15.03.02, Balzaretti, Dark Age Liguria

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Samuel Cohen

The Medieval Review 15.03.02

Balzaretti, Ross. Dark Age Liguria: Regional Identity and Local Power, c. 400-1020. Studies in Early Medieval History. New York: Bloomsbury, 2013. Pp. 184. ISBN: 9781780930305 (paperback).

Reviewed by:
Samuel Cohen
McMaster University

The history of the northwestern Italian region of Liguria, overlooking the Ligurian Sea and thereafter the broader Mediterranean world, is profoundly linked to its important role in later medieval international trade, best exemplified by the amazingly successful maritime Republic of Genoa. But according to Ross Balzaretti's concise but convincing volume entitled Dark Age Liguria, the importance of the coast has sometimes obscured Liguria's significant role as a bridge between the Mediterranean world and the rest of Europe. A quick look at a map will show why this might well be the case. Bordered today by France to its west, Piedmont to its north, and Emilia-Romagna and Tuscany to its south and east, Liguria's inland river valleys--such as the Magra and Vara in the east and the Polcevera, which connects the Po Valley to the Genoese coast--served as important routes of commerce and pilgrimage throughout the medieval period. Unfortunately, Ligurian history before the end of the first millennium has been largely ignored by non-Italian scholarship. This monograph is intended to redress this lacuna, seeking, as Balzaretti states, to explain "why Liguria in this period should be studied more than it has been" (1).

The choice of title may strike some readers as provocative. "The Dark Ages," with all its negative connotations, has largely been eschewed by historians who now prefer to speak of the period immediately before and after the collapse of Roman imperial authority in the west as a time of transition, not darkness, decay, and collapse. However, as used by Balzaretti, "Dark Age" is not intended to suggest that early medieval Ligurian men and women were somehow less civilized or more barbaric than their ancestors who lived during the heyday of the Roman Empire. On the contrary, the author is keen to avoid pejorative labels such as "poor" or "low level" which have sometimes been used to describe the conditions of post-Roman Ligurian settlements (37-38; 59-61). Rather, the title simply reflects the almost total lack of narrative literary sources for Liguria's history before the year 1000. The written evidence that does survive--for instance, a scattering of charters (dating from and after the tenth century), a handful of inscriptions, and tangential references to Liguria in the well-known histories of Procopius and Paul the Deacon--is insufficient to reconstruct the political and social history of the region and its people in any detail or with any certainty. Thus Balzaretti draws on his own extensive experience in the field and his impressive knowledge of recent scholarship to synthesize what literary sources survive with local archaeological and ecological evidence, using a comparative framework to place post-Roman Liguria in a larger geographic and chronological context stretching back to the Neolithic age. From this perspective, the "Dark Age" was not merely an obscure interlude between Roman rule and the far better documented later Middle Ages (Balzaretti generally avoids the label "early medieval" precisely because of the teleology it presupposes). In fact, when viewed from the standpoint of perhaps ten thousand years of continuous human occupation, it was the Roman period, extending roughly from the third or second century BCE until the departure of the Byzantines in the mid-seventh, which appears to have been the aberration in the history of Liguria. Moreover, as Balzaretti convincingly argues, Liguria's inland territories were never entirely Romanized, or at least not to the degree that we might otherwise assume of a region so close to the imperial heartland. The rough topography and isolated nature of its upland valleys meant that Dark Age Ligurians living in these areas may well have had a lot more in common with their prehistoric forbears than they did with either Rome or the later Middle Ages, especially after the influence of the Empire waned in the fifth century CE (14-15).

The book itself is divided into seven succinct chapters. Chapter 1 situates Liguria's history within the larger historiographical framework of the Early Middle Ages. Here, the author surveys the available literary sources (5-7) and the importance of ecological evidence and archaeological techniques such as dendrochronology and the study of pollen records (8-9) to tell the region's story. Chapter 2 considers the historical ecology and geography of Liguria in more detail. Rather than depending on the accounts of early Greek and Roman historians and geographers like Strabo and Diodorus Siculus, who depict ancient Liguria as a tough mountainous land populated by even tougher people, Balzaretti instead points to the contemporary landscape and the land management techniques used by modern and early modern peoples in order to better understand what was and was not possible for post-Roman Ligurians given the topography and available manpower. Synthesizing ecological and archaeological evidence from a wide range of previous studies (including his own), Balzaretti highlights possible ancient and early medieval patterns of settlement, cultivation techniques such as controlled burning and terrace farming, and the exploitation of various natural resources (16-34). Particularly fruitful are the analyses that combine environmental archaeology with the meager surviving written evidence. For instance in Prato Spilla, in the Apennines (northeast of La Spezia, today outside the regio of Liguria, in Emilia-Romagna), Balzaretti points to changes in pollen records, which suggest that the economy in this area may have increasingly emphasized animals living in open rather than woodland pastures during and after the Lombard period. Evidence for this shift can also be found in changes in the usage of the word alpes to designate highland summer pasture for animals, for instance in Charlemagne's donation of such lands to the monastery of Bobbio in 774. Other sources from Bobbio, such as a ninth-century inventory and the depiction of a new type of scythe developed precisely to clear pastureland, which can be seen in the twelfth-century 'Months' mosaic at the monastery, would seem to confirm the pollen evidence (23-24).

Chapter 3 investigates patterns of settlements from the prehistoric period onwards. Here again, Balzaretti is interested in how Dark Age Liguria compares to its antecedents, not its later medieval successors. But where and why people lived where they did is not easy to reconstruct, especially since Liguria's geography does not lend itself to open-area archaeological surveys as is possible elsewhere in Italy. Nevertheless, some basic conclusions can be drawn. The coast was relatively rich and attracted Roman settlement during the Imperial period, which saw the construction of a number of villas. Some of these settlements continued to be important well into the early medieval period. Inland, small-scale late- and post-Roman rural agricultural sites can be found as well. The rest of the chapter considers hilltop settlements in Liguria and what their militarization, especially under the Byzantines, may tell us about security in the area and the gradual development of territorial boundaries.

Chapter 4 focuses on the political and religious history of Liguria. Christianization, like Romanization, was slow (the first recorded bishop of Genoa dates to 381), and according to Balzaretti, there was little to distinguish Ligurian Christian identity in late antiquity from the rest of northern Italy. Milan's influence in particular (and that of its bishop) was pronounced throughout the early Middle Ages. A specifically Ligurian political identity was also slow to emerge and the political activity that can be documented was concentrated largely in Roman sites. This is, in Balzaretti's words, "a strong argument for continuity rather than discontinuity in the political outlook of local elites and of those outsiders by and for whom our evidence is taken" (78). The outsiders were, of course, first the Goths, then the Byzantines, the Lombards, and finally the Carolingian Franks. During the Gothic Wars, Liguria was rapidly militarized, first by the Goths and then by the Byzantines. But it was the conquest of Liguria by the Lombards under their heretical ('Arian') king Rothari in the mid seventh century that, according to Balzaretti, had political, religious, and economic consequences far more serious than the 'fall' of the Western Roman Empire more than 150 years earlier. The disruption caused by the Lombard invasion, together with an extended period of cold weather and rain, presents the reader with a bleak picture of life in the sixth and seventh centuries. However, the true extent and destructiveness of Rothari's campaigns remain difficult to evaluate (73-74).

The emphasis of Chapter 5 is Genoa, the modern capital of Liguria. Genoa's important role in the Crusades and its success as a maritime republic in the later Middle Ages has, of course, received considerable attention from historians who generally viewed the city's history before the year 1000 as a mere prelude to the better documented period that came after. However, Balzaretti is keen to consider Genoa in its Dark Age context. Here as elsewhere in the work, the author stresses the important political and social networks that bound the coastal regions exemplified by Genoa to Liguria's inland areas and beyond, including Milan and the monastic community at Bobbio. Genoa in the Lombard and early Carolingian periods appears to have been a relatively diverse city, although not a particularly significant one if we are to judge from the surviving written evidence. Its sense of its own identity grew only gradually, encouraged in part through the translation of important relics of the episcopal saints Romulus and Syrus to the cathedral church of San Lorenzo in the late ninth century. The growing reputation of the Genoese episcopacy is also reflected in a significant increase in the number of surviving charters from the second half of the tenth century, although the bishops of Genoa never quite enjoyed the same influence as other northern Italian bishops in this period. An additional factor which spurred the development of a specifically Genoese political consciousness in the tenth century was the conflict between the Ottonians and Arabs over control of the area (the city itself was sacked by Fatamid Arabs in 934-935).

Chapter 6 looks in detail at Liguria's inland Vara valley region north of La Spezia. Neglected even by Ligurian historians, the Vara valley's history after Rome is even "darker" than the other areas discussed in the book. Essentially, no sources at all have survived and only a few archaeological digs have been undertaken. But the research that has been done, especially at the village of Corvara and under the Cathedral of Brugnato, the home of the region's bishops since 1133, suggests the continuing influence of monasteries and bishops from beyond the valley, although the state of the evidence makes any detailed narrative reconstruction of Vara's history before the eleventh century impossible (111-133). The book ends with a short seventh chapter that summarizes the author's arguments and approach.

Dark Age Liguria is an excellent example of a detailed local history that sheds light on an understudied (at least in English) and underappreciated region. The book also has important insights for larger historical debates about the nature of change (catastrophic? gradual and transformative?) in late antiquity and the early Middle Ages. A central theme that runs throughout the work is the relationship between humans and their ecosystems. Ligurian men and women impacted their environment through land management strategies and cultivation, while climate change often dictated where humans settled and the success (or failure) of these settlements. Cold periods made agriculture in marginal areas difficult if not impossible, which eventually led to the abandonment of these areas. The inverse was also true. Warmer weather increased the amount of land under cultivation, which in turn increased yields. Rain and drought obviously also had their effect on the region's history. The powerful effect of climate, topography, and the methods employed by early medieval men and women to manage their own landscapes is an important and sometimes neglected emphasis, especially for those of us who depend almost entirely on literary sources to study history. Balzaretti's account ably illuminates the otherwise dark history of the people of early medieval Liguria, whose lives were generally not documented through monumental architecture or in writing.

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Author Biography

Samuel Cohen

McMaster University