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Three Millennia of Greek Literature

Vasilief, A History of the Byzantine Empire

Justinian the Great and his successors (518-610)

Commerce during the reign of Justinian 


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The period of Justinian left distinct traces in the history of Byzantine commerce. In the Christian period, as in the days of the pagan Roman Empire, the main trade was carried on with the East. The rarest and most valuable articles of trade arrived from the distant lands of China and India. Western Europe of the earlier Middle Ages, in the period of the formation of new Germanic states, some of which were conquered by Justinian's generals, lived under conditions extremely unfavorable for the development of its own economic life. The Eastern Roman Empire, with its advantageously situated capital became, by force of circumstances, the mediator between the West and the East, and kept this position until the period of the Crusades.

But the commercial relations of the Byzantine Empire with the peoples of the Far East were not direct; the mediating agent here was the Persian Empire of the Sassanids, which gained enormous profits on the commercial transactions of the Byzantine merchants. There were at this time two main trade routes: one by land, the other by sea. The overland caravan route led from the western borders of China through Sogdiana (now Bokhara or Bukhara) to the Persian border, where the wares were transferred by Chinese merchants to the Persians, who transported them to the customhouses on the Byzantine border. The sea route used was as follows: Chinese merchants transported their wares on vessels as far as the island of Taprobane (now Ceylon), south of the peninsula of Hindostan. There Chinese goods were reloaded, chiefly into Persian vessels, which carried their cargo by way of the Indian Ocean and the Persian Gulf to the mouths of the Tigris and Euphrates, whence they were forwarded along the Euphrates to the Byzantine customhouse situated on this river. Byzantine commerce with the East, therefore, depended very closely upon the relations between the Empire and Persia, and since wars with Persia were a regular occurrence in Byzantine life, trade relations with the East suffered constant interruptions and great harm. The main article of trade was Chinese silk, the production of which was guarded in deep secrecy by China. In view of the difficulties involved in its production, its prices and the prices of silk stuffs greatly in demand on Byzantine markets rose at times to unbelievable figures. Besides Chinese silk, China and India exported to the West perfumes, spices, cotton, precious stones, and other articles demanded primarily in the Byzantine Empire. Unreconciled to the economic dependence of the Byzantine Empire upon Persia, Justinian set himself the goal of finding a trade route to China and India which would lie outside of the realm of Persian influence.

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