Your RDA of Irony

Byzantine Eugenics

July 26, 811:  The Emperor Nicephorus Should Have Stuck to Accounting

Have you ever wondered why the Greeks don’t look like Colin Farrell, Val Kilmer or anyone else in the cast of “Alexander”?

Of course, you could say that Oliver Stone is a lunatic; and that would end the argument. However, if you further added that Macedonians are not Greeks, then I would venture this correction. In antiquity, Macedonians were the equivalent of redneck Greeks. They would have fewer teeth than Athenians, and would probably paste hardware decals on their chariots. Nonetheless, they would have been–barely (over Demosthenes’ battered body)–included in the Hellenic world.

Which brings us back to our original question: why do Greeks look like Armenians? (Come on: you can’t tell the difference, either.) The fact is that they are Armenian, the descendants of a massive relocation program undertaken by the Byzantine Emperor Nicephorus I.

By the ninth century, Greece was largely unpopulated. Five centuries of barbarian invasions were not great for demographics. Those Hellenes who had not been massacred or carried off into slavery huddled behind the walls of the few remaining cities. Yet across the Bosphorus, Anatolia was thriving. (Visigoths, Huns, Bulgars and Slavs evidently couldn’t swim.) Emperor Nicephorus (r. 802-811), who was a financier by training, decided to redistribute Anatolia’s surplus population to Greece. The Armenian provinces had people to spare, and the Imperial coercion was mitigated with the promise of free and rich lands.

Of course, there still was a problem with Bulgarian invasions, but the Emperor intended to take care of that. He certainly tried; today is the 1208th anniversary of Nicephorus’ death and defeat of his army. Mountain passes in Bulgaria can be tricky. Nicephorus was a much better accountant than general. He apparently also made an excellent goblet. The Bulgar Khan used Nicephorus’ skull as a drinking vessel.

Nonetheless, Nicephorus’ head had thought of a way to stabilize and revive Greece. It is just that Greeks no longer look like Greek Gods.

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