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Micklagard: Surprising, cosmopolitan Constantinople

Constantinople - Tour de Leandre - flickr-sneedy
Tour de Leandre in Instanbul. Photo: flickr/sneedy

Any understanding of the modern history of the Balkans, Turkey and the Black Sea must include an understanding of the role and legacy of Byzantium. Judith Herrin, a professor at King's College London, has recently published a most readable and up to date history of it, which does not get lost in lists of emperors nor the confusing fine detail of Orthodox theology. The extracts come from a chapter called "A Cosmopolitan Society" in which she discusses just how mixed and varied was the population of Constantinople in late antiquity and in the middle ages. These verses were written by one John Tzertzes in the twelfth century as a welcome, except, in this case, for Jews:

One finds me Scythian among Scythians, Latin among


And also to Persians I speak in Persian…

To Alans I say in their tongue:

"Good day, my lord archontissa, where are you from?

Tapankhas mesfili khsina korthi kanda, and so on"…

Arabs, since they are Arabs, I address in Arabic…

And also I welcome the Ros according to their habits…

"Sdraste, brate, sestritza", and I say, "dobra deni".

To Jews I say in a proper manner in Hebrew:

"Your blind house devoted to magic, your mouth, a chasm

engulfing flies,

 Memakomene beth fagi beelzebul timaie… "

Herrin observes that Tzertzes, "did not exaggerate the number of foreigners."

Indeed, he might have also have mentioned the more famous Varangian guard formed in 988 by Basil II, which included Russians, Scandinavians and Anglo-Saxons, or the German contingent settled in the their own quarter from the 1140s, or Catalans from Barcelona who also frequented the empire's markets and served as mercenaries in its armies.

"For centuries," writes Herren, "Byzantium had attracted adventurers, pirates, false prophets and heretics, all seeking their fortunes or an audience for their views, as well as merchants and mercenaries offering their services."

Armenians frequently found employment in the Byzantine armed forces. As the empire's reach expanded from the tenth century onwards, a larger orbit of countries and cultures became linked to it. One striking example occurred in 1034, when Harald Hardrada arrived in Constantinople with five hundred Vikings armed with their traditional double-headed axes. The young prince had been forced to leave Norway and travel to Byzantium via Novgorod, the Russian river routes and Christian colonies, over the rapids of the lower Dnieper and the Black Sea. In Constantinople, which the Norsemen called Micklagard (the Great City), he served for ten years with the Varangian guard and campaigned in Sicily. His success attracted other soldiers of fortune from Iceland, Scandinavia and Anglo-Saxon England, after the battle of Hastings in 1066. In addition to their duties as members of a professional fighting unit, they were stationed in the Great Palace as guard troops, marked out by their distinctive appearance and weaponry.

Byzantium: The Surprising Life of a Medieval Empire. Judith Herrin. 2007.
[p. 242 & pp.  244-245 / Penguin]

January 2009
Tim Judah

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  44. Micklagard: Surprising, cosmopolitan Constantinople
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