At the moment I’m reading “Byzantium in the Seventh Century – the Transformation of a Culture”. This is a book by John Haldon who is open about his historical materialist (ie. Marxist) approach to studying history.
Chapter 3 covers the controversy about the fate of Byzantine cities between the 5th and 8th centuries. This is a matter of some debate with scholars putting various theories forward. At the end of late antiquity (the 5th century) the eastern half of the Roman empire remains noticeably antique. It is a literate urban culture where cities form the key centres. Cities had once been the focus of local administration, and vestiges of this still remained although much of the real power had shifted to the central government. Physically these cities were broadly of antique style with open centres and broad thoroughfares with spaces for public life to take place.
One aspect of the controversy is the extent to which this picture remained by the 8th century. To what extent is there continuity between the later cities and the earlier ones?
Simply presented the two extremes of opinion are first that there was a large degree of continuity. That most sites remained in broadly the same place and slowly changed in form and function until the medieval city emerged. The second extreme suggests that there was a significant breakdown with the antique cities being destroyed in the turmoil of Persian and Arab invasions. Later ‘cities’ were dramatically different and effectively new foundations – even where located close to an ancient site.
Haldon makes what must be the important point from an historical materialist perspective. This is simply that it is clear that change happened. The cities of the 8th century had radically different form and function from those of the 5th century. The question for the historian to answer is what changes in social relations drove the changes in the cities – regardless of what stimulus eventually brought the transformation about, and whether the change was gradual or traumatic.
In fact, Haldon explains, historians have been looking in the wrong place – trying to define continuity or change according to whether a site remained occupied or was abandoned. What is clear is that the role of the city within the structure of late antique society was changing – and that this process of change can be identified both in areas where the Arab invasions will have had a dramatic impact (the borderlands) and in places where they didn’t.
The city was no longer relevant to the needs of the state or the ruling elite. Fiscal and economic control had passed to the central offices of the bureaucracy – a process which began in the 4th century driven by the need to maximise revenue. The old local curial order migrated into the new service elite based around the Emperor’s patronage and shrugged off the now un-rewarding municipal ties.
The cities morphed into medieval towns in diverse ways depending on local circumstance – or disappeared completely in places.