Romaniots (Bene Romania)
The term Romaniot stems from the self-identification of the Greek-speaking Orthodox Christian population of the Balkans as Rhomaioi (Romans), that is, descendants of the citizens of the Roman Empire, which continued in itsByzantine incarnation until 1453. As citizens of the empire, the Jews were also Rhomaioi (Greek) or Romani(Latin), hence Romaniot (Heb. romaniotim). As a minority in a hostile Christian environment, the Romaniot Jews were subject to restrictive laws and constant harassment by the Orthodox Church, which treated them as a foil to the triumphalism of Christianity. Nonetheless, Judaism remained a permitted religion in the empire, and successive attempts by emperors to forcibly baptize Jews during the Middle Byzantine period were countered by the church on the grounds that baptism must be voluntary. In this regard the Orthodox Church differs significantly from the Roman Catholic Church, which treats baptism as an indelible act and allows persecution and punishment of “Judaizers.”
The vicissitudes of the Jews under Orthodox rule can be briefly summarized as follows: Under the Christian Roman Empire (from Constantine through Justinian and his successors), they were prohibited by law, with occasional exemptions, from participating in government, the courts, the army, and the universities, from holding and converting slaves, and from building new synagogues. During the Middle Byzantine period (Herakleios to Romanos Lekapenos), they were subjected to four attempts at forced baptism, a state tactic apparently repeated by Ioannes Vatazes in the rump empire of Nicaea in the thirteenth century. In the wake of the tenth-century Byzantine Crusades, Jews migrated into the empire, and by the twelfth century flourishing communities of Rabbanite and Karaite Jews were to be found throughout the Balkans and Anatolia. The Late Byzantine period (Michael Palaeologos to Constantine Palaeologos) saw further improvement in the political position of the Jews, who, along with the Armenians, provided economic resources for the weakened imperial government.
After his conquest of Constantinople in 1453, Mehmed II appointed Gennadeios Scholarios as patriarch over the entire Roman population. By 1455 the Romaniots, now formally zimmis (dhimmis) (see dhimma ), had succeeded in establishing their own autonomous community (later millet) under the leadership of Moses Capsali, appointed chief rabbi (rav manhig) of the Romaniot communities forcibly relocated to the capital, now called Istanbul, as part of the sultan’s efforts to repopulate the devastated city. In the cadastral register of 1477, the transplanted Romaniot communities numbered about fifteen hundred households and constituted some 10 percent of the city’s denizens. They were to hold the status of sürgün (forced migration) throughout most of the Ottoman period. This restrictive status, which deprived them of freedom of movement, placed the Romaniots at a distinct disadvantage compared to the Sephardi Jews, who enjoyed the more liberal status of kendi gelen (voluntary migration to the sultanate) granted them by Sultan Bayezid II.
According to later Sephardi memory (considered doubtful by some modern scholars) Bayezid invited the banished Jews of the newly united kingdom of Catholic Spain to his realm. In any case, they arrived shortly after 1500, and within a generation had supplanted the structure established for the Romaniots in the first seventy years after the conquest. Moses Capsali (d. ca. 1498) was succeeded by Elijah Mizraḥi (d. 1526) as rav manhig. Successive rabbis continued the institution for another generation until it fell into abeyance. In 1835 the office of haham başı(Heb./Turk. Hakham Bashi - chief rabbi) was established as part of the tanzimat reforms.
The Romaniot population of Istanbul consisted of both Rabbanite and Karaite Jews, who alternated between cordial and hostile relations. The twelfth-century Itinerary of Benjamin of Tudela informs us that a fence separated the two communities to prevent communal strife. In the fifteenth century, Karaites studied with Rabbanite teachers. In the sixteenth century, conservative Romaniots prohibited teaching Karaites, while Karaites nearly split their community over internal rivalries. The Greek-speaking Romaniot congregations numbered forty-seven in 1540, each with its own synagogue named for its city or area of provenance; they were still listed as sürgün, as were the Karaites, in late seventeenth-century Ottoman documents and numbered some fifty-two hundred of the eighteen thousand Jews in Istanbul. Ottoman sources record a decline in the Romaniot population of the capital between 1535 and 1688, most likely due to the better legal status of the Sephardim as well as the mingling of the congregations and intermarriage between the two groups. The vicissitudes of urban life in the Ottoman capital, in particular fire and plague, also contributed to the decline.
Outside the capital Romaniot communities flourished in Epirus and the Peloponnese. The Romaniot communities in the Ionian islands, the Archipelago, Crete, and the Dodekanisoi (Dodecanese) came under the control of Venice; Genoa controlled Chios; and later the Angevins took the Ionian islands. The Romaniots in these areas became Italian-speaking until they were rejoined to the Greek kingdom in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. During the Ottoman period (Grk. Turkokratia) the Romaniots were under Turkish protection and usually lived within the walls of the kastro that controlled each city and town. The Jewish communities of the Peloponnese (also calledMorea, which later included Boeotia and Attica) were destroyed in 1821 during the initial stage of the Greek Revolution. During the Holocaust the Jewish inhabitants of the main Romaniot centers of Ioannina (Yanina) and Corfu were deported to their deaths in Auschwitz. Over ten thousand Romaniots (and over fifty thousand Sephardim) were sent to Nazi concentration camps. About eight thousand members of the Greek-speaking communities of the mainland either served with the resistance or hid in the mountains, many under the protection of the resistance.
The question of a neo-Romaniot identity among contemporary Greek Jews, who are primarily Greek-speaking even if of Sephardi origin, is in a state of flux among locals and scholars. Romaniot Jewry is characterized by its use ofJudeo-Greek, which preserves archaic elements (especially among Ioannina Jews) from its development over the past two millennia. Their synagogue rite is also unique to the regions from Corfu to the Black Sea (e.g., MaḥzorRomania, Maḥzor Korfu) and is characterized by the use of Greek and a highly developed liturgical poetry ( piyyuṭim) that derives from Byzantine Palestine in Late Antiquity. Romaniot culture also further developed the midrashic tradition inherited from the Hellenistic period and from later Palestinian Jewish scholars. Kabbala and philosophy were particularly studied during the late Byzantine and early Ottoman periods along with medicine, astronomy, and Bible commentary. In addition, their customs present a mix of Late Antiquity Palestinian Jewry and contemporary Byzantine and post-Byzantine customs (primarily marriage, as in the medieval use of stephanomata [wreaths], and dowry arrangements), many of which are discussed by Joseph Caro in his Bet Yosef. This ancient Jewry, once numbering in the millions in Roman and Byzantine times, comprises only a few hundreds in modern Greece and perhaps a myriad of identifying descendants in its diaspora.