Post-classical history

A Cosmopolitan Society

One finds me Scythian among Scythians, Latin among
And also to Persians I speak in Persian…
To Alans I say in their tongue:
‘Good day, my lord, my archontissa, where are you from?
Tapankhas mesfili khsina korthi kanda, and so on’…
Arabs, since they are Arabs, I address in Arabic…
And also I welcome the Ros according to their habits…
‘Sdraste, brate, sestritza’, and I say, ‘dobra deni’.
To Jews I say in a proper manner in Hebrew:
‘Your blind house devoted to magic, your mouth, a chasm
    engulfing flies,
Memakomene beth fagi beelzebul timaie…’
       John Tzetzes, showing off his knowledge of languages he
              used to address all the different people he met on the
                                streets of Constantinople, twelfth century

In the twelfth century, when John Tzetzes wrote these verses intended to welcome visitors to the Byzantine capital, apart from the Jews for whom he reserved insults, he did not exaggerate the number of foreigners. Indeed, he might also have mentioned the more famous Varangian guard formed in 988 by Basil II, which included Russians, Scandinavians and Anglo-Saxons, or the German contingent settled in their own quarter from the 1140s, or Catalans from Barcelona who also frequented the empire’s markets and served as mercenaries in its armies.

In his attitude towards the Jews, John represents one of the prevalent Byzantine views, namely that the Jews had failed to understand the universal message of Christianity and still clung to their own tribal faith. His verses continue with following line: ‘You stony Jew, the Lord has come, lightning be upon your head.’ Yet since God had revealed the Law to Moses, as recorded in the Old Testament, the Jews were also a chosen people and could not be dismissed as heretics or pagans. This double-edged comment reflects an uneasy relationship: the allusion to Beelzebub (from Hebrew, beelzebul, fly-lord) indicates a popular belief that he was Lord of the Flies, while magic was often connected with Jewish practices. Yet Jewish communities had lived and worked in the major cities of Byzantium ever since the time of Constantine I. They were not obliged to reside in distinct ghettos but probably gathered in areas close to their synagogues. Although they must have spoken Hebrew, as John recounts, from the sixth century they had used the Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible (the Septuagint) and were thoroughly Hellenized.

Occasionally they were subjected to persecution, for instance under Emperor Herakleios in the seventh century, who ordered them to convert to Christianity, and again in the eighth, when Emperor Leo III forced them to accept baptism. But they knew how to circumvent this as Theophanes reports: ‘The Jews… were baptized against their will and then washed off their baptism and they partook of holy communion on a full stomach and so defiled the faith.’ Leo VI issued a similar law at the end of the ninth century, probably with the same results. It is unlikely that permanent conversions of large numbers occurred. In tenth-century Sparta – medieval Lakedaimonia – St Nikon attacked the local Jewish community, claiming that they were responsible for an epidemic in the city. He drove them out and refused to allow them to return to their jobs as weavers and cloth finishers unless they converted. Jews were regularly held responsible for unexplained disease, death and other misfortunes of Christians. In the early eighth century, for example, the first outbreak of iconoclasm against Christian churches in Muslim Syria was attributed to a Jewish magician.

Yet the Jews in Byzantium were generally tolerated and their distinctions permitted. Throughout the empire, they worked as merchants, bankers and money-lenders and were also employed as silk weavers and finishers of cloth. Thanks to the Itinerary of Benjamin of Tudela, a Spanish rabbi, which records his visit to nearly thirty communities in Byzantium during the 1160s, we learn of about 9,000 Jews who followed a variety of activities. They range from one poor agricultural community of two hundred on Mount Parnassus, near Delphi, to small and larger urban groups, including the Jews resident in Constantinople, especially in Galata, the settlement north of the Golden Horn which formed the thirteenth region of the capital and which Benjamin knows by its later name as Pera. He found that Byzantine Jews there, and in Thebes and Thessalonike, were prominent in the silk-working industry, and all enjoyed quite a high standard of living. He does not appear to have visited the community at Kastoria in northern Greece, which produced new hymns for use in synagogue services at the end of the eleventh century, but everywhere he notes the names of rabbis and outstanding Talmudic scholars.

In Constantinople itself, Benjamin was amazed at the stir and bustle caused by merchants from all parts of the world, and he includes Mesopotamia, Babylon, Persia, Egypt and Palestine, as well as northern and western countries. He mentions the emperor’s doctor, Rabbi Solomon (the Egyptian), who is the only Jew allowed to ride on horseback, and observes the separation of Karaites, a sect which rejected the Talmud of normative Jewry, from Rabbanites, who lived by its regulations. In Pera, the Byzantine tanners made a point of emptying their filthy water in front of Jewish houses, which engendered hatred and bad relations. But the Byzantine communities were not disturbed by anything approaching the degree of hostility witnessed in the Rhineland during the First Crusade (as we shall see). During his later travels in Persia, Benjamin records that the Jews there were wealthier than those in Byzantium. But he emphasizes that he had seen no city like Constantinople, ‘it is only equalled by Baghdad’. The Jews were a permanent part of the cosmopolitan society of Byzantium.

In contrast, many other groups sought temporary employment in the empire and worked for the imperial system or the court in particular capacities. For centuries, Byzantium had attracted adventurers, pirates, false prophets and heretics, all seeking their fortunes or an audience for their views, as well as merchants and mercenaries offering their services. Armenians frequently found employment in the Byzantine armed forces. As the empire’s reach expanded from the tenth century onwards, a larger orbit of countries and cultures became linked to it. One striking example occurred in 1034, when Harald Hadrada arrived in Constantinople with five hundred Vikings armed with their traditional double-headed axes. The young prince had been forced to leave Norway and travel to Byzantium via Novgorod, the Russian river routes and Christian colonies, over the rapids of the lower Dnieper and the Black Sea. In Constantinople, which the Norsemen called Miklagard (the Great City), he served for ten years with the Varangian guard and campaigned in Sicily. His success attracted other soldiers of fortune from Iceland, Scandinavia and Anglo-Saxon England, after the Norman victory at the battle of Hastings in 1066. In addition to their duties as members of a professional fighting unit, they were stationed in the Great Palace as guard troops, marked out by their distinctive appearance and weaponry.

Considerable confusion surrounds the account of Harald’s departure from Constantinople: his Saga alleges that he quarrelled with Empress Zoe, tried to kidnap her niece Maria and was involved in the blinding of Michael V. It also describes how Harald succeeded in leaving the Golden Horn, which was sealed by iron chains:

He told some of the oarsmen to pull as hard as they could, while those who were not rowing were to run to the stern of the galleys laden with all their gear. With that, the galleys ran up on to the chains. As soon as they stuck on top of the chains, Harald told all the men to run forward into the bows. Harald’s own galley tilted forward under the impact and slid down off the chains; but the other ship stuck fast and broke its back. Many of her crew were lost, but some were rescued from the sea.

Harald later set Maria ashore and sailed back to Novgorod, where King Jaroslav gave him his daughter in marriage. Finally, he reclaimed his heritage as King of Norway, where he issued a regular silver coinage which appears to imitate the Byzantine silver coin, themiliaresion (worth one twelfth of a gold nomisma); similar imitations are also found in Sweden and Finland. He probably founded a church for St Olaf in the Scandinavian colony in Constantinople, to which devotees of the northern cult sent donations.

In the twelfth century, this recruitment of soldiers from the north was complemented by Christian pilgrims, such as King Erik of Denmark and his successor King Sigurd, who both visited Constantinople en route for Jerusalem and Rome, and returned with gifts of relics, gold and silver church fittings and a Greek prayer book. Sigurd had sailed down the river systems and across the Black Sea to the Byzantine capital in his Viking ship, which he presented to Alexios I Komnenos. It is shown with its dragon head in a famous fifteenth-century image of Constantinople. The emperor placed the gilded dragon head cover in the church of St Peter. The Varangian guard continued. In July 1203, the western crusader Geoffrey Villehardouin described an impressive honour guard: ‘Englishmen and Danes equipped with battle-axes’, lining the route from the gates of the Palace of Blachernai right up to the main door, where Isaac II Angelos was enthroned. And these same warriors also fought against the crusaders during the siege of 1204 and died with the Byzantines defending the city.

The Varangians left their mark in Constantinople: a graffito in runes (an early Germanic script), scratched on a marble parapet in Hagia Sophia, may suggest a moment of boredom during a long liturgy, while the runic inscription on a lion from Piraeus near Athens (which is now in Venice) is written in a more formal style. After their service they went home with Byzantine coins, silks used as shrouds and altar cloths, weapons and distinctive clothing. According to the Laxdaela Saga, Bolli Bollason came back dressed in a magnificent, gold-embroidered costume with a purple cloak, ‘clothes of silk, given him by the king of Miklagarth’. As a result of these close relations and exchange of gifts, Byzantine influence in church architecture, fresco painting, manuscript illumination and ivory carving became widespread throughout the north, even as far as Iceland. Runic stones were raised in memory of those who had travelled to Byzantium as merchants, pilgrims and mercenaries, whose exploits are commemorated in Icelandic and Scandinavian poems and histories.

Another ethnic group that made a distinct impact in Byzantium in the eleventh century was recruited from the eastern regions of Armenia and Georgia. Two families of Kekaumenos and Pakourianos, in particular, stand out as a source of successful military commanders. Of the first, the Armenian general Kekaumenos mastered the art of writing in order to record his memoirs, which include military strategies and surprising victories over the Bulgars, as well as much advice for his sons based on personal experience. Of the second family, we know most about the Georgian Gregory Pakourianos, who fought for Byzantium from 1064 until his death in battle against the Pechenegs in 1086. He and his wife Kale supported the Georgian monastery of Iviron on Mount Athos, and her will describes in detail the distribution of her possessions to her relatives and freed slaves. In addition, Gregory founded his own at Petritzos (modern Bačkovo in Bulgaria), and wrote its foundation charter with provision for fifty-one Georgian monks and one notary, who should know Greek in order to deal with the local authorities. The monks were to receive their annual pension at Easter, when the monastery held a fair at its gates. Many of his comrades in arms retired to this retreat, which Gregory endowed with extensive properties.

Gregory also built three hostels for travellers who made their way from the central Balkans, down the Marica valley towards Adrianople and Constantinople. This followed a Byzantine tradition dating back to the earliest Christian times, reflecting the ideal of philanthropy, which was practised by rulers as an imperial virtue and imitated by others like Pakourianos. In Constantinople, Empress Irene established soup-kitchens, homes for the elderly and special cemeteries where proper burial could be provided for foreigners who fell ill and died in the capital. Social services were more developed in urban centres but rural monasteries could also provide basic medical care. In 1152, for instance, Isaac Komnenos established an imperial monastery at Vera (Pherrai in Thrace), with a 36-bed hospital and a bathhouse for the local villagers as well as the monks. Pakourianos, therefore, added to an established tradition of charitable foundations, which incorporated a higher level of care for medieval travellers and enhanced the movement and mingling of peoples.

During the twelfth century, the Komnenos dynasty founded by Alexios I employed more foreigners and sometimes rewarded them by a grant known as pronoia (literally, care). Although the precise meaning of the term is disputed, these grants gave the recipient, often a soldier, the right to collect state taxes for a limited time from an estate or a group of peasants living on it, or from pious foundations like monasteries. The grant was considered temporary and could be revoked at any time, but its original connection with military service, whether as a reward for past action or in anticipation of future duty, gradually weakened. Under Michael VIII Palaiologos (1259–82), it became hereditary and thus deprived the state of revenues on a permanent basis; holders of a pronoia simply collected the taxes without providing any service. If the system was introduced in the twelfth century to reward foreign mercenaries, its later development was one of the causes of Byzantine weakness.

All this cosmopolitan mixing raises the question whether Byzantium was more open to outsiders in the eleventh and twelfth centuries than before. Obviously, the arrival of western crusaders was to make a significant change in both elite and popular attitudes to Latin Christians. But from the late tenth century onwards, Byzantium attracted and employed a wider range of foreigners, who found jobs and rewards in the developed markets of the eastern empire. Their search for wealth was balanced by the empire’s capacity to absorb outsiders and its need for skilled labour. The imperial structure could accommodate much diversity, provided it was loyal, and emperors delighted in the novelty and range of skills of fighters such as the Varangians. Byzantium’s confidence in its own political and social organization admitted a higher degree of tolerance than other less-established medieval societies.

For all those who settled in Byzantium and paid taxes, knowledge of Greek was one essential, and learning Greek became easier in the eleventh and twelfth centuries because the spoken vernacular of the streets was simpler than the Attic Greek used by intellectuals (see chapter 21). Demotic gradually became the common language of trade in the eastern Mediterranean, spoken by Arabs, Syrians, Venetians, Genoese and Pisan merchants. The Italians regularly worked as translators for the imperial court, but by no means exclusively. During the debate between Cardinal Humbert, who led the Roman embassy, and Patriarch Keroularios in 1054, John ‘the Spaniard’ had to handle their disagreements; and in 1192, a Byzantine embassy to Genoa included one interpreter named Gerard Alamanopoulos (‘son of Alaman’), a German who had probably married a Greek woman. Newcomers, therefore, had access to Byzantium through a less complex language system and could pick up the rudiments of spoken Greek without learning the higher forms.

Literary scholars have long noted a similarity between western chansons de geste, such as the Song of Roland or the Pilgrimage of Charlemagne, and the epic of Digenes Akrites and the Byzantine revival of late antique romance, raising the question of possible western influences on Byzantium. While three of the four Byzantine romances are composed in Attic Greek, the military exploits of Digenes are written in the vernacular spoken Greek of the twelfth century. In this it shares common features with topical verses making fun of prominent officials, Christian miracle stories and tales considered ‘good for the soul’. Similar vernaculars are used in western chansons. Spoken vernacular Greek was also encouraged by Maria of Alania, mother-in-law of Anna Komnene, in the 1090s, by Bertha of Sulzbach, the first wife of Manuel I (1143–80), and by other western princesses who commissioned authors such as John Tzetzes to produce demotic versions of the Iliad and Odyssey to assist their mastery of Greek culture.

The growth of this literature, which could be appreciated by both Latins and uneducated Byzantines, reflects a new awareness of the difficulty of mastering Attic Greek and a need for simpler literary texts. Although some historians believe that Eleanor of Aquitaine, often considered a famous patron of the troubadours, accompanied her husband King Louis VII of France on the Second Crusade in 1147, and could have met Bertha at the Byzantine court, her encouragement was not essential to this literary development. The empire was changing and adapting to new pressures, and these included an alternative form of Greek, corresponding to the spoken language.

In addition to the increasing number of foreign visitors to the imperial court, the thriving economy of Byzantium continued to attract merchants from all parts of the Mediterranean. In a satirical story, written by an anonymous twelfth-century author, the hero Timarion, who describes himself as a tourist from Cappadocia, visits Thessalonike at the time of the annual festival of St Demetrios. He wants to see its sacred places, the church with its miracle-working oil which dripped from the saint’s icon, and is surprised by the scale of the fair. He climbs up the hill of the castle to look out at the immense sea of tents:

The merchants’ booths facing each other [were] set up in parallel rows… and at various points at an angle to the rows, other booths were set up… I couldn’t help but compare it to the centipede with a very long body showing innumerable little feet under its belly… There were all kinds of men’s and women’s clothes, everything that comes from Boeotia and the Peloponnese, from Italy and Greece, Phoenicia, Egypt, Spain and the Pillars of Hercules, where the finest altar cloths are made.

In this way he expresses his amazement at ‘the most important fair held in Macedonia’, on 8 October, the saint’s feast-day.

Such fairs stimulated the local economy and clearly attracted merchants from far and near, reflecting a constant commercial activity, even when the provinces were bereft of imperial coinage and the names of traders are not recorded. By the twelfth century, the export of olive oil and local silk products, which depended on mulberry plantations, is documented in Italian sources. Venetian merchants frequented numerous ports in the Peloponnese and central Greece and clearly made profits on their trade, but Constantinople itself remained the outstanding venue for trade. Its prosperity was also dependent upon the presence of foreign merchants, some established permanently in their own quarters, others more transient. In the mid-twelfth century, the Arab geographer Idrisi noted: ‘Constantinople is prosperous, having markets and merchants, and its people are affluent.’ The imperial capital could still impress and retained the cosmopolitan character which had attracted so many earlier travellers across the centuries. Even after 1261, Abdullah, a Muslim merchant, found the city most striking:

It is a great city on the seashore, comparable to Alexandria, and it takes one morning to cross it from end to end. There is a place as large as two-thirds of Damascus, surrounded by walls with a gate, which is reserved exclusively for the occupation of the Muslims. There is equally a similar place for the Jews… There are one hundred thousand churches, less one… He [the emperor] completed the number by building the Great Church… it is one of the most considerable and marvellous buildings that can be seen.

From its greatest extent in the sixth century, when it covered the entire eastern Mediterranean, to its smallest, when it became a tiny cluster of city-states in the fourteenth, Byzantium was always an empire, not a nation. Its resident peoples, whether Greek, Latin, Armenian, Jewish or from another community, understood themselves to be its citizens, paying its taxes and benefiting from its protection and its laws. The language of authority and command was Greek, although this language itself evolved from its classical roots into a demotic which was easier to learn and could be shared by those with other native tongues. At the same time, Byzantium never lost its Homeric world-view of migration and hospitality to strangers, which newcomers continued to enjoy.

As with many empires, the court imported outsiders as mercenaries and functionaries, free from loyalty to any other interest in the capital or beyond. Byzantium’s cosmopolitan mixture, drawn across astounding distances by commercial opportunities or just curiosity, was not limited to Constantinople, as we have seen from the fair at Ephesos (see chapter 14). However visitors travelled, sailing from port to port or following the overland routes, the entire empire was organized for trade and open to pilgrims, its hospices, taverns and guesthouses ensuring that however proud and self-regarding the empire was, it was never parochial or closed.

You can support our site by clicking on this link and watching the advertisement.

If you find an error or have any questions, please email us at Thank you!