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7-08-2015, 22:09

1204: a balance sheet

In 1204 the Crusaders had expected a great deal of the empire. One of their number, Robert de Clari, wrote, ‘I do not think that in the forty richest cities of the world there has been so much wealth as was found in Constantinople. For the Greeks say that two-thirds of the wealth of this world is in Constantinople and the other third scattered throughout the world.’ But when it was actually counted, two-thirds of the world’s wealth only amounted to 300,000 marks.69 So perhaps the empire was not as rich as it appeared to be. Its reputation for wealth owed a lot to Constantinople, the tax system funnelling resources into the city, and the court culture that ensured they were spent there, partly on luxury goods manufactured in the city (see below, p. 776). It also owed a lot to deliberate image-making, keeping up appearances of stupendous wealth. Outside the imperial capital, as a succession of Latin and Muslim observers noted, the empire was far less impressive.70 Athens, Ephesos, Corinth, Sparta, Thessaloniki and the like may have been doing better in the twelfth century than they had in the past, but from a contemporary European perspective, they were not great cities. A comparison between Byzantine and Latin church-building in the twelfth century is telling. Byzantine architecture may have its aesthetic merits, but seen simply in terms of scale and resources, the achievements of the Latin building industry in the age of the Romanesque and early Gothic dwarf those of Byzantium.71 To some extent Byzantium was disadvantaged by geography. A great deal of imperial territory was taken up by mountains and arid plateaux, but one should not press that too far. Some of these same areas did very well under other rule. Central Anatolia thrived during the thirteenth century under the Seljuqs; western Turkey prospered in the late middle ages and again in the eighteenth century; in Greece and the Balkans the later middle ages and the eighteenth century also stand out. A major achievement of the last half century in studies of the Byzantine economy has been the recognition of the prosperity of the middle Byzantine period and of the fact that in some respects this carried on through to 1204. But it seems equally clear that by 1204, at least, the Byzantine economy was not fulfilling its potential. In 934 Romanos I Lekapenos (920–44) had justified his land legislation to protect the free peasantry on the grounds that it was ‘beneficial to the common good, acceptable to God, profitable to the treasury and useful to the state’.72 Robert de Clari’s disappointment in 1204 may go to show that his concerns were not misplaced.