A Big Book and the Byzantine Economy

This weekend I began the almost overwhelming task of negotiating L. Brubaker and J. Haldon’s Byzantium in the Iconoclast Era c. 680-850: A History (Cambridge 2011). The runs to just shy of 800 pages of text and with an addition 100 pages of bibliography.  It continues in the trend of Byzantinists writing big books; M. McCormick’s Origins of the European Economy (Cambridge 2002) and C. Wickham’s Framing the Early Middle Ages (Oxford 2005) come to mind as similar tomes.

Considering the massive size of Byzantium in the Iconoclast Era, I could imagine no way of reviewing it or even reading it in over a coherent block of time. (It really deserve the kind of treatment typically reserved for books like James’ Ulysses or Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past, where readers read the book as an event.).  So, I decided to dip into the book not exactly at random, but to fish out the topics of interest to me, and I’ll offer my thoughts here, from time to time as I work my way through the book hopefully before my interlibrary loan period runs out.

I’ve been thinking a bit about settlement in the Byzantine period, the relationship between Byzantine and earlier Late Roman urban space, and, to a lesser extent the Late Roman and Byzantine economy.  So chapters 6 and 7 which focused on the economy and settlement attracted my attention immediately. As one would expect, these chapters laid out the basic issues facing the Byzantine economy in the 7th to 9th centuries, with a focus on the role of the state and the distribution of coins and ceramic material as evidence for economic activity.  The first part of the chapter focused on coinage and, inevitably with this kind of evidence, the role of the state as the engine for economic activity both in the capital (and its immediate hinterland) and in the provinces.  Coinage entered the market as pay for soldiers and returned to the state as taxes. The further a community was from areas of military activity, the fewer coins appeared.

For ceramics, the authors pulled together the diverse and fragmented body of evidence for ceramic production and distribution to argue that from the 7th to the 9th century, the distribution of ceramics became increasingly region in character and long distance trade declined. Even as the authors accept the gradual lengthening of Late Antique patterns of production and exchange into the 8th century, the evidence for the long-life of certain types of pottery, like Cypriot Red Slip, does little to challenge the overall impression that the transregional character of exchange in the Later Roman Empire was giving way to far more circumscribed economic zones largely dependent on local needs of the state, the military, or an local ecclesiastical or market center.  Thus, both trade and the circulation of coinage took on a regional character during these centuries and contributed to the regional character of the Middle Byzantine provincial elite.

The authors treatment of settlement patterns followed from their understanding of the regionalized economy. As demographic decline, urban contraction, and the decline of interregional trade occurred over the course of the 7th and 8th centuries, settlement patterns within within the Byzantine world took on increasingly regional character. Asia Minor, for example, represented a different development trajectory than the Balkans owing to different levels of state activity, security, economic opportunities, natural resources, and demographic decline. So while general pattern, did emerge – particular for settlements like the fortified kastron that features so prominently in discussion of rural settlement – these were either motivated by state, provincial, or military elite, or certain ubiquitous economic opportunities – like harbors.

One heartening aspect of the chapter dedicated the patterns of settlement, is that the authors begin to take into the account the results of intensive pedestrian survey.  The limited scope of projects employing this method made it difficult for the authors to apply its findings on a scale fitting their own sweeping survey, but they clearly recognized that it had to potential to expand how scholars understand the character of Byzantine settlement and the various influences that shaped it on the local level.

In general, these two chapters – read outside of the context of the book in general – provide a nice survey of the economy and settlement of the transition from Late Antiquity to the Middle Byzantine period.  My main criticism of these chapters is the absence of any people in the text.  The economy is a completely impersonal and state run affair devoid of individual laborers, their crafts, and the various persistent evidence to their work (other than pottery, of course).  Fortifications, cities, monasteries, and port cities appear in these chapters without much discussion of the labor involved in constructing and maintaining them. Perhaps the sum total of this labor made just a minor dent in the Byzantine economy, or perhaps the evidence for building and the like cannot sustain the weight of sustained analysis. At the same time, the presence of individuals as participants in economic activity would ground the analysis of the economy and settlement in the bodies of actual Byzantine subjects.  Trace evidence for practice could mediate between the systems proposed by the authors and the lived experiences of Byzantine individuals.

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