Legacy of Sojourn of Roma in Byzantium in Roma language (Romani)

The sojourn of Roma in Byzantium was reflected in the Roma language. All dialects spoken by the various groups of Roma in the world (to say nothing of the Doms living in Arabic lands) contain a great number of words taken from Greek. It is possible to class these words among the so-called "old loans" (non-Indian words) because they behave like so-called "original words" grammatically. [Lexicon] "Old loans" are not usually designated with the markers that characterise "new loans", which the Roma borrowed from various languages after their departure from the Byzantine empire.

Examples of words of Greek origin

Norbert Boretzky and Birgit Igla, "Wörterbuch Romani-Deutsch-Englisch," Wiesbaden, 1994, which presents about 400 words in its dictionary of Romani:

Romani English Romani English
amoňis anvil angaľi embrace
armin cabbage cipa skin
cirach high rubber boot cocha Vlach skirt
drom road drosin rose
foros city charkum copper
charťas blacksmith choľi bile, anger
choveľi glowing ashes kakavi Kalderaš cauldron
karfin nail kirvo godfather
kockariďi hiccups khoč knee
kokal/os bone kopana bathtub
kopidľi chisel kris(i) Vlach – internal Romani court
kukud'i hailstones kurko Sunday, week
luluďi flower mesali Vlach table
muchľi fog mura strawberry
ora hour papin goose
parašťovin Friday petalos [horse]shoe
podža underskirt repaňi carrot, beet
řinin file rovľi stick
riciň resin saľi saliva
sapuňis soap silavis pliers
skamind table – Vlach chair staďi hat
svirind hammer them edge, state
vrasarel, vrasin to weld; a weld, joint zumin soup
efta seven ochto eight
eňa nine

Probably words from other languages – especially Armenian -- penetrated Romani on Byzantine soil. The Armenian minority in Bizantium was quite substantial. Armenians lived scattered in various localities, but emigrants escaping from Turkish invasions settled in the area of Kilikie. Densely populated by Armenians, this land became known as Little Armenia. Roma in Byzantium undoubtedly came in contact with Armenians.

Examples of words of Armenian origin (N. Boretzky)

Romani English Romani English
arčič zinc balaňo trough
bov oven bokoľi cake
burňik palm, handful čekat forehead
dudum pumpkin chenamig term indicating the relationship between the family of a son-in-law and the family of a daughter-in-law
chip (small) lid chumer dough (perhaps also comes from Persian)
khilav-čhilav plum kočak button
kotor piece khoňi suet
mom – momeľi wax, candle morčhi skin
paťiv honor, respect, decency o pišot smith's bellows
rukono dog tover axe
thagar king

In the Byzantine Empire, Roma came in contact with other ethnic groups. Specialists reflect, for example, on how the Alani word verdan (car) came into the Roma language. Alania (today's Ossetia) was a rather small kingdom in the Northern Caucassus. Roma probably never got there during their travels. The Alani, like the members of other ethnic groups, were hired into Byzantine armies and their word verdan could have easily become a Romani word either directly or through another of the other languages spoken in Byzantium.

What the Roma were called in Byzantium and what work they did

The autonym Rom does not appear in Byzantine sources. Roma are called by many exonyms, e.g., Athingani, Mandopolini, Aigupti, Katsibeli, Lori, etc. A large group of Indian upjati (sub-castes), who are today called Doms are considered to be closely related to the Roma. In India they practiced, and still do, jobs mentioned in Byzantine documents as professions of the Athingani, Aigupti, etc.: blacksmiths, animal trainers, snake charmers, basket weavers, sieve makers, shoemakers…[Professions]

It is interesting that scholars still have not found any mention of Roma musicians in Byzantine documents. Indian Doms succeeded as musicians. They were already characterised by the Arab historian Al-Birúni in the eleventh century. Although it is very probable that information about the Athingani or the Aigupti (Egyptians) for the most part applies to Roma, we do not know to which sub-ethnic groups or jati (castes) the information refers. Nor do we know if they all came together at the same time over Iran to the Byzantine Empire or if they belonged to different, even if related, groups and came to the Byzantine Empire gradually.

In Byzantium, two basic exonyms came into existence, and from them various European languages later developed their terms for Roma: from athinganos are derived the name used in Slavic languages (the Czech "Cikán", the Slovak "Cigán", etc.) as well as the German "Zigeuner", the Italian "Zingaro", etc.; from "Aiguptos" (Little Egypt) are derived the English "Gypsy", the Spanish "Gitano", the French "Gitan", etc.

The Greek word Athingani means "people who do not want others to touch them – not wanting to be touched – untouchables." In Byzantine documents, the name Athingani was already used. It is derived from their custom of remaining detached from other groups of the population.

The origin of the name Athingan may elucidate an age-old custom of Indians and some groups of Roma: the ritual division of activity and objects into "clean" and "unclean". In the subconscious of traditional Roma groups, for example, there exists a taboo, a repugnance to certain occupations in which they would not engage; certain activities are paťivale (respectable, permissible) – and others are pre ladž (shameful). For some Roma groups, manual labour is not acceptable, nor is the medical profession. Contact with body parts from the waist down and with human excrement is prastomahrimemagerde (ritually soiling, dirtying). The status of traditional Roma groups is connected with the idea of ritual cleanliness, rules deciding who may or may not eat what. Ritually žuže Roma (clean Roma) would never eat in the home of those who eat ritually unclean food. Social distance is also manifested in rules concerning commensality -- eating together.

By the same token, it is possible that the Athingani did not consider others as ritually "clean". Perhaps, for example, others ate what they considered "unclean" meat; they washed men's and women's clothing in the same vessel; their women cooked when they were menstruating, etc., which may be the reason the Athingani considered them ritually "unclean". They did not want to eat at the same table with them; they distanced themselves. "They did not want anyone to touch them" and so others called them Athingani (not wanting to be touched – untouchables).


The Greek word "kacivelos" is the origin of the Latin "captivellus", diminutive of "captivus" (captured, captive, slave) (from the verb "capio, capare, cepi, captum", (to catch, capture, entrap). The word "cacivel [cachivel] (slave, captive) came into Greek from Aromuni. Compare also with the Italian "cattivello" (slave, prisoner). Aromuni is a language spoken by the "Romanised" populations of the Balkans, i.e., the Aromuni people living predominantly in mountainous regions of Greece, Serbia and Bulgaria until recently like semi-travelling herdsmen. They are also known by other names such as "Vlach" (Tur. Iflak), "Karavlashi" (Tur. Karaiflak), "Kucovlashi", "Moralci", "Mavrovlashi", etc. The Vlach in Moravia are descendants of Balkan nomads, perhaps having moved there in about 1690. Their language is very close to Romanian. (Remark adapted by Svetislav Kostić).


Lór is one of the forms of an appellation used for Roma in Iran. Other forms of this name are Lúlí and Lúrí (Enclopedia of Islam). These appellations are derived from an important city in Sind, al Rór, which the Arab conqueror Al-Qasim destroyed in 714. Persians or, later, Arabs apparently named a group of Indian musicians after this city. These musicians were given to Shah Bahram Gur (420-438) by the Indian Rajah Shangul. The Encyclopedia of Islam states that the Lúrí were an important theme for Persian poets who told that they were "elegant", that they "played the flute", that they were "as black as night". (The Lúrí must be strictly distinguished from an Iranian ethnic group with the same name, but with completely different ethnicity. The latter live in southwestern Iran; they speak Farsi and are fair skinned.) The name Núrí very probably comes from the appellation Lúr, which the Arabs give to the descendants of the Indian Doma, relatives of the European Roma.

Dating of arrival of Roma in Byzantium

The Athingani were mentioned in Byzantine documents from the eighth century. Today specialists who have studied these documents as well as other contemporaneous sources presume that, in the eighth and ninth centuries AD, Roma originally settled in Asia Minor and then, in small groups, spread to the Byzantine empire. In the past, through an article by J. Starr in 1936, a hypothesis was circulated and stereotypically passed on further, about the existence of an Athingani heresy. Angus Fraser, for example, writes:

" The origin of the name Atsinganos has often been discussed, but there is still no one united opinion. The most plausible assumption is that it is a garbled name for the heretic sect of Athinganoi. The name came into use as a term for Gypsies because both groups earned an unfortunate reputation as fortune tellers and magicians." (Angus Fraser, Cigáni, Prague, 1998, p. 43.)

I. Rochow states that old documents mention the heretical Paulicians ("Manichees") along with Athingani although they do not identify them. Nowhere is it possible to find mention of the philosophy of the Athingani; it is merely written that they performed magic. On the other hand, they do not write of magic in connection with Paulicians ("Manichees").

From the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, the Athingani had penetrated Byzantine land in large numbers. From the end of the thirteenth century they were also called Aigyptioi. From the fifteenth century, they appeared in great numbers throughout the Balkan peninsula and even came to western Europe.

Types of documents mentioning Roma

All of the information concerning Roma in the Byzantine Empire comes from non-Roma sources. The documents in which we find mention of Roma in Byzantium can be divided into different categories according to the writers. This determines their view of Roma and gives historiographers guidelines for evaluation of the sources.

1. In documents of the time there are dissimilar and sometimes conflicting positions about the Roma with reference to church and state, religion and society. The machinery of state and large landowners were interested, first of all, in tax collecting and a work force. They made efforts to encourage the Roma to settle; they supported their settling and mingling with the native population. Church sources, nomocanons (compendia of Greek Orthodox ecclesiastical laws and Byzantine Imperial laws that related to ecclesiastical matters), journals of patriarchs, etc. are completely negative in regard to Roma. This is understandable. Roma were "different": they had different customs and culture; they looked different – even if their appearance did not stand out among the very varied anthropological types of ethnic groups living in Byzantium so much as later among central Europeans. Whatever heresy threatened the position of the church and the power of the state, struggles against many heretic directions marked the whole millennium of the history of the Byzantine Empire. The main reason for pillorying Roma was to punish them for the various kinds of entertainment which some Roma jati (castes) or families provided: snake charming; performing bears; palm reading… Entertainment was condemned by the church; it was connected with heretic deviation from true orthodoxy. However, not only the people, but also rulers and all kinds of dignitaries indulged in worldly entertainment. Church prohibitions were constantly renewed.

The results of these policies were contradictory. In the fourteenth century, Roma were already permanently settled in Byzantium where they married Greek women and more or less converted to Christianity. According to later documents, those Roma who turned to Christianity and took on Greek – and also Slavic – identities may have been only a minority living among Roma who converted to Islam and semi-nomadic Roma.

2. In surviving Byzantine folklore, the figure of a Rom sometimes flashes by. His image is somewhat reminiscent of a caricature, but the mockery is not sharply inimical.

3. A surprisingly large amount of information has come to us from German and Italian travellers. We learn that Roma had been settled for generations, that they worked as blacksmiths or shoemakers. An Arabic source (and one Byzantine one) praised their artistic ability. Why do we not find mention of Roma blacksmiths in Byzantine documents? Probably because the existence of Roma blacksmiths and their traditional method of working were nothing unfamiliar or new. Roma blacksmiths first interested foreigners because something that was normal to Byzantines was remarkable to them.

Religious sources

A great majority of the so-called Athingani had already been living in the Byzantine Empire at the end of the twelfth century. They were referred to as practitioners of magic. But only at the beginning of the fourteenth century did Patriarch Athanasios forbid contact with them as part of his struggle against religious superstitions.

Is it true that the Athingani performed magic? Or did they merely know the strengths and properties hidden in herbs, water, the earth and animals, perhaps even in poisoned snakes? Earlier, if people wanted to be healthy and happy, they had to learn how to use their eyes, their ears - their senses; they had to understand what God had put into every one of his creatures. Perhaps the Athingani were not magicians; perhaps they just understood what nature taught them; others accused them of performing magic because they themselves did not understand nature well.

The first mention of Athingani, probably at the end of the eighth century, in "De Synodis et haeresibus", a work dedicated to Patriarch German and also in the Timotheus Presbytery: " Samaritans are identical to the so-called Athingani in that odious practice of not touching anyone."

The chronicler Theofanes writes, in 811, that Emperor Nicephorus I (802-811) gave favoured treatment to the Paulicians and Athingani, and, in 803, he turned to them with a request for help to suppress the rebellion of Bardan the Turk.

"[Nicephorus] was a fervent friend of the Manichees, who are now called Paulicians, and the Athingani in Frygia and Lykaonia and he delighted in their prophesies and ceremonies. He invited them, among others, to come to him when Patriarch Bardan rebelled against him, and Nicephorus defeated Bardan with the help of their magic spells. He had an iron pole hammered into a hole. Onto it was impaled a horned bull with its head to the ground, so that the bull died with a powerful roar and spasms. He had Bardan's clothing whirled around in a mill wheel while incantations were repeated. Thus, with the help of God and many sacrifices, he was victorious. These (i.e., the above-mentioned heretics) gained ground under their feet during his reign and they could work without fear, and many frivolous, gullible people were corrupted by their wicked doctrines"

The emperor was victorious and so he stood by the Athingani. The chronicler Theofanes disapproved of this from the standpoint of the official Orthodox church.

Georgian hagiographic treatise "The Life of Saint George of Athos" (1009-1065), written by his disciple George Hucesmonazoni (the Small) in the monastery of Iberon on Mount Athos in ca. 1068: an episode from 1054, under the rule of Emperor Constantine IX, called Monomachos (1042-1055).

George the Small, disciple of St. George (the Great), describes an event that took place under the reign of Emperor Constantine IX, called Monomachos. Monomachos bred several kinds of animals in the Philopation, his vast imperial park. One day he saw that wild beasts were strangling and killing his animals. He summoned "descendants of Simon the Magician, Samaritans called "Adsincani" (the Georgian version of the name "Athingani"), famous magicians and charlatans ", They spread out pieces of poisonous meat in the park and destroyed the wild animals with the poison. The emperor was delighted and asked them to repeat the magic before his eyes. A dog was brought to him and the Adsincani placed a piece of poisoned meat before it. The Georgian holy man, St. George, who was also present, got angry that the Adsincani performed black magic and that the emperor believed them. He approached the poisoned meat and made the sign of the cross over it. The dog ate the meat and unexpectedly remained alive. The Adsincani grew agitated and the emperor, on whom St. George's intervention made a deep impression, announced, "As long as this holy man is at my side, I need not fear magicians or their deadly poison."

1170 – 1178 – canonist Theodore Balsamon – (commentary for the Trullo Council in 691-692) – "(…)And others, who are called Athingani, having snakes on their chests, tell one person that he was born on an unlucky day, and another that he has a good star; they announce that good luck or bad luck will come, and they rattle on about other such things which aren't worth writing about."

(Closely related to Roma ancestors are the Indian Sanpvale [snake keepers], an ancient pre-Indo-European jati [caste]. The Sanpvale still live in India today. They hunt snakes and teach them to dance. Europeans call them "fakirs", but the Sanpvale do not use this name themselves. More important than snake charming is their art of curing snakebites and their use of snake venom. Sanpvale very probably came from India to Byzantium. Perhaps they accompanied armies or traders' caravans, since everyone needed someone who could cure snakebites. Armies and pack trains travelled for long months by foot and probably people accompanied them and entertained them during rest periods – musicians, artistes, etc.)

At the beginning of the fourteenth century, during his second period in office (1303-1309), Patriarch Athanasios I was interested in the Athingani. In his two treatises, he has two identical passages in which he warns believers against contact with the Athinganoi:

"(…) Caution women to keep away from those who tell the future from oats; vagabonds and other kinds of magicians; amulets and those who present bears or snakes, but they must be especially careful not to bring "Athingani" into Christian homes because they teach diabolic things (…)"

These texts are tied in with the propaganda of Patriarch Athanasios, who often warns against religious superstitions and the practice of magic.

Tax collection

The following correspondence is of importance for the history of the Roma in Byzantium for two reasons. In the first place, it is the first clear proof of the presence of Roma in the Byzantine Empire because both texts use the Greek name of this contemporaneous ethnic group. Secondly, we have before our eyes the oldest mention of taxation of the Roma.

Letter from patriarch Gregory II Cyprus of Constantinople (1283-1289) to the Megas Logothetes Theodor Muzalon, a high imperial official (letter 117, published in Eustratiades), concerning his mediation in a request of a particular Monembasan:

"(…) A certain Monembasan, who is getting ready to collect taxes from the so-called Egypt'ani and Athingani, strongly entreated me, saying, "Put in a word for me somehow, my lord, and ask, and quickly move the imperial heart for me who am completely destroyed, and open it so that he grant me the favour of forgiveness and take away my anxiety, so that I do not again fall into danger when I have already gone through so much which is beyond the limits of justice (…)"

The patriarch asked the Megas Logothetes to grant a hearing to the supplicant and help him. The Megas Logothetes answered the patriarch (letter 118, published in Eustratiades):

"(…) With respect to this request to his most merciful emperor concerning the tax collector who has suffered an injustice: If an injustice is perpetrated against a tax collector and he is robbed of what he has previously collected, the one who keeps most of what the tax man collected is not always perpetrating an injustice, and it is better if someone sometimes wrongs him so that he himself cannot perpetrate an injustice (…)"

Information about performers

The similarity between contemporaneous texts of the Byzantine historian Nicephorus Gregoras and the Arabic historian Al-Ulmari is so striking that it cannot be pure coincidence. They must both refer to the same group.

Byzantine historian Nicephorus Gregoras (ca. 1290/91-1360) writes in Roman History about performances of acrobats in Constantinople, 1321, under the rule of Andronicus II (1282-1328):

"(…) Recently, that is, during the first decade of the fourteenth century, we saw, in Constantinople, a group of nomadic people numbering about twenty, talented in certain arts of juggling. They originally came from Egypt, but then, as if they followed a circular path from east to north, they travelled over Chaldea, Arabia, Persia, Media and Assyria. Then, turning toward the west, they wandered through Iberia to the Caucasus, Colchis and Armenia and, from there, farther through lands populated by all the tribes which are found in the area reaching as far as Byzantium, and in each land and city (which they visited) they presented their artistry. And the artistry they presented was amazing and full of magic. Yet it had nothing to do with magic, but rather it was the result of skill, inventiveness, and long practice."
"Let us speak at least briefly about some of their pieces: They placed two or three ships masts straight up on the ground. On both sides ropes were fastened so that the masts would not lean to one side. Then they pulled a rope from the top of one of the masts to the other. They also wound a rope around the masts from top to bottom so that they created spiral steps to climb up. One of the men, after he had climbed to the top with the help of these steps, stood on his head on the top of the mast; he put his head on the tip and stretched his legs toward the ground, then he alternately spread his legs and put them together. Then with a short jump he grabbed the rope hard with one hand and remained hanging and, from this position, he circled and whirled around the rope several times, spinning his legs in rapid succession up toward the sky and down toward the ground like a wheel. Then, instead of using his hand, he grabbed the rope with his calf and hung upside down. And again he turned and swirled around in the same way. Then he stood straight up in the middle of the rope, took hold of a bow and arrows and shot at a distant target. From that position he shot with the greatest precision, as no man could manage even if he were standing on the ground. Afterwards, with closed eyes and with a child on his shoulder, he walked through the air along the rope from one mast to the other. And that was what one of them did."
"Another performed on a horse. He whipped him into a trot and, while the horse ran, the man stood straight up on it, now on the saddle, now on the horse's mane, now on its back, and he kept changing feet as if he were flying like a bird. Then he got off while the horse was running, grabbed it by the tail and after the next jump he was suddenly back in the saddle. And, while performing this stunt, he did not forget to keep urging the horse on. Those were stunts that that acrobat showed."
"Another placed on his head a two-foot pole, on the top of which he put a vessel full of a liquid; then he walked all around for a long time while balancing the vessel. Then another placed on his head a pole that was at least three fathoms long. Around it was wound a rope creating a sort of steps. A boy took hold of it with his legs and arms and alternating them he climbed up to the top of the pole and then down. And that man who was carrying the pole on his head did not stop walking all around. Another one had a glass ball that he threw high into the air, and, when it fell, he caught it, sometimes with his fingertips, sometimes with his elbows, then with something else, and then again with something else."
"I am not going to describe the various dances and other showpieces that they performed. Every one of them could perform not only his own piece, but all the others besides. And they could do not only these tricks, but numerous other ones. Since those performances were risky, they lived dangerously; often someone fell and died. When they left their homeland, they were more than forty, but hardly twenty arrived in Byzantium. We ourselves saw one fall from a pole and kill himself. Collecting money from the spectators, they travelled around the whole world both to earn money and also to perform their art. After leaving Byzantium, they travelled through Thrace and Macedonia and arrived in Gadir (Cádiz) in Spain. And they made the whole world a stage for their theatre."

A contemporaneous Arabic document, "Roads through Kingdoms of Various Lands" ("Mesalek Alabsar fi memalak alamsar"), by Sihabedin Abdul Ahmed Al-Umari, a high official in the Mameluke chancellery: he speaks about Roma, who are called Loris (Lór – one of the forms of an appellation used for Roma in Iran and currently):

"(…) In Egypt and Syria, one can find several tribes of Loris: Most of them live in the latter area. There they are very successful and they have distinguished themselves with noteworthy acts… One such Lor walks on ropes stretched out several leagues above the ground. In the air he twists in such a way that he hangs with his head toward the ground while he is bound to the rope by his feet, but suddenly he again twists and straightens up. Then he walks along the rope in wooden shoes and performs such unbelievable tricks that all the spectators are amazed. Meanwhile the women who perform are not more or less skilled than the men. No sooner do they mount the horse than the animal bursts into a gallop. When it is at its swiftest, they throw themselves to the ground and then immediately jump up onto the horse and throw themselves across its back right afterwards so that, first, they hang onto its belly like some kind of belt and then onto its neck. They perform a whole series of remarkable tricks and admirable showpieces."

Little Egypt – Gyppe near Methoni

A large Roma settlement called "Gyppe" – Little Egypt existed near the city of Methoni on the western coast of Peloponnesus. In Byzantium – as in ancient geography, the word "great" indicated a land lying outside of its sphere of power, while areas lying on the land or close to the border of the empire were given the adjective, "little". For example, "Great Moravia", discussed by the Byzantine emperor Porfyrogennetos, was not great in area, but it lay beyond the Byzantine border. The name "Little Egypt" arose similarly, for example, to the name "Little Armenia" (a land in Byzantium where Armenians expelled by the Turks from their empire of Armenia lived). In Bohemia, too, there are many cities named, for example, for their German colonists (Němci) such as Němčice, Německý Brod, or for Hungarians (Hungary = Uhersko) – Uherské Hradiště, Uherský Brod. "Little Egypt" was undoubtedly a locality in Byzantium where there lived either real "Egyptians" or people thought to be Egyptians, probably Roma. It is still unclear why that locality was called "Little Egypt". At some time before the Roma settlement, did Egyptians live there? What kind? Traders? Or did the place (places) get the name from Roma who were also called, among other names, Egyptians? Why Roma were called Egyptians, and why this name already appeared by the end of the thirteenth century and why it was associated with those formerly called Athingani are questions that still remain unanswered.

The city of Methoni (Modon) with its natural port lay in an advantageous place halfway between Venice and Jaffa, and therefore it was a welcome place for pilgrims to rest on their way to the Holy Land. According to reports of travellers, the most common occupation of the Roma was the blacksmith trade.

From the year 1071, when the Turks, disseminators of Islam, conquered Byzantium near the Asian city of Manzikert, - and thereby opened the route to Europe for themselves, the Turkish rulers began to subjugate one village after another. In 1453, the Turkish sultan Mehmed II ruled the capital, Constantinople, and destroyed the Byzantine Empire. In its place arose a Turkish sultanate.

During the battles with the Turks, many Christians migrated from threatened areas to Europe. Nor did the Roma remain. They, too, escaped to Europe. The inhabitants of Methoni also gradually escaped from the incursions of the Turks, which culminated with the conquest of Methoni in 1500. These events profoundly limited both commercial activity and the movement of pilgrims. Stability and safety, earlier assured by the Venetians, ceased to exist.

According to a number of documents from the fifteenth century, the Roma claimed that they came from "Little Egypt" and travelled to central Europe. This fact was later erroneously interpreted as a fabrication. Various legends related from a Christian view of the world were disseminated about the "Egyptian" origin of Roma.

Information from German and Italian travellers about the Roma in Gyppe near Methoni

  • 1384 – Leonardo di Niccolo Frescobaldi – writes that beyond the city walls he caught sight of a number of "Romnites" who he imagined were sinners repenting their deeds.
  • 1483 – Bernard von Breydenbach – in records of his travels writes: "In the surroundings of the city there are many hovels numbering about three hundred which are inhabited by poor people resembling Ethiopians, black and unattractive." He adds that in Germany there were people called Saracens who claimed they came from Egypt. In reality they came from "Gyppe", not far from Methoni and were spies and traitors. (With him travelled the painter Eberhard Reuwich who, in 1468, drew the Greek city of Methoni with a Roma settlement. "Saracens" were one of the appellations that Europeans gave Arabs, Turks, and, eventually, Roma. Mention of the Sarakene region near the Sinai Peninsula had already been made by Ptolemy. Its name may be derived from the Arabic word "shark" (east) but the etymology is not certain. The ancient Greeks and Romans called traveling Arabic tribes who frightened the population in the bordering lands of their empire Sarakene.
  • 1486 – Konrád Grunenberg – also mentions three hundred Roma dwellings in Methoni
  • 1491 – Dietrich von Schachten: "Beyond the city walls of Methoni, on a hill near the walls, there are many poor small hovels, homes of Zigeuner, as they're called in Germany. They are very poor people, predominantly blacksmiths. They work in a sitting position. In front of them they have a hollow in which they maintain a fire, and when these men or women have bellows in their hands, they are quite satisfied. They fan the fire with bellows that are so wretched that it is indescribable, and they produce nails of very good quality."
  • 1495 – Alexander Pflazgraf bei Rhein – writes about only two hundred dwellings
  • 1497 – Arnold von Harf – (He mentions 100 Roma dwellings.): "We headed for the outskirts. Many poor, black, naked people live there. Their dwellings are small homes with roofs covered with reeds; altogether about three hundred families live in them. They are called Gypsies, known in our country as pagans from Egypt travelling through our lands. They work at many trades such as, for example, shoemaking, cobbling and smithery. It was very strange to see an anvil right on the floor. A blacksmith sat at it in the same way that tailors sit at work in our country. Near him, also on the ground, sat his wife, and she spun so that there would be fire between them. Two pairs of leather bellows half buried in the ground by the fire lay next to them. From time to time, the spinning woman picked up one pair of bellows from the ground and worked them. Thus a stream of air moved along the ground to the fire and the blacksmith was able to work. These people came from a land called Gyppe, lying about sixty kilometers from Methoni. The Turkish ruler occupied it sixty years ago, but many noblemen and lords refused to submit to his will and escaped to our country, to Rome, to the Holy Father, looking to him for safety and support. Upon their request he dispatched letters to the Roman emperor and all the princes of the empire with a recommendation that they guarantee the safety of movement and support of these people because they were expelled from their land for their Christian faith. However, not one of the princes who were addressed helped. And so they died in poverty, leaving Papal letters to their domestic staff and descendants who still wander around the country, calling themselves Little Egyptians. Naturally, this is not true, for their parents were born in the region of Gyppe, called Tzingania, which lies not even halfway on the road from Cologne on the Rhine to Egypt."
  • 1500 – Methoni was conquered by the Turks
  • 1518 – Jacques le Saige – On the island of Zakynthos, there are Roma blacksmiths who work in the manner of those in Methoni: "There we saw an admirable thing, for a blacksmith who produces nails and horseshoes forges right on the street and sits on the ground like tailors in our country; the said blacksmith has a small stone near which he piles up coal and lights a fire. This stone is about two feet long and one foot high. It protects the hearth. In the center it has an opening and it also has a small iron pipe, to which are attached two pieces of skin not sewn together, and then there is some kind of helper or servant who holds this skin on one end and raises it and lets it go, and a stream of air fans the coal, which is very admirable to see and hard to describe. Now there are so many people who pursue this profession and they are so skilful that it seems unbelievable."
  • 1527 – Ludwig Tschudi – found only thirty Roma homes near Methoni.

Roma settlements in region belonging within Venetian administration

The reason for the preference for the region of Venetia was its relative stability and safety, whereas the rest of Peloponnesus suffered from constant Turkish raids.

From the island of Corfu comes the most extensive information about a Roma settlement in the Byzantine region which, in the course of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, fell under the domination of Venice. In the second half of the fourteenth century we find first mentions of Roma settling on the island of Corfu. At that time, the number of local Roma must have been considerable, which is indicated by the fact that the amount of their yearly fees was enough for the creation of a fief, a "feudum acinganorum". Thanks to the fact that mention of this fief has been preserved in many documents, it is possible to follow its development up to the nineteenth century, when it came to an end with the abolition of feudal ownership. The administrator of the fief had extensive jurisdiction over his serfs, among whom numbered not only the Roma on Corfu, but also those living in the Venetian region on the coast of Epirus (Parga, la Bastia, Chimara…later called Vagenetia). Unlike the feudal lords of the island, he had the right to judge and punish any subject in all civil and criminal cases with one exception: Punishment for capital offenses could be carried out only with the agreement of the Venetian administrator of the island. The administrator could sentence his serfs to exile; he could imprison them; he could condemn them to slavery, to the galleys or to corvée. Apart from that, his serfs were required to pay taxes, both in currency and in kind. "Every married Gypsy bound to the land had to pay ten soldi and one hen every four months. Furthermore, each one had to give his lord two chickens every August (…)"

Every foreign newcomer, "ciganus forensis", paid a fee when arriving in an area falling within the jurisdiction of the Venetian administrator of Corfu and the same amount when leaving. During his stay, greater charges applied to him than to the serfs already bound to the land.

From a Corfu document of ca. 1373, we learn of a flood of poor immigrants from the coast of Epirus, here called "homines vagenti". Upon their arrival on the island they had to register at the office of the Venetian administrator and thus they became vassals of the administrative authorities. Among the homines vagenti immigrants to Corfu were also Roma from Epirus.

From a Venetian document of 12 August 1444, we learn about a decision of the Council of Forty in the matter of the reinstallation of John the Gypsy, Johannes Cingannus, in his position as "drungarius acinganorum" (military leader), in the region of the Venetian city of Nauplion. Johannes was removed from his office by the Venetian administrator of Nauplion, Matteo Barbero. The Council of Forty disagreed with the decision of the administration regarding this act:

"Being in disagreement with what could and should have been done and in contradiction with the privileges granted to the ancestors of the aforementioned John by both the government and the noble Ottavian Bone, the predecessor of the aforementioned Matteo Barbaro, and, as such, the decree must be declared invalid and annulled, and it must be cancelled and declared null and void with all consequences and ramifications so that it will have no effect or power as if it had never happened."

Peloponnesus was, at that time, the object of Turkish invasions and Greek tyrants. The Venetians granted "Gypsies" certain rights and, in exchange, probably expected military help from the drungarius acinganorum and its men in case of an enemy attack. At the same time, they also expected that certain privileges could persuade new arrivals of "Gypsies" so that, in the area of Nauplion, they would cultivate the land that was abandoned as a consequence of the Turkish invasions.

Legend of Saint Barbarus, Roma saint

Life of Saint Barbarus – A Bulgarian version of a fourteenth century legend about a well-known and popular saint in the Balkans relates that Barbarus was from an Egyptian family. In his twenty-fifth year, he joined pirates and with them participated in a raid on the Albanian coast in the region of Durazz. Only he survived the foray; he was a secret Christian. After his escape from the wreckage of the ship, he made his way to a forsaken place where he did penance. One year later, he was noticed by a hunter who was captivated by the dark looks of the saint. He did not understand him, but he realised that he was a Christian. The hunter spoke of him to the large local group of Egyptians. They visited Saint Barbarus and spoke with him in their language.

1300 – Constantine Akropolita – tells about the African origin of the saint. He says that the city where he was born bears a name similar to his. He took part in a Saracen campaign in the area of the Ionian Sea under the reign of Michael II (820-9). The Saracens disembarked at Nikopolos in Epirus and were defeated at Dragamest. Barbarus, as one of the few who survived the defeat, went to Nys, where he converted to Christianity and, there, lived like a hermit on a mountain.

Image of Roma in folklore

Samples from three anonymous Byzantine texts most probably from the fourteenth century. The texts are extensive works written in verse in the vernacular and probably coming from Constantinople. Mention of Roma in such popular and vast works signifies that a huge mass of the Greek-speaking world already knew the Roma and their trades perfectly well at that time.

The poem A Drunkard's Philosophy – tells of a drunkard who, when awakening in the morning, feels dissatisfied with everything in life. Among the various people he blames is a "black Katsibelos", who, yawning, thinks about his sieve. (By the beginning of the fourteenth century, the word Katsibelos was added to the terms Athinganos/Tsinganos and Aigyptios/Gyftos as another Greek word for Roma.)

A satire on the animal world, Amusing Tales of Four-legged Animals – We learn that, among the Byzantines, who loved watching performing bears, Gypsies were known for being bear trainers. The wolf in this satiric poem contemptuously names the bear, with which he gets into a fight, a "dirt bin, entertainment for foolish gypsies ". In many lands, Roma still practice this profession.

Sojourn of Mazaris In Hades – in a work drafted as a fictional letter of August 21, 1415, and addressed to Holobol from the Underworld, Mazaris describes the existing conditions on the peninsula:

"On Peloponnesus, as you very well know yourself, oh, my friend, there live a miscellany of numerous nations; it is not simple or too necessary to trace the borders between them, but every ear can easily distinguish them through their languages. Here are the most important ones: Lakedaimons, Italians, Peloponnesians, Slavs, Illyrians, Egyptians and Jews (and among them there are quite a few people of mixed blood), of all the seven main (nations)."

On the basis of Mazaris' mentioning that "Roma" were one of the main Peloponnesian nations at that time and that they always spoke their own language, we must suppose that they were numerous on the peninsula.


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