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by Archaeology Newsroom

The Early and Middle Byzantine Town

In this article we attempt to clarify the circumstances and means that affected the transformation of the ancient Balkan town to Roman and then to Early Christian. It is already known from Pausanias’ Ελλάδος Περιήγησις (Travels in Greece X: 4,14) what a settlement must include so that it can be characterized a town: public buildings, gymnasium, theater, fountains and an agora. The ancient Greek town is transformed into Roman without any alteration of the general urban form; the public areas, theaters, amphitheaters, agora and stadia continue to exist, although the style and order of architectural expansion, such as the scale, change. The basic centers in and around which the cosmogo-nic evolution towards the Early Byzantine town took place in the Balkans are Constantinople, Thessaloniki and Sirmium. This geographic triangle will experience the crucial events which not only changed the historical course of the European towns of the Eastern Roman Empire, but also altered their population composition . The Roman citizens, the Romano! of the Middle Byzantine period, after the invasions, tre barbaric settlements and the deep population changes, will become Armano- Wai I achians; the Slavic popula-j tion, mixed in certain geographic areas with Bulgarians, will finally adopt the name of this dynamic minority; however, in other regions they will manage to keep their identify as Slavs, Serbs, Croats, Slovenians, while I north of the Danube the Latinogenesis of the Romanian nation will take place. After the Slavic invasions and settlements in the Balkans, many ancient towns survive in their original location, but with urban alterations, others arel transferred, some change their original name. In this area, certain Roman towns were founded in antiquity, such as Nikopolis in Epirus, some on the ruins of Hellenistic Greek towns, such as Sardiki, Nikopolis ad Istrum, Trajanopolis, etc. To these, the Roman colonies founded close to or on ancient towns, such as Photiki, Kassandreia, Dion, Corinth and Knossos, among others, should also be added.

After the period of the Slavic invasions and settlements and the destruction of the Roman and Early Christian towns that followed, there was a reshaping of the town from the Roman fortified urban cell to a castrum (castle): this form of town was built on new fortified sites according to different town-planning principles and presented a different fortification and different choices as regards building forms (dwellings, workshops). The agora, public buildings and theaters no longer exist, the fortifications are a specific feature of the settlement-castrum, and the acropolis and the cisterns constitute an indispensable factor for the survival of the population in periods of invasions. Th constructions are poor and ancient building material is reused in the new edifices.

In the Middle Byzantine capitals which survived thf barbaric invasions, such as Constantinople and Thessaloniki, the ancient public buildings (theaters, the hippodrome) as well as the palaces and agorae continue to exist.

Already in the Early Byzantine period the church (episcopal basilica) takes a predominant position in the settlement and becomes the center of social activities. Central squares do not exist. An irregular, often labyrinthine street network leads to the blocks of houses; due to the sloping ground the roads (rhymae) have often a stepped formation and sometimes lead to a blind end.

In the eleventh century, the houses are also extended outside the town walls, where they sometimes form separate quarters (exovourga). The walls are reinforced, as in the Roman and Early Christian period, with towers and the town proper is strongly fortified. Despite the invasions, destructic and finally the barbaric settlements, mainly the Slavic ones, the people of the East Roman Empire, the later Byzantium, managed to survive. The Byzantines took care to colonize the devastated areas with Greeks who were transferred there from remote districts. The Slavic population which settled around the major urban centers, such as Thessaloniki, was soon assimilated by the Greek-Byzantine population, were converted to Christianity and finally became Greeks: they were absorbed in the Byzantine administrative mechanis and became tax-payers as well as soldiers in the army of the Empire.

No Slavic towns or major settlements of any form have survived, but only scattered clusters of one-aisled, usually wooden and very often underground constructions (izba), identical to those described in the books with the miracles of Saint Demetrius.