Byzantine Cities, Villages and Fortifications

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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

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

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

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Forschungsmitarbeiter Mitch Williamson is a technical writer with an interest in military and naval affairs. He has published articles in Cross & Cockade International and Wartime magazines. He was research associate for the Bio-history Cross in the Sky, a book about Charles ‘Moth’ Eaton’s career, in collaboration with the flier’s son, Dr Charles S. Eaton. He also assisted in picture research for John Burton’s Fortnight of Infamy. Mitch is now publishing on the WWW various specialist websites combined with custom website design work. He enjoys working and supporting his local C3 Church. “Curate and Compile“
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