The Roman (‘Byzantine’) Imperial policy towards the Jews during the period 1204-1453

Though fully integrated within the Greco-Roman culture of Byzantine civilization, the Jews maintained a separate identity. More than many another ethnic group in the empire, the Jews embraced Hellenic culture and the Greek language. Alongside other groups (including Armenians), they were an organized urban minority with a long tradition of autonomous communal rule. At the same time, the citizenship that they had enjoyed under pagan Rome had been steadily eroded to second class under her Christian successors. By the time paganism was outlawed and the major heresies suppressed, the Jews and their religion remained the only non-Christian minority that was tolerated within the empire. The emergent Christian civilization found itself confronted with the problem of reconciling its victory to the stubborn survival of its maternal rival.


The two power structures of the empire reacted to the presence of the Jews in different ways. As head of the state and the church, the emperor felt entitled to take direct action to influence, or even eradicate, Judaism. Justinian (527-65) was the first emperor to set a precedent for interference with the social and religious practices of Judaism. Heraklios (610-41) was the first emperor to convert the Jews by force to Christianity, and was followed throughout the Middle Byzantine period by Leo III (717-41), Basil I (867-86), and Romanos I Lekapenos (919-44). As we shall see, John Vatatzes (1222-54) was to make a similar attempt during the mid-thirteenth century.

The church, on the other hand, saw itself as the legitimate defender of the Jews when they were faced with an edict of forced conversion. Under normal conditions, however, the church put constant pressure on Jews to see the “error of their ways” and convert to the “true faith.” Sermons harped on the theme; dialogues, whether actual or literary exercises, reinforced it. The various Orthodox liturgies, too, constantly denigrated Judaism as an ungrateful mother and the Jews as deicides. Judaism, in fact, was the perfect foil for teaching Christianity to the masses. Christians were seen as the True Israel and therefore the recipients of biblical blessings, while Jews were shown to be rebels or sinners and thus deserving of the biblical curses against Edom, etc. Was not their degraded status in Byzantium a reflection of the church’s teachings on the Jews? Unquestionably, this constant pressure affected popular attitudes toward the Jews, especially in the tension-filled period preceding Easter.

There is, then, an apparent paradox in the conflicting imperial and ecclesiastical attitudes toward the Jews. The former tried to outlaw Judaism during periods of tension, as a means of establishing a religious unity within the embattled empire. At other times the emperors maintained pressure on the Jews through secular law, which restricted their social and economic activities within the Byzantine world. This official denigration as much reflected as set the tone for the ecclesiastical and popular attitudes toward Jews. The ecclesiastics saw themselves as foes of Judaism but defenders of individual Jews. The constant pressure on Jews to convert voluntarily was aimed at proving the truth of Christianity; forced baptism, however, would negate the messianic import of their conversion. Therefore the church stood against the emperor during attempts to achieve unity through forced baptisms of Jews.

During the Palaeologan period, we shall find a shift in the attitudes of emperor and church toward the Jews. For reasons of state, the emperors emerge as defenders of the Jews, at least while in office.

Imperial Policy

There is no official or unofficial statement by a Byzantine emperor, during the Palaeologan period, regarding the status of Jews, de jure or de facto, that compares with the clear-cut claims of the Holy Roman emperor toward his Jewish subjects. Still, inasmuch as the older laws were still applicable, the inferior status of the Jews within Byzantine society was enforced. As with any other Byzantine subjects, the emperor could dictate their legal, social, and economic fate. The emperor, too, could occasionally revive his prerogative to persecute the Jews.

By the sixth century, Jews had been denied the right to teach in state universities, to serve in the army, to work in government service, or to hold public office, with the occasional exception of the burdensome decurionate. Moreover, legislation was enacted that struck at their economic status by placing severe restrictions on their right to own or trade in slaves. Justinian, in the mid-sixth century, went even further and interfered with their practice of Judaism. He legislated against their calendar, the study of religious texts, social practices, and even religious beliefs. Later emperors went so far as to proscribe Judaism.

While there was precedent in Roman law and Christian theology for many of these actions, their purpose was to harass the Jewish population and encourage it to join the Christian community. Many undoubtedly did, over the course of centuries. Yet, despite even the proscription of Judaism, Jews survived-in part due to the efforts of the church, which refused to accept forced converts, and in part due to changed circumstances which necessitated changes in imperial policy This pattern of occasional persecution is evident in the thirteenth century and is best understood against the background of historical developments in the rump states of Epiros and Nicaea.

By the end of the first quarter of the thirteenth century, the Greeks, having recovered from the shock of 1204, began to expand beyond the borders of their refuges. Michael Doukas Angelos Komnenos secured a hold over the region, stretching from Dyrrachium to the Gulf of Corinth, and left it to his brother Theodore in 1214. By 1222 Theodore had advanced east through Thessaly and Macedonia, as far as Serres. In 1224 Thessalonica surrendered, after a long siege, and became his capital. With most of Macedonia and Thessaly as far south as the Spercheus River now under his control, Theodore was crowned as emperor in the spring of 1224 by Demetrios Khomatianos, the archbishop of Ochrida. Fired with a vision of regaining Constantinople, Theodore turned against his nearest rival, the powerful Bulgarian Czar John Asen II (1218-41), with whom he had an alliance against John Vatatzes, his distant rival emperor in Nicaea. In the spring of 1230 the gamble failed, and Theodore was defeated and blinded at Klokotnica on the Marica.  His brother continued to rule in Thessalonica, Thessaly, and Epiros, but the territory from Dyrrachium to Adrianople was now under the aegis of the Bulgars. As the most powerful Christian ruler in Macedonia, it was Asen’s turn, with the help of John Vatatzes, to besiege Constantinople. Though he tried in 1235 and 1236, he was not able to take the capital. With his death in 1241, the Bulgarian threat disappeared.

In 1229, the year before his attack on John Asen, Theodore persecuted the Jews under his control. What areas of his empire were affected cannot be fully ascertained; it is clear from our Hebrew source, however, that he initiated some kind of anti-Jewish action or policy, and that the reason for it was connected with his need for money. That Theodore, a Greek and a Christian, hated Jews can be seen from our main source, the letter of Jacob ben Elia to Pablo Christiani. That the Jews may have irked the local Greek leaders during the period of Latin rule by accommodating the anti-Orthodox establishment can be surmised; after all, they owed little to the previous Byzantine authority. Still, any argument that the primary reason for this action was the result of a heightened Greek nationalism* (pace, Starr) must supply an explanation for the delay between 1224 (the capture of Thessalonica) and 1229. It should also be noted that no Byzantine source alludes to Theodore’s actions or attitudes toward the Jews. The suggestion, therefore, that the prospect of confiscating the wealth and possessions of the Jews prompted Theodore to initiate his policy against them should not be dismissed. If the date 1229 can be accepted then Theodore’s actions should be seen as part of his preparations for war; they were an attempt to supplement his meager resources, which was insufficient to outfit the forces necessary for his anticipated campaigns Jacob ben Elia’s letter indeed emphasizes the violent expropriation of Jewish liquid capital. It does not hint at any proscription of Judaism, save for the remark that he “profaned our faith,” which may in this case be rhetorical. Also, the added mention of Theodore’s imperial disrespect to the Jews who approached him suggests that his actions were an ad hoc measure rather than a determined effort to proscribe Judaism, as John Vatatzes later attempted. Since the battle of Klokotnica took place within a year of these actions, their effect upon the Jews was only temporary and, in all proba bility, limited to the general area of Thessalonica and its environs, where the main force of the emperor was located. After his victory, John Asen who had Jews in his entourage, no doubt ordered Manuel, Theodore’s younger brother and successor, to mitigate this policy, if indeed it had continued. The loss of much of Macedonia and Thrace, in any event, would have brought any affected Jewish communities in these regions under the control of the Bulgarian czar.

[NovoScriptorium: We firmly disagree with the use of these two terms. Historically, the inhabitants of the Empire were calling themselves ‘Romans’, not ‘Greeks’. Secondly, ‘nationalism’ is a relatively modern invention and in no way can it therefore be applicable to explain events in -by definition- multi-ethnic States like an empire is. Hence, talking about ‘Greek nationalism’ during the 13th-15th centuries is not only misleading but literally and substantially wrong]

In 1254, the ailing Vatatzes ordered the Jews throughout the Empire of Nicaea to convert to Christianity (Our source, unfortunately, does not list specifics). That this act was different from that of Theodore’s is evident from the comments of Jacob ben Elia, who is our unique source for both the Jewish policies of Theodore in Thessalonica and John Vatatzes in Nicaea. The reliability of his remarks on the Byzantine scene may be tested against Jacob’s list of the persecutions of Jews in other areas of the Mediterranean and several places in the Muslim world, each of which is verifiable from other sources.

Theodore’s actions, a quarter of a century earlier, were most likely connected with his war preparations against John Asen; our source especially emphasizes his financial motives. The record of Vatatzes’ order, on the other hand, is quite different. It clearly states that the emperor ordered the Jews residing within the Empire of Nicaea to convert to Christianity and enter the Byzantine church. No mention is made of confiscation and expropriation of wealth; indeed, the state of the treasury obviated the necessity for this type of revenue raising.

For the last six months of his He, Vatatzes suffered greatly from a disease that ravaged his mind and his body. It was during this period, in 1254, that the order went out for the conversion of the Jews. It is likely that this order was the result of the aberrations that the emperor suffered in his last days. Notwithstanding the lack of Byzantine corroboration of this forced conversion, it is not improbable that the policy and decree remained in effect through the brief reign of his son and successor, Theodore II Laskaris. Our source suggests no official change in policy until the reign of Michael VIII Palaiologos.

The supplanting of the Laskarid dynasty by Michael Palaiologos in 1259 brought a positive change for the Jews-although the reign of the first Palaiologos is nearly a total blank insofar as the Jewish story is concerned. The only piece of information, aside from occasional hints of settlements, that pertains to his attitude toward the Jews is the remark of Jacob ben Elia that Michael VIII summoned the Jewish leaders in his realm and invited them to support him as emperor. Thus Michael’s first act toward the Jews, according to our source, was the revocation of John Vatatzes’ order of forced baptism. At the same time, however, he made it clear to the Jews that he expected them to show their appreciation for his assistance. This is the first indication we have of a specific Palaeologan attitude toward the Jews-an attitude, it should be emphasized, that was a positive reversal of the former hostility of the state toward its Jewish subjects.

In the face of grudging support and underlying opposition among his Orthodox subjects, Michael looked for other sources of support. He seems to have found part of this support among the minority ethnic groups in the empire. His predecessor, John Vatatzes, had reinvigorated the native Byzantine population and sought to strengthen his independence by a conservative rusticity. Michael, however, looked to the Armenians and Jews for some of the financial resources he needed. Welcoming them back to the city, he allowed them religious and economic liberties, for which his newfound supporters were not ungrateful. We have to wait thirty years before there are sources for the presence of Jews in the city itself, and another ten before the specific attacks of an irate clergy came to bear upon the problem; however, the emergence of a strong Jewish and Armenian influence in the city in the reign of Andronikos II lends weight to the suggestion that their settlements there date from early in the reign of the first Palaiologos.

Sources from the reign of Michael’s son and successor suggest a continuation of Michael’s attitude toward the Jews. This nonharassment of Jews and Armenians very likely continued, to the mutual benefit of both sides, until the destruction of the empire in the mid-fifteenth century.

A number of Venetian documents outline a series of controversial practices that strained the relations between Andronikos II and the Venetian Doge in 1319 and 1320. In the main, these concerned the rights and privileges of Venetian merchants to deal in corn, wine, and skins in the capital. Though the latter was the least serious of the disputed subjects, this question of who was to prepare the skins is important for the light it sheds upon the imperial attitude toward the Jews. The documents show that two groups of Jews were living in Constantinople, in a number of areas. One group, of course, consisted of Byzantine subjects who lived in the Vlanka Quarter; the other of Venetian Jews who lived not only in the Venetian Quarter and elsewhere in the city, but also in the Vlanka Quarter alongside the Byzantine Jews. Wherever their location within the city, the Venetian Jews were under the protection of the Venetian Bailo.

The controversy arose when some Venetian Jews who lived outside the Venetian Quarter came into conflict with imperial agents. The former invoked the rights of a Venetian merchant; the latter recognized no difference between Venetian and other Jews. Such an oversight, whether deliberate or accidental, was common among Byzantine officials. Of course, we do not know whether all of the Jews concerned were entitled to Venetian protection. The fact that Venetian and Byzantine Jews lived together may have clouded the distinction between them, to the point where each group claimed the status of the other whenever it was to its advantage.

In other areas of the city, Byzantine subjects also claimed a Venetian status in order to enjoy the latter’s preferred tax status. In this case, however, the question of status was not as important as the division of labor. Byzantine Jews had a monopoly on tanning hides while Venetian Jews were allowed to prepare furs. The controversy flared when the latter, for some unknown reason, began to prepare skins, which was the province of the Byzantine Jews. The emperor protested this violation of his monopoly; Venice, of course, ignored his protest. The emperor then confiscated the skins of the Venetian Jews, who in turn protested to the Republic. The diplomats took over from the bureaucrats at this point, and thus began the bitter exchange outlined in the documents.

With respect to their economic prerogatives, Venetian Jews were permitted freedom of movement and settlement throughout the empire and, further, were accorded the right to live anywhere in the capital. They were also allowed to buy, sell, or rent real estate anywhere in the city in return for an annual payment. These last provisions implemented the recognition of the Venetian status of these Jews and ensured their right to enjoy the benefits of the treaties between Venice and Byzantium.

Throughout the medieval world, Jews tended to establish communities in urban areas centered around their synagogues. This natural tendency of a well-organized diasporic group to occupy specific quarters was not, of course, restricted to Jews. With respect to the Byzantine scene, however, the question is whether this practice was voluntary or reflected an imperial policy which forced them to live in certain quarters.

From the small amount of material at our disposal, it seems that such a policy existed. Demetrios Khomatianos, in his well-known responsum, states quite clearly that certain areas were put aside for minority groups who were allowed to live in an Orthodox society. Ethnicity was usually defined by religious affiliation in Byzantium. The appearance, then, of a special quarter, designated “ebraike“, in various cities of the empire is a reflection of this official policy, which controlled a natural process through a set location for the Jewish quarter. Venetian Jews, outside Constantinople, were no doubt accustomed to live among their coreligionists, just as many did in the capital.

Just as the emperor could control their residence, he may have been able to control their economic pursuits. One of the Jewish areas of settlement in Constantinople was the Vlanka Quarter, where, as Maximus Planudes relates, the emperor had established a colony of Jewish tanners. These Jews, in fact, constituted a distinct trade corporation under imperial control. It has been argued (from indirect evidence) that tanning became an exclusively Jewish vocation during the Macedonian period as a result of an official policy of degradation. The social disdain for this profession was shared by Jews in other economic pursuits, in particular the prestigious silk manufacturers, as well as Christians. Even so, these remarks of Planudes are the first direct evidence that some (if not all) of the tanners were Jews under the immediate control of the imperial government.

In addition to their concern with the economic activities of Byzantine Jews who were resident in the capital, the Palaiologoi occasionally made use of their professional services in the imperial bureaucracy. Only a few instances of Jews in imperial service have been recorded for posterity.

Andronikos III, for example, made use of a recent immigrant from Syria as an interpreter. The chief physicians of both Manuel I (in the twelfth century) and the last Komnenos of Trebizond (in the fifteenth) were also Jews. Although such use of Jews was contrary to Byzantine laws of earlier periods, there is no indication that government officials or the clergy took offense at the practice, save for occasional tirades against Jewish doctors.

One might add that a converted Jew was not barred from government service. Indeed, conversion was the ultimate show of loyalty to the regime and was accordingly rewarded. Still, only a few instances have been recorded. Manuel II’s confessor, a convert named Makarios, occasionally served as his ambassador, while Philotheos Kokkinos, to whom tradition has ascribed Jewish ancestry, eventually became Patriarch.

Toward the end of his reign, Andronikos II issued two chrysobulls to the Church of Ioannina, both of which contain brief references to Jews. The information from these two chrysobulls, which, incidentally, is the first documentary data we have on the existence of Jews in Ioannina, concerns Jews who were resident in the city and several others who owed obligations to the church. The chrysobull of February 1319, in confirming the previous charter of the governor Syrgiannes Palaiologos Philanthropenos, states that the Jews of Ioannina are to live in a free and undisturbed state, just as the other settlers. Modern-day scholars have recognized in this text a new policy of toleration toward the Jews on the part of the Palaiologoi, and suggested that it was applicable not only to the Jews of Ioannina alone but to all the Jews of the empire.

(Source: “The Jews of Byzantium (1204-1453)”, by Steven Bowman)


Research-Selection for NovoScriptorium: Anastasius Philoponus

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