The Economy of Byzantium, State Intervention and Voluntary Exchange: Part Two-Industry

For part one of this series go here.

Byzantium inherited from the Late Eastern Roman Empire a diversified but far from efficient industrial system.

During Justinian’s reign (527-565) the Emperor tightly controlled the whole industrial sector*, including the mines.
The Imperial government had the monopoly in weapons and silk manufacturing, gold mining and the murex**, alum and salt trade. Professions were tightly regulated through the guild system, down to the smallest village: bakers, carpenters, fullers, blacksmiths, even undertakers had to belong to a guild in order to ply their trade.

The massive depopulation caused by the Plague and the devastation wrought by the Persian and Muslim Wars meant a complete collapse of the guild system outside of Constantinople. The Emperor still had the strength to collect taxes but lacked the means to enforce the cartelization of the economy outside his capital. Craftsmen started to operate without bothering to apply for guild membership: anybody with the skills (and in some cases, the capital) could take up any job they wished outside Constantinople proper. Sometimes in the early VIII century the guild system outside the capital was officially disbanded except in silk manufacturing (see below) and even weapon manufacturing started to drift away from tight State-control and became a mixed system, with both private entrepreneurs and State-controlled factories manufacturing weapons for the army and the navy.

One illustrious victim of this reduction in State intervention was the the Roman institution of panem aedium, distributions of free bread to the citizenry. Although limited to Constantinople, 21 large State-owned bakeries (pammegetheis) distributed 80000 bread rations per day in the VII century. It appears the institution started declining in the VIII century and was completely gone by the early XI century. The large State-owned bakeries were replaced by some 120 small, privately owned bakeries. It appears, however, the whole system of panem aedium had started declining outside of Constantinople in the late VI century already and disappeared there during the Persian Wars.

Silk manufacturing requires particular attention, as both our sources and archeological findings have allowed us to reconstruct it with reasonable precision.
During Justinian’s reign, the silkworm was introduced from China, apparently smuggled out by a group of monks sent on purpose under the guise of a diplomatic mission. Raising silkworms is a very labor intensive process. The worms themselves must be cared for almost continuously*** and they require a steady diet of freshly cut mulberry leaves. It appears moriculture and sericulture**** were always fully in private hands, with Peloponnese becoming a major center of production. Documents have survived showing us how incredibly wealthy the landlords grew thanks to the humble silkworm: around 880 the widow Danelis was reckoned to be one of the most influential persons in the Empire, having grown so rich and powerful thanks to sericulture.

The process of transforming cocoons into raw silk yarns was usually carried out in the same general area where the worms were raised. It was a very labor intensive process but it yielded high returns and, apparently, the women undertaking it were very well paid (partly because of the skills needed and partly to disincentive them from stealing silk).
What happened next is a good measure of both the widely variable quality of sources we have and an example of Byzantium’s stance on markets, always swinging wildly between laissez-faire (in the XVIII century meaning) and tight regulation.
A part of silk production was retained locally and worked into a cheap fabric called koukoularikon (with the bulk of the production going to Western Europe through Venice) and into another fabric called sidonia, higher quality but still deemed unfit for Imperial and aristocratic consumption. From our sources it appears this local industry (mostly centered in modern-day Greece) was completely unregulated.

One of the silk clothes introduced by Otto III in Charlemagne’s tomb. It was manufactured in Constantinople, in the Zeuxippos works.

However when silk was taken into the great manufacturing cities of Corinth, Thebes and Constantinople, things changed radically, as a complex and tightly cartelized organization was in place here. A guild called metaxopratai bought yarns from the producers, then sold it to another guild, the katartarioi, which dressed them. The metaxopratai bought back the dressed silk and sold it to yet another guild, the metaxarioi, which wove silk, dyed it and cut it. Dyed silk was then sold to tailors, foreign merchants and private customers by yet another guild, the vestiopratai.
It appears the silk clothes produced by the guilds in the great manufacturing centers were extremely high quality*****, as to justify the existence of such a complex organization, which contrasted sharply the unregulated nature of “local” silk industry.

Silk industry was very demand-driven: originally it only catered to a small number of customers (the Imperial court and a few foreign merchants) but very quickly (apparently sometime in the late VIII century already) demand started to grow at a very quick pace by pre-Industrial society standards, driven by generally improved economical conditions and literally boomed in the X century, only declining, albeit very rapidly, in the late XIV century.
Demand for highest quality silk (used by the Emperor and the wealthiest and most powerful aristocrats) increased dramatically, but demand for lower qualities literally skyrocketed, both for internal consumption and export. Demand increased so much the domestic supply of yarns could not keep up with demand , and Muslim traders made excellent profits by selling silk yarns to the metaxopratai.
The demand for lower qualities of silk cloth increased so much even the tightly regulated guilds had to “cave in” and increase production to meet demand for these goods. This obviously meant “opening up” guild membership to new traders and artisans who worked the lower quality clothes.

How was Byzantine industry financed? Apart from the most obvious method (capital accumulation through savings, Byzantium being a highly monetized economy as will be covered in the future), credit could be obtained in two different ways.
The first was through the argyropratai, the goldsmiths******. Besides working and trading precious metals they were officially authorized to lend money.
The second was through any private citizen with capital at disposal. Originally this method was legal as long as no interests were charged but soon evolved into a system called chreokononia, by which two or more parts agreed to to a venture, one providing capital and the other labor or two or more providing capital but one or more of them also providing labor. The partners shared profits and losses proportionately, except in maritime enterprises, which will be covered in the section dealing with trade. The chreokononia system was the originator of the Venetian system called colleganza (not surprising given that up to the Fourth Crusade Venice was formally part of Byzantium), which paved the way for the so called “European commercial revolution” of the XI century.

Mining was another extremely important sector of the Byzantine economy. Under Justinian’s reign Byzantium had an abundance of mining resources. The “crown jewels” were the great gold mines of the Balkans and Armenia. We know very little about the latter (apart from them being ferociously fought over during the Persian Wars) but we know the former were government property, being administered by a magistrate called Comes metallorum per Illyricum and, curiously enough, the local bishops. All other mines (copper, silver, iron, tin etc) were private property: owners usually paid their taxes by delivering a part of their production to the government.

Following the disasters of the VII century, a huge part of this production was lost but it appears Byzantine Emperors made strenuous efforts to regain control of these mining districts as soon as they felt strong enough: the Macedonian mines were retaken from the Slavs in IX century and the Armenian ones from the Arabs in the X. More mining areas were conquered by John Tzimisces and Basil II Bulgaroktonos from the Bulgarians between the late X and early XI century.
Of course these mines were progressively lost over time, with the great gold and silver mines of Novo Brdo falling in the hands of the Serbian kings. These great mines, largely manned by German miners, became the main financing means of the great Kingdom of Serbia.

Special mention deserves alum, which between the late XIII century and the mid XV century went through an authentic boom, being used to fix dyes to clothes and lend brilliance to colors. Byzantium had large alum deposits in the area of Nicaea but in 1275 Michael VIII Palaiologos granted these mines in perpetuity to the Genoese Zaccaria family, which made an enormous fortune in alum, a fortune of which Byzantium saw only the scraps.

The rest of Byzantium’s industry has started to be studied only recently, but archeological excavations have helped us in no small measure to reconstruct the pottery and glass industry.

It’s impossible to underestimate the importance of pottery for the modern historian: peculiar types of pottery (due to shape, material, glazing etc) may give precious hints to whence the pottery came and thus shed light upon ancient trade routes.
Pottery was the “container” of the Ancient Age, being used to transport commodities such as wine, olive oil, salted fish, dried fruit etc. It was also the main form of storage and high end pottery was highly sought after both as a luxury item and as a diplomatic gift.
As I already said in the previous installment, the “pauperization” of Byzantine economy in the late VI century is widely supported by the small quantity of relatively high end pottery originating from great “industrial” centers and the increasing quantity of peculiar “regional” pottery with very limited distribution, like the Byzantine “Glazed White Ware” and the Sicilian Ciabatta.
Starting with the IX century, we see a return in large scale, high quality pottery manufacturing, mainly originating from the great industrial cities of Constantinople, Corinth and Nicaea.
Of particular interest is one type of ceramic called “Polychrome Ware of Constantinople”. This was a very high end luxury item, rabidly expensive and whose production required extremely skilled workers: it was manufactured (in relatively small quantities) only in Constantinople herself and either Nicaea or Nicomedia*******.
This richly decorated ware apparently originated from a batch of polychrome ceramic goods bought for the personal use of the Emperor in Baghdad in the first half of the IX century. Byzantium quickly started manufacturing her own version and, apparently, the use of this ware spread down from the Emperor to the richest members of the society: archeological findings are mostly center in modern-day Instanbul, but shards found in Corinth, Cherson and even remote locations like Sparta and Crete hint these goods were in high demand by those who could afford the high price tag.

The famed X century Byzantine glass vessel from the Treasure of St Mark. It was taken to Venice after the sack of Constantinople in 1204

Byzantine glass industry was much larger than previously thought and, as the famous X century bowl kept at Venice in the treasure of San Marco shows, was capable of almost unbelievable quality. The glass industry manufactured luxury quality goods, ordinary household items, mosaic tesserae and simple charms.
Archeological findings hint at the fact glass ware consumption was “imitation driven”: the Emperor and the wealthiest aristocrats bought prohibitively expensive and exquisite glass ware which in turn created demand from less wealthy aristocrats and great merchants for slightly cheaper and less refined wares. This went down to the simple peasants living in the countryside: archeologists have discovered a surprisingly large quantity of glass charms, jewelry and shards once part of such household items as glasses, bowl etc in rural areas. As said in the previous installment, land-owning Byzantine peasants had enough not only to cloth and feed themselves but also to buy “luxury” goods and the industry was only too happy to oblige.
Other glass items produced in huge quantities by Byzantium were mosaic tesserae. These were highly sought after: even the Muslim caliphates, which had a first class glass industry of their own, imported large quantities of colored tesserae from Byzantium. Emperor Nikephoros II Phocas personally sent forty loads of tesserae to Caliph al-Hakim as a diplomatic gift. This gift was apparently extremely appreciated and the tesserae used to decorate the great mosque of Cordoba.
Ironically both chemical analysis and the discovery of a number of shipwrecks have showed a sizable part of the Byzantine glass industry depended on the import of glass cullet from Egypt and especially Syria. Cullet was apparently loaded as ballast in Muslim lands and sold for a good profit in Byzantium.

The Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem. The mosaics were made by Byzantine craftsmen employing Byzantine materials.

And next the next installment will concern itself with trade.

* Modern historiography prefers the term “Secondary Production” for Pre-Industrial societies. I have chosen to maintain the old convention for convenience.

** Murex was the purple dye whose use was officially restricted to the Emperor and a few selected members of his household and court. It was extracted from sea snails through a very labor intensive process which made it incredibly expensive.

***For example silkworm need to be kept warm while spinning their cocoon. In Lombardy (where a strong silk industry developed in the early stages of the Industrial Revolution) it was not uncommon for people to carry special pouches underneath their clothes during winter in which silkworm were kept warm thanks to bodily warmth.

****Moriculture is the cultivation of the mulberry tree while sericulture refers the breeding and raising of the silkworm itself.

*****Examples of these fine silk clothes have survived, the most famous of which are the clothes introduced by the half-Byzantine Otto III, Holy Roman Emperor (r. 996-1002) in the tomb of Charlemagne.

******In a curious parallel, during England’s Commonwealth and Restoration phases the banking system developed exactly along the same lines, with bankers evolving naturally from goldsmiths.

*******Archeologists and chemists still debate hotly about this issue. I am currently unaware of anything resembling a consensus being reached.


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