A Very Short History of Merchants and Trade in Constantinople

Constantinople was renowned for its merchants and markets from the 5th to the 10th centuries. The city attracted in large numbers foreigners who came to buy and sell in its bustling markets especially from the ninth century when Byzantine trade with its neighbours was at its zenith. Today we can only imagine the sound of imperial coins being exchanged from hand to hand or the smell of lotions, perfumed soaps, even the stench of rotting fish on its docks. Everything in the city was state controlled, down to the smallest detail and rigorously managed by the city eparch. The states representative (the eparch) was also in charge of responsibilities ranging from the building and control of factories and workshops, handling import and export goods, wages, tariffs and the buying and selling prices of all trade goods. The system of organized guilds also helped the state control Constantinople’s economy.

I am indebted to Judith Herrin’s analysis on the Byzantine’s attitude to trade throughout its long history in her wonderful book Byzantium: The Surprising life of a Medieval Empire. She tells us how the Byzantine’s attitude to trade remained time-honoured. To paraphrase Herrin, she also tells us how the Byzantines were more than happy to trade with others as long as products essential to the state were not exported. Examples of these were precious amounts of gold, Greek fire, salt for seasoning and preserving food, iron for making weapons and lumber used for shipbuilding. Nothing it seems was allowed to be traded if there was a risk that technologies or precious resources might assist Byzantine enemies! This also included all silks dyed purple which were prohibited as it was reserved only for the imperial court. Though occasionally these wonderful silks may have been sent as gifts to foreign dignities and kings.

ancient history of trading

Imperial silk, reserved for Byzantine emperors, was dyed purple. This exquisite royal silk with a pattern illustrating a chariot drawn by four horses (quadriga), is believed be a fragment of the shroud in which Charlemagne was buried in 814.

Of course, this only worked so long as the state remained powerful and rich. Nothing was taken for granted. When the system worked well Constantinople was always in plentiful supply, making sure that all goods arriving were exactly enough for the city’s needs, never too much and never below rationing levels. With a population that was estimated to be 500,000 at some point in Constantinople’s history, I cannot emphasize enough how important food, especially grains were to the city.

A very short history of Merchants and Trade in Constantinople.

This fourth century ship was excavated from the Marmaray Yenikapi site in Istanbul.  It is an important find that highlights the type of small vessels that were used to carry goods to Constantinople. Trade merchants commonly transported goods such as honey, almonds, walnuts, hazel, olives, fish sauces and pine cones in small vessels by sea. Goods were commonly stored in Byzantine Amphorae, a ceramic shaped vase often with two handles and an narrow neck . Amphorae was also used chiefly for bulk transport of oil and wine. Its use was widespread through the mediterranean, although by the fourteenth century the use of ceramic amphorae had begun to decline in favour of wooden barrels. 

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Among the greedy merchants to visit Constantinople were the Genoese and Venetians, who enjoyed great privileges granted to them by Byzantine emperors. These privileges came in the way of partial or total exemptions from taxation. (These concessions would ruin the Byzantine economy in the centuries that followed.) By the tenth century Russian merchants too, arrived at Constantinople usually via Black Sea ports with their many varied goods. They brought with them caviar, fish, honey, fur, leather goods and wax to name a few.

These Russian goods and dozens of other goods and products from across the known world arrived and left the city everyday. For example, silk and spices were brought by land into Constantinople from India and China, then shipped to Venice or further west. Goods, too, arrived from the west like amber from Northern ports around the Baltic Sea or from Venice and Genoa. From Africa (and India) ivory was imported into the empire. But it was likely the prestige of Constantinople’s gold and silk commodities that attracted the greater number of traders over time. Constantinople’s burgeoning textile industry of the nine century produced some of the most elegant and elaborate silks in imperial workshops.

AD 1028 trading map

Trade routes of the Mediterranean circa 1028 AD.

Trade routes of the Mediterranean circa 1028 AD.

The Silk Road is one of the oldest and most important routes in trade history. Its network of interlinking trade routes stretched some 6,000 kilometres from Europe through central Asia to the Far East. Transportation on the silk road reached its peak during the Byzantine period. Although, the silk trade was the silk roads primary purpose, many other goods found their way to Constantinople from ivory to exotic animals.

A spin-off from trade also saw more merchants and people arrive to Constantinople because of what its numerous attractions and institutions could offer. For example, by the sixth century a large proportion of children of ‘freemen’ could receive an education in any one of the city’s primary schools. Furthermore, the eternal city’s churches, relics and icons attracted pilgrims from across the Empire. If you were prepared to hard work, the imperial administration was happy enough to generated more jobs. Constantinople’s location nestled between Asia and the Western Mediterranean would also become a merchants home away from home. To be a part of this wealth cycle that was being generated in the city, merchants were known to settle and often stay for months in the city. Though all movement and numbers of foreign traders was tightly controlled by the State. Nevertheless Syrians, Russians and Venetians, Arabs and even Jewish traders were all welcomed. They were quartered in the city in special districts. They were even allowed to worship in their own mosques, synagogues and churches. The scope and scale of having to accommodate all of these various groups and maintain law and order, like most things in Constantinople, fell under the direction and supervision of the city eparch.

Notes and Further Reading

Judith Herrin, Byzantium: The Surprising life of a Medieval Empire, Princeton, 2009: In chapter 14 (p.p.148-159) you will find enough detail on the ‘Byzantine Economy’ for general readers to familiarise themselves on issues related to trade.

Cyril Mango (Ed), The Oxford History of Byzantium, Oxford University Press, 2002.

Tamara Talbot Rice, Everyday Life in Byzantium, Dorset Press, 1967.

Photo Credit : Every effort has been made to trace and acknowledge appropriate credit. The header image is a glimpse into the life of Venetian merchants at the port of Galata, from the National Library of France in Paris. I believe my inclusion of this image may constitute as fair use in illustrating Byzantine trade. I believe my inclusion of the Byzantine shipwreck image may also constitute as fair use in illustrating one of the common types of Amphorae used during Byzantine period. Furthermore no free alternative seems to exist. The maps of Byzantine trade both appear to be in the public domain.

Article By : If It Happened Yesterday, It’s History.