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The Byzantine Economy

Author(s):Laiou, Angeliki E.
Morrisson, Cécile M
Reviewer(s):Gregory, Timothy E.

Published by EH.NET (October 2008)

Angeliki E. Laiou and C?cile Morrisson, The Byzantine Economy. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008. xii + 270 pp. $33 (paperback), ISBN: 978-0-521-61502-0.

Reviewed for EH.NET by Timothy E. Gregory, Department of History, Ohio State University.

As the authors point out, until recently the economy of the Byzantine Empire has not been the subject of many detailed studies. The reasons for this are many, including the continued bias against Byzantium even in historical circles and the perception that the economy of the empire was dominated by the heavy hand of an autocratic state and that its study has little to teach us. This small and quite readable book is likely to change all such scholarly assumptions. It is based squarely on the massive and detailed three-volume The Economic History of Byzantium from the Seventh through the Fifteenth Century, edited by Laiou and published in 2002, and its articles, many of which present completely new analyses of crucial facets of the Byzantine economy and revise many conclusions found in standard textbooks. The present book, of course, is much smaller in scale, but it makes up for that by a more concise focus and a treatment that is accessible to readers, from beginning students to scholars interested in the economy of the medieval West or the Islamic East.

The Byzantine Economy differs from most extant studies of Byzantium by insisting that modern economic theories and studies are relevant for Byzantium and by frequently making seamless use of archaeological and archival sources, as well as the more commonly utilized literary and numismatic material. The literary sources, they reasonably insist, are highly biased by the focus of their authors on the central government, a bias that had led most scholars to the conclusion that the state was the dominant element in the Byzantine economy, which emperors and administrators affected without any real economic interest or knowledge. Laiou and Morrisson do not, of course, deny the importance of government action, especially the successive fiscal institutions and policies over the thousand-year history of the empire. Rather, they argue throughout that, on the one hand, Byzantine statesmen frequently made decisions based on economic considerations, and, on the other, that political and non-economic factors (frequently from outside the empire itself) not uncommonly played crucial roles in the development of the Byzantine economy.

The book is arranged chronologically and it begins with a helpful consideration of the ?natural and human? resources available to the empire. Treatment of late antiquity (sixth-early eighth centuries) avoids what would otherwise be a necessarily long discussion of the situation in the third-fifth centuries, and analysis essentially begins in the period of Justinian. There is little new here and it is clear that the authors regard the period as a continuation of the ancient economy that forms merely an introduction to the economy of the seventh century and beyond. The Byzantine economy per se came into existence as a result of devastating depopulation in the aftermath of the plague of 542 and significant climate change. The labor shortage led to political and economic fragmentation, and a complete reorganization of the economic underpinning of the state. The loss of areas that had provided much of the raw materials of the empire caused severe contraction of manufacturing and a diminution of the money supply. Nonetheless, the meager sources suggest that, even in this period, trade continued and the economy was much more fully developed than has previously been thought. The latter part of the eighth century witnessed significant changes in the military power of the state and the beginning of a slow growth of the Byzantine economy and its gradual monetarization as well as the revival of urban life. Constantinople was the main economic center, and it was an industrial and trading power whose merchants engaged in long distance trade throughout the Mediterranean, Europe, and the Near East. Key in this revival was the state, its fiscal policies, and a complex economic ideology based on ideas of justice in interchange and possession of property.

By the eleventh century Byzantium reached its economic height and by the twelfth century Byzantine cities had developed some of the characteristics that could be seen in the contemporary West. At the same time, and for some of the same reasons, the Byzantine aristocracy had come to challenge the exclusive right to political and economic power that had been maintained by the state (i.e., by the emperor and the imperial bureaucracy). The authors discuss this struggle, that has long interested historians, but in the end they conclude that the victory of the aristocracy did not inevitably cause economic problems for the state or for the peasants. In addition, western (mainly Italian) merchants came to control greater and greater portions of long-distance trade, in part because of tax concessions given them by the Byzantine state and because of their increasing access to naval power. Throughout the twelfth century the Byzantine economy flourished and medium- and large-scale production (both agricultural and industrial) served local, regional, and ?international? markets. The cities, as well as the countryside and marginal lands, played important roles in this economy, contradicting the old theory that middle Byzantine cities were ?parasitic? in nature. The authors conclude that Byzantine merchants played a decreasing role in this trade. In the view of the authors, however, this was not an irreversible situation, but one that was affected negatively by the growth of western military power in the form of the Crusades and, ultimately, the conquest of Constantinople in 1204.

After that date and even after the recovery of Constantinople in 1261 the economy remained fragmented and the loss of areas with important resources, such as mines in Asia Minor and the Balkans, had important negative results. Nonetheless, the authors maintain that the Byzantine economy remained ?articulated? and population growth continued until the middle of the fourteenth century, when the combination of the Black Plague and the loss of most remaining territory to the Ottomans essentially put an end to anything resembling a unified Byzantine economy.

In a concluding chapter the authors make general observations about the Byzantine economy and discuss the value of comparing it specifically with the economy of the medieval West. They conclude that contemporary research shows the Byzantine economy, in virtually all periods, to have been sophisticated and flexible, able to respond to challenges and to change in the face of historical conditions. In most periods the state, in the person of the emperor and a large and well-trained bureaucracy, was the most important factor in the economy, but it was by no means the only one, and political, ideological, and fiscal considerations, as well as forces outside the empire, played significant roles. They note that recent research, in both East and West, has pointed to the importance of the linkage between production and distribution and has seen greater similarities than differences in the two economies. Finally, they strongly suggest that it is not reasonable to ?blame? Byzantium because it did not develop western-style capitalism, something that did not come about in the West until the eighteenth century. They conclude that Byzantium had a ?flexible and dynamic economy, which was successful in terms of growth but also provided some important needs of the people … that is, all the factors which today are recognized as constituting true economic development? (p. 247)

This book is a convenient, reasonably well written and carefully documented handbook that should be on the shelves of anyone interested in Byzantium or the medieval economy.

Timothy Gregory is Professor of History and Anthropology and Director of the Ohio State University Excavations at Isthmia; he is author of books such as Isthmia, Volume V, The Hexamilion and the Fortress (Princeton 1993) and A History of Byzantium (Oxford 2006). He has pioneered in the teaching of online courses in Classical Archaeology and Byzantine History.

Subject(s):Economywide Country Studies and Comparative History
Geographic Area(s):Europe
Time Period(s):Medieval