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Byzantium Confronts the Nomads by Michael Psellus

by Jim Jones, West Chester University of Pennsylvania (c.2002)
Return to the Syllabus || Review 11th century Byzantine politics


Michael Psellus (1018-c.1080) was a prominent figure in the court of the Byzantine emperors and empresses. He was an aristocrat who was educated in Athens and Constantinople, making him knowledgeable about "the Classics," the art of war, and medicine. He was an especially good public speaker and he became a friend to emperors and patriarchs. This selection describes the threat of invasion by barbarians led by Pechenegs (Patzinaks) who crossed the Danube in 1059 CE.




One of the great mysteries of the late Roman world is the cause for the sudden increase in pressure by nomads from central Asia. The Huns, the Visigoths, the Ostogoths, the Vandals and the Franks all came from the east, and they were followed by later invasions of Magyars, Cumans and Patzinaks. Without better sources on central Asian history, we cannot know if there was a sudden population increase that forced the nomads to seek new territory, or if a change in climate, a plague, or some other disaster reduced the food productivity of the Asian plains. All we have are the reports of the urban civilizations that ringed central Asia--the Roman, Chinese, Persian, Muslim and Byzantine empires. All report an increase in conflict with barbarian peoples on their borders.


Map of the lower Danube Valley
The heart of the Byzantine Empire and the Danube River


The relationship between nomads and urban civilizations should be a familiar one by now. In this course, we first learned of the Medes and Persians who conquered urban civilizations in Mesopotamia. We have also learned of the Germans and Parthians who attacked the Roman Empire. Even the Bible mentions conflict between Abel (keeper of sheep) and Cain (tiller of ground).

Conflict arose between nomads and sedentary people over access to land and water. Nomads were often at a disadvantage because they had smaller populations than sedentary states, but because nomads were often on the move, they could chose when and where to raid their opponents. Urban populations were larger and wealthier, so they could construct walls and other defenses, but their reliance on farming meant that their food supply was vulnerable to raiding.

The balance of power between the two groups shifted back and forth throughout history with the invention of new forms of weapons and social organization. For instance, the introduction of the camel into the Sahara Desert in the first century CE enabled people to trade long distances through the desert, and nomads to dominate that trade. The rise of Islam, a religion that began in the desert town of Mecca, enabled large numbers of nomads to unite against the Byzantine and Persian empires in the 7th century. The introduction of the airplane in the 20th century eliminated many of the safe havens that nomads used to escape pursuing armies.


The Danube River Valley
The Danube River Valley west of Hungary



  1. Why did the Patzinaks cross the Danube River into Byzantine territory?
  2. What impact do you think Isaac's campaign against the Patzinaks had on politics in the Byzantine Empire?
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