Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2013.05.43 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2013.05.43

Cécile Morrisson (ed.), Trade and Markets in Byzantium. Dumbarton Oaks Byzantine symposia and colloquia.   Washington, DC:  Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection, 2012.  Pp. ix, 459.  ISBN 9780884023777.  $85.00.  

Reviewed by Matt Gibbs, University of Winnipeg (

Table of contents

This collection, edited by Cécile Morrisson, is the fourth volume of the Dumbarton Oaks Byzantine Symposia and Colloquia to be published, and it is the first dedicated to the Byzantine economy. The volume contains an introduction and seventeen individual chapters by an array of well-known scholars of antiquity and the medieval period. The book is divided into four sections that are both broadly chronological and thematic.

Morrisson’s introduction sets out the aims of both the earlier symposium and the volume. It highlights the importance of trade as well as the areas of study in the Byzantine economy neglected by both archaeologists and historians. The symposium aims to combat this. The reasons behind the emphasis on trade and markets here as opposed to the Byzantine economy itself are made clear, as is the existence of a general consensus among the participants concerning the criteria for local, regional, and interregional exchanges as well as the regulation, control, and payments within market exchange. These themes govern the chapters.

The first section—Late Antiquity and the Early Middle Ages—begins with a contribution by Jean-Michel Carrié. He provides an overview of the current debate and an updated view of the late antique economy. He also examines the criteria necessary for a market economy, the movement of currency and information (15-16) and innovations in technology and management (17-19). While highlighting the significant level of monetization of the economy in the fourth century CE (22-23), Carrié also considers the functions of urban and rural environs, the networks of exchanges that existed therein, and their relationship in a market economy.

Dominique Pieri offers a survey of the manufacture, use, and circulation of amphorae in the eastern Mediterranean. He discusses the evolution of amphorae in the late Antique and Byzantine period and examines comparative data from the western Mediterranean, as well as issues concerning standardization, production, imitations and forgeries. Perhaps most interestingly, he considers the apparent decline of maritime trade during the Late Roman Empire and the early Middle Ages, and offers a brief examination of the agents involved (39-42). Pieri leaves the reader under no illusion about the limited contribution that amphorae can make to economic history, but he also suggests that the study of amphorae allows us to follow the stages of economic development and regression, noting where the emphasis of future research should lie (48-49).

Michael McCormick first examines the meaning of the term “market” in a variety of ways. He considers theory and its application to the Roman and post-Roman world before moving to economic behaviour, models, and crucially the transfer and use of information. He offers a clear and engaging study of the use of containers (specifically amphorae and barrels), their place in economic history, and the implications of specific types of containers for both markets and transport systems; this section also contains some interesting issues concerning the efficiency of containers, their sizes, and their use in export (60-77). Finally, McCormick considers the movement of goods using the evidence of, and from, shipwrecks, and concludes that market conditions can be seen between c. AD 350-1000, albeit in part indirectly, and markets and the informational networks therein “mattered throughout the first millennium” (97).

John F. Haldon discusses commerce and exchange in the seventh and eighth centuries. Beginning with a brief discussion of “demand”, he moves on to consider the ceramic, numismatic, sigillographic, and textual evidence, while making suggestions for material evidence (in this case Byzantine belt buckles) that should be studied further to illustrate the “movement across and within imperial territory” (118). A discussion of roads and transport follows, with examples from the Balkans and Asia Minor. Haldon notes that there was a high degree of localized differentiation, that patterns altered over relatively short cycles, and finally that subsistence or marginal economies typically exist at “key tipping points” (122); they have the ability, on one hand, to flourish in a wider economic network, but on the other, to revert to “localized and semi-autarkic” relationships when these tipping points are forced and their balance is disturbed (122).

The second section, entitled “The Middle and Late Byzantine Periods”, begins with Angeliki E. Laiou (who died in 2008) considering regional trade networks in the Balkans. Importantly, she states that “there is an institutional component to international trade that is absent from regional and interregional trade within the Byzantine Empire” (126). Discussing the movement of a variety of traded items, Laiou posits there were different forms of regional trade that were affected by centres of consumption, centres of exchange, and the level of regional monetization in the Balkans during the Middle and Late Byzantine periods.

In his study of regional networks in Asia Minor between the seventh-eleventh centuries, Johannes Koder presents a series of ideas concerning the size of settlements (149-51), their connections through road networks (152-55), and agrarian productivity (155-57) where he provides two examples of terrain variation. He provides several examples of settlements and the networks between them, from Mysia to Anazarbos, and ends with two suggestions: first, that the differences between western Asia Minor and the interior regions of central and eastern Asia Minor, and the demand therein for goods in medium- and long-distance trade should receive more attention; second, that the existing status quo be more vigorously tested.

Christopher Lightfoot examines the archaeological evidence for commercial enterprise at Amorium, in central Anatolia, between the seventh and eleventh centuries, arguing a dynamic environment of regional supply and demand existed in this region that was unaffected by the decline in long-distance trade or by the reliance on state support (177). Lightfoot points out that the evidence from Amorium may be exceptional, but that this is, in part, because of the state of archaeology generally in central Anatolia (182). He argues briefly but persuasively that, through both the extant architectural and material remnants, the role of Anatolia in the survival of the Byzantine Empire should be reassessed.

Demetra Papanikola-Bakirtzi investigates the trade and market characteristics of Byzantine glazed pottery between the tenth and fifteenth centuries (194-95). She considers a variety of tablewares, and treats in passing more elaborate material evidence produced at various sites (for instance, from Constantinople, Thessalonike, and Pergamon). The material evidence illustrates both interregional and international communication and reveals that the relationships built through these trade networks were not only “complex and multilateral” but also “intercultural” (216).

Sauro Gelichi’s chapter on local and regional exchanges in the Lower Po Valley during the eighth and ninth centuries introduces the third section of the volume “West and East: Local Exchanges in Neighboring Worlds”. Gelichi’s considers the scale of the northern Italian economy using a substantial range of archaeological evidence. Gelichi suggests that medium- and long-distance trade in this area continued (229-32), and proposes that these economic aspects demonstrate that Mediterranean trade did not completely cease, but developed in a variety of ways. The success of these aspects, linked inherently to the emerging centres in the region, led to the emergence and eventual consolidation of Venice.

Rowan Dorin examines trade networks in the Adriatic during the twelfth and early thirteenth centuries. These were established in the eighth and ninth centuries and, he argues, they flourished and became increasingly sophisticated and interconnected. Using textual evidence, Dorin paints a convincing picture of a region (see particularly 270-77) that becomes ever more commercially integrated in intra-Adriatic networks despite international upheaval and increasing control of commodity exchange from northern Italy.

André Binggeli, in examining annual fairs, associated networks and trade routes in Syria between the sixth and tenth centuries, presents literary evidence that illuminates a network of annual fairs that ranged from northern Syria to Palestine, and from Upper Mesopotamia to the Mediterranean. Although the evidence is scarce, the material that Binggeli presents attests not only to the continuation of late antique networks (287-89) for regional and interregional trade (289-95), but shows that they continued, expanded, and declined following the shift of power in the Islamic Empire (296).

Scott Redford examines trade and the economy in Antioch and Cilicia in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, and suggests that “the founding of the principality of Antioch on the model of the Byzantine duchy of Antioch led to a geographical, administrative, and economic imbalance” (297). Comparing the ceramic evidence taken from Port Saint Symeon and Kinet to other centres of production, Redford concludes that there were several networks in operation in the eastern Mediterranean (305-7); he argues persuasively for a sliding scale of prices based on skill and length of production, at the local and Mediterranean-wide level.

Alan Walmsley considers regional exchange and the role of the shop in Syria-Palestine during the Byzantine and Early- Islamic periods. The first section examines pottery, coins, and their place in regional trade networks. The author suggests that these networks were the precursors of a long-distance trade that spread far beyond anything that had existed before. In the second, he considers the place of the shop in local commerce and in society generally (321-24). Finally, using a storekeeper’s financial records (326-39), Walmsley convincingly argues that account-keeping in Arabic had become common practice in the region, and—more broadly—that this was one part of a process by which eastern Christianity adopted Arabic as its own, building “a new identity that was both Arab and Christian” (329-30). This reflects not only a change an economic process, but also a social transformation.

The final section of the volume—Markets and the Marketplace—begins with Luke Lavan’s study of retail and regulation. Through an analysis of archaeological, architectural, epigraphic, literary, and pictorial evidence, Lavan considers stalls and shops in several major communities of the late antique period, and suggests that although there was “overwhelming continuity with the Roman past”, newly-built shops reveal an expansion of these types of premises in city centres (361). He concludes that this commercialization “did not cause urban decay or a loss of monumentality” and that the process, at least in respect to the communities discussed, occurred during the fifth and sixth centuries AD. He states that the locations of market stalls were still regulated, specialized market buildings were constructed for particular traders, and that the amenity of porticoes was not disrupted.

Cécile Morrisson discusses the institutions of trade, and the transaction costs of Byzantine trade, across the early, middle, and late Byzantine periods. Considering systems of weighing, measuring, and payment through material and textual evidence, she suggests that regulating these exchanges contributed to the functioning of the market. In conclusion, Morrisson argues that markets in Byzantium benefited from a unified system of control of paying and weighing, and that the influences of this system were still felt later (397).

Brigitte Pitarakis examines the evidence for daily exchanges in the marketplace through pictorial evidence—the Megalopsychia Hunt Mosaic, the Procession of the Hodegetria in Constantinople in the narthex of the Blachernitissa at Arta, and the Protaton church on Mount Athos—and suggests that the depictions there compare favourably with archaeological evidence (407). An analysis of weighing instruments reveals little change in their form (407-10), and measures for liquids, despite retaining their shape, had different standards (412-16). Finally Pitarakis convincingly argues that the decoration of and inscriptions on weighing instruments (namely religious motifs, imperial imagery, invocations), when taken alongside the evidence for the treatment and punishments of “swindlers”, were believed to protect the transactions made (416-26).

Peter Temin’s summary illustrates the methods and terminology used by an economist considering markets (429-33), and describes how to test the chapters of the volume against these methods (433-35). Temin offers a critique of the volume, and its preceding conference, before providing suggestions for areas of the Byzantine economy and trade for future study (435-36).

In all, the individual chapters make up a volume of exceptional scholarship. Any scholar working on the late Roman or Byzantine economy, trade, or markets and trade networks in these periods will find several chapters here of interest and significant importance to their own studies.

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