The Byzantine Dark Ages

The Byzantine Dark Ages June 10, 2016

In my last post, I urged the use of the unpopular term “Dark Age” as a valid historical and archaeological concept. Specifically, I suggested that it should refer to eras of “systematic societal collapse and cultural impoverishment, reflected in collapsing population levels, and acute declines in urbanization, technology, literacy, productivity and communications.” This is in my mind presently as I have been reading about the Dark Age concept in an unfamiliar setting, namely the Byzantine world of the Eastern Mediterranean.

Quite bravely, Michael J. Decker has used the D word in his important new book The Byzantine Dark Ages. What strikes me about it is just how thoroughly the situation he describes fits the model I have suggested, and which we know so well from Western Europe. Drawing on a wide range of types of evidence, he leaves no doubt about the scale and severity of the decline, and the suitability of the Dark Age label.


His focus is on the period 600-900 AD, with a strong focus on the very worst years, the seventh and eighth centuries. The cataclysmic plague of the 530s left a long shadow, exterminating perhaps a third of the population of the Mediterranean world. Wars, barbarian invasions, and frequent defeats cut the empire off from most of its greatest eastern cities, which fell under Islamic rule. That wiped out much of the empire’s tax base, and also turned Asia Minor into a perpetual war zone.

Large ares of the surviving empire suffered catastrophic shrinkage and decline. It is scarcely an exaggeration to say that civilization went into reverse.

I quote from a review by Sean Kingsley:

Different towns exhibit different rhythms of change. At Nicopolis-ad-Istrum in Bulgaria, the Roman villas were abandoned as early as the mid-5th century. By the first quarter of the 6th century, at the impeccably excavated city of Butrint in Albania, fishermen and craftsmen had taken over the grand domus in the Triconch Palace, before its noble ruins were stripped and filled with burials in the 7th century. As Richard Hodges and William Bowden conclude, by AD 700 Butrint fell under the spell of an historical Ice Age, as commerce was reduced to ‘to a scale of prehistoric proportions’.

At Corinth, the capital of the province of Achaia, the Lechaion road was blocked by a lime kiln and the latrine went out of use by the early 7th century, as the countryside invaded the city. By the end of the 7th century, Aphrodisias was reduced to a skeleton crew of clergy and local civilians. A graphic indication of the depopulation of town and country has been captured by the Southern Euboea Exploration Project, where just 2.5% of Late Roman sites continued into the Early Byzantine era between 700 and 1000. In Greece, only seven hoards are known for the period 711-811, compared to 82 hoards for the century spanning 518-618. ….

The Cappadocians adapted by moving into underground cave-homes to stay warm and safe from Arab raids. The rock-cut villages of Ovaˆren and Filiktepe developed into sizable troglodytic settlements during the 7th and 8th centuries, boasting religious and economic infrastructure, churches, stables, and defensive features – notably millstone doors to block passages from attackers. These rock-cut towns could host populations of over 1,000 people – and, in the case of the 2,500m² site of Derinkuyu, up to 20,000 people.

It is scarcely surprising that the Empire went in search of scapegoats, those who had so infuriated God that he was punishing people thus: hence the Iconoclastic struggles of the eighth century. Those battles in themselves further destroyed civic order. Inevitably, the seventh and eight centuries were a golden age of apocalyptic and millenarian speculation, with many pseudo-scriptures notionally written in the name of long-dead prophets and patriarchs.

Matters did not improve until the mid-ninth century, under Basil I.

I am well aware that the term “Dark Age” is unpopular in medieval history. In the context of  the early Middle Ages, an unscientific survey suggests that the phrase was reasonably common in book and article titles through the 1980s, but not since. Where the phrase does occur in catalogues, it is in the context of popular television documentaries. One odd exception to that rule is Chris Wickham’s splendid The Inheritance of Rome: Illuminating the Dark Ages 400-1000 (2010) in the Penguin History of Europe. However, the 2009 British original of that bore the subtitle The Inheritance of Rome: A History of Europe from 400 to 1000. I wonder if the author groaned at the change? As a respectable academic term, then, the “Dark Ages” is not an acceptable term for medievalists.

That is totally different from the world of ancient Greece between the twelfth and ninth centuries BC, where the Dark Age term and concept are both absolutely standard, if debated. See for instance Susan Langdon, Art and Identity in Dark Age Greece (Cambridge University Press, 2008); Thomas R. Martin, Ancient Greece: From Prehistoric to Hellenistic Times, 2nd edition (Yale University Press, 2013); or Paul Cartledge, Ancient Greece (Oxford University Press, 2009). I am selecting just a few titles from prime academic publishers to show just how mainstream the concept is for that era. Nobody blinks when you use the phrase.

Thomas Martin, incidentally, has a fine summary of “The Poverty of the Early Greek Dark Age,” every word of which perfectly fits post-Roman Western Europe. Here is a short sample:

The Greeks cultivated much less land and had many fewer settlements in the early Dark Age than at the height of Mycenaean prosperity. … Developed political states no longer existed in Greece in the early Dark Age, and people eked out their existence as herders, shepherds, and subsistence farmers bunched in tiny settlements as small as twenty people in most cases. Prosperous Mycenaean communities had been many times larger. Indeed, the entire Greek population was far smaller in the early Dark Age than it had been previously. As the population shrank, less land was cultivated, leading to a decline in the production of food. The decreased food supply in turn tended to encourage a further decline in the population. …. As a result of this less-settled lifestyle, people built only simple huts as their houses and got along with few possessions.

Anyway, for whatever reason, medieval historians shy away from speaking of a Dark Age, and that is why the Decker book is so unusual.

So here is my question. I think that Decker is unquestionably correct to speak of a Dark Age, a term that in this context is not just legitimate but mandatory. So what else could we call it?





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