Medieval Studies Constantinople and Byzantine Cities
by
Albrecht Berger
  • LAST MODIFIED: 25 September 2023
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195396584-0329

Introduction

The Byzantine or Eastern Roman Empire gradually emerged in the fifth century, when the Roman Empire in the West collapsed as a result of the Germanic migration. From then until the end of the empire in the fifteenth century, Constantinople was its undisputed capital and its cultural center. Shortly after the temporary reconquest of Italy and North Africa in the sixth century, most of the Balkan Peninsula was lost to the Slavs, then in the seventh century the entire Middle East and Egypt to the Islamic Arabs. The cities in the remaining areas lost most of their inhabitants, and their urban self-government disappeared and they fell into ruins. Many of them were now reduced in size, equipped with new fortifications or moved to other, better protected locations. With the reconquest of Greece in the late eighth century and the successful defense of Asia Minor against the attacks of the Arabs, the situation slowly improved. The cities slowly began to grow again, but they never regained the size and economic strength of late antiquity. Urban representative buildings were now practically limited to churches, monasteries, and occasionally small noble palaces. Only a few cities attained greater importance than in antiquity for economic or military reasons, and new cities were only built in exceptional cases. The territory of the empire shrank again when Asia Minor was lost to the Turks after 1071 and only partially reconquered. In the twelfth century, contacts with Western Europe grew strongly as a result of the Crusades. Foreigners, especially Italian merchants, were now permanently present in Constantinople. The continuing dominance of the imperial court and government in the capital, however, prevented the emergence of a self-confident urban bourgeoisie, as in Italy at the same time, and the economic development associated with it. When Constantinople and parts of the empire were conquered by the knights of the Fourth Crusade in 1204, new residential cities on the periphery emerged, such as Nikaia and Trebizond in Asia Minor, Arta in western Greece, and later also Mystras in the Peloponnese. In the late Byzantine period, after the reconquest of Constantinople in 1261, Thessalonica played an important role as the second city in the empire, while Athens never returned to Byzantine possession. The history of the Byzantine cities ends with the conquest of Constantinople by the Ottomans in 1453, and of the last remaining territories in the following years. Due to the large amount of material, only selected cities in the areas that still belonged to the Byzantine Empire after the seventh century will be considered in this article.

General Overviews

The following works do not deal with individual cities, but with the problems of cities and their development in the Byzantine Empire in general. Brandes 1989 is still the best introduction to the Byzantine cities in the so-called “Dark Ages” of the seventh and eighth centuries; more recent studies, with a wider geographical and chronological framework, are Zavagno 2009 and Zavagno 2021. For the process of change from ancient to medieval city in the sixth century and its perception in literary sources, see especially Saradi 2006. Aspects of the internal division of cities into neighborhoods and their functions are discussed by Kondyli and Anderson 2022, and the problem of food supply by Vroom 2023. For the rarely treated question of medieval Byzantine town planning, see Buchwald 2007.

  • Brandes, Wolfram. Die Städte Kleinasiens im 7. und 8. Jahrhundert. Berliner Byzantinistische Arbeiten 56. Berlin: Akademie-Verlag, 1989.

    DOI: 10.1515/9783112587300

    A study of the cities in the core area of Byzantium in the “Dark Ages,” with a special focus on their economic development.

  • Buchwald, Hans. “Byzantine Town Planning—Does It Exist?” In Material Culture and Well-Being in Byzantium (400–1453). Edited by Michael Grünbart, 57–74. Veröffentlichungen zur Byzanzforschung 1. Vienna: Verlag der Österreichischen Akademie der Wissenschaften, 2007.

    Discusses the gradually increasing Christian impact on town planning and the prominent role of fortified cities especially in the late Byzantine age.

  • Kondyli, Fotini, and Benjamin Anderson, eds. The Byzantine Neighbourhood: Urban Space and Political Action. Birmingham Byzantine and Ottoman Studies 31. London and New York: Routledge, 2022.

    Proceedings of a symposium on Byzantine towns and cities as seen from the perspective of urban neighborhoods as political and social entities.

  • Saradi, Helen G. The Byzantine City in the Sixth Century: Literary Images and Historical Reality. Athens: Society of Messenian Archaeological Studies, 2006.

    Discusses the image of the city in the literature and art of Byzantium and the changes of architecture and public space in the Middle Ages.

  • Vroom, Joanita, ed. Feeding the Byzantine City: The Archaeology of Consumption in the Eastern Mediterranean (ca. 500–1500). Medieval and Post-Medieval Mediterranean Archaeology 5. Turnhout, Belgium: Brepols, 2023.

    A recent volume on the foodstuff supply of Byzantine provincial cities, mainly based on the evidence of ceramics and with a focus on the European part of the empire.

  • Zavagno, Luca. Cities in Transition: Urbanism in Byzantium between Late Antiquity and the Early Middle Ages (AD 500–900). BAR International Series 2030. Oxford: Archaeopress, 2009.

    DOI: 10.30861/9781407306070

    Discusses the specific problems of Byzantine urban archaeology, with case studies on Athens, Gortyn on Crete, and Ephesus and Amastris in Asia Minor.

  • Zavagno, Luca. The Byzantine City from Heraclius to the Fourth Crusade, 610–1204: Urban Life after Antiquity. Cham, Switzerland: Palgrave Pivot, 2021.

    DOI: 10.1007/978-3-030-84307-6

    A critical overview of the research on early Byzantine urban life, based both on archaeological and literary sources, which shows the enormous cultural and economic complexity of cities in the Byzantine age.

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