Archive for the ‘Late Antiquity’ Category

Even More Contrasting Corinth

September 14, 2010 Leave a comment

Yesterday I promised more inequality, resistance, and contrast in the Corinthia, and here at the Archaeology of the Mediterranean World, I mostly deliver on what I promise.

Over the last few days I’ve been thinking about these small texts:


This is the text of two graffiti discovered on a wall fragment from the octagonal baptistery at Lechaion.  Both texts are rather fragmentary.  The first text seems to ask for someone to remember a woman named Eudokia, and the second text is a plea to help the deacon Loukianos, his wife (?), and children.  Both texts conform to the long standing practice of inscribed prayers.  The texts were scratched into what appears to be the mortar of the wall.  The photograph is poorly reproduced in my photocopy of the publication and Pallas’ description of the location of the text is unclear.

These texts represent a very personal plea for aid set up in a sacred place.  This practice was a long-standing Christian tradition and similar calls for help appear in mosaic floors and inscribed on columns, liturgical silver, and ceramics from across the Mediterranean basin.  At the same time, their rather humble mode of execution contrasts dramatically with the lavish decoration present in the Lechaion basilica.  These texts were not carved into marble and positioned where an audience could experience the proximity of the individuals to the sources of ecclesiastical, ritual, and religious power.  These modest letters were scratched into a wall of the baptistery which is an unusual place for such imprecations.  The most obvious explanation for the disjunction between these texts and their surroundings may be that these texts date from the time that the octagonal baptistery appears to have functioned as a church, perhaps after the collapse of the enormous basilica to its south.  Like the graffiti documented by Orlandos on the columns of the Parthenon, the modest character of these texts represents more an eagerness to locate one’s prayers in the existing physical fabric of the building rather than a lack of resources or access to official sanction.  After all, Loukianos was a deacon who presumably could have arranged for a more official venue for his call for help.

At the same time these texts present a vivid contrast to another, better-known inscribed prayer from the Corinthia: the request for protection found at Isthmia. Unlike the modest texts incribed on the wall of the Lechaion baptistery, this text which asks God to protect Justinian, Victorinus, and everyone living according to God in Greece


As readers of this blog are probably tired of hearing, this text should probably be associated with the refortification of the Hexamilion wall by the emperor Justinian, and I have argued (as have others) that the Lechaion basilica is probably another example of imperial activities in the region.

I am not sure that I’d argue too forcefully that contrasting character of these two texts represent some kind of inequality or resistance in the Corinthian landscape, but on the other hand, the graffiti text from Lechaion is far more likely to represent an authentic local voice.  And this local voice surely did not share the same access to resources as the emperor, and this local voice may not have had the same ability to endure the the challenging years of the Early Byzantine period in Greece.


More Contrasting Corinth

September 13, 2010 1 comment

As some of you may know, I am toiling away on a paper that I will give at the Corinth in Contrast conference in Austin at the end of the month.  I’ve been looking at the way in which the 6th century, likely Justinianic, building boom in the Corinthia represented a monumentalized discourse of authority (both local and imperial, political, military, and religious) in the region.  This is a version of a paper I gave some years ago at a conference celebrating 50 years of field work at Isthmia.  In that paper, I focused on two Justinianic inscriptions; in my paper for Corinth in Contrast, I planned to focus on archaeology and architecture.

I produced a decent draft of my paper entitled “The Ambivalent Landscape of Christian Corinth: The Archaeology of Place, Theology, and Politics in a Late Antique City”, but realized that the paper had very little to do with the theme of the conference:

This conference explores the stratified nature of social, political, economic, and religious spheres at Corinth, and how the resulting inequalities are reflected in literary texts and material remains.  The analysis focuses on a specific population center (the Corinthia) over a given period of time (Hellenistic to Late Antique).

In particular, my paper had almost nothing to do with “inequality”.  This bothered me.

Over the weekend, I read Louise Revell’s Roman Imperialism and Local Identity (Cambridge 2009) with the idea models of Romanization might give me some way to access the relationship between a monumentalized discourse and social, economic, and even political inequality in Corinth.  Revell’s introduction does a nice job at summarizing recent problemizations of Romanization, and emphasizes the performative aspects of Romanization as central to way in which imperialism manifests on the local level and local practices manifest as resistance, accommodation, and ambivalence.

Despite my initial interest in performance in the way that I originally interpreted the Justinianic inscriptions, I had abandoned using this approach for a reason that I now forget (it might have to do with a particularly summary rejection of an article, but it might have just been time to move on).  After reading Revell, I began to see contrasts across the Corinthian countryside that hint at just the kind of inequality – whether manufactured as an ideological position or “real” – that would make my paper fit better to the theme of the conference and give it a more potent theoretical edge.

First, and most generally, the act of producing monumental architecture is a kind of performance.  I argue that the Lechaion basilica (and related buildings) and the renovated Hexamillion wall are buildings with projected imperial power onto the Corinthian landscape.  Corinthians themselves not only saw these buildings as intrusions of 6th century imperial theology into local ecclesiastical affairs (for more on this read over this still unpublished paper), but also contributed to the various ways that these buildings produced meaning.  Local Corinthians, irrespective of theological (or, frankly, religious predilections) surely contributed to the physical construction of the great church and the repairs to the various monumental walls Procopius reports Justinian to have funded in the Corinthia.  Building made their bodies physically complicit in the production of imperial ideology on the Isthmus.  Moreover, individuals involved in manual labor would have surrendered their bodies – if, in fact, working on imperial projects had an ideological or theological aspect – more readily than elites who could have held their bodies apart from the actual performance of imperial power.

The bodies of the work crews who labored physically to construct imperial authority on the Isthmus do leave traces. Sanders has reported that similar graffiti in the wet mortar of both the Lechaion basilica and the Panayia bath in the city of Corinth proper (and perhaps the Hexamillion wall as well) suggest that the same work crews or the same organization provided labor for both buildings.  The simple inscribed fish in the mortar of both buildings would have been probably been covered with a layer of finer stucco when the building was completed and not visible.  At the same time, the symbol of the fish seems likely to have had religious significance.  The fish had been one of the earliest symbols associated with Christianity.  While we have no idea whether these symbols were set to mark out these buildings as “Christian” (as if this was necessary for the Lechaion basilica church!) or to mark the work of a particular crew of laborers or some kind of apotropaic function that suggested either resistance or accommodation, it is clear that the laborers had agency in the act of constructing these monumental buildings and hence were capable of seeing their labor as a ideological action.

At the opposite end of the spectrum, the second largest basilica in the Corinthia is the Kraneion basilica.  Roughly contemporary with Lechaion basilica, it has clear similarities in form. Both churches have numerous annex rooms, a nartex and atria (albeit Kraneion appears to have a second atria extending to the south), water features in the western atria, and a baptistery arranged to the northwest of the church.  The most striking difference between these buildings is that the naves are separated from the aisles at Kraneion by means of a series of narrow piers supporting arches.  Lechaion follows a more traditional pattern by separating the nave from the aisles by a series of columns supporting arches that spring from ornate ionic impost capitals.  At least some of the columns in this nave colonnade were imperially controlled Proconnesian marble and the ionic impost capitals are sufficiently regular in design to suggest an imperial work crew.  The absence, then, of a marble colonnade at Kraneion would have made this church stand out.  If we assume that the nave colonnade at Lechaion worked to communicate the building’s imperial funded status, then the absence of such a colonnade at Kraneion may have positioned this church as a conspicuously non-imperial foundation.  While it is impossible to do more than suggest this argument, it is striking that Kraneion is one of the few churches in the Late Roman province of Achaia that used piers in the place of the colonnade. This becomes more significant, if we assume (as I have argued elsewhere) that the colonnade in Late Roman Greece served to frame the perspective of the congregation as they watched the liturgical proceedings performed by the clergy in an otherwise empty nave.  The contrasting arrangement between these two buildings would hardly be lost on even the most casual observer especially as the Lechaion basilica demonstrates that the colonnade is a feature suited to display of wealth and control over lavish resources.  Like the fish in the mortar, the absence of a nave colonnade could represent a local response, perhaps even resistance, to the wealth and authority vested in display.

Neither of these examples explicitly suggest inequality in a modern sense fueled by a post-Enlightenment understanding of the rights of human agents as individuals.  On the other hand, these two examples (and the careful reader will observe that I do have one more, but it’ll have to wait until I get into my office this morning to check a citation), demonstrate that despite different the differing economic and social position of the actors within Corinthian society, there was nevertheless ample opportunity to participate in both acts of resistance and accommodation.

Stay tuned for more…

A new class to new students: The Fall of the Roman Empire

September 6, 2010 3 comments

Tomorrow I begin to teach 6 week class on the Fall of the Roman Empire to the local, University of North Dakota, branch of the Osher Life Long Learning Institute.  This Institute focuses mainly on teaching community members – primarily "seasoned adults" and "life long learners" – and does not offer courses for credit.  The expense is minimal and the goals of my class will be to entertain as much as educate.  I'll have to balance my tendency to go into great detail about minute events of the Late Antique world (although it is hard to understand how anyone could not care deeply about the machinations leading up the Three Chapters Controversy!).  On the other hand, I am pretty excited to offer a class to the greater community.  My grandmother took classes at a similar institution at the University of Delaware after my grandfather had died, and she seemed to really enjoy them. It will feel good to share some of my knowledge, see how my approach plays to an audience not worried about getting a good grade, and to hear what my "students" think about the end of the ancient world.

That all being said, this is the first time that I'll teach a course in my particular area of specialty on campus at UND.  It seems hard to believe that I've been here for 8 years and have yet to teach a course on the Late Antique world.  Another reason to be excited.


I have conceived of the class in 6, more or less autonomous units:

1. Introduction to the Fall of Rome
2. Politics, Popes, Emperors, and Invaders
3. Christians and Pagans
4. Cities, Buildings, and the End of the Empire
5. Archaeology and the End of the Empire
6. Rome After Rome: The Long Shadow of Late Antiquity

The course is a blatant bait-and-switch.  My focus will be less on the "Fall of Rome" as discrete political event and much more on the period of Late Antiquity.  My goal will be to convince the class that the legacy of Rome refracted through political, religious, social, and economic changes of the 4th to 8th centuries is far more important than the sacking of a city or the death of an Emperor (well, except, I suppose to the folks who lived in Rome or the family of the Emperor).  In fact, I want them all to understand that the most of the basic tensions that define modern political and religious discourse have roots in Late Antiquity.  So the Fall of Rome is less about the death of some romanticized (I couldn't resist!) ancient world and much more about the birth of a society that has strangely familiar echoes.

Wish me luck!

Categories: Late Antiquity

Some Thoughts on Kim Bowes’ Private Worship, Public Values, and Religious Change in Late Antiquity

August 3, 2010 1 comment


I just finished reading Kim Bowes’ Private Worship, Public Values, and Religious Change in Late Antiquity (Cambridge 2008).  The first lines of her introduction recounted one of my favorite stories from Late Antiquity: Pulcheria’s dream inspired excavation of the remains of 40 martyrs from Sozomen (Hist. Eccl. 9.2). Any book that begins with a example of dream archaeology is o.k. to me.

But, I’ll admit that this incident was not why I  read this book. Instead, I wanted to gather recent insights into the relatively late date for monumental architecture in Greece.  Bowes does not talk about Greece directly in her book, but argues for the prevalence and importance of churches associated with elite domestic contexts throughout better documented regions of the Mediterranean.

These buildings are important because they represent an architectural counterpoint to the bishop’s church which stood as a product of the ecclesiastical hierarchy and the centralized authority traditionally associated with that institution.  Acknowledging the widespread existence of church buildings funded by the Late Roman elite and prominently associated with both rural and urban elite domestic contexts reminds us that the spread of Christianity was not the simple, linear growth of the institutional church, but a process riven with disputes.  In fact, the victory of institutional Christianity overwrote evidence for many of the disputes in the process of producing a single triumphant narrative for the victor of the church.

Bowes’ book also continues to enrich our understanding of space by reminding us of the fluidity between public and private spaces in the discourse of power in Late Antiquity.  Issues of display, patronage, and both public and spiritual mediation played out over a monumental landscape produced as much by private funds and initiatives as institutional authority of the church.  As a result, efforts in the law codes to suppress privately funded church buildings were as much political moves as economic ones as the institutional church sought to suppress rival spaces of power in the Early Christian landscape.

The book also contributes to our understanding of the later 5th and early 6th century boom in ecclesiastical architecture in the Eastern Mediterranean.  While Bowes does not discuss these periods explicitly – her book concludes in the middle decades of the 5th century – it may be that the boom in church building occurred as the institutional church made the final push for an exclusive claim to monumental architecture.  The story the church of St. Polyeuctos in Constantinople and the rivalry between Anicia Juliana’s private church and the imperial church of Justinian is suggestive of just this kind of rivalry.

In the Corinthia, and in Greece more generally, it is exceedingly difficult to differentiate between churches associated with the local, non-ecclesiastical elite, and those constructed by bishops or under the auspices of the ecclesiastical hierarchy.  Evidence from epigraphy does suggest that non-church officials did build churches, but this tells us little about who controlled the church, its clergy, and the rites that took place there.  There is  some suggestive evidence, however:  for example, groups of smaller, rural churches dot the Greek countryside – like those that throughout southeastern Attica – and many are not clearly associated with known settlements suggesting the kind of elite-controlled rural churches that Bowes has linked to villas in the West.  Moreover, we know that there existed a villa-culture in Greece and that some civic power likely moved from the urban core to suburban and even ex-urban villas of the elite.  It would be natural then for these buildings which already served some “public” functions to include religious space as well, although as far as I know we have no specific evidence for this function among the handful of Late Roman villas thoroughly excavated in Greece.  The evidence for 6th century church building in better excavated and documented urban areas – like the group of contemporary churches located in the Corinthia – could, then, represent an institutional response to largely undocumented elite, private, rural practices.

While this all remains tremendously speculative, but it does allow us to explain how Christianity grew in Greece without evidence for monumental ecclesiastical architecture.  The needs for Christian communities was largely met by church buildings associated with the traditional and increasingly rural elite rather than the new-fangled authority of the emergent, but not yet locally-powerful ecclesiastical hierarchy.

Categories: Books, Late Antiquity

Some Questions about Late Antique Prosperity and Christianization in the Corinthia

I am slowly working to prepare a paper for the Corinth in Contrast conference scheduled for the end of the September.  (It’s my problem that I’m working on the paper this far in advance, not yours.) It is notable that most of the scholarship of the Late Roman period in the Corinthia rooted in archaeological evidence continues to make two major arguments: (1) the Corinthia remained prosperous much longer than an earlier generation of scholars thought and (2) At some point in Late Antiquity, and through a variety of processes, the Corinthia became Christian.

The first argument is an economic version of the old “decline of the Roman Empire” debate.  To simplify, this argument demonstrates that Corinth remained economically prosperous far longer than people expected.  This prosperity depended upon its place within the larger economic world of the Roman Eastern Mediterranean (which included numerous other sites that continued to prosper longer than scholars have traditionally thought).  The continued prosperity of Corinth and the Eastern Empire allowed for the city to continue to fulfill many functions traditionally associated with the Classical or Roman city albeit perhaps through different institutions.  In other words, the city was not in decline (at least economic decline), but was undergoing changes in institutional structure.  This proposition typically contributes to an updated version of the “decline of the Roman Empire” debate which centers on more qualitative arguments over continuity or change in the Roman world.  Typically, scholars have continued to see prosperity in the Late Roman Corinthia well into the 6th century A.D.  The evidence for this argument largely comes from revised dating of ceramics.  By assigning ceramics later dates, we can not only show that trade continued later than expected, but also revise the dating of buildings and other civic activities to show that urban life continued later than expected.

The second argument is related, but largely independent from debates over prosperity in the Corinthia.  Increasingly, scholars have argued that Corinth Christianized rather later than other cities.  The largely 6th century date for the construction of Early Christian basilicas is the main evidence for the Christianization of Corinth at a late date.  In other words, monumental architecture provides evidence for the presence of the Christian church as an institution in Corinth, and this must have represented a critical mass of Christians among the population and accelerated the conversion of lingering pagans.  Some scholars have even seen the large scale and number of baptisteries around the city of Corinth (at the Lechaion, Kraneion, Skoutelas, and Kenchreai basilicas) as being a functional response to the large number of converts present in the community.

In general, there has been only minor efforts to generalize from the larger historical consequences of these two debates.  The questions linked to these two positions are numerous and significant.  For example, if Corinth is so deeply interconnected with the larger Mediterranean, why does it Christianize later than many other major Mediterranean urban areas? Does the relatively late date of Christianization suggest that economic ties did not facilitate cultural or religious change?  Did the continue prosperity of Corinth stand so independent from imperial ties that the construction of monumental Christian architecture by the local elite did not represent a strategy to improve one’s status both across the empire and at home?   Did the religious ties to the west (through the position of the Church of Corinth as subordinate to the Papacy in the West) and economic and political relationship between Corinth and centers in the East?

Church and City in Late Antiquity

Nate Andrade had a nice article in the most recent volume of the Journal of Early Christian Studies, titled, “The Processions of John Chrysostom and the Contested Spaces of Constantinople”.  In it, Andrade considers the role of processions, particularly those led by the controversial Patriarch John Chrysostom, in transforming urban spaces inscribed with “secular” or even pagan significance into spaces of Christian ritual.  He set Chrysostom’s actions against the dual backdrops of his longstanding criticism of secular institutions ranging from the baths to the theater and games (many of which date to his days in Antioch) and Chrysostom’s battles with members of the Theodosian court in Constantinople.  The use of processions, highlighted by singing psalms, obvious displays of Christian regalia, and perhaps even the Christian scents of incense, combated the secular or even demonic associations that Chrysostom saw in the chaotic, temptation filled, world of the Late Antique city.

Andrade’s subtle article relies on the unprecedented textual sources for the city of Constantinople in the 5th century and the relatively substantial accounts of Chrysostom’s controversial term as bishop of the city.  (A similarly, if now somewhat dated account of the relationship between the city and church appears in Tim Gregory’s Vox Populi).  It’s tempting to imagine how Chrysostom’s use of processions in Constantinople would translate to cities where our textual evidence is more limited.  For example, do the acclamations inscribed in public spaces in Aphrodisias (and so carefully analyzed by C. Roueché) commemorate a kind of processional practice similar to those employed by Chrysostom?

It is particularly valuable to consider how public processions expanded the range of liturgical practice from the space of the church building to the urban space and the community.  As early as the early 4th-century, Licinius considered it a useful strategy of expel Christians from their churches and force them to hold their services outdoors or outside the walls of the city (Eusebius, VC, 1.53).   This suggests that Chrysostom was not the first to challenge the secular or pagan nature of the city through Christian assemblies held outside the space of the church.  J. Baldovin argues for a kind processional warfare between various groups of Christians in the city of Constantinople during the 5th century (Baldovin, The Urban Character of Christian Worship, 183-184).  Andrade’s article as well as earlier and later evidence suggests that urban space could well accommodate Christian liturgical practices which the clergy viewed as tool to sanctify secular or pagan places.  This turns on its head the idea that Christian sacred space, namely church buildings, represented sacred spaces that were a kind of pre-condition for liturgical practices.  While the presence of relics, iconography, and both functional and mnemonic architecture surely reinforced the suitability of the church for liturgical activities, the Christianized space did not require these features.  In other words, Christian activities made places sacred in Late Antiquity.

The mobility and transferability of the Christian sacred within Late Antique society makes using archaeology to reconstruct Christian landscapes particularly challenging. With the exception of the kind of inscribed acclamations mentioned earlier, processional liturgies would leave very little physical evidence.

Categories: Late Antiquity

Indigenous Archaeology Georgian Style

June 30, 2010 1 comment

One of the most exciting afternoon from this year in Cyprus involved a trip to the ruined monastery at Yialia in the mountains about Polis on the Western side of Cyprus.  According to textual sources, Georgian monks founded the monastery on the island in the 10th century and it was occupied until the 14th century.  The church is currently under study by a group of archaeologists from the Republic of Georgia with support, apparently, from the Archbishop of Cyprus.


The monastic church itself is a traditional Athonite plan with its characteristic triconch arrangement. Massive cisterns, storeroom, and living quarters for the monks (apparently) extend from the church’s southern side. The monastic church underwent several significant modifications in plan including an extension to the narthex, rather significant adjustments to the eastern end of the church, a chapel annex on the northern side, and a very strange tetrapylon type structure abutting the southern apse of the Athonite triconch.  The ruins preserve some wall painting on the upper, more sheltered parts of the collapsed vaults, as well as some better preserved frescoes which were built around during the buildings numerous modifications.


The most interesting thing about this very curious building is how it is used today.  The ruins of the church are currently used for the celebration of liturgy.  A portable altar and prothesis stand at the eastern end of the church despite the ruinous condition of the sanctuary space.


Incense burners and evidence for the burning of candles dot the various ledges and niches of the ruined walls.  The practice of re-using excavated, yet nevertheless consecrated sacred space is not entirely rare.  I observed a similar phenomenon at the church of St. Tychon near Amathous, for example.  It does, however, shed some valuable light on the intersection of long-standing forms of religious archaeology (dream archaeology being just one example) and modern “scientific” archaeological practice.  This kind of provision use of a ruined church may also reflect some of the practices common to ancient and Byzantine Christianity where churches damaged by earthquakes or neglect continue to be places of intermittent devotional practices.


Making this point all the more clear, a casket occupies of the center of the nave.  Apparently the excavations revealed a number of burials around the church and the monastic complex.  A few of these burials appear to be marked by small, Georgian style crosses.


It seems reasonable to assume that the remains from these excavated grave sites are placed in the conspicuous casket.  Apparently, the Georgian church plans to build a new monastery nearby and perhaps the bones of these now excavated monks will be brought to rest there.


The architecture, decoration, inscriptions (some in Georgian), and artifacts from this church will surely contribute to our understanding of the multi-ethnic character of Medieval Cyprus.  More than that, however, the combination of “scientific” archaeology and Christian devotional practices shows the potential for a kind of indigenous archaeological practice to exist alongside largely “western” (by some definition) archaeological practices, methods, and presumably epistemology.