The Idea and Ideal of the Town between Late Antiquity and the Early Middle Ages

By G. P. Brogiolo; Bryan Ward-Perkins | Go to book overview

THE IDEA OF THE TOWN IN THE
BYZANTINE EMPIRE

John Haldon

The historical evolution of urban centres from the sixth until the eleventh century can be described chronologically through three phases of development: the “late Roman” period, which draws to a close in the middle of the seventh century; the period stretching from the 650s to the 770s; and the period following this, culminating in the emergence of a new pattern of urban-rural relationships during the ninth and tenth centuries. But our concern is not the broader history of urban settlement as such—although this will inevitably inform our discussion—but rather the idea of the town. In other words, what did members of the culture in question think of towns, what terms did they use to describe them—and with what intentions— and what changes in the use of words for towns took place, for what reasons, over time and between different levels of social-cultural existence? In this article, I will survey very briefly the way in which urban centres were understood or described from the later sixth to the tenth century with reference to two chief aspects: (i) the use of technical or semi-technical words (such as polis, polisma, polichnion, kômopolis and kastron) to describe towns and cities, the physical sites which these represented for contemporaries, and the changing ways in which these words were applied and the contexts in which they may be interpreted (which impinges also on the cultural assumptions of elites in the period in question in respect of towns and cities, i.e. to what extent is association with a city an important aspect of cultural identity and self-image); and (ii) the relationship between Constantinople and provincial centres.

Let me summarise briefly the historical context for this, in order to frame my remarks. Although no doubt well-known in many of its aspects, it is worth briefly recapitulating some key points here.

The historical context is provided by the long-term and complex process of erosion of the social and economic networks which supported cities as autonomous and self-governing bodies, with their corporate civic identities, which it is now generally accepted took place

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