Understanding the social layers of Istanbul in Roman and Byzantines periods is possible by examining the phases through which the economic, political and religious conditions, also considered as “power” or “directive dynamics”, went and this is only possible as far as what the extant written and archeological sources present us.
The residential area of the city, that was called “Byzantion” until the third century, was on the hill in the southwest of the Bosphorus, which separated or united Europe and Asia, and at the entrance of the Golden Horn. This hill is called Sarayburnu today. Byzantion became a prominent commercial center due to its significant location on the commercial routes between the Black Sea and the Aegean Sea. Fishing, due to being a coastal city, and agriculture, thanks to the Haliç (Golden Horn) Delta, were dominant economical activities as well as commerce. It is stated in various sources that the senior administrators of the city settled in the part now called “Sirkeci” behind the harbor and the necropolis (cemetery), which determined the borders of the city, was part of the area now called Çemberlitaş. As a spatial reflection and an outward show of power, the acropolis was situated on the prominent hilltop of the city, just like in all ancient Greek settlements, and defined the focus of the city with its various temples, baths, theaters, and the agora.. Byzantion, being a commercial city during Ancient Greek and Roman periods, accommodated sailors and merchants from many foreign countries in its harbors and agoras on the Golden Horn. It was connected to Rome when Roman imperialism reached Anatolia and it developed relations with the Roman culture and people who came to the city. Byzantion could not avoid being destroyed by the Roman Emperor Septimius Severus, but upon the request of his son Caracalla, it was equipped with a gymnasium, a hippodrome, aqueducts, theatres, colonnaded streets and the like according to the Roman custom. All these can be considered as the signs of transition from a Greek city to a Roman city. At the same time, Roman administrators and wealthy merchants, who settled in the city, and Byzantines, who obtained Roman citizenship after 212, started to emerge as a layer of an upper class at this period. The city was named Constantinople by the Emperor Constantine and became the spiritual center of Christianity after a council in 381. It was promoted to the status of capital city of East Rome which is today called “Byzantine” when the state was divided into two parts after the death of the Emperor Theodosius I in 395. After this date, the inhabitants of the city represented a social variety with the addition of new social classes to the old ones.
Social Layers in Constantinople
Byzantine emperors resumed the Roman traditions almost in the same way since they considered themselves as the continuation of Roman emperors. As a matter of fact, Constantine the Great constructed a large center called the Hippodrome for competitions, entertainment, festivals and special ceremonies, as he was establishing the city. He took the Circus Maximus in the city of Rome as an example, while he was constructing this venue. Byzantine Empire was also impressed by the Roman Empire in terms of social classification just like in other areas. Social layers of the Byzantine period can be classified as upper, middle and low. The upper class was formed by the emperor “under the protection of God” and his family, senior statesmen, high-ranking officials and local aristocracy. Middle layer included wealthy and middle-class people living in cities and the countryside. These were the merchants, industrialists and medium-scale land-owners. The lower layer was comprised of servers, slaves and the poor. We see the clergy class as a class with privileges in addition to the general classification.
Upper Class: Emperor, Court and Administrators
The emperor was a person who would live under protection in the imperial palace of Constantinople away from the eyes of the public. He would mostly owe his position to succession principle, which was not formulated but generally respected; alternatively, he might have had an alliance with his predecessor, he might have been chosen by an influential group or he might have owed his throne to a successful uprising. Byzantine State was never able to develop a theory regarding accession to the throne. A person to become an emperor by the will of God would be chosen and approved and announced by the army, senate and people of Constantinople, and since the fifth century a religious coronation ceremony would be carried out by the patriarch to confirm the announcement, in other words, the emperor would receive the crown from the hands of the patriarch of Constantinople, the highest authority of the Byzantine Church.
The institution of the Byzantine Empire had an inseparable connection with Christianity, as the beginning of the state was related to the foundation of Constantinople, and Constantine, who founded the city, was the first Christian Roman emperor. The emperor was the representative of God on earth. While the senior officials of the church were using the title hagios (sacred) in order to state their sacredness, the title given to the emperor was explanatory enough of his position: Theios (spiritual). The authorities of the emperor were limitless as they were not determined in a written way; in other words, there was exactly a monarchic administration. However, his responsibilities, such as respecting the decisions of the general councils and the accepted doctrine, approving the rights and privilege of the Church, were explained to the emperor in his coronation. Emperor was the only lawmaker and the highest judge. All of the subjects from the lowest to the highest position were his subjects (doulos). Even, the emperor had a say in the election of the patriarch of Constantinople, who was the leader of the institution that elected him. Byzantine emperors of the early period had the titles of autokrator and caesar from the Roman era and the title of basileus, which was the Greek equivalent of the word “ruler-king” as of the reign of Herakleios. They were named Basileus Romaion (the Emperor of Romans) after 812.
The emperor was at the top of the palace hierarchy and he was followed by the patriarch according to the taktika (lists that showed the seating organization at a big feast) from the Byzantine era and the book called The Book of Ceremonies compiled by Constantine Porphyrogennetos VII for his son. One taktikon that belonged to the period of Ioannes I Tsimiskes (960-976) shows five big titles the members of the imperial family possessed. Among these titles was the title of zoste ??or zoste patrikia1 allocated for the mother-in-law of the emperor. The military chiefs who commanded the army and the navy in themata followed them.2 After that came the rector, who was responsible for the household of the emperor, the principal deputy of patriarchate synkellos, judges, including the eparchos3 of the city and the leaders of the Blues and Greens called demarchoi.4 Then would be members of industry and commerce of Constantinople, representing the grain stores and the local monasteries, coming after representatives of state bureaucracy and other responsible officials. In the tenth century, Byzantine titles were ranked in eighteen degrees and the highest three of these titles (Caesar, Nobilissimos and Curopalates) were given only to the imperial families.
The privileged position of the empress, when compared to an ordinary woman, was an unquestionable reality in Byzantine. Being crowned at her marriage to the emperor, she would become a member of the imperial family and participate in ceremonies and rituals, wearing her dresses made from impressive silk fabrics. The influential role of the empress in the administration, particularly in the late period of Byzantine history, determined the political destiny of the state. They would live with a crowd of their attendants in a special part reserved for them in the Great Palace of Constantinople. They would manage their wealth themselves and would spend it for the benefit of the state, the church and the public in accordance with their personal desires and preferences. Some of them stood out due to their philanthropy and some due to their influential power in leading the state and the church. When the emperor died, they had the initiative to select the heir to the throne from a noble family and they would get married to the new emperor. The empress would accompany the emperor outside of the palace as well. For instance, while she was sitting next to the emperor to watch the horse races in Hippodrome, other women were watching the joust on the balcony over the entrance. The empress would spend the last days of her pregnancy knitting clothes for her yet unborn child and she would give birth in a room decorated with items in the imperial purple when her time came. The title of the ones born in imperial purple room (porphyrogennetos), which meant “the legitimate children of the emperor,” comes from this room.
Emperor Constantine, as soon as he gave his name to the capital city, assigned an administrator in proconsul5 office in order to ensure the administration of the city. His son Constantius II (337-361), who widened the senatus in the city and made it equal to the one in Rome, appointed a city administrator called eparchos for Constantinople on 11 September or 11 December 359. In Constantinople, eparchos had the highest position among legal offices and the highest rank among civilian officers and was the eighteenth among palace officers. Eparchos was one of the primary deputies of the emperor just like his colleague in Rome, and he would be declared regent, when emperor left the capital. He was officially the head of senatus and a member of the highest senator order. The police, which protected the streets and harbors (taksiotai), and the firefighting group were under his management as well. Two units were helping eparchos; one of them was responsible for court cases and prisons and the other was responsible for economy and commerce. Both of these units had their own subsections and employees. Eparchos maintained its importance until the thirteenth century, and later on it stayed just as a palace title.
There was another head official with the title of the East praefectus praetorio6 also having the title vir gloriosus or gloriosissimus at the service of the emperor. This person was responsible for executive, legislative and judicial processes and would take a similar duty to the post of the internal or foreign affairs minister of today. Another office called magister officiorum was established that could be considered the minister of the imperial palace in Late Roman- Early Byzantine period and the prime minister in order to restrict the power of praefectus praetorio. Public offices, palace officials, troops of guardsmen in the palace, postal service organizations and relationships with the foreign embassies were the responsibility of the head official. This person would also manage four private secretarial offices that would convey the orders of the emperor and respond to petitions of the officials. There were various offices regarding the finance of the empire. In the seventh century sakellarioi were appointed to the head of financial offices. They were responsible for the treasury and had similar duties to the minister of finance today. High-ranking logothetai were responsible for a number of important tasks such as collection of land taxes, the maintenance of aqueducts, collection of the mining income, payment to the soldiers in the army. Military noblemen who had the power in the twelfth century created one single treasury to replace several treasures and the financial administration was connected to only one logothetes. The rest of the civilian administration was gathered under logothetes ton sekreton. Khartularii who were lower enlisted than the logothetes took care of the state storehouses, where the raw materials and manufactured goods were kept, and horse farms, where the horses were trained for the military. Protosekretis, who was responsible for the imperial archives, mystikos ,who wrote the private and secret letters of the empire, logothetes tou dromou, who was responsible for postal services and the gifts given to foreign ambassadors, orphanotrophos, who was responsible for the great orphanage in Constantinople (was under the palace jurisdiction before the ninth century and under the patriarchate afterwards), protostrator, who was the commander of guardsmen forces, synkellos, who was a sort of a messenger between the emperor and the patriarchate and a high-ranking religious official, - were officers of the civilian administration. These high-ranking officers, who were located in the capital, had many officers under their command. Mesazons first appeared in the mid-eleventh century and were imperial private secretaries, who helped the emperor with state affairs and bureaucracy.
Our knowledge regarding the soldiers within social layers of Constantinople is pretty limited when compared to the knowledge regarding civil section. Military commanders we knew since the reign of the Emperor Constantine were called magistri militum. They were in command of capital garrison forces and they were the head of the military as well. There were military units (thematikoi) of the themata which are the military adminsitrative areas in the countryside in addition to the tagma divisions (tagmatikoi) positioned in and around Constantinople. While thema troops dependent on land, being peasant-soldiers, tagma troops were comprised of professional soldiers. Their commanders were called domestikos. Megas domestikos was the title given to the commander-in-chief, who came after the emperor in the Byzantine army. The empire had a navy in Constantinople as well as ships and sailors in themata. The commander of imperial navy was below all the strategoi of the themata in terms of his rank in the tenth century. There was an effort to rearrange the navy in the reign of Alexios Komnenos when the megas drungarios (fleet admiral) was the assistant and the megas doux (big leader) was the actual commander. In the course of time, share of mercenaries and auxiliary troops from Venice and Genova increased in the navy.
The members of the senate, a significant institution of civil administration, were in the upper classes of the society. The senate of Constantinople (senatus) called synklitos established during the reign of the Emperor Constantine I (306-337), that changed the course of history at first, can be considered as the continuation of the famous Roman senate. However, it never managed to reach the power of the Roman senate and stayed only as an advisory board. The office of the Senator, was for the aristocrats who had land, and was just a symbol, being an honorary and dignity degree.
The number of members of the senate almost reached 2000 in the mid–fourth century and had its heyday in the sixth and the seventh centuries. Apparently, the senate, which was formed by the large land-owners at the beginning, became an institution formed by the majority of high-ranking state officials in time.
Essentially, either they were from old aristocrat families or they were among new noblemen officers, the senators were owners of big portions of lands. The actual weight in the society of this highest layer was not due to their membership in the senate but to their wealth and position at the service of the empire. Land-owners in the senate were naturally trying to manipulate the power of the empire. However, the senate represented neither a single nor a united class. It was comprised of various groups, which were in struggle for power and influence. A person, who accepted the power of one of these groups, was inevitably dragged into a struggle with the others. The senate lost its function as a deliberation and decision-making authority after the seventh century and it became a social class including senators, their wives, even their widowed wives and children. Byzantine senate became dysfunctional in official life when the assignment of the successors by the emperors became a tradition. The senate continued its existence until the thirteenth century, when it did not have any active role anymore.
Judges occupied positions of special responsibility. The judges, who determined the fate of the defendants and the plaintiffs in trials, were close to being an arkhon.7 They were supposed to be well-educated, wise and to treat the wealthy, the poor, noble and slaves equally. According to the book Sacra Parallela by the Syrian monk and priest John of Damascus (Yuhanna al-Dimashqi) (675-749), a judge had to search the hidden corners of a heart, to exhibit the princely virtues of mercy (Philanthropia) and mitigate fear with tolerance regardless of appearance of a person.
The Clergy, Church and Monasteries
After the fall of the Roman Empire, the legacy of the Roman Empire and Western Union was taken up by Christianity, discreetly. Christianity/Church organization drew the line for the Western identity against the East under the conditions where the Western part lost earthly dominion in Medieval ages. However, the difference between West Rome and East Rome continued within the organization of the church as well. Roman and Constantinople churches were positioned against each other.
The patriarch had the highest position after the emperor in the society of Constantinople. The patriarch was at the service of the emperor, as well as being the most influential person after the emperor in Byzantine state hierarchy and the most authorized person regarding the issues about church. In the Byzantine period, the patriarch of Constantinople lived in great pomp. He owned his own palace as well as many chambers in the church of Hagia Sophia and in the buildings next to it. He also possessed an office and conference halls, where he managed the church with the help of the council formed by the clergy. The patriarch was closely related to state affairs and politics. We know that the clergy were in charge and control of the patriarchate and churches were managed with a certain set of rules. Priests, despotēs and bishops who worked in religious institutions, in other words churches, were respected and given importance by the society.
The high clergy often played an active role representing the state or the emperor at foreign embassies as the officers of the empire. There was a significant change in the political influence of the clergy in the middle period. The Holy Synod started to gather in order to handle religious, disciplinary, dogmatic and liturgical issues in Constantinople since the fourth century and was presided by patriarch. This assembly was comprised of bishops from the metropoleis and the ones who were visiting from far episcopates. Since the ninth century membership was limited to senior bishops and patriarchal officials, and it started playing a more important role in the politics of Constantinople regarding the church. The position of the clergy, particularly the bishops, was an honorable and demanding position. Bishops had social and public functions, declared the laws of the empire and managed hospitals (nosokomeia), orphanages (orphanotropheia), houses for elderly people (gerontokomeia) and inns (ptokhotropheia) in the Byzantine State. Baptizm, confessions and performance of rituals could only be carried out by priests. The duty of a priest was to enlighten people and to protect the poor. The priest had to be experienced, patient and alert and had to lead a spotlessly pure life.
High priests called hegoumenos or kathegoumenos, managing the monastery with a monarchical system, were elected by the members of the church community. The high priest was responsible for the financial and emotional happiness of nuns under his administration; in other words, he had to possess the features of a businessman, a psychologist and a spiritual leader at the same time. The high priest would remain in the office for a lifetime and would not be changed without a very serious reason. There were many officers helping the high priest in the monastery. Oikonomos, who was sort of a butler, had the first place among these officials. No fees were charged for the services given but donations were not rejected either. The property and income of the monastery was the only significant source for the clergy class to resume their life. An average Byzantine monastery was like a foundation based on agriculture.
Constantinople was undoubtedly one of the most important places, where the monastic centers developed. These monasteries in the capital accommodated hundreds of monks and nuns. While there were 76 monasteries within the city walls of Constantinople in the sixth century, this number went down to 39 in the reign of Andronicus II Palaiologos (1282-1328). In 563, in just one church, in Hagia Sophia in Constantinople, there were a total of 425 men of cloth including 60 priests, 100 male and 40 female deacons, 90 assistant deacons, 40 preachers and 25 cantors. We should add 100 church caretakers to this number. The number of employees in Hagia Sophia increased to 612, including 80 priests, 150 male and 40 female deacons, 70 assistant deacons, 160 preachers and 25 cantors, during the reign of Herakleios. We can obtain information about a monastery founded by an aristocratic woman in Constantinople that accommodated many people from her family including her daughter. Accordingly, there were 50 nuns in the monastery, and while 30 of them were in the choir, 20 of them were responsible for taking care of the monastery. Each nun had a duty in this monastery: either chanting in the choir, working in the kitchen, auditing the dining hall or keeping guard in infirmary or at the gate. The nuns would do handicraft such as spinning and weaving and read psalms out loud; the literate ones would spend long hours examining sacred texts and life stories of saints. Nuns would be given new clothes once a year and soap and lamp oil would be distributed monthly. They would not go out except for special occasions such as visiting a sick relative. The ones who went out would always be accompanied by two old nuns from the monastery.
Merchants and Craftsmen or Members of the Craft Guilds Representing the Middle Class
Constantinople was one of the most important trade centers of the period because of its geographical location and iıts harbors. All goods (silk, spices, ivory, carpet etc.) coming from the East and going to the West had to go through this city due to its general location and socio-economic significance. On the other hand, in-coming commercial commodities (iron, glass, ceramic etc.) were sent from here to the East. Byzantine and Jewish merchants took over the world trade from Syrians. Constantinople was not only the capital of a state but also a world market. Some neighborhoods alongside the Golden Horn were allocated for foreign merchants in the sixth and the seventh centuries. Similarly, some space was spared for merchants coming from Turkistan and Iran for this reason and these were generally Egyptian and Jewish merchants. These neighborhoods were located one after another alongside the southern coast of the Golden Horn. Generally accepted in Constantinople in the Byzantine period and a permanent part of the city’s cosmopolitan society, Jews’ main areas of interest were commerce, brokerage and usury. In addition to this, some of them were silk weavers and suppliers. We learn that there were 9000 Jews with different occupations from Benjamin of Tudela’s Seyahatnâme (The Travels, where he took notes about nearly 30 communities during his visit to Byzantium in 1160s). Some of them lived in Constantinople, particularly along the Golden Horn and Galata --also known as Pera. The writer was amazed with the rush and noise created by all the merchants coming from all around the world to Constantinople, he mentioned seeing merchants from Mesopotamia, Babel, Iran, Egypt and Palestine in his notes, emphasizing that he had never seen any other city like Constantinople.
The commercial dominance of Byzantine started declining after the eleventh century and the possibility of directing the world trade from Constantinople disappeared. After this, the neighborhoods were allocated for people from Amalfi, and then for the Venetians in 1082, for people from Pisa in 1111, for the Genovese in 1152, one neighborhood for each. These neighborhoods and markets retained their importance until the thirteenth century. Later on these foreign merchants continued establishing their own colonies and their dominant areas tended to grow mainly in the areas heading towards Galata. The Latins were located in the area of Constantinople from the modern gate of Balıkpazarı, called “Porta Peramatis” to Sirkeci, in other words, the part of the city that was the most available for trade. There were covered markets, inns and stores called emporion or embolon, belonging to the respective community in each of these neighborhoods and territories. They all had their own ports on the coast and ships, that stopped by all trade ports in Mediterranean and Black Sea, would dock at these ports. Foreign merchants handled a significant part of maritime commerce since local people were more inclined to political and administrational issues rather than commerce. People from Pisa were managed by a consul, Genovese people by a podesta and Venetians by a balyos. These administrators were permanent ambassadors due to the titles they carried and they would participate in palace ceremonies of Byzantine Empire.
Constantinople had a huge of flow of money due to commerce and it was the apple of the state’s eye. It was very important for the welfare and continuity of the state to retain and support these forces, since the state of commerce and industry always affected politics. Thinker and writer Thomas Magister who lived during the reign of Andronikos II Palaiologos advocated that the arts and crafts were not only a supreme and formidable way of earning one’s keep, but also the sound foundation and constituent components of a good political order. Accordingly, he defended that each citizen and all people above masses should have an occupation and should be registered in the log (professional register); otherwise, there would be high unemployment, crimes would threaten the order and the state would encounter the threat of uprising. Byzantium was trying to keep control over domestic and foreign trade and industry through administrators called the eparkhoi.
At least until the ninth century, commerce and industry in Constantinople and even some other cities was regulated through guilds, which were adapted from collegia of Romans, sort of professional organizations controlling merchants, artisans and craftsmen and their activities. The guilds of Constantinople of this period also called somateia were registered in the registry log under the supervision of the eparkhos; however, most of these lists did not reach modern day. The most significant source from the Byzantine period regarding this subject is Eparkhikon Biblion (the Eparkhos’s Book) dating back to the tenth century, which presents valuable information about guilds in Constantinople. This book determined the rules and regulations of guilds and the relationship between guilds, state and the consumer community in detail. According to the Eparkhikon Biblion, these guilds were divided into two as public guilds and imperial guilds in Constantinople and comprised of the following vocational groups:
Notaries (tabularioi), jewelers (argiropratoi), lenders/brokers (trapezitai), silk dress merchants (vestiopratoi), Syrian silk merchants (prandiopratai), raw silk merchants (metaksopratai), silk processors (katartarioi), silk weavers (serikarioi), linen merchants (othoniopratai), perfume merchants (mirepsoi), candle manufacturers (kerularioi), soap manufacturers (saponapratai), grocers (saldamarioi), leather cutters (lorotomoi), butchers (makellarioi), pork meat merchants (khoiremporoi), fish sellers (ikhthyopratai), bakers (artopoioi) and innkeepers-saloonkeepers (kapeloi). In addition to these, carpenters, joiners, plasterers, stonecutters, locksmiths and painters were included in undertaker/contractor (ergolaboi) group. According to the information obtained from other Byzantine sources, graft guilds of architects, doctors, veterinarians, sculptors, stonemasons, joiners, potters, glassworkers, silver and copper craftsmen, woodsmen, rope manufacturers, ironsmiths, shoe repairers and wax merchants could also be seen in the daily life of Constantinople.
The state allocated certain territories for most of the craft guilds in the capital. All members of the same commercial sectors resided in their own regions of the capital. The one profession, whose location was given precisely in the Notitia and the Eparkhikon Biblion, was livestock markets located in the three main squares of the city. Sheep and pigs were sold at the Strategion, pigs and Easter lambs were sold at the Tauri (Forum of Theodosius) and horses and donkeys were sold at the Amastrianon.
We know that women were working in fabric and mine workshops, established particularly around the palace in Constantinople. Since the Late Roman period clothiers/tailors and purple color painters were among the three imperial craft guilds. The craft guild of purple color painters was the oldest one among imperial craft guilds and they served only to produce the goods used by the emperor and his family. This craft guild was given workshops in the Zeuxippos baths near the Hippodrome which were established during the reign of Herakleios. There were some authorized people (arkhontikoi) apart from imperial and public guilds. They were occupied in silk trade and production and they were not members of guilds.
Teachers formed an important class in Constantinople and were considered a significant group that should serve as a model for the society. A Byzantine primary school teacher known as grammatistes or daskalos, whose social and economic status was low, had a slightly higher position than a craftsman and would strive to get by with the money, that he was not certain to get from his students. Public education could not go further than a certain level due to teachers’ violence and endless memorization classes. A secondary-high schoolteacher had a higher salary compared to a primary school teacher. Teachers would try to compete with colleagues in the rival institutions and wouldn’t get a fixed salary. Higher education was provided by rhetor or sophistes only in big cities like Constantinople. If they were in a more established position, rhetor/sophist, would be appointed by the local council and they would benefit from certain exemptions as well as getting a salary. In real practice, this teacher could accept tips or gifts from his students. On the other hand, if he was a freelancer, he would be completely dependent on the fee paid by his students. Colleges that we can call universities were sometimes not in just one public building, teachers could work in separate buildings or even at their own private premises. Byzantine gave opportunities only to examiners and scholars of Constantinople; however, even in there a permanent and decent university system was missing. Emperors and patriarchs continued to support the higher education in Constantinople until the fifteenth century. It can be understood that higher education was open for higher class and wealthy aristocrat families.
Poor People and Slaves Forming the Lower Class
We can understand how the existing situation was evaluated when we look at the two words that defined poverty in Classical Greek: penes; ptokhos.
The group that had a particular job but could not get a satisfying and safe life for their efforts was called penes. The group that did not have any jobs, that lived in poverty and needed other people’s help for all of their needs was called ptokhos. Another word related to poverty was deomenos and it defined “the needy”. Poverty was used to refer to a kind of deficiency or a kind of flaw, and this situation became so determinant, that it led to a legal differentiation among free population in the third century. In other words, poor people (in Latin, pauper) could not testify in front of the law. According to an article in the Digesta, a law collection of 50 volumes of Emperor Justinian that took effect in 533, a person who did not have at least 50 gold coins was considered poor. In short, richness was defined according to property in the ancient world. Consequently, poor people were the ones certainly with less than necessary to live and wealthy people had more.
The difference between the first century and the fourth century of the Roman Empire was as big as the difference between the rich and the poor. As a matter of fact, a rich person in the first century was five times richer than a rich person in the fourth century. In parallel to this, a poor person in the fourth century was five times poorer compared to one in the first century. It means that while notable people of the state were getting richer, poor people who formed the majority of the society were going lower and lower. The most important reason for this income gap within the Roman society was taxes. Because of the taxes people could not escape slavery. This and similar factors gradually gave way to serfdom system in Europe in the fifth century; although there was a decrease in the number of people with a slave status, there was a big increase in the number of serfs as semi independent slaves.
When we look at the Christian Constantinople, capital of Byzantium after the Roman era, we witness the presence of a poor class comprised of people who lived with partial help from rich people, the poor, babies left on the streets, sick and disabled people, villagers who had to face hunger, as they had difficulty in going to the capital to work or for other reasons, laborers chasing jobs and beggars.
Poverty had been an unfavorable and upsetting wound that had been kept in mind in an ethical way and even preached about since the ancient times. The philosopher Aristotle mentioned the issue of poverty in the Nicomachean Ethics and underlined the importance of the necessity of using the surplus, that the rich had for the benefit of the city through generosity and charity. As well as the help of rich people, the church undertook the mission of helping the poor in compliance with its teaching. For instance, we know that the religious brotherhood organizations called diakoniai under churches gathered the poor to clean them in the baths once a week. However, these well-intentioned aid sustained the presence of poverty and improved the conditions of the poor temporarily rather than eradicating the conditions that caused poverty.
The poor sometimes got organized and had some uprisings against unequal income and land distribution in Constantinople and other cities. The disagreement between the wealthy and the poor was communal and had the characteristics of class wars according to Byzantine historian Ernest Barker. People of the city and ethnic groups and religious sects in Hippodrome committed crimes that could lead to deaths against the representatives of the power and against each other. A special administrative unit was established in 539 in order to remove from Constantinople the unemployed and healthy people, who had a high potential to go into the world of crime, . These and other legal and social regulations were consulted frequently during the Byzantine period.
Slavery passed from Sumerians to Egyptians, from Egyptians to Phoenicians and from Phoenicians to Anatolian, Aegean civilisations of the Greeks and the Romans and found itself a place in societies of the Medieval Age always among the lower classes. When we take the social lives of the slaves in West Rome Empire in its final stage of the fourth century into consideration, we can see that they were in very difficult conditions. While the poor were getting poorer in the last stages of Rome, the situation the slaves were in did not actually change. The slaves that worked to survive would not leave the service of their masters even for a moment because they knew if they were left homeless, they would die. Even in the final period of Roman Empire a rich Roman would want to keep an educated Greek slave for running his business. As can be understood, a slave who was in the lowest social class could be educated as well. However, Roman slaves would wear tunics in the form of shorter skirts as required by the social status in or outside the house, while their masters wore longer tunics. This would show the difference between the master and the slave within this social stratification.
Slavery system stayed unchanged in the fourth-fifth centuries at the beginning of the Middle Ages. Only the rulers and masters changed; there were some changes in legal field and more restrictive laws were introduced in the economic field but the status of the slave remained the same in the Middle Ages as it had been in the Ancient Age. Byzantine Empire that was the continuation of Roman Empire, that possessed an economic and social structure based on the slavery system, resumed the system that it took over from Rome throughout the Middle Ages.
Slaves were the most important economic source for Byzantine Empire. It was possible to see slaves in every part of Byzantine social life from palace service to entertainment shows. Slave labor was used in Byzantine so much that this workforce became an important element to increase production output of the luxury items and keep the price of convenience goods low. The workers of the imperial workshops were mostly slaves. Constantinople was the only place of education and slaves would never take advantage of this right. Most despised in the cities, peasants and slaves were used for the construction of roads, fortifications and canals and were made to work in the fields to provide agricultural products. Nonetheless, peasants and slaves, who served the society they lived in the most, were in the social layer that lived in the biggest fear against the empire.
Another service area the slaves were used within social life was to provide sexual services. The Byzantine Church considered sexual desires and sexual intercourse natural and sexuality being divine and started to emphasize in the early middle age that it was a sin to go to extremes in this issue and that the desires should be controlled. Although all churches tried to take precautions against sexual abuse against slaves, they were not successful. It was usual in Byzantine society to have an intercourse with slaves, young slave girls and even male slaves, because a slave completely belonged to his master and did not have any right to defend himself or herself.
Slaves were employed not only in palace service, industrial activities and agriculture, but also in the army and religious institutions. A person always had the chance to have a higher rank in Byzantine Empire regardless of his social status. However, slaves who were at the lowest part of the society could not normally get this apart from some notable exceptions. Despite this, we witness some exceptional situations, when a slave served as a head eunuch or he was promoted to the commandership in the army like the eunuch slave Narses. As can be understood from the example of the Greens organization, although slaves and people to be liberated were at the bottom of the society, they could be used as a functional political power when necessary.
On the other hand, the use of the eunuch for the protection and service of top administrators, dates back to Ancient Egypt and China. People, who were castrated before they reached adolescence, were called “beardless men”. People who were castrated at an adult age had the masculine appearance. Byzantine eunuchs had significant amount of wealth and they were appointed to command armies. Some of them were the slaves castrated before starting to serve Byzantium. For example, Petros Fokas, who took the surname of his master and showed usefulness in the wars against Russians, was one of them. Eunuchs also became Constantinople patriarchs and saints. Eight positions were reserved for eunuchs by law in a treatise by Filothes at the end of the ninth century and showed the seating arrangement of official dinners. Also nine more places were determined with the Emperor’s word. Each position had specific clothes and suitable shoes that reflected the features of the position. The first group included the rank of praipositos headed by the brightest one of klarissimos, that arranged palace ceremonies, being steward, the protocol officer and the spokesman of the emperor. The second group was protobestiarios, who watched over the wardrobe of parakoimomenos and slept across from the bedroom of the emperor. This group also included people, who watched over the dinner halls and wine cellars of the emperor and the empress. Eunuch heads had the authority to enter the private chamber of the emperor without permission, like the doctors, who took care of the emperor.
Eunuchs were non-Romans, since castration was always considered as a disgusting and humiliating process by the free Roman citizens, and were mostly people captured during wartime. This approach was strengthened, when the castration operation was forbidden within the borders of the empire through Justinia’s Laws in the sixth century. Foreign captives were mostly castrated at the border and then entered into Byzantine Empire to meet the “safe” servant demand. Castrated servants worked in most of the big mansions and these people served the lady of the house as well as helping with the education of the children.
Two Political Groups in Constantinople: Blues and Greens
Blues and Greens, who were sometimes engaged in political activities, and sometimes in banditry, sometimes defended their country and sometimes took part in revolts and started uprisings, printed their names in the history of Byzantium. Emperors and noble men developed good relationships with these groups in order to manipulate their public power for their own benefits. These two groups, that became stronger gradually, existed until the Fourth Crusade and were completely forgotten after this.
Blues (Venetoi), were the owners of big lands representing the upper, rightist conservative elite class with Dyophysite Orthodox, belief which was the official religion of the state with Khalkedon (Kadıköy) Ecumenical Council decisions in 451. Blues, who were supported by the senate members from Rome and aristocrats, were closer to the palace notables in a political sense. Members of this group were considered to be formed by people on this layer. Greens (Prasinoi), on the other hand, belonged to Monophysite Orthodox belief that was opposite the official theology and was considered to be heretical. They mostly represented the lower and relatively leftist poor classes from the eastern parts of the empire and they were supported by the majority of guilds, city artisans, artists, villagers and slaves.
Frictions and fights were inevitable between these two groups, whose life views, economic situation and religious beliefs were different from each other, and who were in a merciless rivalry. Greens considered Khalkedon (Kadıköy) as their home and Blues considered Blakhernai (Ayvansaray) as their home. Although Roman emperors Claudius, Marcus Aurelius and Caracalla expressed that they supported Blues, because they were considered close to the empire administration due to their close attitude to the palace and official ideology, Nero mentioned that he preferred the Greens.
Family in Constantinople: Women and Children
Byzantine society, being patriarchal, clearly separated roles of men and women. It is known that women in public life and social hierarchy were coming after men and they could not take administrative roles in state, church and the army; we can even say that there was misogyny in the Byzantine community. Antiochus Monachus, one of the writers of the Byzantine era, in his book Panektes says that the appearance of a woman resembles a poisonous arrow and the longer the poison stays in the soul the more destruction will be. According to the archbishop of Constantinople John Chrysostom of the fourth century, women were a repent worm, the daughter of deception and the enemy of the peace. They would wear jewelry, powder their faces, redden their faces with blush, wear perfume on their clothes and set up a fatal trap in order to seduce young men through the senses. If it had not been for sexual desire, no reasonable men would have wanted to share their houses with women and put up with the consequences of living with a woman, although they did the house chores. God knew her miserable disposition; that’s why he gave her the weapon of sexuality. Surely, some women were considered as virtuous. For instance, John Moschus who was a Byzantine monk, defined a virtuous woman as a person who would never show her face to strangers. However, we should mention this now, that it is necessary to differentiate the lives of women from palace and noble women, and middle-lower class women up to a certain extent like in almost every society.
The majority of Byzantine women spent most of their time doing house chores or taking care of their children in daily life; they did not leave their houses most of the time. Therefore, it was not common to see women out on the streets in the daily routine. Women were able to move more freely compared to subsequent centuries despite legal, ideological and social restrictions in Early Byzantium with the partially strong effect of the Roman culture. They would watch theatre plays and horse carriage races in Hippodrome, go to the baths to socialize and get clean and also take part in imperial celebrations. Women, who were banned from sports activities and kept away from social activities in the subsequent period, would sit in a place reserved for them away from men in church in order to participate in the rites and ceremonies. They were not subject to restrictive clothing rules determined by the laws or traditions-conventions. They were completely free in their houses. However, when there was a stranger man in the house as a guest, the situation would change and they would be sensitive about the situations caused by the encounter of the man and woman. No men could go into the rooms of women, except people and slaves of the house. One of the most important and notable features of women’s clothing in this period was covering their faces with a veil, when they went out or when there was a male guest in their houses.
The only role granted to women by the prevailing ideology in Byzantine from the mid-eleventh century until the end of the empire was motherhood. All other roles, as either the supervision of the sources or the use of power through possible symbolic rule of moral/spiritual power; women were denied. Having children was the most significant and virtuous duty of a mother in a family. In addition, managing the family in a good and prudent way was the responsibility of the mother as well. Children had to develop intellectually to prepare to face the world; it was the responsibility of the mother to hire appropriate teachers and to bring up children to be modest and restrained. Hiring teachers naturally required mother to have knowledge regarding intellectual classes of the empire and, in other words, choosing appropriate people for this task and having contact with them to a certain extent. A good mother had to devote her life to God, as was expected in Byzantium, and this meant spending most of her time praying for her children.
Although social conditions restricted women to house chores and the upbringing of her children, we could witness that women with certain power had social and economical activities and had a profession. Women in the early Byzantine period worked in silk weaving workshops of the empire; they widely produced fabric professionally in later periods and even became members of the guilds related to this profession in Constantinople. We witness in the documents we have, that noble women were engaged in retail trade, mining, food production and sales and investment areas in long-distance trade. A widowed woman from noble class could manage the wealth of the family. This situation shows that contrary to the prevalent opinion noble women were stronger than women from common public, and they could be engaged in jobs that required direct contact with men.
Apart from being of secondary importance in the social life in Byzantine era, it is clear that the law protected women up to a certain extent regarding marriage, divorce, division of property and similar situations, and introduced laws for the benefit of women. Despite the church, insisting that the marriage could not be broken as it was considered sacred and supported the equal selection in marriage, consented divorce and even the divorce by women in case of adultery, impotence, insanity and infidelity were allowed until the sıxth century. When the man had an affair with a married woman, he was considered to have committed adultery as he was married. Although divorce was a judicial right granted to a woman, she needed judicial freedom and family support in order to be able to get divorced. Even then, some women did not get divorced. According to a law introduced in the reign of Constantine I, a woman could not divorce her husband just because he was drinking, gambling and cheating on her; however, she could only divorce him, if she could prove that he was a murderer, sorcerer or looter, and had the right to retrieve her dowry, in other words, the possessions that she brought with her as she was getting married. Although it was rare, if a woman spent long periods of time outside of the house regularly and did not take care of her husband adequately, if she made him unhappy and disturbed the peace of their house, this could be one of the reasons for the husband to divorce her according to the law. Contrary to the man, a woman’s affair with another man was considered as adultery regardless of the marital status of the man.
Another situation that protected the woman before the law was her rights on her dowry. Dowry contract was essential for a valid marriage in Roman world and girls would take dowry from their families as they were getting married and this would provide them with economical and social assurance. Woman was the owner of both her dowry and the wedding gifts given by her husband on their wedding day. Although during their marriage her husband would manage them. Husband was responsible for giving a part or all of these back in case of divorce. In case of the death of the husband, woman would be the natural owner of them; in case of the death of the woman, the husband would not own them but their children would. This was a law that protected the children born in the marriage within the family.
The new-born baby would be washed by the midwife and wrapped in wool swaddling in Byzantine period. Wealthy families would hire wet-nurses to bring up their babies. Little is known regarding the food given to babies after they were weaned. In the tenth century, a father who lost his wife brought up his baby with barley soup, honey and water. While cereals, small portions of white wine and vegetables were considered appropriate for crawling babies; children were not given meat until they reached puberty. When considered from the point of Christianity, parents were advised not to go to extremes while showing their emotions to children, who had to be purified from the sin of arrogance. Jewelry for young girls was not approved and long hair and jewelry for young boys were considered disgusting. An ideal young boy had to grow up in a way that he could become a saint one day and had to gain the maturity of an old man. Father had the highest authority in the house but he was advised to establish his authority not through violence but strong words. The only valid reason for disobedience against the father could be his approach towards complying with a more supreme, in other words, religious call.
Children would receive their first education at home by learning how to read from their mothers. The three-stage education system, primary school, secondary school and high school, was generally applied. All students, most of whom were male students, would start school around the age of five-seven. They were taught the alphabet, reading and writing and counting. Another teacher would teach in the subsequent secondary stage. A small number of female students in the classes, where the majority was male students, were given classes only about religious texts. These were the daughters of distinguished families, because girls would lead their lives mostly at home with their mothers and learn how to sew and cook in order to help with the house chores after the age of ten.
Although there is no detailed and comprehensive information about students, the fact, that the further stages of the education strained the budget, strengthens the idea that the students, who had higher education, were members of wealthy families.
Gypsies as a Marginal Group in Constantinople
The most acknowledged claim about how gypsies arrived in Byzantine land was that most of them migrated to Constantinople and Thrace upon the invasion of Armenia by Seljuks in mid-eleventh century. However, the depiction of Taberi, one of the Arab historians, is different. According to him, when Byzantines attacked Syria in 855, they captured many Gypsies (Zott) with their women, children and oxen and took them to their country.
Gypsies were mentioned for the first time in 1068 in the biography of a Georgian saint written in the Iviron Monastery on Mount Athos. The word used for gypsies in this text was Atsingani. The name Atsingani was the Georgian version of the Old Greek word Atsingonoi or Atzingonoi, Byzantines used for gypsies. This word has appeared in many different forms and it may have derived from the word Athingani, which was the name of a Samaritans, that was common in Phrygia and Lycia in the ninth century; which is the most common explanation for the word. We hear this name again from Theodore Balsamon, who was a church official in the twelfth century. Balsamon described Atsinganis as following: “Atsinganis carry snakes around their bodies and tell fortune.”
We see that the word “Egyptian” was used for gypsies apart from Atsingani in that period. For instance, it was stated that special taxes were collected from the community named as Egyptian and Atsingani in the sources from the reign of the patriarch of Constantinople Gregory II of Cyprus (1283-1289). The naming of gypsies as Egyptians in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries was related to the belief that they came from the area called Little Egypt (it is thought to be a part of Peloponnessos or around Antalya and Izmir of today).
We encounter in the Byzantine sources of the fourteenth century, despite in a limited way, the word Katsivelos, which is used for gypsies in Greece today. The same term was mentioned in a text depicting the approval of Emperor John V Palaiologos on the possession of a piece of land by a nobleman in 1350. The owner of the property was said in this text to live with his slaves, Egyptian Katsivelos.
The common use of two names (Atsingani and Egyptian) for gypsies in Byzantine may be related to the fact that they came to this land from two separate routes. It is highly probable that the ones coming from the Northern direction were called Atsingani and the ones from the Southern direction were called Egyptian.
Gypsies from Constantinople worked as acrobats, snake dancers and bear trainers in addition to treating animals and clearing the gardens of the palace from wild animals. The gypsy group that the public was mostly interested in was astrologers and fortunetellers. The priests of Orthodox Church often warned their communities against consulting gypsies.
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1 Zoste patrikia was a Byzantine court title reserved exclusively for the woman who was the chief attendant and assistant to the Empress. A very high title, its holder ranked as the first woman after the Empress herself in the imperial court. More often than not, the zōstē was a relative of the Empress.
2 Byzantine district
3 a territorial administrative unit
4 Holder of office with political and/or religious duties in Greek communities.
5 A proconsul was a governor of a province in the Roman Republic appointed for one year by the
6 Title of a high office in Roman empire
7 One who is in authority. Used in three senses: loosely, to refer to any Athenian public official; more strictly (usually a collective plural) to describe the “nine arkhons”; specifically, as the title of the senior of the nine arkhonships.