Alan M. Stahl

title.none: Laiou and Morrisson, The Byzantine Economy ( Alan M. Stahl)

identifier.other: baj9928.0810.006 08.10.06

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Alan M. Stahl, Princeton University,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 2008

identifier.citation: Laiou, Angeliki E. and Cecile Morrisson. The Byzantine Economy. Cambridge Medieval Textbooks. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007. Pp. xi, i270. ISBN: $32.99 9780521615020.

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 08.10.06

Laiou, Angeliki E. and Cecile Morrisson. The Byzantine Economy. Cambridge Medieval Textbooks. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007. Pp. xi, i270. ISBN: $32.99 9780521615020.

Reviewed by:

Alan M. Stahl
Princeton University

The relatively few scholars in the past who considered the economy of the Byzantine Empire with care have generally either followed the biases of narrative and official state sources in maintaining that the economy was dominated by great landholders with the state interested mainly in fiscal revenues from agriculture, or the picture presented in the surviving sources in Italian archives which treat Byzantium as essentially a passive intermediary between Arab and Italian merchants. In either case, most such accounts have skipped over variations within the millennium of Byzantine history and its geographic spread in Europe and Asia in the interests of trying to form a comprehensive picture out of limited source material.

In recent decades, scholars have brought to bear close readings of such sources as saints' lives, legal records and monastic charters, and evidence from such disciplines as archaeology, numismatics and sigillography to achieve a much more nuanced and dynamic picture of the Byzantine economy. In 2002, much of this material was brought together in the monumental, three-volume The Economic History of Byzantium from the Seventh through the Fifteenth Century (EHB), under the editorial direction of Angeliki Laiou, co-author of the book under review here. In an act of unprecedented scholarly generosity, its publisher Dumbarton Oaks, has put the entire contents of this work online without fee at

In the current volume, Laiou has joined with Cécile Morrisson, known best as a numismatist and monetary historian, to produce a work that covers much of the same ground as the EHB, but with the primary goal of presenting its new scholarship and syntheses to a less specialized audience. The publication of this book in the Cambridge Medieval Textbooks series and its rigorously clear presentation of research and explication of technical arguments signal its intended audience as the undergraduate student and the scholar of other areas of history (especially, perhaps, medieval Europe).

The authors of The Byzantine Economy, however, are not content to organize and summarize the data in EHB; they have a distinct and fully argued point of view of the nature of the Byzantine economy and an integrated overview of the progression of Byzantine economic history from the Justinianic period to the Fall of Constantinople. In the ongoing debate between those historians who view the Byzantine economy as primarily agricultural and driven chiefly by fiscal concerns and those who see one in which manufacturing and trade played a strong role and market forces were dominant, Laiou and Morrisson ally themselves strongly with the latter group, while giving a fair summary and bibliography of the arguments on the other side.

After a survey of the natural and human resources, the authors divide their overview of the trajectory of the Byzantine economy into four periods: Late Antiquity (sixth to early eighth centuries), a period of restructuring (early eighth to tenth centuries), a period of accelerated growth (eleventh and twelfth centuries), and a late medieval period of disaggregation (thirteenth to fifteenth centuries). Morrisson was primarily responsible for the discussion of the first two periods, and Laiou for the later two. For each period, they review systematically the evidence for demographic trends, primary production (chiefly agricultural), secondary production (textile, ceramics), urban economy, exchange, monetary developments, and the role of the state in economic activity and revenue.

The economy of the East in the fifth and early sixth century is characterized as a much stronger continuation of the prosperity of the Roman Empire than that of the West, with significantly less disruption of population, landholding patterns, industrial production, and urban life. Major change came in the mid-sixth century, when plague, earthquakes and warfare sapped the strength of the surviving antique economy and led to a sharp demographic decline, accompanied by failure in all sectors of the economy.

In the eighth through tenth centuries, Byzantium went through a series of transformations. Urban settlement shifted from large cities with high levels of industrial production and consumption of imports to one characterized by smaller, usually fortified settlements with more dependence on their own hinterlands. In this period, the state developed into an active force for the economic integration of the Empire, providing support for the domestic economy and protection against losses through foreign trade, while constructing defenses to protect urban settlements (the difference the authors see between the fortification of Byzantine towns and the contemporaneous incastellamento of the West is that the former was part of a coordinated, state-supported program). Under these protections specialized industries developed, most notably the silk industry, that would provide products eagerly sought by consumers outside the Empire.

The eleventh and twelfth centuries were periods of accelerated growth in the demographic and economic spheres. Rural production was characterized by the clearing of marginal lands, the growth of great estates cultivated by tenant farmers, and specialization in such commercial crops as the grape and the olive. Silk production increased. New systems of credit developed to allow the accumulation of capital for major ventures. Two developments, however, threatened the prosperity of the age. The gold coinage that had provided a steady foundation for the economy since the days of Constantine the Great was debased in the course of the eleventh century; the reforms of Alexius Komnenos at the end of the century restored some confidence to the monetary sphere, but additional debasements in the course of the twelfth century sapped its power. The greatest threat to the Byzantine economy came from the growing reliance for military production on Italian merchant powers, who insisted on trade privileges that would eventually give them dominance over its internal as well as external commercial life.

Byzantine attempts to control the Italian exploitation of its commerce served as the background to the events of 1204, which led not only to the dismemberment of the state but to the disaggregation and eventual disintegration of the Byzantine economy. By the 1340s, the restored state abandoned virtually any role in the economy and totally ceded the exploitation of remaining resources to Western powers. The Fall of Constantinople in 1453 is viewed as the political and military postscript to an economy that had ceased to function a century earlier.

If there is one area in which the book has limitations that might be regretted, it is the choice to discuss economic phenomena in terms of politically defined regions. This situation is evident first in those areas lost to the initial Arab expansion and then regained in the tenth century and then becomes increasingly problematic in the case of the areas lost in the wake of the Fourth Crusade of 1204, some of which were regained to Byzantium, but others including Crete, Cyprus and much of the Balkans, remained politically independent (or as colonies of Western powers) though not necessarily sundered from the Byzantine economic sphere. The authors are fully aware of this issue and deal with it as best they can, and they cite frequently the works of such scholars as David Jacoby who treat the entire pre-1204 Empire as a single entity in investigating the economy of the late medieval Eastern Mediterranean.

The arc of Byzantine economic development outlined in this book appears in many ways to parallel developments in medieval Europe, at least until the final period. This comparison is not unintentional or unremarked on the part of Laiou and Morrisson, who bring their book to a close with a chapter on "The Byzantine Economy as Exemplar," in which they compare models of the failure of Byzantium with those of the exceptionalism of Europe. If nothing else, the publication of the EHB and the current book bring to the attention of this reviewer the lack of such up-to-date and comprehensive resources dedicated to the medieval West that might allow a systematic comparison of the economic history of the two areas.