Byzantium, the Italian maritime powers, and the Black Sea before 1204

Byzantium, the Italian maritime powers, and the Black Sea before 1204

By David Jacoby

Byzantinische Zeitschrift, Volume 100, Issue 2 (2008)

Introduction: Genoa was the last among the three major Italian maritime nations of the eleventh-twelfth centuries to obtain commercial and fiscal privileges in Byzantium. These privileges were granted by Emperor Manuel I Komnenos in 1155, yet the emperor severely curtailed them in October 1169. He also introduced a restrictive clause regarding Genoese commercial ships. They were allowed to sail freely to all Byzantine regions, except to Rhosia and Matracha, although exceptional imperial permission was envisaged. This clause was repeated in the agreement concluded in 1192 between Emperor Isaac II Angelos and Genoa.

The suggestion that Rhosia in that context referred to the Black Sea and Matracha to the Sea of Azov has been decisively rejected. It is commonly agreed that the two names applied to specific localities. Matracha or Matrica is identified with Tmutorokan, on the peninsula of Taman on the eastern shore of the Straits of Kerch. The location of Rhosia is unclear. It has been suggested that it was either situated on the eastern or the western shore of the Straits of Kerch. However, no such toponym appears in later nautical guides or atlases.

On the other hand, a late thirteenth-century addition to the “Compasso de Navegare” mentions Casale de Rossi on the western shore of the Sea of Azov, at 30 miles west of Cabardi or Taganrog, thus far removed from Matracha. This locality is called Rosso inthe Catalan atlas of 1375 and in the sixteenth-century atlas of Antonio Millo.

Opinions widely differ as to the nature, scope and implications of the ban imposed in1169 upon the Genoese. The most widely shared view is that the ban reflected a general imperial policy preventing Westeners from trading in the Black Sea, implemented until 1204. This view implies that the citizens of the major Italian maritime powers, Venice, Pisa and Genoa, were eager to trade in the Black Sea in the twelfth century, as suggested by the intense Genoese and Venetian activity in that region after the Byzantine recovery of Constantinople in 1261. Some have contended that the restriction mentioned in the chrysobull of 1169 was limited to the Genoese and to the two localities of Rhosia and Matracha and, therefore, did not apply to the Venetians or the Pisans.

It has also been argued that, on the contrary, the citizens of these two nations were barred from the Black Sea and that Manuel I granted the Genoese a preferential treatment, since the prohibition to trade in the Sea of Azov implies that that they were allowed to operate in the Black Sea. A case has been made for the free access of the Venetians to the Black Sea before 1204, without referring to other nations. A further explanation is that all western ships were free to sail in the Black Sea, yet without enjoying the partial or full tax exemptions granted to their respective nations.

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