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Cities in the ‘long’ Late Antiquity, 2000–2012 – a survey essay

  • LUCY GRIG (a1)


This essay surveys major themes and developments in the recent study of late antique urbanism. First, re-evaluations of the late phase of classical urbanism are discussed, whereby a simple narrative of ‘decline’ has been replaced by a much more chronologically and geographically nuanced picture. The importance of regional, indeed local, specificity is stressed, with different areas of the ancient world experiencing often radically different urban trajectories. Key aspects of late antique urbanism are considered, including the relationship between town and country, economic urban life, political versus social and religious urban history, before concluding with consideration of areas where future research is particularly needed.



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1 Recent edited collections include Slater, T. (ed.), Towns in Decline, AD 100–1600 (Aldershot, 2000); Burns, T.S. and Eadie, J.W. (eds.), Urban Centers and Rural Contexts in Late Antiquity (Michigan, 2001); Lavan, L. (ed.), Recent Research in Late Antique Urbanism (Portsmouth, RI, 2001); Krause, J.-U. and Witschel, C. (eds.), Die Stadt in der Spätantike – Niedergang oder Wandel?: Akten des internationalen Kolloquiums in München am 30. und 31. Mai 2003 (Stuttgart, 2006); Goodson, C., Lester, A.E. and Symes, C. (eds.), Cities, Texts and Social Networks, 400–1500: Experiences and Perceptions of Medieval Urban Space (Ashgate, 2010); Sami, D. and Speed, G. (eds.), Debating Urbanism Within and Beyond the Walls A.D. 200–700. Proceedings of a Conference Held at the University of Leicester, 15th November 2008 (Leicester, 2010).

2 As a general rule, the bibliography discussed in this essay will be limited to publications post 2000; for discussion of bibliography prior to this date, consult L. Lavan, ‘The late-antique city: a bibliographic essay’, in Recent Research, 9–26. Though written prior to 2000, I found Ward-Perkins, B., ‘Urban continuity’, in Christie, N. and Loseby, S.T. (eds.), Towns in Transition: Urban Evolution in Late Antiquity and the Early Middle Ages (Aldershot, 1996), 417, particularly helpful when thinking through the issues and ideas for this essay.

3 Urban history, specifically urban transformation, formed a significant focus of the substantial European Science Foundation project, ‘The Transformation of the Roman World’, which took place from 1993 to 1998; a number of the publications cited in this essay stem directly (as well as indirectly) from this project. See further, last accessed 12 Sep. 2012.

4 This debate can seem rather insular; Mark Whittow makes a rare comparison with the debate regarding the ‘decline’ of towns in late medieval England: M. Whittow, ‘Recent research on the late-antique city in Asia Minor: the second half of the 6th c. revisited’, in Lavan (ed.), Recent Research, 137–53, at 149. For a more theoretical consideration of ‘decline’, see Rogers, A., Late Roman Towns in Britain: Rethinking Change and Decline (Cambridge, 2011), esp. 2746.

5 These publications began with Liebeschuetz, J.H.W.G., Antioch: City and Imperial Administration in the Later Roman Empire (Oxford, 1972), but the more recent considerations begin with ‘The end of the ancient city’, in Rich, J. (ed.), The City in Late Antiquity (London, 1996), 149; ‘The uses and abuses of the concept of “decline” in later Roman history or, Was Gibbon politically incorrect?’, in Lavan (ed.), Recent Research, 233–45; most fully in Decline and Fall of the Roman City (Oxford, 2001) and most recently in ‘Transformation and decline: are the two really incompatible’, in Krause and Witschel (eds.), Die Stadt in der Spätantike, 463–83. On the continuing influence of another important figure for our understanding of late antique urbanism, A.H.M. Jones, see Lavan, L., ‘Jones and the cities: late antique urbanism 1964–2004’, in Gwynn, D. (ed.), A.H.M. Jones and the Later Roman Empire (Leiden, 2007), 167–91.

6 See here in particular ‘The uses and abuses of the concept of “decline”’, which includes responses from A. Cameron, L. Lavan, B. Ward-Perkins and M. Whittow. In the conclusion to Decline and Fall, Liebeschuetz boldly asserts: ‘The story of the city in late Late Antiquity, as I have told it, is a story of decline. Some choose to see only transformation, but this is not the point of view taken in this book’, 214.

7 Liebeschuetz, Decline and Fall, 405.

8 Ibid., esp. 247–8; for critique, see M. Whitby, ‘Factions, bishops, violence and urban decline’, in Krause and Witschel (eds.), Die Stadt in der Spätantike, 441–61, esp. 456–9.

9 Liebeschuetz, Decline and Fall, passim, but on the rise of the factions see in particular 203–20 and on violence and disorder, 248–83. Again, see here Whitby, ‘Factions, bishops, violence’.

10 Aphrodisias in Turkey is one of the most important late antique sites, having been excavated and published since the 1960s. For full and up-to-date bibliography see, last accessed 12 Sep. 2012. The study of the epigraphy of late antique Aphrodisias has been of particular importance; see Roueché, C., Aphrodisias in Late Antiquity, rev. 2nd edn (London, 2004), now also available online:, last accessed 12 Sep. 2012. Butrint in Albania has also produced a wealth of material and publication, since excavation began in 1994; see, last accessed 12 Sep. 2012. for up-to-date bibliography and information on the site.

11 E.g. Lippolis, I. Baldini, La domus tardoantica. Forme e rappresentazioni dello spazio domestco nelle città del Mediterraneo (Imola, 2001); L'architettura residenziale nelle città tardoantiche (Rome, 2005). These books, it should be noted, focus almost exclusively on the houses of the elite.

12 See for useful summary Wataghin, G. Cantino, ‘Christian topography in the late antique town: recent results and open questions’, in Lavan, L. and Bowden, W. (eds.), Theory and Practice in Late Antique Archaeology (Late Antique Archaeology 1) (Leiden, 2003), 224–56. For a nuanced approach to Christianization of space, see the articles in Brands, G. and Severin, H.-G. (eds.), Die spätantike Stadt und ihre Christianisierung (Wiesbaden, 2003), especially F.-A. Bauer, ‘Stadtbild und Heiligenlegenden. Die Christianisierung Ostias in der spätantiken Gedankenwelt’, 43–61, and H. Thür, ‘Das spätantike Ephesos. Aspekte zur Frage der Christianisierung des Stadtbildes’, 259–73, as well as Bauer, F.A., ‘Die Stadt als religiöser Raum in der Spätantike’, Archiv für Religionsgeschichte, 10 (2008), 179206.

13 For a useful and up-to-date synthesis, see Lavan, L., ‘What killed the ancient city? Chronology, causation, and traces of continuity’, Journal of Roman Archaeology, 22 (2009), 803–12.

14 See for one important challenge to this picture Jacobs, I., Aesthetic Maintenance of Civic Space. The ‘Classical’ City from the 4th to the 7th c. AD (Leuven, 2012).

15 This is an important reason why this essay speaks of the ‘long’ Late Antiquity: this longer period is much more suitable for presenting a full picture of urban change.

16 See most conveniently S. Loseby, ‘Decline and change in the cities of late antique Gaul’, in Krause and Witschel (eds.), Die Stadt in der Spätantike, 67–104, and the dedicated issues of the open-access online journal Gallia on late antique southern Gaul: 63–4: 2006 and 2007.

17 See A. Poulter (ed.), The Transition to Late Antiquity, on the Danube and Beyond (Oxford, 2007).

18 See Leone, A., Changing Townscapes in North Africa from Late Antiquity to the Arab Conquest (Bari, 2007), and Sears, G., Late Roman African Urbanism. Continuity and Transformation in the City (Oxford, 2007). Even here, there is regional variation: not all cities thrived in this period, e.g. Utica and the cities of Tripolitania.

19 See, for instance, Saradi, H.G., The Byzantine City in the Sixth Century: Literary Images and Historical Reality (Athens, 2006), and Jacobs, Aesthetic Maintenance.

20 The work of Foss, stressing the role of crisis, is still hugely influential, starting with Byzantine and Turkish Sardis (Cambridge, MA, 1976), but most accessible in Foss, C., ‘Archaeology and the “twenty cities” of Byzantine Asia’, American Journal of Archaeology, 81 (1987), 469–86. More recent work has added nuance and modifications to Foss’ interpretation; see Whittow, ‘Recent research’; Parrish, D. (ed.), Urbanism in Western Asia Minor: New Studies on Aphrodisias, Ephesos, Hierapolis, Pergamon, Perge and Xanthos (Portsmouth, RI, 2001), and, especially, Dally, O. and Ratté, C. (eds.), Archaeology and the Cities of Asia Minor in Late Antiquity (Ann Arbor, 2011).

21 See here, for instance, Walmsley, A., Early Islamic Syria: An Archaeological Appraisal (London, 2007).

22 One notable example of diversity comes from Italy, where there is notable distinction not just between north and south, but between different parts of northern Italy: that is Roman municipia survived to AD 1000 to a remarkable extent in Tuscany, quite well in Lombardy but strikingly less so in Liguria, as well as in southern Italy. See, for instance, Augenti, A. (ed.), Le Città Italiane tra la Tarda Antichità e l'Alto Medioevo (Atti del covegno (Ravenna, 26–28 febbraio 2004)) (Florence, 2006).

23 Liebeschuetz, Decline and Fall, 9. Recent book-length studies of individual cities include Heijmans, M., Arles durant l'antiquité tardive: de la duplex Arelas à l'urbs Genesii (Rome, 2004); Hall, L. Jones, Roman Berytus: Beirut in Late Antiquity (London, 2004); Sotinel, C., Identité civique et Christianisme: Aquilée du IIIe au VIe siècle (Rome, 2005). Regional/provincial studies include Alston, R., The City in Roman and Byzantine Egypt (London, 2002); Rogers, Late Roman Towns in Britain.

24 See Burns and Eadie (eds.), Urban Centers and Rural Contexts.

25 There were exceptions to this rule, for instance late antique Berytus (amongst other coastal cities), where artisans and traders were socially prominent: see L. Jones Hall, ‘The case of late antique Berytus: urban wealth and rural sustenance – a different economic dynamic’, in Burns and Eadie (eds.), Urban Centers and Rural Contexts, 63–76.

26 See, for example, F. R. Trombley, ‘Town and territorium in late Roman Anatolia’, in Lavan (ed.), Recent Research, 217–32.

27 See, for instance, the warnings of M. Kulikowski, ‘The interdependence of town and country in late antique Spain’, in Burns and Eadie (eds.), Urban Centers and Rural Contexts, 147–61, esp. 147.

28 This picture is clear in Byzantine Egypt, thanks to the use of papyrological evidence: see Alston, City in Roman and Byzantine Egypt.

29 See, for instance, the many publications of Hodges, R. including Towns and Trade in the Age of Charlemagne (London, 2000), and Loseby, S., ‘Marseille and the Pirenne thesis, II: “ville morte”?’, in Hansen, I.L. and Wickham, C. (eds.), The Long Eighth Century (Leiden, 2000), 167–93.

30 Wickham, C., Framing the Early Middle Ages: Europe and the Mediterranean 400–800 (Oxford, 2005), 693824.

31 The following discussion is based on Simon Loseby's Edinburgh conference paper, ‘Marseille and the end of Antiquity’. From a long list of publications see further Loseby, S., ‘Lost cities: the end of the civitas-system in Frankish Gaul’, in Diefenbach, S. and Müller, G.M. (eds.), Gallien in der Spätantike (Berlin, 2011); ‘Mediterranean cities’, in Rousseau, P. (ed.), A Companion to Late Antiquity (Oxford, 2009), 139–55; ‘The Mediterranean economy’, in Fouracre, P. (ed.), The New Cambridge Medieval History, vol. I: 500–700 (Cambridge, 2005); ‘Le rôle économique de Marseille pendant l´Antiquité tardive’, in Rothé, M.-P. and Tréziny, H. (eds.), Carte archéologique de la Gaule, 13/3: Marseille et ses alentours (Paris, 2005), 274–8.

32 On the development of tetrarchic (and later) capitals, see Mayer, E., Rom ist dort, wo der Kaiser ist: Untersuchungen zu den Staatsdenkenmälern de dezentralisierten Reiches von Diocletian bis zu Theodosius II. (Mainz, 2002). Attempts to look at late antique capitals in comparative perspective have been strangely lacking until very recently, but see now Führer, T. (ed.), Rom und Mailand in der Spätantike: Repräsentationen städtischer Räume in Literatur, Architektur und Kunst (Berlin, 2012); Van Dam, R., Rome and Constantinople: Rewriting Roman History in Late Antiquity (Baylor, 2010); Grig, L. and Kelly, G. (eds.), Two Romes: Rome and Constantinople in Late Antiquity (New York, 2012).

33 See Deliyannis, D., Ravenna in Late Antiquity (Cambridge, 2010).

34 See now Führer, Rom and Mailand in der Spätantike.

35 See Arena, M. al., Roma dall'Antichità al Medioevo: Archeologia e storia nel Museo Nazionale Romano Crypta Balbi (Milan, 2001); Meneghini, R. and Valenzani, R. Santangeli, Roma nell'altomedioevo: Topografia e urbanistica della città dal V al X secolo (Rome, 2004); Meneghini, R. and Valenzani, R. Santangeli, I Fori Imperiali: Gli scavi del Comune di Roma (1991–2007) (Rome, 2007). The housing of the elite has also come under considerable scrutiny, see most recently C. Machado, ‘Aristocratic houses and the making of late antique Rome and Constantinople’, in Grig and Kelly, Two Romes, 136–58. On intra- and extra-mural urbanism see Dey, H., The Aurelian Wall and the Refashioning of Imperial Rome AD 271–855 (Cambridge, 2011).

36 See, for instance, Coates-Stephens, R., ‘The water-supply of Rome from Late Antiquity to the early Middle Ages’, Acta ad Archaeologiam et Artium Historiam Pertinentia, 17 (2003), 165–86.

37 E.g. Bowes, Kim, Private Worship, Public Values, and Religious Change in Late Antiquity (Cambridge, 2008), 61124 (on Rome and Constantinople).

38 E.g. Cameron, A., The Last Pagans of Rome (New York, 2011); Machado, C., ‘Roman aristocrats and the Christianization of Rome’, in Brown, P. and Lizzi, R. (eds.), Pagans and Christians in the Roman Empire: The Breaking of a Dialogue (IVth to VIth Century A.D.) (Münster, 2011), 493516.

39 See Cooper, K. and Hillner, J. (eds.), Religion, Dynasty and Patronage in Early Christian Rome, c. 300–900 (Cambridge, 2007).

40 E.g. Cracco-Ruggini, L., ‘Rome in Late Antiquity: clientship, urban topography, and prosopography’, Classical Philology, 98 (2003), 366–82, and Testa, R. Lizzi, Senatori, popolo, papi. Il governo di Roma al tempo dei Valentiniani (Bari, 2004).

41 E.g. Diefenbach, S., Römische Erinnerungsräume. Heiligenmemoria und kollektive Identitäten im Rom des 3. bis 5. Jahrhunderts n. Chr (Berlin, 2007), and Meier, M., Die Stadt als Museum? Die Wahrnehmung der Monumente Roms in der Spätantike (Berlin, 2009).

42 See Roberts, M., ‘Rome personified, Rome epitomized: representations of Rome in the poetry of the early fifth century’, American Journal of Philology, 122 (2001), 533–65; Grig, L., ‘Imagining the Capitolium in Late Antiquity’, in Cain, A. and Lenski, N. (eds.), The Power of Religion in Late Antiquity (Farnham, 2009), 279–91; L. Grig, ‘Competing capitals, competing representations: late antique cityscapes in words and pictures’, in Grig and Kelly (eds.), Two Romes, 31–52, and Grig, L., ‘Deconstructing the symbolic city: Jerome as guide to late antique Rome’, Papers of the British School at Rome, 80 (2012), 125–43.

43 Topography: Berger, A., ‘Streets and public spaces in Constantinople’, Dunbarton Oaks Papers, 54 (2000), 161–72; Dark, K., ‘Houses, streets and shops in Byzantine Constantinople from the fifth to the twelfth century’, Journal of Medieval History, 30 (2004), 83107; J. Matthews, ‘The Notitia Urbis Constantinopolitanae’, in Grig and Kelly (eds.), Two Romes, 81–115. Infrastructure: Crow, J., ‘The infrastructures of a great city: earth, walls and water in late antique Constantinople’, in Lavan, L. and Zanini, E. (eds.), Technology in Transition (Late Antique Archaeology 4) (Leiden, 2007), 251–85; Crow, J., Bardill, J. and Bayliss, R., The Water Supply of Byzantine Constantinople (Journal of Roman Studies Monograph 11) (London, 2008).

44 Though for a different approach to urban material culture see Bassett, S., The Urban Image of Late Antique Constantinople (Cambridge, 2004).

45 In Constantinople: Bauer, F.A., ‘Urban space and ritual: Constantinople in Late Antiquity’, Acta ad Archaeologiam et Artium Historiam pertinentia, 15 (2001), 2761; P. Van Nuffelen, ‘Playing the ritual game in Constantinople (379–457)’, in Grig and Kelly (eds.), Two Romes, 183–200; in Rome, J. Latham, ‘The making of a papal Rome: Gregory I and the letania septiformis’, in Cain and Lenski (eds.), Power of Religion, 293–304; Machado, C., ‘The city as stage: aristocratic commemoration in late antique Rome’, in Rebillard, Éric and Sotinel, Claire (eds.), Les frontières du profane dans l'Antiquité tardive (Rome, 2010), 287317.

46 At the Edinburgh conference, Meaghan McEvoy spoke on ‘Why not Rome? Milan as an imperial centre in Late Antiquity’. While the strategic geographical position of Milan has long been noted by scholars seeking to explain the choice of this city in particular, McEvoy persuasively suggested another important advantage possessed by the city: its suitability as a stage for the development and rehearsal of imperial piety, via the use of notably Christian ceremonial, something that would be more difficult at Rome at this time.

47 Andrew Marsham gave a paper at the Edinburgh conference, on which the following is based. See also A. Marsham, ‘The architecture of allegiance in early Islamic Late Antiquity: the accession of Mu'awiya in Jerusalem, ca. 661 CE’, in A. Beilhammer et al., Ceremonies in the Medieval Mediterranean, forthcoming. See further Marsham, A., Rituals of Islamic Monarchy: Accession and Succession in the First Muslim Empire (Edinburgh, 2009), 8694.

48 Marsham also argues that in so doing, Mu'awiya in his actions deliberately evoked the victory celebrations of the Byzantine Emperor Heraclius, in 630.

49 Sauvaget, Jean, Alep: essai sur le dévloppement d'une grande ville syrienne des origines au milieu du XIX siècle (Paris, 1941), 247. See, for instance, Kennedy, H., The Byzantine and Early Islamic Near East (Aldershot, 2006), and S. Westphalen, ‘“Niedergang oder Wandel?” – die spätantike Städte in Syrien und Palästina aus archäologischer Sicht’, in Krause and Witschel (eds.), Die Städt in der Spätantike, 181–97.

50 A poster was presented at the Edinburgh conference by Emanuele Intagliata: ‘A new approach to urbanism in late antique and early Islamic Palmyra’. See further on the results of the 2008 archaeological season at Palmyra:, last accessed 12 Sep. 2012.

51 See again Walmsley, Early Islamic Syria.

52 At the Edinburgh conference, Mattia Guidetti presented a paper entitled ‘Bathhouses, marketplaces, and houses of worship: the early Islamic refurbishment and revitalization of towns in greater Syria’. See further Guidetti, M., ‘The Byzantine heritage in Dar al-Islam: churches and mosques in al-Ruha between the sixth and the twelfth century’, Muqarnas, 26 (2009), 136, and ‘Sacred topography in medieval Syria and its roots between Umayyads and Late Antiquity’, in Cobb, P. and Borrut, A. (eds.), Umayyad Legacies (Boston, MA, 2010), 337–64.

53 What follows is based on Roger Collins’ Edinbugh paper: ‘Reccopolis: a Visigothic royal city’; amongst a whole host of publications see Collins, R., Visigothic Spain, 409–711 (Oxford, 2004).

54 See Watts, E., City and School in Late Antique Athens and Alexandria (Berkeley, 2006), for an interesting attempt to marry urban and intellectual history, embedding the institutional history of the philosophical schools in their urban contexts, also making use of the available archaeological evidence.

55 Late antique Ephesus is an important example here, where detailed excavation of the ‘Hanghäuser’ (terraced houses) complex outside the walls, with occupation from the first to seventh centuries AD, has illuminated an area where aristocratic houses were divided at a late date into smaller workshops and houses. See for a recent synthesis P. Scherrer, ‘The historical topography of Ephesos’, in Parrish (ed.), Urbanism in Western Asia Minor, 86–121.

56 See, for instance, Maxwell, J., Christianization and Communication in Late Antiquity (Cambridge, 2006), e.g. 6587.

57 See, for instance, ‘The appearance of the urban framework is thus not treated as a stand-alone phenomenon, but as something which is imbedded in daily life, connected to other aspects of society such as its political organisation, its ideological (including religious) and aesthetical preferences and priorities, and other features of daily existence’, Jacobs, Aesthetic Maintenance, 4.

58 This ongoing series of thematic edited collections now stretches to seven volumes, published by Brill, from 2003 to 2013.

59 See here L. Lavan, ‘Late antique urban topography: from architecture to human space’, and ‘The political topography of the late antique city: activity spaces in practice’, in Lavan and Bowden (eds.), Theory and Practice in Late Antique Archaeology, 171–95, 314–37.

60 See the project website:, last accessed 12 Sep. 2012.

61 The late antique site is, last accessed 12 Sep. 2012, while the original is See, last accessed 12 Sep. 2012, for the home of these, and other, projects at UCLA.

62 The importance of statues as part of the urban landscape, in the late antique city as before, is receiving more attention today; the ‘Last Statues of Antiquity’ online database is an extremely welcome resource in this regard:, last accessed 12 Sep. 2012.

63 See n. 9 above.

64 Saradi, The Byzantine City, the work of a literary historian, is notable for its explicit concentration on urban ideas and images, including urban iconography. See also Brogiolo, G.P. and Ward-Perkins, B., The Idea and Ideal of the Town between Late Antiquity and the Early Middle Ages (Leiden, 1999), just before the essay's 2000 cut-off point, but sadly not paralleled since.

* The impetus of this essay, written at the suggestion of Richard Rodger, was a conference at the University of Edinburgh on 1 Jun. 2012, entitled ‘Cities in the long Late Antiquity’. I am hugely grateful to the speakers on this day: Roger Collins, Mattia Guidetti, Simon Loseby, Meaghan McEvoy, Andrew Marsham and Jean-Michel Spieser, several of whom also offered advice in the writing of this piece. Thanks are also due to Jim Crow, Inge Jacobs and Gavin Kelly; finally, I am particularly grateful to Bryan Ward-Perkins for his support and critical acumen. None are responsible for the shortcomings of the final piece.

Cities in the ‘long’ Late Antiquity, 2000–2012 – a survey essay

  • LUCY GRIG (a1)


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