Ethnography in Eastern Roman (‘Byzantine’) Asia Minor on the eve of the Turkish conquest

Perhaps the most interesting, and certainly the most perplexing problems facing the historian of Byzantine Anatolia are those that have to do with the languages, religions, and ethnic groups of the peninsula at various times.


There has been considerable discussion, debate, and disagreement on all three of these items in regard to the inhabitants of Byzantine Asia Minor in the eleventh century. Some scholars have maintained that the Byzantine population of Anatolia was only lightly and superficially Hellenized and was, in fact, indifferent to the language, church, and government of Constantinople. Others have asserted that the population of the peninsula in the eleventh century was the same which had inhabited Anatolia since the days of the Hetites. But from the point of view of language and religion, the principal discernible elements in the culture of eleventh-century Anatolia, there is little that would lend weight to these suppositions. The dominant language of western, central, and eastern Anatolia to the confines of Cappadocia was Greek, and the dominant religion was that of the Greek or Byzantine church*. In the regions of Anatolia east of Cappadocia this Greek element, though present, was very weak in comparison with the non-Greek elements.

*[NovoScriptorium: There was never a ‘Greek’ or a ‘Byzantine’ Church; only the one, holy, catholic and apostolic Orthodox Church]

The process of Hellenization in terms of language and culture had begun centuries before the pre-Christian era and continued long afterward. The linguistic situation or pre-Greek Anatolia, or rather of Anatolia in the first millenium of the pre-Christian era, has been compared to that of the Caucasus in later times as “the meeting place of a host of unrelated languages.” It had hosted Urartians, Hetites, Phrygians, Lydians, Lycians, Carians, Cappadocians, Isaurians, Armenians, Kurds, Greeks, Jews, Cimmerians, and Persians, to name only the better known ethnic groups. These peoples brought their own languages, for most of which there are extant remains, which in some cases are sufficient to permit classification of the languages. The majority of the people in western Anatolia seem to have come from Europe and the Aegean isles, whereas those in eastern Anatolia apparently came from both Europe and Asia.

Of all the languages and cultures of pre-Christian Anatolia, it was Greek that showed itself to be the most dynamic. Greek colonies came to be established on the coasts of western and southern Asia Minor as early as the Mycenaean period, seemingly for commercial purposes. By 800 B.C. thc Aeolians, Ionians, and Dorians had founded colonies along the western coast in considerable number, and these in turn colonized the shores of the Black Sea, This second wave of settlement was fateful not only for the coastal regions but in the long run for the hinterland of Asia Minor as well, for it was the basis of a vast process of Hellenization which was to continue as late as Byzantine times. It is interesting that the progress of Hellenization at this early stage in a sense depended less on the numbers of settlers than upon the consequences of the economic and cultural superiority that these emigrants developed in Anatolia.

The penetration of Greek cultural influence inland continued at a slow rate, nevertheless, in the period from the sixth to the fourth century of the pre-Christian era. The Lydians* had been particularly receptive to this culture, as were the fourth-century dynasts of Caria* and Lycia*, the inhabitants of the Cilician* plain and of the regions of Paphlagonia*.

*[NovoScriptorium: This is not strange at all if one takes into consideration the Ancient Tradition, i.e. Greek Mythology, which states many times that all these different peoples had a distant or a less distant link, of genous or culture, to the peoples of the Greek peninsula. You may read a relative article here]

After the conquests of Alexander the Great and the establishment of the Epigonoi, the tempo of Hellenization greatly accelerated and henceforth Hellenism acquired the prestige of political domination and empire. The Hellenistic monarchs pushed the process through the foundation of Greek cities, while the more ambitious of the local population found their desires for advancement a stimulus to learn Greek. The indigenous urban settlements and villages of Anatolia in many places coalesced, on their own initiative, to form cities in the Greek manner. The Attalids were active in promoting Greek cities in western Asia Minor; the local kings of Hellenistic Anatolia adopted Greek as their official language and sought to imitate other cultural forms. It was in the towns that Hellenization made its great progress, the process often being synonymous with urbanization. In contrast, the rural areas were far less affected and retained more of the pre-Greek culture, as reflected in languages and religious practices. Urbanization continued under the Romans, so that in a sense Rome maintained the traditions of Hellenization in the peninsula. The geographer Strabo, himself an inhabitant of one of these Hellenized Anatolian towns (Amaseia) , comments on Hellenization by remarking that Lydian was no longer spoken in Lydia (though it survived for a while among the isolated Cibyratae), and he implies that Carian was in the process of dying, the language having acquired large numbers of Greek words. The degree to which Hellenism had penetrated in the towns and cities of large portions of Anatolia is reflected in the comparatively large numbers of men of letters who appeared there in Hellenistic, Roman, and Byzantine times. But the literary aspect of Hellenic culture was largely an urban phenomenon, and if its presence does show the degree to which many of the cities and towns had been Hellenized, it does not reflect at all on the rural areas. Even though Greek was the official as well as the literary language, it had not yet conquered the countryside.

The slower rate of Hellenization of rural Asia Minor is reflected in the survival of a number of the “Anatolian” languages as late as the sixth century of the Christian era, although even here Greek cultural influence of a type is to be seen in the rural areas and in their languages.

One of the better known cases of linguistic continuity is that of the language spoken by the Isaurians, who played such an important part in the fifth-century history of Byzantium, and whose language seems still to have been spoken as late as the sixth century. There is evidence that Cappadocian was still known and spoken in the fourth century; Gothic in the fourth century; and Phrygian at least into the third century. But these languages were for the most part dead or moribund in the sixth century of the Christian era.

One may assume that by the sixth century the Greek language had triumphed over the various indigenous tongues of western and central Anatolia (to the regions of Cappadocia). At least references to these early languages are, so far as it has been possible to ascertain, lacking in the sources. It is true, however, that in the easternmost parts of Anatolia, Armenian, Syriac, Kurdish, Georgian, Arabic, and possibly Lazic not only survived but were spoken by the overwhelming majority. Political factors in the Byzantine period contributed to the victory of the empire’s language. In contrast to the Balkan peninsula, which from the sixth century and even earlier, received large numbers of migrations and settlements, Asia Minor was shielded from such large ethnic movements of peoples who might have changed the linguistic pattern, until the migrations of the Turks in the eleventh century. Perhaps this was partially due to the fact that there was in existence a relatively strong and organized state to the east, first the Sassanid monarchy and later the caliphate, so that Anatolia had been something of a buffer against the peoples of central Asia.

Though there were no large migrations of new peoples into Anatolia from the East, the Byzantine emperors over the centuries introduced non-Greek, as well as Greek, populations into their Anatolian provinces on numerous occasions. The reasons for this transplanting of peoples were closely linked to state policy. In some cases the foreigners brought to Anatolia had been causing trouble for the empire in other provinces. Hence they were removed from their familiar social and ethnic environment, placed in a strange one, and subjected to Hellenization (often indirectly) and to Christianization (or in the case of heretics, to Orthodoxy). On other occasions the transferred populations were brought for military purposes, or were Christians fleeing the conquests of the Arabs. In this way the Goths were settled in Phrygia in the fourth century, thc Greek Cypriots were moved to Cyzicus by Justinian II, and the Mardaites were sent to Attaleia. Similarly, odd groups of Armenian soldiers were settled in various parts of Asia Minor. Constantine V settled one group on the eastern borders, seventh-century Pergamum possibly had an Armenian colony but the emperor Philippicus (711-713) expelled a considerable number of Armenians from Byzantine Anatolia, causing them to settle in Melitene and Fourth Armenia.


The settlements of Armenians were most numerous in the easternmost regions of Byzantine Anatolia, as in the regions of Coloneia and Neocaesareia, where by the latter part of the seventh century they must have existed in considerable numbers. Probably there also was settled a number of Armenian soldiers in the Armeniac theme, and it was customary to post Armenian contingents in various parts of western Anatolia. In an expedition against the Arabs of Crete during the reign of Leo VI, there were mustered 500 Armenians from Platanion in the theme of Anatolicon and 500 more from Priene. Under Constantine VII the tagmata of the east were bolstered for another Cretan expedition by the addition of 1,000 Armenian troops, whereas 600 Armenians (possibly those of Priene) were to guard the shores of the Thracesian theme. All these references, however, are to scattered contingents of soldiers posted on the shores of the western Anatolian coast or on the eastern borders to fight the Muslims. Most of the large scale transplanting of Armenians from their homeland by the Byzantine emperors, at least up to the tenth century, seems to have been made to the European provinces.

Other groups were sent to Anatolia, such as the several thousand Persian soldiers who deserted to Byzantium in 834 and were then settled throughout Asia Minor. In the course of the seventh and eighth centuries, the emperors transplanted considerable numbers of Slavs to the northwesternmost corner of the peninsula. There are references to the presence of Slavs in the seventh, eighth, ninth, and tenth centuries. The first such mention would seem to be the 5,000 Slavs who deserted to the Arab invaders of Anatolia in 665. Almost a quarter of a century later, in 688, Justinian II sent the Slavs, whom he had taken prisoner in Europe, to the theme of Opsicion, and in 692 he was able to raise a military force of 30,000 from among them. But when he marched against the Arabs with his armies, 20,000 of these Slavs deserted to the enemy. Justinian was so infuriated that on his return he slew the remainder of the Slavs with their women and children at Leucate on the Gulf of Nicomedia. The largest Slavic or Bulgaro-Slavic colonization in Asia Minor seems to have occurred during the eighth century. In the reign of Constantine V many Slavs fled the Balkans and were allowed to settle in the region of the Atarnas River not far from the Bosphorus. Nicephorus mentions that their number was 208,000. Though this figure is doubtlessly exaggerated in the manner of medieval chroniclers, nevertheless after one has allowed for the exaggeration, this must have been the largest Slavic settlement in Asia Minor.

That the Slavs were still to be seen as an ethnic group in this northwestern corner of Anatolia in the ninth century is recorded in Theophanes Continuatus. These are the last references to major Slavic settlements in Anatolia prior to the Turkish invasions. Constantine Porphyrogenitus does mention the presence of Sthlavesianoi in the Opsicion theme in the tenth century, for in his reign they furnished 220 men for the expedition to Crete. Their numbers are comparatively small as revealed in this text, for they furnished much smaller numbers of troops than the Armenians in western Anatolia. After this their presence is no longer noted, and it is quite probable that they were Christianized and Hellenized*.

*[NovoScriptorium: The strictly correct word should be ‘Romanized’, not ‘Hellenized’. ‘Hellenization’ refers to a specific time period, that is the Hellenistic era. Indeed parts of the Eastern Roman Civilizitation, e.g. the language, remained Hellenistic -or even Greek-  but we cannot speak of ‘Hellenistic’ or ‘Greek’ assimilation of populations but for a ‘Roman‘ one instead. After all, if one could ask a civilian of those times about his identity he would not declare himself as ‘Greek’ but rather as a -Greek speaking- ‘Roman‘]

A group about which comparatively little is known, but which was no doubt of commercial importance in Anatolia, was that of the Jews. By the time of the Roman Empire, the Diaspora of the Jews had resulted in Jewish establishments in over sixty Anatolian cities and towns. From the seventh to the eleventh centuries there are references to Jews in Nicaea (tenth century), Abydus (1096), Pylae (eleventh century), Ephesus (eleventh century), Mastaura in the regions of the Maeander (eleventh century), Amorium (ninth century), Cappadocia (seventh century), Neocaesareia (eighth century), and in the border town of Zapetra (ninth century). Five more Anatolian towns are mentioned as having settlements of Jews during the twelfth and early thirteenth centuries, and it is probable that Jews had lived in some of these towns even earlier. These include Chonae (c. 1150), Strobilus (eleventh century), Seleuceia (1137), Trebizond (1180) and Gangra (1207). The reference to the Jews in these Anatolian towns is quite important, especially when one recalls the Constantinopolitan nature of the Byzantine sources. It is highly probable that there were many more such towns but they simply have not been mentioned. In most cases they must have been in direct line of descent from the communities founded during the Diaspora, though a number of arrivals probably entered the empire during the late tenth century, following the Byzantine expansion to the east and the religious persecutions of the eleventh-century caliph al-Hakim. These Jews were settled primarily in the towns along the great roads of Anatolia along which flowed the commerce of the empire, and it is clear that they were actively engaged in commerce and the crafts. There is, however, no indication as to their numbers.

The practice of settling foreign military contingents (Mardaites, Slavs, Armenians, and Persians from the seventh through the ninth century) in Anatolia not only continued in the tenth and eleventh centuries, but the military troops settled increased in ethnic variety. It is not always clear, however, if these tenth- and eleventh-century groups were permanently settled in an area, or were simply temporarily quartered in Anatolia during the period of their military service. Contingents of Russ were sent to the regions of Trebizond in the region of Romanus I, and in the mid-eleventh century one tagma of Russ had their winter quarters in northeast Anatolia, as did two tagmata of Franks. The eleventh-century documents list a bewildering variety of ethnic military groups in the various provinces of the empire-Russians, Kulpings, English, Normans, Germans, Bulgars, Saracens, Georgians, Armenians, Albanians, Scandinavians, and others. It is very dificult to ascertain the numbers of these groups, their location, and whether they were permanent or temporary settlers.

It was, however, the eastern regions of Byzantine Anatolia which contained the majority of the non-Greek populations-Kurds, Georgians, Lazes, Syrians, and Armenians. The eastern expansion of the tenth and eleventh centuries incorporated areas into the empire which were non-Greek in speech and non-Chalcedonian. The Kurds were numerous in such regions as Amid, Mayaferrikin, Chliat, Manzikert, Ardjish, and in the regions to the northeast of Lake Van.  Georgians and Lazes were to be found in the southeastern districts of the Black Sea coast. Of these eastern peoples in eleventh-century Anatolia, the most important were the Syrians and the Armenians. In the tenth century the emperor Nicephorus Phocas, in an effort to revive the city of Melitene which had been incorporated as a result of the Byzantine reconquest years earlier, asked the Syrian Jacobite patriarch to repeople the areas of Melitene and Hanazit with Syrians and to establish his patriarchal seat in that area. In this manner an extensive emigration of Jacobite Syrians to these regions took place. By the eleventh century they seem to have come in considerable numbers and possessed bishoprics in a large number of the eastern and southeastern towns: Zapetra, Tell Patriq, Simnadu, Saroug, Mardin, Germaniceia (Marash), Laqabin, Hisn Mansur, Goubbos, Gaihan-Barid, Callisura, Mayefarrikin, Arabissus, Melitene, Anazarba, Tarsus, Amid, Edessa, Kaisum, Nisibis, Tell Arsanias, Claudia, Hisn Ziad, Caesareia (at least by the twelfth century if not earlier), Samosata, and Gargar. They spread as far north as the Armenian town of Erzindjan where they possessed a monastery. Active in Anatolian commerce, from which they acquired considerable wealth, the radius of their caravans comprehended the lands of the Turks in the east and in the west Constantinople itself. They were also important as physicians and in the translation of the Greek texts.

The most significant movement of peoples into the Anatolian provinces of the empire was, however, that which brought in the Armenians during the tenth and eleventh centuries. This transplanting of large numbers of Armenians is closely connected with the Byzantine eastern expansion and the somewhat later western movement of the Seljuks. As a result of these two converging forces, Byzantium annexed Taron (968), Taiq (1000), Vaspuracan (1021) , Ani (1045-46), Kars (1064). The expansion of Byzantium into the east was accompanied by a large-scale emigration of Armenian princes, nobles, and their retinues to the lands of the empire. There had previously existed settlements of Armenians in these provinces between Tephrice and Melitene, and the Armeno-Byzantine general Melias had organized the newly formed theme of Lycandus in the early tenth century and colonized it with Armenians. As a result of the Byzantine conquest of Cilicia and northern Syria, the government brought large numbers of Armenian colonists to both regions. The newer emigrants were often posited upon the older stratum of Armenian population. In the tenth century the Taronites family received estates in Celtzene; the nobility of Taiq, after its absorption, acquired lands at Labaca, Arnasaciou, and Martisapao in the theme of Armeniacon (also at Ani, Tais, Tzourmere). In 1021 Basil II transplanted the population of Basean to Chaldia, and with the annexation of Vaspuracan, there took place a significant emigration of Armenians. When Senecherim-Hohvannes and his son David received landed possessions in Sebasteia, Larissa, Abara, Caesareia, Tzamandus, and Gabadonia in the theme of Cappadocia, they were accompanied by 14,000 men (and presumably by their families). In 1045-46 Gregory Bahlavouni exchanged his lands for estates in the province of Byzantine Mesopotamia and in the same year Kakig of Ani gave up his kingdom and settled within the empire, acquiring estates in the themes of Cappadocia, Lycandus, and Charsianon.

Finally in 1064 Gagik-Abas of Kars received lands in Tzamandus, Larissa, Amaseia, and Comana. Though large-scale emigrations are specifically mentioned in only two instances, it must be assumed that all these princes and nobles were accompanied by considerable numbers of followers. So extensive was the number of Armenians in this diaspora that by the middle of the eleventh century there were three Armenian military corps stationed in the cities of Sebasteia, Melitene, and Tephrice. One of the principal Byzantine sources of the eleventh century Michael Attaliates remarks, “the Armenian heretics have thronged into Iberia, Mesopotamia, Lycandus, Melitene, and the neighboring places”. Michael the Syrian confirms this in remarking that once Senecherim-Hovhannes had been installed in Sebasteia, the Armenians “spread throughout Cappadocia, Cilicia, and Syria.”

(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-Comments for NovoScriptorium: Anastasius Philoponus

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