Book of the Eparch

1. Introduction

Although the cities in the Eastern part of the Roman Empire were spared of the barbaric invasion that the Western part succumbed to, which resulted in not only the decline but also a hazardous ruralization, the big crisis that followed hit these cities as well. In the 7th century, as the result of the Arab invasion, some very prosperous megalopolises were lost, such as Alexandria and Antioch, and, generally speaking, most of the Byzantine cities were undergoing some sort of crisis. This crisis lasted for two centuries (7th – 9th centuries), though opinions among Byzantine scholars vary regarding the depth and the range of this crisis. In the 9th C., towns began to flourish again. What followed were the two centuries (9th – 11th) of great urban economic expansion which resulted to the most fruitful, for the cities, period in Byzantine history. Moreover, at that time the economy of the Byzantine cities was unsurpassed in the whole Europe.1

2. In Constantinople

Naturally, when speaking of the rise of the Byzantine city in the said period (9th – 11th centuries), the first that should be mentioned is surely the “Queen of all the cities” – Constantinople. It was the time when the Byzantine production of goods, completely relying on the ancient traditions, was going through great changes. Such handicraft or state-owned workshop production, characteristic primarily of a city, not only did satisfy the great needs of the Empire, but was also an unattainable model for the then western European standards, especially in the case of silk production. To guarantee for the quality of the production and goods, but also to secure further development, the state had an active and encompassing role. The Byzantine statism in this period, visible in various forms, was expressed particularly in the structuring of the city's economy and the physiognomy of the urban society.

The refined and superior civilization, which made a strong impression on the foreigners, was trying hard to keep that supremacy over the rest of the world. That is why trade of the exceptionally precious fabrics and similar luxurious artifacts to the foreigners were in a way undermining the prestige of the Byzantine Empire, and were even viewed as a sort of treason. In regards to this, not only it was forbidden to export the most precious luxurious artifacts, but also the production of the precious and expensive goods was closely monitored. In a word, the trade of the luxurious goods was under a strict control. This lasted until the time when the competition from the Italian republics and other outsider merchants made such prohibitions useless. However, during the reign of Leo VI the Wise (886-912), when the Book of the Eparch -a sort of the constitution of the guilds’ associations in Constantinople- was compiled, these prohibitions still made sense.

The fact that the Arabs were also solid producers and exporters of goods had little effect, if any, on the prestige of the Byzantine Empire. Its geographic position, primarily the positions of Constantinople and Thessalonica, made for a great advantage over the trading rivals in the Islamic world, primarily due to the fact that the great number of buyers was coming from Eastern and Southeast Europe. Favorable circumstances for trade in the capital also meant that, while the biggest merchants in Constantinople would venture going abroad, merchants from smaller Byzantine towns would find difficulty in doing the same, so they came to purchase their goods in Constantinople. In any case, great quantities of goods of all kinds and a great number of merchants were ending up in the harbor in the Golden Horn.

The domestic policy of Leo VI, which in essence expressed the interests of the city aristocracy, connected to the development and flourishing of trade and merchant activity, manifested itself particularly during the years of power of Stylianos Zaoutzes (886 – beginning of 899), father of the Emperor’s second wife, Zoe Zaoutzaina. It was the time of strengthening of urban entrepreneurship, civic rights, and -in connection to them- the protection of private property as well, while the usury was completely legalized. At the same time, the government did not allow private individuals, who had no governmental function or authority, to use methods of non-economic coercion. Judging on the basis of the Book of the Eparch, the administration of Leo VI was trying to attract to their side the local trade and craft guilds leaders. It managed to do so partially by delegating to them part of the functions of the state apparatus, and even some police functions with the ensuing rights and profits. Such functions secured gain possibilities, since they gave them authority, in the struggle against those who destroy the monopoly, to take legal action with regards to to the payment and the cost of labor, assessment of goods for customs clearance etc.2

3. The Manuscript

The complete text of the Book of the Eparch is preserved in a manuscript from the 14th century, which is kept in Geneva (Bibliothèque de Genève, № 23). Besides the ecclesiastical canons, this manuscript contains legislative texts of the Byzantine emperors, the Book of the Eparch and a treatise by Julian of Ascalon. The manuscript was purchased in Ottoman Empire by a priest from the Dutch Embassy in 1636, and then it was given as a present to the well-known jurist Jacques Godefroy, who was not able to study it properly, though. After his death, the manuscript was given to the Geneva library, where it is still kept to this day, registered in the Greek manuscripts collection under the number 23.

The manuscript of the Book of the Eparch remained unnoticed for a long time, and finally in 1892 the Swiss sholar, Jules Nicole, studied it and consequently published it in 1893, in a massive volume, with the cooperation of several eminent Western Byzantine scholars. Small parts of the Book of the Eparch were found in some other manuscripts as well. Thus, the title and preamble were preserved in a manuscript from Istanbul (Metochion Taphou, No. 25). This manuscript also contains the name of the legislator, Emperor Leo the Wise, as well as the date of its compilation, 911/912. The analysis of the text shows that the Book of the Eparch was written by a very crafty author.

The Book of the Eparch was produced under Leo VI, but whether it was exactly the same as the edition preserved in the manuscript in Geneva remains unclear. Some researchers thought that this manuscript was written during the reign of the Emperor Nikephoros II Phokas (963-969), that is, that it was then compiled or interpolated, because the manuscript mentions the tetarteron, a coin introduced by this Emperor.3 Others suggested that the manuscript was written under Phokas’ heir, John I Tzimiskes (969-976).4 However, this idea has been mostly abandoned in the subsequent literature, which identifies the tetarteron cited in the Book of the Eparch as the tremissis or semissis known throughout the reign of Basil I (867-886).5 The significance of this very interesting and important source is clear from the fact that thus far it has been translated to French,6 English (twice),7 Bulgarian,8 Russian,9 German,10 and recently in modern Greek.11

4. The Book of the Eparch

The Book of the Eparch consists of a compilation of regulations regarding the activity of the handicrafts and merchants’ guilds in Constantinople, which all fell under the jurisdiction of the prefect of the Byzantine capital. Its stipulations portray rather clearly the existence of not only a well-developed economy but also the economic policies that the Byzantine Empire had in the 10th century. It is important to note that no contradiction has been attested between the novels by Leo VI and the Book of the Eparch: the provisions in the novels regarding the craft guilds were also formulated in the chapters of the Book of the Eparch.12 To a great extent, the Book of the Eparch can be associated to the Basilica by Leo VI, although neither the text nor any particular details are in full congruity. Its language is typical of the legislative documents: it contains the legal terms already found in the Ecloga, Procheiron and Basilica.

The scholars have interpreted the Book of the Eparch under different lights. Opinions of the contemporary scholars differ and are often divided. Thus, for example, some think it is a document that “belongs completely to the sphere of the late antique system of guilds,”13 while others emphasize “the differences between the commercial organization described in the Book of the Eparch and that of late antiquity, since the 10th century treatise reflects neither coercive nor hereditary membership in guilds”;14 there are also those who view the regulations “as representing the economic ideas of Leo VI” and think that the document can not be viewed separately from the social policies of the Macedonian dynasty.15

The Book of the Eparch contains twenty two chapters, each one dedicated to one of the existing guilds. Among others, there are: notaries, jewelers, money changers, various dealers in clothing and perfume, candle-makers, soap-makers, purveyors of groceries, meat, bread, fish, and wine. Their rights, obligations and conditions under which they conduct their businesses are discussed in great detail. It remains a puzzle why some of the guilds are recorded, while the others, which most assuredly existed, are not, such as, for example, the guilds of physicians and of coppersmiths, who had the monopoly on the trade with copper; why the construction workers were mentioned and the blacksmiths are not; why the position of the weaver of linen fabrics was discussed but that of the weavers of woolen fabrics is not. The Book of the Eparch does not mention the shoemakers or the tailors either. Even if it is assumed that they were still not united in corporations in the 10th century, they were nonetheless placed under the jurisdiction of the prefect of the capital. That is why most researchers believe that in fact we do not have the complete version of the Book of the Eparch.

Since the end of the 11th century, and in relation to the fact that the Italian republics, especially Venice, but also Piza and Genoa, were getting very favorable trading privileges from the Byzantine emperors of the Komnenian dynasty, the situation is radically changing. The Byzantine trade was getting more and more suppressed and was not able to compete with the unfair competition from the Apennine Peninsula. With the acquired privileges, the Italian merchants dominated both the trade and handicrafts in Constantinople. In any case, the Book of the Eparch finally lost its previous significance by the end of the 13th century.

1. Maksimović, Lj., Grad u Vizantiji. Ogledi o društvu poznovizantijskog doba (Beograd 2003), p. 5.

2. Сюзюмов М. Я. (ed.), Византийская книга эпарха (Москва 1962), p. 8.

3. Сюзюмов М. Я. (ed.), Византийская книга эпарха (Москва 1962), p. 16 n. 30 (with bibliography on the matter).

4. Lopez, R., La crise du bésant au X siècle et la date du livre du Préfet, Pankarpeia, Mélange H. Grégoire (Bruxelles 1950)

5. Schminck, A., Studien zu mittelbyzantinischen Rechtsbüchern (Frankfurt am Main 1986) p. 27, n. 26.

6. Nicole, J., Le livre du préfet ou l’édit de l’empereur Léon le Sâge sur les corporations de Constantinople (Genève 1894).

7. Boak, A. E. R., «Notes and Documents. The Book of the Prefect», Journal of Economic and Business History 1 (1929), p. 597-619; Freshfield, E. H., Roman Law in the Later Roman Empire (Cambridge 1938) [reprint in: Dujčev, I. (ed.), Το επαρχικόν βιβλίον, The book of eparch (London 1970, Variorum Reprints)]

8. Ангелов, Д. (ed.-in-chief), Подбрани извори за историята на Византия (София 1956), pp. 101-122.

9. Сюзюмов, М. Я. (ed.), Византийская книга эпарха (Москва 1962), pp. 45-71.

10. Koder, J. (ed.), Das Eparchenbuch Leons des Weisen (Wien 1991), pp. 73-143.

11. Το Επαρχικόν Βιβλίον του Λέοντος ΣΤ' του Σοφού, μτφρ. Ταξιάρχης Κόλλιας, Μαρία Χρόνη,εκδ Κανάκη (Αθήνα 2010).

12. Сюзюмов М. Я. (ed.), Византийская книга эпарха (Москва 1962), p. 12.

13. Lexikon des Mittelalters, III, (Stuttgart 1999), pp. 2042-2043 (P. Schreiner)

14. Kazhdan Al., s.v. Book of the Eparch, Oxford Dictionary of Byzantium, vol. 1 (London-New York 1991), p. 308, see also Mickwitz, G., Die Kartellfunktionen der Zünfte und ihre Bedeutung bei der Entstehung des Zunftwessens. Eine Studie in spätantiker und mittelalterlicher Wirtschaftsgeschichte (Societas Scientiarum Fennica. Comment. Humanarum Litt. VIII, 3) (Helsingfors 1936), p. 206ff.; Hunger, H., Die hochsprahliche profane Literatur der Byzantiner, II (München 1978), p. 471.

15. Сюзюмов М. Я. (ed.), Византийская книга эпарха (Москва 1962), p. 7-13.21.