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7-08-2015, 20:06

Society: dissidence and outsiders

Men,80 women and eunuchs answered the description of ‘Romans’ comfortably enough provided that their religious faith and ritual were orthodox, they acknowledged themselves to be the emperor’s douloi (a somewhat ambiguous term),81 and they could manage spoken Greek. A ranking order of precious vestments distinguished the upper echelons of members of the Byzantine empire, while certain conventions of clothing were observed by non-elite men and women for most of its history.82 There were, however, other types of person who, whether tacitly, through open dissent, or through living in discrete groupings, diverged from religious, ethical or social norms.83 Some had valuable contributions to make to the empire in the economic sphere, while the presence, real or supposed, of the un- Roman in the Byzantines’ midst had its ideological uses, providing the emperor with vivid foils. Not all these categories of nonconformists – usually minorities within the empire – were self-declared or acting in open concert. Homosexuality fell foul of Roman and church law and its practice is unlikely to have found very much sympathy in rural communities. Emperors were occasionally accused of homosexual tendencies by contemporaries or by later historians:Michael III (842–67) was one such (see below, p. 295 and n. 23). The monastic vocation and its extensive network of remote, male-dominated communities beckoned to those seeking to sidestep their family’s expectations of marriage and to escape from the things of this world; for very many, they offered access to the divine. Nonetheless, some rule-books of monasteries forbade beardless youths and even eunuchs from approaching their houses, for fear of the temptations they might pose.84 One form of unacceptable difference virtually endemic in Byzantium’s political and religious culture was heresy. Generally this charge of dissidence or error (from haeresis, ‘sect’) was levelled by monks or members of the imperial-ecclesiastical establishment against those held to be breaching orthodox doctrine or ritual; the charge could serve as the small change of political discourse. Several chapters of this book recount how successive earlier emperors sought to reconcile churchmen who disagreed profoundly over the finer points of defining the nature of Christ, only themselves to be accused of heresy. Then, in the eighth and earlier ninth century, the emperors’ efforts to purge the empire of ‘idols’ – icons – aroused opposition and they themselves were styled arch-heretics after icons were reclassified as orthodox in 843 (see below, pp. 117–19, 122–3, 228–9, 231–2, 287–91). Communities of heretics could, however, profess an alternative creed in certain contexts, especially where the Roman orthodox were thin on the ground. For example Paulician dualists were transplanted from eastern Anatolia to the Thracian borderlands and, in the later tenth and eleventh centuries, Syriac and Armenian monophysites were encouraged to settle in newly won Byzantine territories (see below, pp. 288–9, 297, 532–3, 677, 783 and n. 25). These monophysites formed their own church organisation, the catholicos of the Syriac Jacobites being encouraged to base himself in imperial territory.85 The sovereign confidence of Basil II (976–1025) and his immediate successors that these heterodox could be brought beneath their imperial umbrella says something for Byzantium’s vibrancy at that time. But it is consistent with a tradition whereby the emperor had discretion to license certain forms of diversity: he thereby demonstrated the universal reach of his rule, while himself remaining a paragon of orthodoxy. Incoming aliens who accepted orthodox Christianity could be assigned fertile lands to work, pay taxes or perform military service from, as with the Pechenegs in the 1040s.86 Longer-term organised communities of heretics, non-believers or other aliens were left to areas of little economic consequence to the government, for example the warlikeMelingoi in the Taygetos mountains of the southern Peloponnese, who still spoke Slavonic and maintained a distinct identity in the thirteenth century, or the Vlachs, Romance-speaking pastoralists of the uplands.87 Not all of them were confined to the empire’s ‘cold-spots’, however. The Jews occupied a district across the Golden Horn from Constantinople itself and some resided in provincial towns and Cyprus.88 The Jews were a special case, anomalous remnants of a faith that Christians thought their religion had superseded; learned proponents of an earlier version of monotheism and priesthood; and a convenient scapegoat for the empire’s woes in times of adversity as, for example, in the seventh century whenHeraclius launched a drive against them.89 Unlike some unorthodox, the Jews were not predisposed to proselytise and they lacked powerful coreligionists beyond Byzantium’s borders. So while subjected to occasional drives for purification, they were seldom suspected of being actively hostile towards the empire. The Jews are, then, an example of how minorities of the unorthodox and alien could define the essence of empire through exemplifying error and its price. But the history of the Jews in Byzantium is far from static. Jewish goldsmiths, silk-dyers and other craftsmen were an asset, not least because of their ties with co-religionists across the Muslim world, commercial nexuses at once detectable and taxable.90 In fact the Jews’ fortunes amount to a barometer of Byzantium’s general well-being. Jewish immigrants offer examples of a different breed of outsider that rising prosperity in the medieval era attracted, firstly to Constantinople and later to provincial towns. It is no accident that, despite individual Jews’ initial dismay at the Byzantines’ conquest of Crete in 961, subsequent decades saw many Jews drawn to the empire by the prospects of security and favourable trading conditions it held out.91 From around the tenth century onwards, various other groups of outsiders were frequenting the capital, travelling mostly by sea and staying more or less in touch with home ports. ‘Syrian’ and other Muslim traders, Bulgarians and Rus from the north, and merchants from Italian towns such as Venice and Amalfi frequented the capital.92 In presiding over this process, emperors showed characteristic flexibility, alert to the benefits which the outsiders’ activities could reap for their own treasury coffers and also to the leverage that could be exerted on outsiders once they had a stake in the empire’s economy. These externally based traders were, almost literally, paying tribute to the resources and purchasing power concentrated at the imperial capital from the tenth century on. Their presence was yet another token of the basileus’ worldwide sway. His toleration of them in the capital was akin to his role of lord and ringmaster of exotic creatures, symbolised by the mechanical birds and lions at receptions for outsiders in the Great Palace.93 This, however, presupposed a fixed ring, whose creatures would neither evolve nor multiply beyond measure, a presupposition undermined by events unfolding in the wider world. The mounting engagement of external traders with Constantinople’s markets and the rising volume and value of transactions there were not necessarily harmful to the empire’s interests. Through the eleventh and twelfth centuries emperors showed astuteness and ingenuity in harnessing outsiders’ specialist talents and economic dynamism to their own advantage. But the emperors’ balancing act between, on the one hand, guarding doctrinal and ritual purity, security and well-being for the ‘silent majority’ and, on the other, licensing the presence and idiosyncrasies of aliens living within or frequenting the capital was a delicate one. The balancing act presupposed pliability on the outsiders’ part, and that the emperor was master in his own house. Such balancing also called for outstanding qualities of statecraft from each successive emperor in turn.

 

 

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