ORB Online Encyclopedia

Overview of Late Antiquity--The Sixth Century

Section 5: The Extinction of an Urban Culture

Steven Muhlberger

The reduced importance, and in some places, the complete collapse, of the Mediterranean urban network seems, at first, easy to explain. We have a great deal of documentary and archaeological evidence for catastrophe. For instance, Procopius tells us that when in 538 the Goths retook Milan, "the first of the cities of the west, after Rome at least," they purposely destroyed it to punish the population for revolting against the old Italian-Gothic polity:

The city they razed to the ground, killing all the males of every age to the number of not less than 300,000 [a number probably six times too large] and reducing the women to slavery and then presenting them to the Burgundians by way of repaying them for their alliance.

But the matter is not that simple. Massacres, demolition, and large- scale plunder kill and injure individuals and disrupt community life, yet often in history the community is rebuilt and repopulated very quickly. Sixth-century wars, however, produced a long-term deleterious effect on urban life. If most Italian cities, including Milan, continued to exist despite the activities of a variety of armies, most were transformed. A recent archaeologist has described Brescia around 600 thus:

...Roman buildings destroyed by fire, collapsed masonry left in situ to encumber streets and private places, blocked drains, ...makeshift houses in wood or the requisition of abandoned rooms [in classical style buildings] ...burials scattered haphazardly amid the houses, and the reduction to cultivation of large areas of the urban fabric.

Similarly, border towns along the Danube, solidly rebuilt and fortified by Anastasius and Justinian, were only reconstructed shabbily, if at all, after the Slav and Avar attacks of the late sixth century.

Two other factors contributed to urban shrinkage. One was the appearance of the bubonic plague. Again and again, Mediterranean cities were hit by a disease that in later periods has had a profound effect on population. In fact, the Mediterranean was affected more than other regions. The urban network still operated well enough to transmit the plague bacillus. The plague-related decrease in population may explain why Roman historians talked about facing hordes of barbarian enemies. It is unlikely that northern Europe or the steppes supported vast numbers of people, but the empire had few men to send against them. The new immigrants found plenty of empty countryside to settle in.

In the post-plague period, neither the imperial government nor the local inhabitants had the power to restore damaged cities to their old status. In many places the old ruling class had been dispersed. In Italy both the greater and lesser aristocrats were killed, driven into exile or financially ruined. During the Lombard invasion, the town councils which for many centuries had been the key local governmental institutions disappeared. Even the Roman Senate, well over 1100 years old, ceased to meet. The towns of Italy had not just been impoverished; an important thread of tradition had been broken. The same crumbling of the Roman infrastructure seen earlier in Britain and other borderlands in the previous century was now affecting the Mediterranean heartland.

This break in tradition gives the sixth century a special importance in any history of the Middle Ages. Urban aristocrats had been the patrons and participants in the older culture that continued to exist even in thoroughly Christian communities. The occasional Christian leader might preach against the dangers of the circus, the baths, or even the study of the classics, but most people -- even many members of the clergy -- saw such practices in a more benign light. The key position of the supporters of the old culture had made it impossible for zealots to root it out and replace it with a thoroughly Christian one. Impossible, that is, until the disasters of the sixth century demoralized and uprooted the crucial minority group that preserved that important link with the past. Bishops and monks found themselves, suddenly, the victors in a centuries-old struggle, the undisputed teachers and theorists of their society.

Again, catastrophe was not the whole story. The final eclipse of the old by the new took place in many cities that were not sacked or depopulated. Intact eastern centers, as much as the towns of the reconquered west, lost their connection with their pre-Christian past. This suggests that spectacular disasters had accelerated a transformation already in process.

For a long time, clerics had been competing with lay urban institutions for the patronage of the very powerful. After generations of gifts from emperors, kings, and pious aristocrats, the property held by bishops, and increasingly monks, was immense, in part because the property held by churches was never divided among heirs. In realms where Christianity was now the unrivaled ideology of legitimate power, holy men had the ear of the great, and it was they who gathered the important privileges. Urban laymen bore the burdens of taxation and public service without the rewards their ancestors had received in return. Procopius, Justinian's historian, accused the emperor in his Secret History of dismantling key urban institutions, including subsidized classical education:

...the allowances of free maintenance which former emperors had decreed should be given to [physicians and teachers] from the public funds he cancelled entirely. Furthermore, all the revenues which the inhabitants of all the cities had been raising locally for their own civic needs and for their public spectacles he mingled with the national income. And thereafter neither physicians nor teachers were held in any esteem, nor was anyone able any longer to make provision for public buildings, nor were the public lamps kept burning in the cities, nor was there any other consolation for their inhabitants. For the theaters and hippodromes and circuses were all closed for the most part.
Procopius made many wild accusations against Justinian in the Secret History, but this one carries conviction. In later generations, men like Procopius, a citizen of the Greek city of Caesarea in Palestine, were few and far between. Procopius, a pious Christian, had nonetheless been educated in the writings of the pagan past. The Trojan War was, for him, an important part of the history of civilization, and the phrases Homer used to describe the war and the gods and goddesses who provoked it were still familiar to him, even if he did not believe in the pagan deities any more than most people today. His educated Latin contemporaries were just as familiar with Virgil's tales of Aeneas, a son of Venus and the legendary father of the Latin peoples. By the late sixth century, that pagan worldview was lost to all but a few antiquarians. The only well- articulated, living culture was based on the Bible, and was perpetuated by a well-financed clergy. People now lived in a mental universe in which images of Heaven, the Mother of God, and the saints, had almost obliterated those of Olympus, Venus and Apollo. Save in a few exceptional environments, the culture in which both sets of images could be imagined equally strongly, the culture of late Roman Christianity, was dead.

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Copyright (C) 1996, Steven Muhlberger. This file may be copied on the condition that the entire contents, including the header and this copyright notice, remain intact.

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