Sunday, October 24, 2021

When Did the Byzantines Stop Being Romans?

Were Byzantines Actually Roman?

The Deposition of Phocas
"The deposition of Phocas 610 AD." As discussed below, this forgotten event marked the end of the Roman Empire and the birth of the Byzantine Empire. Source: A. C. Weatherstone (1888–1929), "Hutchinson's History of the Nations," 1915.

The question of when Byzantines stopped considering themselves Roman is both extremely easy and equally difficult to answer. No matter how you answer this question decisively, you must leave out a perfectly acceptable answer that is directly contrary to the one you give.

This is because there is a difference between form and reality. In the law, it is the distinction between de jure and de facto. Byzantium was the legal heir to the Roman Empire (or at least the eastern half of it, as the rest that is a much murkier question). In form, the Byzantines never stopped being Roman. In reality, though, they stopped being Roman fairly early in the Byzantine Empire's history. The only real and interesting question is to pinpoint exactly when the break occurred.

And that is what I am going to do below.

Let me begin by saying I understand some of you reading this probably disagree with me. That's fine, because there is no definite answer to this question such as, "the freezing temperature of water is 32 degrees Celsius" unless you intentionally and decisively take one of the two routes I outlined just above. 

So, rather than just give you half the story, I'm going to go through both explanations. It's pretty clear which one I believe is more realistic. However, if you believe the opposite, that's okay. There will be plenty of people who think this answer is cut-and-dried, not open for debate, and completely agree with you.
Byzantine double-headed eagle on tapestry,
Textile Fragment with Double-Headed Eagles Islamic (Spain), 12th century. Silk. 29Í19 cm Achat à Chamonton, 1906. Inv. 28003. Musée des Tissus, Lyon.

The Easy Answer Is That The Byzantines Never Stopped Being Roman

The simplest answer is sometimes the best one, but not in this case: the Byzantines never stopped identifying as Romans. This will likely get you a solid "B" grade on your final, maybe even a B+ if you flesh it out well.

Incidentally, let me preface this by saying that no Byzantine would even recognize the term “Byzantine.” They called themselves Romans. Not Greeks, not Latins, not Byzantines - Romans. However, it is handy for us to call them Byzantines because we are in the communication business here, not “let us be historically correct to the point of incomprehensibility” game.

I've gone through why we call them Byzantines here, so I won't repeat myself. To be brief, we call them Byzantines because that refers to the name of the town that the Romans converted into Constantinople, the capital of the Eastern Roman Empire. The name "Byzantine" began to be used in the Middle Ages because it was a good way to differentiate between the classical Roman Empire based in Rome and the much different Empire based in Constantinople.

And that's the same reason why I use the term.

Right up to the last day of the Eastern Empire, the Byzantines considered themselves Roman. Thus, emperors such as Justinian I and the Comneni of the 12th Century engaged in repeated attempts to reconquer the lost Western Empire, which they considered rightfully theirs. This continued up until Michael VIII Palaiologos in the 13th Century, the last great Byzantine Emperor.

In fact, a pathetic Byzantine decree late in the Eastern Empire’s life gave England - by then a major world power - its independence. The Byzantines had never controlled any part of the British Isles even under the most favorable interpretation, since even at the point of Byzantium's founding the Western Emperor would have possessed it. We may laugh at the Byzantines' presumption now (as people surely did then), but the Byzantines took their hereditary claims very seriously.

The Byzantine repeated and failed attempts at religious unification with the Papacy that continued until the final years of the Byzantine Empire built upon this belief that the East and West were all just part of the same family. In fact, the Byzantines believed that the Patriarch of Constantinople was superior in authority to the Roman Pope even as Byzantine fortunes hit rock bottom. The Byzantine desire to “set things right” and return to a position of respect and even dominance in the boundaries of the former Western Empire never ended.

There's an obvious flaw in the Byzantine reasoning on this that you've likely already spotted. Imagining yourself to be a dog does not make you a dog even if you like to bark. Likewise, viewing yourself as Roman does not make you Roman.

If you live in Albuquerque and have never even been to Italy but consider yourself to be Roman, well, God bless you. That's just fine. It may be a bit awkward at times wearing a toga to the grocery store, but it's probably comfortable attire for you. Simply considering yourself to be Roman doesn't make you Roman even if your ancestors 2000 years ago were citizens of the Roman Empire. 

While the language of the court remained Latin, the population of Constantinople and the rest of the Byzantine Empire quickly (in Roman terms, we're talking about a 2000 year history) reverted to the local language, Greek. As time went on, Greek words began replacing or assuming prominence over ancient Latin terms such as "Caesar." That rank did remain, but was superseded by the Greek term "Basileus"  (Greek: βασιλεύς).

If the leader of the nation has a rank using a Greek term, that's a pretty clear indication that Greek is the primary language.
Emperor Justinian
Emperor Justinian, a mosaic made during his lifetime and his only known contemporaneous image that has survived to modern times.

The Nuanced Answer: Eastern Romans Became Byzantines As Their Culture Adapted To Their Surroundings

Now, this is in my view the correct way to answer this question even though it rubs a lot of people the wrong way. There's something about the prestige of calling yourself Roman that exists today and also existed during the Byzantine Empire.

The Byzantines retained the form and illusion of being Roman while actually becoming something completely different. It's analogous to a caterpillar turning into a butterfly. Is a butterfly still a caterpillar just because it considers itself to still be a caterpillar? You decide.

In fact, there is a particular turning point that marks the dividing line between the Roman and Greek (Byzantine) empires. This is the view provided by Byzantine historian George Ostrogorsky in his "The History of the Byzantine State" and I fully subscribe to it.

The process of turning from Roman to Greek peaked during the reign of Heraclius, the Emperor of the Byzantine Empire from 610 to 641. Heraclius is one of those pivotal figures in world history who is all but forgotten. He should be remembered because he had more impact on history than any other Byzantine emperor and most of the Roman ones, too.

Heraclius did amazing things and faced monumental challenges that changed the political landscape forever. He finally defeated the creaking old Persian Empire, a goal of Rome for centuries. You'd think he'd be a world-famous leader for having done this, but there was a fly in the ointment.

The problem for Heraclius' reputation is that, after finally eliminating the Persians, Heraclius also failed to adequately defend the Empire from the resulting Arab Muslim invasion. It is impossible to overestimate the impact of these two things - the defeat of the Persians and the rise of the Arabs Muslims - on the politics of post-classical Middle Eastern history.

But there's more to the Heraclius story! Even those two dramatic things were not the main epochal shift that occurred during his reign. He also began the development of the Byzantine Themes. 

Now, you may not be familiar with Themes outside of how you create websites, but the development of the Themes was one of the most influential political strategies in history. They are the true legacy of Heraclius and one of the prime legacies of the entire Byzantine state.

Themes were regional groupings somewhat akin to modern counties or parishes but on a much larger scale. In England, they are called civil parishes. They are used for local administrative control because the government of the entire nation has great trouble focusing on local issues. It is like the difference between your school board and Congress or Parliament or whatever your national legislative body is called. Sure, laws passed in Congress are paramount and apply to all the counties/parishes. However, your local county is what takes care of the streets and parks and trash collection and million things of immediate impact on you and your family.

Themes were even more important than your local County government. Their local leaders raised troops, collected taxes, and had a great deal of influence on the makeup of the national government. The Byzantine Empire desperately needed this innovation because central control was falling apart due to the repeated and devastating invasions by nearby hostile powers.

This internal reorganization strengthened the Eastern Empire and enabled it to survive for another 800 years despite repeated invasions. Themes weren't perfect - their leaders could be quite troublesome for the national government at times - but they quickly became the backbone of the Byzantine state and transformed it into something new.

Oh, above I mentioned that a major sign that Byzantium became its own separate empire apart from the Roman Empire was the adoption of the Greek word "Basileus" as the title for its leaders. Guess which Byzantine Emperor was the first to adopt that title? If you guessed Heraclius, you win the gold prize.

The world at large recognized Constantinople as leading a Greek empire following the reign of Heraclius. After the Arabs reached the Mediterranean, they took to calling it the "Greek Sea." This became the common way to refer to it, not "Mare Nostrum" as the Romans called it. Thus, it is not some latter-day corruption or misinformation to characterize the medieval Byzantine state as Greek in orientation.

Heraclius was the dividing line between classical civilization and the Middle Ages. 
Young Basil II
Young Basil II of the Macedonian dynasty, by JFoliveras (source Deviantart).

Justinian, Phocas, and Basil II Demonstrate The Differences Between The Late Roman and Byzantine Periods

Sometimes, a change becomes more obvious when you compare and contrast conditions before the change and after. You can slip on ice but drown in water. That's a pretty big difference. There were similar big differences in Byzantium before the reign of Heraclius and afterward.

Justinian, who ruled decades before Heraclius, was a great Emperor but had a backward-looking frame of reference. His dreams were not to create something new, but to restore the greatness that had been. He accomplished great things, amazing things, but his dreams of reviving and restoring the classical Roman Empire were impossible to achieve or sustain.

Emperor Phocas, who reigned in Constantinople from 602 to 610 A.D. and directly preceded Heraclius, retained this Roman orientation. Apparently, he wasn't much of an emperor and his subjects hated him. However, Phocas marks a dramatic turning point in world history from the classical world that is overlooked.

If you ever visit Rome, you'll likely visit the Roman Forum. I highly recommend it. You'll have a great, sentimental walk through all the old ruins, the monuments, the buildings, the brothels, and the temples. The most recent addition to the Forum is a monumental column that is known as the Column of Phocas. He erected it after declaring Rome "the head of all churches." Most people don't pay it much mind, but it's one of the most significant items there.

Erecting a monument in the Roman Forum is something no true Byzantine Emperor would ever consider doing. The Byzantine Emperors jealously guarded the preeminence of their own throne and their Patriarch. In fact, that's what ultimately led to the Great Schism between the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches in the 11th Century. Nobody after Phocas lavished so much attention on Rome or dreamed of glorifying himself in the Roman Forum.

For me, the Column of Phocas is the saddest monument in Rome. There it stands, defiantly pointing toward the heavens, marking the actual end of the Roman Empire.

Another great Byzantine Emperor who followed Heraclius by several hundred years illustrates the difference. Basil II, who reigned from 960-1025 A.D., had no illusions such as those held by Justinian. He did not dream of restoring the glory of Rome. Instead, he focused on the issues of the Byzantine State and did a great job, about as good as Justinian at trying to fulfill his dreams.

For instance, Basil II eliminated once and for all the threat posed by the Bulgarian Empire in the Balkans by defeating its armies and eliminating its troops. It was Basil II who ordered the famous blinding of 15,000 Bulgarian troops that caused their king to have a stroke and drop dead on his throne. Basil II also pushed back the invaders from the East while making only mild efforts to the West.

These differences make Justinian a Roman-style Emperor and Basil II a true Byzantine Emperor. The dividing line between them was Heraclius and the events that happened during his pivotal reign.
The Column of Phocas
The Column of Phocas in the Roman Forum.


So, to sum up, the easy and glib answer is that the Byzantines never stopped identifying as Romans. The more subtle and correct answer is that at some point the Eastern Roman Empire evolved into a Greek Empire (I resist the term “Hellenization,” which suggests a return to classical roots which did not happen). This was a gradual process that lasted for centuries, indeed for the entire life of the Empire. The change had its most decisive moments occur during the reign of Heraclius.

We can quibble about whether the Eastern Roman Empire became the Byzantine Empire in the 5th Century or the 7th Century or the 9th Century or the 10th Century or even later. There is no “bright line” to signify the change because the Byzantines themselves did not provide us with one. They clung to their tradition, their grand and glorious, their romantic and historical connection with the Rome of Augustus and Hadrian. They did this long after those men and their language and culture and titles and territory had become distant memories.

In my view, based on my studies, the Byzantines essentially stopped being Romans during the reign of Heraclius. At that point, around 620 A.D., the Byzantine state became the medieval Greek empire  - the Byzantine Empire - that we remember and that left Rome behind.
The Fall of Constantinople 1453
The Fall of Constantinople 1453.