Home > Byzantium, Late Antiquity, Pyla-Koutsopetria Archaeological Project > Cyprus and the Roman Administration: People and Ritual

Cyprus and the Roman Administration: People and Ritual

I was able to (almost) complete my paper for Montreal on Wednesday.  This paper is a short response to a paper by Andreas Mehl entitled “Cyprus: The Role of a Province in the Roman Empire”.  In the final section of my paper I consider the degree to which Cyprus was engaged in Roman affairs during Late Antiquity.  This brief and relatively superficial analysis is designed to consider how deeply Cyprus was engaged in the affairs of the Late Roman Empire.  It stands in response to the observation offered by Mitford, Mehl, and others that almost no Cypriots appear in the administration of the High Empire, and this led them to conclude that Cyprus must have been a relatively insignificant province in the Empire or that the province did not participate in many of the typical activities that allowed for individuals to advance into the Roman administration.

In Late Antiquity, however, things appear to have changed.  On the one hand, there are two particularly prominent bishops with Cypriot ties: the late 4th century St. Epiphanius of Salamis and the early 7th century St. John the Almsgiver.  While Epiphanius was not a Cypriot by birth, he was perhaps the most celebrated Late Antique bishop of Salamis.  He began his ecclesiastical career first as a monk in Egypt and then in Palestine before becoming the bishop on Cyprus.  From this post he exerted influence extensively in the region and in the early 5th century even journeyed to Constantinople where he briefly clashed with John Chrysostom.  John the Almsgiver was the son of the governor of the island.  He was born at Cyprus at Amathous in the mid-6th century.  Under Herakleios, he became the Chalcedonian patriarch of Alexandria.  In 614, however, the Persian threat forced him from his See at which point he returned to Cyprus where he died.  While it is hardly surprising that members of the ecclesiastical and imperial aristocracy crossed paths in Late Antique Cyprus, it nevertheless reveals that by Late Antiquity, Cypriots had come to occupy significant places within the Empire.

The deeper engagement of the island in empire wide affair may not simply reflect a top down phenomenon.  After all, the island featured well over 100 Late Antique period churches.  By the late 5th and 6th century, churches had appeared in communities all across the island ranging from major urban centers to the small villages.  Our site at Pyla-Koutsopetria had at least one well appointed basilica.  The much smaller village of Kopetra had three basilica style churches.  The similarities between these buildings in non-urban or ex-urban sites and their counterparts in urban areas is significant in that they projected not only urban architecture but also a specific ritual experience into the countryside.  The hierarchical rituals that took place within Christian churches on Cyprus ensconced the clergy in a position of authority which resonated with the architecture and ritual life of the urban centers on the island.  The autonomous status of the bishop of Cyprus, granted in first in 431 and then again in 488, reinforced the position of the island as an independent Roman province.  This status framed the common ritual experiences of rural and urban life on Cyprus, but also made clear that the autonomous church was only one scale of engagement with structures of authority extending far beyond the boundaries of the province. 

So evidence for elite engagement at the level of bishop suggests that by Late Antiquity Cyprus has emerged as a more significant participant in the ecclesiastical affairs of the Eastern Roman empire.  As the affairs of the church became more deeply embedded in the affairs of the state, particularly over the course of the 6th century, the role of Cyprus and Cypriots appears to have increased.  The island’s ability to assert its ecclesiastical independence from the See of Antioch twice in the 5th century further attests to the prominence of Cypriot churchmen in the eyes of the ecclesiastical and imperial administration.  Cyprus’ engagement in the life of the church in the Eastern Mediterranean does not appear restricted to merely elite individuals.  The proliferation of churches across the island ensured a degree of continuity in ritual life in rural, urban, and suburban contexts.  This continuity of experience represented an important aspect of the “liturgification of Late Roman society.  The liturgy with its distinct rituals, language, and organization served as a kind of common language for expressing political, social, and even economic identity across the entire Mediterranean basin. 

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