Roma (Gypsies)

Roma, commonly known as Gypsies, a traditionally nomadic people found throughout the world. While the term gypsy is often attached to anyone leading a nomadic life, the Roma share a common biological, cultural, and linguistic heritage that sets them apart as a genuine ethnic group.

When they first arrived in Europe over 500 years ago, the Roma were called Gypsies in the mistaken belief that they had come from Egypt. The true origins of the Roma remained a mystery until the late 18th century, when European linguists discovered connections between the Romani language and certain dialects spoken in northwestern India. More recent linguistic and historical studies have confirmed that the Roma originated in India.

Population and Distribution

The world population of Roma is difficult to establish with any certainty. Estimates suggest that there are approximately 12 million Roma worldwide. About 8 million Roma live in Europe, and they make up that continent's largest minority population. The largest concentrations of Roma are found in the Balkan peninsula of southeastern Europe, in central Europe, and in Russia and the other successor republics of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR). Smaller numbers are scattered throughout western Europe, the Middle East, North Africa, and the Americas.

The Roma are divided into groups sometimes referred to as nations or tribes. These divisions generally reflect historical patterns of settlement in different geographic areas. The European tribes include the Calé of Spain, Finland, and Wales; the Sinti of Germany and central Europe; the Manouche of France; the Romanichals of Great Britain; the Boyash of Romania; and the Roma, a subgroup of the larger Roma population, of Eastern Europe and the Balkans. Although historically renowned as wanderers, the vast majority of modern Roma live in settled communities.

Culture and Customs

Because the Roma are widely dispersed, their culture and social organization vary considerably. An important characteristic everywhere, however, is a strong sense of group identity. Romani culture stresses the sacredness of its own traditions in opposition to those of the outside world. Contact with non-Roma is regarded as potentially polluting, a belief probably derived from the religious beliefs of the Roma's Hindu ancestors. Another unifying force is their language, Romani, which consists of a number of dialects belonging to the Indo-Iranian branch of the Indo-European languages. Most Roma speak some form of Romani. Others speak dialects of local languages with extensive borrowings from Romani. Romani is primarily a spoken rather than written language. Until recent years most Roma were illiterate, and illiteracy rates remain high in most Roma communities.

The various Romani tribes are divided into clans, each composed of a number of families related by common descent or historical association. Clan leaders sometimes adopt the title king or queen. Such titles are bestowed as signs of respect and do not necessarily signify positions of political leadership. Disputes among Roma are settled by the kris, an informal Romani court that decides matters of common law and custom. The most severe penalty handed out by the kris is exclusion from the community.

Roma usually adopt the religious faith of the countries in which they live. Some Roma are Roman Catholic, while others embrace the Eastern Orthodox, Protestant, or Islamic faiths. Generally the Roma prefer to carry out religious rituals in their own homes or as part of folk observances.

The Roma are family oriented, with the elderly occupying positions of respect and authority. By European or American standards, Roma tend to marry at a young age. Many Romani women marry at the age of 12 or 13. Marriages are usually arranged by the couple's parents and reflect a desire to create alliances between families or clans. A strict sexual morality prevails among most Roma. It is common for unmarried girls to be chaperoned in the presence of males who are not part of their extended family. A number of groups maintain the institution of bride-price, a payment made by the family of the groom to that of the bride. The payment compensates the bride's family for the loss of their daughter and guarantees that she will be well-treated by her new family.

The Roma have exerted a significant influence on the artistic history of Europe. Roma fortune tellers, dancing bears, and caravans enliven European literature and folklore. Many Roma traditionally worked as musicians and entertainers, and Romani influence has been particularly strong in the field of music. Romani folk music has inspired many of Europe's greatest composers, including Hungarian composers Béla Bartók, Franz Liszt, Zoltán Kodály; Georges Bizet of France; and Romanian composer Georges Enesco. The popular flamenco song and dance of Spain were originated by the Roma and still retain a distinctive Romani spirit. Romani musical traditions continue to flourish in many parts of Eastern Europe, especially in Romania, Bulgaria, and Slovakia. Aside from music and entertainment, Roma generally pursue traditional occupations, including blacksmithing and metalwork, horse and stock trading, peddling and small-scale commerce, fortune-telling and curing, and crafts such as basketmaking and wood carving.


Little is known about the early history of the Roma. It is not clear whether they lived on the periphery of Indian civilization, were members of one or more Hindu castes, or represented a number of different social classes and tribal groups. They apparently left their original homeland in northern India in several waves, beginning as early as the 5th century. The most important migrations began in the 11th century following Muslim invasions of India. Their route into Europe can be traced by vocabulary borrowings found in modern European Romani dialects, all of which contain words from such languages as Persian, Kurdish, and Greek. The Roma initially traveled westward across Iran into Asia Minor. From there the majority proceeded into Europe by way of Greece during the early 14th century. After about 100 years in Greece, the Roma spread through Europe. By the early 16th century they had reached most areas of the continent, including Russia, Scandinavia, the British Isles, and Spain.

The Roma were generally well received in Europe at first, but their unfamiliar customs and closed society soon aroused antagonism. In Spain the Roma enjoyed freedom under Muslim rule, but their situation changed after the Christian reconquest of that country in 1492. Between 1499 and 1783 the Spanish government enacted at least a dozen laws prohibiting Romani dress, language, and customs. In France the first official repression of Roma occurred in 1539 when they were expelled from Paris. In 1563 the Roma were commanded to leave England under the threat of death. Beginning in the 15th century, Hungarian and Romanian nobles, who needed laborers for their large estates, forced many Roma into slavery. In Romania the enslavement of Roma did not end until 1855.

The Roma were not treated so harshly everywhere in Europe. In czarist Russia (1547-1917), for instance, their circumstances differed little from those of other impoverished peasants. In the Balkans, during almost 500 years of Turkish rule, many Roma enjoyed special privileges by converting to Islam.

Discrimination against Roma, however, has persisted in much of Europe. In the 20th century, persecutions reached their height during World War II (1939-1945), when as many as 500,000 Roma perished in Nazi concentration camps. In the Communist countries of post-war Eastern Europe, the Roma were subjected to government-sponsored forced assimilation programs. Designed to integrate the Roma into the dominant national cultures of the region, these programs often had the effect of depriving the Roma of their distinctive language and culture. Since the fall of Communism in the late 1980s and early 1990s, Eastern Europe has seen a revival of more violent anti-Roma sentiment. Romani peoples in Western Europe are also under pressure to abandon their traditional nomadic way of life. In France, for example, their access to campsites has long been restricted.

The Roma, however, have been increasingly active in political and cultural movements to establish their rights and preserve their heritage. In 1979 the United Nations (UN) recognized the Roma as a distinct ethnic group. The International Romani Union, a non-governmental organization, represents the world's Roma at the UN. Other organizations, such as the Union Romani of Spain and Phralipe of Hungary, campaign for civil rights in specific countries or regions.

Roma first appeared in the North America during the colonial period. A significant number of Roma from Russia and the Balkans came to the United States and Canada in the late 19th century. In the United States, Roma traveled about in rural areas until the Great Depression of the 1930s, when most settled in large cities on both coasts.