An Early End of Antiquity in Roman Provincial Greece:
Pagans and Christians in the wake of the earthquake in Messene in 365 CE
What did it mean to live in a Roman provincial city of the Peloponnese in the middle of the 4th century? How did the Constantinian ‘revolution’ affect the lives and ideas of people who resided equally far away from the old capital of Rome and the new capital of Constantinople? And how would these people interpret the sweeping changes of mindsets and everyday practices that Christianity was bringing along, as it became initially legitimized and later institutionalized?
These are some of the questions that often cross the minds of historians and archaeologists working on the 4th century Peloponnese, and usually we resort to the scarce textual sources or few datable visual culture monuments in order to answer them. In the excavation of the city of Messene in the SW Peloponnese, though, we have a unique opportunity to revisit such questions based on archaeological material discovered in a distinct destruction layer covering a large area of the site that can be associated with the earthquake of 365 CE.
It was in the last days of July of 365 CE that one of the greatest seismic phenomena in antiquity struck the eastern Mediterranean hard, with an epicenter near the coast of western Crete that also caused a catastrophic tsunami. This earthquake had disastrous effects across a large part of the Roman Eastern Mediterranean, from Alexandria to Crete and from Cyprus to South Peloponnese. Although most of the research has focused on Crete, new evidence has been showing that the region of the SW Peloponnese must have been severely affected. The consequences of the earthquake in Messenia was described vividly a few years after by Ammianus Marcellinus (Hist. 26.10.15-19) during his passage off Methone, a coastal town a few miles to the west of Messene, when he saw a heavy ship that had been washed ashore two miles inland by the tsunami. Up until today, only a few archaeological sites in the region have explored the possibility of identifying the results of the earthquake, and Messene thus presents a unique and original picture, supported both by excavation finds and by archaeoseismological data.
In the center of my research as an Early Career Fellow at the Center for Hellenic Studies stand three traditional Roman urban mansions (domi) that have been or are currently under investigation in the excavation project of Messene. All three of them, situated in the city center of Messene, were constructed at some earlier point in Roman times, while their later phases date in the 3rd and 4th centuries. All three show definite evidence of destruction by earthquake.
These domi are more than just housing units of the Late Roman Messenian elite. The first domus, next to the temenos of Asclepius, served possibly as the seat of a local archon who granted audiences in a marble-clad main hall surrounded with images of the emperor and the old gods. The second domus, close to the Gymnasium of the city, had official rooms with mosaics depicting enigmatic scenes of a divine couple with no clear attribute identifying them. Several possibilities can be proposed: Dionysus and Ariadne, Hylas and Nymphs, Adonis, etc, all of which share the character of Late Roman mystery cults. The third domus, near the theater of Messene, exhibits clear evidence that it was converted in the course of the 3rd century into a Christian assembly hall (domus ecclesiae), that was then further modified and remained in use during the 4th century until its final destruction by the 365 CE earthquake.
Such finds offer an archaeological outline of the Late Roman provincial society of Messene in the wake of Christianity, in ways of understanding and in depth that no historical account could offer for a medium-sized provincial town in Achaea. Special focus in my research will lie in the religious situation at the time, either as peaceful and complimentary coexistence or as growing and evolving antagonism. The result of the proposed project will be an overview article on Late Roman Messene, its people, and their religious aptitudes inside the built space environment, examining notions like monumentalization and domestication of religious practice.
This exciting new research is possible because of the support of the Center for Hellenic Studies, for which I am grateful. I look forward to sharing our results so far and discussing new ideas with the great community of CHS scholars.
Nikos Tsivikis is an archaeologist who specializes in the study of the Late Antique and Byzantine world, holding a PhD from the University of Crete. Formerly a post-doctoral researcher at the Römisch-Germanisches Zentralmuseum at Mainz, he is currently Principal Investigator in two distinct research projects: one at the Academy of Athens and a second at the Institute for Mediterranean Studies/ Foundation for Research and Technology, Hellas (IMS/FORTH). He is a senior member of the Ancient Messene Project in the Peloponnese and a senior member of the Amorium Project in Asia Minor, Turkey. He leads teams and research projects in both sites, focusing on Late Antique and Byzantine urbanism and the changing landscape surrounding the cities of the Eastern Roman Empire.
He has worked, taught, and held fellowships in institutions in Greece (Athens Archaeological Society, National and Kapodistrian University of Athens, University of the Peloponnese); the U.S.A. (Dumbarton Oaks, Princeton University, Medieval Academy of America, Metropolitan Museum of Art/New York, California State University at Sacramento); Germany (Römisch-Germanisches Zentralmuseum, Mainz); and Turkey (Koç University). He specializes in the evolution of Late Antique and Byzantine cities, focusing on social relationships as expressed in the built and unbuilt environment. He has published papers on Byzantine architecture, sculpture, epigraphy, and metalwork in English, Greek, and Turkish. His monograph, entitled Byzantine Messene: Urban Transformation, Christianization and Ruralisation in Western Peloponnese from Antiquity to the Middle Ages (300-1000 AD), is currently being published by RGZM publications.