From Huns into Persians: The Image of the Seljuk Turks of Asia Minor among the Byzantine Literati of the Eleventh and Twelfth Centuries

Thesis author: 
Roman Shlyakhtin
Year of enrollment: 
Duration of thesis project: 
Sep, 2009 - Sep, 2016
Thesis supervisor: 
Daniel Ziemann
Thesis supervisor: 
Niels Gaul
Niels Gaul
Thesis abstract: 


This dissertation entitled “From Huns into Persians: The Projected Identity of the Turks in the Byzantine Rhetoric of Eleventh and Twelfth Centuries” studies the emerging collective identity of the Turks in Byzantine discourse. The Seljuk Turks migrated from Central Asia to Anatolia in the eleventh century. In the period between the battle of Manzikert (1071) and the First Crusade (1097), they captured the core territory of Byzantine Asia Minor. The Byzantine literati reacted to these events and created the image of the migrating group in their works of rhetoric. The dissertation studies the development of the collective identity in the discourse. The present summary of the dissertation covers the conclusions on the chronology of the Turks’ identity formation (1), results of the study of particular aspects of this identity (2), and evaluates the contribution of this dissertation to different areas of Byzantine studies (3).
1. Identity Formation: Emergence, Localization, Legitimization
The dissertation argues that the identity of the Turks was not a product of any unified system of description but rather a creation of individual literati who constructed this identity in their works, often pursuing their own ends. The study allows us to identify three chronological phases in the formation of the projected identity of the Turks in Byzantine rhetoric. The first phase sees the identity emerging. In the period between Manzikert and the First Crusade, Byzantine authors used military treatises, diplomatic sources and prophecies to describe the sultanate of the Great Seljuk. The second phase, which I label ‘the localization of the Turks,’ encompasses the span of time from 1097 to 1176. In this period, Byzantium waged long and inconclusive wars with Turkic polities in Asia Minor. The demise of the Danishmendids (in the 1160s) and the consequent rise of the sultanate of Ikonion (1170s) presented a new challenge to the Byzantine empire. The battle of Myriokephalon (1176) significantly reduced the scope of Byzantine actions in Asia Minor. The decline of Byzantine influence stimulated Byzantine literati to change their tone. Even panegyrists like John Kinnamos grudgingly recognized the Persians as legitimate masters of Anatolia. I suggest calling this last period ‘the legitimization of the Turks.’
2. Aspects of the Identity
Byzantine literati constructed the identity of the Seljuk Turks by applying to them existing collective labels – “Persians,” “Turks” and “Hagarenes.” The key question of this dissertation lay in the deciphering of these terms. Contrary to previous scholarship on the subject (Shukurov, Kaldellis) the dissertation suggests to read the three collective labels not as a coherent and immovable classification of the Other but as separate discourse blocks, which Byzantine authors combined in various ways to convey their messages about certain aspects of the described group.
In Byzantine rhetoric of the eleventh and twelfth centuries, one label was primarily applied the elite and figures of authority (“Persians”), another term referred to pastoralists and raiders (“Turks”), while the third term was used to define the Turks as a part of the community of Islam (“Hagarenes.”) Combining these collective labels differently Byzantine writers were able to produce nuanced images that suited the changing agenda of the day. The literati of the Komnenian era used terms and labels borrowed from Herodotus, the Old Testament, military treatises and polemics against Islam, but manipulated them in a very peculiar way always corresponding to self-identification of the Turks.
The image of the space and place of the Turks was a constitutive element of the projected identity. John Skylitzes placed the story about the migration of the Turks into the spatial framework of the Tabula Peutingeriana. The dissertation claims that Komnenian writers never actually described a systematic reconquest of Asia Minor. After the military losses of the 1170s, they acknowledged the ‘Persians’ as legitimate masters of the Anatolian landscape.
Contrary to the earlier point of view (Vryonis) that the ‘Islamization’ of the Christian population is literally absent from Byzantine sources, my dissertation insists that Byzantine authors articulated the religious otherness of the Turks and expressed a negative attitude towards Islam. However, they did not perceive the Islam of the Turks as an intellectual challenge. Only at the end of the twelfth century, Niketas Choniates began to express anxiety about the possible forced conversion of Christians to Islam. On a more popular level, Byzantine authors did not produce vitae of neo-martyrs in the way it was done by Spanish-Iberian or Palaiologian writers of the later era.
In all aspects of the projected identity of the Turks, Byzantine authors constructed an imagined border between the two communities. In the spatial sense, the borderlands were permeable, and many travellers crossed them on their way. The existence of borderlands, imagined and real, stimulated the emergence of cultural brokers. The dissertation applies this term to two particular clans, the Gabrades and Axouchoi, who established themselves at the courts of Ikonion and Constantinople as cultural intermediaries and helped both emperors and sultans to negotiate with their counterparts on the other side of the border.
While rhetorical images of the cultural brokers are nearly three-dimensional, the images of individual Turks remain mostly black-and-white. In general, the Persian and Turkic characters of Byzantine rhetoric either supported the idea of imperial dominance or highlighted Byzantine vices, or performed these two roles at the same time.
3. Contribution and Perspective
First, this dissertation contributes to the methodology of Byzantine studies. The dissertation proves that the philological concept of semantic change provides valuable results in the analysis of the Byzantine Other. Careful application of some post-colonial notions like “imperial gaze” yields promising results as well. Therefore, the dissertation adds new methodological instruments to the arsenal of Byzantine scholarship. The same method of analysis can be productively applied to other ‘Others’ of Byzantine rhetoric, e.g. the Cumans or Latins.
Secondly, the dissertation clarifies a number of problems in the history of Komnenian Byzantium. For example, it provides an explanation for the rise of John Axouch to the position of megas domestikos at the court of John II Komnenos. Axouch was a ‘Persian’ and this label implies that he came from a noble family, either from the elite of the sultanate of Nicaea or even from the very clan of Qutalmish. The association of Axouch not with the ‘Turks’ but with Seljuk elite alters our understanding of Komnenian elite and system of governance, which absorbed talented foreigners of high social standing.
Third, the dissertation contributes to the history of Byzantine literature. It draws up a chronological scale of labels describing the Turks that can be a helpful tool for dating of Komnenian writings. The dissertation argues that panegyrists of the period tended to use one label (“Persians”), while history writers used many. Another finding specifically pertains to historiography – the fact that twelfth-century historians often applied collective labels that they borrowed from their sources rather than those in active use at the time of composition of their works.
The dissertation also argues that the Byzantine image of the Turks influenced the way they were represented in Latin chronicles and letters from the period of the First Crusade. When the Crusaders arrived at the Bosphorus, the Byzantines informed them about the size and political situation of Asia Minor, contributing to the image of Islam in the chronicles of the First Crusade and even in the contemporary western documentation. The charter of Clementia of Burgundy (c. 1078-1133) in 1097 explicitly labels the oppressors of the Christians in the East as Persians, the Byzantine terminus technicus for the sultanate of the Great Seljuks. The connections this dissertation reveals between Latin chronicles and Byzantine rhetoric pave the way for the study of the Byzantine influence on the “western” image of the Turks that affected the Renaissance image of the Eastern Other and late Orientalism.