More Roman Cyprus…

My recent blog entries on Roman Cyprus center on two projects.  One is a article that we have been working on for almost three years now that places the assemblage produced by the Pyla-Koutsopetria Archaeological Project in the context of other similar sites in the Eastern Mediterranean.  It focuses particularly on how the economic relationships between sites in the region led to the creation of a distinct assemblage of pottery at Koutsopetria in Late Antiquity.

The second project is a paper at a small colloquium at McGill University in Montreal.  I was invited to present a response to a paper by Andreas Mehl. Prof. Mehl’s paper presents an administrative sketch of the province of Cyprus during the Roman period.  Without giving too much away, his paper’s primary emphasis was on the role of the province in the Roman Empire.  As with many papers of this kind, Mehl relies heavily on epigraphical evidence and, by his own admission, takes little stock in the archaeological evidence from the island.  Such administrative and provincial histories were once the foundations for regional histories of the Roman Empire.  Even today, any discussion of Roman Cyprus begins with the epigrapher T.B. Mitfords, “Roman Cyprus,” (ANRW II 7.2 (1980): 1285-1384).  The tradition was carried on further, albeit with a slightly broader perspective, in David Potter’s article “Roman Cyprus” which appeared originally in Greek translation (2000) but has circulated widely in an English manuscript for years. 

More recent work has concerned itself less with the administrative component of Roman domination on Cyprus and emphasized it its place the economic and cultural components of Roman rule on the island.  To do this, scholars have drawn more and more heavily on archaeological data.  In part, this is because the traditional material for Roman administrative history on Cyprus is lacking.  There are relatively few inscriptions from the Roman period which give insight into the workings of Roman rule there and even fewer inscriptions give any information on Cypriots abroad; without such texts, the traditional narratives of Roman authority that relied upon prosopography and Roman legal history falter. As a result, scholarship on Roman Cyprus has come to emphasize archaeological data and this data has encouraged us to consider different kinds of questions from those traditionally addressed using epigraphical data and considered by scholars interested in the administrative apparatus and individuals central to Roman rule.

Thus, responding to a paper like Prof. Mehl’s will be a particular challenge.  On the one hand, the questions and interests of historians who have committed to using archaeological data have diverged considerably from the kind of analysis produced by Mehl.  On the other hand, our work should have points of contact and mutually inform each others’ conclusions.  Recent work on Roman Cyprus — particularly John Leonard’s dissertation and the steady stream of publications from recent fieldwork on Roman and Late Roman sites — should exert an influence over more traditional questions regarding the expression of Roman administrative power on the island.

Our site at Pyla-Koutsopetria for example must be in part an artifact of Roman administrative authority on the island.  It reached its largest extent in the Late Roman period. The material at the site shows that it benefited from well-worn trade routes which linked the length and breadth of the Roman Mediterranean most likely through a now infilled harbor.  This harbor was well-situated to take advantage of the location of the site within the Roman road network on the island.  The main route from Kition to Salamis-Constantina would have departed the coast near our site, and this made Koutsopetria the first place that a traveler from the east would reach the coast.  Despite the site’s status as a central place (albeit most likely on a very local level), the “town” does not appear to have acquired any administrative identity.  It presumably fell under the local political control of Kition, but its size alone suggests that it must have enjoyed a certain degree of autonomy.  In fact, the material present on the surface of the site does not find ready parallels with any of other site or region in the hinterland of Kition suggesting that size of the site might also mark out some degree of economic autonomy.  This is to say that the residents of Koutsopetria had their own model for engaging Mediterranean commerce.  Such concentrations of wealth in the countryside have contributed to fundamental economic and administrative changes in the empire over the course of Late Antiquity as the state sought to develop new methods for extracting resources from such a “busy countryside” at the same time as the traditional urban elite progressively lost status.

The Roman administrative system was hardly known for its dynamism or ability to respond to changes.  Moreover, it is likely that economic changes and changes in settlement were tied at least in part to changes in the administrative structure of the empire.  An opportunity to engage someone like Prof. Mehl in a conversation about administration, economic, settlement, and politics, on Roman Cyprus holds forth considerable potential.  More soon…

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