Sunday, September 15, 2013


Florin Curta, The Edinburgh History of the Greeks, c. 500 to 1050: The Early Middle Ages. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2011. Pp. vii, 365. ISBN 9780748638093. $135.00.

Reviewed by Jason Fossella, Saint Louis University (

Version at BMCR home site


This book is a history of Greece, by which is meant approximately the area covered by the modern state of Greece, including the Aegean isles, but not other places Greek speakers occupied in the past. It places heavy emphasis on archaeological evidence, especially coin finds, and presents a number of convincing notions on the economic and social conditions that prevailed in Greece during this period. Its most persistent theme is the Byzantine military as the single most influential force in the social and economic life of Greece. The work should be praised especially for its nuanced approach to the numismatic evidence and for its incorporation of evidence from saints' lives.

The book is divided into ten chapters. The first three discuss late antique Greece, from c. 500 to c. 620, covering Roman power in Greece during this period, the shrinkage of cities, and the interpretation of coin hoards. The second part of the book is a chronological history of the early medieval period in Greece, divided into Dark-Age Greece (c. 620 to c. 800), revival (c. 800 to c. 900), and the beginning of prosperity (c. 900 to c. 1050.) The final four are a discussion of the Medieval Greek economy, social structures and administration, and the role of the Church, and a conclusion.

Curta has two goals. First, he aims to examine the economic and social structures of Greece during this period, while avoiding the dichotomy between 'Greeks' and 'Slavs' that is present in other works on this period. This is certainly accomplished: by the end of the book, the issue of ethnicity has been so problematized that it is impossible to come to any real conclusion about the ethnicity of Greece's medieval inhabitants, except that they came from many ethnicities that were in a variety of relationships with each other and the Byzantine state.

The second goal is to examine the nature of Byzantine power in Greece, which mostly means discussing the influence of the army. This is also accomplished by incorporating much physical evidence (mostly coins and ceramics) and some previously unexploited written sources to produce results that are surprisingly nuanced. Curta is able to discuss not just trends in the whole of Greece, but manages to differentiate and contrast those, for example, in Thessaloniki and those in the Peloponnesus. In general, Curta's attention to detail, while making for a dense text, has produced well-supported conclusions incorporating archaeological evidence into Mediterranean history, a difficult task.

The remaining findings are: first, that the decline or disappearance of Greek urban centers had little to do with military or natural disasters, but was caused by shifts in political and economic networks; second, that the social and economic structures of Greece largely reflected the military organization of Byzantine territory; and third, that if there was a cultural or 'ethnic' continuity in medieval Greece, it derived from a late antique 'Roman-ness:' Christianity and loyalty to the emperor.

In the first three chapters (c. 500 to 620) Curta demonstrates that during the sixth century Greece was fairly prosperous and a net exporter of agricultural products. Greece alone out of all of the empire's Balkan territories had cities that maintained their late antique forms and amenities. The archaeological evidence does not support the notion that the urban contraction was on account of invasion or natural disaster. For instance, monumental buildings of high quality continued to be constructed throughout Greece during the sixth century. The various disasters attested by Procopius are not confirmed by physical evidence, and there is no evidence that the Plague of Justinian reached Greece. Although absence of evidence is not necessarily evidence of absence, Curta provides a convincing alternate hypothesis. He holds that whenever the central government withdrew its attention from a city, the local elites, denied a path to higher honors, also left. This withdrawal is marked in the remains by the disappearance of imported ceramics, which anticipates the abandonnment of a site in almost every case. The withdrawal of the state-supported trade network caused the local economy to contract and the city to shrink or disappear. This demand-side argument makes excellent sense in a largely state-controlled economy, and is well supported by the physical evidence.

An important insight found in chapter 3 is that coin hoards in most cases appear not to reflect patterns of invasion or savings, but the increased presence of the army in a particular region. It had been theorized previously by Michael Hendy that the basic flow of currency in the Byzantine economy was from the fisc to the army and dromos (postal system). From them it flowed to landowners, and then back to the fisc.1 Byzantinists have been relying on Hendy's analysis since it was the best theory, even while there was no evidence to back it up. Although Curta does not directly link his discussion of coin hoards to Hendy's model, the evidence presented in this work makes it clear that Hendy's model is correct, at least in Greece, as Curta is able to associate most hoards not only in this period but in later ones as well with the movement of the army. This places an important aspect of our understanding of the Byzantine economy on firmer ground empirically.

However, Curta makes clear later in the book that the flow of currency was often, but not always, associated with troop movements. For instance, a very large infusion of coinage to the northeastern Peloponnese in the late ninth and early tenth centuries seems to have been the result of the region's reorganization under Basil I and Leo VI after the death of Basil's patroness, Danielis.

In the chapter four, covering "Dark Age" Greece ca. 620 to 800, Curta concludes that the Byzantine military and administration never totally withdrew from Greece as they did from the rest of the Balkan Peninsula. However, after Staurakios's reconquest at the end of the eighth century, the Byzantine presence was generally limited to Thessaloniki, Athens, and Corinth. Even after 800, Byzantine control was mostly restricted to the eastern coast, shown by, for instance, pottery types found in Athens and Crete but not elsewhere. The interior and west were occupied by peoples of various ethnicities, transferred from the empire's edges. It is clear that there were Slavs, but also resettled Armenians, Jews, 'Kapheroi,' (probably Arab converts,) and other groups. The Slavic presence is clear from gravegoods resembling those found in the Crimea and Hungary.

In the next chapter, which discusses the 'revival and expansion' of Greek society, ca. 800 to ca. 900, Curta discusses the reestablishment of peace and stability, when the Arabs were pushed out of the Aegean and Byzantine administration was reestablished in the Peloponnesus. While the region between Constantinople and Thessaloniki seems to have been secure and prosperous throughout this century, in other parts of Greece economic development was uneven. It surged in some times and places only to recede, with long-term prosperity coming only after 900. For instance, a trade route opened through the Gulf of Corinth around 830, and this had been assumed to indicate the return of prosperity to the region around Corinth. However, the coin finds indicate that trade increased during the reign of Theophilos (829-842) and then fell again immediately after, and there is no evidence of new structures built during the ninth century. Ceramic finds also indicate that this burst of trade was very limited geographically, as no the distribution of ceramics is limited to the Aegean, with no finds from Italy or further afield. It may be that a trade route opened for a brief time, but was went out of use again shortly after, indicating the ebb and flow of Arab control of the seas.

The tenth century began with a large increase in Arab raiding in the Aegean, culminating in the destruction of a Byzantine fleet in 911. However, the recapture of Crete in 961 ended this period, and brought permanent stability to Greece. Both archaeology and written sources indicate an increased population in the southern Cyclades, and the construction of churches increased greatly, in the Peloponnese after 900, and in the rest of Greece after 1000. However, the physical evidence for this period does not show a great increase in coins or imported ceramics. Curta finds that, where we can identify the founder of a particular church, he is typically not a member of the local elite, but a churchman or an office-holder from outside Greece. The economic implications of all this are discussed in the next chapter, on the economy.

The final three chapters discuss Greek society during the centuries covered by the middle three. They focus upon the Middle Byzantine economy in Greece, social structures and administration, and the role of the Church. The Medieval Greek economy was based on agriculture, particularly grain cultivation, as Greece seems to have been feeding the entire empire. State support was a major part of economic development: the cities where the state added or maintained a presence flourished, while those from which state support was withdrawn shrank or disappeared. The period from 900 to 1050 was one in which Greece went from being a backwater to being the empire's breadbasket. While Curta has done an excellent job in this chapter with the written evidence, the lack of archaeological evidence does weaken his argument. This points to Medieval Greek settlements as an area for future archaeological research.

The social structure of Greece changed in three phases. During the early seventh century, the late antique elites withdrew and were replaced with a military elite when the Byzantine administration was reestablished. There is no continuity between the elite of the sixth century and that of the eighth and ninth centuries. During the late ninth and tenth centuries, the elite was transformed as Greece's agricultural land was concentrated into fewer and fewer hands, producing a new economic elite. In the north, land came into the hands of the monasteries. In the south, it was collected by a group represented in the written sources by people like Danielis. The life of these tenth-century aristocrats can be described well, as the written sources and archaeological evidence paint a picture of elites feasting, hunting, and enjoying luxury goods.

The most prominent economic trend from 800 to 1050 was the reduction of 'continuing peasant autonomy' as Greece shifted into the feudal model also prominent in the rest of early medieval Europe. However, the daily lives of ordinary medieval Greeks are almost impossible to describe, as they are poorly represented. Greece was home to significant numbers of slaves, some of them prisoners of war from Bulgaria.

The penultimate chapter discusses Christianity in medieval Greece. Of particular interest here are two points. First, while Greece seems to have been thoroughly Christian in late antiquity, during the ninth and tenth centuries large areas needed to be re-Christianized. These were not only areas that were occupied by Slavs, but those that the sources explicitly say were "of the ancient Romans." It is unclear whether this means they were recalcitrant pagans, Muslims, or heretical Christians.

The second interesting point is the expansion of religious institutions and practices (church foundings, monasteries, and pilgrimages) during the tenth and eleventh centuries. It seems that the religious geography of Greece was remade during this period in a way that had little connection to late antiquity.

If the book has a weakness, it is the organizational scheme, which is at times too chronological and makes for a difficult read, but this is a minor complaint about an excellent and useful work. Overall, this is a nuanced and useful discussion of the social and economic history of medieval Greece.


1.   Michael F. Hendy, Studies in the Byzantine Monetary Economy, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985: 606.

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