Factors that Caused the Decline of Cities in the Eastern Empire in the Sixth and Seventh Centuries

What Factors Caused the Decline of Cities in the Eastern Empire in the Sixth and Seventh Centuries?

Before beginning a deep search of the different causes that caused the damage of Byzantine urban life, it is necessary to clarify some points for a better understanding of same topic. First of all, this essay seeks to annotate the following objectives: what were the causes of the decline of the cities in the Eastern Empire in the sixth and seventh centuries? To what degree were they an influence? How did they do it? When we are going to considered the different possible causes, it is difficult to give priority to some facts or developments over others, in order to reach an assured conclusions; but also to estimate what apparent consequences could come to be in new terms or supports for the weakening of the life of the cities. It is said that the rise of the icons was one of the results of the crisis of the late Roman city, but after, these same icons would play a new role in the strengthening of this crisis.

Another question that arises in the first instant that someone enters into the study of the early Byzantine Empire is: Was there a general decline of the cities in the territories of the Eastern emperors? Not all the territories were in the same conditions in the early 500s. The collapse of the Western Empire left a legacy of destruction in some regions like the North of Africa, which others like Palestine did not know. Also the urban traditions in different provinces vary greatly when Justinian took the crown. So, the point of departure changes geographically, but also, the pace of urbanisation lies in their own developments of every territorial area. In the course of the work, we will resort continuously to the geographical specifications for a better understanding of the different causes.

The problem of knowing the possibility of a real decline of the cities does not come only from territorial misunderstandings, but from different concepts of the city. For example, the parameters which an urban centre of the late antiquity could be defined with by the Roman administration, were in a great distant to the frames of a Byzantine city of the sixth century (John Haldon, 1999, p. 4). The same factors that had caused this change of conception had also created great repercussions in some territories, depending on the reality that they were inserted. So, was there a real decline of the cities? Or it would be better to understand this transformation as a crisis of the antiquity Roman city towards a new model of urban structure?

Like a previous step to analyse these questions, it is a requisite to make a slight territorial vision of the Empire in the sixth century, more precisely, during the Justinian Empire. After this, we will have a more congruent idea of the reality which the changes take place in. After the military interventions of this emperor, the Byzantine Empire would have reached his largest extension, trying to restore the old boundaries of the Western Roman Empire. The policy of expansion was followed by an emphasis in the reconstruction of the damaged physical structures, but also by the consolidation of the defences with new fortifications.

The initial dynamism of the West African provinces, after the destruction of the Vandals, fell in a continuous decadence. In order to secure the territories from the raids from the desert, the reconstruction of fortifications was secured with the building of new strongholds. The Balkan territories as well were an object of this policy, but there was a special emphasis on the strengthening along some natural defensive lines. Although, having the official support, the Northern Balkan boundaries since the previous century had fallen in progressive crisis. In the East, the prosperity was intensifying in provinces like Syria and Palestine, or those inside Asia Minor, where the imperial activity was focused to reinforce the frontiers with Persia through the stream of the Euphrates (Cecile Morrison and Jean-Pierre Sodini, 2002, pp.184-185). It could be said that the centralized imperial initiative was in some manner working in order to revive the old urban life of the antique Roman Empire.

Having established a geographical context of the Byzantine Empire in the sixth century, it is proper to start to revise the different internal changes that took part in the transformation of the city. Most of these changes belong to wider evolutions from centuries before. Knowing the origins and the streams of these developments, we will try to understand how they affected to the urban life.

First, we will check the high social spheres of the cities and the variation of their role from the late Roman period. The curiales were considered the traditional oligarchy of the cities, being these, the areas where they could give expression to their cultural, social, economical and political lives. This had created, since early years, an atmosphere of tensions between members of these classes, but also between neighbouring cities. The search for prestige crystallised in one part, in a great activity of building and promotion of the urban life’s dynamism. The financial crisis of the III and IV centuries, with the subsequent strengthening and involvement of the central government in the direct administration of the cities, supposed a decline of the curial status. Despite the fact that the emperors tried to avoid the fleeing of the curial duties, there was not an improvement in the social strata. New figures came to substitute the curiales and their old roles in the life of the city: bishops, clergymen, landowners… (Mark Whittow, 1990, pp. 3-29) The social background had not changed, but the reality which it was inserted in was already different, and the elites expressed themselves in new ways in accord with the new times. What were the consequences of this change of the character of the urban oligarchy?

To value properly the dimensions of loss of the curial strata, it is necessary to study the imperial politics that contributed to it. Since the fourth century, the policy of a higher intervention of the central administration in the provinces was followed by attempts to rationalize the urban distribution in the provinces, in their relationship with their surroundings and with the capital, in order to take a complete fiscal-administrative advantage. Cities with a low density of population but with great importance in the fiscal-administrative structure were object of new privileges, but others that were overpopulated, could lose their old ones. A bigger pressure of the central government in the direction of these new privileged cities entailed that the traditional functions of the oligarchy of the curiales were eclipsed, so much that the state had less interest in the political and social functions of the cities (John Haldon, 1999, p. 6). Subsequently, much urban centres lacked the social and economical dynamism of years before, although some of them still retained some of the cultural values that they possessed previously, like for example, some centres of pilgrimage or devotion.

But one of the imperial decisions that contributed greatly to the alteration of the reality of the Empire was the establishment of a new capital, Constantinople. Socially, there were tendencies of the upper strata towards the new centre of power, motivated by the new imperial court and senate. The lower expectant of prosperity inside the provinces in a higher centralised empire, animated to a great part of the provincial nobility –but also to the lower and middle strata- to move towards the new possibilities that Constantinople offered. Culturally, the new capital became a great competitor against the nearer cities of around, but also to other traditional cultural centres, like Alexandria or Antioch. Economically, the Eastern metropolis was getting more and more overpopulated, and becoming the establishment of the imperial bureaucracy meant the creation of a new centre of consume and re-distribution of goods on a great scale (John Haldon, 1999, pp. 1-3). The vast trade of wheat from Egypt was re-allocated towards an Eastern location, from the twilight of Rome, towards the new splendid Constantinople. The special weight in the Aegean and East Mediterranean routes made it possible for some regions to thrive in the late antiquity, like the Lycian coast (Clive Foss, 1994, pp.45-48)..

In the other hand, the new kind of culture developed by the Christianity since their implantation in the imperial religious politics and in the society helps to explain the transformation and possible decadence of the cities in the next centuries. The ever stronger position that Christianity was taking inside the empire could be seen in all aspects of the Byzantine world. From the top, the Imperial ideology reinforced a sense of a Christian kingdom when the isolation of the Empire was getting bigger (J.S.A. Evans, 1996, pp. 58-59). On the other hand, the hierarchy of the church, as was pointed before (Averil Cameron, 1992, pp. 20-23), was participating more in the civil government since the curiales were in a way tending towards the disappearance. So, the bishops and the clergymen were becoming in principal, the axis of the society. But the shift of mentality also benefited the Church. The money –that came mainly from the nobility- that used to be invested in public building or activities, was now being destined to help the poor man. If in the late antiquity Roman period the people gravitated around the social life of their own community, in the Byzantine epoch they did around churches, hospitals, orphanages and other institutions where they could express their religious fervour.

But there were other features that contributed not to condition a simple transformation in the evolution of the city, but to the decline of the cities. We are talking about the monasteries, the holy men and the strengthening of the countryside in front of the city. The monasteries, like religious centres stationed in the countryside, began to accumulate lands from the cities’ possessions with the subsequent diminishing of revenues from them. But also, these monasteries and as well as the holy men –figures that started to appear in Syria and Palestine in the late fifth and sixth centuries-, became new social and cultural pivots for the people from the countryside (Peter Brown, 1973, pp. 1-3,30-31). There are some important consequences that were increasing in potency since the sixth century: the creation of widespread, both economically and religiously, client’s web far from the urban centres; the easy development of heterodox beliefs out of the hierarchy of the Church that had a secure basis in the cities; and the rising of territorial devotional practices, decentralising the main streams of the Church and Imperial power in Constantinople.

Summarizing, we have been exploring the different processes that developed in the late Roman period and carried on into the Byzantine empire and affected in some way or another the transformation of the city. Now, it is the time to talk about the prominent features that developed during the sixth and seventh centuries with bigger consequences in a short or medium period of time.

One of the first great deeds that shattered the Byzantine Empire with great repercussions was the fall of the Balkan territories. Coming from the regions at the North of the Danube, several different tribes began to make raids already during the Justinian Empire. But it would be later, at the end of the century, while the Persian frontier was under big pressure, when the Balkan suffered the devastation from Slavs, Avars and other tribes of the North. In the next two centuries the consequences could be examined in the urban centres of the peninsula, of the invasion and conquest of most parts of the Balkans. Numerous cities were destroyed or plundered. Most of the original population was slaughtered, deported or changed settlement in favour of the security of the mountains (Dimitri Obolensky, 1971, pp. 42-68). The territories that were still under Byzantine domain saw how new inhabitants, with a traditions different from the urban life, were established in there. Most of the cities that had survived the catastrophe witnessed their decline in front of the new weight of the countryside (Jacques Lefort, 2002, pp. 276-277). But the Slavs and Avars invasions also had important consequences in different spheres. The connection with the Latin-speaking territories of the Empire was cut, increasing the cultural isolation of the Western territories. Now, the Greek language would be imposing over all aspects of the Byzantine world. With that would come the crisis of the great part of the Latin cultural traditions of the late antiquity in the urban life (Averil Cameron, 1992, pp. 3-5).

The second of the great invasions that the Byzantine Empire suffered was the Persian one. Although the rivalry with the Persians originated from centuries before, the worst strike received from them would be during the first decades of the seventh century. In only twenty years the armies of the Sassanian emperor, Khusro II, conquered the provinces of Syria, Palestine and Egypt, while they also inflicted severe attacks in the inland and on the coast of Asia Minor.

Most of the population centres of the conquered territories, as well as those in the Anatolian boundaries, as was what happened in the Balkans, were destroyed, sacked or became objects of deportations of their inhabitants. In the other hand, the great fiscal pressure and war policies that both empires had to impose over their dominions to continue the fight for a long period had no other effect than impoverished the population. Other the economic consequences of the war was the blockade of important Eastern trade routes that the Empire had established trough the Persian empire, essential for the development of the urban life of the trade cities of the East (Kawar, Irfan, 1956, pp. 181-182; 184-192). Finally, it is necessary to point out the importance of the religious factor during the conflict. The emperor Heraclius, in his counter-attack of the decade of 620, appealed to the religious characteristics of the struggle, turning it in a holy war (James Howard-Johnson, 1999, pp. 39-40). This would reinforce the idea of the Byzantine Empire as the Kingdom of God, strengthening the weight of some Christian facts, like the monasteries or the holy men, inside it.

The third, and the most devastating of all invasions, came from the Arabs. A few years after the retrieval of the territories lost in the Sassanian conquest, the Eastern Empire suffered attacks of a great menace, losing - during that century and in the next one - the control of a great part of his provinces forever. The consequences were direr than invasions before. The permanent loss of the most dynamic territories of the Empire, like Syria, Palestine or Egypt could be added to the proper warfare economic disorders pointed before. The absence of the commerce, that from the late antiquity had been taking part in the Aegean and the Eastern Mediterranean, made it necessary to redirect the trade routes to new ones and to develop new policies. Hence, some vital regions in their function as bridges with the South-eastern provinces fell in decline, although other ones took the relief either in this function or like substitutes of the lost territories (Robert S López, 1959, pp. 72-73).

Very closely linked most of the time to the invasions and warfare, are the demographic ethnics alterations inside the empire. One of the populations that were subjected to continuous migrations toward the empire was the Armenians. The Slavs' attacks over the Western frontier and the definitive end of the Byzantine control over the Balkans led to some Emperors to resort to the recruitment of troops from the Armenian regions, as well as the settlement of Armenian communities in the frontiers. But also the assaults of Persians and Arabs forced the entrance of this population into the Empire. The Slavs, on other hand, like the Armenians, were objects of migration inside the military and political Imperial policies. The big pressure that this population exerted over the Eastern territories forced the emperors to facilitate settlement in lands of Asia Minor, being useful as new troops’ sources (Peter Charanis, 1959, pp. 42-43). This introduction of new ethnic elements with a weak urban tradition has an important function in the change of weight in the balance of predominance between the cities and the countryside.

Finally, the decline of the cities had parts in some manner with some natural changes or disasters. Firstly, the most notorious of all, was the Justinian plague, that began to spread through all the Mediterranean regions since 541 A.C., affecting mainly the urban centres of the Empire. But there are some contradictions in the sources that made it necessary to take precautions in this matter. While the literary documents show almost an Apocalyptic vision of the fact, the non-written sources, such as the archaeological remains or the monetary currency of the period, suggest that the supposed demographic crisis was not so serious, the normal life of the cities continued and some of them even flourished after those years (Peter Sarris, 2002, pp. 173-179; and Clive Foss, 1997, pp. 260-261). Hence, although the plague could have had an affect in a demographic crisis in the cities, with a subsequent impact in their social and economic life, it can not be established as one of the principal causes of the decline.

Secondly, there were some environmental successes that contributed to the impoverishment of the life of some cities. There are written testimonies of earthquakes and their destructive effects on the buildings. The posterior consequences that were brought linked with the reality for those who lived in the provinces. Antioch was objects of the destruction of two tremors in 526 and 528, but the prosperous situation of the Empire could repair the damages of the catastrophe. The same happened with other environmental factors, like the clog or sinking of the harbours in the coastal regions, which with the timely reparation had no bigger consequences for the cities (Clive Foss, 1994, 50-51). But not always could the resources be directed towards restorative actions. In periods of scarcity or military pressure, other efforts like the reinforcement of defences could appear more pressing.

In conclusion, and answering the questions pointed out in the beginning, we can consider in general patterns a decline of the Byzantine city. It is necessary to clarify that its transformation was not the same in temporal and geographical terms, and also in the character of its nature. The confirmation of a general decline can be affirmed in some aspects, like the cultural urban life of the old antiquity, but it had no validity for other frames, like the economic or the social ones. Hence, the same happens with the factors that sourced it. The Byzantine Empire was under the effect of constant factors that continually conditioned its development: from outside its boundaries, from inside the empire but also from the streams inherited of their own pasts. Evolution, transformation, readjustment, decline… Only different visions of a same reality: Byzantium.
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