The Turkic peoples in Eastern Roman (‘Byzantine’) ethnography

First, the Turkic peoples belonged to the most general category of “barbarians” (βάρβαροι). In Byzantine times, “barbarians” were opposed not so much to “Hellenes” (Ἕλληνες ), as in the classical and Hellenistic periods, but rather to the “Romans”,  Ῥωµαῖοι. The transition from the model Ἕλληνες καὶ βάρβαροι to that of Ῥωµαῖοι καὶ βάρβαροι, after the introduction of the Christian component into the Roman imperial identity, has been described in detail by Kilian Lechner. As Lechner showed, the concept of “barbarians” had a negative meaning supplementary to the concept of the “Romans”. The basic binary model Ῥωµαῖοι καὶ βάρβαροι divided mankind into “us”, i.e., Christians and citizens of the Roman empire, and all others living outside the empire. In this case, “barbarian” was a political-cultural concept and not an ethnic designation. I do not delve here into the polysemantic definition of “barbarian”, in particular into its functions in the Byzantine descriptions of the “Roman” self, that is, the subjects of the Roman state. It will suffice to indicate that the Turks were regarded as a part of the barbarian sea outside the Roman empire.


The traditional classification model of the Scythian nomads, with its subsequent modifications, was the most universal description of the Turkic peoples. The name Σκύθαι marked a special class of peoples living in the north and northeast of the mouth of the Danube, in the northern Black Sea region and further to the east to the limits of the habitable land. Besides the main locative feature of their ethnic classification, the Byzantines (again following ancient science) used additional sociocultural criteria. Ancient science distinguished three main types of barbarian societies: sedentary barbarians, hunters, and nomadic herders. Accordingly, all peoples of the north and northeast wholed a nomadic life belonged to the category of “Scythians”. The common prevalence and functionality of this identification criterion are attested by the numerous references of Byzantine authors to the nomadic life of the Scythians/Turks, who, in the sources, are also called νοµάδες, ποιµνῖται, σκηνῖται. In the thirteenth century, Nikephoros Blemmydes, basing himself on Dionysios Periegetes, continued to classify all nomadic peoples inhabiting the northeast generally as Scythians. In the fourteenth century, the northern Black Sea coast (including Crimea) was marked as ἡ Σκυθία by John Kantakouzenos, who also called the population of the Golden Horde “Scythians”.

Turkic peoples matched an additional criterion characterizing the “Scythian” type, which was developed primarily by military thought: the Turks, like the Scythians, fought on horseback, were archers, and were a highly mobile light cavalry. In the Byzantine historiography of the eleventh to the fifteenth centuries, this feature of the Turkic military art became a commonplace characteristic of the Turks (those living both to the north of the Danube and in Anatolia) and was described in detail by many authors from Attaleiates to Nikephoros Gregoras. Turkic military contingents in the Byzantine army (Pechenegs, Uzes, Cumans, Anatolian Turks) as a rule formed the light cavalry.

At various times in the historical narrative, the generic category of Scythians was applied to Huns, Göktürks, Khazars, Avars, Bulgars, Hungarians, Pechenegs, Uzes, Cumans, Mongols, and Tatars; the Anatolian Turks of the Seljuk period and Ottoman Turks could also be designated as Scythians. In the eleventh to the fourteenth centuries, the category “Scythians” acquired the more restrictive sense as a designation of the northern nomads (Pechenegs, Cumans, and Golden Horde Mongols and Turks), as opposed to the “Persians” of Anatolia and Iran.

The Byzantines first met the Altaic peoples in the fourth century, in the form of the Huns, who, apparently, were closely related to the later Turks. The Greco-Roman world, however, had possibly known about the Huns since the second century A.D. (Οὖννοι, Χοῦνοι); Ptolemy believed that Χοῦνοι were one of the tribes of Sarmatia. As early as the sixth century, the name “Hun” shifted from the level of species to the generic category; Agathias of Myrina considered the names “Scythian” and “Hun” as synonymous. “Huns” from then on was used as a synonym of “Scythians” a generic label for the Bulgarians, Avars, Göktürks, Uzes, Hungarians, and Cumans; from time to time the Anatolian Seljuk Turks and, more rarely, the Ottomans were also classified as “Huns.” There was some fluctuation of the categorical status of “Huns”; in the twelfth century, the term “Huns” was applied to Hungarians, being moved to the lower level of species (John Kinnamos, Niketas Choniates) since the Hungarians were considered the same as a Scythian people.

In the Black Sea, Göktürks in the sixth century were first referred to by the Byzantines as Τοῦρκοι (Turks). They qualified them as a type of “Scythian” and “Hun.” For Maurikios in the second half of the sixth century, “Scythians” and “Huns” were functionally interchangeable, belonging to generic categories, while Τοῦρκοι and Ἀβάρεις (Avars) were attributed to species. In the middle of seventh century, Simokatta testified that in his time the name Τοῦρκοι was used mainly in common language and, therefore, had the status of species: “These are Huns, who dwell in the east as neighbors of the Persians and whom it is more familiar for the many to call Turks”.

The ethnic name Τοῦρκοι was borrowed from the Middle Persian language (it was a Persian denomination of the Göktürks), as was pointed out by Theophylaktos Simokatta. At about the same time, the name “Turks” from the Iranians penetrated the Arab linguistic space, where it was first recorded in written form in pre-Islamic poetry of the early seventh century. Muslim ethnography, which was more sensitive to linguistic criteria than either classical or Byzantine thought, used the term “Turks” in the modern sense to signify the nations and tribes that were closely related by language and origin.


In the ninth century, the name Τοῦρκοι, being applied to the Khazars, Hungarians, and Turks in the service of the Caliphate, began to serve as a generic category. Since then “Turks”, as a generic concept, partly replaced“Huns,” labeling all the Turkish people who came to the attention of Byzantium. In historical literature, Turkic nomads Uzes and Pechenegs were never called “Turks”, although this does not mean that they were not considered as belonging to the generic category of Τοῦρκοι. The name Τοῦρκοι was common for denoting the Anatolian Turks, both the Seljuks and Ottomans, and for the latter it was the most prevalent. Along with “Turks”, Byzantine writers continued to call the Black Sea and Anatolian nomads “Scythians” and “Huns”.

In late astrological literature, “Scythians” was replaced by Τοῦρκοι almost everywhere. In a fourteenth-century astrological text (Vat. gr. 191, f. 232r), the following relationship between heavenly bodies and the national character of the Turks is recorded: “The rising sign of the second [region] Tourkia is Leo in the house of the Sun, the Moon is in Sagittarius, [the region’s] ruler is Mars. For this reason, most of them due to the rising Leo have an animal nature, being robbers and unsociable, due to Mars they are bloodthirsty and warlike, due to Sagittarius they are dissolute, zoophiles, and horsemen”. Despite the complete mismatch between links to celestial bodies in Ptolemy and in this anonymous text, their conclusions about the sociocultural physiognomy of Scythians and Turks are identical.

The transformation of the ethnic name Τοῦρκοι into the place-name Τουρκία is rather curious. By the ninth century Τουρκία turned into a full equivalent of “Scythia” denoting the lands north of the Danube (including the lands of the Hungarians) and eastward up to the Caspian Sea. In this sense, Τουρκία was commonly used until Late Byzantine times, as seen in later astrological treatises where Τουρκία designated the northern climates. However, from the eleventh century, Τουρκία was sometimes applied to Turkish Anatolia, while in Ottoman times it signified the territory of the Ottoman Sultanate.

In summary, the main generic categories designating the Altaic nomadic peoples were Σκύθαι, Οὖννοι, and Τοῦρκοι. The most common was the name Σκύθαι, which could be applied to the nomadic peoples originating in the regions north and east of the Danube, the northern Black Sea, and Caspian Sea. These three terms were synonyms, from which a Byzantine was free to choose any of the categories. The most prevalent and generally accepted was the name Σκύθαι, which ideally covered all the nomadic (and sometimes even the settled) peoples who lived north of the civilized world. The neologisms Οὖννοι and Τοῦρκοι often appeared to be functionally interchangeable with “Scythians”, but one may notice in their use some restrictive tendencies; we have no information about some “Scythian” peoples called “Huns” and “Turks”. Nevertheless, at least by the eleventh century, the categories Huns and Turks, along with the Scythians, belonged to the higher generic level in Byzantine classification.

The species represented a lower taxonomic level, labeling individual nations and tribes, those that belonged to the generic class of “Scythians”, with some distinguishing features. Among the species, there are both traditional ethnic names dating back to antiquity and new ones. Contrary to the modern accusations of blind imitation of antiquity and an inability to perceive new information, a large number of new ethnic names often originated from ethnic self-names and can be found in the Byzantine nomenclature. These new ethnonyms most often first appeared at the level of spoken discourse and were only later adopted by “scientific” discourse.

There were several ways to designate specific categories. First, traditional nomenclature was used, as for example the rather widespread term Μασσαγέται (Massagets), which was applied to the Huns, Alans, Göktürks, Mongols, Tatars, and eastern Turks. “Massagets” designated nomadic peoples, who belonged to the generic category “Scythians” that came from the regions northeast of the Caspian Sea, as was clearly outlined by Laonikos Chalkokondyles in his account of the origin of Tamerlane (whom he regarded as being originally Massaget). The concept of “Massagets” bore a distinct restrictive sense in comparison with the category “Scythians”; “Massagets” was used mostly to emphasize an origin from the extreme Transcaspian steppes of the northeast. That is why in the Late Byzantine period it was used to designate Mongols and eastern Turks by Michael VIII Palaiologos, Pseudo-Sphrantzes, and Chalkokondyles, for example. However, this usage was not stable. Although Nikephoros Blemmydes, the elder contemporary of Michael Palaiologos, localizes the Massagets to the right of the Caspian Sea and south of Khorezm (i.e., rather far to the east), the younger contemporary of Michael VIII, Nikephoros Gregoras, consistently refers to the Iranian nomads, Alans, as Massagets and places them closer to Europe in the areas east to the Tanais.


Turks were occasionally called by the ancient name Σαυροµάται, “Sarmatians”, the people who, according to ancient Greeks, conquered the northern steppes from the Scythians. At times the term “Sarmatians” was applied to the Hungarians, Pechenegs, and Uzes. A rare case of the designation of the Ottomans as Sarmatians can be found in post-Byzantine tradition, in the sixteenth century, namely in the apocalyptic text of George Klontzas, although it is possible that the Byzantines themselves would have considered this identification as incorrect. “Sarmatians” and “Sarmatia” were reserved more or less consistently for Russians and Russia respectively.

Niketas Choniates, on several occasions, used Ταυροσκύθαι as an alternative term for the Cumans. This attribution, however, was not supported by other authors. In general, Ταυροσκύθαι consistently signified the settled population of Old Russia. The bipartite compound names of the same type indicated only the species categories.

In addition to traditional “scientific” Μασσαγέται, Σαυροµάται, and Ταυροσκύθαι, the Byzantines used as species categories new “barbarian” ethnic terminology, some of which was adopted from civilized neighbors of the Byzantines (both eastern Muslims and western Christians) or gleaned from their own communication practices with new tribes. These specific names quite accurately identified various Turkic tribal groups. For example, in the tenth to twelfth centuries, one can find the neologisms Πατζινάκοι and Οὖζοι designating the Oğuz confederation of the Turkic tribes, which invaded the Balkans from the south Russian steppes. Both names appeared to be Turkic self-denominations (Πατζινάκοι ← Turkic beçenek; Οὖζοι ← Turkic üz ← oğuz). In the same way, from the eleventh through the fourteenth century, the Byzantines used the tribal name Κούµανοι (← Turkic quman).


A number of new ethnic names came to the Byzantine world during the Mongol invasions. In addition to the generic terms “Scythians” and “Huns,” and the species name “Massagets” applied to the Tatars and Mongols, the Byzantines knew the specific terms Τάταροι (thirteenth-fifteenth c.), Μουγούλιοι and Μουγούλαι, which were adopted from the Perso-Arabic world (respectively, tātār and mughūl). In addition, the eastern Turks, Tatars, and Mongols in the fourteenth century were labeled with the term Χαταΐδες, corresponding to the place-name Χατάϊα, which the Byzantines localized somewhere in the east near China. In addition, in the mid-fourteenth century, for “Chinese” the Byzantines may have used one more foreign neologism, σινιτικός ← Arabic ṣīnī “Chinese”. These new species were analogized with the traditional equivalents Τόχαροι and Κιµµέριοι, also designating the Mongols and Tatars.

In the post-Byzantine period, under the influence of the Ottoman terminology, Greek historiography made further borrowings of Oriental terminology: Ὀθοµανοί and the like (from the fifteenth century), Ὀγούζιοι (i.e., the Oğuz tribes in Chalkokondyles).

To specific categories the names of smaller tribal groupings and individual tribes should be added, names that often were borrowed from the Turks themselves, such as Ποσδογάνης (← Turkic bozdoğan), Καρµανοί and Καρµιάν (← Turk. germiyan), Καραµάνοι and Καραµάν (← Turk. qaraman), Ἀµιτιῶται tribes (probably ← the place-name Omidie; Greek equivalent for the Aqquyunlu tribes), and the like.

The differences in ethnic origin were clearly reflected in Byzantine personal names, as one can see in a variety of foreign tribal and ethnic names, including Τοῦρκος (found as an independent nickname and as the first element in compound names Τουρκοθεόδωρος, Τουρκοθεριανός, Τουρκοϊωάννης, etc.), Κούµανος/Κουµάνος, Κουνούκης (← Turkic tribal name qınıq?), Μουγούλ(ης), Ἀράπης, Κοῦρτος, and the like. Most of these names were nicknames that indicated the ethnicity of their owners or their immediate ancestors.


Another major taxonomic category was given the name Πέρσαι. Since the eleventh century, the category Πέρσαι was widely used to designate the Anatolian Turks, as well as the residents of the historic Περσίς, that is, Azerbaijan, Iran, and Khorasan, including the Turks and Mongols who settled there. For instance, Kinnamos refers to the Anatolian Turks only as “Persians” and never as “Turks”. Generally speaking, in Classical times and up to the eleventh century, Πέρσαι and Περσίς were important generic categories, being a general definition for many geographical and ethnic individualities. Πέρσαι and Περσίς, as generic categories, stood in the same line with Σκύθαι and Σκυθία. However, in the later period, as an element of the nomenclature of the Turkic/Scythian peoples, Πέρσαι and Περσίς underwent a curious metamorphosis, having been reduced in their status from the generic level to the species. Πέρσαι, as the designation of the Anatolian Turks and Iranian Mongols, was in a subordinate position in relation to the generic concepts of Scythians/Huns/Turks.

Attaleiates was the most explicit in identifying the Anatolian Turks with “Persians”, applying the name to them only by virtue of their settlement in the territory of historical Persia: “the Persians, who are now often referred to as the Turks”, and “since the Turks emerging from Persia attacked the Roman lands”. Such an understanding is also found in Nikephoros Bryennios and Anna Komnene, who extended the name “Persians” to include the Turks because the latter had mastered Persia. In the thirteenth century, Theodore Skoutariotes confιrmed that the pair Turks/Persians were synonymous in regard to the Seljuk Turks, maintaining that they were “Turks who were also called Persians”.

However, the Byzantines never forgot about the Scythian/Hun/Turkish origin of the Anatolian and Iranian Turks. Their Scythian origin was discussed by all the major historians who were contemporaries of the Seljuk conquests in Asia Minor in the eleventh century. Michael Attaleiates, calling the Seljuk Turks “Persians”, at the same time defines them as a type of Hun (Οὖννοι Νεφθαλῖται; τῶν Νεφθαλιτῶν Οὔννων ἤτοι τῶν Τούρκων). Michael Psellos and Nikephoros Bryennios qualified the Seljuk Turks as a Hunnic tribe. Similarly, Theodore Gazes in the middle of the fifteenth century, in his letter to Francesco Filelfo, reproduced the old tradition and repeated that the Turks belong to the Hunnic peoples (Τοῦρκοι ἔθνος Οὐννικὸν εἶναί φησιν). Nikephoros Gregoras, describing the Seljuk embassy to the emperor John III Vatatzes, called the Anatolian Seljuks “Turks” and the Iranian Mongols “Scythians”. The Byzantines had not the slightest doubt about the origins of Middle Eastern Turks and Mongols, who acquired the name “Persians” due to the locative criterion.


The transfer of the name “Persian” to the Anatolian Turks was caused by the geographical views of the Byzantines, who considered the region east to Anatolia as Persia and its inhabitants as Persians. The Turks who invaded Anatolia in the eleventh century came from Persia and, according to the locus of their origin, were called Persians. However, the Byzantine practice was not due only to the internal logic of traditional Byzantine geographic views. The name Πέρσαι, being assigned to the Turks of Anatolia, overshadowed (but did not eliminate) the term Τοῦρκοι. The formation of the Byzantine nomenclature occurred simultaneously with the development among the Anatolian Turks of the idea of a connection between their states and the Iranian imperial Achaemenid and Sasanid tradition. Persian culture and language played a significant role in all strata of Seljuk society.

The upper class of Muslim society in Anatolia associated itself with the Persians, and not with the Turkic nomads, whose civilizational status in the Muslim Middle Ages was rather low. One may assume that it was the Byzantine identification of the Anatolian Turks as Persians that provided an important impulse for constructing such ideological connections between Muslim Anatolia and Iranian civilization in the self-identity models of the Anatolian Turks. In addition, the Persian element in the Turkic self-identity might well have been strengthened by analogizing the transfer of the traditional model of Greco-Persian relations in the ancient and early medieval period to the Byzantine-Turkish relations in Anatolia, which was attested in Byzantine literature of the eleventh and twelfth centuries. This external stimulus, given by the Byzantines, coincided with a broad influx of Persian immigrants to Anatolia from northern Iran, Khorasan, and Mawarannahr, which peaked in the first half of the thirteenth century. Persian was the predominant spoken language of the Muslim population in Anatolian urban centers, as well as the language of the official chancellery, palace culture, and literature until the last decades of the thirteenth century. Possibly, the sudden combination of these two factors – the Byzantine interpretation of the Anatolian Muslims as Persians and the physical presence of Iranians and Iranian culture – prompted the Seljuk elite to such a surprising turn in its search for an Anatolian Muslim identity.

(Source: “The Byzantine Turks, 1204-1461”, by Rustam Shukurov)


Research-Selection for NovoScriptorium: Anastasius Philoponus


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