• Henry Hopwood-Phillips

Ethnic minorities in Byzantium Part 3

Updated: Jun 21, 2019


Byzantine relations with the Jews have always been complex, not least because the former effectively stole the latter’s ideological blueprint. According to its rubric, Jews become the Roman genos and the goyim are converted into a sea of pagan ethnikoi relentlessly tossing the ark of state. Originally inhabitants of the Chalkprateia neighbourhood in Constantinople, after a series of pogroms the Jews moved to a quarter on the southern shore of the horn and then Galata, where Karaites and their Rabbinic cousins so hated one another that a wall had to be built between them. Perhaps the biggest bugbear between Romaniote Jews and Romans was the fact Jewish womenfolk kept going to the latter’s court to use secular rights they lacked in the synagogue, a fact that perhaps contributed to Jews responding to 1453 with the Targum for Lamentations 4:21, which was believed to predict the downfall of the “guilty city.”


Surviving today in modern Turkic languages, which refer to the Caspian Sea as the “Khazar Sea,” the Khazars were once Byzantium’s main ally as gatekeepers of the northern steppes. Considered ugly or alien enough to be figures of abuse in the capital, a typical example was the language Michael III piled on the patriarch Photios, which included the insult: “Khazar-face.” Thanks to their positive response to Justinian II’s desperate pleas in AD 705, they became one of the first barbarians (and certainly the first “Scythians”) to have a lady of imperial blood bestowed upon them; a different union (Constantine V and Tzitzak) resulting in the short-reigned Leo IV “The Khazar.” Having defeated both Bulgars and Arabs, one would be forgiven for supposing the Byzantines might have bet on the Khazars as the perfect buffer-state but they preferred to abet Rus offensives that resulted in the demise of the khaganate in the late tenth century.


An Iranian people from Azerbaijan, the beliefs of the Khurramites (“the cheerful ones”) mixed deviant Islam (including elements of libertinism – hence their cheeriness) and Mazdakian Zoroastrianism. Resisting Arab rule after the Abbasids executed one of their favourite generals, in the 830s a large force of roughly 30,000 sought refuge in the Roman Empire and were accepted. Enrolled in the army, Theophilos had suspicions towards the end of his reign that their leader was a little too at ease in pursuing his own interests; he arrested Theophobos, broke their ethnic blocs into smaller units and dispersed them among the empire’s themes.


AKA “Nemitsoi,” an abominable and confused people who claim to be heirs to a civilisation they destroyed; a polity whose theological genius seems to consist of giving their sole apostolic see autocratic powers; a folk who are so jealous of the true capital of Christendom, Constantinople, that they are humbly willing to raze it to the ground in a “crusade.” Legalistic in the cloisters, boorish at the dinner table and disorganized on the battle field, the Latins have little to recommend themselves to anyone. Perhaps their only redeeming quality is that they are usually divided even against one another, and can be fobbed off with silks or meaningless titles like patrikios.


Ethnically Georgians, the ancestors of the Laz are cited by classical authors from Scylax in the sixth century BC to Agathias in the sixth century AD. Pliny cited them specifically in the first century when they were part of the Roman province of Polemonian Pontus. As the Roman grip loosened, the Laz united all the coastal tribes and seized Colchis, becoming a Byzantine client-kingdom in the process. In the 790s, the Abkhazians ousted the Laz from its homeland and they lived under Byzantine suzerainty in the Chaldian Theme assigned to it, which itself passed to the Empire of Trebizond during the fourth crusade.


Having succeeded where the Lombards failed, in kicking Constantinople out of Italy in 1071, the Normans cretinously reckoned the remainder of its empire must be easy pickings too. Defeated by Alexios in 1085 and then again in 1108 (Treaty of Devol), the Byzantines proved this to be very far from the case. The problem is these guys never know their station. While Franks might plan to subvert the natural order, they at least expediently accept the status quo; the King of Jerusalem, Baldwin III, for instance riding behind Manuel I when he entered Antioch and swearing to be his vassal. Normans, on the other hand, are like pugs leaping at an Alsatian’s ears. The sack of Thessalonica in 1185 had to be repaid in kind at Demetritzes, putting an end to their silly adventurism.


Yet more basic bitches from the steppe, the Pechenegs (AKA “Patzinakoi”) were a Turkic-speaking confederation of roughly eight tribes. Fighting originally as Bulgar mercenaries, they displaced the Magyars, Rus and Khazars around the Don region, and by 1091 were knocking at the gates of Constantinople. Byzantines were justifiably scared, as one of their leaders (Kurya) had done a “Krum” and made a goblet of the Rus leader Svyatoslav’s skull in AD 972. Thankfully, the Cumans were on hand to reduce them to submission on that occasion. And in 1122, John II finished off the job when his Varangians smashed through their lines, finishing off the Pecheneg threat for good.


Heretics who began in Armenia, the Paulicians were still considered loyal enough in the mid-eighth century to be sent to Thrace by Constantine V in order to man the walls against the Bulgars. A century later the opportunity was taken to remove them from Asia Minor altogether. But the job was botched and they fled to the Arabs in Militene before establishing their own state at Tephrike (Divrigi). Defeated by Basil I in the late ninth-century and sent to Thrace again by John I, they represent an interesting bunch in that they are Romans in every sense other than religious i.e. having no ethnic baggage.


Originally known as Atsingani (“heathens”), from 1050 waves of gypsy astrologers, animal-handlers, fortune-tellers, acrobats, snake-charmers and veterinary surgeons crossed into Constantinople. Popular for their soothsaying skills, priests had to warn their congregations against consulting them. Some may have been related to the Indian (Zott) mercenaries Arab historians referenced as being stationed in the border town of Ain Zarba. And it may have been gypsies who helped put down a riot for Nikephoros I in AD 803 – they were certainly “Atsingani.” A minority stayed in Constantinople from the eleventh century onwards but most migrated westwards after the fourth crusade (1204) and the arrival of the plague (1347). Indeed, what historians call the “long march” occurred 1400-1500, with gypsies reaching London in 1513.


Like the Avars and their Slavic underlings of the early seventh century, the Rus (AKA “Tauroscythians”) were Northmen who led their Slavic hordes to the riches of Miklagard. Sadly, the simpletons tried to pillage it in AD 860. Fortunately, however, Photios was on hand to save the day and throw the Theotokos’ veil in the sea. Further assaults resulted in treaties that restricted the Rus to entering (escorted) no more than fifty-a-time through one gate, though it also gave them the quarter of St Mamas in addition to “baths of any volume [they] desired.” Eventually embracing the one true faith with Vladimir’s conversion in AD 988, his people grew in religious stature, gaining the plaudits of many in Constantinople when they rejected (deposed and imprisoned) Isidore, the Metropolitan of Kiev, for signing the Union of Florence (1449).


Possibly thanks to their early magnanimity (Alp Arslan at Manzikert, for instance), the breezy familiarity achieved in providing mercenaries for the civil wars that wracked the late empire, or the fact sultans frequently had Roman blood coursing through their veins, the Byzantine view of the Turk has rarely been entirely negative. Perhaps this was because to the Turk everything had a price; the ghazi was rarely a fundamentalist; or because Christian “Turcopoles” rarely made ethnic designations an easy matter. Whatever the reason, representing their greatest and most successful enemy, most Byzantines worth their salt nevertheless see them as fundamentally unserious and unworthy: almost as if England had been conquered by Scotland and refused to believe it.


While the East was almost totally lost to Islam, the deprivation of Balkan territories was only temporary thanks to Byzantine nous. Riding on the coat-tails of the Avar Khaganate, the Slavic avalanche surprised everyone, yet the mighty Constans II subdued the “Sklavinia” in a series of campaigns that constituted just as much of a “Reconquista” as Justinian’s antics in Italy. Indeed, it can sometimes seem that Slavs only understand steel. As when Justinian II tried the wily old trick of deporting them to Asia Minor, most deserted to the Arabs at Sebastopolis (692). Subsequently successfully hellenised, the mountainous outposts who negotiated tribute (such as the Milengoi) and rebels such as Thomas the Slav (whose uprising remains unexplained) are the exceptions that prove the rule.


The indigenous folk of the Balkans – who speak a vernacular Latin related to Romanian – the Vlachs (AKA “Aromanians”) were pushed into its south-western parts by the Slavic invasions, eventually coagulating around the region of Pind in Greece. Despite this base, however, the Vlachs live a mostly pastoral nomadic lifestyle (with katuni summer dwellings that consist of black felt tents) between the Black Sea and Adriatic, with a status quo that allows Slavs to occupy the lowlands and Vlachs the highlands. This arrangement is why the founder of Wallachia (Vlachia), a Cuman named Basarab I (d. 1352) could be found – rather anomalously – wedged between Hungary, Bulgaria and the sea. Renowned in the capital mainly for their delicious cheeses and stews, the main reason you can see Vlachs congregating in parts of Serbia today is that Ali Pasha of Ioannina demolished their Pind patria.

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