At the beginning of the eleventh century the Greek Empire, through the arms and statesmanship of the Isaurian and Macedonian dynasties, had reached again the power, wealth, and culture of its zenith under Justinian. Asia Minor, northern Syria, Cyprus, Rhodes, the Cyclades, and Crete had been wrested from the Moslems; southern Italy was once more Magna Grecia, ruled by Constantinople; the Balkans had been recaptured from Bulgars and Slavs; Byzantine industry and commerce again dominated the Mediterranean; Greek Christianity had triumphed in the Balkans and Russia; and Greek art and literature were enjoying a Macedonian renaissance. The revenue of the state in the eleventh century reached the present equivalent of $2,400,000,000.11
Constantinople was at the crest of its curve, surpassing ancient Rome and Alexandria, contemporary Baghdad and Cordova, in trade, wealth, luxury, beauty, refinement, and art. Its population of nearly a million12 was now predominantly Asiatic or Slav—Armenians, Cappadocians, Syrians, Jews, Bulgars, and half-Slav Greeks, with a colorful infusion of merchants and soldiers from Scandinavia, Russia, Italy, and Islam; and at the top a thinning layer of Greek aristocrats. A thousand varieties of homes—gabled, terraced, or domed—with balconies, loggias, gardens, or pergolas; full markets reeking with the products of all the world; a thousand narrow muddy streets of tenements and shops; splendid thoroughfares bordered with stately mansions and shady porticoes, peopled with statuary, spanned with arches of triumph, and leading out to the countryside through guarded gates in the fortress walls; complex royal palaces—the Triconchus of Theophilus, the New Palace of Basil I, the Bucoleon of Nicephorus Phocas, descending by marble stairs to a sculptured colonnaded wharf on the Sea of Marmora; churches “as many as there are days in the year” (said a traveler), and several of them architectural jewels; altars enshrining the most revered and precious relics in Christendom; monasteries unashamedly magnificent without, and turbulent with proud saints within; St. Sophia ever newly adorned, glowing with candles and lamps, heavy with incense, solemn with pageantry, sonorous with convincing chants: this was the frame, half gold and half mud, of teeming life in the Byzantine capital.
Within the city palaces of the aristocracy and the great merchants, and in the villas of seaside and hinterland, every luxury available to that age could be found, and decoration uninhibited by Semitic tabus: marbles of every grain and hue, murals and mosaics, sculptures and fine pottery, curtains sliding on silver rods, tapestries and carpets and silks, doors inlaid with silver or ivory, furniture exquisitely carved, table services of silver or gold. Here moved the world of Byzantine society: men and women of fine face and figure, dressed in colored silks and lace and furs, and rivaling the graces, amours, and intrigues of Bourbon Paris and Versailles. Never were ladies better powdered and scented, jeweled and coiffured; in the imperial palaces fires were kept burning all the year long to brew the perfumes required to deodorize queens and princesses.13 Never before had life been so ornate and ceremonious, so colorful with processions, receptions, spectacles and games, so minutely ordained by protocol and etiquette. At the Hippodrome as well as in the court the firmly established aristocracy flaunted its finest raiment and ornament; on the highways its stately equipages passed, so reckless as to earn the hatred of the pedestrian poor, and so rich as to bring down the anathemas of prelates who served God in vessels, and on altars, of marble, alabaster, silver, and gold. Constantinople, said Robert of Clari,14 contained “two thirds of the world’s wealth”; even the common “Greek inhabitants,” reported Benjamin of Tudela, “seem all to be the children of kings.”15
“If Constantinople,” said a twelfth—century writer, “surpasses all other cities in wealth, it also surpasses them in vice.”16 All the sins of a great city found room here, impartially in rich and poor. Brutality and piety took turns in the same imperial souls; and among the people intensity of religious need could be adjusted to the corruption or violence of politics and war. The castration of children to serve as eunuchs in harems and administration, the assassination or blinding of present or potential rivals for the throne, continued through divers dynasties and the monotonous kaleidoscope of changeless change. The populace, disordered and manipulated by divisions of race, class, or creed, was fickle, bloodthirsty, periodically turbulent; bribed by the state with doles of bread, oil, and wine; diverted by horse races, beast baitings, rope dancing, indecent pantomimes in the theater, and by imperial or ecclesiastical pageantry in the streets. Gambling halls and saloons were everywhere; houses of prostitution could be found on almost every street, sometimes “at the very church doors.”17 The women of Byzantium were famous for their licentiousness and their religious devotion, the men for their quick intelligence and unscrupulous ambition. All classes believed in magic, astrology, divination, sorcery, witchcraft, and miraculous amulets. The Roman virtues had disappeared even before the Latin tongue; Roman and Greek qualities had been overwhelmed by a flood of uprooted Orientals who had lost their own morality and had taken on no other except in words. Yet even in this highly theological and sensual society the great majority of men and women were decent citizens and parents, who settled down after youthful frolics to the joys and sorrows of family life, and grudgingly performed the work of the world. The same emperors who blinded their rivals poured out charity to hospitals, orphanages, homes for the aged, free hostels for travelers.18 And in that aristocracy where luxury and ease seemed the order of every day, there were hundreds of men who gave themselves, with a zeal tempered by venality, to the tasks of administration and statesmanship, and somehow managed, despite all overturns and intrigues, to save the realm from every disaster, and to maintain the most prosperous economy in the medieval Christian world.
The bureaucracy that Diocletian and Constantine had established had become in seven centuries an effective engine of administration, reaching every region of the realm. Heraclius had replaced the old division of the Empire into provinces by a division into “themes,” or military units ruled by a strategos or military governor; this was one of a hundred ways in which the Islamic threat modified Byzantine institutions. The themes retained considerable self-government, and prospered under this centralized rule; they received a continuity of order without bearing the direct force of the struggles and violence that disturbed the capital. Constantinople was ruled by the emperor, the patriach, and the mob; the themes were governed by Byzantine law. While Islam confused law with theology, and Western Europe floundered through the chaos of a dozen barbarian codes, the Byzantine world cherished and extended the legacy of Justinian. The “novels” or new laws of Justin II and Heraclius, the Ecloga, or selected laws, issued by Leo III, theBasilica, or royal edicts, promulgated by Leo VI, and the “novels” of the same Leo, adjusted the Pandects of Justinian to the changing needs of five centuries; codes of military, ecclesiastical, maritime, mercantile, and rural law gave order and dependability to legal judgments in army and clergy, in markets and ports, on the farm and the sea; and in the eleventh century the school of law at Constantinople was the intellectual center of secular Christendom. So the Byzantines preserved Rome’s greatest gift—Roman law-through a millennium of peril and change, until its revival at Bologna in the twelfth century revolutionized the civil law of Latin Europe and the canon law of the Roman Church. The Byzantine Maritime Code of Leo III, developed from the nautical regulations of ancient Rhodes, was the first body of commercial law in medieval Christendom; it became in the eleventh century the source of similar codes for the Italian republics of Trani and Amalfi; and by that lineage entered into the legal heritage of the modern world.
The Rural Code was a creditable attempt to check feudalism and establish a free peasantry. Small holdings were given to retired soldiers; larger tracts belonging to the state were cultivated by soldiers as a form of military service; and great areas were colonized by heretical sects transported from Asia into Thrace and Greece. Still vaster regions were settled, under governmental compulsion or protection, by barbarian groups who were judged less dangerous within the Empire than outside; so Goths were received into Thrace and Illyria, Lombards into Pannonia, Slavs into Thrace, Macedonia, and Greece; by the tenth century the Peloponnesus was predominantly Slav, and Slavs were numerous in Attica and Thessaly. State and Church co-operated to diminish slavery; imperial legislation forbade the sale of slaves, or the enslavement of a freeman, and automatically emancipated slaves who entered the army or the clergy, or married a free person. In Constantinople slavery was in effect limited to domestic service, but it flourished there.
Nevertheless it is almost a Newtonian law of history that large agricultural holdings, in proportion to their mass and nearness, attract smaller holdings, and, by purchase or otherwise, periodically gather the land into great estates; in time the concentration becomes explosive, the soil is redivided by taxation or revolution, and concentration is resumed. By the tenth century most of the soil of the Byzantine East was owned in extensive domains by rich landlords (dynatoi, “powerful men”), or by churches, monasteries, or hospitals endowed with supporting terrain by pious legacy. Such tracts were worked by serfs, or by coloni legally free but economically chained. The owners, equipped with retinues of clients, guards, and domestic slaves, led lives of refined luxury in their villas or their city palaces. We see the good and bad of these great lords in the story of Basil I’s benefactress, the lady Danielis. When she visited him in Constantinople 300 slaves took turns supporting the litter, or covered couch, in which she traveled from Patras. She brought to her imperial protégé richer presents than any sovereign had ever sent to a Byzantine emperor; 400 youths, 100 eunuchs, and 100 maidens were but a part of her gift; there were also 400 pieces of art-woven textiles, 100 pieces of cambric (each so fine that it could be enclosed in the joint of a reed), and a dinner service in silver and gold. During her lifetime she gave away much of her wealth; at her death she willed the rest to Basil’s son. Leo VI found himself suddenly dowered with eighty villas and farms, masses of coin and jewelry and plate, costly furniture, rich stuffs, numberless cattle, thousands of slaves.19
Such Greek gifts were not altogether pleasing to the emperors. The wealth so gleaned from the flesh and sweat of millions of men gave the owners a power collectively dangerous to any sovereign. Out of self-interest as well as humanity, the emperors sought to halt this process of concentration. The severe winter of 927-8 ended in famine and plague; starving peasants sold their holdings to great landowners at desperately low prices, or merely in exchange for subsistence. In 934 the regent Romanus issued a “novel” that denounced the landlords as having “shown themselves more merciless than famine and plague”; it required the restoration of properties bought for less than half a “fair price”; and permitted any seller, within three years, to repurchase the land he had sold, and at the price he had received. The edict had only a negligible effect; concentration continued; moreover, many free farmers, complaining of high taxes, sold their lands and moved to the towns—if possible, to Constantinople and the dole. Basil II renewed the struggle of emperors against nobles. His decree of 996 permitted the seller at any time to redeem his land at the price of its sale; voided titles to lands acquired in contravention of the law of 934, and demanded the immediate return of such lands to their former owners, without cost. These laws were in large measure evaded, and a modified feudalism was sporadically established by the eleventh century in the Byzantine East. But the effort of the emperors was not lost; the surviving free peasantry, under the stimulus of ownership, covered the land with farms, orchards, vineyards, beehives, and ranches; the large proprietors developed scientific agriculture to its medieval zenith; and from the eighth to the eleventh century Byzantine agriculture kept pace with the prosperity of Byzantine industry.
The Eastern Empire in this period acquired an urban and semi-industrial character quite different from the ruralism of Latin Europe north of the Alps. Miners and metallurgists actively explored and developed the lead, iron, copper, and gold in the soil. Not only Constantinople but a hundred other Byzantine cities—Smyrna, Tarsus, Ephesus, Durazzo, Ragusa, Patras, Corinth, Thebes, Salonika, Hadrianople, Heraclea, Selymbria—throbbed and resounded with tanners, cobblers, saddlers, armorers, goldsmiths, jewelers, metalworkers, carpenters, wood carvers, wheelwrights, bakers, dyers, weavers, potters, mosaicists, painters…. As caldrons and caverns of manufacturing and exchange, Constantinople, Baghdad, and Cordova in the ninth century almost rivaled the bustle and bedlam of a modern metropolis. Despite Persian competition the Greek capital still led the white world in the production of fine tissues and silks; only second to it in this regard were Argos, Corinth, and Thebes. The textile industry was highly organized, and used much slave labor; most other workers were free artisans. The proletarian population of Constantinople and Salonika were class-conscious, and staged many unsuccessful revolts. Their employers formed a considerable middle class, acquisitive, charitable, industrious, intelligent, and fiercely conservative. The major industries, including their workers, artists, managers, merchants, lawyers, and financiers, were organized into systemata, or corporation guilds, lineally descended from the ancient collegia and artes, and akin to the large economic units of a modern “corporative” state. Each corporation had a monopoly in its line, but was strictly regulated by legislation in its purchases, prices, methods of manufacture, and conditions of sale; governmental examiners kept surveillance over operations and accounts; and at times maximum wages were fixed by law. Minor industries, however, were left to free workers and individual enterprise. The arrangement gave order, prosperity, and continuity to Byzantine industry, but it checked initiative and invention, and tended to an Oriental fixity of status and life.20
Commerce was encouraged by state maintenance or supervision of docks and ports, governmentally regulated insurance and loans on bottomry, a vigorous war on piracy, and the most stable currency in Europe. Over all commerce the Byzantine government exercised a pervasive control—prohibited certain exports, monopolized the trade in corn and silk, charged export and import duties, and taxed sales.21 It almost invited its early replacement as commercial mistress of the Aegean and Black Seas by allowing foreign merchants—Armenians, Syrians, Egyptians, Amalfians, Pisans, Venetians, Genoese, Jews, Russians, and Catalans—to carry most of its trade, and to set up semi-independent “factories” or agencies in or near the capital. Interest charges were permitted, but were limited by law to twelve, ten, eight per cent, or even less. Bankers were numerous; and perhaps it was the moneylenders of Constantinople, rather than those of Italy, who developed the bill of exchange,22 and organized the most extensive credit system in Christendom before the thirteenth century.