Byzantine Civilization



BYZANTINE economy was a modernistic mixture of private enterprise, state regulation, and nationalized industries. Peasant proprietorship was still, under Justinian, the agricultural rule; but estates were expanding, and many farmers were being forced into feudal subjection to great landowners by drought or flood, competition or incompetence, taxation or war. The mineral resources of the soil were owned by the state, but were mostly mined by private agencies on governmental lease. The mines of Greece were exhausted, but old and new veins were worked in Thrace, Pontus, and the Balkans. Most industrial labor was “free”—i.e., compelled only by a distaste for starvation. Direct slavery played a negligible role outside of domestic services and the textile industry; but in Syria, and probably in Egypt and North Africa, forced labor was used by the state to maintain the major irrigation canals.1 The government produced in its own factories most of the goods required by the army, the bureaucracy, and the court.2

About the year 552 some Nestorian monks from Central Asia interested Justinian with an offer to provide the Empire with an independent source of silk. If we recall how many wars Greece and Rome had fought with Persia for control of the trade routes to China and India, and remark the name “silk route” given to the northern passes to the Far East, the name Serica (Silk-land) given by the Romans to China, and the name Serindia applied to the region between China and India, we shall understand why Justinian eagerly accepted the proposal. The monks went back to Central Asia and returned with the eggs of silkworms, and probably some seedlings of the mulberry tree.3 A small silk industry already existed in Greece, but it depended upon wild silkworms, feeding on oak, ash, or cypress leaves. Now silk became a major industry, especially in Syria and Greece; it developed to such an extent in the Peloponnesus as to give that peninsula the new name of Morea—land of the mulberry tree (morus alba).

In Constantinople the manufacture of certain silk fabrics and purple dyes was a state monopoly, and was carried on in workshops in or near the imperial palace.4 Expensive silks and dyed fabrics were permitted only to high officials of the government, and the most costly could be worn only by members of the imperial family. When clandestine private enterprise produced and sold similar stuffs to unprivileged persons, Justinian broke this “black market” by removing most of the restrictions on the use of luxurious silks and dyes; he flooded the shops with state textiles at prices that private competition could not meet; and when the competition had disappeared the government raised the prices.5 Following Diocletian’s example, Justinian sought to extend governmental control to all prices and wages. After the plague of 542 the labor supply fell, wages rose, and prices soared. Like the English Parliament of 1351 after the plague of 1348, Justinian sought to help employers and consumers by a price and wage decree:

We have learned that since the visitation of God traders, artisans, husbandmen, and sailors have yielded to a spirit of covetousness, and are demanding prices and wages two or three times as great as they formerly received. … We forbid all such to demand higher wages or prices than before. We also forbid contractors for buildings, or for agricultural or other work, to pay the workmen more than was customary in old days.6

We have no information as to the effect of this decree.

From Constantine to the latter part of Justinian’s reign domestic and foreign trade flourished in the Byzantine Empire. Roman roads and bridges were there kept in repair, and the creative lust for gain built maritime fleets that bound the capital with a hundred ports in East and West. From the fifth century to the fifteenth Constantinople remained the greatest market and shipping center in the world. Alexandria, which had held this supremacy from the third century B.C., now ranked in trade below Antioch.7 All Syria throve with commerce and industry; it lay between Persia and Constantinople, between Constantinople and Egypt; its merchants were shrewd and venturesome, and only the effervescent Greeks could rival them in the extent of their traffic and the subtlety of their ways; their spread throughout the Empire was a factor in that orientalization of manners and arts which marked Byzantine civilization.

As the old trade route from Syria to Central Asia lay through hostile Persia, Justinian sought a new route by establishing friendly relations with the Himyarites of southwestern Arabia and the kings of Ethiopia, who between them controlled the southern gates of the Red Sea. Through those straits and the Indian Ocean Byzantine merchantmen sailed to India; but Persian control of Indian ports wrung the same tolls from this trade as if it had passed through Iran. Defeated on this line, Justinian encouraged the development of harbors on the Black Sea; along these stopping points goods were shipped by water to Colchis, and thence by caravan to Sogdiana, where Chinese and Western merchants could meet and haggle without Persian scrutiny. The rising traffic on this northern route helped to raise Serindia to its medieval peak of wealth and art. Meanwhile Greek commerce maintained its ancient outlets in the West.

This active economy was supported by an imperial currency whose integrity gave it an almost global acceptance. Constantine had minted a new coin to replace Caesar’s aureus; this solidus or “bezant” contained 4.55 grams, or one sixth of a troy ounce of gold, and would be worth $5.83 in the United States of 1946. The metallic and economic deterioration of the solidus into the lowly sou illustrates the general rise of prices, and depreciation of currencies, through history, and suggests that thrift is a virtue which, like most others, must be practiced with discrimination. Banking was now highly developed. We may judge the prosperity of the Byzantine Empire at Justinian’s accession by his fixing of the maximum interest rate at four per cent on loans to peasants, six per cent on private loans secured by collateral, eight per cent on commercial loans, and twelve per cent on maritime investments.8 Nowhere else in the world of that time were interest rates so low.

The senatorial aristocracy through land ownership, and the mercantile magnates through far-flung ventures in which the profits were commensurate with the risks, enjoyed such wealth and luxury as only a few had ever known in Rome. The aristocracy of the East had better tastes than that of Rome in the days of Cicero or Juvenal; it did not gorge itself on exotic foods, had a lower rate of divorce, and showed considerable fidelity and industry in serving the state. Its extravagance lay chiefly in ornate dress, in robes of furry hems and dazzling tints, in silken tunics preciously dyed, threaded with gold, and illuminated with scenes from nature or history. Some men were “walking murals”; on the garments of one senator could be found the whole story of Christ.9 Underneath this social crust of gold was a middle class fretted with taxation, a plodding bureaucracy, a medley of meddlesome monks, a flotsam and jetsam of proletaires exploited by the price system and soothed by the dole.

Morals, sexual and commercial, were not appreciably different from those of other cultures at a like stage of economic development. Chrysostom condemned dancing as exciting passion, but Constantinople danced. The Church continued to refuse baptism to actors, but the Byzantine stage continued to display its suggestive pantomimes; people must be consoled for monogamy and prose. Procopius’ Secret History, never trustworthy, reports that “practically all women were corrupt” in his time.10 Contraceptives were a subject of assiduous study and research; Oribasius, the outstanding physician of the fourth century, gave them a chapter in his compendium of medicine; another medical writer, Aëtius, in the sixth century, recommended the use of vinegar or brine, or the practice of continence at the beginning and end of the menstrual period.11 Justinian and Theodora sought to diminish prostitution by banishing procuresses and brothel keepers from Constantinople, with transient results. In general the status of woman was high; never had women been more unfettered in law and custom, or more influential in government.

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