05 April 2013


Idealized city walls, Pantanassa, Mistra

I have been trying to get a portrait of the cities of the Morea in the fifteenth century.  City, in this case, indicates the presence of walls, the position of bishop who may reside elsewhere, a market, craftsmen, some kind of local administration with a governor or his representative, and possibly a few foreign merchants or their agents. One can make no assumptions about size or architecture.

The port cities -- Patras, Clarenza, Corinth, Kalamata, Methoni, Koroni, Nauplion -- were small and shabby (possibly Monemvasia was an exception early in the century), and the interior cities -- Mistras, Mouchli, Leontari, Longaniko, Nykli, Mostenitza, Andravida, Chalandritsa -- were small. As a comparison, fifteenth-century Italy -- admittedly the most urbanized area of Europe -- had more than 90 cities with a population of 5000 or more. In the Morea, none is likely to have had more than 2000. 

A Latin memo of 1437 reported that the Morea had 30 cities, 200 of the strongest fortifications, and 400 villages: this was propaganda to encourage aid for Greece and cannot be used for court evidence. Pero Tafur, seeing Corinth in the 1430s, said that it was much depopulated. In the Ottoman cadaster of 1460-1463 it had 392 households, or about 1400 people, making it the largest city in the cadaster which represented between 1/3 and 1/2 of the population of the Morea. The other "large" cities in the cadaster were Vumero with 242 households, Ag. Georgios with 242, and Leondari with 204. All of them were larger than Argos with 115 households in 1450, fewer than 200 households a generation later in 1480.  (I have been using 4.2 as a multiplier for households to get the population.)

Tafur reported Clarenza depopulated, though it had apparently been a small city at best: in the 1390s it had only 300 households. Tafur was there in 1437 and there was some rebuilding and refortification just after 1441. Mistra is unlikely to have had as many as 2000 people within the walls on that steep hillside -- Tito Papamastorakis thinks only 1000 after comparing maps of the excavations with Venetian maps of 1700 and the population then of under 1100 -- and it was a heavily masculinized city primarily of monasteries and church administration.    The former Frankish capital of Andravida had 36 inhabitants. In 1460 Mouchli and three outlying villages accounted for 105 households, or fewer than 500 people.

Minio suggests an unprepossessing Nauplion -- "the best house that I could manage, considering the condition of the place."
Casola found Methoni with its 2000 inhabitants shabby, the houses of wood, the cathedral impoverished, and said that, "in the finest and widest street there, the houses appeared to be shut up for the most part, and when I stood in the market place I did not see many people." Even late Byzantine Athens had grain fields within the city walls, and in 1395 was said to have been a town of 1000 houses. If so, it was larger than anything in the Morea -- except, again, Monemvasia. Fortifications were often mud-brick and rubble, like the city wall of Argos, or the outer wall of Nauplion at the Ottoman attack in 1463. 

It is a depressing image of the Morea, but one could hardly expect better of cities in a culture whose archons occupied themselves by raiding
the food resources of other cities.  The Ottoman raids are blamed for much, but they cannot bear all the blame here. 

 Idealized city from the Kariye Djami


  1. a. I think that comparing the towns of tiny, run-down Morea in the dying days of the byzantine period to the thriving towns and cities of contemporary Italy (Venice! Rome! Florence!) is really like comparing apples to oranges. I doubt that there was a single factor contributing to the decay of the cities but rather a mixture of everything. The Ottoman raids cannot bear all the blame, as you say, but they surely did play their part. Do you have any details about the raids to other cities for food supplies? Did they happen systematically or sporadically?
    b. I think that the Kariye Djami (mosque) is a museum now - the Turks call it Kariye müsesi, in English it's called the Chora Church. It would be strange to speak of mosaics depicting idealized cities in a mosque, wouldn't it?
    c. Do you have a specific system in transliterating the Greek names (byzantine and modern) into English? E.g. I think the correct for Eugenia Drakapoulo is Eugenia Drakopoulou.
    Thanks and keep up the good work !

  2. I think the comparison with Italy valid: you have parallel cultures with a great deal of interaction, & the Greeks were perfectly capable of noticing what was going on in Italy when they were over on diplomatic & trade missions. It is not necessary to bring in Florence/Rome/Venice. Look at Pavia, Modena, Rimini, Brescia, Pesaro.

    The Ottoman raids were more episodic. The archon raids were constant, & against each other's land. Raids on farms, orchards, vineyards, & mills. Not cities. I've not found any raids on cities, and that would be difficult because of the walls.

    I've just published a major Greek document that discusses aspects of this, in tandem with two hitherto-unnoticed Venetian documents.
    Documents from Methoni record the disappearance of farmworkers because of raids, & thus a steep decline in food supplies & near-starvation in the city.

    Kariye Djami is the conventional name used in art history books.

    I have not found a single useful system for transliterating Greek names into English.

  3. Thanks for the link. I'll take a look when I find some time to spare. I must say I'm very happy with the amount of detailed information on everything I have found here.

    Kariye Djami is still something that I can't turn my head around when I am looking at byzantine frescoes. It seems incongruous, particularly considering that nowadays the Kariye is a museum (which allows for the frescoes to be displayed), emphasizing its byzantine art, and not a former church turned into and still fuctioning as a mosque, like numerous others in Istanbul are.

    Transliterating the names following the pronunciation of the time is what I would suggest - with the optional latinisation of suffixes like -os into -us and -ae- instead of -ai-. A solid knowledge of ancient Greek, Attic, Koine, Byzantine and Modern, always helps. In Byzantine texs there is usually an interplay of everything. I admit that the rules are fuzzy, and it's always your blog, your rules.
    But still, Drakopoulou>Drakapulo ?

  4. There is no Drakopoulou/Drakapulo in this blog. A spelling somewhere else should be dealt with somewhere else, not here. If you stopped worrying about it perhaps you would have more time for other things. This conversation may be considered at an end.

  5. I have to admit that I have been very positively surprised by the time I noticed your latest post on "Cities". Although I am mainly interested in medieval settlements your "compilation" is extremely important in an eventual interpolation process. Also the cities you mention are primary settlements and knowing their population is very helpful in estimating the population of smaller settlements by using the so called Zipf law as applied in Laconia Survey,Vol. 1, 2002, Ch. 9, W.Cavanagh. Further I would be indebted to know where can I find Tito Papamastorakis relevant work you mention in your post. Best regards

    1. Takis,
      Write me off-line. I can send it to you.


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