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How Cities Disappeared in Late Antiquity: The Life and Death of Justiniana Prima

Mateusz Fafinski | University of Erfurt

When we think about cities in the past, very often, our immediate connotation is the hustle and bustle of urban life. Houses, places of worship, public buildings and busy streets fill our imagination. As much as this very often was the case, another reality also has to be faced: that cities did sometimes die.

A black and white photo of a ruined city
Destroyed Magdeburg

Cities were abandoned, moved or simply dwindled to become villages, then disappeared from the landscape. Actually, it is not very often that a city vanishes suddenly and completely. Even great destruction is often countered by a rush to rebuild or to move in the immediate vicinity and continue against all odds. Warsaw was almost completely wiped off the face of the earth during the Second World War, but it was rebuilt through a massive and often controversial effort. The Roman metropolis of Salona was largely destroyed in the early seventh century, but many of its inhabitants and institutions moved to the nearby Split. Some cities experienced complete or near complete destruction multiple times - Magdeburg was sacked and burned in 1631 by imperial troops during the Thirty Years’ War and again destroyed by bombing during the Second World War. While the continuities were not always apparent and direct, these cities continued to live and function.

Sometimes, the thread of continuity gets broken only to be picked up decades or even centuries later. This was the fate of many Roman cities in Britain, which were largely abandoned as urban centres but remained important for symbolic and, later, ecclesiastical reasons. This enabled them, in many cases, to become cities again - this was the fate of Bath, Canterbury, London or York. But some, like Silchester, were never to become cities again - they vanished as urban spaces after their abandonment.

A Roman wall
Calleva Atrebatum (Silchester): South East wall by Edmund Shaw licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0 DEED

Later late antiquity, a period often defined as spanning the sixth and seventh centuries, is often associated with a wave of such abandonments. While it was by no means as destructive and final a time for cities as some scholars believed earlier, there is no doubt that cities shrunk and many were abandoned. How did it come to pass that some never recovered? A story of one particularly special city can shed some light on the process: that of the Balkan metropolis of Justiniana Prima, built in the middle of the Leskovac basin in what is today Serbia.

Emperor Justinian, around the year 530, decided to found a new city at a strategic location among the Balkan provinces. Conceived as a new administrative and ecclesiastical capital, this new city was, with a humility typical for Justinian, to bear the emperor’s name - Justiniana Prima. Supposedly, it was placed near where the emperor was born. While not very big by ancient standards - the walled part of the city was less than eight hectares - it was a formidable foundation. Surrounded by strong ramparts and sporting a large basilica and ecclesiastical palace, Justiniana was an extraordinary achievement. The city was a costly investment - it required a new aqueduct and many representative buildings, as well as numerous investments in its territory. It was also a pinnacle of late antique engineering - the plateau on which it is placed has been levelled with a precision of one to two meters. In many ways, it was an experiment in Roman urbanity done backwards. Instead of a civitas becoming a bishopric, Justiniana was meant to be a bishopric made into a civitas, a top-down exercise in urban processes. The city was provided with all the amenities expected from a Roman and Christian city - a basilica, churches, baths, cisterns and granaries, as well as colonnaded streets.

Already in the building stage, affordances clearly had to be made and the original plan modified. However, the resulting city was a forceful statement in a region that was both crucial for the Roman Empire and increasingly under threat. Intended as a seat of a bishopric and, perhaps as some researchers suggest, even of the prefecture, Justiniana was to be, to quote Carver, an “argument in stone”. But its career as such was very short. Justinian’s boisterous plans went through a significant reality check soon after the founding of the city. The grand open spaces, perhaps meant for further public buildings, were gradually filled by small-scale housing and habitation. These might have been inhabited by the rural population, keen for the security of the high walls.

While some see this kind of development as a sure sign of a decline (and indeed, we see similar processes in many other cities in the Mediterranean basin in late antiquity), it would be unfair to do so. While clearly not conforming to the intended purpose and character, they are a testimony of the pull that an urban space could exert on its territory, especially in times of instability. But Justiniana only survived in this function to the early seventh century. The city was abandoned, never to be reinhabited or rebuilt. But its memory remained present in the subsequent Slavic name, Caričin Grad, the city of the empress. In fact, for a while, the identification of ruins at the site of Caričin Grad with Justiniana Prima was disputed.

Many factors contributed to its abandonment. The pressure from the Avars, an originally nomadic group present on what is now known as the Hungarian Plain, might have been one. Slavic incursions have also changed the very nature of the Balkans. But perhaps the main reason was the lack of further interest from Constantinople. The city was no longer needed for reasons originally intended and clearly was unable to survive without the support from above. Also, even though we tend not to think of late antiquity as an urban epoch, the competition was fierce. Especially Thessaloniki, on the coast of the Aegean Sea, was not interested in an imperially backed regional centre further inland. In a world of limited resources, urban competition could be fierce. The situation of Justiniana became increasingly untenable under these pressures. The general changes in the Balkans and the loosening of imperial control in the region sealed its fate. As the empire withdrew from the Balkans, there was nothing to be done to save the former imperial pet project.

The ruins of a building
Justiniana Prima by Sindjic licenced under CC BY SA 4.0

The story of Justinana is interesting to us, perhaps for another reason. It tells us something fundamental about the urbanism of the first millennium. In the sixth century the Eastern Roman Empire was still able to plan, build and provide for large cities - and populate them. But urbanism cannot be simply ordered, even if an immense amount of resources are mustered. Urbanism is also a calculation. While a city can project power and provide organisation, there is always a question of price: Can the same goals be achieved differently? Yes, a strong polity can try (and sometimes even succeed) in steering against this adaptative process. But in the long term, this is a cost-and-benefit situation. Cities can disappear if this calculation stops being sound.

We sometimes lose sight of this process because we see urbanism in purely economic terms. But symbolic capital plays as much of a role in this process as tax collection or administration. Rome was not a source of profit for the empire in a strictly economic sense. But, it did provide immense benefits in terms of symbolic capital. Letting go of Rome was only possible by making it anew - as Constantine did in Constantinople - and even that did not make it dispensable. Cities do not have to go with a bang - they might just simply be abandoned quietly, bit by bit, slipping away into other forms of settlement or disappearing.

There is, of course, sometimes a drive to shore up against the urban entropy. Even if a city is slipping away, we stick to it. Perhaps Venice is a great example of that in modern times - a city threatened by the sea and climate change and a victim of depopulation. But no resources are spared to keep it even if it is slipping away slowly. The Empire could not and, after a certain point, did not want to do the same. To an extent, then, we can say that cities had to be sustainable - in a broad sense of the word. There must have been a way of balancing the immense resources needed for their building and upkeep and what you could get out of them. Keeping a city alive is no mean feat - sometimes, it just exceeds the resources available on the ground.

A large statue of the Emperor
Monument to Justinian I in Skopje by Dalco26 licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 DEED

Further Reading:

  • Carver, M. O. H., Arguments in Stone: Archaeological Research and the European Town in the First Millennium (Oxford: Oxbow Books, 1993).

  • Duval, Noël, and Vladislav Popovic, Caricin Grad: Volume 3, L’acropole et ses monuments (Belgrade: Ecole Française de Rome, 2010).

  • Herrin, Judith, Byzantium: The Surprising Life of a Medieval Empire, 1st edition (London: Penguin, 2008).

  • Ivanišević, Vujadin, ‘Main Patterns of Urbanism in Caricin Grad (Justiniana Prima)’, in New Cities in Late Antiquity, ed. by Efthymios Rizos (Turnhout, 2017).

  • Sarantis, Alexander Constantine, ‘War and Diplomacy in Pannonia and the North-West Balkans during the Reign of Justinian: The Gepid Threat and Imperial Responses’, Dumbarton Oaks Papers, 63 (2009) 15–40.

  • Sarris, Peter, Justinian: Emperor, Soldier, Saint (Hachette, 2023)

  • Turlej, Stanisław, Justiniana Prima: An Underestimated Aspect of Justinian’s Church Policy (Jagiellonian University Press, 2016).

Mateusz Fafinski is an associate professor of history at the University of Erfurt, where he researches the diverse fates of urbanism in the long first millennium. Working between ancient and medieval history, his interests include monasticism, manuscript studies and digital humanities. He can be found on:

Twitter: @Calthalas


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