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Silks, skills and opportunities in Byzantium: some reflexions

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  22 January 2016

Jonathan Shepard*
University of Cambridge


Silks gave visible form to Byzantium’s political culture and, being light to carry, could circulate widely. Many of the garments issued to recipients of offices and titles were made of silk and the Book of the Eparch takes for granted the close connection between imperial prerogatives, silken vestments of various shades of purple and restrictions on foreigners’ access to them. Through whetting appetites for silks and maintaining a monopoly over the finest quality products, the emperor could hope to arouse in his own subjects and foreigners alike the desire to gain them through some form of ‘service’. These products simultaneously expressed his wealth, superior knowledge and — by the symbols on them — the antiquity and unsurpassable legitimacy of his rule.

Critical Studies
Copyright © The Centre for Byzantine, Ottoman and Modern Greek Studies, University of Birmingham 1997

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1. Das Eparchenbuch Leons des Weisen, 4.1, 3, 4; 8.1, 2; ed. Koder, J. (Vienna 1991), 903, 1025 Google Scholar. See also Jacoby, D., ‘Silk in Western Byzantium before the Fourth Crusade’, BZ 84/85 (1991-92) 4567. Now repr. in Jacoby’s Trade, Commodities and Shipping in lhe Medieval Mediterranean (Aldershot 1997), no. 7.Google Scholar

2. Muthesius, A., Studies in Byzantine and Islamic Silk Weaving (London 1995) 214, 2930, 3642, 7780 Google Scholar. See also Jacoby, ‘Silk’ 473. The celebrated Gunthertuch, a huge silkoriginally measuring 210cm by 260cm and showing a triumphant emperor, was re-used intact as a bishop’s shroud, most probably just after its arrival in the West: Prinzing, G., ‘Das Bamberger Gunthertuch in neuer Sicht’, BS 54 (1993) 21920 and n.8.Google Scholar

3. Constantine Porphyrogenitus, Three Treatises on Imperial Military Expeditions, ed. Haldon, J.F. (Vienna 1990) 10811, 11213; Muthesius, , Studies 209, 233, 2937.Google Scholar

4. Lopez, R.S., ‘The silk industry in the Byzantine empire’, Speculum 20 (1945) 42, repr, in his Byzantium and the World around it (London 1978), no.3.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

5. Beckwith, J., ‘Byzantine tissues’, in Actes du XIV congrès international des études byzantines, Bucarest 1971, I (Bucarest 1974) 343.Google Scholar

6. Muthesius, A., Byzantine Silk Weaving A.D. 400 to A.D. 1200, Koder, J. and Kislinger, E. (eds.) (Vienna, forthcoming).Google Scholar

7. Constantine Porphyrogenitus, De cerimoniis aulae byzantinae, 11.15, ed. Reiske, I.I., I (Bonn 1829) 576.Google Scholar

8. Le brébion de la métropole byzantine de Région (vers 1050), ed. Guillou, A. (Corpus des actes grecs d’Italie du Sud et de Sicile 4) (Vatican City 1974) e.g. 17–33, 6370 Google Scholar; cf. idem,, Production and profits in the Byzantine province of Italy (tenth to eleventh centuries): an expanding society’, DOP 28 (1974) 925, repr. in his Culture et société en Italie byzantine (VI-XIs.) (London 1978), no. 13.Google Scholar

9. As proposed by Simon, D., ‘Die byzantinischen Seidenzünfte’, BZ 68 (1975) 34.Google Scholar

10. Eparchenbuch 8.7, 10, 12, 13; ed. Koder, 104–07. Muthesius, Studies 285.

11. Muthesius, Studies 323. That kommerkiarioi became ‘mainly related to silk production’ in the seventh century was suggested by Oikonomides, N. (‘Silk trade and production in Byzantium from the sixth to the ninth century: the seals of Kommerkiarioi’, DOP 40 (1986) 434)Google Scholar. It seems most probable that kommerkiarioi then possessed special links with the silk-trade, as they had done in previous centuries. But in an era of demonetarisation and slackening economic exchanges their role is likely to have broadened out into one of buying up, selling and stockpiling other valuable manufactures and commodities which became available in their districts, as well as performing a fiscal function. Their functions were probably multiple and variable and they could well have dealt in or accepted as revenue ‘agricultural and other primary products’, as Dunn, A. proposed (‘The Kommerkiarios, the Apotheke, the Dromos, the Vardarios and The West ’, BMGS 17 (1993) 10).Google Scholar However, it seems likely that their ‘depots’ (apothekai) mostly contained higher-value commodities rather than run-of-the-mill, perishable, agrarian produce. The high insecurity and need for constant improvisation of the mid-seventh- to mid-ninth-century provinces will have created an acute need for regional stores of valuables and related supply networks under the care of officials who had some competence as valuers of, and dealers in, them. The kommerkiarioi could well have performed the role of local ‘fix-its’, having powers to buy up valued manufactured goods as they came on the market, to commission production of them, to tax and also to sell or dispense them gratis, according to circumstances. Silks, being highly valued and highly portable, would have ranked prominently but by no means exclusively among these ‘big ticket’ commodities and instruments of manipulation. See the critique of Oikonomides and comparable suggestions made by Haldon, J.F., Byzantium in the Seventh Century. The Transformation of a Culture (Cambridge 1990) 23243.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

12. Eparchenbuch, 5.2, 5; ed. Koder, 947;Muthesius, , Studies 307.Google Scholar

13. Eparchenbuch, 8.2; Koder 104–5; Lopez, ‘Silk Industry’ 15; (Muthesius, Studies 259–60, 286.

14. Constantine Porph., Three Treatises, ed. Haldon 108–9, 112–13, 126–7; 219, 230 (commentary).

15. Jacoby, ‘Silk’ (as in n. 1 above), 452–500; Harvey, A., Economic Expansion in the Byzantine Empire, 900–1200 (Cambridge 1989) 1489, 1834, 21320.Google Scholar I have not had access to Jacoby’s study ‘Silk crosses the Mediterranean’ (in Origone, S. (ed.), Le vie del Mediterraneo, idee, uomini.oggetti) reported as ‘in press’ in Lexikon des Mittelalters, VII (Munich 1995)Google Scholar s.v. Seide. B. Byzantinisches Reich, col. 1709.

16. Muthesius, Studies, 107, 112, 136,290; Plate 83.

17. Mention is also made there of developments in the provinces in the eleventh and twelfth centuries: ‘Constantinople and its Hinterland: Issues of Raw Silk Supply’ (27th Spring Symposium of Byzantine Studies, Oxford, March 1993), in Studies 315–35.

18. Jacoby reserves judgement as to whether the silken sendes despatched by Danelis to Basil I had actually been made in workshops under her control: ‘Silk’ 458–60; Vita Basilii, in Theophanes Continuates, V.74, ed. Bekker, I. (Bonn 1838) 318.Google Scholar

19. Jacoby, ‘Silk’ 492.

20. See Jacoby, ‘Silk’, 462–4, 483.

21. Jacoby, ‘Silk’ 473–4.

22. Jacoby, ‘Silk’ 498.

23. Komarov, K.I., ‘Importnye tkani vo vladimirskikh kurganakh’, Kratkie Soobshcheniia Instituta Arkheologii 210 (1993) 79, 81, 834 Google Scholar and map on 81. Fekhner, M.V. estimated that ‘over 70% of imported silk [found in pre-Mongol Rus lands] is connected with the production of Byzantium’s silk-weaving workshops’: ‘Shelkovye tkani v srednevekovoi vostochnoi Evrope’, Sovetskaia Arkheologiia, 1982, no. 2, 69.Google Scholar See also Saburova, M.A. and Sedova, M.V., ‘Nekropol’ Suzdalia’, in Rusanova, I.P. (ed.), Kul’tura i isskustvo srednevekovogo goroda (Moscow 1984) 1217.Google Scholar

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