Ending Of Ancient Cities essay example

2,204 words
The Ancient City was more than a cluster of classical buildings. If we were to define an Ancient City we would undoubtedly mention the public buildings, the civic monuments, the theatres, the temples and the colonnaded streets. However the term Ancient City has a deeper meaning. In our definition we must also state that the classical cities were run by the curiale classes on councils, and that ancient cities were essentially self-governed. Historians see the Ancient City in its political and cultural context as well as its aesthetic-architectural one. As Liebeschetz states, it was the political institutions, the entertainments, the arts and the festivals that helped unite social groups within these cities.

So, when analysing the ending of Ancient Cities we must look at the physical changes, but also the political, social and cultural ones. There are a number of problems that we encounter when dating the ending of the Ancient City. Ancient Cities developed where the Roman Empire developed and it would be overly simplistic to think that the Roman cities in the Eastern Provinces and those in the Western provinces ended at the same time. More fundamentally we must ask what we mean by the ending of an Ancient City. Different definitions will certainly bring differing dates. The remains of Ancient Cities co-existed with the new forms of cities for centuries.

Indeed many buildings from the Ancient City were converted or simply abandoned. It is wiser therefore to talk of the ending of the political and cultural characteristics. Clearly no precise date will fit all cities, but by the end of the 6th century, and certainly at the start of 7th century, we can say that most Ancient Cities had ended. By this point many cities in th Balkans, such as Stob bi, Nicopolis and Phillioopopolis had few signs of urban life at all. A more common consequence seems to be the fortification of a much contracted city area. This is seen to some extent in Rome and Constantinople.

Most importantly, and perhaps most consistently, we see that very few curiales, or councils, survived into the 7th century. There is evidence of curiale activity in 590, but this was by no means the norm. These dates are necessarily vague. The geographical range of cities and the less than easy to measure criteria make it impossible to give a more precise date, but we can say that by this period very few cities could be labelled as Ancient. Traditionally a large amount of blame for the ending of the Ancient Cities has been apportioned on a series of damaging events. Many of these events occurred in 6th century.

Serious outbreaks of plague, invasions, wars, swarms of locusts and earthquakes afflicted many Ancient Cities, but especially those in the East. According to C. Mango the plague of 542 had severe demographic consequences. He cites the facts that the plague mainly affected the young and that it recurred roughly every fifteen years. Famine was also common in this period. A temporary food shortage was bearable, but any prolonged shortage was disastrous. Poor infrastructure meant that agricultural surpluses from elsewhere could not be imported to alleviate the shortages.

At the peak of the famine in Edessa it is thought that 180 people a day died of starvation. Mango believes that the increased price of wheat and the ensuing inflation that followed famines were a major reasons for urban to rural migration. The effect of sacking and invasions seems even more pronounced. Sirmium, once an imperial capital never recovered after a Hun nic sack, and was completely deserted after an Avar invasion in 582. It would be overly simplistic to suggest that these were primary reasons for the ending of ancient cities. Yes, these factors may have hastened the fall of the ancient cities, but as we shall see more structural changes had been transforming cities well before the 6th century.

The curial led self-administration of ancient cities was a central Greco-Roman characteristic. Curiales, or decursions, were usually landowners who were given the responsibility of administering the city. In the first three centuries this civic responsibility was seen as an honour. Curiales competed for status within the city by donating money for civic buildings and decoration, and on a higher level a citys status was highlighted by the quantity and quality of its civil buildings.

However, the responsibilities of curiales became increasingly burdensome. As early as the 4th century we see curiales bemoaning the pressures placed on them from the imperial authorities. The burden of collecting tax was increased as the imperial government requested more and more revenue for its enlarged bureaucracy and continued war campaigning. The curiale classes were not only forced to collect more revenue, but on a personal level it has been suggested that they had to relinquish up to one third of their income.

For most the financial pressures became too much. Many escaped into the increasingly large imperial service. The imperial service had many advantageous perks including virtual tax immunity. A large number joined the clergy as a way of evading their duties. Some even turned to an ascetic life and renounced their property.

Curial positions were taken by the less well off. They lacked the resources to maintain existing civic buildings let alone create new ones. The weakening of the education system also damaged the curial order. The education system was severely damaged by the imperial and local persecution of Pagans. Mango suggests that by the end of the 6th century higher education survived only in Constantinople, Alexandria and Berytus. Indeed by 726 a contemporary source noted the extinction of schools.

This is hardly reflective of a continuing literary tradition. Many of the landowning elite moved away to the countryside. The ruralization of the powerful elites is often cited as a reason for the end of the Ancient City. A classical city could hardly survive without its richest and most educated citizens. Late Roman aristocrats certainly spent time in their villas and by the 5th century landowners were able to fortify their lands.

The case of Ecdicius using his army to resist the Visogths in 471 is a case in point. The decline in the literary tradition of the cities will have aided this move to the countryside. Similarly the imposition of the collegia, or tax on craftsmen, may have caused a migration of artisans from town to country. Archaeological evidence shows that villages themselves were becoming increasingly fortified. However it is difficult to distinguish between the pull factors of the rural monasteries and the push factors of the falling cities.

There is little empirical evidence of a large increase in the rural population and we can question the extent of this ruralization. The large-scale church building in the 5th and 6th centuries was funded by donations from benefactors, and it would seem highly unlikely that elites living outside the city would fund such status giving monuments. We cannot accurately judge the level of ruralization in this period, but we can say that the dynamic between the countryside and the urban centres had changed. Liebschuetz uses the decline in the Roman tax system and the fact that the imperial army increasingly recruited from the peasantry as the basis for suggesting that the integration of urban centre and surrounding territory had ended. He also suggests that this relationship was the principle character of the ancient city. This statement is questionable and as we have seen previously we can also doubt the level of breakdown between city and countryside, especially in the east where we continue to see agricultural markets throughout the period.

The Christianisation and Islamicisation of the Roman Empire were major factors in the transformation of Ancient Cities. We see from the period of church-building in late 5th and 6th centuries, notably in Trier and Cologne, that urban cities had become dominantly Christian especially in the West. Indeed the 4th and 5th centuries saw the closing of many pagan temples. The cultural landscape had changed which in turn changed the physical landscape.

Rich benefactors were now cajoled into donating money for orphanages, monasteries, old peoples homes and of course churches. In the ancient city civic identity was expressed through the medium of building and decoration, but in the Christian city civic identity was expressed through the cults of saints. For example the city of Seleucia used the cult of St. Thelma to famines of c 500 to assert its identity vociferously. The change in emphasis from secular to religious civil pride highlights the administrative role that the church played.

The bishop, and his clergy, took on the role of administering the towns after the demise of the curiale classes. In many cases the church acted out a role as a social security system by redistributing wealth from the elites to the poor. The Christianisation of urban life also led to a decline in the activities that bonded urban Roman society. The church viewed classic features of the ancient city suspiciously. It frowned on the theatre and the hippodrome. This aversion to public entertainment can be viewed as a purely theological phenomenon, or, more cynically, as an attempt to lure the masses into the cities increasingly large numbers of churches.

The impact of the growth of Islam in the east was equally profound. Kennedy, whilst telling us of the significant architectural impact of Islam in the east, also shows us the political and social effects. The construction of mosques clearly changed the physical landscape, but he points out that the Mosques took on a political and social function too. Mosques can be seen as an equivalent to the hippodromes or theatres of the classic city. The religious function of the mosque was complemented by educational and legal functions. We see other facets of Islam affecting the physical appearance of eastern cities.

The home and the family are fundamental to Islam and this was reflected in their usage of public space. Public space in the classical city was dependent on the relevant civic authorities having the power to stop encroachment, but the Islamic state was more minimalist than its Roman counterpart. Thus we see the erosion of public space as families built their houses on or indeed in, public space. The Muslim attitude to commerce also had an effect on the appearance of eastern cities.

The Roman attitude to commercial activity was neutral at best, but the Muslims saw honest commercial activity as more meritorious than civil or governmental work. This change in emphasis saw the development of sums, or narrow alleys ideally suited for an abundance of retail outlets, at the expense of the classic colonnaded streets. These cultural changes had direct and profound physical effects, which were intertwined with political, social and economic changes. It is worthwhile to note that, while we see a change in urban cities away from Ancient models, it would be wrong to suggest that we see a universal decline in cities. Yes, many cities did decline in terms of population and size. As we have seen many cities contracted and fortified around a much-reduced base, whilst others disappeared all together.

Older historians have suggested that the transformation of cities away from the classic ideal has represented a decline. They cite a decline from the classical ideal to urban squalor in the newly Islamic ised cities. These loaded statements go beyond the scope of the historian by adding value arguments to an already complex field. Such arguments gloss over more important aspects of urban change. For example, the cities of Damascus and Aleppo were undoubtedly transformed from classical cities into vibrant Islamic cities.

More old-fashioned historians would call this a decline, but evidence suggests that urban vitality actually increased as a result of the Islamicisation. When approaching this area we must be careful not to let value judgements cloud our interpretation and analysis. We have seen that localised events, socio-economic processes and cultural changes contributed to the demise of the ancient cities. By over estimating the effect of the 6th century disasters we construct an overly simplistic argument. Some cities did indeed succumb to invasion and maybe even plague, but the majority survived.

However these cities were no longer ancient. The flight of the curiales, the ruralization of the elites, the decline in education and the new cultures of Christianity, and in the later period Islam, had been changing the cities for centuries. The transformation of cities, not the decline, was long and slow. Our study shows us that this transformation, whilst ending a great classical tradition, was regenerative as well as destructive.