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.

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