final section presents a thin scattering of sub-monumenta: ceramics as well as roof tiles, objects of metal (numbering 11), glass (6), seals (54), and coins (69). Much of the reported pottery appears to be of local origin and uncertain date, which render it of little use without comparative material from local excavations; examples of imported glazed wares found at Arta and Nafpaktos underscore the special status of these settlements within the region. Apart from the metal objects, most artifacts seem to have originated in or passed through the vicinity of Corinth, the closest urban market. Dutifully described and illustrated so far as possible, these modest finds underscore the randomness and patchy publication of salvage archaeology, and the hazard of mistaking them for a systematic sample.

Part three (237-359) weaves this disparate material into a narrative of regional settlement--its geographic setting, morphological variability, interconnectedness, and transformation over time. While documents from the eighth to twelfth centuries mention only a handful (6-8) of administrative or religious locales, the imperfectly known physical remains attest more than a hundred places of enduring activity. The discrepancy reflects fluid medieval use of terms like polis and kastro (often mistaken to mean a large urban center or fortified outcrop), but also a variety of less conventional settlement forms that usually go unrecognized: "near-towns," "hybrid communities," "in-between spaces," and other foci of multi-seasonal activity for which historians create equally imprecise labels. The author's proposed dating of individual sites, despite uncertainties about size and function, argues for the steady expansion of regional settlement after antiquity, from about 20 certain or possible sites that were occupied in the seventh and eighth centuries, to 60 to 70 or more known in the tenth to twelfth centuries. Many of these locations cluster on elevated ridges and hilltops, apparently responding to the emergence of new social groups with fresh concern for security and communication. This evolving pattern is fleetingly compared with other parts of the medieval Mediterranean, from parts of nearby Italy to the east Aegean. A brief recapitulation wraps up the author's argument (363-366).

The book concludes with a detailed catalog (369-520) of 121 sites. This textual, geographic, and material compilation builds on Peter Soustal and Johannes Koder's comprehensive survey of western Greece, published in 1976 as Nikopolis and Kephallēnia (=Tabula Imperii Byzantini 3). The earlier account, with its detailed gazeteer and fine topographic maps (underwritten by the substantial resources of the Austrian Academy of Sciences), remains an essential resource for users of Veikou's text. Coming nearly forty years later, her book builds on this inventory and advances our understanding in two important ways. Certainly the spread of development and tourism across modern Greece has enlarged the documentary record, which the author systematically gathers along with her own observations based on personal reconnaissance, local conversations, and random finds. But of greater significance than marshaling data is her critical assessment of sources in light of a generation of post-processual landscape study, with its conceptual shift from examining localized places to reconstructing their interactions amid a changing physical environment. The immediate achievement of Byzantine Epirus is to situate this half-millennium of regional history within a longer, more dynamic narrative of geographic and social evolution that continues down to the present; its larger contribution may be to remind us to view the margins of political mainstreams on their own terms rather than through the lens of external control. Theoretically justified, clearly organized, and closely documented, this fresh reconsideration of a remote and beautiful mountainous land will be of lasting value.

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Author Biography

Marcus Rautman

University of Missouri