Romaniotes and Sephardim - the meaning of the terms

by Theo Pavlidis

The term Romaniotes refers to the Greek speaking Jews who had been living in Greece since ancient times. The Ladino speaking Sephardim arrived in the region after their expulsion from Spain in 1492. Because of their larger numbers and their familiarity with the technological advances of Western Europe they became the dominant group in the places they settled and absorbed the earlier Romaniotic communities there. However in other places the Romaniotes continued their separate existence, especially in the Western and Southern parts of Greece. Tragically, most of the Romaniote communities were wiped out during the Holocaust.

More on the Sephardic Jews

The Sephardic communities were quite advanced in both secular and religious learning. For example, the first printing press in the Ottoman empire was established by Sephardic Jews around 1494 in Constantinople (under the condition that it did not print Turkish or Arabic) and a second one was established soon after in Salonica, which became the main Jewish publishing center. Armenian and Greek presses followed about 100 years later and a Turkish press 230 years later using the expertise of and material from the Jewish printers. [Source: B. Lewis] In spite of some antagonism between the communities the Romaniotes often relied on the Sephardic rabbis of Salonica for halakhic authority. For example, Rabbi Samuel ben Moses De Medina (1506-1589) issued several responsa for the Romaniote community of Ioannina and other Salonica rabbis did so during the following centuries. [Source R. Dalven]

When the Sephardic Jews arrived in the region there was no Greek state in existence and in most of the places they settled the population was a mixture of Turks, Greeks, and Slavs. Therefore they had no strong motivation of learning Greek until 1912 when the city of Salonica came under Greek control. [While these facts are obvious, stating them maybe too controversial given the history of denial of reality in that part of the world.]

The Sephardic communities in the Ottoman Empire have several parallels with the Eastern European Jewish communities. Distinct languages (Ladino and Yiddish) and an advanced culture. However while Jews in the Russian empire were kept off the major cities, Sephardic Jews in the Ottoman Empire were welcome (and sometimes forced into) major cities.

More on the Romaniotes

The Romaniotes have lived in Greece for over 2000 years from the time of the expansion of the Jewish Diaspora during the Hellenistic years. They spoke Greek and like all other Greeks had been citizens of the (eastern) Roman Empire, hence their name. (Let us not forget that until the establishment of the modern Greek state they Greeks called themselves Romii.) They used Greek in part of their liturgy. Dalven lists several hymns in Greek including one for Purim. Most of their social customs and lifestyle were similar to those of the Greeks [source R. Dalven. She describes Jewish customs and most of them are identical to Christian customs of the period and place that I am familiar with.]

Because the Romaniotes have been speaking Greek and had been part of the Byzantine state several of them have surnames that are typically Greek such as Gabrielides, or their surname has a Greek form even if the original etymology is not Greek (for example, Bacolas, Matsas). Also when the new Greek state was established in early 19th century and expanded in the following 100 hundred year it was relatively easy for the Romaniotes to be part of that state (but not for the Sephardic Jews of Salonica).Some Romaniotes served as officers in the Greek Army, including colonel Mordecai Frizis from Chalkis who fell heroically at the start of World War II in Greece. [Source M. Matsas]

While the Romaniotes were Greek in language and many customs they maintained a strong Jewish identity and they were particlularly religious and strictly observant.

R. Dalven describes the poet Joseph Eliyia who is an outstanding example of the interaction between the Greek and Jewish cultures. He translated many parts of the Jewish Bible and Jewish medieval writers into demotic Greek. He also got into trouble with both conservative Jewish leaders and the Greek authorities (sometimes with the two acting in concert).


Rae Dalven, The Jews of Ioannina, Cadmus Press, 1990.

Bernard Lewis, The Emergence of Modern Turkey, 3rd ed., Oxford Univ. Press, 2002.

Michael Matsas, The Illusion of Safety, New York: Pella Publishing, 1997.

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