What’s a Byzantine? The problem of what to call an empire.

720px-Empress_Zoe_mosaic_Hagia_Sophia

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!)

justinian big

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.

7 Comments on What’s a Byzantine? The problem of what to call an empire.

  1. Sean: haters gon’ hate. You do epic work. More epic work, please ;D

  2. Wonderful article Sean. I know first hand how passionate you are about Byzantium ! It seems I can’t view the epic scene from Gladiator below. I keep getting “This video is not available in your country”

  3. vincentoreilly // April 6, 2014 at 12:31 pm // Reply

    There is just no pleasing some people. Byzantium is practical (not to mention exotic.) They just enjoy nit picking. Your article is entirely accurate and should, in fact, be unnecessary by now. It’s been long settled; like cruise missiles aren’t that because they’re not missiles (like a baseball or cannon shot is.) They’re pilotless jet aircraft, but try getting that through an appropriations committee or hyped in the media. I would mention that J B Bury referred to the Later Roman Empire but that was for Byzantium’s early centuries. I’ve long felt that in the middle ages the term Roman took on the meaning of Christian. The medieval world did think of the non-Persian, non-Muslim world as one loosely associated body spiritually centered on Rome and politically on Constantinople. Even today the Orthodox churches give the place of honor to Rome as the seat of Peter and the most ancient patriarchate. On another matter, I’m sure you know more about it than I do but my understanding was that Constantine just called the city Nova Roma and that Constantinople evolved as a popular nickname. If I recall correctly, official documents would say “New Rome which is Constantinople” (or vice versa.) Or am I myself just picking at nits?

  4. Just want to offer a correction–that caption for Justinian mentions that he didn’t speak Latin, when in fact that was his native language (and I believe he was the last Roman/Byzantine Emperor to ever speak it natively). Otherwise, a great article!
    Although I do prefer the name “Eastern Roman Empire” myself–and I hope that eventually “catches” as people get more interested in it–I don’t mind the words “Byzantine” and “Byzantium” too much (John Romer in “Byzantium: The Lost Empire” rightly called it “that magic spicy word”) except for the fact that it doesn’t convey its “Romanness” at all, especially to people who may have overlooked it studying history. I do think in a lot of people’s minds, “Byzantium” and “the Byzantine Empire” conjures up images of Greek Orthodox churches, mosaics, and court intrigues, whereas “Eastern Roman Empire,” for me, at least hints at that “Roman reality” still going on–chariot races, aqueducts, Roman architecture, the Roman army, etc. Of course anybody who really reads up on it anything past the surface level finds these things pretty quickly, and the names don’t matter as much. Looking back on it though on the history of the name though, it does seem kind of odd to “rename” something with a name that nobody had used for it in about 1400 years–imagine if a historian in the near future decided to call modern France the “Republic of Gaul” or Croatia the “Republic of Dalmatia”!
    There is one good thing I can think of about the name “Byzantium” though, and maybe this was not intentional on that scholar’s part (I haven’t read his work, so I don’t know)–Byzantium began as a Greek town, became occupied by Latin-speaking Romans, only to morph into a Greek-dominated Roman Empire a few centuries later, both linguistically and culturally, so to me this hints at the “Greekness” of it better than the other names.

  5. I think its just a matter of convenience. It allows us to separate the cultural break between the old pagan, western empire and new predominantly christian east. As long as you know the difference between the names and know that they didn’t call themselves that your fine. Like Lee Walker said: haters gon’ hate

  6. vincentoreilly // June 20, 2014 at 2:23 pm // Reply

    As always I am in complete agreement with you, but to nit pick a bit. Re the image of Justinian. He did in fact speak Latin but was the last emperor to do so. I had a bit of a spat with someone on Reddit because I suggested that his speech was a bit barbarized but by that I meant it was Latin evolving just as French and Spanish did.

    I’m not so sure that Constantine named the city after himself. I’ve always had the sense that it was a nickname that stuck (Constantine’s City.) I could be wrong about that but official Byzantine documents always said “Constantinople which is New Rome” (or perhaps vice versa.)

    Finally, J B Bury called his book a History of The Later Roman Empire but it was only dealing with what is now called more accurately the post classical world.

    Justinian wanted to “restore” the extent of the old empire. He was in every sense Roman except that the meaning of that term had expanded with the victory of Christianity. It isn’t pagan statues that made the empire Roman. It was the unity which continued as people began to associate the term Roman with a single Christian vision.

    That vision encompassed more than Byzantine territory so it is necessary to separate Byzantium as a state from Roman as meaning Christian. In that sense it never lost its meaning of a more or less shared religion until the term was hijacked by the popes.

    More serious is when the Byzantines are called Greeks to disparage them. (For example by the Goths in Italy even though the bulk of Belisarius’ conquering army were foederati.) If Byzantium was not Roman it also was not Greek. It still held much of the Holy Land, the Balkans, and Egypt and North Africa before the Arab conquest and its culture was a mix of all of them.

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