Byzantine Cities, Villages and Fortifications

The fortress town of Theodoro-Mangup in the 15th century, the last remnant of the Byzantine Empire to resist against the Ottomans until being conquered in 1475.

Gevele Castle is a ruined castle located on the summit of Mount Takkeli in Konya Province, Turkey. The site was used as a fortified site during the Hittites, Hellenistic, Roman, Byzantine, Seljuk, Karamanid and Ottoman eras.

One of the most obvious effects of warfare is to be seen in the architectural heritage of a society, primarily in respect of fortifications and in shifts in settlement patterns and relationships between centres of consumption and areas of production. In the East Roman world such shifts are especially apparent during the seventh century and in the aftermath of the Persian and more particularly the Arab invasions. While these wars were in themselves neither the original stimulus for the transformation of urban life in the late Roman and early Byzantine period, nor the only factor affecting the evolution of fortified inhabited sites during the period from the seventh to the twelfth centuries, they were nevertheless a crucial factor in the form towns and fortresses took and in the pace of their evolution.

In fact, there had been a slow process of transformation in the pattern of late Roman urban society over the centuries preceding both the Persian wars and the Arab conquests which it will be worth very briefly summarizing here. During the Roman period cities—poleis or civitates—had held a key role in both social and economic relations, as well as in the imperial fiscal administration. They could function as market centres for their district or region or, where ports were concerned, as major foci of long-distance commerce. Some fulfilled all these roles, others remained merely administrative centres created by the state for its own fiscal administrative purposes. All cities were also self-governing districts with, originally, their own lands, and were made responsible by the Roman state for the return of taxes—indeed, where cities in their Mediterranean form did not exist, the Roman state created them, either establishing new foundations or amalgamating or changing the form of preexisting settlements, providing them with the corporate identity, institutional structure and legal personality of a civitas. All cities, with a few exceptions such as Rome and Constantinople, were dependent on their immediate hinterlands for their (usually highly localized) market and industrial functions, where these existed at all, as well as for the foodstuffs on which the urban populace lived. As the society of the empire evolved away from the relationships and conditions which gave rise to and maintained these urban structures, so the cities became the first key institution of the classical world to feel the effects of these changes.

The form which these changes took are complex, but mirror the effects of a growing tension between state, cities and private landowners to extract surpluses from the producers, and the failure of the cities to weather the contradictions between their municipal independence on the one hand, and on the other the demands of the state and the vested interests of the wealthier civic landowners. While many cities were able to maintain themselves and their fiscal role well into the first half of the seventh century in the east, it is clear already by the later fourth century that many did or could not. There were regional variations, but as a result, and over the period from the later fourth to the later fifth century (in the west until the empire disappears as well as in the east), the state had to intervene increasingly to ensure the extraction of revenues, so that the burden of fiscal accountability had been considerably reduced, if not removed entirely, during the reign of Anastasius (491–518). This may even have promoted the brief renaissance in urban fortunes which took place in some eastern cities in the sixth century, but it did not re-establish their traditional independence and fiscal responsibilities.

The physical structure of cities was transformed over the course of the later fifth and sixth centuries, and archaeological evidence has revealed an almost universal tendency for cities to lose by neglect many of the features familiar from their classical structure. Major public buildings fall into disrepair, systems of water supply are often abandoned (suggesting a drop-in population), rubbish is dumped in abandoned buildings, major thoroughfares and public spaces are built on, and so on. These changes may not necessarily have involved any substantial reduction in economic or exchange activity in cities, of course. On the other hand, the undoubted decline in the maintenance of public structures or amenities—baths, aqueducts, drains, street surfaces, walls—is suggestive of a major shift in the modes of urban living: of both the object of the investment of wealth, and of finance and administration in particular. And from the middle of the seventh well into the ninth century the only evidence for building activity associated with provincial urban contexts concerns fortification work and the construction or repair of churches or buildings associated with monastic centres.

By the early years of the seventh century all the evidence suggests that cities as corporate bodies were simply less well-off than they had been before about the middle of the sixth century. There may have been as much wealth circulating in urban environments as before, with the difference that the city as an institution had only very limited access to it, having lost their lands and the income from those lands. During the later sixth century in particular the local wealthy tended to invest their wealth in religious buildings or related objects (so that there was an evolving pattern of investment as much as there was a decline). In addition, the church was from the fourth century a competitor with the city for the consumption of resources. And however much their citizens might donate, individually or collectively, this can hardly have compensated for this loss. Indeed, such contributions became the main source of independent income for many cities. The archaeological data suggests a shrinkage of the occupied area of many cities during the sixth century, and even an increasing localization of exchange activity; but again, this does not have to mean a change in their role as local centres of such exchange.

The survival of urban settlements during and after the Arab invasions—thus from the 640s until the 750s—owed much to the fact that they might occupy defensible sites, as well as be centres of military or ecclesiastical administration. But endemic warfare and insecurity, economic dislocation and social change meant that the great majority played a role peripheral to, and derived from, the economic and social life of the countryside, and reflected if anything the needs of state and church. The invasions of the seventh century dealt what was simply the final blow to an institution that was already in the process of long-term transformation.

Fortifications serve several purposes: to protect populations and/or soldiers and their supplies, equipment and armaments, to act as refuges for civilian populations in times of need, and to provide safe bases for soldiers from which to protect the surrounding countryside or a particular route or crossroads of strategic value, as well as to serve as a deterrent to hostile attack and as defended watch-posts to warn of invasion and perhaps to delay the enemy advance, or to function as bases from which raids or attacks against enemy installations might also be mounted. Each of these functions demands different sorts of defensive works, of course, depending upon size, location, availability of supplies of food and water, proximity to similar defensive structures, the possibilities of relief when attacked, and so forth. The Roman state had a long and sophisticated tradition of fortification, and this was inherited without a break by its medieval East Roman successor.

During the period from the third to the sixth century the Roman world saw a generalized tendency to provide settlements of all sizes with walls and some form of defensive perimeter where there had hitherto been no such defences, a reflection both of a real threat in those areas most affected by external attack, and a changing set of assumptions about what a “city” should look like. In many exposed areas a move from a lowland site to a more defensible situation nearby, or the re-use of older pre-Roman hilltop fortified sites takes place, and although there are a number of reasons for this gradual process in the late Roman period, it increases very dramatically during the later fourth and fifth centuries in the Balkans as a result of the constant threat from Germanic and steppe nomadic barbarians, and again during the seventh century in Anatolia in response to the effects of the Persian and then particularly the Arab invasions and raids. But the contrast between the late ancient polis and the middle Byzantine kastron should not be exaggerated: of the large number of settled sites which can clearly be differentiated from undefended rural settlements, only a small proportion bore the official or unofficial characteristics of a polis in the classical sense. A far larger number were characterized already in the fourth and fifth centuries, and especially in the sixth century, by features normally identified archaeologically and topographically as characteristic of defended centres of population with administrative and military functions, exactly the same, in fact, as the later Byzantine kastron. The transformations which occurred did not, except in a relatively small number of cases, involve a universal abandonment of formerly urban sites (poleis) in favour of hilltop fortified sites (kastra). Rather, it involved a change in the way populations were distributed between such sites, their extent and how they were occupied.

With a handful of exceptions, such as Nicaea, Constantinople and Thessaloniki, most of the major classical cities shrank during the seventh century to the size of their defended citadels, even though the “lower city” of such towns—the main late Roman inhabited area—may have been in many cases still the site of smaller communities. Archaeological surveys suggest that Ancyra shrank to a small citadel during the 650s and 660s, the fortress occupying an area of 350×150 metres, the occupied upper town in which it was situated occupying an area not much larger; Amorion, which supposedly had a vast perimeter wall, was defended successfully in 716 by 800 men against an attacking army more than ten times larger, the area of the kastron occupying some 450×300 metres. The latter survey has also shown that, while the classical/late Roman site was indeed very extensive, with an impressive wall and towers, the occupied medieval areas were thus similar to those of Ancyra. Amastris, mod. Amasra, offers similar evidence, as does Kotyaion, mod. Kütahya, and there are many more formerly major centres which underwent a similar transformation. In some Byzantine texts, mostly hagiographical, there occur descriptions of “cities” with populations inhabiting the lower town. Excavations at Amorion and several other sites show that while the very small fortress-citadel continued to be defended and occupied, discrete areas within the late Roman walls also continued to be inhabited, often centred around a church. In Amorion there were at least two and probably three such areas. Small but distinct communities thus continued to exist within the city walls, while the citadel or kastron—which kept the name of the ancient polis— provided a refuge in case of attack. Many cities of the seventh to ninth centuries survived because their inhabitants, living effectively in separate communities or villages within the walls, saw themselves as belonging to the polis itself. In some cases, the walls of the lower town area were maintained—irregularly, for the most part—in order to provide shelter for larger than usual concentrations of troops. This may have been the case at Amorion, for example. Together with the large number of much smaller garrison forts and outposts of a purely military nature (although sometimes associated with village settlements nearby or below them), such provincial kastra (which were also called, confusingly, poleis by their inhabitants and by many writers who mention them) and frontier fortresses, generally sited on rocky outcrops and prominences, often also the sites of pre-Roman fortresses, typified the East Roman provincial countryside well into the Seljuk period and beyond, and determined the pattern of development of urban centres when they were able to expand once more during the tenth and eleventh centuries.

There is in the development of late Roman fortification a move from passive, linear defences sufficient to repel relatively primitive, barbarian attackers, to more complex, active defensive arrangements, with large numbers of towers providing intersecting fields of fire and complex gate arrangements. Byzantine fortresses after the seventh century generally involved combinations of protruding towers, angled gates, sometimes including a tower-fortress integrated into an inner curtain wall. The notion of a central stronghold that could continue to resist the enemy after the curtain had fallen and the “lower” defences were taken can be traced back to the Hellenistic period at least in some Anatolian fortresses, and was reflected both in the reoccupation and refortification of many ancient citadels and acropoleis within, or attached to, cities of the Roman period as well as in the construction of tower-fortresses where a natural defensive height was not available (as at Nicaea, for example). The Norman and western keep represents the same idea, given added stimulus in respect of technique and materials, especially in the use of lime mortar, by the Crusaders’ experiences in the Balkans, Asia Minor and Syria-Palestine. With the recovery of the empire’s economic stability from the ninth century on, many urban centres recovered their fortunes, although their physical appearance was very different from that of their late antique predecessors. On the eastern frontier especially the empire constructed a number of major fortified centres serving chiefly as strategic centres and military bases, rather than centres of local population, fortresses which have only recently attracted the attention of archaeologists and architectural historians and which clearly had a major role in both frontier defence and internal security. Such fortifications closely reflected the strategic networks of the regions in which they were established, both in respect of communications and routes of ingress and egress, as well as—depending upon the region—of economic activity and the movement of resources. Fortifications were an integral element of every town and, the recovery of substantial areas in western Asia Minor during the first half of the twelfth century owes much to the policies of Alexios I, John II and Manuel I in utilizing fortress towns as solid bases which, regardless of the frequency or damage caused by the raids of the Turk nomads from the plateau to the east, could control the countryside and maintain imperial political and fiscal authority. Warfare—and the events of the seventh century in particular —had a lasting effect on the pattern and form of concentrated settlement in both the Balkans and Asia Minor, a pattern that was further inflected in Asia Minor especially by the Seljuk invasions and the warfare of the twelfth century and after.

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