Byzantine culture influences on the people of North, by Michel Kazanski

Author(s) : Kazanski Michel (14/09/2007)
Translation : Makripoulias Christos
For citation: Kazanski Michel, "Byzantine culture influences on the people of North ",
Encyclopaedia of the Hellenic World, Black Sea
URL: <>

1. Introduction

From the moment that the capital of the Empire was transferred to Constantinople, the Black Sea and the regions to the north and east of the Pontοs were at the center of imperial policy. The barbarian maritime expeditions of the years 253-276 had demonstrated the weaknesses of imperial defenses in the Pontic frontier, where it was almost impossible to install significant military forces: the Romans had but a few fortified places along the coast, such as Chersonesos/Cherson (in the bay of Sevastopol in southwest Crimea), Pityous (modern Pitsunda), Sebastopolis (modern Sukhumi). Thus, in Late Antiquity a chain of «client» states and barbarian peoples assure the defense of the northern and eastern Black Sea littoral. These are the Germans and Alan-Sarmatians in the Crimea, the kingdom of Cimmerian Bosporus, in eastern Crimea and the Taman peninsula, as well as the kingdoms of the Lazes, Apsilians, Abasgians and Tzani on the Caucasus coast.

2. Cultural influences on the elites

Everywhere, from Crimea to Transcaucasia, the engagement of local populations provokes a crystallization of leading and warrior elites, who come to power. Their political orientation towards the Empire is interpreted by the diffusion of Roman cultural influence on the peoples of the Pontus. This influence in the third-fourth c. is manifested in the barbarians’ adoption of elements of Roman material culture (diffusion of pottery, glass, weapons, and clothing accessories) in a large scale, notably in Crimea and Abkhazia. On the other hand, as the tombs of the aristocracy in Cimmerian Bosporus (the necropolis of Panticapaeum) and Lazica (Ureki) show, the “princely” material culture, emanating from the nobility of the Empire’s eastern part, is transplanted there. Also, archaeological discoveries demonstrate a diffusion of Late Roman/Byzantine luxury objects among the barbarians who live beyond the Empire’s zone of direct military interests. Thus, the “princely” finds, such as those of Olbia, on the northern Black Sea coast, or of Morskoï Čulek, next to the mouth of the Don River, have yielded a significant number of jewelry and pieces of Byzantine-type horse harness. These objects had probably been offered as diplomatic gifts to barbarian chiefs.

3. The regions

3.1. The cultural sphere around the Black Sea

3.1.1. The reign of Justinian

The domination of the Eastern Empire on the northern and eastern littoral was reinforced during the reign of Justinian, when Constantinople passes from the defense to an expansionist policy. Byzantium reinforces its political and military influence on Cimmerian Bosporus, which from then on is under military occupation by Justinian’s troops, Crimea and Abkhazia, where the events of the Persian-Byzantine war demand an effective presence by the imperial army. We may speak of a tentative attempt at incorporating these regions in to the Empire.

On the eastern littoral, the kingdom of Lazica (present-day western Georgia) was Byzantium’s primary political partner. The Laz king received his insignia of power from the emperor and dealt his contacts with the kingdoms of the Apsilians and Abasgians (in the territory of modern Abkhazia) were conducted in the name of the Empire. Excavations at the Laz capital of Archaeopolis have unearthed vestiges showing the high level of Romanization/Byzantinization in urban life, as well as the propagation of Christianity, from 523 the official religion in Lazica.

Further to the North, the aforementioned kingdoms of Apsilia and Abasgia are also subordinate to the Empire, which maintains garrisons in two coastal fortresses, Pityous and Sebastopolis. The archaeological material shows the Romanization of the Apsilians’ and Abasgians’ material culture, notably in weaponry, costume and the practices of daily life. At Tsibilium, in Apsilian territory, a fortress has been discovered, clearly constructed by the Byzantines (referred to as «Tibeleos» in the Byzantine sources). Other fortifications, equally of Byzantine tradition, have been discovered in Abkhasian territory, at Novy Afon and Gagra. Early Christian monuments attest to the Christianization which during the reign of Justinian developed into a veritable policy of acculturation. Basilicas and cruciform churches of the sixth c. are known today in Tsibilium, Dranda, Gantiadi, Alakhadzy and further north, on Russian Federation territory, near Adler.

In the Crimea, during the reign of Justinian the Empire captures Cimmerian Bosporus and reinforces its presence in SW Crimea. The Goths, who occupy the mountains of Crimea (the land of Dory) and are the Empire’s federates, are the object of special attention. Here Justinian constructs fortifications, barring access to the mountains to the Huns. On the other hand, traces of the reconstruction of churches are attested by archaeological data, especially near Mangup (Theodoro), as well as by epigraphic data. Remnants of Christian edifices of the sixth c. have been attested both in eastern Crimea and in Bosporus (modern Kerch) and Tyritake. According to Procopios of Caesarea, the policy of Christianization was applied to the Huns, who inhabit the steppes near Cimmerian Bosporus. The “princely” finds, such as that of Michaelsfeld, on the eastern frontier of Cimmerian Bosporus, testify to the diffusion of aristocratic fashion among the elites leading the peoples of the steppe at the time of Justinian.

3.1.2. Changes in the political scene (7th-8th c.)

From the end of the sixth and mainly in the seventh-eighth c., Byzantium gradually loses its political positions among the barbarians of the North. This is due on the one hand to the development of the nomadic empires of the steppe (Turks, Bulgarians, Khazars), which acquire more and more power north of the Black Sea, and on the other to the Arab invasion of Transcaucasia at the end of the seventh-early eighth c. Byzantium’s retreating power is concentrated practically in one city, that of Cherson. Nevertheless, the Byzantinization of the sedentary population of Crimea continues. The material culture and funerary practices there are almost uniformly Byzantine, the number of churches and monasteries increases. In the seventh c. the churches are mainly built in Mangup (Theodoro), Eski-Kermen and Čufut-Kale. The famous basilica at Parthenites, in the vicinity of Gurzuf, is built in the eighth c. The possibility cannot be excluded that a wave of immigration arrives in Crimea at that time, coming from Asia Minor and provoked by religious conflicts. In the eighth c. in Abkhazia an independent Christian kingdom is formed, the culture of which is inspired by Byzantine examples. At the same time, a certain cultural Byzantinization is propagated among the nomadic peoples of the steppe. This mainly concerns the aristocracy, as is shown by the “princely” discoveries in Pereščepina, Kelegei, Glodosy etc., which have furnished numerous luxury objects and weapons of Byzantine origin.

3.1.3. The reappearance of the Byzantines in the ninth c.

In the ninth-tenth c. we observe a certain return of Byzantium in the northern coast of the Black Sea. The theme of Klimata had been created around Cherson. An alliance with the Khazar kingdom assures a stabilization of the military situation in the northern Pontic region and at the same time favors the diffusion of Byzantine cultural influence, notably in the form of Christianity, on the steppe. Archaeological excavations at Sarkel on the Don, in the heart of the Khazar kingdom, have unearthed the ruins of a Christian church. On the other hand, the creation of Christian kingdoms in Abkhazia and Alania, in the northern Caucasus, contributes to the propagation of a Byzantine type of civilization and political systems.

3.2. The northern regions of Eastern Europe and Russia

On the other hand, during the seventh-eighth c. we observe in Eastern Europe a large diffusion of Byzantine military fashion, such as the wearing of sword belts of multiple leather strips. It is then that certain elements of Byzantine material culture (clothing accessories, silver vessels) penetrate as far north in Eastern Europe as the Urals. At the same time, Christianity is diffused along the Caucasus mountain range as far as the Caspian Sea, where we find archaeological evidence. The ninth c. marks in a way the beginning of the creation of the Byzantine world in Eastern Europe, outside the Byzantine frontiers. The birth of Russia, even further north, completely changes the political and cultural situation in Eastern Europe. The incursions of Scandinavian-Slavic bands give their place to commercial contacts, then to cultural ones, ending in the Christianization of Rus in 988. From that time, a considerable part of Eastern Europe, as far as the White Sea, enters the cultural sphere of Byzantium. Thus, in the eleventh-thirteenth c. Eastern Europe represents in great part a zone of diffusion of Byzantine cultural tradition. Even though the Crimean littoral is under the direct influence of Byzantine culture, when we move farther to the north and east, it is Russia and Alania that propagate the Byzantine cultural model.




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