Eastern Roman (‘Byzantine’) history as a history of migration – Part 1

In this post we present, almost complete, the very informative paper titled “Byzantium and Migration: an introduction“, by Yannis Stouraitis, 2016. Here is the first part:


“That emperor, the Great Constantine, the distinguished jewel and excellency of the Roman imperial power, considered with the help of God all these things, namely the advantages of the location, the geographic context and the beauty of the city, its accessibility by sea and its capacity to offer safe harbour, and that it bridged Europe and Asia, being located in the middle of the whole Roman realm. Based on this, he made the best decision and attributed to her preeminence and embellished her. And he removed the dominion from the old to the new Rome, as he named her. He brought holy relics and untold amounts of money and the most distinguished of the noble and brave Romans whom he made live in unison with the noblest of the Hellenes. And the people of this city became the purest, noblest and more honourable people of the whole human kind.”

This quotation from a sermon addressed to John VIII Palaiologos in early-fifteenth-century Constantinople sums up in an insightful manner the relationship of Byzantium and Byzantine history to the phenomenon of migration. Byzantium, the Roman Empire of Constantinople, represents in fact an imperial state and a society that emerged through migration. The migration of an imperial city and its political culture from Rome to Constantinople, the New Rome, as the author of the encomium lucidly put it. This could probably be reason enough for me to make use of a cliché expression at this point and assert that Byzantine history should be actually regarded as a history of migration.

Even if Byzantine history is not a history of migration, mobility of people and
groups was undoubtedly a major factor in the many centuries of the empire’s existence.

The background of the peaceful migration of the imperial power and the Roman ruling élite from the old to the new capital in the early fourth century was set by the violent Roman migration to the Greek East in terms of military invasion and conquest some centuries earlier.

This violent migration had brought about the colonization of the East with Romans and their political ideals and organization, but also the colonization of Rome with Greeks and their culture. Moreover, as the author of the encomium explicitly states, migration from Rome to Constantinople was not just about people leaving their old residence for a new one; it was also about the things and the ideas those people carried with them from their place of residence, and how these got integrated into and merged with what already existed in their place of destination. In this respect, the text pinpoints the interrelation of the phenomenon of migration with identity and culture.

As A. Laiou and H. Arweihler have stated in the preface of a collective volume on internal diaspora in the Byzantine world, the Byzantine Empire should be seen as one of the most successful multi-ethnic states in history4. Nothing speaks against accepting this statement as basically correct, but one needs to take into account that it poses the question about the different ways the social role of ethnicity and culture should be approached in a premodern context. In other words, studying migration in the Byzantine world reveals a great deal about the fluid and malleable character of identities and cultures in the absence of nationalism and its reifying impact on both.

On the other hand, if migration into the Byzantine world is largely about identities and cultures merging together – instead of bouncing off each other – this hardly means that we should regard the imperial state of New Rome as an ideal state that was built upon the principles of tolerance and co-existence. The study of a pre-modern state like the Byzantine, whose despotic power could hardly penetrate and logistically control the daily life of its subjects in the same way the infrastructural power of the modern buraucratic nation-state does, makes two things evident: First, identities and cultures do not have a life of their own as natural phenomena that constitute by themselves materials of conflict; and second, migration’s role in Byzantine history was for the most part constructive rather than destructive.

Within this framework, the role of migration both in giving shape to a medieval East Roman Empire as well as in contributing to its disappearance from the historical stage is distinct when it comes to framing in chronological and spatial terms what we conventionally call the Byzantine era and the Byzantine world. To begin with the former issue, if the aforementioned translatio imperii from Rome to Constantinople under Constantine the Great signalized a kick-off event of a long process of change in the late Roman Empire in historical terms, the establishment of the medieval Empire of Constantinople as the single imperial state under a Roman emperor in a radically changing world should rather be traced in the late-fifth century, that is, in a period when the impact of one of the largest movement of populations the world had known reached its culmination6. The view of the late-fifth century as a decisive turning-point regarding the consolidation of the medieval geopolitical and cultural image of a Byzantine world is not only a privilege of modern historical hindsight but finds support in the perceptions of Byzantine authors about the past.

In the writings of Constantine Porphyrogennetos, in particular his treatises DAI and De thematibus, the emperor explicitly refers to the ultimate crossing of the Roman imperium to Constantinople when Rome ceased to be governed by an emperor, that is, when the last emperor of Rome was dethroned by the Goths. This view of the impact of the Germanic migration on the Roman world is best summarized in a passage from the historiographical account of John Kinnamos, written in the late-twelfth century, which I think is worth quoting:

“For the title of empire disappeared in Rome a long time back, since the attributes of power passed, after Augustus whom, alluding to the youthful age at which he assumed office, they call Augustulus, to Odoaker and then to Theodoric ruler of the Goths, who were both tyrants. … From the time of Theodoric and a little earlier, until now, Rome existed in a state of revolt, although repeatedly recovered for the Romans by Belisarius and Narses, generals of the Romans in the period of Justinian; it was again rendered no less subservient to barbarian tyrants, who were entitled kings in emulation of Theodoric the first king and tyrant. … Now they (scil. the Latins) rashly declare that the empire in Byzantion is different from that in Rome. As I consider this, it has repeatedly caused me to weep. The rule of Rome has, like a piece of property, been sold to barbarians and really servile men. Therefore it has no right to a bishop nor, much more, to a ruler. For the one who ascends to the greatness of empire runs on foot in a fashion unworthy of himself alongside the mounted bishop and is like his groom. But the other titles him imperator, considering him on the same plane with the emperor (scil. the Byzantine basileus).”

This wonderful piece of Byzantine political and historical thinking emerged in the context of the reaction of the Komnenian power élite to the so-called “Zweikaiser Problem”.

With regard to our subject though, it provides an insightful Byzantine approach to the chronological as well as the broader territorial frame of what one may conventionally call today a Byzantine era and a Byzantine geopolitical sphere respectively. For the high-medieval East Roman élite, the fall of western Rome as a result of a long process of interpenetration of migrating Germanic peoples was the starting-point of a Roman order under the centralized political authority of a single Roman emperor in the Oecumene, the emperor of Constantinople, whose limits of political authority demarcated the Empire in a medieval world of ethnic kingdoms. From that time on, the epicentre of the Roman world shifted toward the Eastern Mediterranean and its geopolitical sphere included the broader areas that were roughly circumscribed by the Italian peninsula in the West, the regions of Mesopotamia in the East, the shores of the eastern Mediterranean in the South and the Danube in the north.

It is within these broader geopolitical limits that the administrative boundaries of a united Roman polity of Constantinople up to 1204 and those of its successor polities afterwards continuously fluctuated until the ultimate disappearance of Roman political rule in the latefifteenth century. Moreover, it was in these territories that a broader Eastern Christian commonwealth was at home, whose boundaries for most of the time superseded those of the Roman administrative ones but whose epicentre remained Constantinople with its Christian emperor and patriarch. Distinguishing between the Byzantine vision of a Roman Empire as a political community demarcated by the limits of enforceable centralized imperial authority and a religious-cultural commonwealth as a broader sphere of the Constantinopolitan culture’s influence and resonance, is a central issue in our effort to understand the different role of identities as well as of cultural and political boundaries in the phenomena of mobility and migration in the Byzantine world.

Based on this, one may distinguish two generic types of migration: first, movement of peoples and groups from outside-in the aforementioned geopolitical sphere; and second, movement of peoples and groups within this geopolitical sphere and, in particular, within the – at any time – current boundaries of the Constantinopolitan emperor’s political authority.

The first type mainly refers to migration’s role in shaping and re-shaping the Byzantine Empire in political-territorial terms. The second type refers to how the centralized imperial state made use of the movement of peoples and groups within its geopolitical boundaries for its own purposes, but also concerns the role of social mobility in the function of Byzantine society.

Beginning with outside-in migration, it is evident that the movement of larger groups towards Byzantine imperial territory had – with very few exceptions – a non-peaceful character. Even though from time to time groups, such as for instance the Mardaites in the seventh or the Banu Habib tribe in the tenth century, sought refuge in the empire and were settled there by the imperial power in exchange for service, migration towards Byzantium mainly took place in terms of invasion and conquest or interpenetration of imperial territory by various peoples, such as the Lombards, the Slavs, the Bulgars, the Muslim-Arabs, the Normans, the Latins and the Turks (to mention the most significant). This type of migration played a fundamental role in changing the limits of the empire as well as its demographic and ethnographic landscape between the sixth and the fifteenth centuries.

If Justinian Ι’s (527-565) very short-lived reconquista represents the last effort of the Roman imperial power to reclaim the West – or at least a significant part of it – from the Germanic settlers, the period that started with the end of that emperor’s reign in the late-sixth century was meant to have a major impact on Constantinople’s empire insofar as the movement of new peoples towards it caused a new large contraction of territory under Roman authority. The settlement of the Lombards on important parts of the Italian territories has received less attention compared to the Slavic settlement in the Balkans or the Muslim conquest in the East. This is due to the fact that the latter two events brought about the temporary or permanent loss of core territories that had been under Constantinople’s unbroken direct rule for many centuries, whereas these migrations posed a direct threat to the medieval Empire’s imperial center. One needs only to consider that in the early-seventh century a few kilometres outside the long wall in Thrace it was not anymore Roman land, that is, land controlled by imperial governors and garrisons, since Byzantine presence on the Balkan Peninsula had been reduced to a few major cities and strongholds mainly on the coastal areas. On the other hand the Arabs organized three attacks on Constantinople within a period of less than a century, thus representing a new neighbour that had not simply settled on former imperial territory, like the Slavs, but was claiming the role of a new superpower by seeking to subjugate and dismantle the Empire of Constantinople.

A comparison of the empire’s territorial extension at the end of Justinian’s reign and in the early-8th century makes the impact of this mobility towards the Byzantine world evident. The result of the major territorial contraction of the seventh century was a mini-empire, whose orientation was not anymore maritime with the Mediterranean at the epicentre, but rather continental with its focus on Asia Minor and the East. A significant part of the indigenous Roman populations was obliged to abandon the southern Balkans and move mainly towards south Italy, thus strengthening the Byzantine element in the Italian provinces that remained under imperial rule. In the eastern provinces and northern Africa the Muslim invasion was also connected with the movement of Christian populations, in particular members of the Roman élite, monks and soldiers, towards the empire’s Anatolian core as well as towards south Italy.

The Slavic and the Muslim settlements on imperial soil provide good examples of the different role that violent migration, either in the form of interpenetration or of invasion and conquest, can play in a pre-modern imperial state’s development – the difference depending on whether the migrating agents were under centralized political rule or not. The infiltration of the politically fragmented Slavic tribes in the Balkans created a potential for co-existence and assimilation of a large part of those populations by the empire. The main exception here was the emergence of the Bulgar kingdom in the northern Balkans in the late-seventh century, where the political organization of the Slavs under centralized Bulgar rule gave birth to a strong independent state which became an important political rival of the Constantinopolitan imperial power. On the other hand, the Muslim invasion under the leadership of a new centralized imperial power, that of the Caliphs, created the conditions for a protracted conflict between two imperial systems whose political discourse created a reified image of two opposing dominant cultures, the Christian-Roman and the Muslim-Arab.

Thus, the gradual restoration of imperial rule in the Balkans from the eighth century on was marked by a process of integration of the Slavs as a new producing and tax-paying population into the empire. This process was interrelated with the imperial state’s policies of population transfer within its borders, as I shall mention later, and was underpinned by the missionary work of the Byzantine Church that culminated in the late-ninth century with the Christianization of the Bulgars. Conversely, the protracted war with the Caliphate was conducive for galvanizing the identity of the medieval East Roman state as the empire of the Christians, whose main claim to the traditional Roman prerogative of world-supremacy could be now reinterpreted through the Roman power’s propagated role as the main defender of a Christian Oecumene from the infidel Muslims. In this respect, it is evident that, despite the obvious threat posed to the Empire due to the penetration of its borders by large hostile or less hostile groups from the late sixth century onwards, these population movements rather contributed to its gradual regeneration as a super-power in the Eastern Mediterranean by the late-tenth century.

The next major wave of migration towards the Byzantine imperial state, which had reached its medieval territorial peak after the subjugation of the Bulgar kingdom in 1018, took place in the second half of the eleventh century. The southward movement of the Normans gave an end to Constantinopolitan rule over Italian regions, which was sealed by the fall of Bari in 1071. The Norman effort to cross the Adriatic and expand into imperial territories in the Balkans, aiming at the conquest of Constantinople itself, was successfully repulsed by emperor Alexios I Komnenos. However, the Byzantines were not equally successful in dealing with the westward migration of Seljuks and other Turkish groups from the mideleventh century onwards. These groups managed to swiftly occupy the largest part of Byzantine Anatolia after the battle of Mantzikert in 1071, thus causing a major blow to the empire that was deprived of an important part of its territorial core. When Alexios I Komnenos ascended the throne in 1081, the empire was only a shadow of its former medieval self in territorial terms.

For a better understanding of the impact of the Turkish settlement on the empire, one may attempt a comparison of the developments in late-eleventh century Anatolia with those in the early-fifth century Western Roman Empire. Contrary to the Muslim-Arabs who in the seventh century had unsuccessfully attempted to knock-down the empire, the Turkish groups – similarly to the Germanic groups in the early-medieval West – were able to undermine the Roman order by interpenetrating it and fragmenting its eastern provincial periphery. The process of interpenetration was facilitated both by the practice of the Byzantine élite to use Turkish forces in its internal affairs before and after the defeat in Mantzikert as well as by the lesser degree of centralized political organization of the Turks – especially of those pastoral Turcoman groups who where in search of a new land for settlement. Thus, the emergence of various minor Turkish polities on Byzantine soil created a new status quo of co-existence both with the weakened imperial state of Constantinople as well as with semi-autonomous provincial Byzantine lords and indigenous populations in Asia Minor, insofar as no one possessed the necessary military muscle to subjugate the other.

In light of this, one may plausibly assert that the Turkish settlement in Anatolia during the late-eleventh century set in motion a process of the Byzantine Empire’s transformation into a medieval social formation. If one takes a closer look at Alexios Komnenos’ effort to change everything in order for things to stay the same, it is evident that, for the empire to continue to exist as a centralized state, it could not anymore function as a typical late-antique social formation, as it had done for centuries against the stream of radical change in the medieval post-Roman West. Thus, the reformed Komnenian world, as a response to the geopolitical status quo created by the Turkish settlement and the crusading movement, was marked by the consolidation of a nobility of birth, the appearance of ‘feudal’ elements in the empire’s economy alongside the rise of a merchant class, and the emergence of an ethnic vision of community in the shadow of the traditional imperial-geopolitical image. It follows that Byzantium in this period demonstrates many of the typical features that characterized the medieval social formations in the West. Therefore, if one was willing to adopt a schematic approach, the ‘long’ twelfth century could be regarded as the actual beginning of the Byzantine Middle Ages in a manner analogous to the process that took place in the West in the ‘long’ fifth century.


Research-Selection for NovoScriptorium: Anastasius Philoponus

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