Roads to Recovery: An Investigation of Early Medieval Agrarian Strategies in Byzantine Italy in and around the Eighth Century

By Arthur, Paul; Fiorentino, Girolamo et al. | Antiquity, June 2012 | Go to article overview

Roads to Recovery: An Investigation of Early Medieval Agrarian Strategies in Byzantine Italy in and around the Eighth Century


Arthur, Paul, Fiorentino, Girolamo, Grasso, Anna Maria, Antiquity


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Introduction

The eighth century was historically momentous for Byzantium. It witnessed the definitive rise of Arab power in the Mediterranean and the Middle East, and the consequent waning of Byzantine power and influence. In Italy, Byzantine Ravenna fell to the Lombards in AD 751, Rome and Naples gained independence, and by the end of the century Charlemagne had established his own 'Roman' empire, which was to include much of the northern and central part of the peninsula. The Italian territory of Byzantium was to be reduced substantially to Sicily and to the southerly parts of modern Calabria and Apulia. The Byzantine monetary economy had ceased throughout much of the empire and trade was at an all-time low. Constantinople itself was racked by religious strife as iconoclasm came to the fore, bringing with it intolerance, witch-hunts and emigration to Italy and to other outlying provinces. The history of this tortured and imperfectly understood century, fundamental for our understanding of a new order following the demise of antiquity, has recently been made the subject of a major study by Leslie Brubaker and John Haldon (2011). Their comprehensive work on the story so far makes it quite clear that the immense reservoir of archaeological and environmental data, regarding the rebirth of the Mediterranean economy after the collapse of Roman imperialism, is still largely to be tapped.

Now, in the Salento (southern Apulia), the very heel of Italy and a far-flung western territory of the Byzantine empire, archaeology is beginning to tell a story of local survival and gradual growth in and around the eighth century, with the new exploitation of natural resources in a demonstrably changing environment.

Background

From the later sixth century, Italy's main link to the Eastern empire became the ancient port-town of Otranto (Hydruntum). It effectively replaced Brindisi (Brundisium) which, before the Balkan peninsula had been overrun by the Slavs, had linked the ancient Via Appia, by means of a short sea-haul across the Adriatic, with the Via Egnatia, which ran from Durres (Dyrrhachium) to Constantinople. Although Otranto itself had briefly succumbed to the Lombards of Benevento in the mid eighth century, reference is made by the Lombard historian Paul the Deacon to its international trade in the latter years of the same century (Hist. Lang. II.21; Bethman & Waitz 1878; on Otranto at this time see now Von Falkenhausen 2007). Indeed, around the same years as Paul was writing, a kiln site was established close to Otranto's port basin in order to produce amphorae, probably intended for exportation to sites across the Adriatic such as Butrint and Corinth. Perhaps they contained local wine. Indeed, gas chromatography on similar vessels from a Byzantine village at Supersano, south of Lecce, to which we shall later return, has yielded traces of pine resin and, in one case, through infrared spectrophotometry, calcium tartrate, a by-product of wine manufacture (Arthur et al. 2008: 372). Nevertheless, the question of contents remains open, as somewhat similar globular amphorae from the ninth-century shipwreck of Bozburun, off south-west Turkey, have yielded both olive stones and grape seeds (Hocker 1998).

Unlike much of the Salento at this time, the immediate hinterland of Otranto must have been particularly well-watered and fertile (Figure 1). Of the two small valleys behind the town, one, the Valle del'Idro, was irrigated by a natural spring called le sorgenti di Carlo Magno, attributed by local legend to the direct intervention of Charlemagne. Though he is not known to have acted at Otranto, the use of his name might suggest that engineering works on the spring line took place between the later eighth and early ninth centuries.

Sites and resources in the eighth century

To the north of Otranto, field survey around the Alimini Lakes in 2009 brought to light a number of small farms or villages that testify to the opening-up of land that would appear to have been largely deserted and overgrown with Mediterranean macchia in classical times (Figure 2). …

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