• Henry Hopwood-Phillips

The Refugees of the Medieval Roman Empire:Displacement in the East



In the tumult of war or imperial strategy hundreds of thousands of people were moved around the map by Constantinople in a game of five-dimensional chess. Decisions made by galaxy-brained eunuchs in the cockpit of the Great Palace, however, were often traumatic for those who found themselves traipsing hundreds of miles through hostile lands.

Dangers didn’t just involve the typical catalogue of illness, infirmity and banditry but bigotry too. While students in the twenty-first century might be familiar with maps that paint the empire red or purple, the patria for most Eastern Romans was less “half a Mediterranean” than their local patch. Indeed, H. Ahrweiler wrote how visitors from other local regions – let alone outside the empire – were known as “ksenoi” or “eksotikoi” (strangers/foreigners) in much the same manner that truculent villagers in Britain might call anybody who hailed from outside their cluster of villages “outsiders.”[1]


Initially, these mammoth manoeuvres were reactions to large-scale upheavals and ultimately defensive in nature. As when Heraklios devastated the region between Antioch and Tarsus in a scorched earth policy during the Arab conquests.[2] Or when Tripolis had its citizens evacuated by the imperial fleet in the same period.[3] Some towns such as Laodikeia (Syria) fled the Islamic hordes but later negotiated agreements to return.[4]


In the East, those who fled tended to travel to deepest Anatolia or Cyprus[5] for security. While in Hellas those escaping the Slavs hopped on ships to southern Italy or hit the eastern littoral where several sites could be defended thanks either to geography or naval power (or both). The Chronicle of Monemvasia refers to how

“The city of Patras emigrated to the territory of Rhegium in Calabria; the Argives to the island called Orobe; and the Corinthians to the island called Aegina. The Lakones too abandoned their native soil. Some sailed to Sicily… Others found an inaccessible place by the seashore, Monemvasia…”[6]


The fate for those who didn’t turn heel was slavery. When Amorion was captured in 838, for example, al-Mu’tasim immediately organised a slave market.[7] The only hope in such circumstances was to pray that one was senior enough in the hierarchy to command a ransom in Constantinople and get promoted to prisoner-of-war status.


Negotiations, however, could rumble on for years. Amorion’s top brass for instance weren’t exchanged until 845. And even once freedom was granted deportation was hardly a pleasant process. Many of the Romans ejected from Sicily by Arabs spent the majority of their return journey stranded in North Africa[8], just as North Africans in the Vandalic period had spent centuries in exile at Constantinople before getting a chance to return. To give an idea of scale involved: fifteen thousand Eastern Romans were escorted from wartime Sicily to southern Italy in the campaigns of Leon Opos.[9]

As soon as Constantinople was able to go on the front foot, it moved peoples to its own advantage. Constans II settled hordes of sklaviniai in Anatolia. Justinian II dumped Slavs who disliked Bulgar rule in Bithynia. He also shifted the Mardiates from the Amanus Mountains to southern Asia Minor as part of a peace treaty with Abd al-Malik.[10]


Constantine V took folk from Hellas and the Aegean islands to repopulate Constantinople after the plague (744-748). He also campaigned in Northern Syria and moved lots of its Monophysites to Thrace.[11] Leo IV shunted Syriac Jacobites and Armenians to the same region. Nikephoros I uprooted thousands of Anatolians and plonked them in Slav-dominated Hellas to strengthen the Chalcedonian element there. Furthermore, he exported lots of Romans to Crete after its reconquest (961) to bolster its Byzantine core. In the late tenth century, John I transferred the Paulicians from eastern Anatolia to Thrace to form a buffer against the Pechenegs.[12]


When the Bulgars learned to play the same games it threw up a number of interesting results. Tsar Samuel, for example, used Romans he’d captured in his raids on Larissa in his battles against Basil II.[13] Serbs weren’t immune to the turmoil either. John II transplanted many of his Serbian captives to Anatolia, though that emperor is more famous for smashing Pecheneg power with his English heavies at Beroia (1122).


John II had needed to pulverise the Pechenegs because past attempts to settle them in the east where the Seljuks had caused trouble were a disaster. Instead they had mutinied, returned to the Balkans and carved out zones for themselves. A tragicomedy only ended when Alexios I took the fight to them and won a great victory at Levounion (1091), forcing prisoners to enrol as a Pecheneg regiment in the imperial army.[14]


It is really Constantinople’s warrior transfers that make for the most interesting reading, however. The Khurramites – fourteen thousand strong – for example fled to imperial lands after they had fuelled a failed Persian counter-rebellion under Babak against the Abbasids in 833.[15] Furthermore, when the general John Kourkouas redrew the frontier with Islam in his impressive campaigns, the Hamdanids that rose to meet the challenge effectively ousted their main rivals for the leadership, the Banu Habib tribe. An act that led the latter to desert to Romanos I who subsequently deployed them in garrisons across the eastern front.[16]

In the last large-scale movements before decline (1261-1453) it was Constantinople itself that needed evacuating. Ultimately the travails of the fourth crusade showed just how sick and fatigued the Eastern Romans had become of their own metropolis. Indeed, Choniates tells readers how the long columns of Constantinopolitans who departed for Selymbria and then Nicaea were mistreated by locals who mocked and delighted in how far the mighty had fallen (and charged precipitous prices for even the lowliest forms of sustenance).[17]


[1] H. Ahrweiler, “Byzantine Concepts of the Foreigner,” Studies on the Internal Diaspora of the Byzantine Empire (1998) 2. An interesting article on identity in the same book is by M. McCormick. It points out how Eastern Romans could be distinguished from Western ones in Italy (650-950) by several indicators such as names, haircuts and political affiliations “Imperial Edge.”

[2] W. Kaegi, Heraclius (2003) 244-45.

[3] Al-Baladuri, Origins of the Islamic State (1924) 128.

[4] Ibid. 135.

[5] The irony was that many of these refugees would be deported from Cyprus because their tax-yielding power risked coming under the Arab occupied parts of the island. And then exported back to the island when Tiberios III decided that they would form a good military resource there.

[6] P. Charanis, “The Chronicle of Monemvasia,” DOP, Vol. 5, (1950) 148.

[7] C. E. Bosworth & I. Abbas, History of al-Tabari (1999) vol. XXXII, 116-17.

[8] Leo the Deacon, Historia, ed. C. B. Hase (1918) 76-77.

[9] Skylitzes, Synopsis, ed. Thurn (1973) 401.

[10] This allowance irked many Romans because the Mardaites were formidable allies, though D. Woods believes they may have been Byzantine deserters who were swapped for Slavic defectors. The latter were then placed in the settlements that the Mardaites had previously occupied. The Mardaite fate as oarsmen in the naval theme of Kibyrrhaiotai reflects the fact it was the most unpopular task in the military and their placement reflected their disloyal past (D. Woods, “Corruption and Mistranslation: The Common Syriac Source on the Origin of the Mardaites,” American Foundation for Syriac Studies).

[11] Theophanes, Chronographia, ed. de Boor 422; Nikephoros, Short History, ed. Mango, 62.

[12] Skylitzes, Synopsis, ed. Thurn (1973) 286.

[13] Ibid. 330.

[14] Zonaras, Epitome, ed. Dindorf (1880) Vol. III. 740-41.

[15] W. Treadgold, The Byzantine Revival (1988) 282-325.

[16] Ibid. 111.

[17] N. Choniates, Historia, ed. van Dieten (1975) 593-594.

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