Decline in East and West

We might wonder why the Eastern Empire did not fall with that in the West: the suggested answer (Jones 1966, 362ff.) is an amalgam of features - greater prosperity and political stability; a larger population cultivating richer land; better use of resources; a more equitable application of taxation with ownership of land more broadly spread; and, finally, better defences both geographical and in terms of soldiery against the invading barbarians. In both East and West from Late Antiquity, what is more, there seems to have been a greater emphasis on the countryside rather than the town - with Christian pagani, as it were. This occurred for a whole host of reasons, but a significant one is that the natural way of living (before the increased urbanism of the last few centuries) was indeed in small country communities. The town was (to exaggerate only slightly) a new-fangled invention and, in any case, far more people lived in the country than in towns. This argument is used, for example, to try and explain how it was that Gaul so happily reverted to a pre-Roman type of society after the fall of the Empire. City dwelling was an imposed way of life, so the argument goes, not a natural one. A parallel argument (and a very useful one) explains why classical art and architecture were not eternally appreciated: for it is suggested that classicism (because of its connections with political power and the taste of rulers) was a set of values associated with an elite - "public school" values, no less. When either the elite or its sense of tradition changed, classical art became meaningless, to be replaced by different perspectives. In Turkey as elsewhere, the majority of any population must always have been uninterested in "urban" values, whether indigenous or - as was largely the case - imposed from outside.

We must be careful, of course, not to impose what happened in the West (where the Empire really did fall) onto the East, where a form of Roman Empire survived until the Sack of Constantinople in 1453. From archaeology, inscriptions and other documentary evidence, we now know more about the decline of urban living in the West (including Athens, between East and West, as it were) than we do in the East, although this is changing as digging proceeds in Turkey. The story for Athens is a gloomy one indeed, reconstructed largely from the excavations in the agora (Thompson 1959/60): barbarian invasion; violent destruction of monuments, often by fire, and followed by years of desolation; blocked drains; spurts of re-building using the materials to hand. The process of decline was further abetted by dismantling more monuments to build a small set of protective walls which were to become in the 19th and 20th centuries a veritable treasure-house of classical sculpture, reliefs and architectural members. Other centres were never large, and incorporated earlier structures as decoration in their walls, as at Nicaea, where the Arch of Hadrian dignifies the approach from Istanbul; at some later date, stone masks from the theatre have been used to beautify the inner "court" of the same gate. The east gate of the same city, made as part of the 13th century Lascarid defence works, not only uses an antique column as a lintel to the gate, but deliberatey beautifies it by placing large Roman funerary reliefs symmetrically at ground level.

Nevertheless, there was indeed a decline of urban living in the East; and although perhaps it began from a more prosperous base than it did in the West, and in cities of greater magnificence, its tell-tale features are to be seen through all the Greek and Roman cities of Western Turkey. Taking as a suitable measure the twenty cities of Byzantine Asia named in a list compiled by the tenth-century Emperor Constantine Porphyrogenitus, Clive Foss (1977) has concluded that there was a significant decline in standards of urban life, of population and of commerce; and he gives summaries of the situation at centres such as Ephesus, Sardis, Miletus, Priene, Pergamon, Smyrna and Magnesia. And for all its fabled splendour, Constantinople was by the 14th century but a shadow of her former self: as Ibn Battuta remarks (1983, 508), Within the wall are about thirteen inhabited villages ... Nevertheless, he could yet marvel at the audience-hall of the Great Palace, whose walls were of mosaic work, in which were pictured figures of creatures, both animate and inanimate. In the centre of it was a water-channel with trees on either side of it ... (II, 505)

The timescale of decline

Sic transit gloria mundi is an appropriate refrain for any modern visitor to the relicts of marble magnificence. For the ancients, the margin between success and failure, between prosperity and decline must have seemed narrow indeed, and movement between the two sometimes whimsical and speedy. At Ephesus, for example, large areas of the city were in ruin by the time of Diocletian, at the end of the third century AD (Foss 1979, 96-9). Some monuments were repaired under the Tetrarchs, with a spurt of work in the fourth and early fifth centuries; and some prestigious Christian ones were built, such as the Church of St. John. However, the city soon had to respond to the Persian invasions, and its "monumental fabric" suffered accordingly. It built a new wall encompassing only a proportion of the classical city, abandoning (for example) the Agora, and incorporated within that wall suitable monuments, such as the theatre. In spite of this, some semblance of life must have survived at Ephesus, especially at the Christian monuments. This pattern of change is exactly what happened in Western Europe several centuries earlier, as the monuments of erstwhile Roman cities were dismantled for use in city walls, supposedly in a rush, as a response to the waves of barbarian invasions.


At Sardis, the extensive excavations have yielded much information about the period of decline (Foss 1976; J. A. Scott in Guralnick 1987, 74-87). By the fifth century parts of the city are disused, the once-grand colonnades are cluttered with small shops, and churches appear on disused lots. In the sixth century - the very age of Justinianic grandeur, as Scott remarks - there are fires built on mosaic pavements, refuse on the colonnaded streets, and wells sunk, indicating a breakdown in the water supply. The gymnasium housed at least one limekiln (photo in Hanfmann 1983, fig. 219), as did the Temple of Artemis. The area of the city continues to shrink (cf. Plans I-IV in Hanfmann 1983). During this late antique period, new building in Sardis is either ecclesiastical or private: public building, the very backbone of the classical city, disappears. Indeed, the excavators have guessed that, after the Persian attack of 616 AD (and comparing what they found before this date with what remained after it), the population must have declined by about ninety per cent (Hanfmann 1975, 33). In spite of this, Hanfmann (1983, 214) remarks on the continuity and the recurrent civic activity, with vigorous rebuilding and renovation - right up to the destruction of 616 AD. The reconstructors of the marble court at Sardis estimated that 60-65% of the columnar architecture survived on site, although some of it was broken when it fell (Hanfmann 1983, 152). Losses of decorative marble - veneers and marble wall mosaic - are more difficult to assess, because it often cannot be known what area they covered. What proportion of their marble blocks sites lost depended on many factors, two important ones being their accessibility to the local population, and their nearness to rivers or the sea - the easiest method of transport. Estimates are of course difficult to make, except for temple or stoa columns, where one simply subtracts the numer of those remaining from the number required to fill the area.


From here you may also go to The Preface, The Introduction, Archaeology in Turkey, Building for Splendour, Town Planning, Roads, Water Supply, Aqueducts, Harbours, The Architecture of Work & Leisure, Religion: Temples & Special Sanctuaries, Funerary Art & Architecture, The Conclusion, The Bibliography, or The Table of Contents

Greek & Roman Cities of Western Turkey