Forming and Transforming Proto-Byzantine Urban Public Space

PLEASE NOTE: The article presented here has been stripped of its footnotes and the majority of its illustrations. In most cases the footnotes which accompany the article are extensive and offer important guidance to substantiating evidence and further reading. This article should not be cited from the reduced version offered on this web site, but from the full version published in ByzAus vol. 10.

Forming and Transforming Proto-Byzantine Urban Public Space

Michael Milojevic

Once urban life is established it usually takes a major catastrophe or indeed repeated catastrophes before that life is snuffed out, and yet the building fabric of urban places is continuously transforming itself. The logistics of material presence and the civic functioning of permanent settlements perpetuate site occupation, despite conceptual, economic and physical transformations that may be radical. Even if on a much reduced scale, transformed in nature and sheltering different occupants, either buildings and building sites on their own or the entire city (on an incremental basis) may undergo cultural transformation within the context of continuity of site occupation.

The demise of pagan urban life in the Mediterranean-centred world of late antiquity and the consequent transformation of the physical infrastructure of the Graeco-Roman city appears to have been no exception to this historical truism. Indeed, in the course of the fifth and seventh centuries almost all the institutions of civic life in the eastern Mediterranean were changed significantly or vanished. Perhaps “accelerated transformation” might best describe the pace of this proto-Byzantine phenomenon. In anticipation of external threats from invasion in the fifth century or as a reaction to temporary occupation, substantial evidence has been found for urban citadelisation, generally taking the form of a wall-building campaign in which curtain walls are strung between the most defensible pre-existing buildings that act as urban bastions. Generally it was the periphery of the urban zone which was first Christianised by the new episcopal administration and by religious complexes and cemeteries. Consonant with Christianisation, precincts for public entertainment, bathing and pagan rites as well as open-air places of assembly and even some public thoroughfares were left unmaintained or only rarely maintained, leading to closures that eventually become permanent, and finally to abandonment. Spoliation is also indicative of this changing of priorities in the sixth century with the inevitable disintegration of unmaintained old building fabric. Examination of changing use and the architectural adjustments that were required in public buildings (temples, basilicas, baths and theatres) and public spaces (fora, streets, forecourts, porticoes) suggests that the disintegration of cities was complete by the seventh century. Thus, incrementally, a larger transformational picture appears which suggests that the sixth century was neither end nor beginning but a momentous century when old cities were changed significantly, anticipating their demise in the seventh century, while new and modest city foundations were clearly part polis, part urbs and part kastron.

Through texts we hear that ideologically the urban world has changed; through archaeology we see that physical setting is recast. The Byzantinisation of settlements consists in fact of three distinct phenomena. The first is the definition or contraction of the urban peripheries, involving the abandonment of extramural or lowland quarters in a kind of return to fortified hilltop settlements of the pre-Greek type. The second is the re-use of key buildings of the public infrastructure (temples, basilicas, baths, squares and streets) which generally lay at the physical centre. The third aspect of the phenomenon of Byzantinisation is an incremental compartmentalisation and interiorisation of public space, in itself a Roman phenomenon and one that developed throughout the Byzantine era.

Let us consider two small well-known sites from this point of view: the interconnected open-air temple and theatre precincts, agora and ekklesiasterion of the fourth century B.C. Ionic plan of Priene contrasted with the interiorised and semi-enclosed fora, peristyles and atria of the early second-century A.D. North African frontier settlement of Thamugadi, where large insulae with administrative, religious, bathing, and entertainment functions are linked by colonnades and streets which are segmentalised by gates and arches to create urban armatures. In the latter Trajanic design in particular, it may be noticed that urban spaces are intended to be used in specific conjunction with interior assembly spaces such as basilicae, naoi, aulae and caldaria. Consider now the enclosing spatial structures of two famous town-sized palace and villa complexes of late antiquity: the imperial palace (now Split, Croatia) of c. 300-306 and the senatorial villa (Piazza Armerina, Sicily) thought at one time to have been constructed c. 320-330. Plans showing the contemporaneous and later states of sectors of Ephesus, Corinth, Gerasa, or Phillipi, for example, indicate the extent of encroachment into fora, peristyles, atria and streets and how thoroughfares are constricted and labyrinthine blockages created. It is clear that this process is to be understood in conjunction with the further extension of the public realm into large ecclesiastical assembly spaces, so that we can say that open-air spaces of assembly (i.e. agora, fora and peristyles) are in effect replaced by a myriad of new ecclesiastical, episcopal and administrative structures serving the new Christianised urban entities. Ideally evidence is required for sites in the proto-Byzantine city, that is, systematic drawings of building construction, maintenance, adaptation and demolition related to the (presumably changing) physical context; the study of public urban space is especially problematical, depending on an understanding of the larger perimeter context of buildings and sites. In this regard we need to consider the innovative cartographic intentions of G.B. Nolli’s renowned Pianto Grande di Roma of 1748, a conflation of urban map and building plans, in which church interiors are mapped as the extension of the public realm of the street, with the result that they give a valuable insight into the real intentions and experience of public spaces in the urban fabric of Rome.

Changed ideologies and requirements for public urban space as accommodated by new architectural and urban forms can be seen, to some extent, in urban designs created ex novo, where we can perhaps discern a changed proto-Byzantine ethos with respect to urban public space. Such evidence comes from newly established or re-formulated urban ensembles and is derived from a range of sources that are small in number though diverse in scale: from the fourth-century imperial capital, a polis some ten square kilometres in area, fifth- and sixth-century regional centres such as Gerasa, Corinth, Justiniana Prima/Caricin Grad, and the Euphrates limes fortress Zenobiye/Halabiyye, to a seventh-century Lycian kastron, a hamlet of a couple of hectares.

Developing rapidly over rural and suburban terrain sometime after being refounded in 330, Constantinople is not well understood in terms of urban design; the evidence for public spaces of the proto-Byzantine era is revealed either from a few archaeological sites such as the Arch of Theodosius and the Column of Marcian within the obstructions of the fabric of contemporary Istanbul or from textual, mainly hagiographical, inference. The city’s main artery and triumphal way, the Mese, led from the Golden Gate in the southern end of the Theodosian city walls for about four kilometres to the crux urbana and crux imperium, the milion, at the administrative centre of the city and empire, via four or five fora strung along a route roughly parallel to, but some four hundred metres from, the shoreline, walls, towers and ports on the Sea of Marmara. Based on the natural north-east south-west crest of the ancient acropolis of Byzantium a ceremonial spatial armature was defined by the Hippodrome, imperial and court palaces, the senate, basilica, tetrastoon/Augusteum and Hagia Sophia. We know, but only schematically, that four, or perhaps five, major cross-axial streets led from the Mese, to the Strategion, to Porticus Domninus and Port Julian, to the St Mocius area and the area of St John Studius, but a major avenue led northwest to Marcian’s column, the church of the Holy Apostles and on to the Gate of Charisius in the Theodosian Walls. As far as we know, these were monumental straight avenues bordered by porticoes, exedrae and fora setting off monumental columns, arches and chapels. Many significant architectural events, churches, palaces, and other places of assembly were linked to the Mese by short tributary streets or small atria.

The extent and monumentality of Constantinople and its Mese were, indeed, unique, although one can look to other, roughly comparable, excavated monumental streets and fora in order to develop a more satisfactory impression of the capital. The late fourth- or early fifth-century marble Arkadiane in Ephesus, a straight colonnaded street half a kilometre in length, monumentalised the space and linked the harbour gates, theatre square and the vast paved palaestrae between the Baths of Constantius and Theatre Baths; by the seventh century these palaestrae were infilled by private houses and the baths were abandoned. A Justinianic tetrakionion, a huge four-columned monument apparently supporting statues of the evangelists, marked its mid-point and a street junction. The southern extension of the cardo of Jerusalem to the proto-Byzantine Nea Maria, the embolos of Sardis, cardo II at Caesarea Palaestina, the cardo maximus of Apamea on the Orontes in Syria and the “Odeon colonnaded street” of Scythopolis in Israel are either renovations, extensions or elaborations of existing streetscapes.

Lycian phrourion known as Arif (Turkey)

With respect to the articulation of fora outside Constantinople, we may look to the central spaces of Zenobia, a rebuilt castrum on the Euphrates limes, and the early sixth-sentury forum of Philippi where episcopal centres are organised in relation to re-defined and re-built fora. Here one should compare the principia of the Byzantine fortresses such as those of el-Lejjun on the limes Arabicus or the Justinianic fort at Thamugadi in Numidia, three-quarters of a hectare in size. Unfortunately the excavations at the huge Justinianic rebuilding of the Mesopotamian frontier castrum Sergiopolis, a renowned pilgrimage centre, and the imperial castrum Roumelianum near Gamzigrad in Serbia, Yugoslavia have not yet revealed street intersections or any central spaces. In general the rights-of-way, if they are the interstices of the existing areas of building, appear to be clear enough. The northern intersection of the cardo of Gerasa, now Jerash in Transjordania, is, however, known to have undergone a post-Constantinian renovation into a circular form around the tetrapylon, which we might expect also to have been renovated. The modest-sized Justinianic new town plan of a kastron known as Caricin Grad (near Leskovac in Serbia, Yugoslavia), most likely the local episcopal capital referred to by Procopius as Justiniana Prima in Dardania, shows a plethora of ecclesiae, their atria extending the spatial sequence of small squares, fora, exedrae and gates that punctuated the streets. The mid-sixth-century circular forum at the main intersection here, with a monumental bronze statue at its centre, is comparable in scale and purpose to the late fifth-century centralised martyrium and monastery of St Simon Stylites, known today as Qal’at Sim’an, Syria. Caricin Grad appears to have been citadelised when construction had just begun, most probably at a moment of unexpected insecurity; these walls then deflected the original cardinally-oriented site planning geometry to the east. Streets such as the Mese of Constantinople, the Arkadiane of Ephesus, the circular intersections-cum-fora at Gerasa and Justiniana Prima, the main thoroughfares of the tiny sixth-century Lycian phrourion known as Arif in Turkey, and two impacted walled settlements in Scythia Minor – the small limes kastron Dinogetia (Bisericuta, Romania) high on a rock promontory on a Danubian island and the contracted form of Histria (near Constanta, Romania) – describe the proto-Byzantine diminuation of espace politique.

Byzantinisation is, however, more typically an accelerated transformation process that depends on specific circumstances either separately or in combination – a process of deurbanisation, even ruralisation, characterised by extramural depopulation and abandonment and a process of citadelisation and intramural densification in relation to a rationalisation of the defensible area. With respect to the first, the suburban scenario, consider: Ammaedara, Numidia in Byzantine Africa (now Haidra in Tunisia) where outside the large mid-sixth-century Byzantine fort, 2.5 hectares in extent, extramural churches near the main roads that radiate from the habitatio form, with extensive Christian cemeteries, a ring of Christian Byzantine development around the Roman urban core. Consider also the Byzantinisation of the Roman theatre of Heracleia Lyncestis, Moesia Inferior (near Bitola, Macedonia, Yugoslavia), a hill-village-like cluster of small houses roughly built of fieldstone which colonise the theatre cavea. City walls are thrown around a defensible place; typically the restricted enceinte puts a premium on open public space intra muros as at Aphrodisias, perhaps Byzantine Stauropolis, in Caria, (Geyre, Turkey), Thugga, Africa Proconsularis (Dougga, Tunisia) and Maktaris in Africa Proconsularis (Makhtar, Tunisia), where the enceinte was fractured into forts composed of single building appropriations such as the 0.35 ha. “Large Baths Fortress”. Such infilling and densification of the urban fabric by permanent building took place in atria, peristyles, fora and porticoes and the interstices of public building. This was an incremental process gradually clogging the urban arteries and filling the areae of the city, a process involving private, even residential buildings; prior to the proto-Byzantine era, proscriptions discouraged buildings from encroaching into public rights-of-way and public open congregational spaces.

Among these “host buildings” and “host spaces” the urban temples were often key conversion scenarios. The corpus of physical evidence for these “temple-churches” involves some three hundred sites throughout the Byzantine Mediterranean world. At present eighty-three instances of cella re-use and conversion are known, the balance being the siting of ecclesiae elsewhere within the temenos. Typically these were complex and fraught exercises often involving ritual exorcism, structural transformation, and urbanistic contexturalisation. At Syracuse in Magna Graecia, now Siracusa in Sicily, the seventh-century Bishop Zosimus’s Christianisation of the Athena temenos, an octastyle peripteral temple, involved walling up the intercolumniations and radical cutting of the massive cella and opisthodomus walls; it is probably to this time that we should attribute the chancel construction located just off the podium. At Aphrodisias/Stauropolis in Caria the Aphrodite temenos was Christianised by inversion of the plan, thus creating a very large three-aisled basilica; at Thuburbo Maius, Proconsularis (El Fahs, Tunisia) and also Sufetula, Proconsularis (Sbietla, Tunisia), these courtyard temples were interiorised by basilicas, the naoi becoming baptisteries; the forecourts of larger temples such as the fortified Numidian New Kingdom temple of Rameses now near Luxor, Egypt and the Temple of Jupiter, Baalbek, Lebanon were also prime sites for proto-Byzantine church insertions. Rarely are these a first, impulsive choice or a pragmatic and inexpensive solution to the need for accommodation (although the site might have “come cheap” as it were). The disjunction between the indications of textual sources, namely hagiographies and imperial rescripts, and the physical evidence suggests that the imperial offices never had intended a general or systematic program of temple demolition. Temples were not “prizes” for the “triumphant” bishops, monks and congregations but rather they were maintained, re-used even preserved, representing as they did social stability and continuity. Temple masonry, often treasured by fanatical ascetics for its apotropaic, magical and demonic powers, was considered a litmus test for religious tenacity. Some architectural innovation noted in this era might be related to the revival of masonry and carving technique such as are required to repair temples of the Graeco-Roman period. The “necessity” and “inclination” to build with spoils from the first (I have in mind here Constantine) had a long term effect on the compositional, decorative and aesthetic preferences of the Christian world. Unmatched colonnades, as if composed of classical spolia, thus became a preference even when building de novo; one may think here, for example, of the sixth-century Adriatic Basilica Eufrasiana (Porec, Slovenia). Building conversion and spoliation may have been an architectural facet of the mid-seventh century renaissance of classical ideals, noted particularly in the workmanship of silver and ivory luxury works of the imperial court of Heraclius. Eighth- and ninth-century sources for Constantinople are rare, but the author/s of the Patria and Parastaseis imply, by their frequent misperceptions of the classical heritage, that a distancing, to say the least, from classical sensibility had occurred.

Sustained archaeological investigation of sites with significant proto-Byzantine evidence of the sort that is required to develop a contextual perspective on the whole proto-Byzantine city under transformation is not a reality. Patching together an impression from discrete and disparate senarios, such as the transformations undergone by temple-churches and secular public buildings, allows for interpretation as part of a broadly based “conversion equation”. Christianisation took root in the lower density residential suburbs extra muros where the domus ecclesiae, cella trichora, converted private aulae have been found. Similarly, churches were built directly into pre-existing secular public spaces but, unlike “the problem of the temples” to use Libanius’s phrase, these conversions drew little comment from legislators and hagiographers. Transformations of public spaces involve the prominent aulae, vestibula and basilicae of fora, palaces and large villae, as well as other halls and the larger chambers of thermae, horrea and smaller congregational spaces such as aeraria, collegia, curia, and propylaea. Also under consideration are the open areas of civic agorae, caesaria, fora, palaestrae, peristylae, porticae, principia and theatra. We will, of course, be able only to sample the large corpus of secular public conversions and must, unfortunately, exclude any comparative material from the early medieval West.

Let us look at a few examples of the location of ecclesiae within agorae, fora, caesareia and palaestrae. Eusebius (Vita Constantini III: 26-30) records that a section of the porticus of the forum of Aelia Capitolina, now Jerusalem in Israel, was incorporated into a basilica preceded by an atrium; in 368 Athanasius, bishop of Alexandria, transferred the first ecclesia of that city, the cathedral of St Mary Tamantha, into the porticus of the gigantic mid-first-century B.C. Caesarium; one of the churches mentioned in the Byzantine papyri of Oxyrhynchus (Behnesa, Egypt) appears to have been in the caesarium of that city. Lepcis Magna in Tripolitania (Lebda/Labhna, Libya), shows two significant conversions: while the so-called “Old Forum Church”, a sacred conversion scenario, was installed in the vaulted naos of the Trajanic Mater Magna temple on the southwest side of the pre-Severan Forum Vetus, a much larger church was established, at roughly the same time, within the enormous and prominent 85m long double-apsed Severan basilica iudicaria, part of the vast third-century colonnaded forum. At Sabratha in Tripolitania (Marsa Zuaga, Libya) “Church 1″ is a fourth-century renovation of a second- or third-century basilica truncated in both its length and width. Spoliated paired Cipollino columns form a three-aisled interior and three doors cut into the eastern wall gave access into this “western oriented” church.

The uniquely elongated (31m x 260m) second-century civic basilica or museion, at Ephesus in Ionia (Efes near Selcuk, Turkey), may have lost its original raison d’être in the economic downturn of the third century; whether it was abandoned in whole or in part or might have been “available” is not entirely clear. Whatever the case, 144 metres of the western range was Christianised c. 400: an atrium and narthex to the west, measuring together some 58 metres in a proportion of 1:2, and the aisled basilica itself, some 86 metres long, in a proportion of 1:3. This was the famed Council Church of 431 and the cathedral of St Mary. Whether the baptistery, offices and residences (presumably for the clergy) immediately to the east are to be attributed to this phase or to that of the reproportioning and doming of the nave c. 500 is also unclear; most probably three- fifths of the original basilica was unused at this time, and apparently only half of its length was ever used even during the seventh or eighth centuries when it was located centrally within the much reduced Byzantine enceinte, 300 metres from the Arkadiane, yet adjacent to the city walls.

Mention should be made of a few other significant examples: the insula episcopalis of the cathedral of St Theodore in Gerasa in Arabia (Jerash in Transjordania) had been a materials- and refuse-dump prior to Christianisation. Next to the north range of the Artemis temenos wall, and approached up a grand flight of stairs, the basilica of St Theodore of c. 375 was extended by the axially-related plan of the cathedral that was built into the area immediately to the west c. 523-534.

Ecclesiae are built into the areae of palaestrae in Aegean and Ionian cities as well as at Mactaris in Africa Proconsularis. The “Gymnasium Church” is found in the Hellenistic gymnasium of Assos in Caria (Behramkale, Turkey); a church (perhaps even two) in the Hellenistic palaestra at Pergamon in Ionia (Bergama, Turkey) presents its south wall as the entrance facade in the newly formed atrium, the church being built into the north-east spatial quadrant and angle of the peribolos. Theatres and amphitheatres were Christianised in Alexandria, Athens, Dyrrachium, Salona and Side by the construction of churches and oratories in their arenae, orchestrae and caveae; there are more examples from the West, including Tarragona.

Churches located within the streetscape and its structures, monuments by or over the street and its colonnades, exedra and the larger spatial armatures leading off the streets are a significant aspect of the corpus. The so-called Propylaeum or Viaduct Church in Gerasa, Arabia (Jerash, Transjordania) was built sometime in the sixth century into the city-side bridgehead of the axial approach to that same defunct Artemis temenos and the adjacent St Theodore and cathedral complex, following, one presumes, the collapse of the bridge’s central span. New walls, apse and superstructure consolidated the bridge’s colonnades and arch in situ into the basilica and the atrium encorporated the niched exedrae at the cardo intersection. Adaptation scenarios in Rome and Ostia describe the blocking of rights-of-way of a different order and the use of existing structures to determine, to a large extent, the planning of those oratories; at a later date the so-called Tetraconch Tetrakionion Church at Aphrodisias in Caria blocked an intersection which we must presume was already disused.

For the very period that patronage of the secular public baths and aquaeducts was disappearing there is considerable evidence of water-supply and baths supported by bishops and ecclesiae for ritual purposes, hygiene and charity, in particular new baths in the insula or palatio episcopalis, monasteries and convents. Extensive thermal complexes, typically with imperial patronage and requiring substantial endowments for their operation and continual maintenance, were a significant economic burden, and especially so for a pleasure that was considered morally dubious. The thermae were thereby highly susceptible to abandonment and to conversion; indeed the apsidal-ended halls, the frigidaria or caldaria, of late antique North African baths had at one time been misidentified as churches built de novo. Some forty “baths-churches” are known but only a very few are intact enough to reveal substantive architectural evidence.

The conversion of the extramural baths at Hierapolis in Asia Caria (Pammukale, Turkey) into a large three-aisled church by the extension of the piers into the caldarium volume was an ambitious undertaking which also narrowed the span of the new nave roof. Crosses were cut into the ashlar keystones on the thickened piers and a massive and deep apse was built into the north-east wall. Little is known of the pre-Byzantine form of these thermae due to heavy robbing of the site’s masonry.

The “Small Baths” Church of Madavros in Numidia (M’daourouch, Algeria) appears to be one of three modest and roughly constructed churches in this city; one is in the Christian necropolis,the other two, including this one, are near the “Large Baths”. An analysis of the pattern of receptacles cut into the walls and floors of the central frigidarium and the two piscinae show that a new plan with timber floors covering the piscinae gave both an entrance vestibule to the north-west and a presbyterium in the south-east; a choir was located in the middle of the frigidarium.

“Basilica IV” in Mactaris in Africa Proconsularis, now Makhthar in Tunisia, was built into the elongated frigidarium (between 7m and 9m wide and 35.5m long) of the city’s “West Baths” in the late fifth or sixth century; its pre-Christian form consisted of two intercommunicating bathing halls to the north and south with a central intermediary compartment. A Christian basilica was formed here by a double colonnade, 21.5m in length, which was inserted through the central and north compartments; it was subdivided by steps, screens and ambo and ended with three steps up to the presbyterium that was constructed in the now re-filled piscina; this ended in a semi-circular colonnade-cum-ciborium. Whereas the presbyterium may be under the original vaulting to the piscina, the middle compartment appears to have required a new, presumably timber, superstructure; the southern compartment formed the church atrium with a freestanding roofed chapel in its midst; this was indeed one of the two chapels, two martyria and other Christian burials within adjacent chambers of this therma-basilica.

While those antique secular public buildings that survived fires, earthquakes and redundancy before the era in question are the matrix of proto-Byzantine cities, the formal public urban spaces of the cities of classical antiquity are often opportunities for proto-Byzantine infilling. The ground-figure schemata of the cities of late antiquity are transformed throughout the fifth, sixth and seventh centuries by progressive encroachment on, if not infilling of, viae, areae and atria, while monuments, sometimes whole sectors, in the depopulated cities are quarried, leaving empty palimpsested terrains. The few orthogonal and axial ex novo plans remind us of the importance of cultural continuities from late antiquity, while the contribution of Byzantine urban design lies in the intercontextual correlation of an incremental appropriation and interiorisation of public space that is linked to the need for new ecclesiastical spaces for congregations.