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Byzantine Greeks or Byzantines (Greek: Βυζαντινοί) is a conventional term used by modern historians to refer to the medieval Greek or Hellenised citizens of the Byzantine Empire, centered mainly in Constantinople, the southern Balkans, the Greek islands, Asia Minor (modern Turkey) and the large urban centres of the Near East and Northern Egypt. The identity of the Byzantine Greeks has taken many forms in name, with such variants as Romaioi or Romioi (meaning "Romans"), Graikoi (meaning "Greeks"), "Byzantines", and "Byzantine Greeks".
The social structure of the Byzantine Greeks was primarily supported by a rural, agrarian base that consisted of the peasantry, and a small fraction of the poor. These peasants lived within three kinds of settlements, the chorion or village, the agridion or hamlet, and the proasteion or estate. Many civil disturbances that occurred during the time of the Byzantine Empire were attributed to political factions within the Empire rather than to this large popular base. Soldiers among the Byzantine Greeks were at first conscripted amongst the rural peasants and trained on an annual basis. As the Byzantine Empire entered the 11th century, more of the soldiers within the army were either professional men at arms or mercenaries.
Education within the Byzantine Greek population was until the twelfth century more advanced than in the West, particularly on the primary school level, which increased literacy rates. Women were not as fortunate in this area, as they were restricted by law and discriminated against frequently. Success came easily to Byzantine Greek merchants, who enjoyed a very strong position in international trade. Despite the challenges they faced against rival Italian merchants, they managed to hold their own throughout the latter half of the Empire’s existence. The clergy also held a special place, not only having more freedom than their Western counterparts, but also maintaining a patriarch in Constantinople that was considered to be the equal of the pope. This position of strength had built up over time, for at the beginning of the Empire, under Constantine the Great, barely 10% of the population was Christian.
The language of the Byzantine Greeks since the age of Constantine had been Greek, although Latin was the language of the administration. From the reign of Heraclius, Greek was not only the predominant language amongst the populace but also replaced Latin in the administration. The makeup of the Empire had at first a multi-ethnic character that following the loss of the non-Greek speaking provinces came to be dominated by the Byzantine Greeks. Over time, the relationship between them and the West, particularly with Roman and Frankish Europe, deteriorated. Relations were further damaged by a schism between Roman West and Orthodox East that led to the Byzantine Greeks being labeled as heretics. Throughout the later centuries and particularly following the coronation of Charlemagne in 800, the Byzantine Greeks were not considered to be heirs of the Roman Empire, but rather part of an Eastern kingdom made up of Greek peoples.
During most of the Middle Ages, the Byzantine Greeks identified themselves as Romaioi (Ρωμαίοι, "Romans", meaning citizens of the Roman Empire), a term which in the Greek language had become synonymous to a Christian Greek. They also identified themselves as Graikoi (Γραικοί) even though the ethnonym was never used in official Byzantine correspondence prior to 1204 AD. The ancient name Hellene was in popular use synonymous to a pagan and was revived as an ethnonym in the Middle Byzantine period (11th century). While in the West the term "Roman" acquired a new meaning in connection with the Catholic Church and the Bishop of Rome, the Greek form "Romaioi" remained attached to the Greeks of the Eastern Roman Empire. These people called themselves Rhomaioi (Romans) in their language, and the term Byzantines or Byzantine Greeks is an exonym applied by later historians like Hieronymus Wolf. However, the use of the term "Byzantine Greeks" for the Rhomaioi is not entirely uncontroversial.
Most historians agree that the defining features of their civilization were Greek language and culture, Roman Law and tradition, and Christian faith. The term "Byzantine" has been adopted by Western scholarship on the assumption that anything Roman is essentially "western" and by modern Greek scholarship for nationalistic reasons of identification with ancient Greece. In modern times, the Greek people still use the ethnonym Rhomaioi or rather Rhomioi to refer to themselves. In addition, the Eastern Roman Empire was in language and civilization a Greek society. Byzantinist August Heisenberg (1869-1930) defined the Byzantine Empire as "the Christianised Roman empire of the Greek nation". Byzantium was primarily known as the Empire of the Greeks by foreigners due to the predominance of Greek linguistic, cultural, and demographic elements.
While social mobility was not unknown in Byzantium the order of society was thought of as more enduring, with the average man regarding the court of Heaven to be the archetype of the imperial court in Constantinople. This society included various classes of people that were neither exclusive nor immutable. The most characteristic were the poor, the peasants, the soldiers, the teachers, women, entrepreneurs and clergy.
According to a text dated to 533 AD, a man was termed "poor" if they did not have 50 gold coins (aurei), which was a modest though not negligible sum. The Byzantines were heirs to the Greek concepts of charity for the sake of the polis, nevertheless it was the Christian concepts attested in the Bible that animated their giving habits, and specifically the examples of Basil of Caesarea (who is the Greek equivalent of Santa Claus), Gregory of Nyssa and John Chrysostom. The number of the poor fluctuated in the many centuries of Byzantium's existence but they provided a constant supply of muscle power for the building projects and rural work. There did however appear to be an apparent rise in their numbers towards the end of late antiquity, the late fourth and early fifth centuries as barbarian raids and a desire to avoid taxation pushed rural populations into cities.
There were several categories of poverty with the ptochos ("poor" in medieval Greek) being lower than the penes ("poor" in ancient Greek). They formed the majority of the infamous Constantinopolitan mob whose function was similar to the mob of the First Rome. However, while there are instances of riots attributed to the poor, specifically the majority of civil disturbances were attributable to the various factions of the Hippodrome like the Greens and Blues. Apart from the fact that they constituted a non-negligible percentage of the population, there is a point to focusing on the poor because their existence influenced the Christian society of Byzantium to create a large network of hospitals (iatreia), alms houses and a religious and social model largely justified by the existence of the poor and born out of the Christian transformation of Classical society.
There are no reliable figures as to the numbers of the peasantry, yet it is widely assumed that the vast majority of Byzantines lived in rural and agrarian areas. In Emperor Leo's Taktika, the two professions defined as the backbone of the state are the peasantry (georgika) and the soldiers (stratiotika). The reason for this was that besides producing most of the empire's food the peasants also produced most of its taxes. They lived mostly in villages, whose name changed slowly from the classical kome to the modern chorio. While agriculture and herding were the dominant occupations of villagers they were not the only ones. There are records for the small town of Lampsakos, situated on the eastern shore of the Hellespont, which out of 173 households classifies 113 as peasant and 60 as urban, which indicate other kinds of ancillary activities. The Treatise on Taxation, preserved in the Biblioteca Marciana in Venice, distinguishes between three types of rural settlements, the chorion or village, the agridion or hamlet, and the proasteion or estate. According to a fourteenth century survey of the village of Aphetos, donated to the monastery of Chilandar, the average size of a landholding is only 3.5 modioi (0.08 ha). Taxes placed on rural populations included the kapnikon or hearth tax and the aerikon (lit. "of the air") which depended on the village's population and ranged between 4 and 20 gold coins annually.
Their diet consisted of mainly grains and beans and in fishing communities fish was usually substituted for meat. Bread, wine and olives were important staples of Byzantine diet with soldiers on campaign eating double baked and dried bread called paximadion. As in antiquity and modern times, the most common cultivations in the choraphia were olive groves and vineyards. While Liutprand of Cremona, a visitor from Italy, found Greek wine irritating as it was often flavoured with resin (retsina) most other Westerners admired Greek wines, Cretan in particular being famous.
While both hunting and fishing were common, the peasants mostly hunted to protect their herds and crops. Apiculture, the keeping of bees, was as highly developed in Byzantium as it had been in Ancient Greece. Aside from agriculture, the peasants also laboured in the crafts, fiscal inventories mentioning smiths (chalkeus), tailors (rhaptes), and cobblers (tsangarios).
During the Byzantine millennium, hardly a year passed without a military campaign. Soldiers were a normal part of everyday life, much more than in modern Western societies. While it is difficult to draw a distinction between Roman and Byzantine soldiers from an organizational aspect, it is easier to do so in terms of their social profile. The military handbooks known as the Taktika continued a Hellenistic and Roman tradition that contains a wealth of information about the appearance, customs, habits and life of the soldiers. As with the peasantry, there are apart from the main core of soldiers many who performed ancillary activities, like medics and technicians. Selection for military duty was annual with yearly call-ups and great stock was placed on military exercises, during the winter months, which formed a large part of a soldier's life.
Until the eleventh century, the majority of the conscripts were from rural areas, while the conscription of craftsmen and merchants is still an open question. From that point on, professional recruiting replaced conscription and the rising use of mercenaries within the army placed a ruinous burden on the treasury. From the tenth century onwards, stipulations exist for the connection between land-ownership and military service. While the state never allotted land for obligatory service, soldiers could and did use their pay to buy landed estates and taxes would be decreased or waived in some cases. What the state did allocate to soldiers, however, from the twelfth century onwards, were the tax revenues from some estates called pronoiai. As in antiquity, the basic food of the soldier remained the dried biscuit bread though its name had changed from boukelaton to paximadion.
Byzantine education was the product of an ancient educational tradition that stretched back to the fifth century BC. It comprised a tripartite system of education that, taking shape during the Hellenistic era, was maintained, with inevitable changes, up until the fall of Constantinople. The stages of education were the elementary school, where pupils ranged from six to ten years, secondary school, where pupils ranged from ten to sixteen, and higher education.
Elementary education was widely available throughout most of the Empire's existence, in the countryside, as well as in towns. This, in turn, ensured that literacy was much more widespread than in Western Europe, at least until the twelfth century. Secondary education was confined to the larger cities while higher education was the exclusive provenance of Constantinople.
The elementary school teacher occupied a low social position and taught mainly from simple fairy tale books (Aesop's fables were often used). However, the grammarian and rhetorician, teachers responsible for the following two phases of education, were more respected. These used classical Greek texts like Homer's Iliad or Odyssey and much of their time was taken with detailed word-for-word explication. Books were rare and very expensive and likely only possessed by teachers who dictated passages to students.
While constituting 50% of the population, women have tended to be overlooked in Byzantine studies. Byzantine society was patriarchical and left few records about them. In addition, women were generally viewed with suspicion and considered periodically unclean and as a result were the subjects of discrimination. Women were disadvantaged in some aspects of their legal status, in their access to education and limited in their freedom of movement. The life of a Byzantine Greek woman could be divided into three phases, girlhood, motherhood, and widowhood.
Childhood was brief and perilous, even more so for girls than boys. Parents would celebrate twice as much the birth of a boy and there is some evidence of female infanticide, though it was contrary to both civil and canon law. Educational opportunities for girls were few as they did not attend regular schools but were taught in groups at home by tutors. With few exceptions, education was limited to literacy and the Bible. There were no forays into classical literature for most girls. A famous exception is the Princess Anna Comnena, whose Alexiad displays an uncanny depth of erudition. The majority of a young girl's daily life would be spent in household and agrarian chores, preparing herself for marriage.
For most girls, childhood came to an abrupt end with the onset of puberty which was followed shortly after by betrothal and marriage. This was due to most women (and indeed men) having high mortality rates, the average age if they survived infancy being thirty-five. Although marriage arrangements by the family was the norm, romantic love was by no means unknown. Most women produced a large number of children in order to ensure the survival of at least a few, and grief for the loss of a loved one was an inalienable part of life. The main form of birth control was abstinence and while there is evidence of contraception it seems to have been mainly used by prostitutes.
Due to prevailing norms of modesty, women would wear clothing that covered the whole of their body except their hands. While women among the poor could get away with wearing sleeveless tunics, most women were obliged to cover even their heads with the long maphorion veil. Women of means, however, spared no expense in adorning their clothes with exquisite jewelry and fine silk fabrics. Divorces were hard to obtain even though there were laws permitting them. Husbands would often beat their wives, though the reverse situation was not unknown as in Theodore Prodromos' description of a battered husband in the Ptochoprodromos poems.
Though in Byzantium, female life expectancy was lower than that of men, due to wars and the fact that men married younger, female widowhood was still fairly common. Still, women were often able to circumvent societal strictures and work as traders, craftswomen, female abbots and entertainers not to mention empresses and scholars.
The traditional image of Byzantine Greek merchants as unenterprising benefactors of state aid is beginning to change for that of mobile, pro-active agents. The merchant class, particularly that of Constantinople, became a force of its own that could, at times, even threaten the Emperor as it did in the eleventh and twelfth centuries. This was achieved through efficient use of credit and other monetary innovations. Merchants invested surplus funds in financial products called chreokoinonia, the equivalent and perhaps ancestor of the later Italian commenda. Eventually, the purchasing power of Byzantine merchants became such that it could influence prices in markets as far afield as Cairo and Alexandria. In reflection of their success, emperors gave merchants the right to become members of the Senate, that is to integrate themselves with the ruling elite. This had an end by the end of the eleventh century when political machinations allowed the landed aristocracy to secure the throne for a century and more. Following that phase, however, the enterprising merchants bounced back and wielded real clout during the time of the Third Crusade.
The reason Byzantine Greek merchants have often been neglected in historiography is not that they were any less able than their ancient or modern Greek colleagues in matters of trade. It rather originated with the way history was written in Byzantium, which was often under the patronage of their competitors, the court and land aristocracy. The fact that they were eventually surpassed by their Italian rivals is attributable to the privileges sought and acquired by the Crusader States within the Levant and the dominant maritime violence of the Italians.
Unlike in Western Europe where priests were clearly demarcated from the laymen, the clergy of the Eastern Roman Empire remained in close contact with the rest of society. Readers and subdeacons were drawn from the laity and expected to be at least twenty years of age while priests and bishops had to be at least 30. The issue of clerical celibacy was treated with laxity by the Byzantine Greeks. Priests could keep their spouses if they were married before their ordainment, and monks and nuns, while celibate, were allowed to keep in touch with family and friends.
While the religious hierarchy mirrored the Empire's administrative divisions, the clergy were more ubiquitous than the emperor's servants. The issue of caesaropapism, while usually associated with the Byzantine Empire, is now understood to be an oversimplification of actual conditions in the Empire.
By the fifth century, the Patriarch of Constantinople was recognized as first among equals of the four eastern Patriarchs and as of equal status with the Pope in Rome.  The ecclesiastical provinces were called eparchies and were headed by archbishops or metropolitans who supervised their subordinate bishops or episkopoi. For most people however it was their parish priest or papas (from the Greek word for father) that was the most recognizable face of the clergy.
Linguistically, Byzantine or medieval Greek is situated between the Hellenistic (Koine) and modern phases of the language. Since as early as the Hellenistic era, Greek had been the lingua franca of the educated elites of the Eastern Mediterranean, spoken natively in the Southern Balkans, the Greek islands, Asia Minor and the ancient and Hellenistic Greek colonies of Western Asia and Northern Africa. At the beginning of the Byzantine millennium, the koine remained the basis for spoken Greek and Christian writings, while Attic Greek was the language of the philosophers and orators. As Christianity became the dominant religion, Attic began to be used also in Christian writings in addition to and often interspersed with, the koine Greek. Nonetheless, from the sixth century on and at least until the twelfth, Attic remained entrenched in the educational system while further changes to the spoken language can be postulated for the early and middle Byzantine periods.
The empire, at least in its early stages, was composed of people whose mother tongue was other than Greek, as well. These included Latin, Aramaic, Coptic and Caucasian languages, while Cyril Mango cites evidence for bilingualism as well in the South and South East. These influences in addition to the influx of people of Arabic, Celtic, Germanic, Turkic, and Slavic backgrounds supplied medieval Greek with many loanwords that have survived in the modern Greek language as well. From the eleventh and twelfth centuries onward, there is a steady rise in the literary use of the vernacular, as well. Following the Fourth Crusade and the increased contact with the West, this entailed that the lingua franca of commerce became Italian, and in the areas of the Crusader kingdoms a classical education (paideia) ceased to be the sine qua non of social status, leading to the rise of the veracular. It is from this era that many beautiful works in the vernacular, often written by people deeply steeped in classical education, are attested. A famous example are the four Ptochoprodromic poems attributed to Theodors Prodromos.From the thirteenth to fifteenth centuries, the last of the Empire, arise several works like laments, fables, romances, and chronicles written outside Constantinople, which until then had been the seat of most literature, in an idiom termed by scholars as "Byzantine Koine".
Nonetheless, this did not in the end obviate the diglossia of the Greek-speaking world (which had already started in ancient Greece), and which continued under Ottoman rule and persisted in the modern Greek state until 1976, while Atticist Greek remains the official language of the Greek Orthodox Church. As shown in the poems of Ptochoprodromos, an early stage of modern Greek had already been shaped by the twelfth century and possibly earlier. Vernacular Greek continued to be known as "Romaic" up until the twentieth century.
At the time of Constantine the Great, barely 10% of the Empire's population were Christians, with most of them being urban population and generally found in the Eastern part of the Empire. The majority of people still honoured the old gods in the public Roman way of religio. As Christianity became a complete philosophical system, whose theory and apologetics were heavily indebted to the Classic word, this changed. In addition, Constantine as Pontifex Maximus was responsible for the correct cultus or veneratio of the deity which was in accordance with former Roman practice. The move from the old religion to the new entailed some elements of continuity as well as break with the past, though the artistic heritage of paganism was literally broken by Christian zeal.
Christianity led to the development of a few phenomena characteristic of Byzantium. Namely the intimate connection between Church and State, a legacy of Roman cultus. Also the creation of a Christian philosophy that guided Byzantine Greeks in their everyday lives. And finally, the dichotomy between the Christian ideals of the Bible and classical Greek paideia which could not be left out, however, since so much of Christian scholarship and philosophy depended on it. These shaped Byzantine Greek character and the perceptions of themselves and others.
Christians at the time of Constantine's conversion made up only 10% of the population. This would rise to 50% by the end of the fourth century and 90% by the end of the fifth. Justinian then brutally mopped up the rest of the pagans, highly literate academics on one end of the scale and illiterate peasants on the other. A conversion so rapid seems to have been rather the result of expediency than of conviction.
The survival of the Empire in the East assured an active role of the emperor in the affairs of the Church. The Byzantine state inherited from pagan times the administrative and financial routine of organising religious affairs, and this routine was applied to the Christian Church. Following the pattern set by Eusebius of Caesarea, the Byzantines viewed the emperor as a representative or messenger of Christ, responsible particularly for the propagation of Christianity among pagans, and for the "externals" of the religion, such as administration and finances. The imperial role in the affairs of the Church never developed into a fixed, legally defined system, however.
With the decline of Rome, and internal dissension in the other Eastern patriarchates, the church of Constantinople became, between the 6th and 11th centuries, the richest and most influential centre of Christendom. Even when the Empire was reduced to only a shadow of its former self, the Church, as an institution, exercised so much influence both inside and outside the imperial frontiers as never before. As George Ostrogorsky points out:
The Patriarchate of Constantinople remained the center of the Orthodox world, with subordinate metropolitan sees and archbishoprics in the territory of Asia Minor and the Balkans, now lost to Byzantium, as well as in Caucasus, Russia and Lithuania. The Church remained the most stable element in the Byzantine Empire.
Within Byzantium, a Greek or Hellenised citizen of the Byzantine Empire was generally called a Ῥωμαῖος (Rhōmaîos), which was first of all defined in opposition to a foreigner, ἐθνικός (ethnikós). The Byzantine Greek perception of "Romanity" was different from that of their contemporaries in the West. "Romaic" was the name of the vulgar Greek language, as opposed to "Hellenic" which was its literary or doctrinal form. "Greek" (Γραικός) had become synonymous, if not altogether merged, with "Romaios/Romios" (Ρωμαίος/Ρωμιός) and "Christianos" (Χρηστιανός) to mean an Orthodox Christian Greek. There was always an element of indifference or neglect of everything not Greek, which was therefore "barbarian".
In official discourse, "all inhabitants of the empire were subjects of the emperor, and therefore Romans." Thus the primary definition of Rhōmaios was "political or statist." In order to succeed in being a full-blown and unquestioned "Roman" it was best to be a Greek Orthodox Christian and a Greek-speaker, at least in one's public persona. Yet, the cultural uniformity which the Byzantine church and the state pursued through Orthodoxy and the Greek language was not sufficient to erase distinct identities, nor did it aim to. The highest compliment that could be paid to a foreigner was to call him ἀνδρεῖος Ῥωμαιόφρων (andreîos Rhōmaióphrōn, roughly "a Roman-minded fellow").
Often one's local (geographic) identity could outweigh one's identity as a Rhōmaios. The terms ξένος (xénos) and ἐξωτικός (exōtikós) denoted "people foreign to the local population," regardless of whether they were from abroad or from elsewhere within the empire. "When a person was away from home he was a stranger and was often treated with suspicion. A monk from western Asia Minor who joined a monastery in Pontus was 'disparaged and mistreated by everyone as a stranger'. The corollary to regional solidarity was regional hostility."
From an evolutionary standpoint, Byzantium was a multi-ethnic empire that emerged as a Christian empire, soon comprised the Hellenised empire of the East, and ended its thousand-year history, in 1453, as a Greek Orthodox state: an empire that became a nation, almost by the modern meaning of the word. The presence of a distinctive and historically rich literary culture was also very important in the division between "Greek" East and "Latin" West and thus the formation of both. It was a multi-ethnic empire where the Hellenic element was predominant, especially in the later period. Spoken language and state, the markers of identity that were to become a fundamental tenet of nineteenth-century nationalism throughout Europe became, by accident, a reality during a formative period of medieval Greek history. Beginning in the twelfth century, certain Byzantine Greek intellectuals began to use the ancient Greek ethnonym Ἕλλην (Héllēn) in order to describe Byzantine civilisation.
During the later period of the Empire, Theodore Lascaris tried to revive Hellenic tradition by fostering the study of philosophy, for in his opinion there was a danger that philosophy "might abandon the Greeks and seek refuge among the Latins". In a letter to Pope Gregory IX, the Byzantine emperor John Vatatzes claimed to have received the gift of royalty from Constantine the Great, and put emphasis on his "Hellenic" descent, exalting the wisdom of the Greek people. He was presenting Hellenic culture as an integral part of the Byzantine polity in defiance of Latin claims. Byzantine Greeks had always felt superior for being the inheritors of a more ancient civilisation, but such ethnic identifications had not been politically popular up until then. Hence, in the context of increasing Venetian and Genoese power in the eastern Mediterranean, association with Hellenism took deeper root among the Byzantine elite, on account of a desire to distinguish themselves from the Latin West and to lay legitimate claims to Greek-speaking lands.
Claims of association with Hellenism continued and increased throughout the Palaiologan dynasty. The scholar, teacher, and translator, John Argyropoulos, addressed John VIII Palaiologos as "Sun King of Hellas" and urged the last Emperor, Constantine XI, to proclaim himself "King of the Hellenes". During the same period, the neo-platonic philosopher George Gemistos Plethon boasted "We are Hellenes by race and culture," and proposed a re-born Byzantine Empire following a utopian Hellenic system of government centered in Mystras. According to the historian George Sphrantzes, on the eve of the Fall of Constantinople, the Last Emperor urged his soldiers to remember that they were the descendants of Greeks and Romans.
In the eyes of the West, after the coronation of Charlemagne, the Byzantines were not acknowledged as the inheritors of the Roman Empire. Byzantium was rather perceived to be a corrupted continuation of ancient Greece, and was officially known for most of its history as the "Empire of the Greeks" or "Kingdom of Greece". Such denials of Byzantium's Roman heritage and ecumenical rights would instigate the first resentments between Greeks and Latins or "Franks", as they were called by the Greeks. Popular Western opinion is reflected in the Translatio militiae, whose anonymous Latin author states that the Greeks had lost their courage and their learning, and therefore did not join in the war against the infidels. In another passage the ancient Greeks are praised for their military skill and their learning, by which means the author draws a contrast with contemporary Byzantine Greeks, who were generally viewed as a non-warlike and schismatic people.
A turning point in how both sides viewed each other is probably the massacre of Latins in Constantinople in 1182. A major source for Western interpretations of the Byzantines, particularly during this event is William of Tyre, a historian of the Crusades. He described the "Greek nation" as a "a brood of vipers, like a serpent in the bosom or a mouse in the wardrobe evilly requite their guests", highlighting the strained relations between both ethnic groups as a result of the massacre, the Crusades, and the Schism, which helped to define the modern identity of the Greek nation.