The Late Antique Urban Landscape

Allison Kidd workshop

New opportunities and challenges for civic communities in Late Antiquity

On 21-22 March 2019, an interdisciplinary group of researchers were brought together at the University of Edinburgh by Postdoctoral Fellow Dr Allison Kidd for the research symposium The Late Antique Urban Landscape: Continuity, Transformation, and Innovation at the Juncture of the Classical and the Early Medieval as part of IASH’s Susan Manning Workshops series. Over the course of this 1½ day symposium, participants addressed significant instances of continuity, transformation, and innovation within the late antique urban milieu, with the aim of providing a more coherent narrative for the whole of the Mediterranean region from the 3rd through 8th centuries AD.

Increased scholarly interest in Late Antiquity and intensified archaeological investigations, particularly over the last twenty years, have done much to enhance our understanding of how cities evolved from the Classical to the Byzantine, Medieval and Islamic periods. Nevertheless, scholarship is far from arriving at an agreement over the characterisation of cities during this time. While many advances have been made since the early 20th century—when A.P. Rudakov advocated that ancient urban landscapes continued to function uninterrupted through the Byzantine and into the Medieval period—there still remains a major divide among scholars; while some prefer to view the situation as one of homogenous stagnation and decline, others prefer one of dynamic transformation and prosperity. This historical period saw the fall of the western Roman Empire to various barbarian incursions along with the abandonment of many of classical antiquity’s famed cities. Yet it also saw the expansion of the Byzantine Empire and the emergence of the Umayyad Caliphate as major developments that instigated the founding of several new sites and the lavish restoration of old ones.

Recognizing the validity of both arguments depending on the location and time in question, this symposium brought together 15 presenters within the aim of providing a more holistic view of cities and their inhabitants during this transformative period, particularly one that moves beyond the focus on a particular topic or geographic region and integrates this narrative within diverse areas of research, between as Classical, Byzantine, Islamic, and Medieval Studies. Thanks to generous support from IASH’s own Susan Manning Workshop grants, and additional support provided by the University of Edinburgh’s Institute for Academic Development Action Fund, ‘Small Grant Scheme’ and the Society for the Promotion of Roman Studies’ ‘Donald Atkinson Fund’, funding was provided for the participation of invited speakers from Aarhus, Oxford and Rome, as well as a poster presentation. These were divided into four separate panels, three of which took place in IASH’s seminar room and were moderated by Edinburgh’s own specialists in Late Antiquity, Drs Eberhard Sauer, Fabio Guidetti, and Allison Kidd:

The first panel on day one focused on using alternative evidence within the urban landscape to understand the new opportunities and challenges late antique populations faced. Papers were given by Edinburgh’s own Dr Lucy Grig (“Considering urban transformation from below: the view from the West”) and Drs Ben Russell and Girolamo F. De Simone of Accademia di Belle Arti di Napoli (“Between earthquake and eruption: Aeclanum in the 4th and 5th centuries AD”) as well as Dr Paolo Maranzana of Koç University (“Urban continuity at the end of Antiquity: the case of western-central Anatolia”).

Following naturally from the first panel, the second panel explored the specifics of administrative and civic decision-making processes as cities were newly developed, fortified, and/or militarised during Late Antiquity. Papers were given by Edinburgh’s Prof. Jim Crow (“The Rise and Fall of the New Town in Late Antiquity”) and Dr Marie Legendre (“The landscape of a provincial capital: The fate of the city of Antinopolis after the Islamic conquest”), as well as Dr Emanuele Intagliata of Aarhus University (“Militarising Palmyra – 4th–6th centuries AD”).

At the conclusion of the first day, a poster presentation session was held in the Jim McMillan Room in the School of History, Classics and Archaeology’s Old Medical School Building. Posters and 10-minute presentations were given by postgraduates and emerging scholars in the field, including Valentina Limina (“«Oppida posse mori». Volaterran resilience to late antique city decline”), Rhiannon Garth Jones (“al Mansur's Baghdad: transformation, intentionality, and creativity”), and Dr Diego Romero Vera (“The Breakdown of Classical Urbanism in Hispania: The Earliest Evidence”).

The final panel of the symposium focused on the urban fabric of cities themselves, with scholars exploring the ways in which material culture was staged and regulated by individuals and communities according to ideological and/or pragmatic concerns. Papers were given by Dr Ine Jacobs of the University of Oxford (“Statuary and performance in Late Antiquity”), Dr Simon Barker of the University of Oslo (“The Recycled Statue in Late Antiquity”), Edinburgh’s Dr Riley Snyder (“Beyond Urban Planning: Challenges of Resource Management in the Construction of Late Antique Capital Cities”), and John Fabiano of the University of Toronto (“Between Continuity and Change: The Advantages of being a Collegiatus and the Reshaping of the Late-Antique City of Rome”).

Over the course of this workshop, significant progress was made in determining the extent to which late antique populations were compelled by ideological and/or economic motivations in the shaping of diverse urban environments. Importantly, it would seem as though neither one nor the other prevailed, and that both motivations worked in tandem on a scale of importance depending on the situation at hand to influence the overall outcomes in civic development. Through presenters’ examination of classical ideals, economic constraints, and contemporary sociopolitical and religious exigencies, this symposium’s resulting discourse did much to further shift our understanding of late antique cities from pejorative connotations of decline and degradation. While some cities of course did decline, we are now better positioned to accept a more neutral, if not positive view of transformation, intentionality, and creativity for other cities during this time.

The integration of researchers at all levels of their careers was instrumental to the symposium’s overall success. Importantly, it encouraged fruitful dialogue, collaboration, and networking during the event. It also drew substantive participation from both within and beyond the academic community at the University of Edinburgh, with attendance during the event exceeding 30 attendees (the venue’s maximum capacity) on both days. This event has also stimulated continued engagement in this topic through future publications, which will focus on dissecting parallel and contrasting sequences in the historical and archaeological narrative across the Mediterranean-wide region.