Taxation, trade and urbanism in the Byzantine Empire

There was a long tradition of urban life in the Hellenistic and Roman East, but it is clear that during the Byzantine period, the nature of urbanism changed from the city-state model of Classical Antiquity.

One of the problems for East Roman provincial cities in Later Antiquity was that power became centralised around the imperial court and family and therefore it was incredibly important for powerful figures to be close to the power and patronage of the court.

Therefore there developed a clear distinction between the elites of the provinces and the elite around the presence of the emperor.

Because in the early mediaeval period, following the loss of the Levant to the Arabs, there was a decline in the population of the provincial cities, this accelerated the drift of the rich and powerful to the centre. The traditional aristocracy gradually lost power and needed patronage and imperial titles, plus the salaries that came with them, to retain their positions in the ruling elite. The administrative changes of the early emperors, culminating with the reforms of Justinian I, made the shift away from the traditional ruling elite complete and henceforth the elites became more and more dependent on imperial patronage and salaried positions.

This led to Constantinople becoming and even more dominant factor in the life of the empire, increasing in importance and population throughout Late Antiquity and the Early Middle Ages.

However, at no time did any more than around 10% of the total population of the empire live in cities, and some formerly large cities dwindled fairly dramatically in the 7th and 8th centuries, with them becoming basically walled enclosures for a group of villages, with a central administrative district, often clustered around a church or an administrative building. These were known as kastra, and these kastrons were to become a permanent feature of urban locations from the 8th century onwards.

From the end of the 9th century onwards we see a revival of urbanism in the empire, with rebuilding and even new foundations in previously non-urban settings.

As I mentioned before, the cities had separate localised elites that were linked to the elites of the capital, but with their own networks, often based around the governors, tax officials and bishops. They were not as independent as cities in the West, but the empire was a far more regulated and closely administered political entity than any western nation during the mediaeval period.

It was really only after 1261, under the Palaiologoi that you see cities with truly independent and separate status to Constantinople; Trebozond, Mistra, Adrianople etc, but many of these were not directly under imperial rule anyway by that time.

“The question of the continuity of civic institutions and the nature of the polis in the late antique and early Byzantine world have become a vexed question, for a variety of reasons. Students of this subject continue to contend with scholars of earlier periods who adhere to a much-outdated vision of late antiquity as a decadent decline into impoverished fragmentation. The cities of late-antique Greece displayed a marked degree of continuity. Scenarios of barbarian destruction, civic decay, and manorialization simply do not fit. In fact, the city as an institution appears to have prospered in Greece during this period. It was not until the end of the 6th century (and maybe not even then) that the dissolution of the city became a problem in Greece. If the early sixth century Syndekmos of Hierokles is taken at face value, late-antique Greece was highly urbanized and contained approximately eighty cities. This extreme prosperity is born out by recent archaeological surveys in the Aegean. For late-antique Greece, a paradigm of prosperity and transformation is more accurate and useful than a paradigm of decline and fall.”

Richard M. Rothaus, Corinth: The First City of Greece. Brill, 2000. ISBN 9004109226

That is an interesting summary of urban life in the East in Late Antiquity, and one that needs to be seen in contrast to the position in Italy.

No longer the most important city of the Roman Empire, Rome’s population had probably begun to decline in the late 2nd century. The economic and political problems of the 3rd century did nothing to help Rome recover. In the 270s the walls built by the emperor Aurelian were defences against the danger of barbarian attack rather than a sign of any restoration of Rome’s imperial past.

By the time Diocletian had reformed the imperial government under the Tetrarchy and ushered in a period of relative prosperity and peace, Rome was no longer the administrative capital of the empire. The founding of Constantinople merely confirmed Rome’s loss of status. However, under Constantine there was a degree of restoration of the buildings and monuments of Rome, even though he removed many ancient statues and works of art to Constantinople, to reinforce his new City’s status as an imperial capital. In addition, under Constantine and his successors, the growth of Rome’s previously small Christian community led to the development of the Papal Rome of the medieval period.

Rome in the 4th and 5th centuries had remained a largely pagan city dominated by the traditional senatorial families, even though these families had lost their role in the government of the empire. When the Visigoths of Alaric had first threatened the city in 408, the Senate and the praetorian prefect still had a role to play in negotiating with the barbarians, they were still a force in the city, if not elsewhere in Italy. However, in 410 Alaric captured Rome and allowed his troops to sack and pillage the city; much treasure was removed, and many of the Roman population fled the city.

It is unlikely that the buildings and monuments of Rome suffered extensive damage and the churches, in the main, were spared. Even the longer, 14-day sack of Rome by the Vandals in 455 did less damage than the local population themselves. The Romans treated the city itself as a source of building materials and during the 4th and 5th centuries, the western emperors repeatedly tried to legislate against those who were stripping buildings and monuments for their materials. The population of Rome continued to decline and by the mid-5th century, had fallen to fewer than 250,000 people.

The Gothic Wars of the 6th century did nothing to reverse the long-term decline and Rome gradually dwindled into a backwater, with Ravenna becoming the seat of government in the West, first under the Ostrogoths and then the Byzantines, once they had regained control over Italy.

Now, a brief overview of taxation in the Byzantine empire.

Regardless of the relative decline or regrowth of urban life in the empire, the main generator of wealth was agriculture.

At least 80% of all tax revenues were raised from taxation of the village units or coloni who represented the agricultural base of the empire.

The village was the demographic unit of taxation, which were broadly speaking land taxes, towns and cities were not treated any different, they were assessed for taxation on the same basis. Indeed most cities and towns were also involved in agricultural production to some degree, with a proportion of urban populations cultivating land either inside the urban boundaries or outside but close to the cities and towns.

The other main source of tax revenue was the hearth tax, basically a poll tax and there were various other taxes, such as inheritance taxes and taxes in trade and what we might call customs duties.

Tax collection was incredibly efficient and imperial tax collectors were able to generate huge amounts of money for the imperial treasuries. Agricultural land was assessed on the basis of productivity, and there were different rates of taxation for higher and lower producing areas.

Obviously, things were not static, the imperial bureaucracy was remarkably resilient and flexible and over the centuries there were different ways that taxes were assessed and collected.

With the administrative changes to the structure of the empire, with the creation of the thematic system, we see a devolution of some power and of tax collection to the theme governors.

However, it was not really until the 11th century that we see a change in the provincial balance of power and a growth and expansion of large provincial landowning families. Under the Macedonian dynasty, land grants were made increasingly, under the pronoia system, whereby, instead of paying salaries to high-ranking aristocrats and officials, the right to tax farm was granted.

The pronoia system was expanded in the 12th century by the Komnenoi and following the period of the Latin Empire, the pronoia grants became increasingly hereditary.

Land grants were also made to the Church and from the 12th century onwards there was a transfer of land from the emperor to the great families and the Church. This led to a reduction in the amount of money available to the Exchequer and resulted in a debasement of the currency and dramatic price inflation.

Trade in the empire was generally mainly an internal affair, between towns and provinces or inwards to Constantinople. The elites derived their power and income from their estates and from their imperial salaries, they did not engage in trade.

There were some imperial monopolies, silk production, for example, but trade and manufacturing seems to have not generated enough wealth to allow speculative trade ventures outside the empire, even where this was allowed by law.

Trade was heavily regulated and tradespeople, in Constantinople at least, were organised into guilds and the guilds were subject to regulation by the City prefect.

As I said earlier, trade was internal and much trade flowed into the centre.

Clearly in the themes, there was small scale local trade, but because of the extreme (for the mediaeval period) centralisation of the state, it was trade with the centre that mattered most. Trade was taxed at a rate of 10% of the value of transactions.

It was this particularly undeveloped aspect of the Byzantine economy that allowed the Italian city-states to take such a large role in the trading life of the empire.

Exports from the empire were actively discouraged, essential goods being prohibited from being exported and over time, the concessions made to the Genoese, Venetians and others effectively removed the wealth generation from Byzantine hands virtually completely.


2 thoughts on “Taxation, trade and urbanism in the Byzantine Empire

  1. Pingback: 2010 in review « Carole's Stuff and Occasional Nonsense

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