Metal-workers, agriculturists, acrobats, military-people and fortune-tellers Roma (Gypsies) in and around the Byzantine empire

by Karin White

The Roma have no book, no promised land or great founders.1 Thus we are led to believe that the Roma have no history. In popular belief their past is shrouded by mystery, their origin and sojourns are obscure. Academic interest mostly is limited to certain aspects, like public policy, ritual, kinship, philology, while historians show very little interest in Rom history. There are exceptions, of course, like Donald Kenrick, or Ian Hancock and Mateo Maximoff, themselves Roma.

Is the lack of interest in Roma history a direct result of the absence of any historic evidence, considering the high level of illiteracy among the Roma? Clearly, the answer is no. There is a wealth of documented evidence for Rom history, which provides us with insight into a past marked by persecution, exploitation and scape- goating.2 Why then has so little research been carried out in the field of Rom history? There is a saying in Romani: ‘He who wants to enslave you will never tell you about your forefathers’. Indeed, the Gypsies have been the most enslaved and persecuted people in our history, yet little is made known about their ordeals to the general public. For how could we continue to persecute them and use them as scape-goats, if we were not ignorant of their past?

Puxon writes: ‘The history of the Romani people is a story of relentless persecution. From the Middle Ages to the present day, they have been the target of racial discrimination and outright genocide’.3

Yet, hardly ever is the public informed of the Rom slavery in Rumania, which was only abolished 150 years ago, the half million Roma killed during the holocaust, or the centuries of torture, murder and persecution following the Roma’s arrival in Western Europe.

Instead, the image of the Roma has been mostly formed by the popular press, which is a main contributor to their stereotyping, portraying them as either asocial criminals or romantic and exotic nomads. The majority of Western non-Rom population thinks of the Roma as a intrinsically nomadic people, which has always been at variance with the rest of the population, especially with the rural farming communities. This view has already been successfully challenged by scholars like Ian Hancock. Although the four- hundred years of slavery in Rumania constituted enforced settlement, today the majority of Roma are settled, often voluntarily. Among them we find artists, politicians, business-people, factory workers, farmers, academics, in short the full spectrum of occupations. The nomadic life-style, which Roma in the past adhered to seemed to have been more imposed than voluntary. Western documentation starting in the late thirteenth century confirms that Roma were hardly ever allowed to settle, and the dark strangers from the East were frequently associated with the Turkish invaders, their strange clothes and customs associated with witch-craft, their other-ness making for the perfect scape-goat.

However, little attention has been paid to the Roma’s long sojourn in Byzantium and in the Byzantine-Venetian colonies. In the whole of documented Roma history this sojourn compares quite favourably, and I argue, that the Roma as an ethnic group were not persecuted in Byzantium, as far as we know.

Originating in India, the Roma came to Byzantium via Persia in the eleventh century. It is very possible to connect them with a people called Zott, who are mentioned by Arab historians. The Zott were Indian migrants to Persia, who worked as mercenary soldiers, merchants, musicians, palace guards, farmers and buffalo-keepers. Their migration took place both voluntary and by force. At least on three occasions the Zott were sent to Antioch on the Mediterranean coast; in 669, around 710 and in 720. The resettlement aimed to add to the military strength of the area, and apparently also to protect Antioch from lions of whom the Zott’s buffaloes were not afraid. The capture of Antioch put the Zott under Byzantine rule, and it is assumed that some of them made their way from Antioch to Crete4. In any case, in 1323 the monk Symeon Symeonis more than likely describes Roma in Crete, when he writes: ‘There we also saw a race outside the city asserting themselves to be of the family of Chaym.5 They rarely or never stop in one place beyond thirty days but always wander and flee as if accursed by God, and after the thirtieth day they remove themselves from field to field with their oblong tents, black and low, and from cave to cave.’6 Even earlier, in the tenth century, Leo Diaconos writes about Cretans who are fortune-telling and roving.

However, finding themselves in the Byzantine empire, the Roma’s next move seemed to have led them to Constantinople. An eleventh century text from Mt Athos, The Life of Saint George the Athonit, tells us that in 1050 Emperor Constantine Monomachos complained about wild animals, who were destroying the game in the imperial park of Philopation. He employed ‘a Samaritan people, descendants of Simeon the Magician, named Adsincani, who were renowned sorcerers and villains’. They left at various places pieces of meat over which they had spoken a spell and which killed the beasts. The emperor was very impressed and asked for the Adsincani to perform their magic in his presence. The Adsincani repeated their magic as requested, but St George stepped forward and, before the beast in question could devour the meat, made the sign of the cross over it, and the animal survived. This impressed the emperor even more than the Adsincani’s trick and he declared: ‘as long as this holy man stands near me I shall not fear either the sorcerers or their deadly poison.’7

The image of Roma in control of wild animals is not unusual. Later in history we find among the Roma the Ursari, the bear-leaders, and also the snake-charmers. Furthermore, as mentioned above, earlier on the Zott in Antioch were said to have kept the lions in check. The text also portrays the first Roma in Constantinople as magicians. This, too, is a quite common perception of Roma, in the past as well as today. Marcel Mauss observes: ‘All unsettled tribes who live among a settled population are considered as sorcerers. This is still in our time the case with the Gypsies, and also of many wandering castes in India’. The text refers to the Adsincani, which is the Latin version of Atsinganoi, the main Byzantine term applied to Roma, of which we know versions like Tsinganoi, Cingane, Zigar, Zigeuner. Other names also were common, like Aigyptoi, which indicated their presumed connection with Egypt, either as place of their origin or because of the Roma’s practise of magic. The idea of Roma as sorcerers also plays a part in the apparent confusion between the Atzinganoi (the Roma), and the Athinganoi, a ninth century heretical sect, who had been accused of practising magic and fortune-telling. In the second half of the twelfth century Balsamon comments on canon 61 from the council in Trullo, which punishes fortune- telling, and the display of animals with six years excommunication.8 In another commentary Balsamon writes about ventriloquists and wizards.9 In both commentaries he names the Athinganoi as the culprits who engage in these offensive activities. However, we can assume that the Athinganoi mentioned by Balsomon are the Roma, since the heretical sect hardly was an issue during Balsomon’s times. Furthermore, in the beginning of the thirteenth century Athanasius, Patriarch of Constantinople, wrote a circular letter to instruct the clergy not to let their people associate with the Athinganoi, because ‘they teach devilish things’.10 This is the last time we can find the term Athinganoi, which we assume describes Roma. In the fourteenth century Joseph Bryennios complains about people associating with magicians, soothsayers and Atzinganoi (the Roma),11 while a hundred years later a nomocanon threatens with excommunication those, who consult the Aiguptissa12.

However, if we are looking for evidence for the persecution of Roma in the Byzantine empire and the Venetian colonies, we have to stop here. For no other documents can be found in the sources to prove a negative attitude towards the Roma.

On the other hand, Nikephoras Gregoras supplies us with a wonderful description of Roma acrobats in early fourteenth century Constantinople: ‘During this time we saw in Constantinople a transient group of people, not less than twenty in number, versed in certain acts of jugglery….they came originally from Egypt….And the arts they performed were stupendous and full of wonder.’ Nikephoros stresses that ‘they had nothing to do with magic, but were products of an adroit nature, trained for a long time in the practice of such works’. Then comes a lengthy description of performances which include acts on tight rope, trapeze, horses, balancing acts and the performance of dances. Nikephoros stresses the length of training these performances involved, and the danger involved. He expresses a sentiment of respect and admiration for these acrobats and shows them performing a trade rather than a spectacle13.

It is quite possible that Roma also established themselves in the guilds in Constantinople, which still existed as late as the second half of the fifteenth century, since we have evidence for the participation of Roma in the guilds of Ottoman Constantinople under Murat IV in the first half of the seventeenth century. According to Evliya, a Turkish scholar and traveller, they appeared in the guilds as leaders of bears, horse-dealers and rich merchants, musicians, dancing boys and Buza-makers.14

From Constantinople the Roma spread to the Greek mainland. In 1415 Mazaris writes in his imaginary letter Sojourn of Mazaris in Hades,15 that ‘in the Peloponnese live numerous nations, of which it is not easy nor very necessary to retrace the boundaries, but every ear can easily distinguish them by language, and here are the most notable of them: Lacedaemonians, Italians, Peloponnesians, Slavs, Illyrians, Egyptians and Jews.’ Since there is no evidence of Egyptians having settled in the Peloponnese, the Egyptians can be understood as Roma speaking their own language.

In the Peloponnese the majority of Roma seemed to have preferred to settle in the Venetian territories, finding more stability there than in the rest of the Peloponnese. The seaport of Modon had a Rom suburb in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. Situated half way from Venice to Jaffa, it was a welcome stopping place for pilgrims to the holy land. It is from these pilgrims that we get some of the liveliest descriptions of the contemporary Roma, who, we may assume, surely got their share from the Modon tourist trade, and it may have been this lively coming and going of travellers which attracted them to Modon in particular. It may even have been their acquaintance with pilgrims at Modon and other places, which led them to adopt that guise when they arrived later in the West.

In 1383 Frescobaldi, a traveller to the Holy Land, believes the Roma of Modon to be penitents doing penance for their sins.16 Later, in 1483, Bernhard von Breydenbach, a German traveller to Jerusalem, mentions 300 reed covered huts outside Modon, ‘in which dwell certain poor folk like Ethiopians, black and unshapely….the Gippen who are called Gypsies…nothing but spies and thieves, who claim to come from Egypt when they are in Germany; but it is all a lie, ……. called Saracens in Germany ….. in reality natives of Gyppe, near Modon, and spies and traitors.’17 This statement reflects the perception of Roma in medieval Germany, where they were suspected of being spies for the Turks, due to their exotic looks and the fact that they always moved before the advancing Turks. Also in the second half of the fifteenth century a German pilgrim describes these Roma in the suburb of Modon as ‘Albanians’, known in German countries as ‘Egyptians and heathens’.18 This may be an indication that the Roma settled in the Peleponnese at the same time as the Albanians.

Apart from living off the tourist trade, the Roma of Modon were practising smith craft. Dieter von Schachen, who visited Modon in 1491, writes: ‘At Modon, outside the city on the hill by the wall there are many miserable little huts, where Gypsies, so-called in Germany, dwell, very poor people and generally all smiths. They sit down on the ground for their work and have a pit made in the earth in which they keep the fire and if the man or woman has a pair of bellows in his hands, they are quite contented, blow with the bellows, a miserably poor thing that is beyond description, and make a great number of nails and very well.’19

Almost one and a half centuries earlier we know of Roma, Zingarie, dependants of the monastery of Michael and Gabriel, whose yearly tax consisted of fourty horse-shoes.20

A fourteenth century Byzantine ballad, The Philosophy of a Drunkard, mentions the Rom, who sees in the sun ‘nothing else but a hoop to make a cauldron with’,21 and from an account of the celebrations which took place at the circumcision of Sultan Mehmet’s son in 1582 we learn that smith-craft was one of the main occupations of Roma in the Balkans.22

However, the Roma also settled in other parts of the Peleponnese, for example in Nauplion. According to a Venetian document dated 12 August 1444, they were an organised group under a drungarius acinganorum, a military leader with the name Johannes Cinganus (John the Gypsy). The document mentions privileges granted to John and his ancestors.23

Various documents show that in Corfu by the second half of the fourteenth century the Roma formed an independent fief, the feudum acinganorum, which existed until the end of feudalism in Corfu in the nineteenth century. The documentation shows that the Roma in Corfu were a settled community and an important and established part of the economy.24

It appears that before the end of the fourteenth century the Roma had established themselves widely throughout the Balkan provinces. From 1362 on Roma are mentioned in Ragusan registers, as Egyptians (Egiptius), Egiupach, Jegupach, Cinganus, Cingalus, and Azinganus. Looking at the evidence from Ragusa a picture emerges of Roma occupying the lower social strata together with other Ragusans. They lived in suburbs and worked mainly as traders, but also as servants, musicians, inn-keepers, cobblers, millers or smiths. They were not singled out as ethnic group nor persecuted. They were free people, were allowed to settle and treated equally to others of their social strata. 25

It appears that the Roma in the Byzantine Empire, in the Venetian colonies, in Ragusa and in early Ottoman Constantinople were not persecuted as an ethnic group, and that they were allowed to settle, which they did quite happily. The canons and commentaries mentioned above do try and act against certain activities connected with Roma, e.g. fortune-telling, but they are not directed against an ethnic group as such, but against activities perceived contrary to orthodox teaching. So we find the Roma mostly at the lower end of the social strata, but an integrated part of the economy, as smiths, traders, musicians, agriculturists or military people. Always adjusting and adapting to whatever society, economy and culture they found themselves in, the Roma at the same time maintained a distinct identity and language up to this very day.

Looking at this considerable period of Rom history we have to question strongly the common assumption that the Roma are intrinsically nomadic and have always been excluded by so-called ‘settled’ populations owing to their different life style and lack of positive economic contributions to society. On the contrary, the evidence shows that the Roma had found their economic niches through-out their stay in the Byzantine empire, the Venetian colonies and Ragusa, and in the latter they seem to have been a fully integrated part of society. Furthermore, the Roma’s economic contribution in Rumania was of such importance, that they were enslaved there for over three-hundred years.26 Although we have evidence of nomadic Roma, we find many of them settled in the Byzantine empire, Ragusa and the Venetian colonies, as well as in Ottoman Constantinople. It was only when the Roma came as dark skinned strangers to the West of Europe that they were perceived as a threat, due to their ‘other-ness’ and due to the danger their skills may have been to a flourishing and rigid guild-system. In the multi-ethnic Byzantine empire however, where at the Roma’s arrival the guilds still existed, but were in decline,27 there was more tolerance and space for ethnic minorities like the Roma.


1 Isabel Fonseca, Bury Me Standing, New York, 1995.

2 To the concept of scape-goating, s. Declan Quigley ‘Scape-goats: the killing of kings and ordinary people’, JRAS, June 2000 (forthcoming).

3 G. Puxon, Roma: Europe’s Gypsies, London, 1987, 12.

4 S. J. de Goeje, Mémoire sur les migrations des Tsiganes à travers l’Asie, Leiden, 1903; however, his argument has been criticised in J. Sampson, ‘On the Origin and Early Migrations of the Gypsies’, Journal of the Gypsy Lore Society, 3rd ser., 2, 1923.

5 This is the only instance when the name ‘Chaym’ is used for Rom. It has been translated previously as ‘Ham’.

6 in P. Girolamo Golubovich, Biblioteca Bio-Bibliographica, della Terra Santa e dell’Oriente Francescano, Tomo III, 1919, 254-255.

7 P. Peeters, ‘Histoire monastiques géorgiennes’, Analecta Bollandiana, 36-37, 1917-19.

8 G. A. Rhalles and M. Potles, Suntagma toon theioon hieroon kanonoon, II, Athens, 1852.

9 ibid.

10 Vat. Gr. 2219, f.120.

11 Koukoules, Buzantinoon Bios kai politismos, I, pt. 2, Athens, 1948, 137.

12 A. Pavlov, Nomokanon pri bol’ som Trebnikê, Moscow, 1897.

13 Nikephoros Gregoras, Jan Louis van Dieten Rhomäische Geschichte II, 58-60.

14 Evliya Efendi, tr. Von Hammer, Narrative of Travels in Europe, Asia and Africa, in the seventh century, 1850.

15 in Elissen, Analecten der mittel- und neugriechischen Literatur, 1860.

16 Viaggio di Lionardo di Noccolo Frescobaldi in Egitto, e in Terra Santa 1383, Rome 1818.

17 Hugh Wm. Davies ed., Bernhard von Breydenbach and his journey to the Holy Land 1483-4, reprint, Utrecht 1968.

18 Ludwig Conrady ed., Vier Rheinische Palaestina-Pilgerschriften des XIV. XV. und XVI. Jahrhunderts, Wiesbaden, 1882.

19 R. Röhricht und H. Meisner, Deutsche Pilgerreisen nach dem Heiligen Lande, Berlin 1880.

20 Helmut Wilsdorf, ‘Zigeuner auf den karpato-balkanischen Bergrevieren – montanethnographische Aspekte, Abhandlungen und Berichte des staatlichen Museums für Völkerkunde, Dresden, 1984.

21 Anon. Philosophy of a Drunkard, Sp. Lampros, 1904.

22 Hans Lewenklaw von Amelbeurn, Neuwe Chronica Türckischer Nation, Frankfurt am Main, 1590.

23 Avogaria di Comun, Numero Generale 3649, Raspe 1442-1458.

24 S. Lampros, Athens 1882 and A. Andreades, Athens 1914.

25 Djurdjica Petrovic, Gypsies in Medieval Ragusa, Belgrade, 1976.

26 N. Gheorghe ‘Origin of Roma’s Slavery in the Rumanian Principalities’, Roma, 1983, Vol.7, 12-27; also P. N. Panaitescu ‘The Gypsies in Wallachia and Moldavia: A Chapter of Economic History’, Journal of the Gypsy Lore Society (3rd S.), 1941, Vol. 20, 58-72.

27 To the Byzantine Guilds s. Speros Vryonis, ‘Byzantine demokratia and the guilds in the eleventh century’, DOP 17, 1963; Nicolas Oikonomidès,Documents et études sur les institutions de Byzance 7e-15e s., London, 1976.

Published in print in Golden Horn Volume 7 issue 2 (winter 1999-2000)