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In the course of the fourteenth century, Byzantine society underwent a series of major changes, in some ways similar to those in western Europe, in other ways quite different, and complicated by the presence of external threats that progressively led to the dissolution of the state and the conquest of its territory. While economic, social and cultural developments show considerable vitality, the weakness of the state, radically reducing its ability to provide order and security for its subjects, could not but influence the dynamic of other developments. Innovation, in practice more often than in theory, was not lacking; on the contrary, the responses to new conditions often present interesting if contradictory aspects.
Throughout its long history the Byzantine Empire had a mixed and complex economy. The state played a role whose importance and weight varied depending on the development of production. But it was never the sole economic actor, and it never operated in an environment where economic processes were suspended. In other words, market forces always operated, with greater or lesser impact. In the period immediately following the seventh-century crisis, the presence of the state and its fiscality was paramount. Even then, however, basic economic laws functioned: thus, when, in 769, Constantine V ordered the payment of base taxes in cash, the markets were flooded with agricultural products whose price plummeted. Until some time in the tenth century, the state was the major motor force; it set in motion monetary circulation, for example, by collecting much of the added value of agricultural production and paying it out in public works and salaries to officials and soldiers. Once that had been done, though, money and merchandise circulated through market channels, although to a varying degree depending on the economic sector and area. Liberalization, in the sense of a greater autonomy of the markets, including the land market, began in stages in the course of the tenth century and continued through the eleventh and twelfth, while after that it took a particular form, since it occurred within the conditions created by an Italian-dominated Mediterranean economy.
LAND AND ENVIRONMENT: GEOGRAPHY, CLIMATE, NATURAL RESOURCES AND THEIR USE
The geographic area considered in this book is centered on the Mediterranean. This was not affected by the territorial changes that occurred as part of the transformation of the Late Roman Empire in the fourth century (c.3.7 million km2) into the more restricted medieval entity which we call the “Byzantine” Empire: the fall of the Pars Occidentalis meant a decrease to a total area of c.1.3 million km2. The reconquest of western provinces entailed only a partial and temporary recovery to c.2.7 millions km2 under Justinian. After the Arab conquests and the long struggles of the Middle Byzantine period, the Empire consisted of only c.1.2 million km2 at its height in the reign of Basil II, and c.750 000 km2 in the mid-twelfth century. The fact that this territory was always centered on the Mediterranean and on the Black Sea does not imply that it enjoyed an exclusively Mediterranean or maritime climate. The Mediterranean climate with its dry and hot summers (c.28° on average) and mild winters (c.8° average in January) with irregular and varying rainfall, obtains only in the coastal regions on either side of the Aegean or the Ionian and Adriatic seas. Its area can be plotted against the isotherm of an average 3° in January which is the limit of olive culture.
The Byzantine Empire was a state with extraordinary and enviable longevity. Formally, it may be said to have begun in 330, with the dedication of the new city of Constantinople, and to have ended in 1453. Even if one considers that the changes which occurred in the seventh century were substantive enough to signal a new era (and we think this argument can certainly be made with regard to the economy), that is still a period of eight hundred years. Certainly, society underwent considerable and continuous change over the centuries, and so did institutions. So, too, did the economy, which lay at the foundation of the society and the state. Neither the great wealth of tenth- or twelfth-century Byzantium, which so impressed Western European travelers and even Arab witnesses, nor the progressive impoverishment of the late period can be properly gauged without a deep understanding of how the economy developed.
It should not be necessary to justify the need to study the economy of the Byzantine Empire. The economic history of the Western Middle Ages is a well-established discipline, with a long pedigree and numerous practitioners of remarkable scholarship. The Byzantine state was an important and, for a long time, a highly developed part of Europe, yet its economy is only very rarely incorporated into studies of the Middle Ages, and as a discipline it has developed only over the last few decades.
Problems of periodization challenge the historian of this broad period even more than of the ones preceding it. Because the Byzantine Empire had been an organized political unit that played a powerful role in the economy, economic developments were strongly affected by political ones. And they are dramatic: Constantinople fell to the members of the Fourth Crusade in 1204. This constitutes the first framing event of the thirteenth century. It resulted in the dissolution of the political space, never again reunited until the establishment of the Ottomans in Constantinople/Istanbul. There are, thus, powerful elements of discontinuity. Yet economic factors develop over the long term, and it takes a while for them to be affected by political events. So certain sectors of the economy (notably agriculture, but also pottery manufacturing) exhibit patterns of production and distribution similar to those of the earlier period, through the early part of the thirteenth century in the case of pottery production, until the late part of the century in the case of agriculture; others, like silk cloth manufacturing, declined early. Therefore, the dividing line between this period and the previous one depends on what aspect of the economy one examines. Some scholars have written of a “long thirteenth century” in Western Europe, hard to date because it is notional: it refers to “the temporal duration of a unique set of forces,” the forces of expansion. In Byzantium, the equivalent might be the “long twelfth century.”
By 700 the Empire had lost Africa, the last of its wealthiest provinces (Carthage fell in 698), and ceded the plains between the Danube and Haemus to the Bulgars (681). It was reduced to fragmented holdings in Italy, to coastal outposts around the Balkan peninsula and isolated ones on the Black Sea. Its core consisted now of two “pillars”: the islands – Sicily, Crete and the Aegean ones – and Western Asia Minor. No part of the territory was immune from hostile incursions. Only its powerful walls, fleet and Greek fire prevented Constantinople, besieged four times in 100 years, from falling into the hands of its strongest enemy, the Arab caliphate.
Undoubtedly the eighth century in Byzantium, was a difficult one, characterized by depopulation, de-urbanization, diminished production and reduced trade, accompanied by a marked decrease in monetization as we saw above. The economy was now based on different urban centres, smaller fortified kastra with downsized hinterland and decreased demand for primary and secondary products, and on different relations between peasants and landowners. Society evolved accordingly with the replacement of the former senatorial and municipal elites by a new ruling class. The hard times lasted until the end of the eighth century when the improvement on the military front, the restoration of control in the Balkans and stabilization of the frontier in Asia Minor in conjunction with a turn in the demographic trend signal the beginning of recovery. The role of the Isaurian dynasty (717–802) in this process of restructuring was instrumental.
This is a concise survey of the economy of the Byzantine Empire from the fourth century AD to the fall of Constantinople in 1453. Organised chronologically, the book addresses key themes such as demography, agriculture, manufacturing and the urban economy, trade, monetary developments, and the role of the state and ideology. It provides a comprehensive overview of the economy with an emphasis on the economic actions of the state and the productive role of the city and non-economic actors, such as landlords, artisans and money-changers. The final chapter compares the Byzantine economy with the economies of western Europe and concludes that the Byzantine economy was one of the most successful examples of a mixed economy in the pre-industrial world. This is the only concise general history of the Byzantine economy and will be essential reading for students of economic history, Byzantine history and medieval history more generally.
There is no question that the Byzantine economy experienced secular growth in the period after the late eighth century. What is argued in this chapter is that growth accelerated over a period which extended from sometime in the tenth century until a point that varies considerably for the various sectors of the economy as well as in terms of the factors that influence growth. The demographic upward swing continued until some time in the early or mid-fourteenth century. The rural population was in a Malthusian bind by the late thirteenth–early fourteenth century, as the land constraint appears to have been reached, diminishing returns set in and, as a result, the economic condition of the population worsened. The urban economy reached its heights in the twelfth century; and the economy of exchange, which certainly attained high levels in the twelfth century, functioned under significantly different terms in the period after the fall of Constantinople to the crusaders in 1204. That there was extensive growth in this period is quite clear. The question will also be raised whether one may also speak of what D. Lal has called a “Smithian intensive growth,” with a secular increase in the per capita income that, however, in the long run comes up against the land constraint and diminishing returns set in.
In examining the growth patterns of the age of accelerated growth one must, once again, begin with demography and population movements, for a number of reasons.
In the first half of the sixth century, the Byzantine economy went through the last flourishing period of the Late Antique Roman civilization. It stood in sharp contrast with the West where most of the regions were severely affected by invasions, civil wars and social unrest in the fifth century, while the former imperial unified government was replaced by fragmented, often unstable and competing, barbarian kingdoms which maintained only partly the administrative and legal Roman traditions. The longer resilience of the Roman institutions and economy in the East was due to a virtuous circle of political stability and economic prosperity that enabled it to buy off or fight enemies in the Balkans while maintaining a by and large peaceful equilibrium in the east with Persia. These general comments are not applicable to every region and will be qualified below, when we examine the considerable differences in wealth and settlement between Illyricum and the eastern prefectures. Following Justinian's reconquest of North Africa and Italy, part of the Roman West was reunited with the East, a development which created a revival of Mediterranean trade. The costly long war against the Ostrogoths (535–55) and the devastation it caused in Italy have long been considered a major error of policy and a waste of state resources. Such criticism, however justified by the Byzantines' inability to defend the greatly extended territory, does not take into account the benefits which accrued to Byzantium in the long run from the recovery of the resources of southern Italy and Sicily.