Trade and Economics in the Eastern Roman Empire

The Byzantine attitude to trade and industry is perhaps easier to understand today, when state control is once again accepted as inevitable if not wholly desirable, than would have been the case during any intervening period in history. In Byzantium both were considered to be as much the state’s concern as were the country’s foreign relations. As in Rome, the state in the person of the eparch set out rigorously to regulate these two primary branches of the nation’s economy; it also assumed responsibility for the building and control of factories and workshops; it established monopolies, handled imports and exports, fixed wages, the purchase and selling prices of all goods, customs dues and other similar charges. The state also acted as overseer of private firms, verifying the quality of the wares which they produced or handled, no less than the price at which they were sold. In addition the state made itself responsible for provisioning Constantinople, ensuring that the imports did not greatly exceed the estimated needs of the inhabitants, while avoiding rationing. Supplies were kept at a fairly uniform level proportionate to the size of the population at various periods in the capital’s history. The system worked well so long as the Empire remained powerful and prosperous, and the government stable and efficient, but whenever the government’s control of the economy slackened, private enterprise became buoyant and when, with the shrinking of the Empire’s territory and resources, the nation’s economy declined, foreign-that is to say Italian-merchants appeared as contending purchasers, the system broke down.


No one in Byzantium questioned the assumption that industry’s purpose lay in providing the emperor, Church and nobility with the luxuries they desired and the state with a surplus of such goods for export. By the ninth century, when Byzantium’s foreign trade (mainly of luxury wares) was at its most prosperous, the capital’s industries were strictly organised under corporations subdivided into guilds. The system had been adapted from the Roman collegia, and had developed over the years along different lines. There were at least 23 guilds in the capital alone and the frequent references to them in Constantine VII’s works and in the Book of the Eparch testify to their importance. Their purpose was not so much to ensure the welfare of its members or of the local inhabitants, but rather to make it easier for the state to control the city’s economy and for these reasons the guilds dealing with essential foods, such as bread, fish or meat, were organised with special care. Pork butchers belonged to a different guild from butchers dealing with other meats; shoe makers were likewise split into two, to cover cobblers making special types of footwear. Of the industries formed into single guilds that of the perfume distillers was one of the largest. In each industry the guild drew up conditions of work and fixed wages, selling prices and profits. No man could belong to more than one guild and, in contrast to Rome, none was obliged to belong even to one; admittance to a guild was based on certain conditions which included skilled craftsmanship, and payment of an entrance fee. Nor was it absolutely essential, though it remained usual, for a child to follow his father’s calling; even then his admittance to a guild was not automatic.

Each guild selected its own president, but his election had to be approved by the local prefect. Each guild bought all the raw materials needed by its members and distributed them to each one. The finished goods were put on sale in clearly established sections of the town or, in the manner of oriental bazaars, in the section set aside for goods of that type in the local markets. Only grocers could open a shop in whatever street they wished because they sold such essential foodstuffs as cheese, oil, butter, meal, honey, meat, salt fish and vegetables. Countrymen were also sometimes allowed to sell their produce direct to customers, and pedlars carried on a lively trade in second hand clothes. Traders handled the sale of all other goods, including dead and live cattle and poultry, selling them in the markets at the price which the prefect had fixed. There was thus no room in the country’s economy for the middle man and the prefects were able to keep prices of essential foodstuffs steady. To avoid underselling no one was allowed to buy freshly caught fish from fishermen, though the latter were permitted to set up stalls on piers and other authorised points for the sale of cooked fish.

Constantinople’s butchers were not allowed to buy meat from suburban farmers, but had to go beyond Nicomedia to do so; local supplies were reserved for emergencies. Bakers could be fined for not abiding by the fixed price even when, in order to increase the country’s revenues, the set figure was so high that it led to rioting. The price of bread, like that of wine, varied with each fluctuation in the cost of the raw material, but it was always designed to furnish the state with a profit. In times of scarcity bakers were able to buy bread from special government stores.


Wages were regulated through the guilds. They were kept extremely low. At any rate until the end of the sixth century members were only partly paid in money and, like teachers, civil servants and soldiers, received a considerable portion of what was due to them in kind. Many guildsmen worked at home where they were helped by their wives, employees and apprentices. The latter started their training when very young. They did so under contract, their masters guaranteeing, in return for a payment in kind, to train them for two years. Breach of contract by either party was punishable by a fine. If the apprentice was paid a small wage he was expected to serve his master as a servant. The average craftsman’s workshop was generally very small; excavations at Corinth have shown that a master craftsman can seldom have had more than two assistants, and this practice was doubtless generally applied.

Any breach of a guild’s law was punishable by a fine, by mutilation or by expulsion. However, exclusion from a guild did not necessarily reduce the culprit to permanent unemployment. He was permitted to try to earn his living by practising his trade as a free lance, working for anyone who would employ him. Many doubtless succeeded in finding work in monasteries such as that of the Studius in Constantinople, which, at any rate in the ninth century, employed metal-workers, linen-weavers and shoe-makers, and sold the wares which they produced; others were probably able to enter the workshops owned by the nobility, where, as in the imperial workshops, a high proportion of the workers were slaves. Slave labour was so widely used in Byzantium that it became an important factor in increasing the output of luxury goods and in keeping down the prices of essential commodities.


During the opening phase of Byzantine history the rarest luxuries were imported chiefly from the East, jewels from India and Persia, silks from China. Trade with the East was so highly developed that about the year 522 Cosmas Indicopleustes was able to write a detailed account of a journey he had made to the Malabar coast. Luxury wares were treated from the start as state monopolies. The more important workshops, which made the costliest goods, especially silk and metal-work, were established in the precincts of the Great Palace in Constantinople. The guilds in charge of them ranked as imperial and took precedence over all the others. Their members were expected, like the members of the factions, in case of need to defend particular sections of the capital’s walls and were entitled to take part in ceremonial processions. It was their privilege to decorate the tribunes used by the emperors when visiting a guild with purple silk hangings and gold and silver ornaments. The guild of the Purple Dyers was the oldest of the imperial guilds. It had been established during the reign of Heraclius (610-41), when it was given workshops close to the Hippodrome, in the fashionable baths of Zeuxippus, where its members worked for the exclusive use of the sovereign and his family. Goods not needed by them were sold by the emperor for the benefit of the exchequer.

Until the introduction of the silk-worm to Byzantium silk was so scarce that it was coveted by westerners even more than spices or jewels. The method of making silk no less than the material itself had been jealously guarded by China throughout the centuries. However, in the second century AD the Han emperor Wu-ti agreed to export limited amounts of the material to the western world in return for such western specialities as glass, enamels and high-quality wool and cotton stuffs.

Till the secret of its manufacture had been learnt only members of the imperial family were entitled to import and wear silk. If they happened to have more silk than they needed they sometimes sold it, but only to certain merchants, and then chiefly for export. It was no more demeaning in Byzantium for a prince or nobleman to be involved in commercial affairs than it was in sixteenth- and seventeenth-century England or Florence. Byzantine noblemen often engaged in trade; some were highly successful at it, especially in running carpet factories.

During the early period of Byzantine silk manufacture the bulk of the silk-worms were raised near the southern shores of the Caspian and Black Seas. The cocoons were then transported to Egypt, Syria and Constantinople for spinning and weaving into lengths. At the same time, much Chinese silk continued to be imported. At first Tyre and Alexandria ranked as the foremost Byzantine centres of silk production, but as soon as looms were set up in the Great Palace’s workshops very fine silks were produced there. These workshops were run as a crown monopoly, and both men and women were employed in them. Soon smaller workshops became established in the provinces, but the growing aggressiveness of the militant Arabs and the desire of the emperors to concentrate production in the capital led them to close the provincial workshops in the seventh century. Some were then transferred to Constantinople where the eparch was in a better position to regulate and control their output. Henceforth all lengths produced in the imperial workshops had to be marked by having either the emperor’s name or monogram or else that of the eparch responsible for the country’s two main luxury trades (silk and metal-work) woven into the selvage. None of these stuffs could be exported and the silk produced was so carefully controlled that, as in Justinian’s day, the court ladies who were entitled to wear silk could do so only if they purchased it in the House of Lamps, as the Crown sale room situated in the Great Palace was called. It owed its name to the lights which were kept burning in it throughout the night, and which could be seen shining through its windows.

Apart from being confined to the imperial workshops, the silk industry was controlled by no less than five guilds. One was reserved for the merchants who handled the imported silk in its raw state and another for those who brought it in woven into lengths or made up into robes; a third included the spinners and weavers; a fourth was reserved for those who dyed the silk any colour other than purple; these dyers were extremely skilled and even though they were obliged to import many of their colours from the East they were also able to produce an immense variety of shades, offering by the tenth century many tones of a single colour. In exceptional cases certain weavers were, however, permitted to dye their own stuffs. The fifth guild was reserved for the men who sold the silk. As supplies increased it became easier for them to do so, for the government found that the sale of silk, which had to be paid for in gold, helped to keep the country’s valuable gold coinage within the Empire’s borders-a side effect of the industry which proved particularly valuable after Syria and Egypt had been lost to the Arabs.


The deep-rooted Byzantine determination not to let their luxury wares leave the country is reflected in the tenth century in the dues imposed on Venetian merchants: they had to pay only two nomismata for every ship entering Constantinople, but 15 on it leaving laden.

The dues were intended to encourage foreign merchants to sell their goods in Constantinople whilst discouraging exports. A 10 per cent tax was imposed on all goods entering or leaving the country, a higher duty being charged on the few silk exports which were permitted. As a further measure to retain their luxury wares at home Greek merchants who, until the eighth century, had been allowed to go to Italy to trade were no longer permitted to do so, but in the tenth century a colony of Greek traders succeeded in establishing itself in Cairo and a Muslim one had by then taken root in Athens. In the eleventh century Greek merchants obtained permission to travel in Persia. Lest they should cheapen silk, Byzantine merchants were not allowed to import it for themselves from the East, but they could buy it from the Syrian merchants who came to Constantinople to sell silk made in Sidon for church hangings or noblemen’s cloaks from Baghdad.

Even during the tenth century many of the Syrian importers would stay on in Constantinople for as long as ten years to act as middlemen there. By then Constantinople had ceased to be the only centre of silk production in Byzantium and both the government and private workshops were carrying on a profitable trade in many a provincial town. Thebes was among the first of these to acquire an international reputation, but Trebizond was soon competing with it and by the twelfth century Andros and Salonica had surpassed it. At the time Salonica was at the height of its prosperity, deriving much of its wealth from exporting its own products as well as those it had imported from Constantinople, sending them westward along Rome’s Via Ignatia, through present-day Nis and Belgrade to countries beyond. When at its peak the yearly tax levied on the shops, markets and imports is estimated to have reached the astonishing total of some £37 million (NovoScriptorium: the book was published in 1967).

The production of fine woollen fabrics and linen formed an important branch of Byzantium’s textile industry. Many lengths were woven by women working at home. Much of the linen was of top quality. Sometimes its weavers made it up into garments, but generally clothes were made by tailors using stuffs purchased for the purpose. They sewed with bronze needles, using pottery cotton reels. Embroideries were also sought-after exports. In Justinian’s day work of such high artistry was being produced in the capital that he turned to local needlewomen for the curtains for the ciborium of his cathedral of Haghia Sophia.

Important though the textile industry was, those of the metal-workers and jewellers were equally so. At first silver was in such short supply in the capital that it carried a 10 per cent tax (from which gold was exempt). Silver vessels of that date were made in the imperial workshops for the emperor’s use. Though some may have been exported, most were retained in the palace, sometimes to be used to bribe barbarian chieftains, sometimes to be exchanged or sent abroad as imperial gifts. Like the imperial silks these vessels were stamped with the name or monogram either of the reigning emperor or of the eparch concerned with their production. The craftsmen who made these magnificent pieces were also entrusted with the responsible task of testing and stamping the silver coins and iron bars which, from the year 375 onwards, were handed in to the exchequer in payment of taxes.

Though usury was strongly disapproved of it was found to be necessary and could not therefore be forbidden. Goldsmiths acted as money-lenders, but the government tried to control the rates of interest on loans. Though the average rate varied from 4 to 8 per cent, Justinian forbade more than 12 to be charged. Gradually the rate came to depend upon the borrower’s rank and occupation, noblemen being charged 42 per cent, merchants 82, and others 6 . When the Italians gained a foothold in Byzantium they proceeded to replace the Greeks as money-lenders. A highly efficient clearance system between towns existed in Byzantium several centuries before anything of the sort was known to western Europe. The goldsmiths may have been responsible for evolving it, though the credit may well lie with the state bank of Byzantium: created probably at much the same time as Byzantium’s coins, the bank became the only institution in which people could buy or sell money. If they were found doing so elsewhere the sum involved was confiscated. In addition to handling currency the bank also collected the dues levied on ships using the Straits, and all customs charges.


From the start sharp distinctions were drawn between jewellers of different types. Thus not only did silversmiths and goldsmiths work in separate workshops, but in addition the men engaged in making the gold granules and wires so much used in jewellery, and the men who later made the gold partitions which the enamellers filled with coloured pastes, were all given separate places of work.

There were men both among the silver- and the goldsmiths who did nothing but make regalia, insignia and badges of office, and the ceremonial vessels and dishes needed by the court and Church. Some metal-workers specialised in bronze, others in copper or lead. Between them, the metal-workers and jewellers furnished the court, Church and state with all the ceremonial vessels they required, with their jewellery, decorations, table-ware and kitchen utensils, as well as with the reliquaries, crosses and gospel covers needed by the faithful, and horse trappings varying from ornate, bejewelled examples to the strictly utilitarian.

In addition metal-workers, whether living in the capital, in provincial towns or in the countryside, made the innumerable articles required in everyday life, especially knives and tools such as mattocks, hatchets and spades. Iron railings were constantly needed for windows or balconies, and iron bars for strengthening doors and chests. Bolts, keys, locks and vast quantities of nails were always being sold, but the more skilled workmen also produced chandeliers, called polycandeli, formed of bronze or iron hoops. These were of various sizes and were suspended from the ceilings of churches, and doubtless also of palaces and mansions; oil lamps fitted with wicks were fixed to the top of the hoop and ornaments hung from them-in the case of churches, symbols such as crosses, fish or birds.

Metal-workers also made the chains and anchors required by the country’s extensive shipping. The most highly skilled craftsmen fashioned the clockwork devices which became fashionable in the ninth century. During the reign of Emperor Theophilus the jewellers employed in the imperial workshops made the ingenious mechanical devices of which the imperial throne was the most elaborate creation.  A director of the imperial metal-workers’ workshop, a relative of Patriarch Anthony, invented the silver tree bearing on its branches metal singing birds. This creation was melted down by Michael III (842-67) when he was in need of silver. The throne was a later work, dating from the tenth century. It was being used in the throne room in the Magnaura Palace in 968 when Liutprand was astonished to see, at a given signal, the lions which formed part of its supports start to roar, and the birds on it to sing, whilst other metal animals rose to their feet. Constantine VII Porphyrogenitus mentions some cast gold cocks, goats and sheep which, aping a fountain, sprayed out jets of rose water. Like the marble and stone needed by sculptors and builders, many of the metals used by the metal-workers were provided by convicts who worked in the quarries and mines (all of which were state-owned).


Byzantium’s economic prosperity was directly related to the stability and high value of its currency. It owed much of its reputation to Constantine I’s decision to replace the country’s rather unstable silver coinage by a gold coin, the value of which was related to its weight. He took as his standard the gold coin which was known first as the Latin solidus; later it was called by the Greek word of nomisma, and later still, under Italian influence, it became the besant. Constantine stipulated that the solidus was to weigh 1/72 of a pound, that is to say 4.48 grammes. To begin with, large-scale transactions were calculated either on the basis of 100 nomismata or by weight, but when it became the habit to clip the gold coins as part payments for a transaction, it was usual to weigh the coins instead of counting them-a practice which established the habit of clipping the gold pieces to obtain an exact payment in preference to giving change. In the fourth and early fifth centuries the emperors were anxious to retain the gold coins within their borders. First Valentinian II (375-92), then Theodosius II (408-50) forbade barbarians trading with Byzantium to pay for their purchases in copper, and only used the solidus to pay for the spices they imported from India and silks from China. In the year 498 Anastasius decided to issue a large bronze coin stamped with the letter ‘M’ to be valued at 40 nummia or units as well as some smaller ones stamped with a ‘K’ for 20 units, an ‘I’ for ten and an ‘E’ for five. All these coins, whether of gold, silver or bronze, retained their full value both within Byzantium and abroad until the eighth century, when the Ommayad Caliphs were able to threaten the solidus by seizing control of the bulk of the Arab trade. As a result the Byzantines found that they could only import Eastern goods across Anatolia, whilst the Arabs were able to sell them direct to the Western world. However, the Byzantines succeeded in counteracting this move by using their navy to blockade Egypt and Syria, employing bases such as Malta, Lampedusa, Sicily and Tunis for the purpose. Thus the Ommayad threat to the solidus remained an empty one. The coin retained its full value till the ninth century, though under Basil II (976-1025) its value fell to 18 carats and both a light and a heavy nomisma were in circulation. As a result its value fell abroad until, under Constantine IX Monomachus (1042-55), it came to be worth no more than 12 carats. Alexius I (1081-1118) found it necessary to re-value it. He minted several different issues and succeeded in stabilising its value, though at a low rating. The Latins continued to use the nomisma during their occupation of Constantinople and its stability was therefore not greatly impaired. On re-entering Constantinople Michael Palaeologus found himself in such need of funds, especially gold, that he recalled all gold coins from circulation and melted them down. He did this ostensibly in order to mint a new issue stamped with a picture of the Virgin protecting the walls of Constantinople, but in reality, in order to debase its value. Andronicus II (1282-1328) was to link the solidus to the grosso and, as Italian traders gained an ever firmer footing in Byzantium, the Greek coin lost its international role to the Italian. Even so, few other nations, whether in ancient or modern times, can boast of a currency which retained its original value throughout close on 1,000 years.


Until the sixth century the Eastern trade was by far the most profitable of all, for it dealt with such desirable luxuries as spices, ivory and jewels and such essentials as corn and cotton. Though spices were very expensive all aspired to use them, as they made it possible for food which had lost its first freshness to be consumed with pleasure. They were so much sought-after that it is not surprising to find Alaric demanding, in 408, 3,000 tons of pepper as part of the ransom for raising the siege of Constantinople. India provided Byzantium with these condiments, yet never enough to meet the growing demands of a prosperous society. India likewise furnished the supplies of ivory needed by the master craftsmen who carved them into panels for caskets, book covers, triptychs, diptychs, even furniture and doors. As the source of these articles, no less than for political reasons, India was highly esteemed in Byzantium.

Many Persians and Arabs were among the skilled artisans working in Constantinople. Though some earned their living as quack doctors, the majority were craftsmen. They may have been responsible for teaching the Constantinopolitans how to make paper, having themselves learnt to do so from the Chinese, even though the special paper used in the imperial chancery continued to be imported from Baghdad.

The building trade absorbed many men and much material. Workers in stone, marble and bone also made luxury articles beads, crosses and other ornaments-whilst carpenters and other workers in wood produced many household articles, such as bowls, spoons, and furniture. They relied on such tools as axes, adzes, gimlets and saws, with which they achieved quite remarkable results. The making of string nets and baskets provided much employment, but the soap, and more particularly the candle, industries were especially important. Candles were not only needed in the home, but also for processional purposes and above all in the churches, where they were used not only for illumination but were lit before icons and on altars as tokens of reverence. Nevertheless, the potters’ and leather-workers’ guilds were the largest in the country. Like the woollen clothing of the working classes, much of the pottery was produced in the country by the
villagers, but many potters brought their wares to sell in the markets which were held regularly in all towns.

In early times Alexandria and Antioch handled most Byzantine imports and exports, but Constantinople’s outstanding geographical advantages quickly made themselves felt, and the loss of the older ports to the Arabs did no more than confirm the role which the capital had by then assumed as the Empire’s foremost industrial and commercial city. From the end of the seventh century all Europe’s Eastern trade passed through Constantinople, the capital serving both as a great transit port and a terminal. All ships carrying Europe’s trade with the Orient, whether imports or exports, had to be unloaded in Constantinople, even if they were only in transit, in order to undergo a rigorous customs examination. High dues were charged on all articles and intelligence officers were employed there and in such major ports as Abydos to track down smugglers. Until the seventh century much of the transit trade was handled by Syrians, but with the loss of the eastern provinces to the Arabs it passed into Jewish hands. However, the Jews were not destined to remain prosperous for long. Their trade suffered in the tenth century when the Arabs tried to break the blockade which the Byzantines had imposed on them. As a first move towards that end the Emir of Kairouan in North Africa captured Sicily and Carthage. This made the Straits of Messina especially valuable to the Byzantines since they now afforded the only means of communication with Naples, Genoa and Pisa. Italy’s maritime cities were by this time contributing to the prosperity of Hadanid Syria and Fatimid Egypt-both of which had eclipsed Baghdad-by entering into direct trade with them, bypassing Byzantium. In return for luxuries Venice in particular showed no hesitation in supplying the Muslims with wood for the manufacture of men-of-war and munitions, though both these were to be used against fellow-Christians-albeit Orthodox Christians. The Byzantines were obliged to close their eyes to these distressing developments in order to maintain their own trade with Venice.

During the mid-Byzantine period Salonica came to rank second to Constantinople from both a commercial and an industrial point of view. Corinth which, with Sparta, lay on the route taken by Italian ships sailing from Venice, Bari, Amalfi and Sicily to Greece also became prosperous, whilst Trebizond on the south-eastern shores of the Black Sea gained control of the overland Eastern trade and exported its own silks and silver articles. Its annual fair was attended not only by Greek merchants, but also by Muslims and Armenians. Overland travel was not unduly arduous. Though the roads were not so well maintained as in Roman times they were kept in reasonably good condition; the cost of the repairs was met by tolls, paid by all except high officials.


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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

(Source: The Chapter ‘Traders and Artisans’, Pages 121- 140, from the book ‘Everyday life in Byzantium’ by Tamara Talbot Rice)


NovoScriptorium: It must be noted that the use of the term ‘Greek’ (merchants, coin, etc.) is not historically correct. The population of the Empire were calling themselves ‘Romans’, and the Empire itself was called ‘Roman’ -not ‘Byzantine’ or ‘Greek’- until its very end. Indeed, the majority of the population were Greek-speakers, shared a common Hellenistic and Graeco-Roman Tradition, were Christians -mainly and vastly Orthodox- but no one called himself ‘a Greek’.

Research-Selection-Comments for NovoScriptorium: Anastasius Philoponus

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