Demography in Eastern Roman (‘Byzantine’) Asia Minor on the Eve of the Turkish Conquest

Unfortunately almost nothing is known about the numbers of the population in Byzantine Anatolia and its towns, for little has survived in the way of comprehensive tax registers or population figures. The silence of the sources and the thoroughness of the cultural transformation effected by the fifteenth century have led many scholars to conclude, erroneously, that Byzantine Asia Minor was sparsely inhabited. Estimates, which are really little more than educated guesses, have been made for the size of Anatolian population in antiquity. These estimates, all based upon an assumption of commercial prosperity and urban vitality in the period of the Roman and early Byzantine Empires, vary from 8,800,000 to 13,000,000. J. C. Russell has suggested that the population remained at the comparatively high figure of 8,000,000 during the middle Byzantine period but that it declined to 6,000,000 by the beginning of the thirteenth century and the Turkish period.


There are indications that by the tenth and eleventh centuries the population of Anatolia was growing. That there was a certain stability in Anatolian demography emerges from the survival, en masse, of the ancient towns. These towns were comparatively safe and shielded from the massive upheaval that enveloped urban society in much of the Balkans. As late as the eleventh century, such important cities as Melitene, Sebasteia, and Artze were unwalled despite the fact that they were close to the Muslim lands. The trade routes (actively plied by Muslim and Christian merchants) going through the towns, and the presence of dense village clusters in the environs of the cities are also factors that would tend to support the assumption of a certain demographic vitality. The active policy of transplanting peoples to Anatolia certainly contributed to the growth of the population, and there are other testimonials to an increase in population in the two centuries prior to the Seljuk invasions. The older tax system, by which the capui was tied to the iugum because of the insufficient labor force, was relaxed, and in the middle Byzantine period the system underwent a transformation by which the head tax and land tax were separated. The replacement of the reciprocal unit of the two taxes with a separate collection presupposes that the earlier scarcity of agricultural labor had disappeared, a conclusion supported by the growing land hunger of the landed magnates in the tenth century.

A further indication of demographic stability and growth is the evolution of the ecclesiastical administrative structure in Asia Minor. The Byzantine requirement that each town should constitute a bishopric was observed as late as the twelfth century. The basic stipulation for the existence of a bishopric was that an inhabited area should be sufficiently populous to be considered a town. If it were too small it could not be included on the list of episcopal seats. The canon law and the commentators make it plain that the appointment of a bishop to a place depends unequivocally and exclusively upon the “. . . πλήθος ανθρώπων. . .”. Bishops are to be ordained “. . .εις εκείνας τας πόλεις…τας πολυανθρώπους…”. A bishop may never be appointed to “. . . ολίγην πόλιν και κώμην…”. During the course of the tenth and eleventh centuries new bishoprics appear and former bishoprics are promoted to archbishoprics or metropolitanates. The increase is due in part to the rise in population and prosperity of the Anatolian provinces as well as to new conquests in the east.

The chronicles and histories of the period refer to a large number of the towns by a nomenclature that differentiates them sharpy from villages. The sources use the terms άστυ, πόλις, πολιτεία, μητρόπολις, κάστρον to differentiate the town from the village, κώμη, χωρίον. A number of the towns are described by epithets (τοιαύτη πόλις, μεγάλη, πολυάνθρωπος, μυρίανδρος πολύν πλούτον έχουσα, ανθρώπων δε πολυπλήθειαν έχον, πόλις περηφανίς, πολυανθρωποτάτη, μεγίστη, πολύανδρος, πλήθος λαού), which indicate that the contemporary observers considered these towns to be large by the standards of the day. But just how large was πολυάνθρωπος? The city of Edessa in the year 1071 was said to have 35,000 inhabitants. When the Muslim Nur al-Din captured the city three-quarters of a century later, 30,000 were killed, 16,000 enslaved, and only 1,000 escaped. The total population prior to the fall of the city, 47,000, indicates that the population had increased, a phenomenon to be explained by the flight of the agrarian population to the safety of the walls over a long period of time. The city of Tralles, which was rebuilt and recolonized with 36,000 inhabitants by the Byzantines in the thirteenth century (1280), was said to be πολυάνθρωπος. Τhe number of captives taken from Anatolian towns in the twelfth century will perhaps assist in giving some idea as to the size of towns. In the mid-twelfth century, Yakub Arslan carried away 70,000 Christians from Gaihan and Albistan. Of the captives that the Turks took from Melitene in the eleventh century, 15,000 were ransomed by the merchants of that city, and c. 1124-25 during the course of a six-month siege of the city the inhabitants are said to have perished by the “thousands”. Thus Melitene was probably a town comparable in size to Edessa. There is some indication as to the size of a comopolis in the twelfth century. When the Seljuk sultan attacked the two comopoleis of Tantalus and Caria in western Asia Minor, he took away captive 5,000 of the inhabitants. This would indicate roughly 2,500 inhabitants for each of the two comopoleis. But Caria had been sacked on a previous occasion and was to suffer devastation and enslavement a third time. Thus its popuation was larger than 2,500, perhaps about 5,000.

The indirect evidence for an increase in the Anatolian population of the tenth and eleventh centuries and the few figures for town population would indicate that the epithet πολυάνθρωπος as applied by Byzantine sources to the cities has some numerical substance. A large city could have as many as 35,000 inhabitants, though it is likely that most of the towns were smaller. One may assume that towns had populations varying between 10,000 and 35,000. Caria, which was not a full-fledged town in the twelfth century, probably had a population of about 5,000. Dorylaeum had been one of the prosperous towns of the eleventh century. As a result of its destruction during the Turkish invasions, it was inhabited by only 2,000 Turkmens in the twelfth century, a figure that the historian Cinnamus considers to be insignificant when compared with the former size of the city. Though the evidence is very scant, one must conclude on the basis of this material that not only did the population of Asia Minor increase by the tenth and eleventh centuries, but the population of the towns and province as a whole was significant in absolute terms. Thus it would be incorrect to speak of Anatolia as semidesolate or depopulated on the eve of the Seljuk invasions.

(Source: The Chapter titled “Byzantine Asia Minor on the Eve of the Turkish Conquest“, from the book titled “The Decline of Medieval Hellenism in Asia Minor and the Process of Islamization from the Eleventh through the Fifteenth Century“, by Speros Vryonis, Jr.)


Research-Selection for NovoScriptorium: Anastasius Philoponus

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