The last two decades marked the “golden age” of Byzantine historiography. Our knowledge and understanding of this great civilization has improved immensely and has forever changed the way we look at it. The original spur of this amazing development was very simple: how could Byzantium, seen as a stale, decadent and highly inefficient Empire, stand up for so long to the new aggressive powers in Western Europe and the Middle East? How could the Emperor be regarded as one of the richest sovereigns in the world when the dominions he ruled upon were seen as mired in intrigue, bureaucracy and a general economic and social slump?
This overview will be split in sections. In the present one we’ll cover the basis of all pre-Industrial societies: agricultural production and land management. The next installments will cover such topics as monetary and fiscal policies, secondary production and internal and international trade. Given how fast Byzantine historiography is evolving at the moment I cannot assure all my sources will be up to date but I’ll do my best to present the most advanced findings and conclusions.
Two notes before starting: I have followed the most recent trend in historiography in using “Hellenized” names instead of their “Latin” counterparts (IE. Palaiologos instead of Paleologus). This is now seen as more representative as Latin was never popular in the Eastern Empire and became almost a dead language sometime in the VIII century. Also Bibliography will be provided in full in the last installment, as I’ll be using the same sources over again.
The Late Roman Empire of the IV century from which Byzantium was born had an overall extension of roughly 3,7 million km2 and extended from Iberia (modern day Spain and Portugal) to Syria and
Armenia. After the Battle of Adrianople (378AD), the Western Empire was more or less left to fend for itself, completely disappearing in the span of a century, and the Eastern Empire was reduced to just 1,3 million km2. After the struggle for survival against Sassanid Persia first and Islam later and the renaissance of the IX-XI century it had a territorial extension of 1,2 million km2 at the end of the reign of Basil II Bulgaroktonos (r. 976-1025). The territorial losses which followed the Battle of Manzikert (1071AD) were partially reversed by the Komnenoi (r. 1081-1185) but by 1150AD the Empire was reduced to just 750000 km2.
This area covered a wide variety of climates, from the warm Mediterranean coast to the cold Balkan forests, and as such lent itself to a widely variable agricultural production. Cereals were very widespread, with wheat taking the lion’s share but barley, millet, rye and oats were all widely cultivated, especially in semi-arid regions with poor soils. The dominant cash crops were olive trees and vines, but in some localities exotic plants like sugar cane, dates and, later, the mastic tree could be grown and became major cash crops. Starting from the second half of the VI century, moriculture became more and more widespread after the silkworm was introduced from China. Fruits and fresh vegetables were grown both for direct consumption and trading. Textile plants like flax and hemp are attested from Thessalia, Macedonia and Thrace and where always in high demand for use in ships rigging and sails.
Other notable crops were medical and aromatic plants and sundry plant dyes. All of these were subject to a vibrant internal and international trade.
Animal husbandry was extremely widespread. It provided both resources such as wool, meat and milk and “muscle power” and transportation. It was mostly practiced on marginal lands which had little use for cultivation and most peasants owned a few goats, pigs and sheep (more on which later) but it became huge business: John Kantakouzenos*, a great aristocrat and landowner, at one point owned the unbelievable (for the times) number of 70000 sheep and 50000 pigs, and the celebrated stud farms of Cappadocia and Thessalia raised large numbers of excellent horses, highly prized by professional soldiers and traders alike. Particularly widespread was beekeeping. It provided honey and wax for both domestic consumption and trade.
Finally, one resource the Empire had in abundance was timber. After the loss of the prized cedar forests of Lebanon, new sources of high quality timber were found in Crete, the Balkans and Southern Italy (Calabria). This timber was the subject of a vibrant international trade and always in high demand for shipbuilding,
The reign of Justinian (r. 527-565) brought a series of changes in the countryside. The plague, which arrived in the Empire in 540, brought with it a massive reduction in manpower and increased taxation, first to pay for Justinian’s grandiose public works programs and military ventures and later to finance the struggle for survival against Sassanid Persia first and Islam later, had a number of consequences well attested by archeological findings.
The most immediate effect was a widespread impoverishment. The well crafted stone farm houses,
many of which survive in excellent conditions in Syria, gave way to the archetypical “Medieval hovel”, made of wood, rubble and mud bricks. Tiles disappeared in favor of thatch and beaten floors replaced stone ones.
Villages started to shift from fertile plains to easily defensible positions, like hilltops. Many settlements were simply abandoned.
Finds of ceramics from the VII to the early VIII century hint at a “regionalization” and “pauperization” of the economy, as local, simpler wares replaced the previous well crafted types, mostly produced in a few great “industrial” center, and in dwindling quantity.
Yet Byzantium still had human resources she could draw upon to not only survive, but to adapt and prosper as well.
As the VIII century progressed, the situation in countryside started to slowly but steadily improve. The population slump which followed the plague outbreaks which marked the second half of Justinian’s and his successors’ reign ended somewhere in the VIII century, leading to constant population growth, which was indispensable to increase agricultural production as in pre-Industrial societies agricultural production is strongly tied to the ready availability of manpower.
At the time, land was widely available at a constant marginal cost, the cost of clearing it. While there wasn’t any “agricultural revolution” in the traditional sense, a X century treaty about agricultural history, the Geoponika, tells of revised and much improved farming methods. A two years rotation cycle was widely implemented and the fields were given over for grazing (and manuring) after the harvest. While not universal, the practice of planting legumes on fallow land to improve soil quality is well attested and its importance continued to grow with upward population movements as it provided a cheap and widely available source of proteins.
Starting in the IX century, moriculture and sericulture became so widespread in the Peloponnese the whole region became known as Morea, “the land of mulberry trees”. Silk will be covered in depth in the section regarding industry or, to be more precise, secondary production.
Now let’s take a look at the weight of the State in the agricultural sector. In the late VIII century (apparently) taxation was rationalized and considerably reduced. Land had a fiscal value, established by the Imperial Financial Service (IFS for short), or to be more precise the office of the General Logothete (Logothetes tou genikou): one modios** of first quality land was valued at one nomisma***; second quality land half a nomisma and third quality land (suitable for pasture or marginal, low yield cultivation) one third of a nomisma. The yearly tax was 1/24 of the fiscal value and land values were reviewed every thirty years. Two things are worth mentioning. First, IFS officials were remarkably skilled at measuring land with an extremely low error margin, hinting at good training and advanced scientific knowledge. Second, there were many exceptions to this rule. Vineyards were placed in a tax bracket of their own, considerably higher than first quality land, but there’s no mention of higher fiscal value for olive tree fields, the other major cash crop. Also many Emperors, to incentive settlement in depopulated areas or promote the recovery of neglected areas, granted either tax exemption or, more often, the lowest tax bracket to those willing to take up the challenge, regardless of what they chose to cultivate.
There were also other taxes, but these came and went and changed shape according to the fiscal needs of the State. Among these it’s worth mentioning the personal tax, originally levied on males, which later became a household tax (kapnikon), estimated on the basis of the productive capacity of the household. Other things taxed in more or less regular regular fashion were animals. Curiously enough pigs, ducks, geese and poultry were exempted and no payment was due if a household owned four or less sheep and goats. Again, exemptions were not unheard of: for example Leo VI The Wise (r. 886-912) exempted both professional soldiers and members of the militias from all taxes except the land tax and made the land deemed indispensable for discharging their military duties unalienable.
Besides taxation, the State influenced agriculture in another way: the Emperor was, for many centuries, the largest landowner in his own lands. Modern historiography has completely overhauled the old notion that Imperial lands disappeared between the VII and the IX century. However these estates, as large as they were, are a mystery to us. Little is known about how they were run, what was grown or raised on them etc.**** One interesting snippet of information is that Basil II Bulgaroktonos made an effort to increase productivity in his own lands by employing large numbers of Bulgarian slaves. This is highly unusual: Byzantine agricultural manpower was made up of free men, be them salaried laborers, tenants or peasants owning land. Slavery was neither unknown nor forbidden, but slaves were mostly considered trading goods (many Byzantine merchants grew incredibly rich by buying slaves in Crimea and the Caucasus and reselling them outside the Empire) or reserved for particular tasks. It’s worth noting slavery in Byzantium had a very peculiar juridic and social character which is outside the scope of this essay.
Outside of Imperial lands the countryside in Byzantium was divided in two peculiar institutions: the village (chorion) and the estate (proasteion).
The village emerged as the dominant one in the late VIII century for two reasons. First is the previous, highly insecure centuries had forced pesants to “band together” to improve their own safety. The second is Byzantine emperors, to facilitate revenue collections, found it easier to tax villages as a whole where these existed: taxes were calculated for each household but the whole village had to provide a single, large payment per year and was deemed responsible as a whole for any shortcoming. However, there’s another subtler reason for the emergence of the village as the dominant institution in the countryside: capital investment and reducing tax payments.
It’s easier here to give a few examples. Oxen, indispensable tools for the peasants, were both expensive to purchase and, for many years, heavily taxed. By “pooling together” as a village to buy a few ox teams which became shared property, peasants could both reduce the initial investment and fiscal pressure per capita. It’s worth noting after the abolition of the animal tax the number of ox teams literally boomed in most villages and declined again when the tax was reintroduced.
Mills were another example of this culture: by splitting both capital and labor needed to build them, peasants could afford these expensive but indispensable facilities. Mills and their production weren’t taxed by the State and every village which could afford it had one. The same applies to such shared capital goods as wells (needed to irrigate the fields and water the animals), roads (needed to export and import goods more efficiently) and clearing and upkeep of common lands (used either as pasture or to raise money for common expenses).
While it has been estimated the average Byzantine farmer, after paying his taxes and clothing and feeding his family, had a considerable budget surplus left, the heavy capital and labor investments needed to build mills or roads were well outside his individual means. By pooling together the peasants were not only able to acquire these capital goods, but to have something left for purchasing sumptuory goods, more of which will be told in the section dealing with secondary production.
The estate in Byzantine lands was a peculiar institution. It had nothing of the “feudal” character it had in Europe because it was not land granted by the government in return for, say, military service, but private property. Excluding the Emperor himself the two largest landowning classes in the Empire were the aristocracy and the Church.
Ecclesiastic property belonging to dioceses or parishes started to decline in the late IX century, while land belonging to monasteries kept on increasing in both size and importance until, sometime in the late XII century, monasteries became the most important landowners in the Empire, with the Great Lavra (Megalé Laura) of Mount Athos, founded by St Athanasios in 963 thanks to the generous patronage of Emperor Nikephoros II Phokas (r. 963-969), quickly becoming the largest individual landowner.
Monasteries increased their holdings chiefly by two means: donations and purchases. Donations came from a variety of donors but starting with Nikephoros II it became common for Emperors to grant Imperial property to their favorite monasteries in perpetuity. Since it doesn’t appear this practice negatively affected the Imperial Exchequer, we can surmise these Imperial lands weren’t particularly productive. These “monastic” lands were famously well administered and highly productive: for example the largest irrigation works in the Empire were carried out by the Great Lavra according to the most up-to-date methods, most likely imported from Muslim lands.
Together with lands many monasteries acquired a long series of privileges. These included fiscal prerogatives on some villages (ie the village paid taxes to the monastery instead to the State)*****, tax exemptions (exkousseie), the right to hold “duty-free” markets on their feast days and so on.
Byzantine aristocracy was defined by its military character: there existed a number of aristocrats who served as judges and administrators, but the vast bulk of the landed aristocracy came from the army. However, differently from their Western European counterparts who served in return for land, Byzantine military nobles fully owned their own lands (and paid taxes on them: according to Byzantine law paying taxes on a property was sufficient proof of full ownership): in short they were landowners who also happened to be professional soldiers.
The aristocratic estate started (or at least is first attested) on the Eastern frontier, where the slow recovery process allowed the great military families to accumulate quite enormous possessions: the Phokades, the Maleinoi, the Argyroi, the Skleroi, the Doukai and the Melissenoi all built their fortunes on their military prowess and the large estates they were able to obtain in Anatolia.
Up to the late XI century the State enacted different pieces of legistation to avoid the accumulation of large landed possessions. While these laws were built on a quite sophisticated ideological apparatus (centered around protecting the “small guy” from the “big guy”), their scope was much more mundane, namely to avoid one or more families to build up such a large fortune as to be a threat to the Emperor: Byzantium, just like the Roman Empire from which she descended, had known a long series of military usurpers and, due to the peculiar nature of Late Roman ideology which remained alive and well in Byzantium up to the late XII century, the Imperial title was technically open to any military officer who could rally the army to his cause.
In this respect the Emperor had to thread very carefully: not only the military families had the moral high ground (after all if the Empire had survived and recovered it was because of their valor and sacrifices), but plots and coups were an ever present threat. Nikephoros II, despite being the most illustrious scion of the Phokades military family and one of the finest generals in Byzantine (and Medieval) history, enacted a number of reforms aimed at curbing the military families’ power and reducing their wealth, while at the same time favoring monastic estates. He didn’t last long, as a group of high ranking military officers killed him in his bedroom and the army later acclaimed John Tzimisces (r. 969-976), one of the murderers and an extremely successful general, as rightful Emperor.
During the XI century, a peculiar phenomenon started in the Byzantine countryside: the land-owning peasants started to lose ground to tenants (paroikoi), working lands “rented” from the great estate holders, be them monasteries or aristocratic families. On paper this is hard to explain: peasants paid a 1/24th of nomisma per modios yearly land tax on prime farming land, while the average rent was slightly higher if paid in coins and considerably higher if paid using the (well attested but far from universal) share-cropping method.
Yet, there’s a perfectly logical explanation for this: during the XI century taxation started to dramatically increase. Both the animal tax and the kapnikon were reintroduced, at much higher rates than before, and new taxes were introduced at an ever increasing pace. The territorial expansion of Byzantium didn’t come cheap and during the XI century sundry government expenses kept on escalating at a frantic pace.
Once a land owning peasant became a paroikos, however, he owed no more taxes to the State: his landlord had to fulfill fiscal obligations and the Emperors had one way of dealing with villages and peasants and quite another to deal with great monasteries and powerful military aristocrats. A few tenancy contracts have survived to this day and they are surprisingly “modern” in outlook: the paroikos was no mere serf but a tenant paying rent in almost modern sense. In short, as long as he fullfilled his contractual obligations he was protected by the law and could not be evicted if not with ample warning. The landlord had his obligations as well, both contractual and customary: among the latter was guaranteeing his paying tenants free access to capital goods such as ox teams and mills, a striking difference with Western Europe where tenants were charged by their own landlords for the use of such capital goods. Apparently both sides kept their side of the bargain more often than not, as contracts, at least in the form we know of, were mutually beneficial.
Treaties and documents have survived showing the keen interest many great landowners had in improving productivity in their lands. Seeds were selected in almost “scientific” fashion, animal breeds were improved by careful crossbreeding and importing stocks from faraway regions and beekeeping became something between an art and a science. Land improvements were usually carried out in “split-share” fashion, the landlord providing capital and the tenants labor. The number of working days tenants had to supply in this fashion was written in their contracts and usually varied between 12 and 24 per year, a much lighter workload than in Western Europe.
Hence it’s no mystery Byzantine agriculture had extremely high yields for a pre-Industrial economy and the Empire could export large quantities of agricultural commodities to Western Europe, the Black Sea region, the Caucasus, Syria, Palestine and even Egypt, one of the most fertile lands in the Ancient World.
Despite the crisis which followed the fall of Constantinople proper during the Fourth Crusade (1204), it appears standards of living in the countryside kept on increasing until 1340-1350, at least outside war zones. Where Greek rulers resisted Western invaders the old customs remained in place and it appears Latin rulers had no interest in importing the institutions prevalent in their lands, contenting themselves with replacing the Empire as tax collectors. Worth noting is John III Doukas-Vatatzes****** made a strenuous and apparently highly successful effort to increase agricultural production in his lands by overhauling taxation in more rational and fairer fashion.
The mid XIV century is usually seen as the point were Byzantium’s fortune changed radically for worse, dooming the Empire to disappear in the span of a century. There were two main factors for this: the Great Civil War of 1341-1354 and the Black Death.
The Palaiologoi emerged victorious from the Civil War but the realm they reigned upon had been drained of its very lifeblood by taxation, warfare and epidemics. To make matters worse, the Ottoman Turks had gained a solid foothold in Europe, having been called in as mercenaries by the warring factions. Byzantium had no more of the human resources which allowed her to recover after the Great Crisis of the VII-VIII century.
The effects on the countryside were absolutely devastating. Already in 1420 Venetian merchants were lamenting they had a very hard time finding trade goods in Morea, a region which until a few decades earlier had supplied them with large quantities of grains, dried fruits, plant dyes and raw silk. Yields dropped off precipitously almost everywhere, following human losses due to the plague and war, the disappearance of capital and conditions of overall insecurity. It appears monastic estates managed to weather the decline better than the rest of the countryside, but they were affected as well. One defining feature of the countryside in this period of rapid decline is the appearance of large numbers of towers and small, simple fortifications: these were built both by landowners and free peasants and served as a place of refuge and to store crops. This is a strong signal: the Emperor was not able anymore to guarantee peace in his domains. Without peace, with taxation becoming even more predatory and with legislation in chaos, it was only obvious the Empire had a short time to live.
Deprived of her own lifeblood, Byzantium finally died when Mohammed II’s guns demolished the Theodosian Walls in 1453 but the ancient city still has much to tell us…
*John Kantakouzenos reigned as John VI together with John V Palaiologos, a minor, between 1347-1354. His forced retirement marked the end of the Great Civil War.
**one modios = 889m2, or slightly less than 1/10 of hectare
*** the nomisma (plural nomismata) was the standard Byzantine gold coin. It will be covered in depth in the future.
****I personally suspect this lack of information is more due to the lack of studies than to proper lack of documentation and archeological findings. For decades it was believed Imperial estates disappeared in the VII-VIII centuries, broken up to provide small “fiefs” for soldiers. Recent historiography has completely changed this view.
*****This peculiar institutions was called pronoia and for decades it was believed to be one and the same as Western feudalism since a number of laymen benefited from it as well. Recent historiography, however, has proven the pronoia was usually temporary in its nature, being used by the Empire as a quick way to repay creditors by giving them tax revenues from a given area for a number of years. Monasteries, however, appear to have been granted pronoia in perpetuity.
******(r. 1221-1254), Emperor of Nicaea, a highly successful and widely underestimated leader. He managed to both expel the Latins from Anatolia and drive the Seljuk Turks from the whole Meander Valley. In 1246 he defeated the Bulgarians and drove them from Macedonia, opening the door for the Byzantine retaking of Constantinople in 1261.