Eastern Roman (‘Byzantine’) history as a history of migration – Part 2

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


The major historical consequence of the Turkish settlement remains the instigation of another wave of migration, namely the movement of armies and people from the Latin West to the East through the Crusades. Contrary to the Slavic settlers whose Christianization had facilitated their assimilation or integration through peaceful or violent means into the Roman order, the Muslim identity of the Turkish settlers made their military expulsion from Anatolia the only means for the Empire to recover control over its territorial core. The Byzantines’ need to deal with the urgent problem of the Turkish advancement as far as the Asiatic hinterland of Constantinople gave birth to the Crusading movement in the 1090s, which caused the largest migration of people from the West to the East that had taken place for centuries. Irrespective of Alexios Komnenos’ initial aims when he called for Latin-Christian help, the outcome of his diplomatic efforts was a major Latin settlement on former Roman territory in the East, which the Byzantine power élite hadn’t wished for and which was meant to have an enduring impact on the empire’s future.

The Latin-Christian polities in the Holy Land, the armies and the people that moved there from Latin Europe as well as the ideas and beliefs that they carried, in particular the idea of a ‘holy war’ for Christendom, undermined Constantinople’s position as the single most important center of Christian political power in the Eastern Mediterranean, that is, within the traditional geopolitical sphere of the Byzantine emperor’s predominance. This diverted the attention of the Komnenian warrior-emperor’s to a struggle over Christian supremacy in the East, which second-ranked the goal of expulsing the Turks from Anatolia. The Fourth Crusade and the sack of Constantinople in 1204 are generally regarded as the culmination of a Christian controversy that was building up thought the twelfth century. The Latin conquest of the imperial city is an event of major historical significance mainly because it signalized the end of imperial Romanness as an operative political ideology that for many centuries had underpinned the political unity of the Eastern Roman world under the centralized rule of a single emperor and a single imperial city-state. Moreover, it triggered a new wave of Latin settlement in the southern Balkans and the Aegean, which determined the political fragmentation of the Byzantine world in the last two and a half centuries of its existence.

With the benefit of historical hindsight it seems fairly ironic that from all the major waves of violent migration into the East Roman geopolitical sphere the one that caused the empire’s political disintegration was that of fellow Christians instigated by the Byzantine power élite itself. If we want to understand how migration ultimately turned from a constructive into a destructive factor for the empire’s existence, a qualitative comparison between the crisis of the ‘long’ seventh and the ‘long’ twelfth century will do. The main difference in the latter period was that warfare against the infidel intruders did not anymore function as a cohesive factor that enhanced loyalty to the Roman order in the Anatolian provinces, whereas the Christian identity of the Latin settlers in the East hardly facilitated their political subordination to Constantinople. After 1204, the enduring political fragmentation of the Byzantine world was marked both by practices of co-existence of new and old populations in the territories of the former empire (such as Latins, Turks, Serbs, Bulgars, Albanians and, of course, Rhomaioi) as well as by the military-political antagonism between the ruling élites of the various polities that emerged there. The disappearance of the remains of Roman rule was concluded when one group of Turkish settlers, the Ottomans, managed to centralize political control over the others and direct Turkish expansion towards the Balkans in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries.

Based on this short overview of the impact of outside-in migration on the Byzantine world, which of course can hardly do justice to the complex character of these multi-faceted historical events, the main conclusion that can be drawn concerns migration’s changing role in the empire’s history. This could be schematically described as a transition from a foundational to a regenerating and, finally, to a degenerating role which was interrelated with internal changes in the Byzantine socio-political order and its capacity to deal with migrating groups in different periods – be it in the form of whole peoples or of large armies. The latter issue is interrelated with the issue of movement of peoples and groups within the Byzantine world, in particular within the – at any time – current boundaries of imperial authority.

Migration from a place of residence to another area within the frames of the Byzantine commonwealth is a question closely connected with issues, such as the intention and capacity of the Byzantine state to re-assert military control over lost regions, the often debated character of the medieval East Roman political entity as an empire, and the role of identity and ideology in maintaining the assimilative aspect of Roman political culture. The extensive territorial contraction of the seventh century left a large part of Christian and formerly Roman populations outside the borders of imperial authority in the East, thus consolidating the image of an eastern Christian commonwealth that superseded the limits of the empire as a political community. On the Balkans, the Slavic settlement interrupted Roman political authority, but at the same time inflated those areas with a new producing population that was docile in both political and religious terms. Restoration of Roman political authority there went hand in hand with the Christianization of the Slavs, as the main means for their cultural Romanization. These developments created new opportunities for the imperial state of Constantinople, which employed well-directed policies of population-transfer in order to renew human resources within its borders up to the tenth century.

The main groups involved in those transfers were Christian populations of various ethnicities and doctrines, such as Miaphysite Armenians, Monophysite Syrians, Paulicians, as well as populations that were recently Christianized, such as the Slavs. According to Hans Ditten, whose monograph has focussed on the transfer of groups in Byzantium in the period between the late-sixth and the mid-ninth centuries, the imperial government’s policy transplanted large numbers of Armenians, Syrians and Paulicians from the eastern provinces to the Balkans, mostly as a result of deportation in the aftermath of Byzantine military operations in those areas. Movement in the opposite direction, namely from the Balkans to Asia Minor, mainly concerned Slavic populations as a result of the gradual restoration of imperial control over the Balkan provinces. Native Greek-speaking populations of Anatolia were also affected by these policies, as the well known case of their forced transfer to Balkan provinces under Nikephoros I in the early-ninth century demonstrates, which seems to be interrelated with the emergence of the theme-system in this period.

Even if the numbers given by the sources should always be considered with great caution, since in many cases they may be exceeding reality by far, it remains a fact that we are dealing with significant portions of ethno-culturally diverse populations that were obliged to change their place of residence and settle in another part of the empire between the seventh and the ninth centuries. In this respect, it seems plausible to assert that the policy of population transfer is probably the best evidence that in the aftermath of the seventh-century crisis Byzantium, albeit a mini empire in territorial size, maintained the character of an imperial state with a demonstrated intention and capacity to coercively integrate and redistribute culturally diverse populations in its territorial core.

The loss of large parts of territory did not bring about a regression of the Roman imperial mentality of Constantinople – as has been argued in the past – but rather favoured its revitalization on two levels: First, it reinstated military expansion in terms of reconquest as a political necessity in the agenda of the imperial city-state of Constantinople. Second, it urged the imperial power to seek to integrate new human resources irrespective of their ethnic or doctrinal affiliation in order to better serve the state’s economic and military needs. Due to Constantinople’s consistent political practice to marginalize issues of cultural or, for that matter, ethnic homogeneity in the imperial realm, Byzantine society remained culturally much more diverse and inhomogeneous at the level of subject populations than some modern scholars are willing to accept as a result of their focus on the dominant Roman culture of the educated élite. In this context, religious identity remained the main means for a basic process of Romanization of newly immigrated populations.

Even though a systematic study of the period after the mid-ninth century is lacking, there is little doubt that a similar disposition continued to underline the policies of the united imperial state up to 1204. One needs only to consider some pre-eminent examples, such as the colonization of Crete with Greek-speaking Chalcedonian Christians and Armenians in the aftermath of the island’s reconquest by Nikephoros II Phocas (963-969)22 or Basil II’s (976-1025) consistent policy of deportation of local populations from conquered cities in the Bulgar kingdom, whom he transplanted to other parts of the empire only to put Armenians and Greeks in their place. The same emperor settled Armenian lords with their retinues in Anatolia after the annexation of Armenia, while Alexios I Komnenos (1081-1118) settled the defeated Pechenegs on imperial soil in the late eleventh century with the prospect to integrate them into the Roman order as a new population that could contribute to the state’s army and of course to taxation.

If state-coercion and warfare represented the main causes of impelled movement of populations within the Empire and the broader Byzantine commonwealth, one needs to consider the role of natural phenomena in forcing whole communities to migrate, which remains fairly understudied, as well as the distinct practice of voluntary migration within the imperial realm. The latter concerns persons or groups that voluntarily emigrated, permanently or less permanently, from their place of residence due to educational, professional and economic reasons. A large part of this kind of voluntary movement, both permanent and circular, was interrelated with the imperial state, in particular with service for the emperor or alternatively the Church; therefore it concerns the issues of social mobility and social advancement in the East Roman order.

There are many well-known cases in the sources that testify to the movement of members of the Byzantine élite from the provinces to Constantinople as a result of their own or their family’s ambition for social advancement. The other way around, advancement in the élite of service in Constantinople, both civil and military, often meant that the person should move from the capital to a provincial town in order to take up an assigned post there. The case of the Choniates brothers – to name just one typical example – perfectly summarizes the aspects of voluntary migration within the empire. Born in Chonai, a small town in Anatolia, Niketas and Michael were sent in a young age to Constantinople to acquire a higher education as a means to a career in the imperial service and the Church respectively. Advancing to the position of bishop, Michael was obliged to migrate once again from his new place of residence, Constantinople, to his see in Athens. Niketas, on the other hand, acquired a position as imperial secretary in Constantinople before moving to Philippopolis after his appointment there as a governor. Later he returned once more to Constantinople where he acquired the higher post of megas Logothetes at the court.

Considering such indicative cases, what we are missing is a systematic study of voluntary migration that will seek to examine comparatively a large sample of persons of different social status and professional track in an effort to provide a better understanding of the phenomenon’s role in the function of the East Roman order. Given the existence of very useful historical and methodological tools such as the recently completed prosopography of the middle Byzantine period or network analysis, voluntary movement of persons from the provinces to the capital and vice-versa or between the provinces can now be approached in statistical or typological terms, which would enable an in-depth exploration of the basic quantity- and quality-factors that determined the main trends of permanent or semi-permanent and circular migration within the empire. Such important factors were the relationship between the migrants’ area of origin and area of destination, the intervening obstacles relating to gender and social position, ethnic or religious background, profession and educational status, and of course personal motives. Moreover, such an approach could also be useful for an in-depth examination of those non-élite groups of common people that were more prone to migration within the empire, such as soldiers and monks. Last but not least, let me mention that, even if Byzantine society was lacking the genre of migration literature as we know it today, research on migration as a literary motif in Byzantine written culture definitely deserves more attention.

Even though the study of migration in Byzantium has drawn a great deal of attention from Byzantinists, there is still a lot that remains to be done. Certainly, the intensification of archaeological research is the most promising area wherefrom new material and insights can emerge in the future, thus improving our understanding of the phenomenon both in socio-historical and anthropological terms.

Revisiting the written sources with new questions that may provide new syntheses and interpretations of known and less-known written evidence is also an important avenue of research, which needs to be further pursued.


Research-Selection for NovoScriptorium: Anastasius Philoponus

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