Defining Constantinople’s Suburbs through Travel and Geography
By Isabel Kimmelfield
Scandinavian Journal of Byzantine and Modern Greek Studies, Volume 2, 2016
Introduction: It is challenging to define the nature and limits of late antique suburbs. The words ‘suburbanus’, ‘προάστεια’, and their variants appear throughout Latin and Greek texts of late antiquity, but it is not always clear how we should interpret these terms and the regions, settlements, and buildings to which they refer.
Most broadly, suburbs can be defined as settlements located near enough to a city that they are closely connected to it (through trade and travel), but distant or separate enough that they cannot be considered extensions of the city proper. If this is an ambiguous definition, it reflects the fluid definitions suggested indirectly by sources from the Byzantine period. These sources indicate that the identification of certain regions as ‘suburbs’ should often be considered more the result of a ‘state of mind’ than of geographical conditions.
Dividing lines like walls can help to determine the point at which the city ended and the suburbs began (although they should not be taken as absolute limits), but outer limits are harder to determine. Scholars wishing to understand what role these regions played in the cities with which they were associated and in the minds of contemporary inhabitants must wrestle with these difficulties of definition and seek creative approaches to clarify the impressions left by late antique sources.
This paper considers these challenges as they relate to the suburbs of Constantinople and, in doing so, it seeks to offer some reflections on the ways in which various conceptions of geography, space, and spatial practice can inform late antique suburban studies. This approach takes inspiration in part from Luke Lavan’s work on the applications of theories of space and spatial practice to late antique archaeology, although it embraces also ‘rhetorical descriptions of cities’ and their symbolic implications in addition to the ‘anecdotes’ of ‘everyday activities’ that Lavan seeks to unpack. These rhetorical descriptions offer important evidence of the conceptual role of Constantinople’s suburban regions, indicating how they functioned in the urban, religious, and imperial images of the city.