'Lock up your valuables'

perceptions of sailors and sea-merchants in port cities of late antiquity and early Byzantium

Janet Wade

Research output: Contribution to journalArticle


The ongoing presence of sailors and sea-merchants in the major port cities of the late antique and early Byzantine periods made them an important and influential subculture. This paper looks at the range of perceptions of the maritime community that exist in late Roman and early Byzantine sources. Various secular and ecclesiastical attitudes are discussed and compared with relevant sections of the civil and maritime law codes. When sailors, seamerchants, and other mariners are mentioned by their contemporaries, they are more often than not portrayed in an unfavourable light. The legislation suggests that the negative perception of these men does have some basis in reality, yet the traditional view of these men as unsavoury and dishonest characters needs to be questioned. This paper asks why the ancient sources perceived sailors and sea-merchants in the way that they did. It discusses the social stigma attached to these men, the potential moral threat that they posed, their superstitious nature, and their socially disruptive and subversive behaviour. This paper highlights the reasons why modern scholars have tended to overlook the presence of the maritime community and their sociological importance in major port cities of this period. It argues that the maritime crowd had an integral role in the shaping of the economy, society, and even the church during this period.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)47-75
Number of pages29
JournalJournal of the Australian Early Medieval Association
Publication statusPublished - 2014

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