Towns and Commerce in Eastern Roman (‘Byzantine’) Asia Minor on the Eve of the Turkish Conquest

By late Roman and early Byzantine times there had developed in Anatolia a large number of thriving cities and lesser towns with a considerable commercial life and money economy. The question has often arisen as to the continuity of this urban character of much of Anatolia into the middle Byzantine period. To what extent, if at all, did Anatolia continue to be the possessor of extensive urban settlements down to the period when the Turks first appeared? This question is doubly important, first in that it bears on the relative importance of the area for Byzantine civilization and strength, and second because it is closely related to the problem of Muslim urban developments in Anatolia during the later period.


Some students of the question have maintained that between the seventh and ninth centuries the polis of antiquity, and so cities generally, underwent a disastrous decline.  But actually there seems to have been no such abrupt decline or hiatus during the seventh century in Anatolia, though the Slavic invasions in the Balkans did cause a marked decline of many of the towns of the western half of the empire. This condition in the Balkans served to put in even bolder relief the economic and political importance of the continuity of towns and cities in Anatolia. It is quite possible that a number of the towns may have decreased in size by the late seventh or the eighth century, or possibly have shifted their locations slightly to more strategic positions on higher ground, or been ‘‘ruralized,” but this does not mean that they did so to the point of becoming insignificant as an urban phenomenon. It is doubtful that Byzantium could have survived as a centralized state without a money economy and towns, and it is even more doubtful that the Greek language and Byzantine Christianity could have spread and penetrated to the extent they did in Anatolia. Obviously what had happened to the Byzantine urban settlements in the Balkans did not occur in Anatolia. The raids of the Arabs were, in spite of their frequency, transitory affairs (when one compares them to the Slavic invasions of the Balkans which not only effaced cities but also Christianity, or to the Turkish invasions).

What were the characteristics of these Byzantine cities in the eleventh century? When one speaks of cities he thinks primarily in terms of autonomous municipal institutions. This is certainIy the case of the town in antiquity, where there were also divisions of the citizenry according to tribes, and finally a walled enclosure. Obviously the Byzantine towns of Anatolia in the eleventh century would hardly fit such a description, at least insofar as the meager sources permit conjecture. ‘The existence of autonomous, independent institutions in the municipalities of antiquity had been threatened from the moment the Hellenistic monarchs had placed their epistates or representative in the polis to oversee its foreign affairs, The crisis of the third century further undermined these institutions, as is witnessed by the attempts of Diocletian to stabilize them. So in the fifth century the city, as it had evolved, at least in Asia Minor, did not preserve the city type of the Hellenistic and Roman periods. The later militarization of the provincial administration through the implementation of the thematic system consummated the end of urban autonomy, for the affairs of the town were subjected to the strategus who was appointed from Constantinople. The novel of Leo VI abolishing the remnants of urban autonomy simply put into legal language a state that had come into being previously and that had been in the process of formation for centuries. Nevertheless, the populace of Byzantine towns does not seem to have been quiescent in political matters and it frequently expressed its will in riots and political outbursts, first through the demes, and later through the guilds.

The “aspect” of the eleventh-century Byzantine town was characterized by institutions of a different sort. These institutions were largely thematic and ecclesiastical, both ultimately centering in Constantinople. Consequently, the city in the early eleventh century was the seat of a strategus with his immediate retinue (or of one of his subordinates) appointed by Constantinople. These officials presided over routine matters of administration and juridical business as well as over military and police affairs, though the lesser oficials were local inhabitants. Alongside the officials of the military administration were those of the ecclesiastical hierarchy metropolitans and the bishops. The integration of the ecclesiastical administrative set up into that of the provincial government is not as well known as the parallelism existing between the structure of the earlier provincial administration and the structure of the hierarchical administration. The church had modeled its administration along the lines of the civil administration of the fourth and fifth centuries, In this manner those cities that were the centers of the provincial administration became the centers of the ecclesiastical organization. The council of Chalcedon in 451 decreed that cities or poleis would be the seats of bishops, and consequently the concept of a polis or city became inseparably associated with the presence of a bishop, and the exact reverse was also true; wherever there was a bishop there had to be a city. Justinian I restated this one century later:

We decree that every city. . . shall have. . . its own and inseparable . . , bishop“.

The episcopal powers and rule in provincial administrative organization were to remain important until the end of the Byzantine Empire and beyond. By the sixth century the bishops were participating in the elections of local urban officials, were important in city finances, and were often the recipients of imperial gifts bestowed upon the city. One can say autonomy, though the eastern bishops, because of the authority of the centralized state, never attained the power of the western Latin bishops. Not only did the bishops take some part in these strictIy governmental matters, but they seem to have had charge of performing many services that today one generally, though not exclusively, connects with the state: education, care for the sick, the aged, the orphaned, and others in need. In short they cared not only for the souls of the provincials but for their bodies as well.

The Byzantine town of Asia Minor in the eleventh century was, then, characterized by the presence of the members of the ecclesiastical hierarchy (bishops or metropolitans), and by the presence of the strategus or his representatives. In addition there were other characteristics of the towns-the presence of trade or commercial activity whether with foreign states or with neighboring towns and villages. The Byzantine polis had resident a number of local craftsmen as well as merchants both indigenous and foreign. This particular aspect of the town as a center of craftsmen and merchants and of industry and commerce is not well documented. According to some scholars this basic element for the existence of towns was seriously lacking in the eighth and ninth centuries. But such arguments are based largely upon the silence of the sources, sources that are not only rare but are also Constantinople-centered. If one looks at the scattered references of the tenth and eleventh centuries it becomes obvious that neither trade nor commerce, neither craftsmen nor merchants, were absent from Asia Minor during this period.

Ephesus was a lively harbor town with a panegyris or trade fair that yielded 100 pounds of gold in annual taxes during the reign of Constantine VI (780-797). Incidental information concerning the economic activity of the city emerges from an eleventh-century hagiographical composition in which we get a glimpse of what must have been a very busy town. The monks of the monastery on Mt. Galesium near Ephesus are constantly going to the κάστρον (Ephesus) for the various needs of the monastery. Books are purchased there, and the monks are permitted to attend the fair, though this is felt to be something of a formidable temptation for the brethren. Craftsmen and merchants of various sorts appear : a painter, a plasterer, a nauclerus, and there is also mention of a state bakery. This commercial activity was of more than a local nature, as there is mention of Saracens, Jews, Russians, and Georgians. These incidental bits of information indicate that eleventh-century Ephesus was no sleepy hollow but was rather a center of both local and international trade. Its plain was fertile, well watered, and the nearby sea was a rich fishing ground.

The western Anatolian coast was dotted with natural harbors that seem to have been active maritime centers in the tenth and eleventh centuries, though possibly not on the same scale as Ephesus. The monks of Mt. Athos sailed to Smyrna to purchase necessities, and shipping constantly plied the lanes between Smyrna and Constantinople and the isles in the eleventh century. Phygela served as a debarkation point to and from Crete as well as a commercial center and depot for naval stores. Phocaea and Strobilus were among the important ports of Anatolia. Miletus and Clazomenae were undoubtedly of similar importance. The hinterland of these towns in the Thracesian theme produced much grain, the surplus of which was exported to regions in Phrygia, which produced only barley. The towns farther north were also centers of lively trading activity. Nicomedia, a central emporium with state khans for the residence of the merchants, exported livestock to the capital and served as the market for villagers in the vast rural area around the city. These ἀγρογείτονες came to town to sell their own produce, to buy what they needed, and also to visit the church of the Archangel Michael. Prusa, an important market for grain and livestock, was in addition famed for its thermal baths. Its neighbor, Nicaea, was an equally active commercial center and mart for local farming products. The city contained granaries for the agricultural produce of the rural environs and an active colony of Jewish merchants. The tenth-century Theophanes Continuatus refers to Nicaea as rich and heavily populated. It is pertinent that the Arab geographer al-Mukaddasi mentioned the presence of Muslims in the cities of Bithynia, some probably there for purposes of trade. Though the literary references to the town are scanty, the archaeological finds indicate that in the eleventh century Pergamum was the site of some local industry, and its neighbor Adramyttium was a town of more than respectable size. Abydus, Cyzicus, Lampsacus, and Pylae enjoyed a certain prosperity because of their favorable location along the land and maritime routes leading to Constantinople. Pylae possessed ξενοδοχεία or Khans for the merchants, and the town specialized in the export of swine, cattle, horses, and asses to Constantinople. Pythia (the Turkish Yalova), embellished since the time of Justinian I with public baths and buildings, became a famous resort town that Constantinopolitans visited for the cures of the warm baths. The whole region of northwest Anatolia was unusually favored, commercially, by its proximity to a large market in Constantinople, by the presence of large towns and centers of population, by numerous harbors, and by the existence of fairly rich and large villages. Great numbers of merchant vessels touched at such ports of call as Cyzicus, Lampsacus, Nicomedia, Helenopolis, Abydus, Cius, Chalcedon.


Attaleia remained throughout the whole period the principal naval base and commercial station that the Byzantines possessed in southern Anatolia, visited by great numbers of ships. It was the most convenient harbor between the region of the Aegean and Cyprus and points eastward, and travelers and merchants voyaging between the two areas usually stopped at Attaleia. It was not only an important center for the deposit of naval stores and grain but an international trading center where in addition to the local merchants one could expect to see Armenians, Saracens, Jews, and Italians. The Arab accounts of the ninth and tenth centuries describe the district of Attaleia as densely populated and rich in cereals.

The northern Anatolian coast was the scene of similarly energetic commerce and industry. Heracleia engaged in a brisk trade with Constantinople and with Cherson, which needed its grain. To the northeast was Amastris, a more important commercial center. Its merchants were quite active as early as the ninth century, and probably earlier. The combination of local industry, trade, and the produce of the soil made Amastris one of the more prosperous towns on the Black Sea. Sinope, the site of the church of St. Phocas, was important as a grain port and naval base, and also as the sponsor of the great panegyris, or commercial fair, held on the feast day of St. Phocas. Slightly to the southeast was another grain port, Amisus, which traded extensively with the Chersonese. Cerasus, which participated in this maritime intercourse with the “Scyths” and the other Pontine cities, was one of the major textile centers of northern Anatolia, supplying Constantinople with linen cloth.

Certainly the most important of the Anatolian cities on the Black Sea, in terms of population, wealth, commerce, and industry, was Trebizond. It was situated in the vicinity of the fertile grain-producing regions of Paipert and Chaldia and served as a storage center and market for the region’s grain. But significant as it was in the grain trade, Trebizond was more important as a commercial center in which converged trade routes coming by sea from Cherson and by land from the Caucasus, Central Asia, Syria, Constantinople, and Anatolia. There were several market fairs held each year, the most important of which was the panegyris of St. Eugenius, the patron saint of Trebizond, instituted in the region of Basil I: Merchants and travelers from all parts of the Middle East were to be seen buying and selling goods in Trebizond and visiting the shrine of St. Eugenius for cures: Arabs, Armenians, Greeks, Russians, Colchians, Jews, Georgians, and Circassians. The Trebizondines were engaged in a vast international commerce between east and west. The tenth-century Arab Istakhri relates that most of the Greek textiles and brocades in his day were imported into the Islamic world via Trebizond. Very important were the perfumes and other exotic items that entered the empire via the emporium of Trebizond. The trade of the region furnished a further source of revenue to the state by virtue of the customs duties that the commerciarioi levied.

Bona and Oenoe were smaller towns of some commercial note, the latter as a ship building center and naval base. This whole tier of Pontic towns participated in a vital commercial and industrial life, a fact reflected by such authors as Theophanes and Constantine Porphyrogenitus. Also, the exports of grain, wine, and other commodities were not only necessary for Constantinople but were absolutely essential to the existence of the Chersonites. The latter, in return for the goods that the Greek merchants brought them, sent to Pontus such items as hides and wax which they acquired from the Patzinaks (Pechenegs).

Prior to the Seljuk invasions, the Byzantines possessed in eastern Anatolia a number of comparatively prosperous commercial towns. One of the most important of these and located to the southeast of Trebizond was Artze, a fairly large town inhabited by numerous merchants, including not only local Syrians and Armenians but also many others. The town possessed and traded in all types of goods and wares that were produced in Persia, India, and ihe rest of Asia. Theodosiopolis in the vicinity seems to have been an important caravan town that traded with the Georgians in the early tenth century. Many of its inhabitants moved to the town of Artze where commercial conditions were more favorable, but after the Turkish sack of Artze much of the populace returned to Theodosiopolis. Ani, one of the most recently acquired cities of the empire in eastern Asia Minor, was an important and very populous emporium, with great numbers of churches and grain silos. At the easternmost extremity was
the town of Manzikert, also recently acquired. Melitene, a large commercial town that had been incorporated into the empire during the reign of Romanus I, was later repeopled primarily with Jacobite Christians and to a lesser degree with Armenians and Greeks. The few remarks that emerge from the sources reveal that this town was inhabited by wealthy merchants. Nisibis and Edessa were comparatively populous and wealthy, obviously dependent far much of their prosperity on trade with Syria. Antioch, though actually not in Asia Minor, was very important in the economic life of the empire and especially in the commercial activities of the Anatolian towns. It was one of the important points at which commerce flowed between the domains of Byzantium and Islam. This trade had no doubt always existed and the wars and razzias only temporarily interrupted it. Though much of this trade with the Muslim east was transacted in northern and eastern Asia Minor, a considerable portion of it must have entered into and passed through southern and central Anatolia. Anazarba and Podandus in the tenth and eleventh centuries were populous and prosperous, with thickly inhabited and productive clusters of villages in their environs. The highland town of Tzamandus was also wealthy and of good size. Adana, Tarsus, Mopsuestia, and Seleuceia were significant towns characterized by commercial enterprise. Caesareia, favored by its location on the commercial route connecting Mesopotamia-Syria with Anatolia, the seat of one of the most important Greek metropolitanates and an important point of religious pilgrimage, was the principal town of Cappadocia. Nigde, Archelais, and Heracleia, though certainly not as large as Caesareia, also drew their livelihood from their position on the road system of southern Anatolia. West of Caesareia was the city of Iconium, the administrative, communications, religious, and commercial focal point of south-central AnatoIia. Chonae and Laodiceia, west of Iconium, were urban agglomerates that lived from the traffic passing along the road leading from Iconium to the Maeander River valley. Located near the sources of the river, they were possessed of well-watered and productive countrysides. The lakes were well stocked with fish, the valleys supported livestock and a host of agricultural products which included liquorice, cardamum, myrtle, figs, and other fruits. Chonae, a town of respectable size, enjoyed a certain commercial prosperity as a result of the great trade fairs held at the panegyris of the Archangel Michael. Merchants traveled long distances to do business at this event, and the faithful came on pilgrimage to see the great church of the Archangel with its mosaics. Laodiceia, famed for its textiles in late antiquity, doubtlessly continued to produce these materials during the Byzantine period, for when Ibn Battuta saw the city in the early fourteenth century, he observed that the Greek textile workers were still making excellent clothes and materials.

Northwest of Iconium, along the road to Dorylaeum, existed a series of smaller towns that served as administrative, ecclesiastical, and military centers. These included Laodiceia Cecaumene, Tyriaeum, Philomelium, Synnada, Polybotus, Acroenus, Amorium, Caborcion, Santabaris, Nacoleia, Cotyaeum, Trocnada, and Pessinus. Amorium, before its celebrated sack by the Arabs in the ninth century, was one of the larger Anatolian towns, and the presence of Jews in the city during the early ninth century is possibly an indication that Amorium was the site of considerable commercial life. It has been assumed that the city had all but disappeared as a result of the Arab destruction. Attaleiates, however, who is very careful in the nomenclature that he applies to cities, towns, and villages, still refers to Amorium as a πολιτεία in the eleventh century. The largest and most important of the plateau towns in northwestern Anatolia was Dorylaeum. Located at the point of egress from and entrance to the plateau, its plain watered by the streams of the Bathys and Tembris, the city enjoyed the advantages that strategic location and generous nature bestowed. The fields produced rich harvests of grain and the rivers abounded in fish, the villages were densely populated and the city was embellished with stoas, fountains, and houses of illustrious citizens. Between Dorylaeum and Nicaea were the lesser towns of Malagina, Pithecas, and Leucae.

The northern rim of the plateau contained a number of towns, the most important of which was Ankara. Slightly to the east was Saniana (a military base) , and farther north were Gangra and Castamon. Euchaita, midway between the Halys and Iris rivers, was a center of commercial note and evidently of some size. Its fair attracted merchants from afar with the result that the city prospered. Amaseia, much as Ankara and Euchaita, was a town of importance as a result of its strategic location in the mountain passes. Its rural neighborhood, though chopped up by precipitous mountains, was nevertheless well watered and productive. Like so many other towns in northeastern Anatolia, Amaseia was located in a metalliferous region and the mines seem to have been worked in Byzantine and Seljuk times. Doceia, Neocaesareia, Sebasteia, Coloneia, Nicopolis, and Argyropolis were important administrative, ecclesiastical, and commercial centers of the conventional Anatolian type.

Anatolian towns were subject to ever-present and powerful currents of trade and commerce. In spite of the aridity of the historical sources, it seems quite clear that Greek, Armenian, Jewish, Russian, Chersonite, Circassian, Georgian, Muslim, and Italian merchants traversed the maritime and hinterland trade routes. Maritime commerce came to the Anatolian coastal cities along the entire Black Sea, Aegean, and Mediterranean littorals. In the north the trade followed the coastal towns ultimateIy reaching Constantinople in the west or Trebizond in the east. The maritime commerce of the coastal towns was tied up with Constantinople, Cherson, and the Caucasus while the commerce of the Aegean coastal centers was connected with the Greek peninsula and the islands as well as with Constantinople. The sea trade of Attaleia was supplied by Egypt, Cyprus, Antioch, and the Aegean. The major land route from the east entered the various border cities from Antioch in the south to Trebizond in the north. Again, some of this commerce was sea borne from Trebizond to Constantinople and to other harbors, or from Antioch to Attaleia and other ports. But at the same time a good portion of this commerce found its way into the cities of the plateau via the Cilician Gates and other routes.

There is evidence for the existence of well-developed local industry in the Anatolian towns. The Anatolians manufactured brocades and various textiles of linen, wool, silk, and cotton; they wove carpets, produced glassware and pottery, incense, bows, arrows, swords, shields, nails, rope, and other naval supplies; and they built ships. Certainly they must have produced many of the everyday items that they needed in their own urban and rural life. Various types of craftsmen, specialized labor, and merchants are mentioned on rare occasion in the texts and inscriptions. The peninsula was a major region of the Byzantine mining industry, producing silver, copper, iron, lead, possibly some gold, marble, alum, and semiprecious stones. Food production played a very important role in the commerce of the towns, the Byzantine villages being more closely connected to the towns than was the case with many areas in western Europe. The towns served as markets for the produce of the peasants most important items of which were grain, fish, wine, fruit, legumes, nuts, livestock, and lumber. Each town had its group of villages, the inhabitants of which brought these products to town, very often during the big fairs held on the feast day of the saints. Here the villagers sold their produce and bought the products of local or foreign industry. Many of these villages were quite large and thriving. Thus, parallel to the larger movements of trade, there was generated also this smaller local trade between the villages and the towns, which was just as important in some respects as the larger scale trade. In this manner the farmers and herdsmen received cash for their goods. The towns in turn were able to dispose of the villagers’ produce both by sale among the townsmen and by selling it to merchants of Constantinople and other cities.

(Source: The Chapter titled “Byzantine Asia Minor on the Eve of the Turkish Conquest“, from the book titled “The Decline of Medieval Hellenism in Asia Minor and the Process of Islamization from the Eleventh through the Fifteenth Century“, by Speros Vryonis, Jr.)


Research-Selection-Comments for NovoScriptorium: Anastasius Philoponus

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