Post-classical history

The Byzantine Economy

On 8 May 795 he [Constantine VI] engaged an Arab raiding party… he defeated them and then went to Ephesos, and after praying in the church of the Evangelist, remitted the customs dues of the fair (which amounted to 100lbs of gold) in order to win the favour of the holy apostle, the Evangelist John.

Chronicle of Theophanes Confessor, early ninth century

In this short notice, the chronicler Theophanes recorded Constantine VI’s victory over the Arabs and his thanksgiving at Ephesos. There, the massive basilica of the Evangelist, founded by Justinian and Theodora, surmounted the hill that had overlooked the ancient temple of Artemis. This famous wonder of the ancient world was largely demolished so that its stones could be deployed to fortify the hill and construct the church. As the feast of St John was celebrated on 8 May, the emperor’s detour to Ephesos was clearly related to the celebration. In medieval times it was common for the anniversary of a saint’s death to be celebrated by a holiday fair which attracted merchants, often from long distances. Despite the apparent incongruity between commercial activity and religious festival, fairs had become closely linked to churches, especially those with important relics that attracted pilgrims. It is clear from the sizeable sum donated to the Evangelist that St John’s at Ephesos was a major commercial event in western Asia Minor.

Byzantium inherited from Rome a contempt for trade as an activity not worthy of free men, and commercial exchange rarely attracts the attention of Byzantine chroniclers. So the mention of this fair is exceptional and offers a glimpse into the volume and importance of the kommerkion, a tax of 10% of the value of goods sold, which could generate 100lbs of gold in customs dues. If the turnover of the fair indeed amounted to 1,000lbs of gold, it can be compared to the pay chest of 1,100lbs of gold for an army on campaign in Strymon (northern Greece), or 1,300lbs for the annual pay of the Armeniakon theme (thema) in the early ninth century. Commerical agents known as kommerkiarioi collected the customs paid on all commercial transactions throughout the empire. Through the seals of these imperial officials we can trace the state’s determination to tax economic exchange, both at fairs and at key points on the frontiers of the empire where import and export of goods took place. Such seals, which survive in thousands, name the individual kommerkiarios, who was appointed to a particular area for a particular year in the reign of a particular emperor (plate 8). His duty was to levy the 10% tax on all goods which passed through his customs post, and he would attach his lead seal to the sacks to indicate that duty had been paid.

This type of taxation seems to have originated in attempts to control the export of valuable goods such as silks. It also enables us to trace commercial agents active in frontier posts and later throughout the empire. At the approaches to Constantinople, thekommerkiarioi ran the main customs stations at Abydos and Hieron, which controlled the southern and northern ends of the Straits (between the Dardanelles and the Black Sea). In this way, they also policed shipping up and down the Bosphoros and the provisioning of the capital. After the conquest of Egypt by the Persians in 619, which put an end to the grain imports established by Constantine I, alternative supplies were sought in Thrace and parts of western Asia Minor. Local merchants must have taken on these roles and together with the kommerkiarioi played a critical role in ensuring food supplies for the capital. Officials probably competed to gain the position of customs officer, because it carried the possibility of trading in a personal capacity beyond the official job of collecting the 10% duty. There were opportunities for making profits in all fields of commerce in Byzantium.

Constantinople dominated the naval and land trade routes between north and south, west and east, and maintained control over lucrative markets frequented by many foreign merchants. In the seventh century, the wealth of the city attracted merchants from all parts of the eastern Mediterranean and even from Gaul. A collection of regulations governing naval contracts, known as the Rhodian Sea Law, was put together in the seventh or eighth century and ensured that local merchants received fixed compensation for damage or loss from shipowners who agreed to transport their goods by sea. In 809/10, the leading shipowners of Constantinople were so wealthy that Emperor Nikephoros I could force them each to take a loan of 12lbs of gold at the exceptionally high interest rate of 16.67%. The normal rate for usury was later fixed at between 4.17 and 6%. So despite few references to commercial activity, Byzantine merchants, shippers and tradesmen generated profits and wealth in the capital city. Much of it related to the management of supplies to feed its inhabitants.

Yet revenue from trade formed only a small proportion of the overall budget of the Byzantine state, which derived a much larger income from the taxes on land and persons. This was partly due to the reliability of land tax, which formed a steady source of revenue, and partly due to the traditional investment in land by the social elite. The senatorial classes did not involve themselves in trade. They believed, with a traditional snobbery, that higher social rank, marked by the ownership of landed estates and court position, set them apart. Those who engaged in commerce, even international trade, were despised as common and dirtied by the activity. In the ninth century, Emperor Theophilos (829–42) is reported to have had an entire ship’s cargo burned when he discovered that his wife, Theodora, had some association with the vessel. Yet wealthy citizens in Thessalonike took a major role in the grain supply of the second city of the empire, and rich individuals, who supported the iconophiles exiled to islands in the Sea of Marmara, could charter and load a ship to take provisions to them. So some, usually unnamed individuals, used established patterns of commercial exchange when necessary. Nonetheless, in general the traditional attitude of the upper echelons of Byzantine society created a paradox: they scorned the very activity on which the city depended.

The Byzantine approach to trade remained very traditional: no products essential to the state were to be exported. Greek fire, supplies of gold, salt, and iron for making weapons or wood for shipbuilding – in short, anything that might aid the enemy – should never leave the empire. The list of prohibited goods included all silks dyed with real purple (made from murex), which were reserved to members of the imperial family, though on occasion these silks might be sent abroad as diplomatic gifts. From the Book of the Eparch, attributed to Emperor Leo VI (886–912), which regulated the guilds of craftsmen and merchants in Constantinople, we can sense a determination to control all production, not only of valuable silks or objects made of precious metals, but of candles, soap, fish and even notarial records. Although similar guilds with regulations do not seem to have developed in other major centres, there can be no doubt that Byzantium wished to set profit margins and interest rates throughout the empire.

Nonetheless, fairs such as the one held annually at Ephesos reflect trade which sustained cities, villages and fortified castles, even during periods when coins did not circulate widely outside the capital. Through all the centuries of Byzantium, emperors issued coinage in gold, silver and copper, with their own images identified in writing. From the first gold solidus minted by Constantine I in 312 to the final issues of Basil II in the 1020s, a gold standard was maintained unchanged – an extraordinary achievement (plate 22). Gold coinage circulated through the empire via the pay of state officials and soldiers inscribed on the military catalogues (see chapter 8). In addition to its propaganda value, one of the main functions of the coinage was to facilitate the collection of taxes. The most significant form of taxation was that levied on persons and land; the central government insisted that it had to be paid in gold coins. In this way, the gold paid out to administrators and soldiers returned to the centre in the form of taxes.

The administration of detailed fiscal mechanisms reflects a traditional Byzantine assumption about the economy: that taxing the land and its population was the most efficient way of financing government expenditure on military needs, maintaining the imperial court, provisioning the capital and other urban centres, and producing the highly sought-after luxury goods, such as silk, metalwork, enamels and icons. Land was also used to support military families, who provided a fully equipped member of the theme army (or the equivalent cash payment) in return for reduced tax on their property. Although modern attempts to calculate the imperial budget seem bound to fail, because only fragmentary figures survive, the system does appear to have worked well enough. Under rulers like Justinian, expenditure on churches, fortifications and other constructions may have outstripped the proceeds from direct taxes on land and persons and indirect taxation on commerce. But this was offset by the booty from successful military campaigns and added taxation from the reconquered areas brought back into the tax orbit of the central government. Emperors were always committed to expanding the empire, regaining lost provinces and bringing new regions under their control, in order to realize the possibility of increasing these forms of income. To some extent the calculation was borne out by the tenth-century conquests and eleventh-century pacification of Bulgaria (see chapter 20). Conversely, any reduction in territory under imperial control meant an immediate drop in tax revenues. This explains in part the steady impoverishment of the empire after 1261.

During the turbulent period of seventh-century Muslim conquests, loss of territory and hostile invasions generated many refugees. As people fled to more secure regions, they broke the old Roman link between the farmer and the land he cultivated. In these circumstances, the central administration lost track of its tax base beyond the core area that remained imperial, and it took many years to reassert the capacity to extract direct taxation. From the late seventh century onwards, as imperial administration was extended to inland areas of the Balkans and eastern Asia Minor in new themes (themata), officials from Constantinople were sent to compile new records in order to extract these taxes. To the census of population (poll and hearth tax), they added an evaluation of the productivity of the land (if it was rocky and could support little agriculture it was taxed at a lower level than arable or pasture), and a record of what draught animals and farmyard animals such as pigs and goats the peasant household possessed. Olive groves, vineyards and mulberry plantations (to support the silk industry) represented essential products for taxation. Exemptions were offered to certain products, such as the murex shellfish used in making purple dye. The complexity of this recording process is evident from various financial treatises, which record how to assess land and property, and from later monastic documents with long lists of exemptions from taxes.

Emperors never failed to mint coins. This helps us to estimate the reality of Byzantine trade. Yet very few coins minted between 668 and 820 have been found at excavated sites in the provinces, such as Corinth, Ephesos, Sardis, Aphrodisias or Pergamon. Cécile Morrisson has recently summarized this evidence in a series of graphs, which all show the same tremendous drop in finds of coins struck during that 150-year period. It can hardly be coincidental that this is the epoch of the iconoclast disputes. At Athens, for example, after many decades of archaeological digging, hardly any coins of this period had been unearthed, so the discovery of a gold nomisma of Justinian II (685–95, 705–11) is particularly notable. This unique find, unearthed during excavations for the new Athens metro, may be linked to the creation of the theme of Hellas by the same emperor.

Some modern historians have interpreted the gap in coin finds to mean that Byzantium was reduced to a barter economy and taxes were paid in kind. If so, this cannot have lasted to the end of the eighth century, when officials from the central administration could tax the fair at Ephesos to produce a large sum in gold coin. A fully monetized economy seems to be clear from the measures taken by Emperor Nikephoros I (802–11), who counted on raising a substantial sum in gold from the taxes of Thrace. He was condemned for increasing taxes, sometimes by 50%, for imposing the hearth tax on previously exempted charitable foundations, and charging a new tax of two gold coins on every household slave imported from the Dodecanese, among other financial ‘vexations’.

Nonetheless, very few coins minted by emperors from Constantine IV to Michael II (668–829) appear to have been in use outside the capital and the western provinces of Sicily, southern Italy and North Africa, which had their own mints. This is a problem that continues to puzzle historians. Possibly the gap is noticeable at the sites chosen for excavation by classical archaeologists, more interested in ancient than medieval finds. These cities suffered a particular decline in the period of invasions and the divisions caused by iconoclasm. They were transformed into fortified settlements (such as the Acropolis of Athens or Acrocorinth, the castle above Corinth) or temporarily abandoned. Perhaps when archaeologists start digging at castles and fortified sites on the eastern borders of the empire, more coins will be excavated. Or perhaps fewer coins were minted and they circulated only in the immediate area of the capital. The gap seems to mark the low point in Byzantine economic power, corresponding to the turbulence of the seventh-century invasions and demographic decline (see chapter 8 and chapter 2), after which recovery can be observed in all fields.

Throughout the history of Byzantium, as in Rome, the imperial office was sustained by produce from its own extensive properties and estates in different parts of the empire. As by far the largest landowner, it controlled substantial resources, including major stud farms for the breeding of animals, as well as forests, mulberry plantations, vineyards and olive groves, administered directly by agents. Emperors often rewarded successful generals, administrators and churchmen with grants of land, which may have formed the core of large estates later controlled by wealthy and powerful families. Rulers also donated land to monasteries and granted them tax exemptions, despite the economic wealth which they accumulated. Gifts to individuals, however, could as easily be taken back. All rulers regularly confiscated the wealth and landed property of political opponents, who were exiled. Nikephoros I, for example, was responsible for transferring into imperial possession estates previously belonging to charitable foundations. He thus brought greater wealth to the imperial office, while impoverishing ‘pious houses’.

From the earliest surviving financial documents, it appears that all villages were expected to pay a lump sum to the tax collectors when they arrived on their annual visit after the autumn harvest. While each household and landowner was taxed individually, the entire community provided the total sum due in gold and fractions of gold coins (half and third nomisma). In this process, the village elders had responsibility for making sure that any deficit would be made up. If a woman lost her husband and sons, for instance, and was unable to cultivate the family plots of land, her neighbours would be encouraged to do the work, share the harvest and make it possible for her to pay her taxes. Tax officials might also grant her some tax reduction or even exemption. Eventually, the neighbours might take over possession of the land. In contrast, there are many widows who appear in tax records as heads of household; indeed, in the register of Thebes, one male taxpayer is identified only as the son-in-law of a certain woman called Sophronia. She seems to have had responsibility for a multi-generational family with considerable land holdings.

While these records provide some evidence of family size over several generations, estimating the rural population and its growth is extremely difficult. Indirect indices, such as church building and the expansion in bishoprics, suggest that from the mid-ninth century onwards demographic expansion and an increase in surplus funds resulted in investment in fine stone buildings. The impressive church at Skripou, for instance, records the contribution made by a local general for the building, erected in 873/4. Almost at the same time, a church dedicated to St John in Athens bears the name of its founder, Constantine, his wife Anastaso and son John, otherwise unknown. Similarly, in Cappadocia, residences and churches were dug out of the volcanic tufa (plate 12). Not much is known of the people who lived in these cave dwellings and excavated the churches, yet the wall paintings reflect a wealthy and discriminating local society, who commemorated John I Tzimiskes (969–76) in fresco. After many centuries of Arab raiding and warfare, central Asia Minor was experiencing economic growth and an increase in wealth.

Within Byzantine rural communities of the ninth and tenth centuries, sales of land were regulated to maintain the fiscal unity of the village. Inequalities within the village meant that wealthier members gradually became dominant and acquired property outside the community. Outsiders were not permitted to buy village land but the existence of private landed estates, granted to individuals by imperial largesse, formed a novel force in the rural environment. The establishment of these big landowners threatened to destroy the social structure of the countryside through the buying up property in village communities. By acquiring plots of village land, the powerful (dynatoi) increased their own resources and made inroads into the peasant community. The impoverished peasants who had previously owned the plots generally passed into the control of the new landlord and thus became tied to the land in the manner of medieval serfs.

From the reign of Romanos I Lekapenos onwards (920–44), emperors tried to restrict the powers of these individuals by protecting the rights of villagers and forbidding the foundation of new monasteries while older ones fell into ruin. This double effort to sustain traditional arrangements probably had an economic origin: it was designed to preserve the tax base of the empire. It aimed to protect free villagers, who paid their taxes, rather than permit their land to pass into the hands of powerful landowners, who could often resist tax officials or claim exemption from tax. Tenth-century emperors issued a series of laws designed to support the collective village identity and hold their powerful neighbours in check. But the fact that Basil II felt obliged to repeat the law in 996, in order to close a loophole by which the poor had been legally deprived of their land after forty years, suggests that the powerful could not be restrained. Nonetheless, the growth of larger landed estates also encouraged the cultivation of previously fallow land, and investment in improved technology, such as water-mills, and in crops such as olives that take years to mature. Confidence in long-term agriculture is usually a sign of economic expansion. It also coincided with the aims of the Byzantine elite to expand their ownership of land, farms and manpower.

But the laws failed to prevent individuals devoting their wealth to building new churches and their own monasteries, even when others were falling into ruin. When Basil I became emperor in 867 he found a large number of ecclesiastical foundations in the capital in serious need of repair. Yet shortly afterwards a retired admiral, Constantine Lips, founded his own monastery in Constantinople, and the church which survives displays elegant tile and sculpted decoration. Some officials built themselves such tall, grand villas in Constantinople that the city eparch published regulations to prevent them from taking all the light from smaller buildings.

Rather than invest in economic activity, the Byzantine elite preferred to buy land and invested in administrative positions, from which they made extra money on the side. They also purchased honorific court titles, which carried a state pension. Nicolas Oikonomides calculated that the return on this type of investment, around 2.5–3% per annum, was much lower than the 6% official rate of interest, although it could rise to 8.3% on the highest titles such as protospatharios (literally, first sword-bearer). But since these titles were not inheritable and the original sum invested in the purchase was never repaid, honour and status appear to have been the motivation. Use of a grand title and the appropriate costume to be worn at court appearances was more significant than any economic benefit. A bearded protospatharios, for example, wore a gold collar with precious stones and a red cloak edged in gold; a non-bearded (eunuch) protospatharios wore white garments and a white cloak with gold decoration. Despite the traditional disdain for people who made money from trade, emperors would admit them to the elite circle of titleholders – at a price.

This mechanism also served to draw all high-ranking officials, civilian and military, as well as foreigners, into the court at the heart of the capital. The process integrated them more closely into the imperial system of government and had the additional benefit of strengthening the hierarchy of the court and the central bureaucracy. In 950, Liut-prand of Cremona, an Italian envoy to the court of Constantinople, witnessed the annual payment of court officials, and his description confirms the importance of state employment in Byzantium. The event began on Palm Sunday and lasted three days:

A table was brought in… which had parcels of money tied up in bags, according to each man’s due, the amount being written on the outside of the bag… the first to be summoned was the marshal of the palace, who carried off his money, not in his hands but on his shoulders, together with four cloaks of honour. After him came the commander in chief of the army and the lord high admiral of the fleet…

After they had laboriously removed their bags of gold, the distribution continued down the order of patricians and the minor dignitaries. When Constantine VII (945–59) enquired whether he enjoyed the ceremony, Liutprand cleverly compared himself to Dives in hell, tormented by the sight of Lazarus at rest (a reference to the parable of the rich and poor man), and the emperor sent him a pound of gold and a large cloak.

The Queen of Cities – the ruling city of Constantine – attracted numerous foreigners who came to buy and sell in its markets, which stimulated the empire’s medieval commercial revival. Its golden and silken products attracted more merchants, its schools attracted more students, its churches, relics and icons attracted more pilgrims, its imperial administration generated more jobs, and its mixed society created more opportunities than any other in the Mediterranean. In the Islamic world there were larger cities, like Baghdad, and bigger markets. But Constantinople had no Christian rivals. For the Syrian, Russian and Venetian merchants who often stayed for months in Constantinople, it remained the secure hub around which economic growth revolved. Each group was quartered in a particular district, where they worshipped in their own monuments: Arab traders in their mosques, Jewish traders in their own synagogues and western merchants in their own churches. They were all subject to the supervision of the city eparch, who also maintained law and order.

In 992, Basil II granted the Venetians a reduction in the basic tax on ships entering the Dardanelles, from 30 to 17 gold solidi each, thus giving them more favourable terms than local traders or other foreigners. The reason for this advantage was that Venice would also assist the empire militarily against its enemies by transporting Byzantine troops across the Adriatic to campaign in southern Italy. While this privileged access to the capital has often been interpreted as a blow to local merchants, who were still obliged to pay the full tax, it may have been considered a method of ensuring that western merchants continued to use Constantinople as their major market. What emperors granted could also be rescinded, and in the twelfth-century Venetian privileges were withdrawn on political grounds. Although Byzantine merchants were less able to compete in the international transport of goods, they appear to have fallen back on a less profitable carrying trade from port to port around the Aegean. And some became wealthy enough to purchase offices and titles, which strengthened the centralized focus on the court and the established sense of order and hierarchy.

Venice developed a different attitude towards commerce as a source of power and prosperity. For the small city-state, trade was a necessity imposed by the circumstances of its foundation as a refugee colony. Its citizens were obliged to trade by sea in order to survive, and made the construction of boats for fishing and commercial exchange a central feature of their lives. The Senate of Venice protected its mercantile navy with armed vessels so that trade in slaves, salt and wood to all parts of the Muslim world as well as Byzantium could flourish. In contrast, imperial insistence on service and investment in land as the sure way to make a fortune distracted the Byzantines from commercial activity. Merchants were hampered by restrictions and controls, which limited their initiatives. The empire neglected local fishing fleets and forced them to provide captains, sailors and equipment for military expeditions. In the late twelfth century, even the monks of Mount Athos were restricted in the capacity of boats used to transport grain from their estates to Constantinople.

Imperial attitudes to trade prevented the development of more flexible economic institutions and failed to respond to initiatives developed by Italian and Muslim merchants. Yet for centuries, Byzantium managed to retain its economic position in the medieval world through the issue of reliable gold currency and the presence at its heart of dynamic markets. Even after the devaluation of the eleventh century, a stable gold coinage was re-established and Byzantium maintained its traditional luxury industries, generating great wealth which deeply impressed western crusading knights. Few foreign coins minted before 1204 have been excavated in Constantinople, reflecting the high prestige and sufficiency of the Byzantine gold solidus – the symbol of an imperial, rather than a commercial, economy.

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