You may know that in addition to this blog and my “normal” Twitter account, I also run the dedicated history account CryForByzantium. I started that account in 2009 to tweet the history of the Byzantine Empire, from 330 C.E. to 1453, in 140-character increments. I also wrote a novel called Zombies of Byzantium. I have a whole category on my blog full of articles about Byzantium. You might say that Byzantium is a particular interest of mine.
On CryForByzantium, I occasionally get @ replies accusing me of inaccuracy because I use the term “Byzantine” as if it is the indigenous name of the nation that might more properly be called the Eastern Roman Empire. This issue has also been raised with respect to Zombies of Byzantium, with one potential reader going so far as to say he wouldn’t read the book because of this “mistake.” Although the issue doesn’t come up often, the fact that it does continue to come up made me consider writing this blog to set the matter straight once and for all.
It is true, that as a matter of historical fact, the word “Byzantium” as applied to that empire that existed at least from 330, and fell in 1453, and whose capital was Constantinople, is inaccurate in the sense that it’s not what the people who lived in that empire used to refer to themselves or their country. They believed they were Romans, called themselves Romans, and saw their civilization as being a direct continuation of the Roman Empire that “fell” (also a misnomer) in 476. What actually happened was the Western Roman Empire “fell” in 476, and the Eastern Roman Empire continued on until 1453. Every one of the people who occupied the office of what we today call the Byzantine Emperor referred to himself (occasionally, herself) as “Emperor of the Romans.”
Byzantium was, technically, the name of a small port town on the Bosporus which was founded thousands of years ago. That town just happened to have the lucky fortune to be the site where Constantine the Great established his capital in 330. He couldn’t keep calling it Byzantium, so he renamed it Constantinople, after himself. (What an ego!)
This person may have called himself a Roman, but he never set foot in Rome and spent most of his life in a place called Constantinople (formerly Byzantium). Why isn’t it fair to call him a Byzantine?
The term Byzantium, as applied to the empire, was first used in 1556, a hundred years after the fall, but only in a poetic context. It was not until 1857 that George Finlay, a British historian, used the term “Byzantium” to identify this particular empire, partially as a way to distinguish it from the Western Roman Empire, which he (and many people) saw as a different place.
Love Finlay or hate him, the problem today is that you can’t call this particular empire anything but “Byzantium” and have anyone understand what you’re talking about. The term “Eastern Roman Empire” has been passé in the English-speaking world since at least 1857. Every book published in England since 1857–every biography of Justinian and Theodora, every book on the Fourth Crusade, every coffee-table volume full of mosaics and artwork from this empire–has used the term “Byzantium” to refer to this empire. Historians who study this empire call themselves “Byzantinists.” Rightly or wrongly, we, English-speakers in the modern world, have named this empire Byzantium.
In the defense of modern usage, the term “Rome,” even though it’s what the inhabitants of this empire called their own country, is not accurate either. Rome ceased to be a part of the Byzantine Empire fairly early in its history. A citizen of Constantinople in, say, 1000 C.E. calling himself a “Roman” is, you have to admit, guilty of wishful thinking. So calling this empire the “Roman Empire” isn’t accurate either.
“Byzantia victor!!!!!” Wait…I got that wrong. From Gladiator (Universal Pictures, 2000).
Think what would happen if I decided to defy this unfortunate feature of the modern world and circle the wagons on the supposed accuracy of the nomenclature. If my Twitter feed was called “CryForRome,” and was all about emperors dwelling in Constantinople, the vast majority of people following that account would be asking me, “What the hell are you talking about? This isn’t about Rome at all!” Conversely, if I called my novel Zombies of Rome, and readers open it to find it’s set in Constantinople in 717 C.E., I might be guilty of false advertising. Most readers would be looking for gladiators and sandals, not Orthodox priests. I simply couldn’t do it.
So, if you want a gold star for knowing that Byzantines called themselves Romans and not Byzantines, you’ve got one. Good for you. But my Twitter feed will continue to be called “CryForByzantium,” and you will continue to find my book under the title Zombies of Byzantium. It’s just the way things are. George Finlay may not have been technically right, but he settled the debate. Deal with it.