Posted by Powee Celdran
“You will find me a Scythian among the Scythians and a Latin among the Latins, and in general, among all other people you will find me to be one of them.” -John Tzetzes, 12th century
Welcome once again to another article by the Byzantium Blogger! Recently, I have tackled several interesting topics of Byzantine life from the emperors, to their inventions and science, and their methods of torture and punishment according to one of the most fascinating books on Byzantine life, “A Cabinet of Byzantine Curiosities” by Anthony Kaldellis. This article will once again cover a chapter- if not a set of chapters- from the same book and that part of the book covers the topic I’ve always wanted to write about. This topic is about different foreign lands, far and near including their people and how the Byzantines viewed them; which in fact was the topic I’ve always wanted to write about- basically about how well the Byzantines knew about the world around them. The Byzantine Empire (Eastern Roman Empire) lasted for 1,100 years (330-1453) which means there was a great amount of time for them to encounter all sorts of races and powers either from lands surrounding them or lands far away. The different people the Byzantines encountered throughout these 1,100 years included Jews, Persians, Arabs, Egyptians, Ethiopians, Scythians, Armenians, Huns, Vandals, Goths, Vikings, Rus, Slavs, Vlachs, and of course the Franks, Latins, and Germans (which will be my next article). The Byzantines encountered all sorts of people either by travelling to very distant places such as India, China, and Ethiopia or by those people settling in Constantinople therefore having the Byzantines have some stereotypes about them. With all these people from different parts of the world settling down in Constantinople, the capital was surely a “Cosmopolitan Society” like today’s New York, London, and Paris and also like Coruscant from Star Wars, and this fact of Byzantium’s cosmopolitan society was something I’ve always wanted to write about after reading a chapter from Judith Herrin’s “Byzantium: The Surprising Life of a Medieval Empire“. Meanwhile, some of these foreigners the Byzantines encountered have had some hostile views towards them just as the Byzantines viewed them in a hostile way but some of these foreigners looked up to the Byzantines as the successors of the Roman Empire. This topic on far away foreign lands has always been something of great interest because the Byzantines long before explorers such as Marco Polo, Vasco de Gama, and Christopher Columbus discovered distant lands had already reached the far reaches of Asia including India and China but of course the Byzantines did not go as far as building large ships that enabled them to sail around Africa to reach Asia or across the Atlantic Ocean to the New World. This article will feature descriptions of foreign lands including the people, animals, customs, food, and how the Byzantines saw them from as early as the beginnings of the Eastern Roman Empire in the 4th century up until its final days in the 15th century. This is definitely GOING TO BE A VERY LONG READ and instead of just mentioning Byzantine history like I always do, this has some zoology, geography, anthropology, and a bit of cultural stereotypes blended into it. For the Byzantines, the farthest they’ve reached and heard about east was China, to the south it was Ethiopia, and to the north it was Scandinavia but as it turns out, the people and lands the Byzantines were most fascinated about were the lands in the east which were rich in resources and exotic. Like my other articles based on the same book, this will be written in many different paragraphs categorized by the different people and lands the Byzantines encountered. Out of the many interesting chapters in A Cabinet of Byzantine Curiosities, the one about foreign lands, people, and stereotypes was one of the best parts to read about and of course this article is not it yet as I will post a sequel to this on Byzantines vs Latins (Westerners) showing how both were different and how they viewed each other. Anyway, let’s begin with the article.
Note: This article’s information comes from various Byzantine historians from the era of the Byzantine Empire (330-1453). It also contains some cultural stereotypes dating to Byzantine times, so be prepared.
WARNING: THIS IS A VERY LONG ARTICLE
Other Byzantine Articles from the Byzantium Blogger:
Crime, Punishment, Heresy, and Medical Practice in Byzantium
Byzantine Science and Technology
The Surprising Life of a Medieval Empire
7 Reasons to be Interested in Byzantium
Provincials (Asia Minor and Armenia)
Where else to begin writing this article on the multi-ethnic Byzantine world but with provincials of the Byzantine Empire itself. These provincials of the empire include people from the Themes or provinces which were mostly in Asia Minor (Turkey) which all had their own customs and stereotypes which the Byzantines of Constantinople had towards them and in fact the people of Constantinople had some condescending views towards the provincials. One example of how the Byzantines of Constantinople viewed the provincials talks about the Cappadocians, the people from the Asia Minor region of Cappadocia: “a poisonous snake once bit a Cappadocian, and died from tasting his tainted blood” saying that the person did not die but the snake because of the Cappadocian’s blood. It was also in Cappadocia (or if not Armenia) where the conjoined twins of the 10th century came from, as I have mentioned in my previous article which are depicted in the Madrid Skylitzes. Meanwhile, the Byzantines called the Paphlagonians, the people from the region of Asia Minor of Paphlagonia as “pig-assed” (choirokoloi in Greek) but also it was also in Paphlagonia where a certain type of cheese was made wherein cheese-makers blew air into the milk they were curdling to give it holes creating the Byzantine version of Swiss cheese. When it came to the people from the island of Cyprus, the 12th century Byzantine writer Constantine Manasses describes that one day in church, a man from Cyprus came in with a smell of wine and reeking garlic that he couldn’t stand the smell all the way to the point where he had to punch the man from Cyprus in the jaw. In the 9th century, the poet and hymnographer, St. Kassiane- who would have been the wife of the emperor Theophilos (r. 829-842)- wrote a discriminating poem on the Armenians:
The terrible race of Armenians is deceitful and extremely vile,
fanatical, deranged, and malignant, puffed up with hot air and full of slyness.
A wise man said correctly about them that Armenians are vile when they live in obscurity, even more when they become famous, and most vile in all ways when they become rich.
When they become filthy rich and honored, then to all they seem as vileness heaped upon vileness.
Apart from these hostile views towards the Armenians, they were also good and strong soldiers in the Byzantine army and many of them rose above the ranks becoming great generals, although it was said that when they become rich and famous, they become viler.
Apparently, there was a large number of Jews that lived in Constantinople and in the Byzantine Empire ever since the early days of the Eastern Roman Empire when the Jews began to scatter around the Mediterranean and other parts of the world. The Byzantines were usually tolerant towards the Jews living in the empire but really, they found the Jews mysterious especially since they always lived beside each other and only interact with each other. According to the Jewish Spanish traveler Benjamin of Tuleda in the 12th century who visited Constantinople, the rival Jewish sects of the Rabanites (population of 2,000) and the Karaites (population of 500) were forced to live in the district of Pera across the Golden Horn despite hating each other, which meant they had to build a wall between their communities. Benjamin of Tuleda also said that the Byzantines would beat up Jews in the streets for not seeing eye to eye with each other and that Jews were not allowed to ride a horse in the city except for one, who was the physician of the emperor Manuel I Komnenos. Another thing Benjamin writes about was the wild beast show in the Hippodrome during Christmas sometime in the 1160’s which featured lions, bears, leopards, wild donkeys, and birds that would fight each other for public amusement in which Benjamin said “no entertainment like it can be found in any other land”, and here the emperor Manuel I was present as well watching the show. Meanwhile, the Byzantine poet John Tzetzes who lived during the same time as Benjamin of Tuleda has more insulting things to say about the Jews as seen in his poem on how to greet a Jew: “You blind house, full of evil magic, mouth like a gorge sucking up flies” followed by “You Jew, thick as a brick, the Lord did come, lightning upon your head”. In other words, some Byzantines insult the Jews for not accepting the Christian faith when they had the chance to and instead stuck to their old religion.
Another story the Byzantine Greeks have about the Jews takes place back in 401 in a letter of the philosopher and bishop of Cyrene, Synesios was on his way back to Cyrene from Alexandria and the captain and more than half of the ship crew were Jews believing that it was an act of piety to kill as many Greeks as possible but it turned out the captain and the crew were strict orthodox Jews and they refused to pilot the ship during a storm on the Sabbath and all the captain would do was read his scroll until an Arab soldier on the ship threatened him with a sword. More than a century later in 534, the artifacts of the Jewish Temple of Jerusalem, particularly the Menorah was recovered in Carthage once the Romans reclaimed it under Emperor Justinian I. In 70AD, the 2nd Temple of Jerusalem was destroyed when the Romans took Jerusalem and many pieces from the temple were taken to Rome as spoils of war including the menorah until 455 when Rome was captured by the Vandals under King Geiseric (r. 428-477) who took many spoils including the menorah to Carthage, which was their capital. After the Romans (Byzantines) reclaimed Carthage in 534, the general Belisarius sent the menorah to Constantinople where a Jew saw it and told Justinian that no city could keep the artifact safe but Jerusalem so Justinian shipped it to Jerusalem together with other artifacts and scattered it various churches as in that time the Jews were no longer a dominant population in the area. In 614, the Sassanid Persians captured Jerusalem taking the relics and from then they were never seen again. Overall, the Byzantines were more tolerant to the Jews compared to the Western Europeans of the middle ages even if they isolate the Jewish communities in a district in Constantinople but they allowed them to progress commercially and relied on their skills in trade, mathematics, and medicine; although only if they would cause problems, the Byzantines would take action against them.
When the Roman Empire was fully divided after the death of Emperor Theodosius I in 395, Egypt fell under the more powerful and progressive Eastern Empire based in Constantinople and up until the Muslim conquest in 641, the both fertile and mostly dessert filled Egypt remained a Roman province providing the grain supply for the empire. The Roman soldier and travel writer Ammianus Marcellinus from the 4th century describes that the Egyptians are dark and swarthy with a sad look about them, also easily animated in their gestures, quarrelsome and persistent, and are not ashamed to show any lash marks on their body from refusing to pay taxes, and at the same time any torture would not be hard enough to reveal the name of a hardened criminal from Egypt. In Constantinople, which had all sorts of races living all over, there was a type of police unit focused on catching Egyptians and Syrians who have migrated to the capital for invalid reasons, this was similar to racial profiling.
The Egyptians however have grown accustomed to Greek culture and the Greek alphabet ever since Egypt fell under Greek rule in the 4th century BC from Alexander the Great’s conquest. Hieroglyphics on the other hand were last seen in the Island of Philae along the Nile in the year 394 recording the name of the priest, date, and the god being the son of the Egyptian god Horus that was being honored. After that, hieroglyphics became totally not understandable to those who lived in the empire, including Egyptians which is seen when a monk named Jacob entered the tomb of the pharaoh Ramses IV in the Valley of Kings writing graffiti on the wall saying he could not understand the picture alphabet of the Ancient Egyptians. It was mentioned by the Ancient Greek historian Diodoros that ancient Egyptians would sacrifice the rare red-headed men to their gods; when this was found out by the reddish-haired Byzantine historian Niketas Choniates in the late 12th century, he said that he was already old when he found out about this so he wouldn’t have to worry about this custom anymore because his hair turned gray. It was also in Egypt where the Plague of Justinian in 541 was first recorded which spread all over the Mediterranean from the ports of the north coast of Egypt; the fleas on the rats that caused the plague were so small that they were invisible to the Byzantines. Fast-forward to the 11th century, Egypt was no longer under Byzantine control but a diplomatic gift of a giraffe in which the Byzantines called a “camel-leopard” was given to the emperor Constantine IX Monomachos (r. 1042-1055) which was paraded in the capital.
Ethiopians and Nubians
To the south of Egypt in the far reaches of the dessert was the region of Nubia (now in Southern Egypt and Northern Sudan) where its people look different from the Egyptians being darker in skin. Below Nubia farther south into Africa was the land of Ethiopia where the desserts start to fade and the land becomes elevated while one part of it is along the Red Sea. Europeans knew very little about Ethiopia up until the 19th century but the Byzantines back in the 6th century or earlier knew some things about this far away land, but not too much about it as it was very far away from Constantinople. One thing the Byzantines knew about Ethiopia was that its people had very dark skin leaving them to think they were not human beings seeing their blackness as a sign of evil. In one story, a monk named Pachon from Egypt was tormented by the memory of an Ethiopian girl he had once seen working in the fields in his younger days and in the lives of the dessert ascetics, the devil would appear to them in the form of a black man, woman, child, or beast to test them. Despite their blackness seen by the Byzantines as an omen of evil, Ethiopians were actually tolerated by the Byzantines and some even have positive views about them as exotic people. From 530-31, a Byzantine named Nonossos was sent by Emperor Justinian I on an embassy to Ethiopia and Arabia and while in the Kingdom of Axum in Ethiopia, he wrote a memorable description of their king named Ella Asbeha that he barely clothed except for gold-threaded linen hanging from his belt to his loins and decorated with jewelry all over his body including a golden torque around his neck and he stood over 4 elephants yoked together on a tall carriage adorned with gold leaves while his senate stood beneath him accompanied by flute players in the procession.
In The Conquest of Constantinople by the French knight and chronicler Robert de Clari in the 12th century, he writes that a Nubian prince was branded with a cross on his forehead went on a pilgrimage to Constantinople, the city that brought Christianity to his country in Africa many centuries ago. It is explained that the journey from Nubia to Jerusalem took about 100 days; he set out with 60 men and by the time he reached Jerusalem he was only left with 10 and when he reached Constantinople, he only had 2. Christianity possibly came to Nubia in the 6th century when the empress Theodora, the wife of Justinian I sent the missionary Julian to convert the Nubians from 537-39 but because of the heat of the dessert, Julian could not endure it so throughout these 2 years, he would lecture the people and convert them in a pool inside a cave wearing only a loincloth. The Byzantines overall mostly viewed the Africans of Nubia and Ethiopia as a rare sight not only because of their color but because they came from very distant places.
The Arabs from the Arabian Peninsula have not become a threat to the Byzantines (Eastern Romans) up until the 7th century when Islam rose leading to the unification of the Arab tribes under the prophet Muhammad which since the 630s began invading Byzantine territory in the Middle East, first during the reign of Heraclius (610-641), who also turns out to be mentioned in the Quran. For centuries, the Byzantines went through a series of conflicts with the Arabs who began ruling most of the Middle East, but at times they would make truces. The Byzantines however never really understood the holy book of Islam or the Quran and its translation in Greek rendered a crucial term describing Allah as entirely encased in metal or entirely hammered into a ball, causing some Byzantines to have a bizarre image of the God of the Muslims, possibly because their were no images of Allah, but instead only his name written in Arabic calligraphy. To make it easier for Muslims to convert to Orthodox Christianity, the emperor Manuel I Komnenos (r. 1143-1180) planned to remove Allah from the list of Muslim beliefs they had renounce as the name just meant “God”, although this aroused fierce opposition in the Church. The 7th century writer Anastasius Sinaita questions that “why are there more maimed people, lepers, people with gout, and epileptics among the Byzantines compared to foreigners such as the Arabs?” He answers this by saying that because the Byzantines have a wetter climate, drink wine excessively, and eat heavily while the Arabs have a drier diet and drier climate in the Arabian Peninsula. The Byzantines however were not always hostile towards the Arabs; in fact, one time when the Crusaders of the 4th Crusade arrived in Constantinople in 1203 and attacked and destroyed the mosque at the Pera district, some Byzantines came to aid of the Muslims against the Crusaders as both people had a common enemy in the Crusaders.
Ever since the Byzantine Empire was founded by Constantine I the Great in 330, the Sassanid Persian Empire has been a great threat to them and the Byzantines constantly defended their eastern borders from the Persian armies. Even before Constantine the Great, the Romans have always been at war with the Persians, first with the Parthians and then with the Sassanids. The conflict between the Byzantines and Persians concluded in 628 when the Sassanids were defeated by Emperor Heraclius (r. 610-641) and soon enough the Persians would fall under the rule of the Arabs. In 628, when the Byzantine army captured the Persian palace at Dastagerd outside the Sassanid capital of Ctesiphon in Iraq, they discovered over 300 Roman military standards taken by the Persians over the years of battle with the Romans, together with large quantities of aloes, silk, pepper, sugar, ginger, silks, and Persian carpets but they could not take them back as spoils of war because the quantity was too heavy to carry so instead the Byzantines burned them all.
When encountering the Persians, Ammianus Marcellinus who wrote about the Egyptians describes the Persians as slender, dark-skinned, have intimidating eyes, curved eyebrows that meet in the middle, have trim beards, and long hair. It was also said that the Persians were addicted to sex having as many concubines and wives as they can afford, wear swords in public, are formidable fighters winning through craftiness rather than courage, but they still talk a lot, are arrogant, and make threats easily. Ammianus Marcellinus also describes the Persians during the Battle of Amida in Mesopotamia in 359 saying that when the sun rose, it illuminated the plain full of glittering arms, cavalry, and coats of mail showing that Persians wore shiny silver armor and their king, Shapur II rode a tall horse with helmet having a golden ram’s head. 4 years later in 363, the emperor Julian the Apostate (r. 361-63) at the Battle of Ctesiphon saw the Persian cavalry entirely cased in metal including the horses, while the riders wore steel plates fitted exactly to their limbs and masks sculpted with detailed facial features having only tiny holes for the eyes and nostrils. Next to the cavalry were the archers who had nimble fingers able to pull the bowstring all the way back to their chest and when the arrows were released, a loud hissing noise was made. Behind the archers was a row of massive war elephants like the ones the Carthaginians used several centuries earlier and these elephants also made noises that terrified the Roman horses together with the smell while the drivers of the elephants had knives to stab them in case, they lost control. It was in this battle where Julian met his end and so did the Constantinian dynasty, the first dynasty of Byzantium.
In the 6th century, the historian Agathias comments that in the Persian Zoroastrian funeral rites, dead bodies were disposed and exposed to be dismembered by birds and dogs; if the animals move fast to eat the bodies, it meant that the person was virtuous, but if the animals moved slow, then the person must have been flawed. Sometimes, the Persians had also exposed the terminally ill to be eaten and if they returned looking half-dead, then they were thought ass belonging to the underworld. After the defeat of the Persians in 528, nothing much was written about them by the Byzantines except that the sport of Polo known to the Byzantines as Tzykanisterion (Čaukan in Persian) was introduced to them by the Sassanids and in the 5th century, a polo field was built in the imperial palace by Emperor Theodosius II. This sport became popular among the Byzantine nobility and notable players of this sport included the emperor Alexander who died in 913 of stroke while playing it.
Scythians and Huns
To the northeast of the Byzantine Empire lived the warlike nomadic tribes of the Steppes of Central Asia such as the Scythians, Huns, Alans, Cumans, Pechenegs, Mongols, and the Turkic tribes. Many of the Asiatic people made their way into Eastern Europe settling there as well as threatening the borders of Byzantium including the Avars, Bulgars, and Turks. The Scythians have been the people living in the area north of the Black Sea and north of Persia for the longest time that the Greek historian Herodotus back in the 5th century BC has something to write about them being horse-riding nomadic pastoralists without cities. The Huns were also similar to the Scythians by having no cities, except that the Huns came from a more distant place (possibly Mongolia) while the Scythians came from what is today Kazakhstan, Southern Russia, and Eastern Ukraine. The Byzantine soldier-writer Ammianus Marcellinus describes the Huns (and the other Asiatic nomadic tribes) being squat and ugly and that they gashed the cheeks of their children so that beard would not grow properly making them look scarier. They also ate the half-raw flesh of any animal cooking it only by rubbing it between their thighs and their horses’ back as they rode, which is possibly the origins of Steak Tartare. True enough, the now French dish of Steak Tartare originates from the Nomadic people of Central Asia who tenderized their meat placing it under their saddles as they rode long distances. These nomadic people wore clothes of linen or sewn mice skins and their shoes were not comfortable probably made of rope so they were not meant for walking, so instead they rode everywhere and in war they used lassos and extremely powerful bows in which they could fire with 2 hands while on horseback.
The Byzantine historian Priscus describes Attila, the king of the Huns (434-453) by saying he loved war but was not bad tempered and also gave good advice as well as being loyal to his allies. Attila the Hun was also described as being short but with a broad chest, a large head, small eyes, a sparse beard, flat nose, and dark skin which gives a description to what the Asiatic steppe people looked like. Before Attila’s death in 453, he tried to invade Constantinople but sometime in March 453, on the night after his wedding to Ildico- his last out of many wives- Priscus writes that Attila drank too much and, in his sleep, died from internal bleeding. Afterwards, Attila was placed in an iron coffin, placed inside a silver one, placed inside a gold one and buried in an unknown location, although it is said that he died in Hungary. If the Byzantines saw the Huns as hideous people living by roaming around having no cities, there was one group of Huns known as the Hephthalites or “White Huns” living in Central Asia that were more civilized and had cities according to the Byzantine historian Procopius. These Huns had defeated the Persians several times, had white faces and bodies, and when a rich man among them dies, up to 20 of his men who’ve shared his wealth are sealed up in a tomb to die with him.
Slavs and the Balkans
The people known as the Slavs began to appear in the Balkan territories of the Byzantine Empire north of Constantinople in the 6th century. The 2 Byzantine historians during the reign of Justinian I (527-565), Procopius and Jordanes write that in their times, Slavs have just appeared suddenly raiding their territories and yet they have no idea where they came from, although it said that the Slavs have originated somewhere in Ukraine or Poland. The Byzantines describe the Slavs as mysterious people that are not ruled by one but surprisingly live under a democracy where everything concerning their welfare is a matter of common concern among them. The Byzantines have also written about the Slavic gods, particularly Perun, the god of lightning equivalent to Zeus for the Greeks, Jupiter for the Romans, and Thor for the Norsemen; Perun was the chief god among the Slavic Pantheon and the lord of all things who the Slavs would sacrifice cattle and other victims to. The Slavs also revere rivers and nymphs as well as other spirits making sacrifices to them, at the same time they also worship their gods through totem poles as their version of icons. The Slavs though do not have good conditions of living as they live in hovels far apart from each other and in appearance they are described to be always covered in filth making it hard to notice if their skin is fair or dark and if their hair is dark or blonde, and it is also probably in their heritage that they have the habit of squatting (something I’ve noticed about the Slavs) because back then the ground they walked on was dirty. In the late 6th century, the leader of the Slavs that attacked the city of Corinth in Greece took the gilded canopy over the altar in the cathedral in order to use it as a tent to live in. The Slavs would become Christianized in the 9th century through St. Cyril and St. Methodius, Byzantine Greek missionaries sent to convert the Slavs by learning their native language and creating the Cyrillic alphabet in which most Slavic countries use up till this day including Russia, Belarus, Ukraine, Serbia, Bulgaria, and Macedonia.
At the same time the Slavs began raiding Byzantine territory in the Balkans, the Avars- people from Central Asia- did the same thing too in the Balkans. The king of the Avars or Khan was interested in the animals the Byzantine emperor Maurice (r. 582-602) had. The emperor was eager to please the Avar khan so he sent over his largest elephant but the khan sent it back to Maurice either because the elephant frightened him or he wanted to insult the emperor. Meanwhile, another group of people that lived in the Balkans were the Serbs who also spoke a Slavic language; and according to De Administrando Imperio by Emperor Constantine VII (r. 913-959), the name “Serbs” means “slaves” in Latin which is “servus” and the Serbs are called this because they used to be the slaves of the Roman emperors in the past as well as to the Eastern Roman emperors.
Watch this for more info on why Slavs squat.
Vlachs, Romanies, and Acrobats
During Byzantine times, the people that lived in present day Romania were the Vlachs, who claim they are descendants of the people of the Roman province of Dacia (today in Romania) and they speak a Romance language. The Vlachs had been under the Bulgarian Empire until it was annexed to Byzantium by Emperor Basil II in 1018; from then on, the Vlachs appear in Byzantine sources, one of them by the 11th century military author Kekaumenos who calls them treacherous thieves apart from being pastoralists and descendants of the Dacians. The same Balkan pastoralists known as the Vlachs have encroached into the monastic lands of Mt. Athos in Greece going against the rules of the monastic land by bringing in women and children, although the women dressed like men to avoid giving scandal. The women however began providing dairy products for the community as well as other services but still created an ongoing scandal. The worst part for the monks however were the Vlach children in which the patriarch later complains to the emperor Alexios I Komnenos (r. 1081-1118), and the emperor responded by saying “what do you want me to do about the children? I am not King Herod!” In 1468, after the fall of the Byzantine Empire, the historian Laonikos Chalkokondyles turned out be the first writer to understand that the Vlachs spoke a language descended from Latin saying that “they speak a language similar to that of the Italians, but so corrupted and different from it that it is difficult for the Italians to understand anything they say, unless they recognize words spoken distinctly.” Meanwhile, an insult made as an ethnic slur targeting a Bulgarian candidate for the patriarchate of Constantinople in the 14th century was “Boulgaralabnitoblachos” meaning that he was a Bulgarian but allegedly a Vlach by birth and an Albanian in appearance.
If the Byzantines though of the Vlachs as treacherous thieves, they though even worse about the travelling people known as the Roma or Gypsies who were best known as thieves and practitioners of magic. The name “Gypsy” comes from the word “Egyptian” probably because these people looked like Egyptians but in reality, they’ve originated from what is today Afghanistan and speak the Romany language which is similar to the Hindi language of India. In one story, the Byzantines of Macedonia noticed the Gypsies known as “Egyptians” go around thieving and when are caught, they do not deny their action but confess it asking to be paid for their thievery; similar to ancient Egypt where the person who’s goods were stolen has to pay ¼ the value of the stolen goods to the thieves’ guild master. The Gypsies were another strange people for the Byzantines, not just because they were known to be thieves, but they practiced magic such as by wrapping snakes around their bodies in order to make predictions about the future but the Gypsies were exceptionally good at acrobatics in which the 14th century historian Nikephoros Gregoras says that these performers did not use magic to perfrom their tricks but the arduous training of their bodies. Gregoras writes that these Gypsy performers could do a headstand above a mast, cartwheel across the ropes and sometimes walk across a tightrope with a child, stand on a horse moving fast and leap from its mane to its rump by passing underneath it and again and again, and they could balance a jug of water or a small child from at the end of a tall pole standing over his head. Gregoras however adds that these entertainments were risky that 40 Gypsies set out from their native land and only 20 remained once they were finished in Byzantium before they headed west to Spain. Another type of acrobats in Byzantium were known as Kontopaiktes or “pole-players”, one of them was seen in the court banquet hosted by Emperor Constantine VII in 949 and according to the diplomat Liutprand of Cremona, there was a man who balanced a 20ft pole on his forehead without using any hands and 2 boys climbed it up performing various acrobatic maneuvers up there, although it is not said where these acrobats came from. Tightrope walking was a popular form of entertainment seen in the Hippodrome of Constantinople according to Niketas Choniates but the people who excelled in tightrope walking skills were the Turks. Laonikos Chalkokondyles writes that the Turks as he saw them in the marketplace of Adrianople could tightrope while shackled or blindfolded, could perform various tricks on them including passing through swords and twirling.
Scandinavians and Rus
In the 6th century, the influential historians Procopius and Jordanes during the reign of Justinian I (527-565) have a lot to mention about the barbarians living across the northern borders of the empire. Many of these barbarians were Germanic people and many of them such as the Herules originate in the far northern peninsula of Scandinavia in Northern Europe, in which the Byzantines think of as it as an island calling it Thule or Scandza. When the Herules settled near the Byzantine Empire in around 500, it was said that they perform human sacrifices to their gods and that their old and sick had to be set on a pyre, killed with a dagger, and then cremated. What is more bizarre than this is that when a man died, his wife had to hang herself by his tomb or face an evil reputation. For Jordanes who identifies himself as a Goth, he calls Scandinavia (and Northern Europe) as the homeland of his people where the sun does not set so much during summer and for him, Scandinavia which he considers an island is a hive of races and a womb of nations such as the Finns, Goths, Danes, and Herules. According to Procopius who’s never been to Scandinavia but had plans to says that the Scandinavians are depressed during winter because the perpetual darkness prevents them from mingling with each other. They would send a watchman to the tallest mountain and when he glimpses the sun he will return and report back that the light will return in 5 days and then when it returns, they celebrate a festival. True enough, it is usually dark in Scandinavia and it is only during summer when the sun is usually out and never really sets.
Procopius also mentions another tribe among the Scandinavians known as the Scrithifini– who are most possibly Finns- are mostly hunters and do not feed milk to their infants but rather the marrow of animals killed in the hunt. For Procopius, the most populous nation among the Scandinavians were the Gauti or Geats from Sweden, known to Jordanes as the Gautigoths. The Geats were the people of the legendary hero Beowulf from the Old English poem dating back to the 520s, being a contemporary of Procopius and Justinian I. As early as the reign of Justinian I and even earlier, the Byzantines already had informations about the Scandinavians and centuries later, they had interacted more with the Scandinavians and Rus who joined the Byzantine army as the Varangian mercenaries to protect the emperor (this will be mentioned more in my next article). Fast-forward to the 1440’s during the last days of Byzantium, here the writer John Kananos travels from Byzantium to the lands of the far north including Norway, Sweden, Livonia, Prussia, Slavonia, Denmark, England, and finally to Iceland which he says that all they eat is fish
The Rus meanwhile were the people of Russia descended from Scandinavian Vikings who travelled down Russia’s rivers raiding and trading and would eventually try to attack Constantinople. The 10th century Byzantine historian Leo the Deacon gives a description of the Rus by describing their king Sviatoslav of Kiev who after being defeated by the emperor John I Tzimiskes of Byzantium agreed on terms. Sviatoslav came in by a small boat to meet with the emperor and he was of medium height with thick eyebrows, gray eyes, a snub nose, shaved chin, a thick long moustache on his upper lip, a thick neck, broad chest, and a shaved head except for a thin strand of hair hanging down from one side as a mark of his nobility and like the rest of his companions, he wore all white.
If Alexander the Great and the Macedonian Empire have reached India in the 4th century BC, the Byzantines could do the same in their time. In 400, a Roman description of India says that the Brahman men or philosophers and women live on opposite banks of the River Ganges. The men cross the river to be with the women for only 40 days during July and August, which are their coldest months. After the woman has 2 children, the couple will never meet again and remain celibate thereafter but if a woman is barren, the man will try again for only 5 years. Also, in around 400, a Byzantine lawyer from Egypt travelled as far as to Taprobane– which is most probably Sri Lanka- the island south of India in the Indian Ocean. It was said that the island was so rich in magnetic rocks that ships with nails could not depart from it but drawn back to it. Procopius from the 6th century knew about it tried to explain that because of the magnetic rocks in the shore, the Indians used ropes to tie their ships together instead of nails; on the other hand, he says that the Indians did not have much iron in their lands, though later on Marco Polo explains this saying that the wood of India is too thick for nails to penetrate. Back in 500, when the lawyer tried to travel to these magnetic islands, he could not reach them as he was arrested by the Bisad people (probably in India) and since they could not understand each other, only that he thought they were accusing of something for the bloodshot color of their eyes and the grinding of their teeth. At the end, the lawyer ended up being sent to work in a bakery for 6 years, being released when the king at Taprobane learned he was a Roman (Byzantine), a nation they hugely respected. A century later, in 500, the Byzantines would encounter Taprobane again when a Byzantine merchant named Sopatros and a Persian ambassador reached the island and met with the king who asked to judge which nation was greater. Sopatros showed the shiny gold Roman solidus coin with the face of the emperor- at that time Anastasius I- while the Persian showed the silver Persian coin with the image of their Shah of Shahs. When the king compared them, he found that the Roman one outmatched its silver Persian counterpart and Sopatros was paraded around town above an elephant accompanied by music. True enough, today there is a private island in Sri Lanka with the name Taprobane.
The best known thing about India to the Byzantines was that it was full of jungles with all sorts of exotic animals including dragon-like reptiles, huge ants, scorpions, ape hybrids such as a lion-ape and bear-ape, and an amphibious creature living in the Ganges called the “Tooth-Tyrant” (Odontotyrannos) which was able to swallow a whole elephant. It was also believed that the “unicorn” which had a serpent’s head, coiled neck, a crooked horn, beard, and lion’s feet lived in India as well as the mythological Sphinx in the form of an ape creature. Ever since the Byzantine times long before the European explorers reached India, westerners have already been fascinated with its exotic wildlife.
Read this for more info about the Magnetic Islands according to Procopius.
In the east, the farthest recorded place the Byzantines made their mark in was China, which was known to them as Sera and Serindia if combined with India. The distance from Byzantium to China was very far and the Indian philosophers or Brahmans say that if you stretch a rope from China to Byzantium, the midpoint would be in Persia. Even before Marco Polo in the 14th century, the Byzantines had known about the Silk Road to China; here the soldier historian Ammianus Marcellinus already made a reference to China’s Great Wall saying that their land was surrounded and defined by the summits of lofty walls, meanwhile the Seres people (Chinese) in character are quiet, gentle, and unwarlike while their climate is agreeable and skies mostly clear. As early as the 4th century, the Byzantines already believed that silk (Sericum) was produced by certain trees in China that monks travelled all the way there to learn the silk making process. In the 6th century, silk was still very expensive in Byzantium until the monks explained to Emperor Justinian I how silk in China is made. Justinian responded by sending the monks back to China to smuggle the silk worm eggs and bring them back to Byzantium. From then on, the Byzantines no longer had to spend huge amounts on silks bought from the Persians as they could already produce silks themselves with the technology from China. Making silk within the empire was not only an economic benefit but something the Byzantines excelled at that Justinian I’s successor Justin II (r. 565-574) was able to impress the Turks by producing silk without having to buy them. In 643, the Tang emperor of China, Taizong received an embassy from the Byzantine emperor Constans II (r. 641-668)- known to the Chinese as Boduoli– giving the Tang emperor red glass and green gemstones, and in exchange, Taizong gave the Byzantines silk. The longest account on China from a Byzantine source is by 7th century historian Theophylaktos Simokattes who wrote about their major city known as Taygast and its governor called Taisson (probably a reference to the emperor Taizong) meaning “The Son of God” who had harem of 700 women, meanwhile the men there did not wear jewellery. If China is the world’s most populous region today, it already was back then in the 7th century, the next most populous to it was Moukri, which was possibly Korea. It is unclear whether the Byzantines went further east past China to Korea or possibly across the sea to Japan, which means China was the farthest they went to the east.
Watch this for more info on Constans II and China.
Alright, this concludes this very long article, which is now so far one of the longest ones I’ve made! Despite being so long, I hope it was an interesting read because as I was writing it, I learned so many new things about the many different people from around the world who lived at the same time as the Byzantines. The same way I find Byzantine life very interesting, the customs and skills of all these other races are equally as fascinating, especially the way the Byzantines saw them. Overall, the Byzantines were not very hostile in viewing foreigners from different reaches of the world even if they were enemies in battle, all they did was that they told the truth about the bizarre customs and attitudes of these different people. Long before the Portuguese, Spanish, Dutch, French, and British came to explore and colonize the far parts of the world, the Byzantines as the successors of the Romans continued to explore the far parts of the world the way the Romans did before them to make their mark. The Byzantines travelled far to conquer distant lands but if they were very far away like India, China, and Ethiopia, they did not bother to conquer but to discover them and their people. If the Byzantine Empire continued after its fall in 1453, they might have even been able to sail across the Atlantic Ocean and discover the New World before Columbus did or go around Africa and explore even more distant lands. If the Byzantines had some extreme views about different people, these people must have also had extreme views towards the Byzantines but some people from foreign lands such as India had high respect for the Byzantines. The Byzantines may have had some distaste towards some foreigners such as the Ethiopians for their blackness, Slavs for their dirtiness, Scandinavians and Huns for their primitive customs and drunkenness, Persians for their arrogance and bizarre funeral customs, and Gypsies for thieving but at the end, the Byzantines tolerated and if not even respected these people allowing them to practice their customs in the imperial capital. On the other hand, the Byzantines were really fascinated over the exotic animals and skills people from faraway lands had and to some people like the Arabs, the Byzantines thought their diet was worse for being too heavy. At the end, I was also fascinated especially in the smaller details about these different people and their customs especially about how steak tartare originated with the Nomadic people of Central Asia, how the Gypsies and Turks were so exceptionally good at acrobatics, how long the journey from Nubia took to Constantinople, how the Persians had bizarre funeral customs of exposing their dead, as well as the fact that the Byzantines knew that India had exotic animals and magnetic islands and that the silk the Byzantines were well known for originated in China. What I’ve also learned when writing this was that it was during Justinian I’ reign from 527-565 when the Byzantines had the most encounters with people from faraway lands as well as these faraway lands themselves including Scandinavia, India, China, and Africa; this is mainly because it was during Justinian I’s reign when the Byzantine Empire covered the most territory but also because of chroniclers like Procopius that documented a lot about these places and people out of fascination. For months, I’ve been wanting to write an article about the Byzantine Empire and Constantinople being a “Cosmopolitan Society” after reading that chapter from Judith Herrin’s “Byzantium: The Surprising Life of a Medieval Empire”, and now I’ve done what I wanted too with more information from the very fascinating Byzantine trivia book by Anthony Kaldellis. However, this is not yet it about Byzantium’s cosmopolitan society as I have forgotten to mention about the Varangians, Latins, Franks, Germans, and other westerners in the Byzantine Empire. This then will be the next thing I will write about and the way the Byzantines viewed them, which of course was more hostile than how they viewed people from other parts of the world as I’ve mentioned in this article. To sum up this whole article, the Byzantines did not only travel to the far parts of the world, these people from the far parts of the world met in Constantinople making it a cosmopolitan society like Coruscant from Star Wars, and now this is basically almost it for how well the Byzantines knew about the world. Well, this is it for part1 on Foreign Lands and People According to the Byzantines which has been a very long piece because the Byzantines have so much to say especially about people from the east, up next would be about the difference between the Byzantines and the west in culture. This is it for now from The Byzantium Blogger… thanks for viewing!
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