• Henry Hopwood-Phillips

Ethnic Minorities in Byzantium Part 2


Gnostics to the bone, the Bogomils seem to have snowballed in their Macedonian-Bulgarian heartland after John I transferred another manichaean sect, the Paulicians, to Philoppolis (Plovdiv) in AD 970. These lads reject everything Byzantium stands for: from institutions to matter. Yes, you read that right. These ascetics aren’t just non-conformists, they’re paranoid about all worldly things – even down to rejecting the Cross. Don’t associate with these people if you value your life. One of their leaders, Basil the Physician, was famously burned in the hippodrome in 1118. If you really want to meet one today, many in Bosnia converted to Islam in a very half-hearted way.


There are few with more volatile reputations than the Bulgars. When they’re up, they’re up – as when they killed over 20,000 Arabs at the second siege of Constantinople (717-18). But when they’re down, they’re really down – as when Krum had Nikephoros’ skull lined with silver and made into a goblet. Their leaders have a crappy habit, too, of claiming to be “Basileus of the Romans.” A title, which prompted one of our diplomats, Theodoros Daphnopates, to enquire precisely where his Romans were. If you want to meet a Bulgar today, you can visit Bulgaria (despite losing Maritsa, 1371) thanks to the Russo-Turkish War of 1877-78.


These guys are the worst. The sort of mate you invite to a party because they have such big dick energy. But as the party diminuendos into after-party and then normal life, they’re still hanging around being obnoxious. The Catalans were invited to kill marauding Turks for money and after about twenty seconds fulfilling their job description (1303-5) went berserk and started killing Byzantines. We should have seen it coming. Roger de Flor arrived on Genoese ships he didn’t pay for, kept asking for the emperor to up his pay and then ransacked Christian settlements when refused. These guys are such arseholes that even Athos refused to receive Catalans until two decades ago. Praise the Lord for Michael VIII’s deft use of the assassin’s blade.


Nobody can stay mad at the Copts too long. I mean, these guys had the gospel brought to them by St Mark, founded monasticism (Anthony the Great) and in the city of Alexandria possessed the seat of the faith’s greatest thinkers from Clement and Origen to Athanasius and Cyril. Despite (or because of) all this, however, the Copts rejected Chalcedon (451) and then manned Islamic navies, causing centuries of harm along the frontiers of Christendom. As a consequence, Byzantines hold quite conflicted view on them.


Nothing good ever came from above the Black Sea. Huns, Avars, Bulgars, Khazars, Bulgars, Pechenegs and Cumans all hit Byzantium hard from the North but eventually lived to regret it. At first, the Cumans were useful idiots. They were used in the civil wars of the Rus (destabilizing their polity), fought as mercenaries at Manzikert (1071) and also helped destroy the pesky Pechenegs at Levounion (1091). Most joined Hungary (their separate privileges only removed in the early eighteenth century), Georgia or the Golden horde, but a small percentage became full-time Byzantines in the army. They’re not around today, but if you want to picture one think of a blonde, blue-eyed Turkic person.


The greatest people to ever serve Byzantium, the chronicler Orderic Vitalis noted that after the battle of Hastings “Some of them who were still in the flower of youth… bravely offered their arms to Alexios, Emperor of Constantinople… The English were warmly welcomed… and are still honoured by Emperor, nobility and people alike”. The Brits have great Byzantine credentials after all. Not only had Constantine been crowned in York, according to legend he was also the grandson of Old King Cole. Adam of Usk even records that Constantine left the island to establish Constantinople with 30,000 Britons. To twist the knife of controversy further: the last emperors from John V to Constantine XI were descended from William the Conqueror through John V’s mother, Anne of Savoy. So if high Byzantium was a very Anglo affair, late Byzantium was a very Norman one.


Much of the ambivalence concerning Georgia in the Byzantine mindset is the fact Georgians have rarely cohered as an independent nation. At first Persian vassals, then part of the Arab Tbilisi emirate, and subsequently extremely decentralized. Only since the mid-ninth century have the Georgians got their act together, and even then David of Tao rebelled against one of Byzantium’s greatest military emperors, Basil II, resulting in their crushing defeat at Svindax (1022) and a partial integration with the empire. But whereas Byzantium crumbled before the Seljuk threat, Georgia held firm, establishing Iviron on Athos and only forfeiting nominal control of their state to the Mongols. The result? Most Byzantines feel jealous that in the period the empire was reduced to a rump-state, Georgians flourished.


One of the blackest names in the Byzantine annals, the Goths raided most of the east in the fourth century, were responsible for Adrianople in 378, and converted to the cretinous creed of Arianism. Sacking Rome in AD 410, Constantinople felt pressured by the antics of Gainas to massacre its own Goths a decade before and pursued a long and costly war against their Visigothic brethren under Justinian. The only good Goths to a Byzantine are the Greuthungi ones i.e. those who stayed east and founded Gottia (AKA Theodoro) with its HQ at Doros in the Crimea. These have the dubious honour of being the last state associated with the Byzantines to fall to the Ottomans in 1475.


Protected by the Taurus mountains, these guys are bandits and brigands. They really are the worst of all worlds: pagan barbarians with citizenship. Repeatedly attacking cities on the Mediterranean littoral like Seleucia or, north of the Taurus, on the Lycaonian plain. They had to be subjugated, first, by Publius Servilius in 75 BC, then in AD 404 by the comes rei militaris, Arbazacius, and again in the last years of the fifth-century by a succession of generals that included John “the Hunchback”. To give you an idea of how much Byzantines hate Isaurians, it says a lot that the citizens of Iconium were happy to throw them to the beasts as late as AD 353. POWs from the conflicts, however, started to fill the new household guard known as the Excubitoi, and soon enough the Isaurians started producing emperors from Zeno to Leontios; a sure if belated sign of assimilation.


If the empire is capable of absorbing ethnicities, religious dissenters can be more difficult. Ultimately monophysites whose parallel church was named after a sixth-century bishop of Edessa, Jacob Bardaeus, the Jacobites remained outside of the empire until Nikephoros II populated the frontier regions (that had suffered his scorched-earth policies) with them. The warrior emperors (including Tzimisces and Basil II) in general favoured toleration but there was, in reality, very little consensus. The Muslims of Mytilene had converted en masse to avoid deportation; why should the heterodox Christians be any different? In AD 969 the emperor brought Mar John and four of his bishops to Constantinople for a public disputation. But the PR operation quickly went wrong and they were threatened with prison and exile. This dull tension sums up Byzantine relations with these guys.

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