Monday, March 30, 2015


Adam Izdebski, A Rural Economy in Transition: Asia Minor from Late Antiquity into the Early Middle Ages. Journal of Juristic Papyrology supplement, 18. Warszawa: Raphael Taubenschlag Foundation, 2013. Pp. xiv, 261. ISBN 9788392591986. €75.00.

Reviewed by Nikos Tsivikis, Institute for Mediterranean Studies, Rethymno (

Version at BMCR home site

[The Table of Contents is listed below.]

The study of Byzantine history and archaeology often brings to mind the double face of Janus: a significant portion of scholarship is produced according to older and more traditional interpretive methods while a few studies signal breakthroughs almost inconceivable a generation ago. Adam Izdebski's book should be included in the latter category, introducing innovative methodologies and reconceptualizing our views of Byzantine history. In A Rural Economy in Transition, his main aim is to reconstruct the conditions of rural Asia Minor in the difficult times for the Byzantine state between the 7th and the 10th c. AD. The subject in itself is challenging, touching upon a series of major and difficult questions for a period even until today referred to as the Byzantine 'Dark Ages'. At the center stands the evolution of Byzantine rural society, a subject frequently regarded as fully exhausted in past studies based on textual sources. Finally these issues are examined for the lands of Asia Minor that extend eastward and away from the well-excavated and better-known coastal settlements of the Aegean that usually are the focus of similar studies.

To achieve his goal Izdebski initially discusses the material of survey data, archaeological reports and historical sources. He does not stop there but transcends into the uncharted and exciting waters of the palaeoenvironmental record of ancient and medieval vegetation patterns as recorded in the lakebeds and marshes of Asia Minor. This is the most important and original addition of this volume, and it offers new understandings and nuanced perceptions of the discussion of Byzantine rural economy and settlement evolution, providing the reader a set of new and refined palynological data on the Byzantine Anatolian countryside.

In the first part entitled 'Transformation of Rural Settlement', the author revisits three different sets of established archaeological data in an effort to outline the broad changes occurring in rural Asia Minor from Late Antiquity to the Early Middle Ages. Extensive and intensive survey data is utilized to track the changing rural settlement patterns and to chart the vast areas of Asia Minor under discussion. This analysis is followed by a study of fortified sites recorded in surveys from which Izdebski attempts to find a network of Byzantine Early Medieval rural fortifications built in the tumultuous era of the Arab invasions. The first part ends with the study of rural ecclesiastical buildings as a way to grasp the conditions and transformations pertaining to these rural areas of Asia Minor.

Often in this first part the author encounters the limitations of the available data and especially the shortcomings of extensive or intensive surveys. Early Medieval Byzantine settlements seem to be difficult to register in traditional surveys because the material culture of the period is understudied and consists of artifacts elusive to archaeological methods oriented towards the Classical and Roman world. The same applies to fortifications. Here Izdebski successfully shows how difficult it is to date some remains to a specific century based on survey data alone or by using Clive Foss's criteria of dated building techniques. Byzantine Early Medieval rural churches, the last of the three markers, prove to be maybe the most elusive material to be tracked through surface survey. With the exception of standing buildings, intact or in ruins, we are practically unable to recognize them without some excavation. Surveys usually identify church sites by the occasional discovery of carved stones and architectural sculpture but, as the author notes, we should be extra cautious in trusting this identification without corroborating evidence from excavations.

The second part of Izdebski's book is dedicated to palaeoenvironmental research about Byzantine Early Medieval Asia Minor. The author initially analyzes the predominant pattern of Roman and Late Roman human induced cultivation, what is commonly called the Beyșehir Occupation Phase (BOP), named after the lake of that name in central Anatolia. BOP stands for a phase of intensive human activity characterized by a tripartite equilibrium recorded in multiple pollen samples across Asia Minor: cereal cultivation, fruticulture and pastoral activities. Izdebski explores the question of what it was like during the last period of BOP, what followed and whether it is possible to arrive at a reliable date for the transition. To achieve this he uses existing palynological data, with the aim of constructing new age-depth models especially fitted to the Late Roman and Byzantine Early Medieval period. Through the new analysis of samples from many sites all around Asia Minor Izdebski manages to trace this change to near the end of the 7th c. AD. The BOP equilibrium transforms radically into a new balance of rural activities. In this much drier climate the fruticulture seems to disappear around many of the sampled sites, and cereal cultivation along with pastoralism gains new impetus.

Izdebski concludes that this drastic alteration of the rural landscape was due in part to the climatological change and unprecedented aridity, and in part to the new realities of Arab raids and the collapse of the frontier after the 7th c. As a result, a homogenous mode of cultivation and pattern of rural settlements that extended in the Late Roman period almost everywhere across Asia Minor disappeared, and a more diverse Early Medieval setting arose where different regions react differently to the change. The segmented rural landscape was divided after the 7th c. into general regions: the Southeast (Cappadocia and the SE Central Plateau), a vast frontier area and buffer zone for the war with the Arabs, underpopulated and underexploited; the Southwest (Pisidia and Lykia), where despite the abandonment of some urban sites a vivid network of villages survived following the Late Roman trends and where a major reorganization of agriculture towards cereal production and pastoralism took place; and the North (Paphlagonia and the Pontus), where animal husbandry becomes the predominant economic activity along with smaller pockets of cereal cultivation. The three proposed regions correlate with Ralph-Johannes Lilie's system of different zones in Asia Minor according to the level of Arab threat that was first presented in the 1970s and later refined by Haldon and Brubaker.1 But Izdebski provides for the first time the needed evidence that converts the border zone system from a historical reconstruction to a demonstrable reaction to the difficult economic conditions in Asia Minor after the 7th c.

Izdebski notes the recurring pattern of limited archaeological knowledge for the area, especially in regards to the Byzantine Early Medieval period. In this way he raises a crucial issue about the future of contemporary Byzantine archaeology and poses the question of how to move beyond the limitations of survey analysis. Although the author's focus on the evidence from rural Asia Minor is justified, it is exactly the excavated material that sometimes questions this division of 'urban' against 'rural'. One of the best excavated and extensively published Byzantine Early Medieval settlements of central Anatolia, the city of Amorium, could be considered 'urban' but would have been especially relevant to the discussion in its connection to rural agriculture. The highly organized and intensive wine production that was taking place in Amorium during the 8th c., among other evidence of agricultural activity, suggests equal importance alongside palaeoenvironmental data.2 Excavation material could have further helped to fill the gaps in Izdebski's evidence. In addition, maps based on the survey and palynological data, like in the case of Phrygia, would have been helpful. Most of this evidence for the rural areas of Asia Minor can be found in reports usually published in Turkish. Probably owing to the language barrier, this valuable of material is mostly absent from the book. A good example is the extremely important church monuments of the 8th-9th c. that have been recently excavated in Bașara, a small village near Han in the Eskisehir region, at a locale that is not connected with any important city and most certainly was a rural settlement.3

On a different and more theoretical level, Izdebski's book successfully synchronizes Byzantine history with some of the major trends in current historiographical writing. And although the author rejects outwardly Joseph Tainter's ideas outlined in Collapse of Complex Societies (p. 232-3), it is tempting to ascribe some of the book's ideas to an intellectual milieu informed by aspects of environmental determinism as it has been formulated by Jared Diamond and other contemporary historians.4 In Izdebski's transitory rural Asia Minor from Late Antiquity to the Byzantine Early Middle Ages, the climatological shift along with the plague outbreak function as the natural facilitators of major historical transformation. Additionally to the environmental factors stands another reagent of change: the Arab invasions - viewed traditionally in Byzantine historiography as the utmost catalyst. But we need to be careful with this kind of historical determinism because it risks reducing Byzantine social change to a response to external causes, and internal social dynamics can be overlooked in the larger analysis.

A Rural Economy in Transition paves the way for further research into the connections between political and environmental history in Byzantine Asia Minor.5 There are many signs on the horizon that Byzantine history and archaeology are moving speedily in novel and fascinating directions, opening room for new and essential debates in a field not always characterized by innovation. The book at hand certainly holds a place as one of these exciting signs.

Table of Contents

Part 1 – The transformation of rural settlement
Chapter 1 – Structure and density of rural settlement
Chapter 2 – Fortifications within the rural world
Chapter 3 – Ecclesiastical monuments in the countryside
Chapter 4 – The inconclusive conclusions: Early Middle Ages – a 'posthumous' Late Antiquity?
Part 2 – Prosperity, collapse, and adaptation in rural economies
Chapter 1 – Palynological evidence in historical interpretations
Chapter 2 – Regional analyses
Chapter 3 – The vegetation history of Anatolia in a comparative perspective
Conclusions – Towards a synthesis: from homogeneity to diversity


1.   Ralph-Johannes Lilie, Die Byzantinische Reaktion auf die Ausbreitung der Araber: Studien zur Strukturwandlung des Byzantinischen Staates im 7. und 8. Jahrhundert, München 1976, 339-360; Leslie Brubaker and John F. Haldon, Byzantium in the Iconoclast Era, c. 680-850: A History, Cambridge 2011, 551-554.
2.   Christopher Lightfoot and Eric Ivison, eds., Amorium Reports 3: The Lower City Enclosure. Finds Reports and Technical Studies, Istanbul 2012.
3.   Oguz Alp, "Eskişehir, Başara Köyü Kazılarından bulunan Bizans Dönemi Kiliseleri", in: Kadir Pektaş et al., XIII. Ortaçağ ve Türk dönemi Kazilari ve Sanat Tarihi Araştirmalari Sempozyumu Bildirileri 14-16 Ekim 2009, Denizli 2010, 21-30.
4.   Recently re-evaluated in, Jared Diamond and James Robinson, "Prologue", in: Jared Diamond and James A. Robinson, eds., Natural Experiments of History, Cambridge 2010, 1-10.
5.   John Haldon, Neil Roberts, Adam Izdebski, Dominik Fleitmann, Michael McCormick, Marica Cassis, Owen Doonan, et al., "The Climate and Environment of Byzantine Anatolia: Integrating Science, History, and Archaeology." Journal of Interdisciplinary History 45.2 (2014), 113–161.

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