The famine in Constantinople, 1306-1307


The Byzantine emperor Andronikos II Palaiologos (1282-1328) had inherited a limited, decentralised state, which was faced with several political, social, economic and ecclesiastical problems. After his accession to the throne, he shifted his interest from the West to Asia Minor, as that province was more threatened and more difficult to be controlled by the central government, and, in a last attempt to protect it from the Turks, he hired a body of Catalans as mercenaries in 1303.

The Catalan Company

The Catalans were initially successful against the Turks, but it soon became obvious that they were not loyal to the emperor, as they started ravaging the local population. In addition, the Turks began regaining territories in the countryside, and in August 1304 Andronikos decided to recall the Catalans to Europe. Instead of returning to Constantinople, however, they occupied the peninsula of Kallipolis, from where they launched attacks against the surrounding countryside. Their relationship with the empire was continually deteriorating due to the lack of money for their salaries, and in an effort to raise money for these, Andronikos tried to use debased coins (a move that later resulted in their circulation into the empire), imposed a new tax on wheat and barley (the sitokrithon) and deducted the salary of his officials. At the same time, he attempted to negotiate with the Catalan leader who, however, was murdered by Alan soldiers in 1305. Then the Catalans plundered Thrace and Macedonia and even besieged Constantinople.[1] It was during this time that the absence of a fleet proved to be a major problem for Byzantium’s safety and, combined with the Italians’ domination over the trade, it led the people in Constantinople to rioting against the Latins.

Famine in Constantinople

More importantly in 1306, while dealing with the Catalan threat, the emperor was persuaded by his advisers to take a rather unpopular measure. As Thrace, the greatest source of grain for Constantinople, was almost totally controlled by the Catalans and the Byzantine army was unable to confront them, the peasants could now sow their fields there, just outside the city’s walls, only accompanied by armed guards.[2] However, in the fall of 1306, following a scorched-earth policy, Andronikos forbade them to cultivate them and had all crops destroyed,[3] in an attempt to prevent the Catalans from harvesting the Byzantine crops, make the feeding of their army impossible and lead them to leave Thrace.

At the same time though, the attacks of both the Catalans and the Turks, as well as the Bulgarian threat in the area, had caused many people to go to Constantinople as refugees. Since 1304, the city was already suffering from a famine[4] that had largely been caused by the unfair distribution of grain, its sell at excessively high prices and the coin’s debasement.[5] The situation was now worsened due to the shortage of grain, and, as a result, Constantinople was faced with one of the worst famines in its history in the winter of 1306-1307.[6]

The situation in Constantinople and Athanasios I

The patriarch Athanasios I, a prominent figure at the time, was from the beginning hostile towards the hiring of Catalan mercenaries due to their Catholic faith and unreliability.[7] Like the majority of the Byzantines, he also opposed Andronikos’ policy regarding crops,[8] and he tried to improve the citizens’ and the refugees’ living conditions. Nevertheless, the majority of the wealthier citizens of Constantinople did not seem eager to support the refugees. This attitude angered the patriarch, who in 1306 or 1307 tried to convince them to aid those in need by asking the emperor to gather the dynatoi in the palace and read them an encyclical letter that would suggest how they could help. In addition, he urged them to give away alms, food and clothes, and not to pretend they cannot afford these.[9]

As part of his efforts, Athanasios also addressed a series of letters to the emperor, asking him to assist the people in the capital. There, he described their suffering and fear, mentioning how they used to complain to him about the grain and desperately ask for his help.[10] Moreover, assuming the role of their protector, the patriarch organized himself the distribution of clothing and public feeding for the poor, something that was indeed necessary as both the famine and the cold weather had created very bad conditions in the city. Athanasios’ letters further inform us about the circumstances in Constantinople. State controls over the price of cereal had ceased to exist, and matters such as the hoarding of wheat by the rich, the export of grain by Italian merchants and their arrogance,[11] the profiteers’ actions and exploitation of the poor, inflation, and the coin’s debasement were out of control.[12] It seems though that some of the patriarch’s suggestions were heeded at some point, as a commission about the control of weights, measures, grain supplies and prices, and the supervision of bakeries, was finally formed, while ships transporting grain started being closely supervised.[13]


Although Andronikos is usually considered to have been a rather indecisive leader, in 1306 he firmly supported the decision regarding the cultivation of fields and the destruction of the crops, even though it was an unpopular one. Its consequences were harsh for the majority of the citizens of Constantinople and the refuges that had found shelter there, as this policy led to a severe famine during the winter of 1306, and to the danger of the city surrendering to the Catalans that were settled in Thrace before the latter were forced to leave. Athanasios I’ correspondence provides details that are not often recorded, and informs us about the conditions in the capital and the people’s plight. Eventually, even if other factors, such as the import of grain from the Black Sea that relieved the famine, contributed to his plan’s success, Andronikos was vindicated as the Catalans faced a shortage of food and moved to Macedonia before it was too late for the empire.[14]

[1] Angeliki Laiou, Constantinople and the Latins. The Foreign Policy of Andronicus II 1282-1328 (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1972), pp. 134-37, 141-47; Georg Ostrogorsky, Ιστορία του Βυζαντινού Κράτους. Γ΄ Τόμος (Athens: Patakis, 2012), pp. 183-84.  

[2] George Pachymeres, De Andronico Palaeologo II, ed. by Immanuel Bekker (Bonn: Impensis Ed. Weberi, 1835), pp. 552-53.

[3] Ibid., p. 628.

[4] Angeliki Laiou, ‘The Provisioning of Constantinople during the Winter of 1306-1307’, Byzantion, 37 (1967), 91-113 (p. 91).

[5] The Correspondence of Athanasius I, Patriarch of Constantinople: Letters to the Emperor Andronicus II, Members of the Imperial Family, and Officials, ed. by Alice-Mary Maffry Talbot (Washington, DC: Dumbarton Oaks Center for Byzantine Studies, 1975), p. 394.

[6] Archimandrite Athanasios Pantokratorinos, ‘Βίος και πολιτεία του Αθανασίου Α´, Οικουμενικού Πατριάρχου (1289-1293 και 1304-1310) συγγραφείς υπό Ιωσήφ Καλοθέτου μοναχού’, Thrakika, 13 (1940), 56-107 (p. 101).

[7] See The Correspondence of Athanasius I,letters 9, 35, 37.  

[8] Ibid., letter 67.

[9] Ibid., letter 102; John Lawrence Boojamra, ‘Social Thought and Reforms of Athanasios of Constantinople (1289-1293; 1303-1309)’, Byzantion, 55.1 (1985), 332-82 (p. 366); Vitalien Laurent, Les Regestes des Actes du Patriarcat de Constantinople: Volume 1, Les Actes des Patriarches. Fascicule IV, Les Regestes de 1208 à 1309 (Paris: Institut français d’ études byzantines, 1971), pp. 536-37. 

[10] The Correspondence of Athanasius I,letter 72.

[11] The patriarch actually mentions that they used to receive “favors from the wives of citizens in payment for grain.” Ibid., letter 93.

[12] Ibid., letters 73, 74, 106.

[13] Ibid., letter 100.

[14] John Lawrence Boojamra, The Church and Social Reform: The Policies of the Patriarch Athanasios of Constantinople (New York: Fordham University Press, 1993), 119; Laiou, ‘The Provisioning’, pp. 103-104.

Thomas Magistros’ “On Imperial Office” on military preparations

Thomas Magistros, his city and his times

The fourteenth century was a period of turbulence for the Byzantine Empire, and Thessaloniki had a great share of these troubles. The continuous wars and the internal conflicts were affecting the lives and the works of contemporary people, and intellectuals could not have been an exception to that.

Thomas Magistros is believed to have been born around the year 1275 and he died sometime after 1347. The oldest work that we know that he produced dates back to 1301, and the last mention of him is dated to 1346. Between these two dates there is not much information available about his life.[1]

On the Imperial Office[2] is a Mirror for Princes that he wrote between 1324 and 1350, at a time when was a monk, and it was addressed to the emperor Andronikos II Palaiologos. Mirrors for Princes were advisory rhetorical works compiled for princes and young kings. Although their authors had been drawing their content from the same pool of thought, they chose to use different material, changing it from one period to another so that their work could reflect the imperial ideology and the political realities of their time. This rule also applies to their mentions of war preparations and military affairs in general.[3]

In the times of Magistros, warfare, sieges, and political and social turmoil were not rare. The Byzantine scholar was native to Thessalonike: he was born and died there and the only time, which we know of, that he left the city, was to deliver an oration in Constantinople, on behalf of the general Chandrenos, who had defended his city in the past.[4] Therefore, it is safe to assume that his attitude and thoughts were heavily influenced by what he was witnessing and what he knew of his city’s recent past. And the city of Thessaloniki, despite or as a consequence of its considerable growth during that period,[5] had had a troubled history just before the time the Mirror was written, and continued to have such for some time. In 1308 the Catalan Great Company tried to conquer the city only to be stopped by its walls. Stefan Uroš IV Dušan, who unsuccessfully besieged Thessaloniki in 1334 and returned again in 1341, had the same (bad) luck. And the dangers did not only belong to the past, as the attack of the Ottomans in 1383 can attest. The city fell at their hands in 1387 as a result of this attack, only a few decades after On the Imperial Office was written.

But Thessaloniki had also had troubles coming from within the empire and even the city itself. Andronikos II and Andronikos III tried to claim it as their own from 1320 onwards, and in 1340 the city fell temporarily in the hands of the zealots.[6]

It therefore comes as no surprise that Magistros chose to include in his work advice on military affairs, not omitting, at the same time, to express his thoughts about the preparations of a city so it could withstand an enemy’s siege.

Military affairs in On the Imperial Office

In On the Imperial Office Magistros refers to military affairs several times. First, he states that he wished weapons were never invented and that the emperor should not go to a war led by his greed. On the contrary, he must do anything in his power so that the war is avoided (ζ΄, 457). However, if he wants to secure peace he must always be prepared for war. The scholar justifies his claim noting that weakness is creating enemies and if you only pursue peaceful resolution to conflicts you might draw the enemies upon you. On the contrary, however, if you are prepared and strong nobody will want to wage war on you and this way you can enjoy peace (η΄, 457). Moreover, he advises that the emperor should always be ready in both body and soul and the way to do that is to exercise for the possibility of war. He should not only keep himself prepared, but he should also have his whole army prepared and exercised (drilled) as well (η΄, 457-458). He should also maintain a strong army and navy but he should not rely on mercenaries because they are far from trustworthy. After all, quality is better than quantity, he notes, and the mercenaries are only good to add to the numbers of an army (θ΄, 460-461).

In an excerpt that speaks about justice Magistros also finds the opportunity to mention several factors which he believes that are essential for a city to be safe.  Having been built in a natural feature of the land that helps defense and being protected by walls and fortifications are prerequisites if the city is to be saved from an enemy siege. The human factor, according to the rhetor (Magistros), is equally important towards that end (στ΄, 456). He states that the soldiers should always be kept content and be offered presents because this way they will be kept motivated to train themselves in times of peace and to not lose respect in the face of the emperor. In times of war, this could prevent them from abandoning the battle even if they were injured. They should always be assured that if they lose their possessions in times of war, these will be replaced by the emperor. On top of these, what is of great importance is that they need to know that their children will be taken care of in case they fall in battle. Like the ancient Athenians before them, advises Magistros, the Byzantines must also always take of the children of those who died fighting, until they reach adulthood (ι΄, 461-463).

But strong walls and capable fighters are not enough to ensure that a city will not fall during an enemy siege, Magistros claims. Provisions should be made prior to the attack. The storages should always be kept filled in full with grain and all the other essentials, which should not be available for trade. To that end the emperor must spare no expenses, because money spent for that reason is well spent. These preparations could be life-saving for the people and they bring honour to the king. Because regardless of the cities’ moats and walls, if there are not enough supplies available to feed its population, this city will not be able to withstand a long siege. The rhetor concludes that the storage of food is as important as a strong fortification (κγ΄, 484). It is worth mentioning that this kind of advice is found very rarely in Mirrors. Apart from On the Imperial Office there is perhaps one more similar mention in a work of this genre, in Kekaumenos’ Strategikon (85. 265), something that does not come as a surprise, considering that the author of that work was probably a soldier and thus he took extra care to make long mentions of everything that was war related.


On the Imperial Office is a workthat can provide us with an insight into what an intellectual living in fourteenth-century Thessaloniki was thinking in regards to state affairs. The conflicts of his time, internal and external, and the sieges his city had to withstand had led him to make special mentions of military affairs.

First of all, he advises that a city should have strong walls. And indeed the land walls of his hometown are described as being strong. However, the sea walls failed to provide the same safety to the city.[7] The last attested repairs before the time of Magistros date to the twelfth century, and the same action was repeated a few decades after his death.[8]

The scholar also provides advice and insights regarding soldiers. He states that the emperor should take steps to ensure that they always remain loyal and they do not lose respect for him. The importance of this advice lies in the conflict between Andronikos II and Andronikos III as none of them could afford to see his soldiers joining the enemy.

Magistros also urges the emperor to take measures for the children of the soldiers that were becoming orphans as a result of the continuous wars of the period, even if his real concern is to ensure their parents that a good fate awaits their offspring if they die in battle, and therefore making them fight with more braveness. This mention is a clear indicator of a real problem that might have occurred inside the cities of the empire because of the numerous conflicts.

Last but not least, the rhetor notes that the cities’ storages should always be full of grain, to help the city in case of an enemy’s siege, which was, in his time, a recurring threat to the well-being of Thessaloniki’s citizens.

[1] Nigel Guy Wilson, Scholars of Byzantium, (London, Cambridge, Mass.: General Duckworth & Co. ltd. And The Medieval Academy of America, 1983), p. 247.

[2] Jacque Paul Migne, Nicephorus Callistus, Theodulos Monachus, Matthaeus Blastares [Patrologiae Cursus Completus, Series Graeca], Tomus 145, (Paris, 1904), pp. 447-496.

[3] For this notion see Konstantinos Karatolios, ‘From peacemaker to warrior. Changes in the imperial education as illustrated in the eleventh-century Mirrors of Princes’, in Warfare in 11th century Byzantium, ed. by Georgios Theotokis and Marek Meško (London and New York: Routledge, 2021), pp. 98-108 (pp. 98-108).

[4] Alexander Kazhdan and Alice-Mary Talbot, ‘Thomas Magistros’, in Oxford Dictionary of Byzantium, volume 3, ed. by Alexander Kazhdan (New York-Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1991, pp. 2076-2077 (p. 2076).

[5] Angeliki E. Laiou, Cécile Morrisson, The Byzantine Economy, (New York, Melbourne, Madrid, Cape Town, Singapore, São Paulo: Cambridge University Press, 2007), p. 198.

[6] For these incidents see, among others, Vassiliki Nerantzi-Varmazi, ‘Η Θεσσαλονίκη εστία Κοινωνικών Αναταραχών το 14ο αιώνα’, Θεσσαλονικέων Πόλις, 2 (1997), pp. 74-81 (pp. 74-81).

[7] On the sea walls of Thessalonike, see among others Michael Vickers, ‘The Byzantine Sea Walls of Thessaloniki’, Balkan Studies, 11 (1970), pp. 261-280.

[8] Timothy E. Gregory, ‘Thessalonike’, in Oxford Dictionary of Byzantium, volume 3, ed. by Alexander Kazhdan (New York-Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1991, pp. 2072-2074 (pp. 2072-2073).

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