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7-08-2015, 22:05

The late antique inheritance

A once widespread picture of late antique decline has been replaced by an appreciation of the wealth and complexity of the late antique economy. Throughout the territories of the Roman empire in Egypt, the Levant, Asia Minor, the Aegean world and Africa, the general picture is of a monetarised and commercial world, where agricultural expansion in some areas had reached its pre-modern peak.Much of the Balkans and Italy are exceptions to this rosy picture.Military insecurity in the one case and the aftermath of the Justinianic reconquest in the other appear to have had disastrous effects (see above, pp. 214–15). But these are exceptions. The rule in the eastern empire is of late antique prosperity. The basis of this rosy picture lies in archaeology. In particular, Georges Tchalenko’s publication between 1953 and 1958 of the extraordinary villages and monasteries of the limestone massif between Antioch and Aleppo in northern Syria compelled historians into a new view of the late antique economy.3 These for the most part fifth- and sixth-century structures, that nowstrike us as vivid testimony to a prosperous rural world, had been partly published by the Princeton expeditions at the beginning of the century. But their significance was overlooked. At that date they were seen as material for art history rather than as evidence for the economy. Tchalenko was explicit. His book is illustrated with village plans that mark fields, pasture and tree crops, and his thesis is that the rise and fall of the economy of the limestone massif is explained by the production of olive oil for export; but it took until the 1970s or even the 1980s before the message sank in. Their eyes opened, archaeologists and historians have come to see the evidence for late antique prosperity everywhere.4 Recent work throughout the Levant, in Libya and along Turkey’s southern shore has produced more well-preserved sites to match those of the limestone massif. Tchalenko’s villages now seem part of a pattern and exceptional only to the extent that the recent remoteness of these limestone hills has saved the stones from modern reuse. Survey projects that draw on newly gained knowledge of late antique pottery types to identify settlements where no standing remains survive have made it clear that fifth- and sixth-century Syria, Palestine, North Africa and parts of Greece too, shared in the rural prosperity.5 Towns, too, have been approached in a new light. Rich citizens of late antiquity did not build theatres, public baths or gymnasia, in the same way that their ancestors had in the second or even third century ad, but they did build churches, houses, private baths and city walls. They spent money on marble and mosaic. If one judges late antique urbanism by the standards of the richest sites of the first century ad, it may appear a fallen world; by other standards, those of the long-term history of urbanism in the Middle East orMediterranean, for example, it appears thriving.6 Hierapolis in Phrygia, now famous as Pamukkale, a key site of the Turkish tourist industry, is a case in point. In ad 60 the city was destroyed by an earthquake and then lavishly rebuilt with imperial funding. In the mid-fourth century an earthquake struck again. This time the emperors were not interested. The city was rebuilt from local resources. Columns were patched and re-erected, damaged buildings made good. Compared with the first-century work it is a come-down; in the long-term history of Anatolian urbanism, late antique Hierapolis appears an example of robust local prosperity.7 New knowledge of late antique pottery types has already been mentioned as a tool for survey projects, but in its own right this knowledge has transformed our picture of the late antique economy. We can now identify the amphorae that carried oil and wine around theMediterranean and the distinctive forms of red-slip pottery that went on the same boats and so can be treated as trace elements for goods not carried in amphorae. Tchalenko is now generally thought to have overstated the dependence of the limestone massif on the production of olive oil for export, but a lively Mediterranean exchange economy is an undoubted fact. The bestknown types of red-slip pottery are those made in Tunisia (African red-slip) and western Turkey (Phocaean red-slip).8 They are found throughout the Mediterranean basin and beyond.More recently, Sagalassos in west-central Anatolia has been identified as a major centre of red-slip pottery production too. The implications are intriguing. The city of Sagalassos is separated from the sea by 100 kilometres and a mountain range. What else was the Sagalassos region exporting that involved its pottery in a complex network of exchanges across these roads to the wider world? Timber, pitch and wool, either as a raw material or as finished cloth, have all been suggested. Whatever the answer, the Sagalassos pottery is proof that late antique trade was not bound to the shores of theMediterranean and its immediate hinterland. The vitality of the late antique economy was a far-reaching phenomenon.9 Coinage tells the same story. Since the fourth century the empire’s monetary system had been based on the gold solidus or nomisma, supplemented by a copper coinage, based since 498 on the follis, whose value fluctuated against that of the gold coin. A nomisma was a coin of high value used for paying salaries and making capital purchases. Day-to-day payments involved folleis, and it is the ordinariness of late antique copper coins which attracts attention. Stray copper coins are common finds all over the empire and on all sorts of sites, villages as well as cities like Ephesos, Antioch, or Constantinople itself. This was a world where money was a normal part of almost everyone’s lives.10 Silver was not minted in the late antique east. But it was an important part of the late antique economy. Made into dishes and bowls, jugs and lamp-stands and marked with date stamps that guaranteed its precious metal content, silver was a vital means of storing and displaying wealth. What is striking is the ordinariness of so much late antique silver. There are stunning fifth- and sixth-century silver treasures, but many such objects clearly belonged to people who did not rank among the super rich. The church silver from Kaper Koraon in the limestone massif, or that from the monastery of Holy Sion in south-western Turkey, make the same point as the Sagalassos pottery, or the copper coins.11 The late antique economy was doing well, for a comparatively large number of people.

 

 

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