byzantine or roman?

Byzantine or Roman?

I recognise that there are lots of reasons for calling them Romans — possibly I’d even say that’s the label that on balance makes a bit more sense. But I still lean toward calling them Byzantines.

The case for Roman

The term ‘Byzantine’ is what we call an exonym, or a name given by foreigners. The Byzantines never called themselves ‘Byzantines’ — though the imperial capital of Constantinople was at times called Byzantium — but instead they called themselves Romans. Is that a good enough reason for us to call them Romans?

In many ways, yes. When the Roman Empire split for the last time at the end of the 4th century AD, the eastern half of the empire survived the fall of the western half in AD 476. That eastern half became what we now call the Byzantine Empire, carrying that same political legacy right down to the mid 15th century. So when these people called themselves Romans they weren’t just putting on airs: politically speaking, these were the Romans. Their state was the Roman Empire that survived into medieval times, and their Emperor in Constantinople was a direct political descendant of the late Roman emperors, also ruling from Constantinople. When the Emperor called himself Basileus ton Romaion, ‘emperor of the Romans’, that’s exactly what he was politically, that’s what his predecessors had been calling themselves since late antiquity. Now were they Italian like the more famous ancient Roman emperors? No, but then lots of emperors had not been from Italy, nevermind the city of Rome, since the end of the 3rd century. But each one who ascended the throne was recognised as ‘Emperor of the Romans’ by people who knew that they were Romans. So in that sense, definitely Roman.

How about institutionally? In many ways, also yes. The Church had loomed large in the lives of the Romans since the late antique period; the Patriarch of Constantinople, the big boss of the Church, had gotten his title with the Emperor’s blessing in the mid 5th century. And all throughout the Byzantine period you saw a continuation of that line of Patriarchs in Constantinople. There’s even a Patriarch today in Istanbul, though you could argue about the unbrokenness of his line. So even if it might seem odd to think of a Roman Empire whose spiritual life was dominated by the Church, that officially worshipped the Christian God rather than the old gods, this had been a reality since the end of the 4th century — well within what we generally agree was the Roman period. So score one more for calling them Romans.

How about the use of Roman law? In that sense this empire was also very Roman, or more specifically late Roman. Where Roman law withered in western Europe after the 5th century, it was observed and quoted by lawyers and judges in the surviving parts of the Roman Empire in the east. The law codes of the Emperors Theodosius and Justininian — both of which drew from more ancient legal traditions — were kept in use, though as time went by and Latin dropped out of use, these were often adapted or summarised in Greek. So even if a so-called Byzantine lawyer in the 10th century started doing his spiel in Greek, he may well have been drawing on the opinions of that most famous of ancient Roman lawyers, Paul the Jurist. So in terms of law, this was a most Roman of empires.

A couple of other institutions can be used to support the Roman claim, though maybe not as strongly: the Senate and the military. The Byzantines did maintain a Senate as well, and like the Emperor in Constantinople these men were the descendants of an institution dating from the late Roman period. To be fair this was not so much a bunch of politicians as a bunch of bureaucrats, but then you could argue that the Roman Senate had lost its strong political voice since the end of the Republic. A weak Senate was not a uniquely Byzantine thing. 

The military was another institution that supports the Roman claim: maybe it didn’t look ‘Roman’ the way we think of stereotypical Roman armies — no legionaries in segmented armour anymore, and cavalry played a greater role than during the ancient period — and it evolved into something quite different from the ancient legions, but then the ancient legions had done a lot of evolving anyway. This army may not have been a mostly professional force the way the imperial legions had been, but then why should professionalism mean Roman? The Roman Republic expanded rapidly from the 3rd century BC onward on the back of its militia legions, and no one’s calling them un-Roman. As for continuity from the ancient legions, the Byzantine army even kept some of the ancient titles and formations: heavy infantry were sometimes called skoutatoi (from the Latin scutum), and officers in charge of 100 men down to the 10th century were still called kentarchs (from the Latin centuria, from where we get centurion). The imperial bodyguard unit called the Excubitors, last seen in action in the early 11th century, were originally founded in the late 5th century. So in this sense, still some merit for calling them Romans.

The case for Byzantine

Now for the other side — should we not call them Romans? This argument isn’t as weak as it might seem at first. Yes, the Byzantines called themselves Romans, but when we as 21st century people look back at them, is it a helpful term for us or a misnomer?

While institutionally speaking it’s hard to argue these weren’t the Romans, in practical terms you could argue they were something else. The Roman Empire was a sprawling, transcontinental empire for most of its existence, and right up until the final split at the end of the 4th century, it was a single entity stretching from Iraq to Britain. It might be an exaggeration to call it an ancient superpower, but at least we could say it had hegemony over much of the ancient world — no other organised power ever posed an existential threat to the Roman Empire, though the Sassanid Persians came pretty close during the early 7th century. Whatever the Roman Empire wanted to take, it usually got (though it didn’t always get to keep it).

This was definitely not the position enjoyed by the Byzantine Empire. During what’s sometimes called the Romano-Byzantine period during the 5th to 7th centuries you could say it still had hegemony, but after the Arab conquests it lost this, and never reclaimed its position as a preeminent world empire. Even during the periods of military revival in the 9th and 10th centuries, the Byzantine Empire was just one successful power among several — at its largest extent it was merely a particularly strong regional power. It was never again a world empire after the 7th century. To call it the Roman Empire, with those connotations of size and strength, does seem a bit misleading.

Which brings us to the issue of region. The Byzantine Empire never had a heartland in Europe the way the ancient Roman Empire had had. True, it did reclaim Italy and parts of Spain during the 6th century, but its rule there was shaky at best, and most of these western chunks had been lost forever by the end of the 8th century. The economic heart of the Byzantine Empire always lay in the east: Egypt and Syria until the 7th century, and after that, Anatolia. Now of course Anatolia was an important area during the ancient period too, but during that period so were Italy, Gaul, Spain, Germania, and the western Balkans, providing taxes, trade, resources, and manpower. The fact that these were so glaringly unavailable to the Byzantine Empire makes it a bit misleading to call it the Roman Empire.

Linguistically there’s also a case not to call them Romans. After Latin was mostly abandoned as the language of government sometime in the 7th century, the Byzantine Empire remained a Greek-speaking empire through and through; it does seem a bit odd to call this Greek-speaking empire the Roman Empire when it looked down its nose at westerners that it called Latins. And even though yes, Greek had been spoken in the eastern provinces of the Roman Empire since the ancient period, Latin had always been the language of government, and of the military. Again it does seem a bit misleading to label as Roman an empire that very pointedly did not speak Latin.

And of course there’s the question of Rome, one of the go-to points for those who argue the Byzantines shouldn’t be called Romans. It’s no small point that the Byzantines never controlled Rome after the 8th century. And even if the Byzantine emperors could claim political descent from the ancient Roman emperors, it’s still true that they were doing so while very definitely failing to hold Rome! Now you could argue that Rome had stopped being important since the 3rd century — and that is true, by the 4th century the Roman emperors preferred staying in Milan, Ravenna, Nicomedia, or Constantinople — but at the very least they still held Rome. Calling the Byzantine Empire the Roman Empire is again a bit misleading when there was in fact a very anti-Byzantine man with a very big hat ruling the roost in Rome.

Now for the shakier arguments: culturally, the Byzantine Empire didn’t seem very ‘Roman’. Favourite points of criticism include the very heavily Christianised popular culture that revered saints, and saw the veneration of icons as a matter of life and death, or the way that the Byzantines bowed and scraped to the Emperor in a very ‘oriental’, despotic way, or that court eunuchs could sometimes become power brokers. But these are pretty subjective, and let’s remember that one of the defining features of Roman culture was how it evolved and adapted to new circumstances or new ideas — why should we point at these things in particular and call them un-Roman? The Romans of the 3rd century with their exotic religions probably wouldn’t have seemed very ‘Roman’ to the Romans of the republican period — yet we call them Romans all the same. And as we saw above the Roman Empire had become officially Christian by the end of the 4th century, while all the bowing and scraping had actually started during the 3rd and 4th centuries — these were not uniquely Byzantine things. So the cultural argument is a bit weaker when it comes to deciding whether to call them Byzantines or Romans.

The political complications

So far I’ve made things seem a bit ambivalent. Well, I’m going to muddy the waters even more now.

Should we call them Romans? Western European scholarship since the 16th century has traditionally said no. And if this just seems like a bit of petty disrespect, the issue actually goes much further back — long story short, the Church in Rome headed by the Pope and the Church in Constantinople had seen each other as rivals since the late Roman period, and things only got messier when the Pope in Rome found himself answering to the agents of the Emperor in Constantinople in the 6th century. A few major religious disputes and a whole bunch of political bickering later, the Pope found himself in a position to get a leg up over his rivals, and so in AD 800 he made the fateful decision to crown a German King as Imperator Romanorum — the King in question was Charlemagne, who was now, the Pope told the whole watching world, the Emperor of the Romans.

The problem was there were now two Emperors of the Romans, neither of them willing to acknowledge the other as the legitimate Emperor — technically right then in AD 800 there was no male emperor in Constantinople, so that was kind of a loophole, but Charlemagne’s successors kept his title anyway. This so-called Roman Empire in the west, backed by the Catholic Church, is what we now call the Holy Roman Empire, and this issue became a lightning rod for the distrust held by the Catholic west toward the Greek-speaking, Orthodox east. Often medieval western Europeans would refer to the Emperor in Constantinople as the Emperor of the Greeks, not the Emperor of the Romans — because of course the real one spoke German. So when the Byzantines, the only other people who called themselves Romans, were swallowed up by the Turks in 1453, it was pretty easy for the western Europeans to literally write them out of history, referring to them ever since as Byzantines, even using this term as a slur to describe anything that seemed underhanded or overcomplicated.

That seems pretty unfair: we who call them Byzantines seem to be playing into this prejudice that was rooted in an obscure political conflict from hundreds of years ago. And how about this — few people outside of western Europe call them Byzantines either: in the Islamic world they’ve always been called some variation of Rumi or Rum — no prizes for guessing what that’s referring to — and even the medieval Chinese name for Byzantium — Fulin — might come from the Persian word for Rome. Why? Because outside of western Europe that’s what they’ve always been accepted as — Romans! So what on earth is stopping us from dropping the biased term ‘Byzantine’?

Well, let me introduce you to the world of Greek nationalism. For all that we talk about the Byzantines calling themselves Romans, toward the end of the Byzantine Empire we do see a growing Greek identity: Byzantine thinkers, sometimes for political reasons, started occasionally calling their nation the Hellenes (Greeks), and their domain Hellas. They started looking back not just to the ancient Romans as their ancestors, but even further back, to the ancient Greeks. That idea of Greek-ness certainly played a key role in firing up the men and women who threw off Turkish rule to create the modern state of Greece — men and women whose ancestors would’ve called themselves Romans.

And anecdotally — I’m not ready to wade into the scholarship here — I’ve seen very strong opinions held by modern Greeks on both sides. Some of them loudly insist that the Byzantines were Greeks, that they represent an unbroken continuation of ancient Greek civilisation that continues to this day; others equally loudly insist that the Byzantines were Romans, that modern Greeks should take pride in that proud Roman lineage. Who’s to tell them which side is right? I’m sure as hell not prepared to. 

But all this only muddies the waters more. Should we call these long-lost people Byzantines or Romans?

My take on it

I’m still calling them Byzantines, though I recognise that there’s good enough reason to call them Romans. But given the fierce debate among some modern Greeks, maybe a third-party term is just a little more helpful, and a little less liable to cause a firestorm, though Byzantine is not a perfect alternative either. But in the absence of the Byzantines having their own voice, maybe we’ll just have to settle with what we as outsiders feel is most appropriate to call them.

For me it’s also a matter of helpfulness. When I call them Romans, does it cause confusion to the listener? Does it mislead about the nature of the empire I’m talking about? I find Byzantine less ambiguous, because it usually limits me to one cluster of regions during one particular millennium. On the other hand if I call them Roman I have to do a lot of qualifying: which period between the 8th or 9th century BC and the 15th century AD? Which half of the empire? Which region? I don’t want to sacrifice clarity for what looks like nationalism or identity politics.

And finally I also call them Byzantines out of respect for my professors — Judith, Charlotte, and Dennis, if by any weird chance you read this, thank you for everything — and I also see why Byzantinists have kept the term. These are men and women who have devoted their whole careers to studying the Byzantines. I’ve seen their love for this civilisation when they talk about it. Clearly they’re not using it as a slur or as a political power move. After thinking about the Byzantines for some years now I think I get their approach: this is a fascinating, sometimes contradictory civilisation, in some ways really Roman, in some ways really not. It arguably began in the late Roman period, but in time grew and evolved into something else, something more, something unique. It could be both wonderful and awful, at times noble and sublime, at others ugly and pathetic. That kind of rich duality makes the Byzantines endlessly fascinating for me. 

So I’ll keep calling them Byzantines. Not as a political dunk, but as a badge of honour, to acknowledge that this is a dual-natured civilisation, even as its emblem is a two-headed eagle. I’ll call them Byzantines to recognise that though they are Romans they refuse to stay in the ‘Roman’ box that we sometimes want to keep them in. They are, to me, Romans, but also so much more.

I call them Byzantines.

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