By Apostolos Karpozilos
In Byzantine sources we do not find specific references to black people as a separate group that lived on the margins of Byzantine society due to their distinct color, their characteristics, their language or their culture. The sources, insofar as we know, do not seem to indicate the existence of a black people who were on the margins of society in urban centers or elsewhere, even during the period when the empire included areas of South Arabia and North Africa, with their mixed populations of nations and races.
Also the relatively little evidence we have at our disposal indicates that black people were not in particular considered a minority in the Byzantine mind. The names of the various peoples who inhabited the shores of the Red Sea and within Africa, both in early Christian and Byzantine sources, were characterized by confusion and ambiguity. The name commonly used for these people were Indians, whether they were Axumites, Ethiopians or Omirites.
Besides, the historical references to these peoples are limited to the beginning of the seventh century, where the empire still retained its sovereignty in Egypt by controlling Egyptian trade with other nations of the African continent.
With the conquest of Egypt by the Arabs the relationship between the empire and these peoples was cut off for good. It should, however, be noted that the attitude of the Byzantines towards the blacks, as reflected in the relatively few and scattered testimonies of sources, do not reflect any racial bias. Prejudices of this kind did not exist in antiquity, not even in the Greco-Roman period, when the empire was indeed multinational. At least there was no racial strife in the form and to the extent we know of them today, even though xenophobia, nationalism and dislike or contempt for uncivilized peoples were not unknown concepts in the world of antiquity. However, blacks did not face persecution nor were they excluded from the social mainstream as inferior due to their color.
Therefore the Byzantines inherited a culture for foreign peoples that had already formed during the Greco-Roman period, a mentality of excellence in both education and culture, and not racial especially in their relations with blacks and Negro-Africans in general. This attitude and mindset was influenced even more by the teaching of the Gospel, the message of which was directed generally to all without any discrimination.
The scant evidence we have for blacks can be divided into three categories of sources: the theological, historical and literary. But of which blacks are they talking about here - a particular race or people or of the dark colored in general? Byzantine writers bundle all the black or dark people under the name of Ethiopians, in the same way they group together the Indians, without making any distinction as to their place of origin, their characteristics or their language.
The word Ethiopian in Byzantium was used not only to indicate the inhabitants of Ethiopia, Nubia or Sudan, but also to indicate a black or dark person. The word derives from aitho (αίθω = burned) and ops (οψ = face), so that an Ethiopian (Αιθίοψ) is one who has a burned face from the sun. As Philostorgius writes of the inhabitants of Axum: "These are all of a very dark color, from the effects of the vertical rays of the sun."
The Church very early took a positive and specific attitude towards blacks, due to various biblical passages of the Old and New Testaments, which mention both Ethiopians and blacks. The interpretations of these passages by the Fathers of the Church formed an "African theology" as it was characteristically named by Professor Ernest Benz, who was the first to contribute to the extensive biblical scholia of Origen. In the passage of the Song of Solomon 1:5, the Ethiopian daughter, for example, addresses the daughters of Israel, and having the feeling of inferiority because of her color, she says apologetically: "I am dark, yet beautiful, daughters of Jerusalem, dark like the tents of Kedar, like the tent curtains of Solomon." According to Origen, the Ethiopian daughter here symbolizes the Church of the nations, while the daughters of Jerusalem symbolize the Jewish synagogue and the supremacy of the origin of the race of Abraham. This passage and several others (such as the Ethiopian woman taken by Moses in Number 12:1-2), is interpreted in the context of the teaching about the Gospel to the nations (cf. Acts. 21:25).
The contrast between the colors black and white, as expressed in the Song of Songs ("I am dark, yet beautiful." ... "Do not gaze at me because I am dark, because the sun has gazed on me."), is interpreted symbolically by Origen and the Fathers of the Church. During one period even the Church of Alexandria and generally Africa included within it various peoples, tribes and nations, including no doubt many blacks.
Any misinterpretation that might arise from biblical passages where blacks may be portrayed in a negative or humiliating way, such as Jeremiah 13:23 ("Can an Ethiopian change his skin or a leopard its spots? Neither can you do good who are accustomed to doing evil."), were surmounted very early thanks to the timely intervention of Origen.
The few historical testimonies we have for blacks during the early Byzantine period are mainly limited to the field of diplomacy. The sources mention two or three times when Blemmyes and Ethiopian ambassadors requested a hearing from Constantine I (324-337) and Constantius II (337-361). However, these fragmentary accounts which we draw concerning the Negro-Africans can be numbered on our fingers, and their importance is rather limited, as the authors do not go into substantial detail.
We would add, however, that any references of Eusebius of Ceasarea to the presence of foreign ambassadors at the court of Constantine the Great, which mentions the Blemmyes race, the Indian and the Ethiopian, are not rhetorical places, but refer to a specific event. The relations of the empire with the various African peoples during this period, were mainly limited to the field of trade and the conclusion of several treaties, as with the Omirites of whom speaks the ecclesiastical historian Philostorgius. Also with the spread of Christianity there was promoted the political and economic interests of the empire in the sensitive area of Southwest Arabia. As known, the emperor Constantine II attempted to influence ecclesiastical matters in the nation of Axum by sending a personal letter to the rulers Aizana and Sazana requesting the removal of Bishop Frumentius.
But the commercial activity was often compounded by the missionary work conducted by traders as well as the monks and ascetics of Egypt. "Indeed many Ethiopians were seen among the monastics living in asceticism, and many acquired the virtues and thus fulfilled the words of Scripture: 'Ethiopia shall hasten to stretch out her hands to God'" (Psalm 68:31). According to Jerome, who wrote in the early fifth century, Ethiopian pilgrims daily visited Jerusalem. Diplomatic relations with the nation of Axum continued under Anastasios I and remained until the time of Justinian.
The kings of Axum even sent precious gifts to Anastasios - for an unknown occasion - of an elephant and two giraffes among other exotic animals. Moreover, under Justinian, on the occasion of the accession of the Samaritans to the side of the Persians, a pact of friendship was sought with King Elisboa of Axum. John Malalas describes in great detail and in an impressive way the diplomatic mission and the arrival in the courtyard of Elisboa. Therefore, diplomatic contacts with the Ethiopians and Omirites during this period "give the appearance of a continuous, feverish activity" and were essentially inspired by political-economic incentives.
From hagiographic sources of the same period it is evident, not only in Egypt but also in the Arabian peninsula, that the monks of the desert had maintained contacts and communication with black people.
The Byzantine ecclesiastical calendar included, as is known, the memory of Saint Moses the Ethiopian (August 28), the life of which is indicative of the contacts ascetics of the Thebaid had, within the limits of Hermopolis in Egypt, with black populations, but also black robbers and bandits, just as it was in the background of the life of Saint Moses the Ethiopian. The same goes for contacts between monks and Arabs, whom sources do not always distinguish from the blacks. In hagiographic sources, especially those coming from the region of Sinai, there is however a distinction between Arabs and Blemmyes as two distinct and separate nations. It is also interesting to note that in the iconography of the Arab saints there is no distinction as to color, but they are illustrated just like the Byzantine saints.
In hagiographic texts of this period, we have the first mention of the term "black" to describe a race with negro features, the Blemmyes. However, in Greek papyri of Egypt from the 6th and 7th centuries, the term "black" refers to Sudanese slaves.
The presence of black soldiers and black slaves in Byzantium is another issue that needs in particular to be studied. Constantine Porphyrogenitus mentions in his work On Administering the Empire to his son Romanos that the leader of the Arabs, Abimelech, sent ambassadors to Justinian Rinotmitos seeking peace under the terms that the emperor would withdraw the battalian of Mardaites from Lebanon while he would offer each Roman emperor a thousand coins, together with a noble horse and an Ethiopian slave.
Mention of Ethiopian soldiers, or better of pirates, occurs in the narrative of John Kaminiates On the Capture of Thessaloniki by Leo of Tripoli in 904. Here it refers, in one sense, to Sudanese mercenaries who participated in the raids of Leo, the soldiers of which included Arab and African pirates.
While references to specific sources of historical data and events related to the presence of blacks in Byzantine society are minimal to nonexistent, the literary sources are numerous - although almost always these kinds of testimonials focus on one or two themes or literary sites . In the literature on the Ethiopians, there dominates mostly various quotations and variations of Ethiopian proverbs: "the Ethiopian remains Ethiopian", "an Ethiopian cannot be whitened", or even "the one born an Ethiopian is whitened" in a response to a Sticheron in commemoration of the baptism of the Ethiopian Eunuch by St. Philip. Most interesting are the references found in hagiographic texts, in which the demons usually appear as black, appearing in the form of Ethiopians, as in the Life of Symeon the Fool: "When the spirit fled, it passed through the phouska-shop in the form of an Ethiopian and broke everything... An accursed black man came and smashed everything."
As a rule, the demons that appear black as Ethiopians test the faith and fortitude of believers. A typical example is the Life of Andrew the Fool. In order to win crowns in Paradise, Andrew, while in a deep sleep, saw that he must wrestle with a black demon in a packed theater of many Ethiopians. Having faith in the words of the angel, that the Ethiopians are insolent and cowardly, the saint eventually emerged the victor in this spiritual struggle, having defeated all those blacks.
But in the Life of Symeon the Fool the appearance of Ethiopians in sleep represents death: "And when he (a great man of the city) was burdened (by illness) almost to death, he saw himself in his sleep playing dice with an Ethiopian, who was death." In dream texts, the same black color was seen as a harbinger of evil. In early hagiographical texts, the demon of fornication and pride appear in the form of an Ethiopian, while in other ones demons appear hairy, with the face of a dog, and as Ethiopians black as coal.
The descriptions of demons in hagiographical texts makes one wonder if they somehow reflect not only the fears and superstitions that prevailed among the working classes, but even racial prejudices concerning at least black people. From certain indications of the sources, they could support the view that racial discrimination was made, even though from the side of the Church it was declared that to neither Scythians nor Ethiopians was the kingdom of heaven closed, for everyone is welcome into the bosom of Christ. Incidents in the Life of Moses the Ethiopian, however, are indicative of a culture that was shaped by whites against blacks. To test the patience and humility of Moses, the monks of the Skete where he was a monk expelled him from their circle with derogatory characterizations and contempt: "The Patriarch, wanting to test him if he had true humility, secretly told the clergy to expel him out of the sacristy. So, when he appeared there after the Divine Liturgy, they expelled him calling him a black man. Moses immediately left without any objection. One of them, who followed him secretly to see if he was bothered, heard him speaking to himself: 'It is good what they have done to you, O black colored one. Since you are not a human, what are you doing with people?'"
Another report also highlights in a forceful way a sense of prejudice towards blacks in the story of the drunken beggar Zamaras, who lived, it seems, on the sidelines of Seleucia of Isauria: "An Ethiopian man, covered with darkness and gloom." The appearance of Zamaras in a dream of the author of this passage is indicative of the prejudice of the time. Some prejudice regarding blacks even teetered on the edges, as can be seen in a passage from a letter of Theodore the Studite, who says: "If a woman at the time of conception imagines an Ethiopian, she will give birth to an Ethiopian."
However, the fear inspired by Ethiopian demons or ghosts were not exclusively derived from their black color, but from several other features which made them fearsome in appearance, such as their stern gaze and face, the scruffy hair of their head, their large physique combined with nudity gave the appearance of warlike blacks, etc. Characteristic is a passage in the Life of Euthymios, of a small Ethiopian with fire emitting from his eyes, a dark complexion, and of considerable height. But even in other types of texts, Ethiopians are not only feared for their color, but in combination of their whole appearance, as in Kaminiates.
Ethiopians are rather rare in the pages of Byzantine chroniclers, and in most cases they don't appear in reality but proverbially, and always in relation to their color: "As for them, like Ethiopians they remained unchanged." Gradually the "Ethiopian" became synonymous with the dark or black person, and in references to "Ethiopians" and blacks in general, such as the Saracens and others, where they receive sneering importance, such as in the vernacular texts, like the Poulologos (Bird Book).
However, the satirical mood of the author of the vernacular text reflects not only the prejudices of the time against the "blacks" and the "Saracens", but also reveals the aesthetic preferences of the Byzantines. The black and generally the dark colors are not considered a thing of beauty, as opposed to the white and golden colors, which we see in portraits of emperors as outlined by historians and chroniclers. Also people who were publicly ridiculed had their faces smudged - a sign of dishonor - because in this way they brought on laughter. In one case a mob ridiculed Emperor Manuel I Komnenos, as the historian Niketas Choniates records, proclaiming the emperor a black man.
To summarize, in the form of a conclusion, we can say that Blacks did not significantly occupy the Byzantine mind because they did not acquire or play a special role in Byzantine society. Their numbers in the cities of Egypt and North Africa are unknown to us. Although their presence was not particularly felt in the traditionally Greek-speaking areas, they should have been in those areas during the period until the seventh century. However, these sources and the extent that I was able to consult, there is no special mention made about them.
The reason the Byzantines did not deal with the blacks or the marginalized, such as several other minorities, lies in the multinational and ecumenical character of the empire, whose ultimate aim was the conversion of the nations and their inclusion in the Christian ecumene, as this was the only true image of the heavenly kingdom on earth.
Source: ΟΙ ΠΕΡΙΘΩΡΙΑΚΟΙ ΣΤΟ ΒΥΖΑΝΤΙΟ (The Fringe in Byzantium), ΊΔΡΥΜΑ ΓΟΥΛΑΝΔΡΗ ΑΘΗΝΑ 1993. Translated by John Sanidopoulos.