The Armenians of Byzantium: A Hellenized Elite with a Troubled Identity

The Byzantine Empire, which lasted from the 4th to the 15th century, was one of the most powerful and influential civilizations in history. It was a complex and diverse society, composed of various ethnic, religious, and linguistic groups. Among them, the Armenians and the Greeks played a prominent role in the political, military, and cultural life of the empire.

The Armenians were a distinct people, with their own language, alphabet, literature, and traditions. They had a long history of statehood and resistance to foreign domination, especially from the Persians and the Arabs. They were also the first nation to adopt Christianity as their official religion, in the early 4th century.

The Greeks, on the other hand, were the heirs of the ancient Hellenic civilization, which had shaped the culture and philosophy of the Mediterranean world. They were the dominant group in the Byzantine Empire, controlling the administration, the church, and the education. They spoke Greek, which was the official language of the empire, and followed the Orthodox faith, which was the official religion.

The Armenians and the Greeks had a complex and ambivalent relationship, marked by both cooperation and conflict. The Armenians contributed greatly to the defense and expansion of the empire, serving as generals, soldiers, and mercenaries. Many of them rose to the highest ranks of the imperial hierarchy, and some even became emperors. However, they also faced discrimination and persecution from the Greek majority, who viewed them as barbarians, heretics, and rebels.

The Armenian elite, who settled in the imperial capital of Constantinople and other major cities, underwent a process of Hellenization, adopting the Greek language, culture, and religion. They assimilated into the Byzantine society, intermarried with the Greeks, and participated in the imperial politics and culture. They often claimed to be descended from the ancient Armenian royal dynasties or the nakharar noble families, who had ruled Armenia before the Arab conquests. They tried to preserve their Armenian identity and heritage, while also embracing their Byzantine citizenship and loyalty.

However, this dual identity was not always easy to maintain, especially in times of crisis and turmoil. The Armenians of Byzantium often faced dilemmas and challenges, such as choosing between their ethnic and religious ties, or between their homeland and their empire. They also had to deal with the hostility and suspicion of the Greeks, who accused them of being disloyal, treacherous, and rebellious. The Armenians of Byzantium were sometimes caught in the middle of the conflicts and rivalries between the empire and the neighboring powers, such as the Arabs, the Turks, the Mongols, and the Crusaders.

The Armenians of Byzantium were a remarkable and influential group, who left a lasting legacy in the history and culture of the empire. They were also a troubled and conflicted group, who struggled to balance their Armenian and Byzantine identities. They were a Hellenized elite, who never forgot their Armenian roots.


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