The Great Fair at Thessalonica
Mid 12th century
[Adopted from Geanokoplos]
The site of the most fair in Byzantine world came to be the
city of Thessalonica, which in later centuries was almost as important
a city as the Capital. Merchants came to Thessalonica from all
over the East as well as the West. This fair was probably larger
in size than the famous contemporary fair at Champagne in France.
The follow is taken from the Timarion, a satirical work
in the style of the ancient writer Lucian. It describes the fair
of Thessalonica as it was in the mid-twelft century, a period
in which that city not only was of economic importance but was
becoming significant culturally as well.
The Demetria is a festival, like the Panathenaea at Athens and
the Panionia among the Milesians, and it is at the same time the
most important fair held in Macedon'ia. Not only do the natives
of the country flock together to it in great numbers, but multitudes
also come from all lands and of every race - Greeks, wherever
they are found, the various tribes of Mysians [i.e. people of
Moesia] who dwell on our borders as far as the Ister and Scythia,
Campanians and other Italians, Iberians, Lusitanians, and Transalpine
Celts [this is Byzantine way of describing the Bulgarians, &c.,
Neapolitans, Spaniards, Portuguese, and French]; and, to make
a long story short, the shores of the ocean send pilgrims and
suppliants to visit the martyr, so widely extended is his fame
throughout Europe. For myself, being a Cappadocian from beyond
the boundaries of the empire, [this country was now under the
Seljuk sultans of Iconium] and having never before been present
on the occasion, but having only heard it described, I was anxious
to get a bird's eye view of the whole scene, that I might pass
over nothing unnoticed. With this object I made my way up to a
height close by the scene of the fair, where I sat down and surveyed
everything at my leisure. What I saw there was a number of merchants'
booths, set up in parallel rows opposite one another; and these
rows extended to a great length, and were sufficiently wide apart
to leave a broad space in the middle, so as to give free passage
for the stream of the people. Looking at the closeness of the
booths to one another and the regularity of their position, one
might take them for lines drawn lengthwise from two opposite points.
At right angles to these, other booths were set up, also forming
rows, though of no great length, so that they resembled the tiny
feet that grow outside the bodies of certain reptiles. Curious
indeed it was, that while in reality there were two rows, they
presented the appearance of a single animal, owing to the booths
being so near and so straight; for lines suggested a long body,
while the crossrows at the sides looked like the feet that supported
it. I declare than when I looked down from the heights above on
the ground plan of the fair, I could not help comparing it to
a centipede, a very long insect with innumerable small feet under
And if you are anxious to know what it contained, my inquisitive
friend, as I saw it afterwards when I came down from the hills
- well, there was every kind of material woven or spun by men
or women, all those that come from Boeotia and the Peloponnese,
and all that are brought in trading ships from Italy to Greece.
Besides this, Phoencia furnishes numerous articles, and Egypt,
and Spain, and the pillars of Hercules, where the finest coverlets
are manufactured. These things the merchants bring direct from
their respective countries to old Macedonia and Thessalonica;
but the Euxine also contributes to the splendour of the fair by sending across its products to Constantinople, whence the
cargoes are brought by numerous horses and mules. All this I went
through and carefully examined afterwards when I came down; but
even while I was still seated on the height above I was struck
with wonder at the number and variety of the animals, and the
extraordinary confusion of' their noises which assailed my ears-horses
neighing, oxen lowing, sheep bleating, pigs grunting, and dogs
barking, for these also accompany their masters as a defence against
wolves an thieves.
Translated by H. Tozer, "Byzantine Satire," Journal
of Hellenic Studies 52 (1881), 244-45. Reprinted in Deno Geanokoplos, Byzantium, (Chicago: 1984), 280-81
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© Paul Halsall June 1997