Russia’s Capitalists of Antiquity – The Genoese



In antiquity on the 1st of March each year the Consul of Sudak, together with 8 leading citizens, appointed `two honest men’, one Latin and one Greek, to assist the Consul with financial matters and to represent the interests of Sudak’s multi-ethnic population. In Balaclava, British poet Alfred, Lord Tennyson words would be immortalized  in his verses the Charge of the Light Brigade. It would be in Feodosia (Caffa at the time) in 1347 that it’s believed the Black Death would enter Europe which became a devastating pandemic more than likely caused by the Golden Horde. This occurred after a long protracted siege during which the Mongol army under Janibeg was reportedly withering from the disease, they catapulted the infected corpses over the city walls, infecting the inhabitants, in one of the first cases of biological warfare.

Since today just happens to be March 1st it is appropriate to introduce you to Sudak, Balaclava, and Feodosia all which happened to be under the control of the Genoese, a very powerful maritime city state in Italy.


In 1266 the Genoese obtained from Mangu Khan, the henchman of the Golden Horde in the Crimea, the property rights to Kaffa (present-day Feodosiia), which later became the center of their colonies. They maintained an alliance with the Mongol-Tatar khans, who formally were the overlords of the colonies but gave the Genoese control over administration, preserving jurisdiction there only over the khans’ subjects. In 1357 the Genoese seized Cembalo (Balaklava); in 1365, Soldaia (Sudak). Other Genoese colonies were founded at Bosporo (on the site of present-day Kerch’) and Tana (at the mouth of the Don). Greeks, Italians, Armenians, Tatars, Russians, and other Peoples lived in these colonies. Toward the end of the 14th century, the colonies began to play a decisive part in commerce on the Black Sea. Genoese merchants carried on extensive trade as middlemen. They sold grain, salt, leather, furs, wax, honey, wood, fish, and caviar from the Black Sea region; cloth from Italy and Germany; oil and wine from Greece; spices, precious stones, and musk from the countries of Asia; and ivory from Africa. There was also an important trade in captives purchased from the Tatar khans and Turkish sultans. Genoese merchants conducted trading operations on Russian soil as well. Settlers from the Genoese colonies, who were referred to as friagi, lived in Moscow where, during the 14th and 15th centuries, there was an association of merchants, the “Surozhites,” who specialized in trade with the Genoese colonies on the Northern Black Sea Shore.

map of Kaffa

The First Italian Guide Book

Being excellent business men the Genoese wrote an Italian guide book in 1340. This book was written by Francesco Balducci Pegolotti and was published to give merchants practical advice on their journey along the Silk Road. Some of the things that were shared in the book were that merchants should let their beards grow, to be inconspicuous in Asia. It went on to say that they will be more comfortable if they hire a woman near the Black Sea to look after their needs during the journey. It would be accounted that assurance on the road was safe would have an alarming ring to your ears: ‘If you are some sixty men in the company, you will go as safely as if you were in your own house.’ But the List of commodities changing hands on the route can be guaranteed to quicken the pulse of any ambitious trader. See more here.


So Who Were the Genoese

The Genoese expansion and control were a remarkable episode in early capitalist history. They ruled so discreetly that historians missed it for the longest time altogether. The Genoese gained controlled of all of Europe’s finances–they ran the spice trade, underwrote the voyages, dominated maritime insurance, financed long distance trade, and organized the Piacenza fairs–in effect, running the European world-economy. They pioneered the use of paper money and the practice of pure finance. Through their bills of exchange–which were payable in gold–they controlled the flow of gold bullion, and after 1557, the supply of American silver as it flowed eastward to the Levant, eventually reaching the Far East. See more here.


The rise of Genoa

During the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries–when the Mediterranean was still the dominant pole of the world-economy–Genoa lived in the shadow of Venice, which was the metropolitan heart of the system. “The core of this system was the archipelago of towns–Venice, Florence, Milan, Genoa, and Lombardy–the Italian city-states. But the string of glittering towns continued north over the Alps: Augsburg, Vienna, Nuremberg, Ulm, Basle, Cologne, Hamburg and Lübeck; ending with the still-brilliant constellation of the Netherlands, with Bruges as yet its leading light, and the two English ports of London and Southampton.” The Eastern frontier of this world-system extended into Black Africa, the Red Sea and the Persian Gulf. Venice lay at the intersection of the North-South axis of the post-Black-Death increasingly prosperous Western Europe (the Venice-Burges-London axis), and the even more important East-West axis linking Europe to the Islamic world and the Far East. This nexus was to endure even as the center of gravity shifted inexorably northward. When the Portuguese take over from the Genoese in 1627, behind them lay the heavy hand of the North. See more here.

golden beach

Modern Day Feodosiya


Feodosiya , city (1990 est. pop. 85,000), S Ukraine, on the Crimean peninsula. It is a major Black Sea port at the western end of the Feodosiya Gulf. Feodosiya is also a rail terminus. A popular Crimean sea and health resort, Feodosiya has beaches, mineral springs, and mud baths. The city occupies the site of ancient Theodosia, which was founded in the 6th cent. B.C.  by Greek colonists from Miletus. While most beaches in Crimea are made of pebbles, there is a unique Golden Beach (Zolotoy Plyazh) made of small seashells in Feodosiya area. Golden Beach stretches for 15 km.

Modern Day Balaclava

Today Balaclava is a pleasant, peaceful little harbour town, gradually getting used to seeing foreigners in the streets after years of being part of the closed district of Sevastopol during the soviet era. But it only takes a climb up to the ruins of the Genoese fortress on the headland to realize why it has been of such strategic importance over the centuries.

The battle of Balaklava actually took place a couple of miles north of the town, in a wide valley in front of Sevastopol’s Sapoun Hill (Sapun-gora). Soon after the battle the valley became known as the `Valley of Death’, as a result of the Light Brigade’s ill-fated charge.The day began with a several attempts by the Russian army to put themselves in a good place to attack the base at Balaclava, but these ended in stalemate. The Russians’ artillery fire had inflicted heavy losses on Turkish positions, but a cavalry charge against the Highlanders had been driven off, and the British Heavy Brigade had then forced the Russians to retire to higher ground. In trying to drive the Russians off one of the surrounding ridges and force them to abandon the guns they had captured from the Turks, Lord Raglan sent a message Lord Lucan, in command of the Light Brigade, which was delivered in what some have suggested was a deliberately vague and imprecise way by the messenger, Captain Nolan. The result was that the instruction was misunderstood as as an order for the Light Brigade to charge directly at the Russian guns, a mile and a half up the valley, with Russian artillery and riflemen firing at them from both sides as they did so.


Battle of the Light Brigade

Within 20 minutes several hundred men and horses died as they obeyed the order and bullets rained down from either side. Having cut through the Russian guns, they found themselves at the head of the valley, and had no option but to return the way they had come, sustaining even heavier losses. 700 horsemen charged up the valley, but only 195 came back.

For the Russian onlookers, the charge appeared to be an act of incomprehensible lunacy, although there was also a measure of respect for the bravery of the soldiers involved. The French general Bosquet, who watched the charge, famously remarked “c’est magnifique, mais ce n’est pas la guerre!” (it’s magnificent, but it’s not warfare), and the controversy which followed on the British side led to Lord Lucan’s enforced resignation from his command.

William Russell, the Times Special Correspondent, was among those who watched the charge. In the report subsequently printed in the newspaper, he suggested that there seemed to have been `some hideous blunder’. Three weeks later Alfred Lord Tennyson was already working on his famous poem:

`Forward the Light Brigade!’
Was there a man dismayed?
Not though the soldiers knew
Someone had blundered:
Their’s not to make reply,
Their’s not to reason why,
Their’s but to do and die:
Into the valley of Death
Rode the Six Hundred

A Legend about Sudak

The Girl in the Tower

In the times, when Sudak was a Greek colony called Sugdeya, the archon (magistrate in charge of the city affairs) had a daughter of unearthly beauty whom he kept locked in a tower on the top of the hill at the very spot where now the fortress is located. Among the suitors for her hand was Diafant, one of the best generals of Mithradates VI Eupator, also called the Great, the most powerful king on the coasts of the Black Sea who dared to challenge Rome itself. In fact he proved to be one of the most powerful opponents that Rome had ever had before. The king was a colorful figure even by the standards of ancient history which swarms with colorful figures. During his third major war with Rome, Mithradates established himself in 64 BC at Panticapaeum (now Kerch) on the Cimmerian Bosporus and was planning an invasion of Italy by way of the Danube when his own troops, led by his son Pharnaces, revolted against him. After failing in an attempt to poison him — Mithradates was said to have been taking small doses of various poisons as antidote against possible poisoning, when an attempt to poison him didn’t work — Mithradates ordered a Gallic mercenary to kill him.

The young girl  had excellent prospects of marrying someone who was close to the mighty king. But she was not too happy about the prospect — or rather she was very unhappy about it. Her reason was very simple — she was in love with another man. She had chanced to meet him when she had once ventured out of the tower to take a walk to the nearby creek on the bank of which there was the grave of one of her slaves, a maiden in the girl’s service. This maiden slave, whom the archon’s daughter loved dearly, fell to her death from the wall of the tower and was buried not far from the place where she died on the rocks.

The girl met the man, love of her life in the grove by the side of the creek and it was love at first sight. The young man was a shepherd and the girl did not tell him right away who she was. Her love was quickly and conveniently reciprocated.

The young man told the girl that he did not know where he was from — all he knew was that he had been brought to the Crimea by pirates and that all he remembered of his native land was majestic temples. The girl kept coming to see the young and handsome shepherd and the puppy love blossomed into a full-blown passion. She was wise enough not to tell her father about what was going on, but on one of her trips to the grove she was followed. The young shepherd was seized and locked in the underground prison at the bottom of the tower. The girl proved to be ingenious enough to find a way of deceiving the guards and getting her lover out of the stone cell to which he was confined. But by the time she did it, he was badly ill. She hid him in her own room but her father discovered him there and was about to call the guards when he saw —the timing was perfect — a birthmark on the boy’s chest which had a very familiar shape. Of course! It was his own son whom he had lost to the pirates many years ago! The happy reunion was considerably dampened by the insolvable complications that resulted from this discovery — first, his daughter, no matter how she loved the boy, could not marry him; second, her prospective marriage to Diafant could be jeopardized. The King, being a wise man, concealed from his daughter the fact that the shepherd was his own son, providing some other explanation for the medical care he ordered to be given to the young man. When he was well again, he was told by the King that he had to go on an important mission overseas, hoping that during the young man’s absence the marriage would be consummated. The mission was supposed to be a perilous one, and if successful, the ship carrying the young man back would hoist a white sail as it sailed into the port of Sudaya. The girl said that she would wait for the young man’s return. She did wait for quite some time but the combined pressure of her father and Diafant proved to be too strong for her to resist. She succumbed but on the day fixed for the marriage ceremony she saw a ship — that ship — sailing into the port. There was no white sail on it and she, assuming that the mission took the life of her beloved, declared that she saw no reason to live and took a fatal leap from the top of the tower.


6 thoughts on “Russia’s Capitalists of Antiquity – The Genoese

      1. I am travelling to Moscow in late april…interesting story to it. When you have time search my blog for “converge part 2″…there you will find a link to part 1 where the story begins.

      2. Well, I guess I’d say I’m not surprised. The Russian mind is absolutely enthralling to say the least. I suspect you will love your trip fall in love with Moscow, Russia, and much more. It’s different world here, but extremely intriguing to say the least. Think I will need to get a hold of the book and then try to find the time to read it. I’ve always found Intellectual conversation stimulating in more ways then one. Good Luck, have fun and keep me posted.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s