The Ethnic Composition of Medieval Epirus

The Ethnic Composition of Medieval Epirus

By Brendan Osswald

Imaging frontiers, contesting identities, edited by Steven G. Ellis and Lud’a Klusáková (Pisa University Press, 2007)

Abstract: Medieval Epirus was the melting pot of many migratory influxes, whether Slav, Vlach, Jewish, Albanian or Italian. Some Greek refugees also found asylum in this province during hard times. The best documented period is that from 1200 onwards. During the last three centuries of the middle ages, we see a sense of coexistence developing between the various nationalities which was not always pacific. Ideas of nationality, however, were different then from now, and we may also observe that the different military conflicts of the period were not ethnic ones. The Greeks despised some of the other groups, but this was mainly for social reasons. At the least, we may say that armies and aristocracies – those fields which we know best, thanks to our sources – were predominantly mixed.

Introduction: The Byzantine Empire was not a nation-state. The traditional form of state in the Byzantine mentality was the multi-ethnic empire, whether this was the Roman, Arab or Turkish Empire. The word ἔθνος is used in the Bible to name the Gentiles, that is the pagans. But in Byzantine terminology, it means a population that is outside the Byzantine Empire, and/or outside Christendom. For example, the Metropolitan of Naupaktos, John Apokaukos, speaks about the Latin invaders as ἔθνη. So the word in our sources that denotes ‘ethnicity’ is γένος. This idea of γένος, and so of ethnicity, was to some extent based on ethnic elements, but the cultural and linguistic background of a person was of course the best indicator of someone’s ethnicity. Consequently, by dint of learning the Greek language, anybody could enter the administrative, ecclesiastical or military hierarchy. So the process of social advancement was indeed also one of cultural assimilation. The history of Byzantium provides examples of a large number of initially non-Greek speakers, for instance Armenians, who came to serve the state at its highest levels. There were even some Normans, that is foreigners to the Empire, who came as invaders in the 11th century and became members of the Byzantine aristocracy, for example the families Roger or Petraliphas.

The universalist (at least until 1204) Byzantine Empire had a feeling of cultural, more than racial, superiority. Everyone, through adoption of the Orthodox Christian faith, could become civilized, and belong to the Οἰκουμένη, a term which means stricto sensu the ‘inhabited land’, and which in reality denotes the ‘civilized land’. The Slavic barbarian states of Serbia, Bulgaria or Rus’, for example, were considered as parts of the Οἰκουμένη, even if they were not parts of the Byzantine Empire5. There was thus a hierarchical conception of peoples: the non-Orthodox, whether they were Latin Catholics or Arab Muslims, were at the bottom, then came the Orthodox barbarian independent states who were, in theory according to Byzantine ideology, subject to the Empire, then those Orthodox but barbarian populations living within the Empire, and then, at the top, the Orthodox, Greek-speaking Byzantine elite. Byzantine eschatology considered that, sooner or later, the non-Orthodox would adopt the Orthodox faith, and that the Orthodox would then all submit to the Byzantine Emperor, so that at the end of the world, order would rule in the Kingdom of Men, which would then be ready to become the Kingdom of God. It should be noticed that Byzantine ideology considered that, since only God could decide the end of time, the various populations should submit themselves to the Emperor, a belief that explains the relative non-expansionist policy of the Empire throughout its history6. From the same point of view, there was no policy of enforced hellenization of the barbarian populations of the Empire.

This hierarchy, considered as provisional by the Byzantines, prompts two remarks. First, the difference was quite thin between those Orthodox barbarian populations who were living within and without the Empire, both because its borders were often changing, and because Byzantine ideology viewed the independent states as only temporarily detached parts of the Empire. Second, the place of language in this Christian civilization is ambiguous, since knowledge of the Greek language was essential to enter the elite, while on the other hand, the Orthodox non-Greek-speaking populations were considered, and considered themselves, as a part of the Οἰκουμένη or of the Empire. Being the lingua franca, the language of the administration and of the elite, Greek was not really a way to distinguish ethnicity, since large parts of the barbarian populations had learnt Greek. This is why the Byzantine sources, before 1204, rarely mention the Greek people as Greek, preferring, as for all the subjects of the Byzantine Empire, the word ‘Romans’ (῾Ρωμαῖοι). The word ‘Greeks’ (Ἕλληνες) meant the ancient pagan Greeks and only rarely the Greeks of the medieval period. Paradoxically the only ethnic groups that had a visibility were the minorities, such as Armenians or Bulgarians for example. The situation changed after 1204, as we shall see later.

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