Entrepreneurial Aspects in the Eastern Roman (‘Byzantine’) Empire

Byzantine Era means first of all a period of about one 1000 years and with about 13 royal dynasties (houses), like: 1. Konstantin the Great (324–379), 2. Theodosius (379-457), 3. Leo (457-518), 4. Justin (518-610), 5. Heraclius (610-717), 6. Isaurian (717- 802 / 820), 7. Amorean (820– 867), 8. Makedonian (867–1057), 9. Doukas (1057–1081), 10. Komnenos (1081–1185), 11. Angeloi (1185–1204), 12. Laskaris (1204-1261), 13. Palaiologean (1261-1453). Specific economic information in general about the East Roman Empire (Byzantium) is not as much. «The first use of the term “Byzantine” to label the later years of the Roman Empire was in 1557, when German historian Hieronymus Wolf published his work Corpus Historiæ Byzantinæ, a collection of historical sources. Although the available sources do not allow us to have an exact idea about specified economic dimensions, they allow us indeed to get a good idea about economy and in general and in some cases sufficient knowledge about distinguished topics, like the guilds or collegia.


An important category of information are legal documents, like Diocletian’s «Decree on Prices», an edict about prices (284-305), the «Rodian Sea Law» (“Νόμος Ροδίων Ναυτικός”, 6th – 8th cent.), the «Novellae» («Nearai») and the «Book of Eparch» (Eparch, Prefectus urbi) of Leo VI the Sage (886-912). Another source is the anonymous work «Expositio totius mundi et gentium» (4th cent.), and the advisory work of emperor Konstantinos VII Porfyrogennitos «Προς τον ίδιον υιόν Ρωμανόν και Περί των βασιλικών ταξειδίων» (De administrando imperii).

There are also a number of historiographic sources, like chronographies, but also material and artifacts from hagiographic, monastic collections, synaxiaria and vitae. An early document is the vita of Saint Leo of Catania, in 840, which states a market in Catania, Sicily. Important information is included in the hagiographic corpus of the Bibliotheca hagiographica Graeca Bollendiana, 1909. The archives found in the Jewish Synagogue of Cairo in Egypt (Geniza archives) inform us about the trade with the Arabs.

The East Roman Empire since its foundation and up to its fall (1453 A. C.) to the Ottomans the ΠΟΛΙΣ (Polis) was the centre of the universe, the Vasileuousa («Βασιλεύουσα», Urbs Regina, «Queen City» or «la ville que de totes les autres ere souveraine» as Villehardoain is saying in his original dialect, (Aνδρεάδης, 1992, p. 591). In those 1.000 years the empire had phases of glory, but also times of painful experiences. Parallel to those phases the related economic situation has been mirrored like the moonlight in the waters of the goldenes Horn («Keratios»).

Coinage system

An eminent role for the empires economy was its system of minting coins in gold (solidi, nomismata, hyperpyron= υπέρπυρoν), silver (miliaresion, Μιλιαρήσιον) and copper (follis, Φόλλις). The hyperpyron (υπέρπυρον = «overheated, pure or “fine” gold»), was a golden coin, like the nomisma and the solidus, having 4,3 gr weight, but only 20,5 carat (καράτια, κεράτια) fineness. This coin has been struck in 1092 by Alexios I Komnenos and was used up to the end of the empire, with allways changing fineness. There were to be paid 288 bronze folles, to get 12 silver miliaresia and 1 golden solidus or nomisma (288:12:1). The coinage system was organized in a decentralized manner so that more minting cities had the right to struck imperial coins.

Due to the general economic situation the value of the coins and consequently the weight and the purity (fineness) of the metal were affected too. The carat (Greek keration, κεράτιον, Latin siliqua) was a measure of weight based on the carob seed (Ceratonia siliqua) and weighing 1/1728 of the Roman pound, or 0.189 g. But because the solidus weighed 24 carats, the meaning of carat is 1/24 of pure gold, which is commonly used today as a measure (24 siliquae or «carats») of the fineness of gold (Grierson, 1999). The value of the «byzantine dollar» (solidus, nomisma) was stable for almost ten (while seven centuries with minor debasement) centuries and therefore it was accepted as international currency everywhere in the known world.

General economic situation

An idea of the general economic situation and its ups and downs can be only estimated as it is done by Branko Milanovic, the World Bank economist (Milanovic, 2006). So had varied the Byzantine GDP per capita from $680 to $770 (International Dollars in 1990) and at its peak amount around $1.000 (reign of Basil II, Emperor from the Makedonian Dynasty, about 1020 A. C.). The GDP had its peaks during the reigns of Constantinian dynasty (Constantin I, 325 A. C. = 9.400.000 solidi), Leontian dynasty (457 A. C. = 7.800.000 solidi), Justinian dynasty (Justinus I: 518 A. C. = 8.500.000 solidi, Justinianus I: 540 A. C. = 11.300.000 nomismata, 565 = 8.500.000 solidi or nomismata), Makedonian dynasty (Basil II: 1025 A. C. = 5.900.000 nomismata) Komnenian dynasty (Manuel I: 1150 A. C. = 5.600.000 hyperpyra, Greek: υπέρπυρα, the perpero of the Italians). The first serious debasement took place during the Makedonian Dynasty (867–1025 A. C.), after the death of Basil II and under the reign of emperor Konstantin IX Monomachos (1042-55 A. C.), whereby the purity of the gold coinage was decreased from 24 carats to 18 carats during his reign. The debasement of gold purity becomes clearer in percentages. This means that one golden nomisma had under Constantine IX Monomachos only 87% of its former value in gold, under Nikephoros III, only 35.8% and under Alexios I, only 10.6% (Nobes, 2013). The empires economy has been affected by other factors too, like the military campaigns and the many periods of wars, which have never stopped, since Constantine the Great. So has emperor Justinian (527-565) made an artificial debasement by ordering the minting cities to struck «light weight coins» in order to finance the payable huge amounts of solidi. He ordered to remint half of the 2,016,000 solidi received in taxation as light weight coins (Harl, K. W., 2013). These regulations are manifested in the Book of the Eparch or the Book of the Prefect (To Eparchikon Vivlion, the Livre de l’Éparque) which was discovered in Geneva by Jules Nicole, in 1891 and is usually ascribed to the reign period of Leo VI the Wise (886–912). In fact the Book of the Prefect is a commercial guide corpus or a commercial fair-play canon for the participants in the market place. According to these regulations the Prefect (Eparchos of Konstantinople, ΕΠΑΡΧΟΣ) has full and supreme judicial jurisdiction concerning all commercial matters.


Trade sector control

Under these circumstances the various sectors of the imperial economy like the trade sector, but also the agrarian production had to contribute to the empires needs of money to pay the various servants of the state, whether as common soldiers and clerks or high rank officers. Characteristic for the empires economy policy was the strict control. This has nothing to do with restrictive economic policy. Trade was in general free to anybody, while bilateral treaties established the «rules of the game». The empire controlled the local and the international distant trade, retained the monopoly of issuing coinage, «maintaining a durable and flexible monetary system adaptable to trade needs».

The imperial policy exercised formal control over interest rates, and fixed the rules for the activity of the guilds, the corporation (syntexniai, syntrophiai, and collegia) or the private guilds that had existed in the Greek world since Roman times. In the Book of the Prefect the tavoularioi or symvolaiografoi (tabularii, notaries, contract lawyers) are mentioned first, while in the next chapters 2 (Dealers in bullion) to 22 (Undertakers) twenty other guilds or collegia are discussed. Each of those guilds or collegia mentioned in the Book is representing a profession (entrepreneurship), as listed and shown below (see Χριστοφιλόπουλος, 2000, p. 77-96). Dealers in bullion (argyropratai, chrysochooi), Bankers (trapezitai, katallaktai), Silk stuff merchants (vestiopratai), importers of silk from Syria and Baghdad (prandiopratai), raw silk merchants (metaxopratai), raw silk dressers (melathrarioi, katartarioi), silk dyers (metaxarioi, serikarioi), linen merchants (othoniopratai, mithaneis), perfume merchants importing items mainly from Chaldia through Trebizond (myrepsoi), wax and taper merchants (keroularioi), soap merchants (saponopratai), grocers (saldamarioi), saddlers (dorotomoi, malakatarioi, vyrsodepsai), butchers (makelarioi), pork merchants (choiremporoi), fishmongers (ichthyopratai), bakers (artopioi, mangipes), inn-holders (kapeloi), animal specialists (vothroi, probably vootheoreis), undertakers like clay item makers, marmor item makers and painters (ergolavoi, locatores and conductores operis).

Trade items (Merchandises)

Another interesting point concerns the items themselves which have been exchanged in all four directions of the horizon. Apart of the most used items like cereals, salt, oil and sugar the empire was consuming (demand) and supplied huge amounts of various specific items. The Kommerkiarioi were very careful, when clothes from Cappadocia made from rabbit skin, or beautiful «Babylonian» furs, were transported on the imperial trade routes. The same attention was paid when the «vestis Laodicea» come across from the province (thema) of Phrygia. Cappadocian horses were another specificum and were used as a true «royal gift».

Filostorgios inform us that Emperor Konstantin II (337-361) used such horses as a real imperial gift for the Arabian Omeritic House in today’s Yemen. Horses were also imported, like the «Parthians», from the Persian territory. Persia exported to the empire also aromatic products and spices, like Chalvane, the root from the tree Chalvanis (galbanum, the root of the plant Ferula gummosa, Galbaniflua), a special gum (sarkokolla from the tree astragalus stenophyllus, astragalus tenuifolius), sagapenon (sagapenum, the plant Ferula persica, i. e. the tree narthex persicus), Asa foetida (i. e. the tree asea foetida). Another lucrative export to west and central Asia and item category was silk and silk products, whether pure, or woven with gold. The port of Alexandria was also known as the gate for the imports of Apsinthos (absinthe, from the tree Artemisia absinthium) and gentian. Kilikia, Pamphylia, Pisidia and Syria were known for the production of storax-styrax (resin), a colloid product from trees, whereby the city Agiya was the main production and Attaleia (Antalya) the main port for exports. A similar product was the tragakanthos, from the astragalus tragacanthus tree, which was exported from the port Drakontais (the Foxe Dragante of the Westerners). A special category of exchange concerns slaves or Eunuchs form the central and northern Asiatic territories, whereby the Abasgian Eunuchs were demanded in all countries around the empire.


Commercia cities and Commerciarii (Kommerkia, Kommerkiarioi)

The main imperial issues, as documented in the regulations above, were not only the fair-play rules in the market place, but also the intention to ensure the collection of the due taxes, in order to pay the liabilities of the state. Such functions, like the Eparch’s responsibility to monitor the market and in this way also the inflow of the dues and the taxes to the imperial tameion, existed in the empire from its very beginning. Imperial money collectors of any kind, either as tax-collectors or in any other form have been installed very early and in all corners of the empire, with positions ranking from the bottom line up to the highest one (Laiou, A., 2002, p. 697-770). Especially the top positions have been mainly (but not exclusively) occupied by persons with aristocratic heritage, like the various officers of the state administration and the army (e. g. Logothetes, Sakkelarios, Chartoularios, Strategos, Droungarios, Comes) and the various palatial servants of the Mega Theophylakton Palation (Protostrator, Varvatoi, like Parakoimomenos, Protovestiarios, Protospatharios, Spatharokandidos, Spatharios and the various Eunuchs), (Ανδρεάδης, 1992, p. 525, 529). A special type of state or imperial servant among them was the function or duty of the royal commerciarius, vassilikos KommerkiariosΒασιλικός Κομμερκιάριος») or just and simple Kommerkiarios (Ανδρεάδης, 1992, p. 448, 457).

The Kommerkiarios is connected with the Kommerkia and the Apothekai (Warehouses, stores, the Italian botega), whereby the name apothekai has does not refer to the building itself, but to the certain territory (Ragia, Efi, 2009, p. 195-245). While the Kommerkia or apothekai were the subjects for the taxation, the Kommerkiarios was the «official of the fiscal service in charge of the levying of the tax called commercion (δεκάτη < 10%), that was imposed over the portage and the selling of articles». Most probably the kommerkiarios was the successor of comes commerciorum, a late Roman controller of trade on the frontier. According to the Notitia Dignitatum, there were 3 Comites commerciorum under the Comes sacrarum largitionum. One for East (Oriens and Egypt), one for Illyricum and the third one for Moesia, Scythia Minor and Pontus (the Danube and the Black Sea).

Most probably the Kommerkiarios was not only an imperial tax collecting servant, but also has been working for his own business, especially as a long distance trader / entrepreneur (Laiou, A., 2002, p. 697-770).

These Kommerkiarioi were also by the state exclusively in charge to manage the silk production and to distribute the raw material to the «raw silk merchants» («metaxopratai»). As mentioned above the Kommerkiarios was resposnsible to collect the Kommerkion tax, called also «dekate», i. e. 10% tax ad valorem, as a replacement of the octava = 12,5%, whereby a special type of the dekate was the dekateia oinaron, namely the dekate, for wine transported by sea to Constantinople. The tax was applied on all merchandises coming form outside in the territory of the East Roman Empire. The tax was refundable in the case that the merchandise was re-exported to other countries. The same tax was collected on items arriving at Konstantinople by the sea.

Οne of the main commercial cities (Kommerkia) were Trebizond (Thema Chaldias) for the East, then Attaleia (Antalya), and Seleucia. Especially in Trebizond Arab, Armenian, Roman, Russian (Varangians, Kievan Russ), Kolchian, Hebrew, Georgian, Kirkassian merchants came from all over the known world, as Idrisi says. Rosenqvist (Rosenqvist, 1996, p. 212) states that in Trebizond the traders had the unique opportunity to exchange their items in the most important annual trade fair of Saint Eugenios, which first was installed by Emperor Basil I (867-886).

Apart of the fairs of Saint Demetrios, in Thessalonica and that of Asomatoi in Stelaria, Chalkidike, there was another much frequented trade-fair established at the end of the 12th century in Chonai, where Archangel Michael made the famous miracle. According to Arab geographer Ibn-Hauqal some cities which had customs in order to inspect and clear the merchandises were especially preferred as starting or terminal gates, like Trebisond, Fortress Petra, the naval («ναυσιπόρος») Phasis, Nikopsis, Dioskourias and Pityous in the Euxine (see Matschke, 2002, pp. 771-806 and Laiou, A., 2002, p. 697-770). Other start / terminal places were the region of Armenia (Thema Armeniakon) cities Artaxata, Adranuc, Dwin, Theodosioupolis (Erzerum) and Artze, while Kallinikon and Nisibis were place near the Euphrates region, with extremely high profits from the transit trade (“κομμέρκιον άπειρον”) (Ragia, Efi, 2009, p. 195-245). The most important entrance ports were placed in the Syrian coast, like in the cities of Antiocheia (Antioch), Tyros and Berytos (Beirut).

Many merchants used the port of Alexandria, Smyrna and Ephesus. Cyprus especially was used from the imperial authorities as a control and monitoring place for all in and outgoing transactions, whereby the imperial Dioiketes (Commander) inspected all cargoes and ships in order to grant entrance permits to the state, according to Al-Mas΄udi.

While Constantinople was always a starting and terminal point or gate (naval as well as maritime) for its own, the same is to say for the «royal» trade route, known also as the «route of the pilgrims». In Constantinople the foreign traders (Sogdian, Turk) had their own accommodation, for themselves, their merchandise and their animals, which were called «mitata». Especially at Manuel’s time (1118 – 1180) the Kommerkion tax at Constantinople delivered 20,000 hyperpyra every day (See Harris, 1991). Famous entrepreneurial families from Genoa settled in Pera and had their own banks. They established trade and notary public offices, had numerous agents and intermediaries, cooperating closely together with the colonies in the region of the Black Sea. Documents of notary publics have been preserved which show the extremely large turnover amounting to 200.000 ducats per year. Another important city-commercium was Mesembria and its port placed in the west side of the Euxine.

The Commercium (Kommerkion) tax

The Kommerkion as circulation and sales tax, paid at the customs, was used also to pay a part of the salaries of the various officers in the army, e. g. for the Strategos or Dux from the Chaldian Thema (ΘΕΜΑ ΧΑΛΔΙΑΣ). He got normally twenty (20) pounds in gold per annum, but half of this was collected as Kommerkion, on the important eastern trade rout leading to Trebizond, in order to complete his outstanding roga (salary) of the ten pounds in gold. The salaries for the high rank officers (like strategoi thematon, i. e. generals) were not the same. Due to the importance of the thema they got a “golden roga” (roga chrysine) between 5 to 40 litres or pounds of gold (Ανδρεάδης, 1992, p. 477). The 10% amount was namely the «standard tax» but exceptions were always possible (2%) and in some cases “right catastrophic” for the empire (Ανδρεάδης, 1992, p. 488, 599), like the related treaties (concerning not only the Kommerkion) with Italian trade cities of Venice, Genoa, Amalfi, Pisa and Salerno.

Every responsible Kommerkiarios had the right to use his own custommade stamp (sfragis, molyvdovoulon) with the image of the emperor’s face on the one side and the names of the apothekai or warehouse under his jurisdiction on the other side. Kazhdan (Kazhdan, 1991, p. 1141) states that such a Kommerkiarios was called royal or vasilikos Komerkiarios. The logothetēs tou genikou, often called genikos logothetēs, was in charge of the “general financial ministry”, the genikon logothesion of the East Roman Empire. The genikon was responsible for the taxation and revenue (Kazhdan, 1991, p. 829).

Trade routes and ports

The trade in general is subdivided in two types, the regional trade (between 50 kms to 300 kms) and the international or distant trade (beyond 300 kms). While the long distance trade involved the most precious products of the East like spices, perfumes and dyes. In both cases (local or distant trade) an extending network of trade routes was established.

In the Mesopotamian Kommerkion was a trade route where the main knots were Angyra (Ankara), Kaisareia (Kayseri), Melitene (Malatya), Amida (Diyarbakir) and Edessa (Homs). Another trade route was passing through Nikaia, Dorylaion, Ikonion, the Kilikian Gates, Tarsos, Antiocheia (Antioch) and Chalepi (Aleppo). Another trade route was on the axis south – north and was called the Varangians road or the Greek trade route, famous and known even in the ancient times, established along the river Borysthenes (Dnjepr). It connected the Kievan Russ with the empires capital Constantinople and through Trebizond.

The revenues from Kommerkion taxes have been quite attractive. Saint Theophanes the chronographer confirms that from one trade-fair organized from the church in Ephesus, the collected taxes amounted 100 (ρ΄λίτρων χρυσίου) pounds or liters (1 pound = 0, 32256 Kg) of gold or 7.200 golden nomismata (1 nomisma is equal to 4, 48 gr pure gold). This means further that the exchanged value of the merchandises was 72.000 nomismata or 1.000 pounds gold (322, 56 Kg = 0, 32256 tons gold).

The Kommerkion of Attaleia (Antalya) delivered in 932 A. C. between 21.600 and 30.000 nomismata. The same revenue from the Trebizond Kommerkion was about 60.000 to 70.000 nomismata (according to Ibn-Hauqal). When a Kommerkiarios died on a trade route during a journey he was buried mostly on site, i. e. in the road or place where he died. The figure below shows such a stele or column which is placed in the Libyan desert near the Oasis Sheba.

(Source: “Entrepreneurial Aspects in East Roman Empire – The imperial Kommerkiarioi as quasi-entrepreneurs”, by Dimitrios G. Mavridis, Kostas Vatalis)


Research-Selection for NovoScriptorium: Anastasius Philoponus

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