History of the Roma people

This article is also available in: Italiano

The history of the Roma people, still today the most persecuted in Europe

Authoritative sources

Usually I never put the sources because they are largely reworkings of some texts from English Wikipedia, but today I am very happy to recommend “Rom, genti libere” by Santino Spinelli, a fundamental text for understanding Roma history and culture without prejudice, making it tell from one of the most famous and important Italian Roma. In fact, the book tells us about the culture of this people at 360 °, combining, to the mere historical narration that you will see in this article, also studies on the language, on the traditions and on some critical issues that still affect this community today. In the future we will certainly talk about them more in depth, in the meantime I leave you to their story.

Indian origins

Contrary to what has been thought for centuries, the Roma people are not originally from Egypt, but from North-West India, in a very vast region that includes places such as Sindh (hence the term “Sinti”, to indicate one of the Romanesque peoples), Punjab and Uttar Pradesh, belonging today to Pakistan and India. Originally the Roma were not a real ethnic group, but several peoples belonging to the noblest ranks of the indigenous population who, for various reasons, began to emigrate to Persia starting from the 3rd century as musicians, singers and dancers ; professions that continue to this day. To underline a very important and little known fact (especially in Italy): contrary to popular belief, the Roma population is not nomadic by nature such as the Tuareg and over the centuries nomadism was rather induced by the persecutions with which they were hit in most of the places where they went; as evidence of this, terms such as “village”, “king”, “land”, etc … are among the oldest in the Romani language and it is therefore extremely unlikely that they have encountered them centuries later.

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Mahmud of Ghazna in India

Returning to our history, according to Romanologists, the key moment for the Roma diaspora was the siege of Kannauj carried out by Mahmud of Ghazna between 1018 and 1019. The great Afghan ruler annihilated the city and the other kingdoms of Northwest India, leading thousands to emigrate again to Persia, the most fortunate as free men and many others as slaves.

From Persia to the Byzantines, the birth of the “zingari”

Some of them remained in Persia and in the Middle East, giving life to a community that today has about 2.2 million individuals scattered throughout that territory, while another migrated first to Armenia and then to the Byzantine Empire. The latter was decisive as it was the origin of two different terms: “Rom” and “Zingari”; the first is nothing other than the transformation of the term “Dom” into “Roma”, which took place due to Greek and Armenian influence, while the second was not born to designate the Roma people, but was strongly linked to them.

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This word was originally “Ἀθίγγανοι” “Athinganoi”, or “those who do not want to be touched” and indicated a specific Christian community that populated Anatolia. According to tradition, they practiced some kind of magic and divination, honored Shabbat and were mostly nomads, often moving from town to town. If initially this community was tolerated, with the passage of time the Byzantines saw them with increasing hatred, leading to real deportations to present-day Bulgaria and being in general deeply discriminated against. As already mentioned before, this term initially did not indicate the Roma people in any way, but only began to do so from the fourteenth century, a period in which they came even more in contact with the Byzantine reality.

Arrival in Europe: Eastern Europe and slavery

Over the course of a few decades the Roma spread throughout most of the Byzantine Empire, reaching its Balkan territories, then disputed by various principalities which are now part of Serbia, Romania, Moldavia and Hungary. These places will unfortunately prove to be decisive for their history, as from there one of the most shameful and forgotten moments in European history will begin: the slavery of the Roma people, which continued until the nineteenth century. These people arrived here free but, following the increasingly frequent attacks of the new principalities against the Empire, they were chained and, subsequently, enslaved. In fact, in Eastern Europe it was common practice to enslave “non-Christian” prisoners and, given the “mysterious” nature of the Roma, the local nobility took the plunge to procure labor at very low cost.

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To testify all this, there are countless documents that prove, among other things, the central role of the local church in promoting this practice, being the first to be honored with the donation of many Roma to monasteries. The local lords had no right of life and death and the only obligation to dress and feed (at their discretion) the slaves, except for these aspects, however, the Roma were inflicted the worst penalties and humiliations, so much so that it was not rare to find men castrated by the will of the master. This unworthy condition continued until the arrival of the Habsburg Empire, the first to intervene forcefully against this plague, which, as far as Romania is concerned, will see its complete end only in 1864. It should be emphasized that, although no longer slaves, Roma continued to be deeply discriminated against.

The arrival in Europe: Western Europe and racism

The earliest certain evidence of the arrival of the Romanesque populations in Europe dates back to 1401, the year in which they were first sighted in Poland, the subsequent sightings were then: in Germany in 1407, in France in 1419, in Spain in 1425, in Russia in 1501, in England in 1514 and in Finland in 1584. In the Bel Paese the question is a little less precise, as in 1382 a certain “Antonio Solario” was born near Chieti, nicknamed “the Gypsy Painter”, but the first official testimony of the Roman presence dates back to 1422. They came in small groups and initially were very well received by most of these territories, where they declared themselves “sovereigns of Little Egypt”, soon enjoying gifts and favors that allowed them to tour peace for all of Europe; many of them also worked as soldiers within the various national armies, also managing to achieve good fame and success. Shortly after the initial fascination and curiosity, increasingly strong and violent anti-Roma sentiments began to arise and in 1416 the first German ban arrived, which, over the years, was followed by 47 more and more brutal and violent 1498, which decrees the possibility of killing and burning Roma without fear of any kind of punishment.

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In 1492 they were expelled from Spain. In 1558 the Senate of Venice ordered that “Li detti Cingani possono essere impuni ammazzati, si che li interfattori per tali homicidi non abbino a incorrer in alcuna pena.” (The said Cingani can be killed unpunished, so that interfactors for such homicides do not incur any punishment.) In 1560 the Swedish archbishop Laurentius Petri prohibited baptism and burial of Roman families. In 1568 they were banned from the territories of the Church. In 1580 in Germany, Holland and Switzerland “gypsy hunts” were organized. In 1585 Portugal deported them to Angola and Brazil to work on the plantations; a similar fate also occurs in England in 1665, in Scotland in 1715 and in France in 1724, naturally varying the place of deportation according to the colonies. In 1693 the Duchy of Milan authorized every citizen “d’ammazzarli impune e levar loro ogni sorta di robbe, bestiame e denari che gli trovasse…” (to kill them with impunity and take away from them any sort of things, cattle and money that could be found …). In 1721 the emperor of the Holy Roman Empire ordered the extermination of all Roman families: men were executed and women and children had their ears cut off. In 1725 the King of Prussia sentenced all Roma adults to hang.

Samudaripen, the Rom Holocaust

All these measures will root in the minds of the European population, especially the Germanic one, the idea that the Roma are a different population, with clear negative characteristics and a real problem of public and local order. This will lead over the decades to increasingly bizarre and criminal theories that will develop until the creation of Samudaripen, also known as Porrajmos, the genocide of Roma peoples during World War II. The disgusting thing and worth noting is that it was not only Germany that issued Nazi-like edicts against Roma, but also countries like Switzerland, which established a charity, the “Pro Juventute” which de facto kidnapped the children of Romani families and was active until 1973. Furthermore, it is really impossible not to mention the fact that Sweden in 1934 began a forced sterilization of Roma women which will continue until 1975.

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Robert Ritter identifies a Roma woman with a policeman

Returning to Samudaripen, in 1935 Germany promulgated the Nuremberg Racial Laws, in 1936 the “Research Unit of Racial Hygiene and Demographic Biology” was established under the guidance of the notorious Robert Ritter and Eva Justin, who were mainly concerned with eradicating the Roma people and culture at 360 °. In 1937 the Nazi government deprives Jews and Roma of all civil rights. The estimates regarding the Romani deaths under Nazi persecution are varied and range from 220,000 to one and a half million people killed ; to date, despite clear and evident evidence, the German government persists in not recognizing these victims, thus avoiding providing any financial compensation for the losses caused.

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