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Epirus Vetus: The Archaeology of a Late Antique Province

Epirus Vetus: The Archaeology of a Late Antique Province

By William Bowden. Pp. viii + 280, figs. 60, maps and plans 46, tables 3. Duckworth, London 2003. £45. ISBN 978-0-7156-3116-4 (cloth).

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This book is one of a growing number of publications inspired and aided by the Butrint Foundation and made possible by the remarkable opening up of Albania to modern archaeological exploration. Its purpose is to provide a broadly based study of the Roman province of Epirus Vetus in late antiquity. The province approximates the region of Epirus in classical times, bounded on the east by the Pindus Mountains and on the west by the Ionian Sea. This area is now divided between Greece and Albania, and the present study could not have been carried out without access to information and resources in Albania. Even more, as Bowden seeks to show, all archaeological research in the former province has been strongly affected by prevailing political ideologies in the two countries, affecting significantly not only the conclusions drawn but also the research questions and archaeological programs carried out since the emergence of nation-states in the region. In fact, his discussion of this background, in a chapter entitled “Hellenism, Communism and Late Antiquity,” is one of the most interesting (and potentially controversial) parts of the book (odd, though, that he apparently makes no use of Davis’ article on the same topic in JMA [2000]). In the end, Bowden concludes that for very different reasons, scholars in both countries wished to demonstrate essential continuity from antiquity to the modern era. This, naturally, is a fundamental framework for understanding how they viewed late antiquity, which is the period during which such continuity is most controversial.

There are, of course, many treatments of individual provinces of the Roman empire, and over the past 50 years or so these have come to focus more and more on the archaeological evidence. Bowden’s book is unabashedly archaeological, not because he seeks to use archaeology to “illustrate” a historical framework but because he places the archaeological information at the center of his research, which he defines “as an examination of archaeological events and phenomena” (3 [emphasis original]). His method is perhaps deceptively simple and perhaps a little positivist: “This at least has the advantage of starting from a known entity; the existence of which is beyond dispute. From the fact of its existence, we can proceed from the known to the unknown.” The rest of the book is a dossier of archaeological evidence, largely organized by types of structures (defenses and churches) or topic (“reality and ideology” and “collapse and continuity”).

One of the values of Bowden’s book is that it represents a detailed and easy-to-follow compendium of an enormous quantity of information about the sites, buildings, and architectural fragments in Epirus Vetus from the third to the seventh centuries C.E. Much of this information is originally found in local journals that are difficult to access even now, and Bowden has supplemented this with good photographs and plans, many taken from earlier publications but some apparently new. One hopes that this presentation will encourage new studies in the region that will bridge the border formed by earlier scholarship.

But this book is not a mere presentation of data. Rather, Bowden consistently asks significant but difficult questions that help reduce the mass of material to order. These naturally focus on the definition of broader phenomena and their chronological dimensions; their resolution allows him to devise a clear timeline that will not find universal agreement but should at least set the framework for further research. Thus, he argues that from the third to the fifth centuries, the cities of Epirus Vetus were characterized by the construction of grandiose private dwellings and a lack of attention to public structures. This phenomenon ended ca. 450, and the second half of the fifth century was marked by the construction of fortification walls that significantly decreased urban areas. From about 470 to 550, virtually all the Late Antique churches in the province were built; at the same time, settlements fragmented, and hilltop and island fortresses were constructed. Finally, in the first half of the seventh century, the province was separated from the Roman world, and new, more localized, social structures emerged.

Close examination of these conclusions, not surprisingly, result in a certain disappointment. For example, Bowden concludes (54–5) that the shift from public to private construction in late antiquity can be explained primarily by the withdrawal of “sections of the community ... from this participation in municipal life.” This is, of course, one of the themes repeated tirelessly by the written sources of the time and used as a primary consideration by virtually all modern historians of the period. Likewise, it is perhaps predictable but also a bit disappointing that the focus of the book is almost completely urban. This undoubtedly reflects the urban focus of most previous archaeological work, but one might like to have seen greater analysis of the countryside, most of which is restricted to chapter 4. Bowden demonstrates little interest in the results of archaeological survey, even though several major survey projects have been carried out in the broader region (including the Nikopolis and Butrint projects). His analysis of survey material leads to some rather odd conclusions, such as this statement: “The situation in Epirus may therefore reflect a relative degree of continuity in terms of land tenure, at least in some cases” (79). Likewise, on one hand, he expresses considerable doubt about Kitzinger’s dating for the Nikopolis mosaics, which, “in the absence of control factors in the form of stratigraphic excavation, becomes effectively self-perpetuating” (112). On the other hand, he proceeds to use this argument as the basis for his conclusion that all churches in the province were constructed in the period ca. 470–550.

In the last substantive chapter, “Collapse and Continuity,” Bowden finds some difficult going. He seems to accept the validity of most modern historical accounts of Slavic “invasions” of the Balkans in the late sixth century, the importance of the “widespread incidence of Slavic toponyms” (198), the discovery of coin hoards as evidence of invasions (200), and some aspects of the historical-cultural approach to archaeology. Thus, his treatment of the fascinating cemetery at Aphiona on Kerkyra (204–11) comes close to identifying its inhabitants as part of the Komano-Kruja “culture,” but at the last moment he pulls back and argues that the finds in the burials “should be seen perhaps as marking social distinctions rather than a specifically ethnic identity” (210). Indeed, in the notes he cautions that “[c]emetery deposits and ethnic identity is too large an issue to be covered here” (254 n. 64). However, he still seems positive about the possibility of identifying “Slavic settlements” through the presence of characteristic objects such as pottery and metalwork.

Overall, though, this book is an impressive and enormously useful piece of work. It may not persuade everyone of the way the ancient world came to an end, but it has probably changed the nature of discussion. One wishes there had been better proofreading to eliminate some obvious mistakes in the text and some misprints; likewise, the index is designed primarily to find places and people, with little attention to topics or themes (e.g., no references to “baths,” “bishops,” “burials,” “capitals,” “graves,” etc.). Otherwise the book is well produced and is an important contribution to our understanding of the province during the transitional period of late antiquity.

Timothy E. Gregory
Department of History
The Ohio State University
230 West 17th Avenue
Columbus, Ohio 43210

Book Review of Epirus Vetus: The Archaeology of a Late Antique Province, by William Bowden

Reviewed by Timothy E. Gregory

American Journal of Archaeology Vol. 112, No. 4 (October 2008)

Published online at

DOI: 10.3764/ajaonline1124.Gregory

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