Byzantine Historiography: Economic Lessons

In 1938, Solomon Katz published an article “Some Aspects of Economic Life in the Byzantine Empire” in the Pacific Historical Review detailing the general life of Byzantine commoners. This sparked the economistic interpretations of the Byzantine Empire that would hold much sway in the middle-twentieth century.

Probably influenced by the Great Depression and New Deal, Katz relates how the common people suffered under the tightening and centralization of Byzantine bureaucracy, which tied the commoners to the land and ended the free-peasant system.[1]  While Gibbon had sternly criticized the oppressive Byzantine emperors, Katz offers an economic analysis for why the Byzantine Administration would take the course of action it took.  The Byzantine nobility, being strangled by a centralizing administration from Constantinople and military defeats, sought to maintain what power and wealth they had by preventing the free flow of labor (free peasants) which would only further cripple their power.[2]  Katz sees the ongoing struggle between the nobility and the emperor, with the peasantry being caught in the middle, as an ongoing power struggle between state monopolistic interests (the emperor) with the ambitions of the nobility.[3]  To counter ongoing power struggles and slow decline, the Byzantines made concessions with the Italians, which backfired and further sapped Byzantine economic strength and put many Byzantines out of business.[4]

            Peter Charanis, in his article, “Factors in the Decline of the Byzantine Empire” (1953), states that by the end of the tenth century, the Byzantine Empire was the most powerful state in the Christian and Muslim world.[5]  However, the Theme System[6] that was so important in bringing Byzantium to its height of power eventually fell into decay through a myriad of social, political, and ecclesiastical factors.[7]  After the Byzantine disaster at the Battle of Manzikert (1071 C.E.), the traditional agrarian heartlands were lost to the Seljuk Turks, and the control of the central administration over the economy was weakened.  Charanis concludes that these losses forced the Byzantines to relax economic regulations to make up for the shortfalls, inviting foreign merchants into their quarters, who eventually displaced the formerly protected urban guilds, which resulted in urban economic decay.[8]  Agrarian decline eventually resulted in urban economic decline, and the total economic decline of the empire was completed with the loss of Constantinople in the Fourth Crusade.  In response, the Byzantines relaxed virtually all restrictions and controls on their economy and opened themselves up to the Italians, who, Charanis suggests, exploited the Byzantine economy to the detriment of the empire.[9]  Italian and other foreign merchants then swooped into the lucrative Byzantine markets, and effectively displaced any form of a domestic merchant class.

            John Teall’s “The Grain Supply of the Byzantine Empire,” (1959) takes an alternative approach to the institutional focus of economic history (Katz and Charanis) and focuses on the geography and environment of the Byzantine Empire instead.[10]  Teall believes part of the great production of agriculture in the Byzantine economy was the result of Byzantine neighbors not being able to supply, through trade, sufficient levels of grains to meet Byzantine demands.[11]  This leads to increases in agrarian production and trade missions, as, naturally, people need to eat and merchants need to sell their goods to willing partners for a healthy economy to function.[12]  Summing up his study of the supply of Byzantine grain production, Teall states that the Byzantine economy was able to sufficiently supply grains to a growing population and military[13] in part because of its geographic position and temperate environment.  For Teall, the Byzantine economy functions in tandem with its environment and the needs of its people.  This view is a very market-oriented understanding of the relationships between goods, services, supply, demand, and market power.

              Written some 40 years later, Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs, and Steel (1997) provides a similar understanding of the might and power of the Roman (Byzantine) economy.  The Byzantines came to control the “Fertile Crescent” and the vast trade routes uniting Europe to Asia. This region was rich in domesticable plants and animals and, being on the crossroads of the routes linking India and China to Europe, was also cultivating crops that had come as far away as China and Central Asia.[14]  From Diamond’s geographical perspective, the domesticable plans and animals were the key drivers in technological and political development, which the Byzantines merely inherited.[15]  Geographic luck, rather than ingenuity, benefitted the Byzantine Empire.

            The interest in economic histories as the next phase of Byzantine history (not including the later addition of Diamond) is almost certainly related to the socio-economic changes of the 1930s through 1950s.  As mentioned, Katz’s article appears right after the Great Depression and details the ongoing power struggles of the central administration, landowning nobility, and the hardships the common Byzantine people suffered while caught in this battle.  Charanis is writing in 1953, a decade after the Bretton Woods Conference (1943) and the formation of GATT (General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade) which was promoting the dissolution of high barriers and other state controls over industries to promote greater free trade, two things that Charanis sees as having negative ramifications on the decline and fall of the Byzantine Empire.  Charanis even takes a shot an historians and economists who have said that the reason for the Byzantine’s economic fall was because they refused to open themselves to international markets.[16]  As the post-war global economy is moving toward integration and open markets, Charanis sees a similar pattern of occurring in the Byzantine Empire which begins before the “Decline and Fall” of the empire.

            Teall’s article is written in 1959 after the shift from institutional driven economics to a more integrated economy after the Great Depression and Bretton Woods.  Teall’s work, while having interest in geography and the environment, is also highly interested in analyzing how the Byzantine economy met the high demand (“crisis”) for bread.[17]  In doing so, Teall plots out how the Byzantine economy essentially became a trade and market-focused economy to meet the substantial demands of its people without inciting hunger and riots.  The interwar and postwar economic histories seem to have an immediate relationship with the ongoing economic realities of their own times, as did the Enlightenment historians. It is readily visible that the economic histories of the Byzantines also serve as commentaries on contemporary economic situations.

[1] Solomon Katz, “Some Aspects of Economic Life in the Byzantine Empire,” Pacific Historical Review 7, no. 1 (March, 1938): 31-32.

[2] Ibid., 32-33.

[3] Ibid., 33-34.

[4] Ibid., 38-39.

[5] Peter Charanis, “Factors in the Decline of the Byzantine Empire,” Journal of Economic History 13, no. 4 (Autumn, 1953): 414.

[6] The Theme System was an administrative and economic system developed by the Byzantine Empire.  It allotted sections of land in the empire to have greater local autonomy that boosted economic productivity and military defense capabilities than a large bureaucracy.  After several centuries however, the system was never reformed and become obsolete.

[7] Ibid., 417-420.

[8] Ibid., 421-424.

[9] Ibid., 423-424.

[10] John Teall, “The Grain Supply in the Byzantine Empire, 330-1025,” Dumbarton Oaks Papers, Vol. 13 (1959): 117.

[11] Ibid., 119.

[12] Ibid., 119-120.

[13] Ibid., 131.

[14] Jared Diamond, Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fate of Human Societies (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1999), 125-126, 141, 185-186.

[15] Ibid., 88-92.

[16] Charanis, “Factors in the Decline of the Byzantine Empire,” 423-424.

[17] Teall, 89-91.


Hesiod, Paul Krause in real life, is the editor of VoegelinView and a writer on art, culture, literature, politics, and religion for numerous journals, magazines, and newspapers. He is the author of The Odyssey of Love and the Politics of Plato, and a contributor to the College Lecture Today and the forthcoming book Diseases, Disasters, and Political Theory. He holds master’s degrees in philosophy and theology (biblical & religious studies) from the University of Buckingham and Yale, and a bachelor’s degree in economics, history, and philosophy from Baldwin Wallace University.


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