Rome is one of the most globally-discussed civilizations in history. Stories such as the Punic Wars with Carthage or Caesar’s assassination have been repeatedly dramatized and mythologized for centuries, whether by TV producers or William Shakespeare. Even after the state had collapsed, there were many Eurasian and American societies that appropriated Roman institutions, conventions, and aesthetics. Think of the neoclassical architecture in Washington D.C. and Paris (e.g., Union Station or the Arc de Triomphe), or the use of Latin in the American justice system. Some states, such as Russia or the Ottomans, even proclaimed themselves the inheritors of the Roman Empire. Our fascination with the Romans carries on to this day.
It then may surprise you to learn that for century after century, Anglophone historians and political leaders have asserted that roughly half of Rome’s multi-thousand-year existence wasn’t “Roman.” While we have allowed the Romans to call themselves Roman before 330 C.E., we have drawn a line in the sand there, and the state and people that continued past that point in time were posthumously rechristened with a new name in the 19th century: Byzantium.
Why did we make this distinction? After all, there were no major disruptions or revolutions that year. The Roman people did not stop calling themselves “Roman” in 330, nor did they long after the state’s collapse in 1453 C.E. Rome’s neighbors — Arabs, Iranians, and Turks — continued to recognize them as Romans. So, why don’t we?
The answer is complex, as one might expect with a millennial controversy, but is also imminently relevant to the politics of today. In my mind, the fraying of 20th-century institutions and the rise of ethno-nationalist sentiments across the globe prompt examining the genesis and entropy of identity. And what better subject to examine than the Romans.
Romulus and Constantine
In order to examine the evolution of Roman identity, let’s quickly recap the story of Rome.
The city of Rome was founded in the 8th-century B.C.E, which is ancient for a modern, western European city but quite late for the classical Mediterranean. Egyptian civilization predated the founding of Rome for thousands of years. Yet, the Romans cultivated their own mythology that linked their ancestry to the Anatolian city of Troy (which was mostly a fabrication).
Rome remained a political backwater for several centuries until the 200s B.C.E when it initiated a period of relentless expansion. By the death of Trajan in 117 C.E. The Romans were sovereigns of a territory that stretched from modern Portugal in the west to Iraq in the east, and from Egypt in the south to the United Kingdom in the north.
Military conquest and diplomatic annexations were the main drivers of expansion, but what solidified Rome’s control of its new territories was its cultural adaptability, such as the practice of expanding citizenship. Roman ethnicity evolved rapidly with the state’s growth, incorporating a diversity of peoples, languages, and traditions — even the men who led the Roman Empire were from diverse geographies, such as Hispania and Syria. New religions were absorbed into the culture, just as Roman cities, architecture, and administration were implemented across the Mediterranean and beyond. While the peoples outside of the Roman state were othered (Roman authors viewed foreigners often, but not always, with contempt), a significant number of peoples within Rome were included as Roman over time (e.g., the Celtic peoples of Gaul, Samnites, Illyrians, Carthaginians, etc.), so long as they adhered to Roman administration and cultural signifiers.
Important for our story, the people who were known as the Greeks were incorporated into the Roman state during its period of rapid expansion and became an integral population in the eastern half of the empire. Greek had been adopted as a lingua franca following the conquests of Alexander the Great, so the Greek language and Hellenic culture were widely entrenched across the modern Middle East and North Africa long before the Roman Empire arrived on the scene. However, the Greeks were not new to Roman culture. The Romans had already absorbed Greek-speaking peoples prior to their push east. Dialects of Greek were spoken in southern Italy and on the island of Sicily, in Corsica and Sardinia, as well as in the street of Rome itself — all of this to say that contrary to the old narrative of Greek being a “tolerated,” “oriental,” “colonized” language, it was quite pervasive and spoken by a significant portion of the Roman population long before its formal adoption.
This brings us to the relevant period of Roman history. Following the rise of the Greek language and a subsequent political crisis known as the “Crisis of the Third Century,” the Roman elite recognized that the state needed to be reorganized. Diocletian, emperor from 284–305, formally divided Rome into an ill-fated tetrarchy. While his structure didn’t stick, his successor, Emperor Constantine the Great, reoriented the heart of the empire. Constantine consecrated Rome’s new capital city of Constantinople (then “Nuova Roma,” now Istanbul, Turkey) atop the old Greek town of Byzantion (Βυζάντιον).
The foundation of Constantinople is seen as a major turning point in the history of Rome, Europe, the Middle East, and the Mediterranean. The capital city, with its massive walls and strategic location, insulated the heart of the state from countless invasions and grew to be the largest city in Europe for centuries. It ensured the continuation of the Roman state for an additional 1,100 years, well past when the western Roman Empire whittled away in the 400s.
And over the millennium following Constantinople’s foundation, the empire changed quite a bit. Its borders significantly fluctuated, often excluding the state’s birth city of Rome. In fact, Constantinople was the capital of Rome for a longer period of time than the city of Rome itself. Organized Christianity became the dominant religion, as the empire founded the first Christian Church (what is today Orthodox Christianity). Finally, and most importantly for our narrative, the language that we today call Greek gradually supplanted Latin as the official language of the state, given that it had been the majority language in the empire for some time.
That last point is key to understanding the 19th-century reinvention of Rome, for it is central to the narrative tradition of denying medieval Romans their identity.
The Birth of “Byzantium”
The crux of the argument for rebranding medieval Rome is: because the city of Rome was no longer the capital of the state, and because the language and religion of the Roman people changed (from Latin and Hellenism to Greek and Christianity, respectively), they were categorically no longer Romans and their claims of being Romans were artiface. Nevermind that those changes occurred gradually over centuries and that the state was a continuum of ancient Rome.
The efforts to obfuscate the Roman ethnicity and political claims started long before the Roman state ceased to exist, yet they became thoroughly pervasive around two-hundred years ago in a time when modern states were engaged in nation-building exercises.
A number of European intellectuals and elite in the 19th century subscribed to the tenuous and roundly-discredited idea of there being an imagined, unbroken line between themselves and groups of people that lived thousands of years ago (e.g., the claims that modern Germans were the same people as the ancient Cherusci tribe). This ideology, of course, was mythologizing and contributed to the dangerous political beliefs in the 20th century that caused genocide on a colossal scale. Yet, the desire to connect our societies of today to the past is still tempting to some. The controversial 19th-century statue of Hermann (or Arminius, as known to the Romans) that still stands in western Germany is such a symbol.
It was in this period of mythologizing the past, half a century before World War II, that the term “Byzantine Empire” first popularly appeared, intended to describe the Roman Empire from 330–1453 C.E.
This term hadn’t materialized from thin air. There was a strong tradition in western European societies, such as France and the German territories, to call the Romans by other names. This often stemmed from animus and realpolitik, such as the medieval German emperors stylizing themselves as “Holy Roman” emperors in competition with the actual Roman emperors in Constantinople. After the Roman state’s collapse in 1453, its reputation in western Europe did not fare better. Edward Gibbon, an 18th-century English historian famous for his multi-voluminous history of Rome, lambasted the medieval Romans for their supposed religiosity and duplicity (which were recycled, old, racist tropes from early-medieval writers). Up until the 19th century, it was common in western European academia to label the later Roman Empire the “Empire of the Greeks,” due to the language the medieval Romans spoke. As noted before: this was only common in western Europe. As contemporary scholar Leonora Neville illustrates, the “Byzantines” (and their immediate neighbors) never understood themselves as Greeks.
The convention “Empire of the Greeks” ended as a consequence of two major events: the rise of 19th century essentialist thinking, and the Greek Revolution (1821–1830). The propagators of the Greek Revolution, influenced by racial essentialism, claimed that their contemporary ethnic identity was the same as the ancient Greeks — nevermind that around two-thousand years had elapsed between the disruption and end of ancient Greek civilization and the genesis of modern Greek identity in the 19th century (and that a significant portion of the people living in the territory of Greece did not call themselves Greek at the time, but we will get to that in a bit). Nevertheless, the agents of the revolution contrasted themselves with the Ottoman government in Constantinople, the former capital of the Roman Empire.
The Greek Revolution created a new problem for the contemporary European empires in how they interpreted the medieval Roman Empire. The 19th century was a time when the “balance of powers” diplomacy was paramount. While empires like those of the British, Austrians, and Russians were powerful, the Ottoman Empire was in a state of serious decline. If historians continued to identify medieval Rome as the “Empire of the Greeks,” then that could popularly legitimize Greek political claims over Constantinople and Asia Minor (i.e., the Megali Idea), which could destabilize European politics. Thus, the term “Byzantine Empire” came into use to maintain the status quo as much as possible.
The advantage of the term “Byzantine” was that it was — and still is — void of meaning. The term did not correspond with the ancient Greeks, the modern Greeks, nor the Romans. No one in the multi-thousand-year existence of the Roman state used the word “Byzantine” as a demonym. No other civilization — from the Arabs to the Rus to the French — referred to the Roman people or their state as “Byzantine.” So, why use it? The only purpose the term served was one of obfuscation.
The real identity of the “Byzantines”
In his book Romanland, scholar Anthony Kaldellis calls upon centuries of Roman sources to clarify the nature of the “Byzantine Empire” and its ethnic majority.
“What we call Byzantium was a Roman polity populated overwhelmingly by identifiable ethnic Romans and a number of ethnic minorities. “Roman” was not an elite court identity or a literary affect: it was a nationality that extended to most of the population regardless of its location, occupation, gender, and class (i.e., roughly to all who were Greek-speaking and Orthodox). It was common Romans who [called] their state Romanía, ‘Romanland’… [and] their language Romaic.” — Kaldellis, 271.
Kaldellis washes away the muddied distortions to reveal the Romans as they were, arguing not just for the state’s identity but for its people’s claims to be taken seriously. Specifically, he argues against the 19th-century reinvention of Rome, or — more directly — that the majority of the population living in medieval Rome were not ethnically Greek, but Roman.
But, what does it mean to be “ethnically Roman” or “ethnically Greek?” Ethnic identity is a social category based on a variety of non-mutually-exclusive, potentially exchangeable, non-exhaustive components: 1) an ethnonym (i.e., a recognizable group name, such as “Kurdish” or “Japanese”); 2) an origin myth or a belief in common descent; 3) a collective memory (either real or mythological); 4) shared language; 5) shared customs or laws; 6) shared religion; 7) geographic associations; 8) a sense of solidarity, and; 9) both internal and external perceptions of difference from other groups.
While these components are powerful in the human imagination, it is important to note that none of them are fixed or predetermined. Ethnic identities can come into being (i.e., “ethnogenesis”), “swap out” components over time (e.g., the Islamization of Albanians), or fade from existence. History is replete with examples of all three phenomena, such as Hellenization under Alexander the Great and his successors, or the disappearance of the Pechenegs, who did not “die out,” but rather were absorbed into different cultural groups over time. There are even shifts and formations occurring today, such as the growing Taiwanese identity that has been taking shape over the past century. This conceptualization of ethnicity is widely-accepted across academia; however, it was not applied to the medieval Roman civilization until recently.
From the 19th century to the late-20th century, it was widely believed that the majority ethnicity in medieval Rome was Greek. After all, they spoke a language that the world ubiquitously call Greek today; furthermore, that language was descended from ancient Greek, which is mutually-intelligible. The Romans practiced the same religion as the Greek people of today — Orthodox Christianity — and occupied similar geography to the modern Greeks, along with the modern Turks and Kurds. So, why shouldn’t we call them Greek-speaking Greeks living in Byzantium? Why shouldn’t assume that, since there were Greeks in antiquity and Greeks today, the people that existed between must also have been Greek?
The answer, of course, is that it didn’t reflect their reality, but the one in which we live today. The “Byzantine Greeks” solely referred to themselves as Roman for over one-thousand years — with virtually no one considering themselves Greek. While the language they spoke at that time was not Latin and their geography was centered on Constantinople instead of Rome, they considered all of the components of ethnicity to be Roman markers, not Greek. They were Romans (Ρωμαίοι) speaking Romeika (Ρωμαίικα) and lived in Romanía (Ρωμανία), the name with which they commonly referred to their state as early as the 3rd century. They dressed like Romans, practiced Roman law and religion, and contrasted themselves with foreigners, ethnic minorities in their state (e.g., Slavs, Jews, Armenians, Arabs), and with the ancient Greek people. The Romans viewed the ancient Greeks similarly to how we would view the ancient Babylonians or the Huns — peoples largely disconnected from our own societies. As Kaldellis demonstrates, Romans living in 10th-century Asia Minor traced their mythology back to the Italian Peninsula, not to Greek colonization.
In fact, ethnic Roman identity continued into the 19th century. There were peoples living in the new state of Greece and the collapsing Ottoman Empire that spoke the same tongue but called themselves by different names (“Greek” and “Roman,” respectively). Simultaneously, there were Romans living in the territory of Greece that resisted becoming Greek.
To be explicit: the facts above should not be used to denigrate or deny the modern Greek ethnic identity. There is objectively a Greek nation today with millions of people that are Greek, just as there were millions of people for millennia who were Roman. “Byzantium,” however, is a completely-imagined political construction that removes the agency of a people that existed for thousands of years.
With no Romans left to defend themselves, it falls on outsiders to rectify their erasure and demonstrate that our narratives and pop-cultural understandings of medieval Rome do not reflect reality. As a student of history, I’ve been amazed at how a field could deny such a basic fact as an ethnicity for centuries when the evidence for its existence remains in abundance. Is a group of people able to identify themselves indefinitely, or does their identity ultimately rely on how others perceive them?
I would hope that the answer would not be mutually exclusive, but if so, then the latter part of the question would have rather dark implications. If a group’s self-identity holds no intrinsic value, then history can be warped and future humans can erase an entire ethnicity from collective memory. There are descructive forces in contemporary politics that already mobilize such strategies, whether they’re distorting the past with abstractions or linking mythologized cultural struggles to contemporary politics, all with the aim to attack and erase groups of people that their proponents dislike. These falsehoods need to be rectified.
This is why the term “Byzantium,” a product of 19th-century politics that surprisingly outlived the environment that gave birth to it, is long overdue for retirement. The truth of the matter is that no matter what pre-21st century western European scholars and politicians called them, the Romans were Romans.