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by Archaeology Newsroom

Aspects of the Rural and Urban Sectors in Byzantium

Each and every citizen of the Byzantine Empire, either living in the urban centres or in the country, had a strong bound with land and its production. The Byzantine towns were heavily depending on rural economy, not only because they were having a direct financial relation with their suburbs, but also because most of their inhabitants were working in the fields. The coexistance of the purely civil functions with the rural ones affects to a great extent the social structure of towns. The country side adjacent to a town depends on it and is thoroughly influenced by it, while it supplies the urban centre with agricultural products. The social and financial structure in Byzantium is affected by the schemes of production prevailing in the country. The relation of the Byzantine man with his natural environment and his intervention in the physiognomy of habitation along with the written documents, monuments and excavational finds, help us a great deal to approach and estimate better his real proportions. The social status of a Byzantine is mainly defined on the basis of the land he owns since what really accounts in a man’s wealth is his property in real estate. The extensive land property is cultivated by paid land workers and peasants. The village is a substantial unit of production which includes wheat and grapewine fields, brooks, mills as well as its inhabitants, their fields and gardens, trees and animals. The main urban centres of Byzantium, smaller in size than the present cities, were offering a wide range of opportunities for work, education, entertainment and for an ecclesiastic, political or administrative career. The simple man of the Byzantine country – alike his Roman predecessor – bases his existance on the fertility of the fields and the temper of nature. His main concern is his family, home and production. The role that the natural environment has played in the human life and activity is absolutely decisive as it also becomes obvious through the research and study of Byzantine documents.

Various scenes depicting the urban and rural life of the Byzantines appear in mosaics, illustrated manuscripts, Minor Arts objects and textiles. In Early Christian art the earthly life is represented through the allegories of months and seasons in the form of rural activities. While in Byzantine art the iconographic repertoire adopts farmer’s activities, such as plowing, sowing, harvesting, pruning and fruit gathering, to illustrate the Old and New Testament texts. Rural scenes are also used to illustrate Menologia, Gospel books, liturgical Sermons as well as ancient texts, which are meticulously copied and decorated in the Byzantine scriptoria. The bloom of urban life is connected with the revival of the towns and the consequent creation of a middle class consisting of craftsmen and merchants. The miniatures of certain manuscripts offer additional information on the businessmen who were inhabiting the main or secondary urban centres of Byzantium. Thus, a variety of professions is represented in Psalters, Gospels and Sermons, such as notary, blacksmith, peddler, loom makers, even a team of builders. Scenes depicting urban everyday life are also decorating floor mosaics, consular diptychs and Minor Arts items. The Byzantine man being earthbound relies his wealth and prosperity on nature’s mood and temper, therefore he sometimes tries to understand and tame it and others to appease it by prayers and magic acts of apotropaic character.