Italian domination of commerce in the eastern Mediterranean and Black Sea on the life of Constantinople?
At its zenith, the Roman Empire reached across the globe: however, as Rome’s influence began to decline, the imperial provinces began take on two distinct characters. These two spheres came to be known as East and West Christendom. Constantinople eventually became the capital Ottoman Empire and the Eastern Orthodox Church while Roman Catholicism dominated the feudal West. However, there was still considerable cross-pollination of influence of the two areas. According to Phillip Mansel’s 2006 book Constantinople: City of the World’s Desire 1453-1924, thanks to its status in early modernity as a central trading center, Constantinople became a kind of crossroads of Eastern and Western influences.
Constantinople’s significance in the history of commerce was due to its proximity to the ports of the eastern Mediterranean. During its early years, this ensured the creation of a distinct city culture, a culture that was the result of cultural fusion and synergy. However, the city’s melding of its distinct elements was never without tension. The potential for strife was always simmering beneath the surface. Eventually, the diversity of Constantinople led to violent uprisings. For all of the blending of cultural influences, the city was divided into distinct quarters and characters and when one group seemed to dominate the other, riots and bloodshed would ensue.
Despite its proximity to the sea, Constantinople lacked any type of naval defense during the 11th and 12th centuries because of the imprudent policies of its Emperor: his failed military quests and ostentatious government had depleted the coffers of the city (Miller et al. 148). The Italian city-states took advantage of this weakness, and used Constantinople to dominate maritime commerce. In fact, as Mansel notes (2006), as late as the nineteenth century Italian functioned as kind of second language for Constantinople. This was the legacy of the Italian influence upon Constantinople’s commercial life. Italian was spoken by all of the Frankish residents, Greeks, and Turks. The Turks later even adopted many Italian words, such as words for types of ships known as caravels and bombardas, and iskele (from the Italian scala) for a dock (Mansel 2006). However, this linguistic fusion should not be mistaken a sign of the universal welcome of Italian traders.
Italian prominence trade angered the non-Italian native residents of Constantinople. The Venetians first took control of maritime commerce; then other city states carved spheres of influence for themselves. The major economic power-players were traders from Venice, Genoa and Pisa, and Amalfi. Rioting between the warring city-states in the various quarters damaged store houses and what remained of native Greek businesses. All of the Italian city-states maintained pirate vessels to attack one another — and all of the vessels felt free to attack Greek merchants when brief truces existed between the different Italian factions (Miller et al., 1978, p. 148).
Eventually, Greek rage and resentment began to boil up: the result was the Latin massacre of 1182, which resulted in thousands of deaths. Wrote one later historian: “Historians who wax eloquent and indignant — with considerable reason — about the sack of Constantinople… rarely if ever mention the massacre of the Westerners in Constantinople in 1182 … A nightmarish massacre of thousandsâ€¦the slaughterers spared neither women nor children, neither old nor sick, neither priest nor monk. Cardinal John, the Pope’s representative, was beheaded and his head was dragged through the streets at the tail of a dog; children were cut out of their mother’s wombs; bodies of dead Westerners were exhumed and abused; some 4,000 who escaped death were sold into slavery to the Turks” (Carroll 1992, p. 131).
The policies that gave rise to such hatred were the result of Imperial policies and the imprudent regulation of duties, not simply religious prejudice: “Almost equally disastrous was the fact that the powerful Italian maritime republics were able to coerce the Emperor into granting their merchants exemption from import and export duties in all his harbors. Without destroying his revenue he could not grant similar privileges to his own merchants. The effect of these transactions upon Greek commerce and industry was obviously calamitous. The great element of monopoly which had been the fountain of Byzantine wealth in the tenth century, and which had been threatened in the eleventh, was nearly dried up in the twelfth. For almost the first time in several centuries & #8230; [the people of Constantinople] had to struggle with the chronic problem of a falling revenue and a growing deficit” (Davis, 2007, p. 86). During the 10th century, a number of fairs and bazaars, such as St. Demetrius’ Fair, housed a wide array of goods and profited the Greek and other residents. But because of Italian dominance of the seas, these fairs and the ability of the city’s Greek inhabitants to profit from them was eclipsed.
The Byzantines retook Constantinople in 1261, but the restored empire still remained dependant upon foreign imports. However, Genoese and Venetian traders were charged far higher duties for the privilege of trading in Constantinople, and the city afterwards maintained a strong merchant marine to force foreign ships to pay a duty to the state (Miller et al. 1978, pp. 149-150). Afterwards, the trade and the sale and production of goods was heavily regulated by the state, to ensure that a reoccurrence of the imbalanced power relation between Italian traders and Constantinople’s political leaders did not flower into anger and disenfranchise the native populace.
Carroll, Warren. The Glory of Christendom. Front Royal, VA: Christendom Press, 1993.
Davis, William Stearns. A short history of the Near East: from the founding of Constantinople
(330 A.D. To 1922). Macmillan Co., 1922 (Original). Cambridge: Harvard University, 2007
Mansel, Phillip. Constantinople: City of the World’s Desire 1453-1924. John Murray Publishers
Miller, Edward, Michael Moissey Postan, & Cynthia Postan. The Cambridge Economic History
of Europe, Volume II. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1978; 1987.
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