The merchant navy contributed very considerably to Byzantium’s trade. The Rhodian Maritime Law which laid down conditions for the employment of fishermen also did so for crews manning the merchant ships and for the passengers sailing on them.
Wages on these ships were low; in 709 a steward earned two notnismnata a month. Space on a vessel was divided equally between the passengers and crew, though a man was entitled to three times as much room as a woman. For reasons of safety no passenger was allowed either to fry fish or chop wood on board ship, but each passenger was entitled to a daily measure of water and to purchase food from the ship’s cook. A captain had the right to abandon a passenger on land or to jettison his cargo if it seemed to him essential to do so either to escape capture by pirates or to avoid running into a sudden storm or some similar disaster; a system of insurance appears to have existed for compensating those who encountered such misfortunes. Arab pirates were a constant menace to shipping, though a system of convoying did much to control them. A ship which foundered near the shore was in almost as much danger of being looted by its fellow-countrymen as it was by pirates, for the poverty-stricken villagers would descend upon a wreck like locusts, rapidly stripping it to its hull. Ships were not always owned by merchants, as was generally the case in medieval Europe; many belonged to the merchant seamen who manned them. In the ninth and tenth centuries there were many splendid vessels, equipped with improvements unknown in other merchant fleets. The most important of these were a square stern and the rig known as the lateen sail. However, by then the bulk of the trade was being carried in foreign bottoms. Each nation had begun to transport its own goods and the Italians had acquired their own landing grounds in Constantinople, which enabled them to gain a foothold in the capital. Venetian galleys usually needed 24 days to reach Constantinople, sailing past Corfu and Patras. From the eighth century many merchants used to travel with their goods in
order to be able personally to purchase from the Byzantines such essential imports as bread, wine and meat; but they were never allowed to buy fish, which was considered the basic food of the very poor. In the tenth and eleventh centuries, when England was
trading with Byzantium, she used Italian merchantmen to carry the goods, at any rate as far as the mainland of western Europe.
Russian trade with Byzantium began on a large scale in the tenth century. Russian merchants converged on Constantinople, travelling either across Transcaucasia, from an eastern Black Sea port or, more usually, via Chersonesus, down the Dnieper river and across the Black Sea to the Byzantine capital. They came with fish, leather goods, honey, wax, and caviar from the Sea of Azov; they took back with them horses, pepper, silk (some of which they re-exported), wine, fine glass, metal-work and, after the country’s conversion to Christianity in 988, church furnishings. Though the movements and number of all foreign merchants entering the Byzantine capital were carefully controlled by a quaestor, exceptionally strict rules were imposed on the Russians, probably because from about 860 they had started launching heavy attacks on Constantinople. At least two of these had carried the Russians to the very walls of the Byzantine capital. It was in fact due to their military victories that, in 907, the Kievans were able to obtain from the Byzantines trading concessions of an unusually favourable
nature. The treaty exempted them from paying either entry or exit dues-a privilege which they forfeited in 944-and entitled them to receive free issues of bread, wine, meat, fish and vegetables throughout their stay in Constantinople. In addition a special bath
house was provided for their use and, on departure, they were equipped with whatever sails and ropes they needed for their return journey, and an anchor. Nevertheless, like all foreigners, the Russians had to report their presence to the Prefect of Law on arriving in the capital. Their stay there was limited to three months each year; any goods unsold at the end of that period could, however, be left with the Prefect to dispose of, the sums realised by him being handed to them on their return to Constantinople a year later. In addition to these restrictions the Russians were not permitted to live within the walls of Constantinople, but had to reside in special quarters prepared for them in the Magnaura district; they could only enter Constantinople by one gate and had to be always unarmed and accompanied by a Greek official. If they came in a group their number was not permitted to exceed 50. Similar restrictions on living in the city were not imposed on others and, in the eleventh century, some 60,000 foreigners, mostly Italian merchants,
resided in the capital. The Muslims amongst them were free to perform their religious practices in mosques of their own. But the Italians obtained more concessions than the others: the Genoese enjoyed particular privileges, for it was they who, in 1261, in return
for helping the emperor to re-enter Constantinople and regain his throne, were given the district of Galata to live in and, what was far more valuable, the right to use the Straits at will, concessions which were to ruin the Byzantine economy within a couple of centuries.