Looking for Byzantium in Spain at Oxford

Another event from the diminishing pile of things I have yet to report from when I was in Oxford is a one-day conference organised by some of the small crowd of temporary Hispanists among whom I was sort of numbered while I was there, on 11th May 2013. The theme of this conference was Byzantium and the West: Byzantine Spain, and it brought people from a fair range of places to All Soul’s College. Philip Niewöhner introduced proceedings with the working question: how western was the east, how eastern was the west? and with that we were off into sessions. This is kind of a huge post, so I’ll stick it behind a cut, but there’s some good stuff here I promise.

    Reverse of a gold solidus of Emperor Tiberius II (574-582) showing the new type of a cross on steps, from the Constantinople mint, Fitzwilliam Museum CM.ME.370-R

    Reverse of a gold solidus of Emperor Tiberius II (574-582) showing a cross on steps, from the Constantinople mint, Fitzwilliam Museum CM.ME.370-R

  • Cyril Mango, “The Spanish Emperors at Constantinople AD 379-453”
  • Rob Portass, “The Byzantine Province in Spain and the Construction of the Visigothic Kingdom”
  • Reverse of a gold tremissis struck at Mérida for King Leovigild of the Visigoths (575-586), American Numismatic Society 1956.25.12

    Reverse of a gold tremissis struck at Mérida for King Leovigild of the Visigoths (575-586), American Numismatic Society 1956.25.12. Match that, huh?

    It seemed while I was there always to provoke a murmur when Cyril Mango attended something in Oxford, as if some people had not in fact believed this giant of the field was still on earth, but he was, he is, and he did what he was doubtless expected to do, which was a painstaking rundown of the changes made to Constantinople’s monumental and military architecture from the reign of Emperor Theodosius I onwards. The link to the theme is that Theodosius was from the Roman province of Hispania as was his wife, though as Professor Mango pointed out, a genealogy was rapidly constructed that descended him from Trajan, whose Roman monuments he also imitated. Rob, meanwhile, argued that the Byzantine province should not be seen as a reconquest from the Visigoths, but rather an appropriation of one of many patches in a work of different provinces answering more or less to Gothic, Suevic, or sub-Roman authorities (be they kings or senatores) across the Peninsula, and that the Visigothic kingdom really only became the kind of unit that could contest such a position under King Leovigild. Rob said that Leovigild, being able to beat everyone but the Byzantines in war, instead attempted to imitate them in rule, and Reccared took this further, setting up a new royal capital much further south than the Visigoths had usually previously ruled with a Greek name (Recopolis). Linked to this should be something like national Church councils, even before the conversion of the kings from Arianism to Catholicism, and of course a new gold coinage imitating the latest Byzantine issues. This imitatio imperii however went alongside a polemical dislike of the ‘Greeks’ in the writings that we have, suggesting that despite Constantinople being followed here, a branding as Roman was what was really up for grabs.

    View of the excavation site at Recópolis

    View of the excavation site at Recópolis, from Wikimedia Commons

    The discussion then focused on whether the Byzantines really much cared about their westernmost province and what it was maintained for. Connections between Spain and Constantinople direct seem to have been very rare at this point: Graham Barrett argued that the emperors had more dealings with the Franks and Margarita Vallejo suggested that the papacy might be the main intermediary. Chris Wickham closed the discussion with the thought that for the emperors the main consideration, since it clearly wasn’t revenue, was presumably the security of the Western Mediterranean [edit: and the African coast], and that once the Visigoths became able to guaranteedominate that Constantinople had no reason to continue investment in trying to do so itself. That sounded plausible to me but reminds me now quite how much of a gap we have between what the fifth and sixth-century emperors of Constantinople did and what their intentions may in fact have been.

  • Sonia Gutiérrez Lloret, “The Episcopal Complex of Eio-el Tolmo de Minateda (Hellín, Albacete, Spain): architecture and spatial organisation, 7th to 9th centuries AD”
  • Michael Decker, “Networks and eastern trade in late antique Spain”
  • Carlos Cabrera, “Was Seville controlled by Byzantium?”
  • Now, the archæology started, and this was where we would be for the rest of the conference. Professor Gutiérrez showed us a town where the Visigoths placed a new bishopric in this province they did eventually conquer from the Byzantines, building a new palace in the ruins of a Roman imperial one of the first century AD. There is very little sign of any Byzantine-period occupation here and it looks very much as if it was rebuilt, refortified and resettled (houses backing onto the refurbished walls) in the seventh century. It’s the basilica and the episcopal palace they’ve lately been digging here and that boasts a modest range of international ceramics, some fancy liturgical gear and, interestingly, graffiti in some rooms as if they were accessible to the public. Of course, it wouldn’t last long in Visigothic hands either but at least we can see that that made a difference!1

    Basílica Tolmo Minateda

    The basilica site at el Tolmo de Minateda. By Laclac (Own work) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC-BY-SA-3.0-2.5-2.0-1.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

    Dr Decker then considered the question of easterners in the West by means of looking at traces of merchants in Byzantine-era Spain. This all seemed very familiar to me from the work of Mark Handley, including a certain amount of wrangling over whether Syrians were really Syrian or just foreign,2 but there were also several clutches of references to ‘Greeks’ in texts of the Visigothic era at places like Mérida, where a Greek doctor became the bishop c. 550 and reportedly invited visits from merchants from his homeland, which whether it’s true or not is quite a nice model of how luxury trade found its markets in this world; in this case one of the luxuries turned out to be his own nephew, who had been sold into slavery but now, redeemed, became the next bishop! Also covered was the question of trade out, to wit fish sauce, which may still have been a commercial export in the sixth century, but if so, via the Byzantine province, whose end may have killed that market and broken up other kinds of long-distance connections by removing the trade routes along which they piggy-backed.3
    A late Roman amphora from the Costa de Baetica

    A late Roman amphora from the Costa de Baetica, almost certainly too early and not for garum but that is just quite hard to search up, you try it…

    Lastly in this session, Carlos Cabrera asked whether the fact that two rebellions against Visigothic kings with Byzantine backing in Seville in 552-555 and 579 means that it was in Byzantine or in Visigothic control. The simple answer is “we don’t know”, of course, the only slightly less simple one is “it was clearly contested”, but archæological intervention at an early-sixth-century merchant’s house showing glass-making using sand from Alexandria and goods from Italy, Cilicia and Anatolia shows that whichever control it fell under, if either, didn’t mind goods coming in from the east up the Guadalquivir river (although as I understood it this was all probably prior to the 552 rebellion).
    Excavations beneath the Plaza de la Encarnación, Seville

    Excavations beneath the Plaza de la Encarnación, Seville

    Since many of the other participants were archæologists debate after these papers was quite heated. Señor Cabrera was keen to separate the kind of outside military control that the Visigothic kings might have wanted in the Byzantine zone from the cultural and commercial connections that might have mattered more to the wealthy and influential inhabitants of its cities, meaning that their allegiance might depend what question you asked about it. One person asked of Dr Decker whether he could be sure that the amphorae from which his cultural connections were being drawn were not just local imitations, and this person turned out to be John Hayes, whose catalogue is the standard resort for classifying the things, so that was an unsettling moment for many as the prophet evinced some pretty fundamental doubts about his own work.4 There was more of this doubt-sharing, too, but there was a definite pattern in which one doubt was that anyone else’s site was as important as one’s own…
  • Margarita Vallejo, “Málaga, the Second Great City of Byzantine Spain: an analysis of historical sources”
  • Jaime Vizcaíno, “An Archaeological Model for Early Byzantine Spain”
  • Isaac Sastre Diego, “What is Byzantine in Late Antique Spain?”
  • Dr Vallejo had perhaps more basis than some other claimants for such beliefs, as even though Byzantine sources never mention Málaga lots of coins have come up there, 2 GreekByzantine-period bishops are known from the city one of whose writing we have some of and the other of whom defected to the Visigoths when King Reccared converted and got deposed uncanonically by the Byzantine count of Cartagena for it! So much of this paper was an attempt to prove superiority of Málaga over the provincial capital of Cartagena that these occasional reminders that Cartagena actually controlled it were kind of a pity, but…

    A map of the Byzantine province of Spain as it is usually and fully imagined, from Wikimedia Commons

    A map of the Byzantine province of Spain as it is usually and fully imagined, from Wikimedia Commons

    Dr Vizcaíno came in next with something of an revisionist take, though one that several of us were ready for: he pointed out that our texts only allow us to say that the Byzantine authorities controlled Cartagena, Ceuta and Málaga, and that anything more than that is an argument about what material goods can really tell us about authority. Cartagena has a lot of Byzantine-period building, a mint, a cemetery, a refurbished port and more but none of this makes it more than a middling well-to-do town in period terms. The very small denominations of coin sometimes found here (suggesting small change was needed), Greek-language inscriptions and Byzantine-network pottery (though remember Dr Hayes) probably go a bit further to making this city ‘Greek’-looking; nonetheless, it’s the only part of the province we can really say this much of, so we may yet be looking at a much less impressive ‘reconquest’ than Procopius initially liked to imply…
    Byzantine copper folles from Cartagena

    Byzantine copper folles from Cartagena

    Lastly in this section Isaac Sastre asked the all-important question, what makes Late Antique Spain Byzantine anyway? He was asking from an art-historical point of view, but there is very little to go on and then Islam happens so that later developments can be quite different, so a lateral approach is needed which somehow deals with the fact that bits of Spain we think were Byzantine and bits that were Visigothic often look about the same in terms of sculpture or similar, as long as one compares coast with coast and inland with inland. Ultimately, he thought, the case for any influence here that isn’t essentially a late Roman provincial culture developing more or less irrespective of immigrants and conquests still has to be made.
    Visigothic liriform belt buckle

    Visigothic liriform belt buckle

    This, as you may imagine, provoked some discussion, and Dr Vizcaíno made an argument that there may not be a different material culture in the Byzantine province but that there is more of it, which may well be how it looks in well-dug Cartagena of course. He also argued that the Byzantine province shows a wider range of these things that are shared widely, so some quite complex quantitative issues arise. Someone I didn’t know who asked about belt-buckles however may have hit on a distinguisher, because apparently only one form, the liriform, is common in the Visigothic zone whereas lots appear in the Byzantine one. Of course why this culture difference should necessarily match political control is still perhaps to be established…

The last two papers were followed by a short pause then some conclusions by the obvious man for the job on the spot.

  • José María Tejado, “Byzantine Influences in the Meseta in archaelogical records: an architectural case study of Visigothic military hillforts in the Sistema Ib´rico mountains”
  • María de los Ángeles Utrero, “Byzantine Attributes of Early Medieval Hispanic Churches: looking for reasons
  • José María took perhaps the biggest risk of the conference in his attempt to find something, anything, we can dig up and call Byzantine in Spain: he had hit on a line of eight fortresses in the southern Meseta which have a similar construction of quadruple ramparts, and the one of which he’s dug, Castillo de los Monjes, showed lots of material between the inner ramparts of which some (those same Visigothically-favoured liriform belt buckles) seemed to date to between 640 and 720. This he linked to the Byzantine defence manual the Strategikon, which recommends constructions like this, albeit in locations better favoured with things like water than this one. He suggested that what we were looking at here was a system of tax extraction perhaps connected with Byzantine thematic organisation, and well, he’s got something but many people were reluctant to agree that that’s what it is. I compared Pictish promontory forts in questions, for example: some of them could be described very similarly but are definitely not Byzantine, not least because of being pre-Constantinian…

    The surviving ramparts of Castillo de los Monjes

    The surviving ramparts of Castillo de los Monjes

    Dr de los Ángeles, meanwhile, took a very critical view of the kind of art history that’s been done with early medieval churches in the Iberian Peninsula. I’m more than open to this and the fact that she took down stylistic dating by features like capitals that could be imitated, imported or reused but still don’t necessarily relate to a wider building, or typological identification of styles by plans that have been crippled by some of the models turning out actually to be, for example, Islamic bathhouses rather than churches, and in general savaged categories like Mozarabic, Visigothic or Byzantine for this stuff which was all built by people with presumably only partial ideas of the Mediterranean’s interconnected æsthetics, shouldn’t leave me wishing for more. Nonetheless, my notes have a bracketed interlude in which I wrote, “What is ‘influence’?! Is it enough to cite parallels? What would people doing this be thinking?” and also “Arterial/venal/capillary transmission”. I remember trying to express the latter in questions and not getting far with it, and I’m afraid now whatever idea I had there is basically irrecoverable. The question of influence and how we think it works remains a live one, however, that much of this stuff can’t afford to examine.
    The supposedly-Visigothic church of Santa Lucía del Trampal

    «Santa Lucía de El Trampal» por José Luis Filpo Cabana – Trabajo propio. Disponible bajo la licencia CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons. Who knows whether this is really ‘Visigothic’ in any meaningful way but it’s a really odd little building…

    Javier Martínez raised some of this in questions, saying that we should expect transmission of ideas to be faulty, but Dr de los Ángeles showed good sense in saying that what we need to look for is not the ideas themselves but the technology used to depict them. She also wisely argued that while we may not be able to tell similarity by evolution from similarity by connection, only the latter could possibly be called ‘Byzantine’ so we do need some way of distinguishing (unless, of course, we gave up on the question). This was some of the most rigorous thinking about art history I think I’ve heard for a very long time and I shouldn’t be so cynical as to say that that’s why it basically didn’t conclude anything, but it is very tempting…

  • Chris Wickham, “Final Remarks”
  • The main point that Chris made to tie things up, apart from the fact that we’re looking for evidence from quite a small area ruled differently for only 70 years—a very familiar concern to me—was that Byzantine rule in the west is a rule by the sea, and that it’s really the ports where we should expect to see differences, and perhaps no further. This served us well in linking Spain, which had been becoming the poor child of the Byzantine resurgence over the course of our discussions, back into a wider scheme that could look for comparisons to, for example, Dalmatia. He hoped that we might yet hope to distinguish state-backed and purely commercial exchange, and that certainly seems like as good a mission as the gathering had collectively managed to come up with.

My abiding sense of this conference remains chasing a phantom, however: while we can do a lot with the Visigothic and Byzantine representations of power in most places, this zone where they supposedly clashed really doesn’t seem much to have cared, when we look at it from inside. It makes it all seem as if these widespread powers were really quite small-time, or that this area was not somewhere they really cared about, and in either case I find it difficult to fit a frontier definition around it. The zone where the material culture simplified may not have been where the political control stopped, if there really was any outside the ports, and the two powers facing across the notional frontier met in other places in ways that affected the supposed frontier zone not at all. Where is even the middle of this zone, let alone the edge? Once again, we have cases that mess with definitions, and we should keep gnawing at these till we can see what it is that would do better for a definition instead.

1. See now S. Gutiérrez Lloret & Julia Sarabia Bautista, “The episcopal complex of Eio-El Tolmo de Minateda (Hellín, Albacete, Spain): architecture and spatial organization, 7th to 8th centuries AD” in Hortus Artium Medievalium Vol. 19 (Zagreb 2013), pp. 267-300.

2. See now M. Handley, Dying on Foreign Shores: travel and mobility in the late-Antique West, Journal of Roman Archaeology Supplementary Series 86 (Portsmouth 2011).

3. Michael McCormick, The Origins of the European Economy (Cambridge 2001) was invoked here straight from the off, which will give some people consequent reservations. The Byzantine taste for garum continued a long time after this, however, as Liudprand of Cremona recorded with disgust, but presumably it was no longer coming from Alicante…

4. J. R. Hayes, Late Roman Pottery (London 1972) & idem, A Supplement to Late Roman Pottery (London 1980).

8 responses to “Looking for Byzantium in Spain at Oxford

  1. It is conferences like this that make me sad I’ve left academe. Looks like it was a lot of fun. A few questions/comments if I may:

    1) I can’t for the life of me think of who the two “greek” bishops in Malaga were. Presumably they were being adjudged as Greek because they had grecophone names (the same argument that is sometimes used to say Leander and Isidore of Sevlle were “Greek”), but which falls foul of Gregorius Georgius Florentius – aka Gregory of Tours who is proof that not all people called George were Greek.

    2) I’m not sure I see why the Byzantines would be interested in a secure western Mediterranean (I mean what did that get for them?), but if they were they already had Ceuta and other bases dotted all along the African coast to Byzantine Africa proper, and Sardinia and Sicily.

    3) Recopolis is actually north-west of Toledo, so I can’t see how this was further south than the Visigoths had ruled before. Toledo had been a royal centre (if not “capital”) since at least the 540s when Theudis issues new laws for the Breviary of Alaric from there) and the Visigothic count of Merida (a lot lot further south) had twinned with the town’s bishop in the 480s to rebuild the bridge there. Athanagild’s rebellion against King Agila started in Cordoba in 551.

    4) The biggest concentrations of Greek inscriptions in 5th-7th century Spain come not from Cartagena or Malaga but from Merida and Mertola far to the West, and never under Byzantine control. The one official Byzantine inscription from Cartagena recording building work on the walls (possibly in response to III Toledo) is in Latin: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Lapida_comenciolo.jpg

    5) New graffiti! Worth the price of admission alone.

    • Many people are sorry you’ve left academia, Mark, though it’s not as if we don’t understand why (and may yet have to do likewise). Let me take these points out of order: 3), first of all, is my fault, checking my note: I was thinking of Toulouse and Barcelona and not Toledo, and Rob didn’t say anything so geographically foolish. I will amend. 1) is also my fault, as what my notes suggest I meant is Greek-period, i. e. Byzantine-era, not ethnically Greek. Again, I will amend now, and also fix some typos. 4) is an excellent point, and one that shows the danger of not looking too far beyond one’s own site or set of sites. What I said that provoked 2) is founded in my notes, and I think that what I was there encapsulating was an idea of guarding the coast of Africa – so, exactly places like Ceuta, which the ‘barbarians’ had had before and would again – with a defensive line in Spain. Does that all perhaps make more sense? Sorry for the evidently rushed write-up!

  2. On 3) I think you’re being too hard on yourself. It is a fairly common trope to try and limit the extent of actual Visigothic control/conquest into southern, western and central Spain until the reign of Leovigild, and the narrative of John of Biclarum of Leovigild hoovering up all the little “independent” bits of Spain. It is not an argument that has ever worked for me, for the reasons I gave at 3) and others – i.e. Visigothic power/control/authority is further south a long time before Leovigild. So while some areas like Cantabria and its senate may well have been independent pre Leovigild for some time, in other areas such independence that we see in the 570s and 580s may have only gone as far back as the civil war between Athanagild and Agila in the 550s – the one that saw the Byzantines turn up in the first place.

  3. Oh – and the fact that Byzantine Spain is officially called Mauretania Secunda, may help your/ Chris Wickham’s argument that it was all about defending Africa. This may also mean that when the Lives of the Fathers of Merida has catholic bishops being exiled to “Mauretania” what was meant was Byzantine Spain, not the western extremities of Byzantine Africa.

    • Oh, I like that latter point. I don’t know those texts as well as I should, but if I recall correctly such exiles never seem to have been very out of touch… Not that Africa would have been unreachable either, I suppose.

  4. Pingback: Seminar CXLVI: forgetting the Thuringian frontier with Willibald | A Corner of Tenth-Century Europe

  5. “Mauretania Secunda”. Does that indicate that the Romans/Byzantines had brought large numbers of Moors to Spain long before the Arab empire was founded, and is that why Tariq was able to make rapid inroads?

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