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13.06.29, Morrisson, ed., Trade and Markets in Byzantium

13.06.29, Morrisson, ed., Trade and Markets in Byzantium

One can only rejoice at the appearance of a new book on Byzantine trade and markets. In spite of the increased interest in the subject and the great advances made, especially in the last fifteen years or so, our knowledge remains limited and the uncertainties great. A collection of essays originating in a conference held at Dumbarton Oaks in May 2008, Trade and Markets in Byzantium includes an introduction by the editor, C. Morrisson, a conclusion by economist P. Temin and sixteen chapters arranged in four parts: Late Antiquity and the Early Middle Ages (4 chs.); The Middle and Late Byzantine Periods (4 chs.); The West and East: Local Exchanges in Neighboring Worlds (5 chs.); Markets and the Marketplace (3 chs.).

The chapters vary significantly in terms of approach, some being mainly concerned with historiography or methodology (J.-M. Carrié; M. McCormick) and others offering overviews of relatively large topics such as "Commerce and Exchange in the seventh and eighth centuries." (J. Haldon). Many chapters, finally, provide more focused analysis, such as the ones dedicated to the towns of Amorium (C. Lightfoot) and Comacchio (S. Gelichi). Most authors use extensively archaeological as well as textual evidence with the exception of R. Dorin and A. Binggeli whose information mainly comes from written sources.

No one could demand full coverage of the vast subject at hand from a relatively short collection of essays. Understandably many topics remain untreated, especially as we move into the middle and late Byzantine periods. In what follows, I would like to focus on the areas in which the book makes its most significant contributions; I will end with some thoughts on desiderata of future research.

One of the most interesting issues discussed in the book regards the ways in which archaeological finds, especially amphorae and shipwrecks, may be used to provide insight into trade as well as the difficulties of interpreting this data. This is the main topic of M. McCormick's chapter ("Movements and Markets in the First Millennium. Information, Containers, and Shipwrecks"), but is also discussed in those by D. Pieri and C. Lightfoot and commented upon in the editor's introduction and in P. Temin's concluding chapter. In the past few decades, our knowledge of amphorae has improved dramatically and the body of known shipwrecks has increased greatly and so has our understanding of trade, especially in Late Antiquity. As complexity has grown so have the uncertainties surrounding the interpretation of the evidence: When and to what extent did barrels replace amphorae? Did the numbers of the ships decline as fast as the population did? Were the sinking rates the same across the centuries? These are only some of the fundamental questions that are largely impossible to answer at present rendering our interpretation of the evidence quite difficult.

M. McCormick also underlines the value of indirect or implicit information found in late antique and early medieval texts. While certainly not of the same promise as archaeology, these sources can yield precious insights into the economy, showing, in particular, that at least elite authors assumed the existence and workings of markets.

Many chapters deal with the transitional period of Byzantium and the Mediterranean, from the sixth to the eighth century, providing a more precise periodization of the changes that took place, revealing the existence of great regional variation, and identifying areas of resilience. J. Haldon's synthesis on this period brings our knowledge up to date emphasizing the continuity of settlement and elite demand in provincial towns and of interregional exchange, even if this was at a greatly reduced scale. The perseverance of the notion of market in this period is implicit in M. McCormick's chapter. L. Lavan establishes that no shop construction encroached upon the main avenues or public space of important cities in the East until the later sixth century. D. Pieri demonstrates the vitality of eastern wine trade in the West up until the early seventh century. The very important work that has been carried out at Amorium, presented by C. Lightfoot, has brought to light an exceptional--or not-so-exceptional?--case of continuity or even growth of settlement, economic activity and coin circulation. Amorium's location in the interior of Asia Minor was certainly important in this respect but so was state intervention. Using previously untapped textual evidence, A. Binggeli reveals the existence of a network of fairs in early Islamic Syria and traces the continuities or transformations that took place since the 6th century. While many of the fairs perpetuated Byzantine ones, new were also created on the new communication axis of the Caliphate, thus replacing those abandoned on the insecure northern Syrian frontier zone and the now less active coast. The transition to the Middle Ages is also the subject of S. Gelichi's chapter on Comacchio on the Adriatic Sea showing that long-distance trade continued in spite of contraction and that the "Dark Ages" were a creative period during which new foci of economic activity were founded replacing the declining ancient cities.

The great potential of archaeology to advance our understanding of trade is brilliantly demonstrated in three chapters focusing on the production and commercialization of ceramics and the circulation of coinage. A. Walmsley's and S. Redford's chapters, dealing with local and regional trade in Syria-Palestine (sixth–eighth centuries) and Antioch and Cilicia (twelfth–thirtheenth centuries), respectively, and the contribution of D. Papanikola-Bakirtzi, covering all ranges of trade in the middle and late empire, show that extremely valuable information can be obtained from this type of sources not only on trade but also on the economy and society at large. The advances of research on Byzantine glazed wares, presented by D. Papanikola-Bakirtzi, have already been used to significant effect in A. Laiou and C. Morrisson, The Byzantine economy (Cambridge, 2007). The study of ceramics offers a most exciting prospective for the middle and late periods where so many gaps exist in our knowledge, in particular, of manufacture and local and regional trade. What has already been achieved is impressive enough nevertheless. It shows that Constantinople's early medieval domination of the production and trade of superior quality glazed wares ended towards the end of the eleventh century with the appearance of important manufacturing centers in provincial cities, especially Corinth. Apart from offering additional testimony to the growth of local economies, this evidence also reveals the existence of a mass of relatively affluent provincials aspiring to greater wealth and rank. All this is coherent with the increased assertiveness of cities in the twelfth century. The volume of production, seen in particular in the cargo of a twelfth-century shipwreck, implies the existence of people, presumably living in provincial cities, who had become truly rich thanks to manufacture and trade, something we have not been able to see until know in the written record. A dramatic change took place in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries in the manufacture and distribution of glazed wares. While production grew and spread to more localities, clearly reflecting widening prosperity, the aesthetic of the wares became more "popular" and their execution less meticulous. This is a phenomenon that needs explanation. Was this a question of taste, does it reflect changes within society or is it related to the penetration of foreign wares?

Significant contributions to our understanding of the middle and late Byzantine regional networks of Asia Minor and the southern Balkans are made by J. Koder and A. Laiou, respectively. J. Koder identifies two main zones in Asia Minor, the fertile West and the less fertile East, underlining that land productivity determined the radius of a town's supply area. A. Laiou distinguishes three main regions, Thrace-Bulgaria and Macedonia in the North, under the influence of Constantinople and Thessalonike respectively, and Greece-Peloponnese in the South, where no major city existed. She establishes the geographic limits of these regions, their products and the evolution of their economic activity and exchanges over time.

R. Dorin's, "Adriatic Trade Networks in the twelfth and early thirteenth centuries" offers a detailed examination of trade within the Adriatic Sea revealing the complexity of regional exchange and its relation to long-distance trade. This exceptionally rich study, made possible by the Venetian documentary evidence, may indeed serve as a model for the exploration of trade in other regions of the Mediterranean.

In its fourth part, the volume provides important syntheses on the markets and the marketplace. L. Lavan's "From polis to emporion? Retail and Regulation in the Late Antique City" brings together an impressive amount of data coming from numerous ancient cities to discuss the appearance and function of shops and marketplaces, arguing in particular for the increased prominence of shops in the fifth and sixth century East. C. Morrisson ("Weighing, Measuring, Paying. Exchanges in the Market and the Marketplace") provides a valuable account on the measures, equipment used, and practices followed to weigh and measure merchandise, as well as the regulation and taxation of transactions, from the fourth to the fifteenth centuries. Underlining the benefits of the unified system of weights and measures, from which the empire benefitted for a long time, she documents the fragmentation that followed 1204 in this sphere too. Covering the same time span, B. Pitarakis ("Daily Life at the Marketplace"), studies the material culture of everyday life in the marketplace, exploring the physical appearance of weights and measures as it can be reconstructed from a variety of sources.

As suggested, a lot still remains unknown or unclear with regard to Byzantine trade, from Antiquity to the late Middle Ages. An area where our knowledge is particularly deficient is that of the local and regional trade, as well of the marketplace, in middle and late Byzantium. In particular, we need to expand the volume and study of the ceramic and numismatic evidence from both the Balkans and Asia Minor. The textual evidence, Greek and especially Latin/Italian, still holds considerable promise in this respect. Some at least of these issues--Anatolian regional networks and cities, ceramic trade in the Balkans and Asia Minor--are going to be discussed in the upcoming Third International Sevgi Gönül Byzantine Studies Symposium dedicated, again, to Trade in Byzantium (Istanbul, 24–27 June 2013).