|Orthodox Outlet for Dogmatic Enquiries||Historical themes|
What, if anything, is a Byzantine?
Professor of History Tomball College Tomball, TX, USA
First Published: http://wwwtc.nhmccd.cc.tx.us/people/crf01/romaion/
Revised 3/29/96. The original version of this article appeared in the Celator [Volume 10, Number 3: March 1996]. Portions are also quoted in the book Ancient Coin Collecting by Wayne G. Sayles, published [June 1996] by Krause Publications.
Table of Contents
By modern convention, the phrase "Byzantine Empire" refers to a political entity that once dominated the Mediterranean world. The city called Constantinople or [on today's maps] Istanbul functioned as capital of the Empire. The "Byzantine Empire" originated with the founding of Constantinople in the fourth century AD on the site of the much older Greek colony of Byzantium. The Roman Emperor Constantine I [died 337] called the site New Rome or Constantinople. Constantine situated his capital in the new city named after himself. The successors of Constantine I lived in Constantinople without interruption until 1204. In 1204, Crusaders from Western Europe, diverted from the path to Jerusalem, captured and looted Constantinople. They held the city until 1261. The "Byzantines" restored the "Byzantine Empire" at Constantinople in 1261 after the "Franks" were expelled. In 1453, the Ottoman Turks stormed Constantinople. The "Byzantine Empire" ceased to exist.
The role of the "Byzantine Empire" in European history is not sufficiently understood by the educated public of today. Constantinople stood at the economic, political and cultural heart of Europe from its founding until the wanton sacking of Constantinople by the Crusaders. The New Rome withstood the assault of many attackers, protecting all Europe against the flood of invasion. The "Byzantine Empire" flourished in the same era that found Western Europe ensnared by poverty and violence. One cannot omit the added fact that Constantinople yet remains the religious lodestar of Orthodox Christians: the predominant faith of Russia and other lands is rooted in the Byzantine experience. In our time, with recent changes in Russia, her Byzantine roots seem more relevant than ever to the present. In spite of its rich heritage and significant role, the achievements of Byzantine civilization have often been given short shrift and denigrated: the very name "Byzantine Empire" is, in fact, an insult.
The phrase "Byzantine Empire" was coined and popularized by French scholars such as Montesquieu, an influential figure of eighteenth century intellectual life.. He was the same author whose seminal volume The Spirit Of The Laws did much to inspire the Founding Fathers of the United States in their writing of the American Constitution. Like other thinkers of his time, Montesquieu revered the ancient Greeks and Romans with immoderate enthusiasm as masters of politics and culture to be emulated. Following a Western European tradition that extended back to the early Middle Ages, Montesquieu regarded the Empire at Constantinople as corrupt and decadent. Although he wrote a long history of the Empire at Constantinople, Montesquieu could not bring himself to refer to the Empire at Constantinople with the noble names of "Greek" or "Roman." From the obsolete name "Byzantium," Montesquieu used the word "Byzantine." The word "Byzantine" denoted the Empire and connoted its supposed characteristics: dishonesty, dissimulation and decadence. The English scholar Edward Gibbon in his Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire treated the Empire after the sixth century as an epic of unrelieved degradation and corruption.
The people who lived in the "Byzantine Empire" never knew nor used the word "Byzantine." They know themselves to be Romans, nothing more and absolutely nothing less. By transferring the Imperial capital from Rome on the Tiber to the New Rome on Bosphorus, dubbed Constantinople, the Emperor Constantine I had transferred the actual identity of Rome to the new location. Long before Constantine I, the idea of "Rome" had become dissociated from the Eternal City on the Tiber. For a Roman meant a Roman citizen, whereever he lived. Before the Imperial period, in 89 BC, a Roman law had granted Roman citizenship to people throughout Italy. Afterwards, citizenship became extended to an increasing number of people in different parts of the Empire. In 212, Emperor Caracalla declared all free persons in the Empire to be Roman citizens, entitled to call themselves Roman, not merely subject to the Romans. Within a few decades, people begin to refer to the entire Empire less often [in Latin] as "Imperium Romanorum" [Domain of the Romans] and more often as "Romania" [Romanland]
In the provinces close to Constantinople, where the Greek language predominated over the Latin of Old Rome, the idea of Roman citizenship and identity appealed to a broad segment of the population. Greek speaking citizens were proud to be Romans: in Latin, "Romani," or, in Greek, "Romaioi." The word "Romaioi" became descriptive of the Greek speaking population of the Empire. The old ethnic name applied to Greeks, "Hellene",fell into disuse. In ancient times, of course, "Hellene" had meant Greek. Hellene meant Greek from the seventh century BC onward, if not earlier. Although Homer called Greeks by other names, Herodotus, Pericles, Plato and Alexander were all "Hellenes," as were Greek speaking inhabitants of the Roman Empire in the first and second centuries AD. In the fourth century AD, as the Empire became Christianized, the term "Hellene" became redefined by common convention to include people who still worshipped the old gods and studied philosophy in hopes of resisting the new faith of Christianity. Emperor Julian II [361-363], an Emperor who tried to stop the Christian tide, described himself as a "Hellene." By "Hellene," Julian signified his combination of Neo-Platonic philosophy and worship of the Olympians.
In the final years of the fourth century AD, Emperor Theodosius I [379-395] made Christianity the sole state religion after subduing the rebellion of an "Hellene" usurper, a westerner named Eugenius. After Theodosius' critical decision, fewer and fewer people were willing to call themselves "Hellenes." For centuries more, the word "Hellene" remained in bad repute, associated with outlawed religious ideas and disloyalty to the state. Greek speakers found the identity of "Romaioi" in place of "Hellene" to be a safe refuge in changing times. Greek speaking "Romaioi" inhabited the Empire until the its demise in the fifteenth century.
The Empire at Constantinople should not be called the "Byzantine Empire" at all. If it requires a special name, we might better name the Empire at Constantinople with the title of the "Romaion Empire" from the Greek "Basileia Romaion" [Empire of the Romaioi].
The Romaion Emperors went to great pains to express the continuity between their authority at Constantinople and the tradition of Old Rome before Constantine I. For example, coins continued to carry inscriptions in Latin centuries after the people of Constantinople could no longer speak or read the language. Consider the observe legends found on coins in the various Imperial reigns. As a benchmark, look at the coinage of the last Emperor to reign many years in Italy, Valentinian III [425-455]. A typical observe legend on one of Valentinian III's coins reads like this:
Expanded by spelling out abbreviations in full, we get: "Dominus Noster Placidius Valentinianus Pius Felix Augustus" [Our Lord Placidius Valentinianus the Pious and Blessed Augustus]. Compare Valentinian's obverse legend to observe legends from later Romaion issues. Start with an inscription of Emperor Justinian I [527-565], who spent his life trying to reconquer the lost western provinces, with limited success:
There are two small changes between Valentinian and Justinian. First, "Pius Felix" had been replaced by "Perpetuus"[Forever]. Emperor Leo I [457-474] had mandated this change. He thought that the phrase "Pius Felix" possessed too many associations with the pagan past to be acceptable in the new Christian Empire. Another difference was that "Augustus" had become abbreviated with "AVC" instead of "AUG." This small change evinces the influence of the Greek language. In Greek, the sound "g" is expressed by the letter "gamma" [G] which is the third letter of the Greek alphabet, equivalent to the Latin "C."
In spite of these minor changes, Justinian's observe legend preserved continuity with the Roman past. The Latin remained in use. The Emperor remained "Dominus Noster" and "Augustus." One century after Justinian I, these titles still remained in use. The standard obverse legend of Constans II [641-668] was
Note that Greek letters "delta" and "tau" have entered the picture. The ambiguous "gamma" had been dropped from the abbreviation of "Augustus." Nonetheless, the Latin titles remained. Roman forms were preserved, and still venerated.
The transition to a more Greek style of titulature after 700 might be associated with a change in dynasty. The family of Heraclius [reigned 610-641] hailed from Latin speaking North Africa. Heraclius' descendants, including Constans II, were probably slow to abandon Latin titles partly in tribute to their own family heritage. The Latinity of the Heraclian family did not confine itself to forms and titles. Constans II actually considered moving the Imperial capital from Constantinople to Syracuse in Sicily. Although Syracuse itself was as Greek a city as Constantinople, famous since antiquity, the movement of the capital westward out of Constantinople to Syracuse would have pulled the focus of the Empire in a new direction, a direction less fundamentally Greek. Constans II suffered an untimely death, which prevented the fruition of his plans. He was murdered at Syracuse, likely by enemies of his planned transfer of the capital. Notwithstanding the fate of Constans II, the Heraclian family remained in power at Constantinople two generations longer. The end of the Heraclian era in 711 signaled a further shift in the orientation of the Empire towards the Greek world. The next ruling family, the Isaurian Dynasty [717-802] was Greek speaking from the start. In the course of the eighth century, "Dominus Noster" disappeared from Imperial coins. The words "Perpetvus Augustus" also began to fade in the same era, replaced by the Greek "Basileus."
The word "Basileus" deserves a history of its own. In classical Greece, "Basileus" meant "King," equivalent to the Latin "Rex." From the time of Emperor Augustus [died 14 AD], Greeks called the Roman Emperor by the name "Basileus." In the Latin language, of course, the Emperor was never called "Rex," which was offensive to Roman Republican sensibilities: the Emperors were, in theory, chiefs of a Republican government. Roman Republicanism notwithstanding, the use of "Basileus" became standard among Greek speaking Romaioi to describe the Emperor. No way existed to translate the titles of "Imperator" or "Augustus" into Greek that did not sound contrived or ridiculous. The word "Autocrator" was coined to translate "Imperator.";"Sebastos" stood as the parallel to "Augustus," but neither "Autocrator" nor "Sebastos" acquired popular currency. Instead, the pretense developed that "Basileus" meant "Emperor" instead of "King.". Romaioi commenced to use the Latin "Rex" to mean "King" in reference to non-Roman rulers of lesser rank than their own Emperor. The new usage of "Basileus" gained formal status much later. In the seventh century, Emperor Heraclius first employed "Basileus"in Greek language legal documents as his official title, but the word only replaced "Augustus" on the coinage in the Isaurian era [717-802].
One impetus to the adoption of the new title came from the Empress Irene [797-802]. She had been the wife of Emperor Leo IV [775-780]. After Leo's death, Irene assumed power as the regent of their infant son Constantine VI . In 797, Irene deposed and blinded her son to prevent his achievement of power after achieving adulthood. Irene declared herself ruler in her own right, a claim that no woman had ever made before in Imperial history. In advancing her novel claim, Irene faced a difficulty of nomenclature. The Imperial title "Augustus" was, of course, male. Irene could not call herself "Augustus" without appearing ridiculous. The female form of "Augustus," "Augusta" might have served the required purpose, except that "Augusta"had signified in the past the wife of the Emperor or other important female relation, not a legitimate ruler. The usage of "Augusta" to designate female members of the Imperial family dated back to the early years of the Empire. Emperor Augustus' widow Livia accepted the name "Julia Augusta" from the Senate in 14 AD. Throughout a span of close to eight hundred years, "Augusta" had not ever been suggestive of a ruler in her own right; the existence of an "Augusta" implied the existence of an "Augustus." Irene had no desire to remind the Romaioi of her son Constantine. Therefore, Irene's inscriptions uniformly eschewed the word "Augusta." Instead, Irene elected to call herself by the female form of "Basileus," that had in the past been employed by reigning Queens as well as consorts and mothers of Kings. The unabbreviated form of the inscription was:
The stunning event of Irene's reign was the coronation at Old Rome of Frankish King Charlemagne [Carolus Rex Francorum] as Emperor in 800. Many authorities in the Latin speaking world had continued to recognize the Emperors at Constantinople as the legitimate Roman Emperors until Irene deposed her son in 797. In the eyes of the Latin West, the throne became vacant upon the removal of Constantine VI. Irene appeared objectionable on three counts: she was a woman, she had committed the heinous act of blinding her own son, and she adhered to Eastern religious practices , which the West rejected. Although Charlemagne, a Germanic tribesman [better to think of him as Karl insread of with the Frenchified Charlemagne], was no Roman, he had brought unity to much of Europe. Why should not he, instead of some Greek women [Graeca], be Emperor? The Pope thought on these lines, and placed the Imperial crown on Charlemagne's head at Christmas, 800. After his coronation, Charlemagne called himself "Carolus Augustus Imperator Romanorum gubernans Imperium" [Charles Augustus, Emperor governing the Domains of the Romans].
The authorities at Constantinople did not wish to recognize the claims of the Frankish upstart in the West, although political reality forced a compromise on the part of Emperor Michael I [811-813]. Michael's envoy from Constantinople saluted Charlemagne at his court in Aachen as "Basileus," that the Westerners translated with satisfaction as Emperor. Of course, the Greek speakers had room to live in the ambiguity of the word "Basileus." Back in Constantinople, Michael began to call himself [in unabbreviated form]:
[Michael, Roman Emperor]. Note the Greek "upsilon"[U], "chi" [C] and "eta" [H]. On coins, the usual form was
Not until the time of Emperor Otto III [983-1002] did Western Emperors consistently start calling themselves "Imperator Romanorum" [Roman Emperor] in direct challenge to the "Basileus Romaion" of Constantinople. Otto III took this step on the prompting of his mother Theopano, a princess from Constantinople who understood the subtleties of the problem. The "Basileus Romaion" of the time, Basil II [reigned 976-1025] was not a kinsman of Theopano, and she desired to elevate her son above the competition at Constantinople by calling Otto "Imperator Romanorum." Of course, well-informed people in the West knew already that the best way to insult the authorities in Constantinople, if that was the goal, was to deny their identity as Romans. Call them "Graecus:" that translated to "Hellene," that implied pagan as well as not Roman.
The Land Called Romania
Clever diplomatic insults aside, medieval Westerners referred to the territory of the Romaion Empire with the name "Romania"[Romanland]. Case in point: from the sixth to the eighth century, the city of Ravenna was the capital of the Romaion province of Italy, the headquarters of the Exarch. The region close to Ravenna was directly governed by the Imperial authority. In the minds of the Lombards, the Germanic people who wrested much of Italy from Imperial control, the area around Ravenna was "Romania." To this day, the same region of Italy is called "Romagna," derived from "Romania."
Centuries later, the "Franks" of the Fourth Crusade stormed Constantinople in 1204. In the subsequent Imperial hiatus, these adventurers, largely French, elected their own Emperor and established their own Frankish or Latin Empire. The Frankish or Latin Imperial title: "Imperator Romaniae" [Emperor of Romania]. The "Imperator Romaniae" was something different from the "Imperator Romanorum." In Western Europe, the title the "Imperator Romanorum" belonged to the German successors of Charlemagne and Otto III when they were crowned by the Pope in Rome. After Otto III, German Kings called themselves "Rex Romanorum" [Roman King] in the interval between their election in Germany and coronation at Rome, which might be many years. After the middle of the thirteenth century, many of the German Kings never took the Imperial crown at all. They remained "Rex Romanorum" throughout their tenure. At the moment that the Fourth Crusaders elected their founding Emperor Baldwin I [reigned 1204-1205], the Western Imperial throne was vacant. German King Philip had not been crowned Emperor by the Pope and never would be crowned Emperor. Still, Baldwin I respected Western tradition: he did not dare offend the Pope by presuming to claim the title "Imperator Romanorum," but only the title of "Imperator Romaniae," Emperor of Romania. In Western eyes, only the Pope could make an individual "Imperator Romanorum."
In the West, the idea of "Imperator Romanorum" survived to describe the ranking Roman Catholic ruler until the nineteenth century. In 1508, the Pope authorized the "Rex Romanorum" to call himself "Imperator Romanorum Electus" [Elected Roman Emperor] without coronation at Rome. The last "Imperator Romanorum Electus" abdicated in 1806. Voltaire scoffed at the Holy Roman Empire in its senescence. The Holy Roman Empire was, Voltaire gibed, "...neither Holy, nor Roman, nor an Empire." As in other matters, Voltaire ridiculed the things in which other people believed. Until the end, most Europeans, particularly Catholics, spoke of the "Sacrum Romanorum Imperium"[Holy Roman Empire] as a serious and important enterprise. Nonetheless,Western Europeans did not call themselves Romans or refer to their homeland as Romania. These words were conceded, albeit grudgingly, to Constantinople.
Western Europeans were not the only despoilers of the Romaion Empire to refer to it by the name of Rome. In the eleventh century, a branch of the Seljuk Turks established a Sultanate in Asia Minor carved out of land in Asia Minor. The Sultanate's territory had been severed from the Empire after the Battle of Manzikert  in which Emperor Romanus IV [reigned 1067-1071] fell into the hands of the Turks as a prisoner. This Turkish state was called "Rum." from Rome. The Sultanate of Rum continued until after 1300 with its capital at Konya [Iconium].
The later Ottoman Turks adopted the term "Rumelia" to designate the portions of the Balkan Peninsula that they acquired from the Romaioi in the fourteenth century. "Rumelia" was a dimunitive word. If Anatolia was Rome [Rum], than the European territories were Lesser Rome [Rumelia]. The name "Rumelia" survived into the nineteenth century. After a Turkish defeat at the hands of Russia, the two combatant governments signed the Treaty of San Stefano . The Treaty included a provision to create a "Principality of Eastern Rumelia" under Russian "protection" on land now in Bulgaria. The attempt to create Eastern Rumelia never came to fruition. After diplomatic pressure from other powers, the Treaty of San Stefano underwent significant modification at the Congress of Berlin in 1878. Eastern Rumelia vanished before it came into proper existence.
One might wonder why the name "Romania" became applied to the present nation called Romania. The association of the name "Romania" with the present nation "Romania"stems from the nineteenth century. In their first appearances in the historical record of the Middle Ages, the Romanians were called "Vlachs" by chroniclers from Hungary and Constantinople. A principality called "Wallachia" emerged among the Vlachs before 1300. Separate Vlach principalities of Moldavia and Transylvania followed. Later, scholars realized that the Vlach language derived from Latin; Vlach was a sister language to Italian, French and Spanish. How did Latin speakers find their way to this remote part of Europe north of the Danube River? Scholars developed the theory that the Vlachs were descended from Roman colonists and Latinized natives who lived in the area north of the Danube River during the second and third centuries AD. In the period, the region constituted the Roman province of Dacia. Whether the theory is right or not, it became the basis of Romanian nationalist feeling in the nineteenth century. The idea of a Roman descent gave Vlachs new pride in themselves. After Wallachia and Moldavia coalesced into a single entity in 1859, the name "Romania" was selected in 1862 to describe the combined state. At the time, Romanian unity and independence required the support of France under Emperor Napoleon III [1852-1870]. The "Latin connection" with France aided the Romanian cause by inspiring French interest in their "sister nation" of Romania.
In light of the late date at which modern Romania acquired its name, it appears clear that earlier, the term "Romania" referred to the territory where the Greek speaking "Romaioi" lived. For more than a millennium, the state that we call, inaccurately, the Byzantine Empire was "Romania." After the end of the Empire, Greek speaking inhabitants of the Ottoman Empire continued to call themselves "Romaioi."
Modern Greeks call themselves "Hellenes," like the ancient Greeks did. The switch from "Romaioi" back to "Hellene," like the switch from "Vlach" to "Romanian," came from the politics of nationalism in modern times. Greeks needed Western European help to become independent in the early nineteenth century. The Greeks were not likely to attract assistance if the Western peoples thought of Greeks as Byzantines. However, if the Greeks were imagined as the children of Plato and Pericles, then the sympathies of educated Westerners, steeped in the Classical tradition, would be with Greece. In the Greek Revolution of 1832, the "Philhellenic"[Greek loving] sympathies of Britain and other European governments were deeply engaged. Intervention on behalf of Greek independence proved decisive. The name of "Hellene" was revived in order to create a national image which rejected the "Byzantine" past.
Article published in English on: 20-9-2005.
Last update: 10-1-2008.