Simeonova, Law and Custom in Byzantine and South-Italian Commerce

Maritime Law vs. Customary Rules and Local Regulations in Byzantine and South-Italian Commerce, 9th–11th Centuries

Liliana Simeonova (Bulgarian Academy of Sciences)

In the ninth through the eleventh centuries, largely due to the dissemination of Byzantine law, maritime laws had remarkable uniformity throughout the Christian and Muslim worlds. These laws, which were first incorporated in the Digest of Justinian and later in the Basilica of Leo VI, provided ship-owners, crews and merchants with a consistent body of rules, regardless of which port they put into. Occasionally, rulers were compelled to make amendments or changes in the existing regulations, in order to abolish some persisting bad practices, or to accommodate traders and mariners from distant lands, or to stimulate their economy at the expense of their neighbors.

For example, the inclusion, in the Pactum Sicardi (836), of a clause explicitly banning the practice of jus naufragii in the domain of Benevento, shows that Justinian’s law (De naufragiis) had not been observed in Southwestern Italy prior to the signature of that treaty. One of Leo VI’s novellae, on the other hand, seeks to abolish a crude Greek custom, according to which a person, who violated other people’s property rights by seizing goods from a wrecked ship or by appropriating what washed ashore from the wreck, should suffer the death penalty.

Now and then rulers would make concessions to foreigners, with the purpose of stimulating long-distance trade. Thus, due to the increased volume of Byzantine-Russian trade, in the tenth century the mariners from Kievan Rus’ who sailed the Black Sea enjoyed certain privileges, which originated not from Byzantine maritime law but mostly from Norse custom. As regards the entry and re-entry of foreign ships into their domains and the help which foreign mariners were entitled to, Muslim rulers were inclined to show greater leniency than their Christian contemporaries.

Finally, rivalry between neighbors provided another reason for either making extra stipulations or ignoring the existing ones, as regards navigation and commerce. Thus, while captains in Naples needed to have special sailing permits (licentiae navigandi) in order to engage in overseas trade, the regulations of neighboring Amalfi contained no such provisions, as could be seen from the Tabula Amalpha.

In the twelfth century, Byzantine sea trade and naval power began to dwindle. As a result, the influence, which Byzantine maritime law exerted on the international commerce in the Mediterranean – Black Sea area, began to decrease.