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7-08-2015, 20:22

Fin de si `ecle: faith, city and empire

At the end of the sixth century the East Roman empire was, as we know with hindsight, on the brink of dramatic transformation: the rise of Arab power would rob it of its eastern and southern provinces; the settlement of the Slavs in the Balkan peninsula would deprive the eastern empire of those provinces and isolate New Rome from Old Rome; the last vestiges of a traditional city-based society seem to have crumbled in an empire now barely capable of defending its capital, or regenerating itself after natural disaster or epidemic. It is difficult not to see seeds of all this as we survey the history of the sixth century. The idea of an orthodox Christian empire did cause both divisions between Christians in the east, and tensions between the increasinglyGreek Christianity of the empire and the Latin Christianity of Rome and the west; the public spaces of the city ceased to be used, and were left to decay or be encroached upon by more private activities. Although all this is true, to think in terms of decline is to look at only part of the picture. The public life of the cities may have declined, but it yielded to the demands of the Christian church for space for its activities: increasingly the urban rituals that expressed such sense of civic identity as survived became Christian rituals. The church buildings themselves became increasingly important as public places and moved from the urban periphery to dominate the centre, while the episcopal offices grew in size, in parallel with the developing role of the bishop. The growth in devotion to icons, for which our evidence increases dramatically in the latter half of the sixth century, has been plausibly attributed to ‘the continuing needs of the ancient city’.45 Such Christianisation is neither a vampirish corollary of decline nor evidence of the success of Christian mission; it is rather evidence for change and needs to be evaluated on its own terms. What was taking place at the level of the city had a parallel in, and may have been inspired by, transformation of imperial ritual. In the latter part of the century, we see a growing tendency to underwrite the imperial structures of authority by appeal to Christian symbols: the court of the emperor is presented as reflecting the heavenly court, Constantine’s labarum is joined by icons of Christ and His Virgin Mother.46 While this transformed society may have come close to disaster in the seventh century, it contained seeds of survival and renewal. What survived was, however, a significantly different society from that of the Roman empire at the beginning of the sixth century.

 

 

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