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More in Inequality in Justinian’s Corinth

I've begun work on revising my Corinth in Contrast paper which I delivered in Austin in the fall at a conference of the same name (for a nice overview of the conference check out David Pettegrew's Corinthian Matters blog posts here and here and here).  The conference focused on inequality among the Corinthians, and my paper emphasized the role that political and ecclesiastical tensions may have played in creating regimes of power in the region.  To do so, I focused on various methods of asserting political and ecclesiastical power in the landscape and then sought to establish spaces of resistances within these methods.  In particular, I focused on the differences between subtle, non-monumental, and "marginal" activities, and dominant forms of political and religious power.  I tried to emphasize that various less structured forms of expression many not have conformed to a narrow view of "resistance" typified by violence and concerted political actions, but rather to a kind of resistance rooted in the concept of practice. In other words, I am looking for archaeological evidence that represents far more subtle forms of agency than traditional definitions of resistance.  Good examples of forms of resistance rooted in practice are graffiti, systematic tax evasion, feigned ignorance, gossip, and other techniques that are difficult to punish, protected by a degree of anonymity, and accessible to almost any group within society.

While most of these practices are unlikely to leave an archaeological trace (although an archaeology of gossip is interesting!), it is notable that the 6th century Corinthia witnessed a systematic and monumental campaign to impose imperial authority across the region.  The goals of this effort are difficult to imagine outside of a pattern of resistance.  The ecclesiastical tensions between the Emperor and various bishops of the province of Achaia who may have resisted imperial authority by remaining loyal to the papacy in Rome, provides a potential geopolitical justification of resistance.  Moreover, we know that such political and theological conflicts could manifest themselves in popular resistance.  Most famously:

"If you ask for your change, someone philosophizes to you in the Begotten and the Unbegotten. If you ask for the price of bread, you are told, "The Father is greater and the Son inferior." If you ask, "Is the bath ready?" someone answers, "The Sone was created from nothing."

Gregory of Nyssa, De Deitate Filii et Spiritus Sancti (trans. T.E. Gregory, Vox Populi (Columbus 1979), 3.

While the popular violence associated with theological disputes is well known, it suggests that seeming technicalities in theological language could evoke deep passions among everyday denizens of the Late Roman world. Such passion could, of course, manifest itself in more subtle ways as well as the better documented episodes of riotous violence.  Some of the everyday practices of resistance during the era of iconoclasm are suggestive.

This is a long introduction to some rather more mundane observations!

One of the least satisfactory sections of my paper had to deal with the role of imperial power on the bodies of Corinthians.   In the first draft of this paper, I imagined the impact of the imperial building policies on the Corinthian labor force. Workers from the local area would have undoubtedly contributed to the construction of the Lechaion Basilica (as well as the other 6th century churches in the area), the repairs to the Hexamilion wall and city wall of Corinth, and various other construction projects datable to the 6th century.  I suggested that some sense of identity for these workers derives from the presence of informally inscribed fish in the exterior wall plaster of many of these buildings.  It may be that this sign marked out the work of a local guild or as smaller work team and allowed the laborers to locate themselves amidst the monumental space of the 6th century Corinthia.

Over the past few weeks, I have the distinct pleasure of re-reading parts of Michael Given's 2004, The Archaeology of the Colonized (Routledge). Chapter six of this book is entitled "The Dominated Body" and Given makes several interesting observations about the place of the body is broadly construed "colonial regimes".  In particular, Given draws a case study from Roman Egypt where a "highly elaborate tax system" contributed to practices designed to dominate the body of Egyptian famers.  The center piece of his argument is a vivid fictional narrative of a visit by a family to local granary where their tax in kind was measured and certified.

This narrative reminded me of the famous(ish) passage in Procopius's Buildings 4.2.14 which describes the building of granaries throughout Greece. These granaries served to provision the soldiers that the emperor stationed there. This passages finds a complement in the Secret Histories 26.31-33 where Procopius tells us that the Emperor Justinian required the cities of Greece to fund the newly stationed soldiers in Greece, and this contingency deprived even Athens of public buildings and entertainments.  There is no reason to take these passages at face value, but, on the other hand, it is clear that Justinian had an active interest in reorganizing the logistical infrastructure of the empire with an eye toward providing supplies for his soldiers.  The presence of granaries in Greece would have visibly linked imperial policy with the collection of agricultural taxes from the local residents.  Some residents, then, would have to experience the act of delivering their crops into the imperial hands; in short, individual labor became imperial policy.

Another observation that Given offered regarding the impact of imperial policy on the body was the effect of walls on movement throughout the Egyptian countryside. He argued that many of the walls were not formal fortifications necessary, but sand fences (at best) or, in other cases, just informal markers. Both Procopius' text and archaeological evidence from the Corinthia have noted Justinian's interest in wall construction and repair.  Specifically, Justinian appears to have repaired the massive Hexamilion wall and probably the wall of the city of Corinth itself.  These two walls would have dominated passage across the Isthmus.  The individual would have had to pass through spaced marked out and defined by the non-local presence of the Emperor.

Making this all the more conspicuous is Justinian's used inscriptions tinged with ritually-charged utterances at gates to make political or theological statements.  So as Corinthian (and other) bodies passed through spaces marked out by imperial power, the walls themselves literally shouted out politically charged religious sentiments.  We know from other sites in the Mediterranean that roads, walls, and gates were common places for inscribed acclamations; in other words, places where bodies regularly passed were excellent places to commemorate other kinds of ritualized activities.  Ritual acclamations whether spontaneous or staged, then, further imbued these spaces with embodied knowledge.

As I work to revise my initially clumsy study of power differences across the Corinthian landscape, I am focusing more attention on the way in which imperial power sought to project authority into the landscape.  By critiquing the methods of projecting power, I think I am getting closer to understanding the conditions with create the kind of power differences that produce various kinds of inequality.

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