The Romani people (Roma, or Gypsies) are of northern Indian origin, having moved out of that area probably some time between AD 800 and AD 950, migrating westwards into Europe and arriving there some time after AD 1100. According to Sampson (1923), linguistic evidence suggests that the ancestors of all Gypsy populations, whom we may refer to as the Domba, following Kaufman (1984), left India at the same time. He believed them to have constituted a single race speaking the same language, which subsequently diverged into two linguistic branches: the Nawar, Kurbat, Karachi and Helebi now found throughout Egypt and the Middle East on the one hand, and the Boga in Armenia and eastern Turkey, and the Rom or Roma in Europe, on the other:
On the basis of more recent scholarship, however, there is some reason to believe that the three populations usually thought to comprise the descendants of the Domba may in fact have each left India at different times and under different circumstances (Hancock, 1986a); though each exhibits considerable lexical adoption from Persian, for example, there are no items shared by all three branches, and the same is true for the Armenian items in Central and Western Gypsy. If the same people had passed through the same areas at the same time, we would expect to find that at least some of the same words had been adopted. A further argument suggesting that these last may also have left India later than Eastern Gypsy, resides in the fact that their language retains traces of a third grammatical gender, which had become lost in the Central and North-Western Indic dialects by the beginning of the Mediaeval period. Presumably the European and Armenian branches separated after this loss was completed, since there is no evidence of a three-gender system in either, though vestiges are to be found in Domari.
The reasons for this exodus of thousands of miles over a period of as many years are not well understood. It is possible that the Domba who first left India did so as prisoners of war, or else as captive entertainers, and as marginals were carried further and further westwards on the crest of a succession of Middle Eastern wars. An alternative and more recent hypothesis suggests that the original population was a mixed one, consisting of Rajasthani-speaking Rajput cavalry together with their camp-followers who, coming from various different linguistic groups within the Shudra caste, moved westwards into Iran some time during the 10th century and were unable to find their way back into India again. As an isolated population in foreign territory it remained intact, social barriers slowly giving way as their commonly-shared Indian backgrounds increasingly became a unifying factor. While this might account for the diverse Indic content of the Romani lexicon and for the name Rom, and perhaps even for the traditional association of Gypsies with horses as a means of travel and an item of trade (and, through their racing and care, a source of income), concrete evidence to support this explanation is lacking. In any case, the boundaries separating language and caste in India were less rigid than the traditional studies have indicated, and the presence of both Central and North-Western features which Turner (1927) believed to be evidence of the routes of the first Gypsy migrations, is not a characteristic limited solely to Romani.
There is no real evidence of why the move was made from Iran into Armenia. In the late 19th century the Dutch historian De Goeje suggested that the ancestors of those Gypsies were the 27,000 Zott captured by the Byzantines in AD 855 and taken north-westwards into Syria; but there is no evidence to show that these were the Domba, and the language of their descendants, Jakati, is a dialect of Arabic, not Indian. Reasons for the move from Armenia into the western Byzantine Empire are perhaps better understood, and was the result of yet another invasion: that of the Seljuks from the East, who ousted. Orthodox Christianity and instituted Islam. Soulis tells us
...we must conclude that the appearance of the Gypsies in Byzantinelands is undoubtedly connected with the Seljuk raids in Armenia where the Gypsies, who subsequently appeared in Europe, had stayed for a long time, as the great number of Armenian loan-words in their vocabulary testifies. These continuous raids, which caused the dislocation of the Armenian people and resulted at the end of the eleventh century in the creation of Little Armenia in Sicilia, must have been responsible also for the westward movement of the Gypsies and their invasion of Byzantine Anatolia (1961:163).
[Illustration with caption]
The Balkans and the Eastern Mediterranean in 1355 (Holmboe and Holmboe, 1970:53)
Estimates of the dates of arrival of Gypsies in Europe differ from scholar to scholar, though Bercovici's claim that "Gypsies were already on the banks of the Danube when the Roman legions appeared" is surely an example of the kind of overstatement for which he is well known. The Rumanian scholar Bogdan Petreceicu Haêdeu has analysed a number of documents, first referred to by Bataillard (1849:50-51) indicating that Gypsies were in the Balkans, and had started to be enslaved, some time prior to AD 1300; the dates and the validity of these have been discussed by Soulis (1961:161).
With Mohammed II's successful defeat of Constantine, emperor of what remained of Byzantium in 1453, the Byzantine Empire and the Middle Ages came to an end; scholars and artists fleeing to the West helped lay the foundations for the European Renaissance.
In the Byzantine Empire, which lasted for eleven centuries, Gypsies constituted an oppressed caste, although perhaps not as slaves. This was due in part to their having been regarded as Muslims in a Christian empire (and later as Christians, when the Ottomans occupied the region). Relationships with non-Gypsies appear in fact to have been more cordial during this period than they were to become later in Europe. Others were confused with members of the heretic sect of Athiganoi, hence the later names Cigane, Zigeuner, Tsigane, &c., current in various European languages meaning 'Gypsy' (discussed e.g. in Groome, 1899:xxii-xxiii, and Starr, 1936). Occupying this social position, they were forbidden to enter churches, or to intermarry with whites, and were permitted to follow certain occupations only.
Conservative Romani dialects remain two thirds or more Indian in their basic lexicon and grammar, retaining in fact features which have become lost in their neo-Indic cognates. Romani contains a high proportion of Byzantine Greek vocabulary also, acquired during the period spent in Byzantium, and which above all reflects their position as domestics and artisans in that society. The fact that Gypsies were artisans was significant, in light of what was to follow in Europe.