The political topography of the late antique city is a subject that has been largely neglected. This is largely because research has concentrated on new buildings, mainly churches, rather on than the re-use of older structures and because textual evidence has been neglected. In this article aspects of political topography are examined in terms of ‘activity spaces’. This involves studying discrete units of human activity, plus their material setting, whether this involves a specific building type or not. All source types are used to create a general narrative, which here mainly concerns cities of the East and Central Mediterranean. Emphasis is placed on changes that this approach can bring to our understanding of urban life.
Our understanding of late antique archaeology has now reached a point where it is possible to suggest specific field methods better adapted to the material evidence and historical problems of the period, at least for urban archaeology. We need to be more sensitive to patterns of evidential survival that are particular to this era, and especially to engage with the evidential traces provided by patterns of reuse, and by the slight relaxation of civic rules seen in the period. If we focus on stone surface archaeology, study spolia contexts, behavioural epigraphy, small-scale repairs and decorative traces, then we can obtain a great deal of information from poorly excavated sites which were previously considered archaeologically barren. This may, perhaps, reveal the futility of clearance archaeology, which is still being practised on some eastern sites.
This article reviews the nature of fora and agorai during the late 3rd–5th c. A.D., and investigates the material appearance and everyday functions of these spaces. It revises the thesis of T. Potter’s Towns in Late Antiquity, through drawing upon a wider range of archaeological evidence and literary sources, which provide vivid details about everyday activities. It is argued that in many cities, especially in the East, fora/agorai were still monumental public squares with familiar public functions, and that the definitive eclipse of civic plazas, departing from earlier models of Mediterranean urbanism, comes later than has often been thought, in the 6th and 7th c.