Ethnic Minorities in Byzantium Part 1
“One finds me Scythian among Scythians, Latin among Latins… And also to Persians I speak in Persian… To Alans I say in their tongue: ‘Good day, my lord, my archontissa, where are you from? Tapankhas mesfili khsina korthi kanda, and so on’… Arabs, since they are Arabs, I address in Arabic… And also I welcome the Ros according to their habits… ‘Sdraste, brate, sestritza’, and I say, ‘dobra deni’. To Jews I say in a proper manner in Hebrew: ‘Your blind house devoted to magic, your mouth, a chasm engulfing flies, Memakomene beth fagi beelzebul timaie…’”
And so run the jovial boasts of the twelfth-century scholar John Tzetzes in his Theogony. Despite showcasing the linguistic diversity of Constantinople and his polyglottic proficiency, however, he was no PC warrior. Anti-Jewish in a conventionally Byzantine manner i.e. resenting their refusal to acknowledge Christ, Kaldellis’ latest book Romanland (2019) presents an enormous amount of material regarding Byzantine prejudices and also points to the negligibility of ethnic minorities en bloc within the empire.
Despite Kaldellis’ worthy caveats (which reconfigure Romanitas as an ethnicity and marginalise the cultural ebullience of minorities), it’s indisputable that no matter how well assimilated most ethnicities were to the Roman mindset, or how few (and highly dispersed) they were, Byzantium’s ethnic diversity was both real and a substantial achievement.
This was hidden, for the most part, beneath a rather severe monocultural stance. But in reality, a pragmatic Byzantium entered into dialogues with every ethnicity it encountered: destroying some (Paulicians), converting and embracing others (Slavs) as well as awkwardly negotiating compromises (Georgians) with more ambivalent identities. Readers can eavesdrop on cultural encounters like these by reading texts such as Constantine VII’s De Administrando Imperio.
Here, then, it’s time to list some of Byzantium’s minorities, so that when Byz 2.0 comes around, you’re clued up. If this A-Z could be spun out to the satellites of the Persian world (sucking in folk like the Bactrians) or take a microscope to provincial identities (such as the Cilicians) it’d be even more exciting, but for now we’ll stick to the periphery of the Eastern Roman Empire.
Located around the North-Eastern area of the Black Sea, the Abasgoi are still around today though you’ve probably never heard of them. Whatever you do, don’t confuse these guys with Georgians – unless, that is, you want an axe to the face. Prokopios reckoned they preferred worshipping trees to God, but they tend to be tolerated in the capital as ready suppliers of eunuchs – as long as their bigger patrons and neighbours (the Laz, Georgians or Khazars) don’t stir up trouble. If you happen to be in the region, glimpses of civilization can be found around the former Greek colonies of Pitiuntas and Sebastopolis, with a bishop of metropolitan rank at the former.
The Huns split these Iranian cavalrymen in two, with the western Alanoi settling along the Loire under King Sangiban, as well as the Lower Danube (from whence the historian Jordanes sprang), and the eastern group becoming sedentary in the Caucasian plain, converting to Christianity in the 10th century (after getting whiplash from an Islamic invasion by the caliph’s general, Boga). In the Byzantine imagination, the Alans loom large as stewards of the Darial Gorge, which many believe to be the Gates of Alexander, keeping out Gog and Magog until the End Times. Wiped out by the Mongols in the thirteenth century, if you want to meet an Alan today, go to Ossetia.
First mentioned by Byzantines in the eleventh century in the context of forming ethnically distinct military units in the imperial army, the mountainous homeland of the “Arvanites” was once mainly associated with treachery in Byzantium having supplied guides to Bohemund and his Norman lads in 1107. Since the fall of the empire, however, Albanians have been redeemed in the eyes of many for producing Skanderbeg, scourge of the Ottomans and athleta Christi, whose flag (along with the Russian coat of arms) most resembles the Byzantine double-eagle.
Founded in fourth-century Campania (between Naples and Salerno), when most cities were busy getting sacked, the Amalfitans were the West’s first-movers in the eastern Mediterranean. Nominally part of the Byzantine duchy of Naples, Amalfitans are famous for maintaining their Roman ties when the West was crumpling. Boasting the first Latin quarter in Constantinople, a Benedictine monastery (the Amalfion) on Athos, as well as being deeply involved in Byzantine trade – you can still see the Byzantine doors of its cathedral today. Eventually conquered by the Normans, Manuel I had to revoke all the privileges of the Amalfitans; a sad denouement for Italians who’d once been the proudest of Byzantines.
Byzantines rarely think of Arabs as such. Instead, they’re Saracens/Hagarenes or Christians (who in Melkite form might be as worthy a Roman as possible) – the former being primarily instruments of God rather than a people with agency. The seventh-century flood of Muslims Arabs brought an even greater deluge of Byzantine apocalypses. But, when the world didn’t end, people lightened up. So much so, in fact, that Arab eunuchs such as Samonas could be welcomed into the highest echelons of government during Leo VI’s reign, and Arabs (such as the 10,000 Banu Habib in the tenth century) were permitted to convert en masse and enter the empire. In general, however, Arabs occupy the place of the Persians as the great eastern enemy.
Kassia, the famous ninth-century hymnographer, notoriously wrote these guys off as “terrible, deceitful, vile, fanatical, deranged, malignant, sly” and so on. But, in the main, Byzantine sentiments are stacked more in the favour of Armenians than against. These were the folk, after all, who made sure the Reconquista of Italy was possible (forming a field army under Justinian), and had their aristocracy co-opted into Byzantium’s own. Often given grand manors in Constantinople for their services, it was once fashionable for aspirational Romans to assume Armenian names like Bardas or Bardanes – a trend that climaxed with Basil I claiming to be of Armenian stock via Constantine and Alexander the Great.
A people steeped in history, even by Byzantine standards, the Assyrians (also known as Chaldeans or Arameans) boast historical heartlands that spread throughout the fertile crescent and a language (Syriac) that represents a variety of Aramaic – Christ’s tongue. Mostly famous for Church figures such as Ephrem the Syrian, as well as Tatian’s gospel synthesis: the Diatesseron, the Jacobites went their own way after Chalcedon, AD 451 (though partially welcomed back into the empire after Islamic conquest, reactionaries insisted imperial law treat them as heretics), and the East Syriac Church of the East ignored all condemnations of Nestorius, becoming little better than Persians in the eyes of most Romans. Only Melkites survive today with their reputations unscathed.
If you'd like to know more read Romanland by A. Kaldellis (2019)