Turkic influx in all strata of the Eastern Roman (‘Byzantine’) population (11th-15th centuries A.D.)

In the seventh to the ninth centuries, with some exceptions, there were three major groups of newcomers from the Muslim Orient to Byzantium: Muslim prisoners of war and hostages, merchants and diplomats, and “political” refugees.


In the first centuries of the Caliphate’s existence, when military confrontation between Muslims and the Byzantine empire reached its apogee, the most numerous group of Muslims in the empire’s territory most likely comprised Muslim prisoners of war. In the second half of the tenth century, Ibn Hawqal referred to Byzantine prisons for Muslim captives in the themata of the Thracesians, Opsikion, and Bucellarians. Some prisoners were kept in Constantinople. Most Muslim captives returned home (being ransomed or as part of prisoner swaps). Some of them, however, were Christianized and settled by the Byzantines in abandoned lands or were enslaved. Both settlers and slaves, being scattered throughout the provinces of the empire, dispersed into the local population, and were quickly assimilated, particularly through marriage. Since the end of the ninth century, Muslim merchants were frequent visitors in Byzantine trade centers. Judging by the Arabic geographical tradition, Muslim merchants knew the Byzantine system of international trade including markets and trade routes. Muslim merchants were abundant in Constantinople, possibly the only city in the empire where a permanent Muslim trading colony existed. From time to time, groups of immigrants who were forced out of Muslim territory found asylum in Byzantium. Some belonged to diverse Christian communities and sects. More rarely the Byzantine border was crossed by non-Christian and Muslim refugees who were allowed to remain in the empire provided they adopt Christianity. An example of the latter category are the Iranian Khurramites who fled to Byzantium during the reign of Theophilos (829–42), “the Moors” who most likely came from North Africa and were settled in southwest Anatolia (tenth c.), and 12,000 Arab horsemen with their families who fled from Nisibis in 941. Byzantine authorities, as a rule, divided the immigrants into small groups and sent them to different provinces of the empire to speed up their assimilation with the local population. Usually, the immigrants, scattered in the vast expanses of the empire, lost their ethnic and religious identity by the second generation. A separate phenomenon of the east Byzantine periphery is represented by limitrophe Akritic zones where the population movement in both directions across the frontier was rather intensive. The defection of warriors of the Arab thughūr to the enemy side was frequent, and these renegades resettled in the Byzantine border regions. Their number most likely increased during the Byzantine reconquest of Syria in the tenth and eleventh centuries. The assimilating factor of baptism, according to the epics Digenes Akrites, played as important a role for these Arab defectors as in other cases. Judging by Byzantine seals, in the middle and upper layers of the Byzantine state hierarchy in the tenth through the eleventh centuries, a significant number of individuals from the Orient bore Arabic names. However, it is difficult to establish whether these immigrants from the east were Muslim renegades or Arabicized Syrian Christians who also used Arabic names. In any case, the Muslim immigrants either soon lost their initial religious identity (as in the case of refugees and defectors) or represented marginal Muslim groups of foreign subjects (as in the case of merchants and prisoners of war) outside the Byzantine social organization and juridical system.

This general picture changed during the Turkic conquests in the second half of the eleventh and twelfth centuries. Due to specific features of the Turkic invasions, traditional categories of Muslim prisoners of war, merchants, travelers, and frontier soldiers ceased to be a predominant type. The majority of newcomers now constituted Turkic mercenaries who were actively settled in imperial lands and were naturalized by the authorities. Turkic mercenaries of “Scythian” origin appeared in Byzantine service in great numbers as early as the middle of the eleventh century and during the subsequent decades formed a significant part of the Byzantine military machine. Later in the same century, “Scythians” were supplemented by “Persian” mercenaries. Turkic mercenaries normally served under the command of Turkic leaders who had adopted Christianity, proved their loyalty to the authorities, and thus entered the Byzantine military elite. The founders of many Byzantine noble families of Turkic origin began their careers as military commanders. It is possible that many of the Turks in the service of Byzantium were not initially solely military leaders of various ranks, but also Turkic tribal chiefs. As Charles Brand has shown, Turks could also be found among the middle ranks of the Byzantine army. There are no exact figures for the number of Turks in the Byzantine army; however, as Brand notes, it must have been high enough to create an impression among the Crusaders that the Byzantines were in alliance with the Turks: “Hostility to Byzantium and suspicion of the emperors rose in the twelfth century, and the use of Turks contributed thereto”. Kazhdan estimates the number of Turks in the Byzantine noble class as approximately 1 percent of 2,500 persons in his list of Byzantine aristocracy (while, for instance, Armenians constituted not less than 15 percent).

However, studies discussing Turkic immigrants in Byzantine society focus almost exclusively on noble Turks who became members of the Byzantine court and military elite. Turks of lower and middle classes have never become the subject of studies, although Byzantines themselves explicitly indicated the presence inside the empire of numerous Turks of lower social standing. The first steps to analyze the Pecheneg settlements in the Byzantine Balkans were done many decades ago by Akdeş Kurat Nimet (a Russian Tatar historian who emigrated to Turkey), but there has been no systematic continuation in subsequent scholarship. It is obvious that Turkic commoners outnumbered their noble compatriots. During the twelfth century, the influx of mercenaries, captives, and slaves from the Danube regions and Anatolia seems to have constantly increased, although as yet no study has been made to verify this impression, which is based on numerous sources.

The sources for the thirteenth through the fifteenth centuries allow a more balanced picture of the Turkic influx, which embraces all strata of the Byzantine population from slaves to aristocrats. The Turkic presence in the Byzantine empire during the Laskarid and Palaiologan period has been attracting scholarly interest for a long time. There can no longer be any doubt about the existence of Turkish settlers in Late Byzantium. However, until now the Turks in the Byzantine context have been generally regarded as mercenary soldiers who stayed temporarily in the territory of the empire; the subsequent fate of the Turks who, in one way or another, settled in Byzantium has scarcely been analyzed. Until now we have had no comprehensive and generalizing study on the place of the Turks in the ethnic composition of Late Byzantium, whether they constituted compact ethnic groups, where they lived, or what their religious and cultural affiliations were.

This absence is quite understandable since demographic and ethnic analysis faces almost insurmountable difficulties of methodology. It is obvious that the ethnic structure of the west Byzantine regions was extremely complex: at least four large ethnic groups – that is, Greeks, Bulgarians, Serbians, and Albanians –lived side by side there. The presence of west European, Turkic, Armenian, Vlach, Gypsy, and Jewish settlers makes the ethnic map of Byzantine territories even more complex and confusing. Moreover, the turbulent political history of the Byzantine empire and neighboring countries, frequent and drastic shifts of political borders, and rapid conquests and retreats put in motion large groups of people who were repeatedly rearranging ethnic maps. For these reasons, surviving sources are often insufficient for a credible reconstruction of ethnic changes in particular areas of the Byzantine empire. So far we can produce only a general and, disappointingly, static picture of the region’s ethnic composition. Only a synchronic description can be given in most cases since a detailed diachronic analysis of ethnic processes proves unfeasible because of the insufficiency of surviving sources.

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


Research-Selection for NovoScriptorium: Anastasius Philoponus

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