Home > Late Antiquity, Pyla-Koutsopetria Archaeological Project > Place, Identity, and Authority in Late Roman Cyprus

Place, Identity, and Authority in Late Roman Cyprus

Just a short post today, here is my paper that will be delivered in a few hours at McGill sans citations and illustrations


“Place, Identity, and Authority in Late Roman Cyprus:
A Response to A. Mehl’s ‘Cyprus: The Role of a Province in the Roman Empire'”.
Delivered at McGill University, Montreal, Canada
December 10, 2008

William Caraher, University of North Dakota

    Prof. Mehl’s excellent paper reconstructs crucial aspects of the history of Roman Cyprus on the basis of administrative sources such as inscriptions, coins, and the brief mentions of the island in literary sources.  He noted, as had the generation of commentators prior to him, that the dearth of traditional administrative sources for the island has stymied efforts to understand its place in the Roman empire.  In contrast to the absence of material useful for writing an administrative, prosopographical, or military history of the island, the archaeological record holds forth an embarrassment of riches pertinent to understanding how the long engagement with the Roman state transformed the economic, cultural, and authoritative landscape of Cyprus.  In my brief, and hopefully complementary response to Prof. Mehl’s paper, I will look beyond the better known excavations of major Roman period sites like Paphos, Kourion, Salamis, and Amathous and even many increasingly important smaller sites like the early Roman period sanctuary on the island of Yeronisos and excavations a Marion-Arsinoe.  [SLIDE] Instead, I will follow the lead of Susan Alcock turn my attention to the countryside to document the impact of Roman authority on the island.  Recent work by both survey archaeologists and excavators has shed light on a surprisingly vital Roman and Late Roman countryside extending from a well-developed maritime landscape to the rich material culture of the villas, industrial sites, hamlets, villages, and small towns that formed the suburban, ex-urban, and rural fabric of a Roman province in the East.  While it is important to emphasize that identifying specific agency or policies that indicate a link between Roman administrative presence on the island and changes in the urban and rural landscape remains difficult, evidence for the transformation of the island under Roman rule is nevertheless sufficiently robust for scholars to argue for a pervasive and significant Roman influence on Cypriot life. 
    [SLIDE] Our site, of Pyla-Koutsopetria, on the southern coast of Cyprus provides a useful example of how recent fieldwork holds forth potential for re-imagining the relationship between Roman imperial authority and the organization of life on the island of Cyprus.  [SLIDE] The site itself is situated on the coast about 8-10 km from the harbor of ancient Kition.  Stray finds from the area since the 19th century indicated that it was a center of ancient activities.  At the nearby site of Pyla-Kokkinokremos, systematic excavations since the middle years of the 20th century revealed a substantial Bronze Age fortification.  [SLIDE] At the site of Pyla-Koutsopetria proper, excavations in the 1990s by the Department of Antitquities revealed a well-appointed Early Christian basilica.  [SLIDE] Since 2003, the Pyla-Koutsopetria Archaeological Project has worked to place the previous fieldwork in this area in a broader, diachronic archaeological context.  [SLIDE] Using intensive pedestrian survey (and beginning last year targeted excavation), our work has produced evidence for continuous activity in the coastal zone of Pyla Village from as early as Cypro-Archaic period. [SLIDE] There is evidence that the site began to expand considerable during the Late Hellenistic and Early Roman period before reaching its peak during Late Antiquity.  In the 6th and early 7th century, the site extended for over a kilometer along the coast and had a densely built up center of close to 40 ha.  Less intensive activity contemporary with the coastal site extended several kilometers inland encompassing an area of well over 150 ha.  A diverse assemblage of local and imported transport amphora, finewares, and architectural fragments attest not only to the wealth of the site, but also to its well-connected position within both local and regional trade networks.  [SLIDE] [SLIDE] A marshy depression drained in recent times by the British Military likely represents the remains of a substantial ancient embayment which would have formed a protected harbor well into Late Antique and Medieval times.  The location, size, influence, and wealth of the site marks it as more than a villa site or even the largest village.  In fact, it probably represents a “market town” of the kind mentioned by John Moschos as existing on the island. 

Place and Space in Roman Cyprus
    It was quite remarkable to discover a site as extensive as Pyla-Koutsopetria in the hinterland of the city of Kition.  As Mitford noted so many years ago, there is no evidence for any autonomous villages in the chora of Kition, although this does not mean that such settlements did not exist.  The absence of a known settlement outside of the city of Kition might hint at the relatively centralized organization of the city’s chora during the Iron Age.  It would appear that our site of Pyla-Koutsopetria remained anonymous into Roman times, although some scholars have suggested that the site may be the ancient town of Dadai or Tadai which appeared in Ptolemy (5.15)  and John Moschos.  Even if we accept that the site was Dadai, it nevertheless fell outside of the 12 or 13 Cypriot cities recognized as the basic administrative units on the island under Hellenistic and Roman rule.  The nominal autonomy of these cities, however, appears to have had relatively little impact on the Roman perception of province.  As Prof. Mehl pointed out, Rome continued the practice of the Hellenistic rulers of island and regarded the island as a single unit administered first from Paphos and later from Salamis-Constantia.
    Governing the island as a single administrative unit redefined the relationship between urban centers and their peripheral settlements. As Prof. Mehl has observed, the Romans constructed a road network that continued the Hellenistic policy of ignoring the boundaries of the Iron Age cities in favor of linking copper producing regions to the coast.  A rationalized pattern for extracting copper ore and trees from the Troodos range, however, only represents one aspect of the economic changes associated with the Roman administration of the island.  Pliny and Strabo both comment on the agricultural prosperity of the province.  Ammianus Marcellinus observed that Cyprus could not only build and outfit her own transport vessels but also fill them with produce.  Even as late at the 7th century, the unusual Christian tale called the Vision of Kaioumos featured an aristocrat from Salamis named Philentolos whose wealth came “from land and sea, from businesses, lands, and ships”.  Lands in this portfolio presumably represent agricultural wealth which we can add to the list of resources extracted from the island alongside copper and trees.  The link between ships and agricultural resources might explain the extensive coastal warehouses at sites like Ay. Georgios-Peyias in the west and the Governor’s beach site on the Akrotiri peninsula which served to facilitate the large-scale “commercial” exportation of foodstuffs.  As I will discuss later, the agricultural productivity of the island may also account for  the wide distribution of Late Roman 1 amphoras some of which were undoubtedly produced on the island.
    It goes without saying that the exploitation of agricultural produce represents a lower level of administrative commitment and economic intensity than the extraction of copper or tree
s.  The sustained expansion of settlement in the Cypriot countryside nevertheless reveals a vibrant economy which was largely dependent the upon peace and prosperity introduced by the Roman empire.  The pattern of prosperity on the island during the Roman period reflects the complex interaction between Roman and pre-existing settlement patterns. In the eastern part of the island, for example, a longstanding network of roads linking the major metropolitan areas, particularly along the coast, continued to function during the Roman period.  With the growing irrelevance of the borders between the Iron Age cities, these same roads became corridors which allowed formerly peripheral coastal sites to exploit their immediate hinterland.  This is particularly visible at Pyla-Koutsopetria.  [SLIDE] In the Cypro-Classical period and earlier, activity appears limited to the fortified coastal height of Vigla.  [SLIDE] The Roman period, however, saw the site expand south onto the coastal plain.  The growth in both size and complexity ultimately peeked during the Late Roman period where activity stretched for over a kilometer east to west along the coast likely following the course of the ancient road.  While it is always dangerous to propose monocausal explanations for the expansion of a site, it seems probable to attribute some of the growth of Koutsopetria to changes in political and economic organization under Roman rule. Koutsopetria marked the junction of several important routes through this area of the island.  [SLIDE] [SLIDE] The major east-west road linking Kition with Salamis-Constantina departed from the coast at Koutsopetria, another road continued east toward Cape Greco and the Roman site of Thronoi which was traditionally in the territory of Salamis, and the site probably marked the southern terminus of a road moving south through the Pyla pass from the Mesoria.  The protected harbor at the site further enhanced the ability of Pyla-Koutsopetria to engage traffic and trade along these routes.  [SLIDE] Moreover, by rendering the border between Salamis and Kition irrelevant, Roman, rule transformed Pyla-Koutsopetria from a peripheral settlement in relation to the city of Kition to a modest, yet central place on the southeastern coast of the island.  A similar phenomenon occurred that the site of Ay. Georgios-Peyias which stood at Cape Drepanon near the border between Paphos and its western neighbor of Marion.

Contacts and Connections
    The administrative unification of the island under Hellenistic and the Roman rule and the consequent re-organization of the Cypriot countryside represents just one manifestation of Roman rule on the island.  The peace and stability that the Romans brought to the eastern Mediterranean not only expanded the potential markets for Cypriot goods, but also gave Cypriots access to a new range of objects and practices with which to mark their identity.  The tremendously diverse assemblage of pottery collected over the course of our fieldwork at Pyla-Koutsopetria provides a robust guide for understanding local engagement with a Romanized Mediterranean economy and brings to the fore the local implications of being a part of the Roman Empire.  While the island of Cyprus had long history of participation in Eastern Mediterranean trade from at least the Bronze Age, the assemblage of Roman pottery present at Koutsopetria represents a distinct artifact of Roman rule particularly when cast in light of recent efforts to re-examine the structure of the ancient Mediterranean economy.  Holden and Purcell’s influential Mediterranean synthesis, The Corrupting Sea, proposed an approach to understanding Mediterranean trade that separated its position in the Mediterranean economy from the its place in the administrative structure of Roman provincial organization.  Mid-sized sites like Koutsopetria, which are larger than rural villages and smaller than the major urban centers of the Roman period, may have had relatively autonomous relationships with regional exchange networks.  [SLIDE] For example, the assemblage collected from Pyla-Koutsopetria revealed a distinctly higher percentage of imported African Red Slip fine wares than other sites on the island.  [SLIDE] While the locally produced Cypriot Red Slip dominated formed a significant part of the assemblage, African Red Slip occurred far more frequently than the regionally prevalent Phocaean Red Slip.  (The real significance of this discovery will be easier to assess once the final publication of Late Roman material from Kition appears.)
    The wealth present at the site seems to have been a product of local agricultural production.  The site is too far removed from the copper producing regions of the Troodos to have benefited from copper extraction and the tree covered foothills that rise up to the west of Kition had far more plausible outlets than our harbor.  So far, we have seen no evidence for any large-scale production of ceramics, quarrying activity seems relatively modest and best assigned for local construction, and there is no clear reason to suppose that our site had any substantial administrative or military function during the Roman period (such as garrison camp).  [SLIDE] We do have evidence for agricultural processing at the site including several components of a olive press of likely Roman to Late Roman date.  [SLIDE] A more telling piece of evidence comes from the thousands of fragments of Late Roman transport amphora.  [SLIDE] [SLIDE] Late Roman 1 amphora dominate this assemblage.  These tremendously common amphoras were probably produced on the island as well as at other sites along the coast of Asia Minor.  The wide variation in fabric present at our site suggest that Koutsopetria likely received and exported goods in these vessels to regional markets.  Scholars have suggested that these amphora mostly contained olive oil and wine and may have served to provision troops on the Danubian frontiers and elsewhere.  Late Roman 2 amphoras were also found in some quantities.  These vessels derive from the Aegean and while they may be in reuse at Koutsopetria, they nevertheless the demonstrate the range of commercial contacts present at the site.  Finally, the concentration of these vessels at the eastern extent of the site suggests that their presence here is more than simply the discard from domestic practices.  Instead it is reasonable to suppose that this area had a specialized function presumably tied to the export or import of bulk goods.  To consider briefly the administrative aspect of this pattern of trade, it is worth noting that under Justinianian Cyprus was linked with the Cyclades, Asia Minor, Scythia, and Moesia Secunda to form a single quaestura under single commander.  This not only secured under a single administrative entity the main route from Egypt to Constantinople, but also linked a group of agriculturally productive provinces to a stretch of the frontier with a substantial contingent of troops.
    The presence of a distinct assemblage of Late Roman fine wares and the more typical assemblage of transport amphora reveal a community with access to the commercial life of the Roman Mediterranean.  While Bakirtzis has speculated that western port of Ay. Georgios-Peyias was a stop on the Late Roman anona route from Egypt to Constantinople, there is no reason to believe that Pyla-Koutsopetria served this function.  Thus the prosperity of this site is unlikely to be tied to formal administrative trade.  Instead the place of this site in the regional economy is a byproduct of Roman political power both on the island and in the Mediterranean more generally.  The choice of the residents at the site to prefer African Red Slip to local or even regional alternatives is ultimately conditioned by the options made available to them by the political organization of the Roman empire.  [SLIDE] As C. Kondleon
showed in her study of the House of Dionysios in Paphos and is likewise apparent in the House of Gladiators in the thoroughly Roman city of Kourion, the place of a province in the Roman empire was not simply an administrative reality, but a cultural reality as well.

A Topography of Authority in Late Roman Roman Cyprus
    The increasingly Romanized character of the assemblage present at Koutsopetria as well as location of the site suggest a complex interplay between settlement structure, economic organization, and even cultural identity in Roman and Late Roman Cyprus.  Despite the Romanization of the province, Prof. Mehl has noted, few Cypriots appear in the Roman administration.  By late Antiquity however, this appears to have changed. While a number of Cypriot saints are known from antiquity, the two most famous are bishops, St. Epiphanius of Salamis and St. John the Almsgiver.  Epiphanius was a late 4th century 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 born on Cyprus at Amathous in the mid-6th century to the governor of the island.  Under Herakleios, he became the Chalcedonian patriarch of Alexandria.  In 614, however, the Persian threat drove him out of 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.
    [SLIDE] The activities of elite Cypriot churchmen, however, speaks little to how Roman authority became manifest on the island outside of urbanized areas.  The spread of Christianity in rural areas on the island may capture a key aspects of the relationship between Cyprus and “Rome” (or more properly the Roman state).  While it always dangerous to project Late Antique phenomena back into earlier centuries, an examination of the distribution of ecclesiastical architecture might offer an example for the way in which elite, administrative authority manifest itself on the local level.  Whereas the most obvious and monumental reminders of Roman authority in the first four centuries of Roman involvement on the island appears largely restricted to urban areas, the building boom of Late Antiquity saw the spread of Christian basilica style churches throughout the island.  Thus far, archaeologists have documented well over 100 churches on the island largely dating to the 5th -7th centuries.  The 6th century church excavated at Pyla-Kousoptria with its elaborate opus sectile floors, wall painting, and moulded gypsum decorations represents just one of many examples of relatively elaborate church architecture in rural areas. [SLIDE] Our site only has one known church, but the similar site of Ay. Georgios-Peyias has at least five, the smaller and more rural site at Kopetra has three, the coastal site at Maroni-Petrera has one, as does the rather remote anchorage on the Akamas peninsula, Ay. Kononas. The similarities between these buildings and their counterparts in urban areas is significant in that they project not only urban architecture into the countryside but also a specific ritual experience.  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. 

    To conclude: I have strayed rather far from the topic, methodology, and chronological boundaries of Prof. Mehl’s paper.  Nevertheless, both our works broached central questions to the study of the Roman Empire today.  Any conclusions regarding the cohesiveness of the Roman state, the nature of local and imperial identity, and the manifestation of imperial authority require scholars not only to consider a wide range of evidence, but also to test a wide range of theoretical approaches that offer distinct methods for unpacking the complex intersection of Roman authority, imperialism and local identity .  Part of this effort, of course, are colloquiums like this where archaeologists and historians with similar interests exchange ideas, approaches, and conclusions.  Such dialogues hold forth the potential not only for a more synthetic approach to the Cypriot past, but also for a multivocal history that captures the diversity of experiences present in Roman empire.

  1. September 7, 2009 at 12:39 am

    Kition, former primeval city concealed beneath Larnaca; Cyprus, is city of great historical, archeological, architectural consequence. From wars of Mycenaeans and the Phonicians to native hero, Zeno, from pre-greek era to Significent incidences of life of Jesus to arebic raiders, the city has it all.

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