The Economic History of Byzantium: From the Seventh through the Fifteenth Century (VIII)


Economic Thought and Ideology

The economic thought and the economic ideology of the Byzantines have not yet been the object of detailed study, even though some scholars have written on specific aspects of the ideology that underlay or at least referred to economic behavior. This historiographical poverty is partly due to a historical one: in Byzantium there was much less systematic treatment of economic problems than in western Europe, whose theologians, Romanists, and canonists discussed in depth the numerous questions associated with profit, price, trade, and moneylending. As a result, the economic thought of the Byzantines has to be reconstructed on the basis of gleanings from many disparate sources. For example, notions regarding the just price or the just value of a commodity have to be teased out of imperial legislative or other normative texts and from court decisions, rather than from treatises specifically devoted to these topics. However, despite the dearth of systematic discussion, there was both coherent thought regarding economic matters and ideological positions on some important economic questions. The economic thinking of the Byzantines reflected, on the one hand, received Roman law, adjusted though it became to circumstances, and, on the other hand, ideas regarding self-sufficiency, trade, price formation, and profits, which sometimes originated in classical Greece or the edicts of Roman emperors and sometimes derived from patristic pronouncements. It is less important here to trace the provenance of various ideas and more important to observe the medieval synthesis that resulted. I consider ideology to differ from economic thought: whereas economic thought involves questions that have an immediate effect on economic practice (e.g., rates of profit, interest rates, price formation), ideology is more general in its purview, embracing broad issues that involve social, political, and economic concerns. Different though they are, they are not independent of each other, and ideology can, eventually, influence both economic thought and economic practice. Economic analysis is also a different category, for it seeks to identify and explain economic laws. In the Byzantine Empire, some attempts at economic analysis appear in commentaries on Aristotle.1

To what extent ideology affected people’s actions, in the economic sphere as in other spheres, is a very large question, which scholars have attempted to answer in a variety of ways.2 As will be seen in what follows, my own view is that sometimes ideological posturing has little to do with reality, while at other times it can, indeed, become a factor of production. What should be kept in mind is that the Byzantines were much more conservative—and deliberately so—in their ideological pronouncements than they tended to be in practice. Economic ideology, as it developed in Byzantium, owes a great deal to Christian thinking and Christian positions regarding the material life. Perhaps the most important overall concept in this respect is the Christian negation of worldly riches, which places a high value on the noneconomic transfer of goods through charity, and an equally high value on behavior that is irrational in economic terms but rational in spiritual terms and in the divine economy.3 This type of behavior was constantly celebrated in saints’ lives and in descriptions of miracles that constitute what V. De´roche has called “l’e´conomie miraculeuse.”4 A story related in the seventh-century Pratum spirituale provides a good example of noneconomic behavior that nonetheless proves more profitable, even on this earth, than the most rational, profit-seeking person could hope for. It is the story of a man from Nisibis, a pagan, who wanted to lend his capital (50 large miliaresia) at interest. His wife, who was a Christian, persuaded him to give it to the poor, promising him that his capital would be doubled and would also earn interest. Three months later, when the man tried to recover his money, he found a single miliaresion with which he proceeded to buy a fish, among other items of food. Inside the fish was a precious stone that, when brought to the jeweler/money changer,fetched the sum of 300 miliaresia.

Thus what starts out as perfectly rational economic intent is taken out of the realm of economics and into that of charity. Whatever the spiritual rewards (at the end of the story the man converts to Christianity), there are also very high material rewards, since the capital earns an interest equivalent to 2,000% a year.5 Material rewards for economically unsound behavior abound in miracle stories and are surely an indication that the intended audience placed some value on material well-being and profit. However, what is important in ideological terms is that, consistently in these stories, which recur throughout the Byzantine period, it is uneconomic behavior that is being rewarded; even the thoroughly economic ideas of profit and returns on capital are being appropriated by a code of Christian ethics that expects divine Providence, rather than human action, to provide economic returns. Furthermore, miracles are, by their nature, rare occurrences; normally, charity would be its own, noneconomic, reward. Patristic writings provide powerful statements that illustrate the position of the church toward economic and productive activity. Agriculture is considered a relatively safe activity, as long as the reference is to the labor of the poor peasant; on the other hand, the landowners, who exploit the peasant and make money from the land, are castigated.6 St. Basil of Caesarea, in a passage that signals the uncertainty inherent in economic and productive activity, includes agriculture in the list of economic enterprises that are at the mercy of nature and fortune, and therefore of uncertain yield.7 All behavior that seeks material reward through material means (i.e., through economic activity) is presented as risky, both because of physical risks and because of the spiritual danger of bringing the person involved into the sins of philargyria and pleonexia (avarice and greed).

In its extreme form, this ideology would place the highest value on a life with no productive activity and no economic concerns; such is the life of the ascetic, but it is not one that could be held up as a workable model for the rest of society. The consequence, for society as a whole, is an insistence on the virtues of self-sufficiency. Autarky, or self-sufficiency, is an ideological norm that goes back to classical times.8 It was reinforced by Christian moral teaching. Saints’ lives, when they do not extol the high social and economic status of the saint’s family, insist on its self-sufficiency: to come from a family of moderate means, and a self-sufficient household, was considered a virtue, although, interestingly enough, so were aristocratic origins, associated with wealth.9 In terms of imagery, the image of the man reposing under his own olive and  fig trees, a picture that goes back to the Old Testament, is a compelling one and recurs over time.10 One may argue that the principle of self-sufficiency was an expression, in the economic sphere, of broader principles that are political and therefore better known to historians. In the political ideology of the Byzantines, it was one of the main duties of the emperor to safeguard the territory of the state and to recover lost territories.

The point is clearly made in Title II.2 of the Eisagoge and is repeated in the Taktika of Leo VI, where it appears as a major element of the just ( defensive) war.11 A clear statement of the negative value placed on aggressive warfare and the positive value of recovering one’s own may be found in Arethas’ comparison of Alexander the Great’s conquests with a victory against the Arabs in 901: “He [Alexander] was greedy, initiating injustice; not even the Hellespont, that national limit, could check his assault…. But your actions, O most good Emperor, are as free of grasping ambition as they are remote from greed. . . . For you do not order the army to rush against what does not belong to us, but rather towards those who had, once, belonged to the Romans, . . . to restore [that lost flock] to its former inheritance.”12 The political concept is one that promotes the integrity of “just” frontiers, which included territory the Byzantines considered legitimately theirs. In this schema, there is no aggression and no injustice done to others. That the emperor’s concern is with justice in both the political and the economic sphere is made clear by the statement that “[nothing so pleases the emperor] as the peace and prosperity of his subjects and the improvement and redress of political fortunes.”13

The economic concept promotes the integrity of the productive unit; self-sufficiency safeguards it, and in that schema, no economic injustice is done to others. Both concepts are heavily indebted to the middle Byzantine idea of justice, which included the concern that the possessions of all subjects (especially the weaker ones) should be safeguarded and that a proper and orderly society should not be disturbed by encroachment on the rights and possessions of others.14 The concept of autarky, then, is inscribed in a larger ideological context. On the other hand, political aggression would be comparable to pleonexia in the eco-nomic sphere; both condemned, both practiced. As will be seen below, economic justice embraced much more than the ideal of self-sufficiency and, in practice, affected economic behavior not in the matter of autarky, but primarily in matters connected with profits and prices. The fullest description of the pleasures of self-sufficiency is in the Strategikon of Kekaumenos, an eleventh-century source. This is the work of a landlord and soldier, and it extols the good management of the household, as Xenophon, his ancient counterpart, had done many centuries earlier. Good management means “an abundance of wheat, wine, and everything else, seed and livestock, edible and movable.” The landlord should “plant trees of all kinds, and reed-beds, so that you may have a return without having a yearly worry” and should acquire farm animals: both oxen for plowing and pigs, sheep, and other animals grown for their meat. He should diversify his activities, so that he could both cover some of the needs of his estate and make a sure investment: “make for yourself things that are self-working (autourgia): mills, workshops, gardens, and other such things as will give you an annual return whether it be in rent or crop.”15

If he does not take good care of his estate, all manner of bad things will happen, eventually leading him to the moneylenders, who will probably end up by taking both the estate he had inherited from his parents and whatever he had accumulated himself. Kekaumenos would have embraced the tenet “neither a borrower nor a lender be,” and to that he added, “do not stand security for anyone.”16 This seems to be taking the landlord outside the market and its activities, but even Kekaumenos does not mean to do so completely, for he says that if the estate is mismanaged, “when you wish to make purchases you will find that you have no money.”17 Indeed, what is preached here is self-sufficiency with a difference: a well-run household should make sure it has the necessities, namely, wheat and wine. Once this minimum is met, one can indulge in luxuries, buy things that are not essential, build houses.18 This very conservative man certainly gave voice to an equally conservative ideology, which required that one diversify his economic activities sufficiently so that he would have only sporadic need of the market. His statement is clear and succinct and also echoes ancient ideas, especially those of Xenophon. It is thus seductive to historians; but it is belied by practice, and even by normative statements that are no less true for being diffuse and buried in less deliberately conceived texts. Let us begin with an example of a counterideology. For that, one may look at the vita of St. Neilos of Rossano, who died in 1004, and is therefore chronologically not far removed from Kekaumenos.19


Angeliki E. Laiou


1 On autarky, see M. Kaplan, Les hommes et la terre a` Byzance du VIe au XIe sie`cle: Proprie´te´ et exploitation du sol (Paris, 1992), 3, 256, 493ff; M. Hendy, Studies in the Byzantine Monetary Economy c. 300–1450 (Cambridge, 1985), 565–68. Cf. G. Dagron, “The Urban Economy, Seventh–Twelfth Centuries” EHB 428–29. On ideological attitudes toward trade and the merchants, see A. Giardina, “Modi di scambio e valori sociali nel mondo bizantino (IV–XII secolo),” in Mercati e mercanti nell’alto medioevo: L’area  euroasiatica e l’area mediterranea (Spoleto, 1993), 523–84, and K.-P. Matschke, “Bemerkungen zu ‘Stadtbu¨rgertum’ und ‘Stadtbu¨rgerlichem Geist’ in Byzanz,” Jahrbuch fu¨r Geschichte der Feudalismus 8 (1984), esp. 267–84; see also Dagron, “Urban Economy,” 415–17, 459–61, and A. E. Laiou, “Exchange and Trade, Seventh–Twelfth Centuries,” EHB 753–54. Cf. A. P. Kazhdan, “Byzantine Town and Trade as Seen by Niketas Choniates,” STEFANOSÚ Studia byzantina ac slavica Vladı´miro Vavrˇ´ınek ad annum sexagesimum quintum dedicata ( BSl 56 [1995]), 209–18, who states that Choniates disapproved of trading activities; on lending at interest, see A. E. Laiou, “God and Mammon: Credit, Trade, Profit and the Canonists,” in Byzantium in the 12th Century: Canon Law, State and Society, ed. N. Oikonomides (Athens, 1991), 261–300; eadem, “The Church, Economic Thought and Economic Practice,” in The Christian East: Its Institutions and Its Thought, ed. R. J. Taft (Rome, 1996), 435–64; and eadem, “Nummus parit nummos: L’usurier, le juriste et le philosophe a` Byzance,” Acade´mie des Inscriptions et Belles Lettres (Paris, 1999): 585–604; on honest profit and the just price, see A. P. Kazhdan, “Iz ekonomicheskoi zhizni Vizantii XI–XII vv,” VizOch 2 (1971): 208–12. The most recent study of the medieval world has virtually nothing on Byzantium: L. Baeck, The Mediterranean Tradition in Economic Thought (London, 1994). I am preparing a study of Byzantine economic thought (hereafter Laiou, “Byzantine Economic Thought”) that includes a discussion of Byzantine commentaries on Aristotle. See also the recent article by Christos P. Baloglou, “Economic Thought in the Last Byzantine Period,” in Ancient and Medieval Economic Ideas and Concepts of Social Justice, ed. S. Todd Lowry and B. Gordon (Leiden, 1998), 405–38.

2 For a summary of scholarly positions, see Matschke, “Bemerkungen,” 268–69. To those who think that ideology had a very real role in the development of the economy may now be added A. Giardina.

3 On charity in the early centuries of the Byzantine Empire, see E. Patlagean, Pauvrete´ ´economique et pauvrete´ sociale a` Byzance, 4e–7e sie`cles (Paris, 1977), esp. 181–203, 273–74; on the “Christian anthropology of the gift,” see Giardina, “Scambio e valori,” 551.

4 V. De´roche, Etudes sur Le´ontios de Ne´apolis (Uppsala, 1995), 246ff

5 Laiou, “Church,” 445–46. An analogous story may be found in St. Augustine, De civitate Dei 22.9, PL 41:765–66, as noted in C. Morrisson, “La de´couverte des tre´sors a` l’e´poque byzantine: The´orie et pratique de l’EURESIS QHSAUROU,” TM 8 (1981): n. 47.

6 St. John Chrysostom, in PG 58:591.

7 PG 31:272.

8 M. I. Finley, The Ancient Economy (Berkeley, 1973), 109–16. For a different view on the GrecoRoman economy, see C. Nicolet, Rendre a` Ce´sar: Economie et socie´te´ dans la Rome antique (Paris, 1988).

9 See, for example, Vita of St. Stephen the Younger, PG 115:1073C, and vita of Theophylact of Nikomedeia, ed. A. Vogt, “St. The´ophylacte de Nicome´die,” AB 50 (1932): 71. For the quintessential aristocratic and wealthy saint, one may look to St. Michael Maleinos. When Manuel/Michael Maleinos first approached an anchorite and tried to become his disciple, he lied, pretending that he was the  son of people who lived ejn aujtarkei´a, so that the power and wealth of his family would not frighten the anchorite: A. E. Laiou, “The General and the Saint: Michael Maleinos and Nikephoros Phokas,” in EUYUCIA: Me´langes offerts a` He´le`ne Ahrweiler, 2 vols. (Paris, 1998), 399–412. Examples of saints from “self-sufficient” households during the Palaiologan period include St. Romylos and St. Dionysios. Most of them came from richer families: A. E. Laiou-Thomadakis, “Saints and Society in the Late Byzantine Empire,” in Charanis Studies: Essays in Honor of Peter Charanis, ed. A. E. Laiou-Thomadakis (New Brunswick, N.J., 1980), 84–114, esp. 87–89.

10 See, for example, Theophanes Continuatus, ed. I. Bekker (Bonn, 1838), 258, elaborating on Micah 4:4.

11 Zepos, Jus, 2:240; R. Va´ri, Leonis imperatoris Tactica, 2 vols. (Budapest, 1917–22), 1:3–5.

12 R. J. H. Jenkins, B. Laourdas, and C. A. Mango, “Nine Orations of Arethas from Cod. Marc. Gr. 524,” BZ 47 (1954): no. 6, p. 33.

13 Leonis Tactica, 1:3.

14 A. E. Laiou, “Law, Justice, and the Byzantine Historians: Ninth to Twelfth Centuries,” in Law and Society in Byzantium, Ninth–Twelfth Centuries, ed. A. E. Laiou and D. Simon (Washington, D.C., 1994), 154–55, 165, 18

15 G. G. Litavrin, Sovety i rasskazy Kekavmena (Moscow, 1972), 188–90; cf. Hendy, Studies, 565–66, whose translation of this quotation I am using.

16 Litavrin, Sovety i rasskazy, 190–92, 212–16, 218.

17 Ibid., 190.

18 Ibid.

19 What follows owes much to A. Guillou, “Production and Profits in the Byzantine Province of Italy (Tenth to Eleventh Centuries): An Expanding Society,” DOP 28 (1974): 91–109; the pertinent passage of the vita is published on pp. 105–6 and translated and commented upon on pp. 91–92. I have used my own translation here.

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