The Elusive Byzantine Empire(historytoday.com)
It's tricky to define the beginning the Byzantine Empire because the Byzantine Empire is a construct invented by Western historians.
> To begin at the beginning is tricky. Did the empire begin when the emperor > Constantine moved his capital from Rome to Constantinople in 324? When the > city was consecrated by both pagan and Christian priests in May 330? Or did > it begin in 395 when the two halves of the vast Roman empire were officially > divided into East and West, or even later in the late 5th century when Rome > was sacked, conquered and governed by the Goths, leaving Constantinople and > the East as the sole heir of the empire?
The Byzantine Empire is just the Roman Empire.
Yes and no. The Byzantine Empire is a continuation of the Roman Empire, but it is not the continuation of the Roman Empire. Saying that the Byzantine Empire is just the Roman Empire masks the fact that it really is a Ship of Theseus situation: in terms of administration, culture, military practices, etc., there is rather more discontinuity between the Roman Empire of 200 and the Byzantine Empire of 800, although the changes were gradual and not sudden.
A good comparison is to Chinese history. The Chinese tend to argue that they have a continuous empire stretching back to the Xia dynasty (or the Qin dynasty, depending on how much credence you give to the historicity of Xia, Shang, and Zhou dynasties), albeit broken up into distinct dynasties. Yet this is similarly not quite so truthful--China was often fragmented into warring polities with no clear hegemon, and there are times when even the Chinese historians couldn't maintain the pretense that there was on (say, the Three Kingdoms period).
Western historiography does emphasize the discontinuity rather than the continuity, and it is wrong, but so is emphasizing the continuity and ignoring the discontinuity.
It's worth noting that the term Byzantine was invented in late 16th century, way after the empire collapsed.
Between 330-1453 AD, it was called the Roman Empire. To this day, the Greek ethnic minority living in Istanbul call themselves Rum, meaning Roman.
After the Ottomans invaded Istanbul, they claimed themselves as the legitimate successors to the Roman Empire. Those in Western Europe weren't too happy. So they coined the term Byzantine to discredit the Roman Empire's legitimacy. Byzantine was the name given to Istanbul prior to the Roman Empire, in 657 BC.
If you ask some Rums living in Istanbul today, it was a big PR campaign to discredit the Roman Empire's legacy post 330 AD. It worked nicely.
>> To this day, the Greek ethnic minority living in Istanbul call themselves Rum, meaning Roman.
That's all Greeks. We all call ourselves "Romioi", i.e. "Romans". We also call ourselves Hellenes, like in ancient times and "Graikoi", which is also an ancient word for "Greek".
We call ourselves lots of things. It proves nothing.
Greeks also called (and still do) themselves "romioi". Ottomans also called them Rum.
To some extent at least, any country/empire/polity is a ship of theseus.
Is the US the same polity that was founded by the American revolutionaries? The geography is more different than similar. The social order (eg slavery, voting rights) changed. The political system (from pre/post civil war) changed. Is it still the same ship?
How about "England" or "Britain." Is the UK a successor to Alfred's kingdom? Successor to the Norman empire (Cyprus, Lebanon, Sicily, Jerusalem, Normandy...)?
Lines of continuity and discontinuity are usually narrative and subjective.
Ultimately, the reason western historians considered the Byzantines separate is because (a) they spoke Greek and (b) they didn't have Italy and (c) there were/are western claimants to the "successor of Rome" seat.
>Saying that the Byzantine Empire is just the Roman Empire masks the fact that it really is a Ship of Theseus situation
Not at all, it is simply an objectively correct statement. What we call the "Byzantine Empire" is the eastern portion of the Roman Empire that persisted after Rome and the Western portion fell. This isn't a matter of opinion. It was a continuous political entity.
The Chinese example is not comparable and, as you note, simply dishonest. While you could try to argue about cultural continuity, politically China experienced a series of polities rising, collapsing, and being conquered by foreign invaders.
>Western historiography does emphasize the discontinuity rather than the continuity, and it is wrong, but so is emphasizing the continuity and ignoring the discontinuity.
There is no discontinuity. Changes in language, culture, etc. don't change the fact that it was the continuing portion of the Roman Empire. If the United States exists in 500 years, whatever its makeup or territory, it will still be the United States if the political entity did not end.
> There is no discontinuity. Changes in language, culture, etc. don't change the fact that it was the continuing portion of the Roman Empire.
Would you insist that it Taiwan should really be considered the same thing as China? Both Taiwan and the Byzantines are rump portions of their larger entities, and both of them also faced other polities that also claimed be to legitimate heirs to the original mother entity. (The Carolingian Empire claimed to be a legitimate heir of the Roman Empire).
Before about the 19th century, the notion of countries and the state existing as separate from the writs of its rulers doesn't really exist, which makes trying to draw political maps in the Middle Ages and Antiquity rather difficult. I wouldn't call the Frankish kingdoms under the Merovingian and Carolingian dynasties France--definitely no earlier than the development of West Francia, and it's not hard to argue that France doesn't start until the Capetian dynasty in 987. Note that the Capetian dynasty ruled in nearly-unbroken passing from father to son (or grandson or great-grandson) until 1789. I'd also agree with those historians who consider the Byzantine Empire to end in the Fourth Crusade, as opposed to the Ottoman Empire's conquest of Constantinople or the subsequent conquest of Trebizond.
>Both Taiwan and the Byzantines are rump portions of their larger entities
The "Byzantine Empire" wasn't a rump portion at the time of the fall of the Western Empire. It was the other way around: the Eastern Empire was the wealthy and powerful section while the Western Empire had been slowly weakening and collapsing for centuries. It was a rump portion of the East, if anything, when it fell, reduced to just the Italian peninsula and a few other minor holdings while being propped up by Germanic forces.
It's not really comparable to Taiwan because, when the Western Empire fell, the Empire had two legal capitals and two legal co-Emperors. The Eastern Empire simply persisted when the Western Empire finally gave its last gasp and was snuffed out by Odoacer, so it makes no sense to call it a different polity. Odoacer and his successors also made no claim to being the new Emperors of Rome to contest the rule of the Eastern Empire; in fact, it was exactly this rejection of the Imperial title that marked the end of the Western Empire, whereas in earlier days Odoacer or someone else would have claimed the mantle. That's how worthless it had become by then.
The Eastern Empire would certainly go on to evolve and change over the next 1000 years, but that doesn't make it a different entity.
>I wouldn't call the Frankish kingdoms under the Merovingian and Carolingian dynasties France
Neither would they, since that concept didn't exist at the time. But do you know what the "Byzantines" called themselves?
The way I figure the Roman Empire (and I realize this is not the usual historiography, definitely not what is presented in school textbooks), the Roman Empire ceased to exist as a de facto polity with the Crisis of Third Century. While Diocletian's partition of the empire was meant to be administrative and not political, the notion of an Eastern/Western divide did persist. The taxation spiral of the Western Roman Empire caused it to collapse, where it recoalesced into the Carolingian Kingdom, while the Eastern Roman Empire lived on as the Byzantine Empire. I don't draw a meaningful distinction between the Byzantine Empire and the Eastern Roman Empire, but I do draw a distinction between the Eastern Roman Empire and the pre-Crisis Roman Empire.
And yes, I'm well aware that the Byzantines only ever referred to themselves as Romans. But so did the Sultanate of Rum, and no one argues that the Sultanate of Rum should be considered the Roman Empire.
> there is rather more discontinuity between the Roman Empire of 200 and the Byzantine Empire of 800 although the changes were gradual and not sudden.
a discontinuity that is gradual and not sudden is a continuity, and i think you are overemphasizing the ethnicity of emperors. Justinian was just as ambitious (and murderous) as any imperial era emperor.
Sure but that's true of just about any state. Assuming the US still exists in 600 years it will look very different than it does today.
I agree with you. They called themselves Romans until the very end, and the claim isn’t dubious as all their institutions and wealth were from an unbroken Roman origin (well as unbroken as anything in pre-324 Roman history itself).
> They called themselves Romans until the very end
And to this day the Turks call the Greeks in Turkey Romans.
If the language, architecture, religion, sphere of influence, culture & laws were all completely different why wouldn’t you distinguish it?
We distinguish between the Roman Republic vs Roman Empire and in lots of ways they had much more in common than the Byzantine.
>If the language, architecture, religion, sphere of influence, culture & laws were all completely different why wouldn’t you distinguish it?
Because it was a single, continuous political entity. Why would any of those aspects have any relevance as to whether the political entity of Rome persisted?
>We distinguish between the Roman Republic vs Roman Empire and in lots of ways they had much more in common than the Byzantine.
Because there was a break in the political entity, though even this is a anachronistic division since Augustus and the emperors of the "Principate" took pains to maintain the appearance of the continuation of the Republic. But the reality was, at least, that the nature of the Roman state had changed into a new and different one.
"Because it was a single, continuous political entity."
It really wasn't. There were various major changes in the constitution of the Roman Empire between the reign of Augustus and the time of the Byzantines, especially during the reign of Diocletian.
But that didn't make a different entity. Sure the Principate differed from the Dominate, but it was all continuously the Roman Empire. At the time the Western portion of the Empire fell it was legally controlled by two emperors in two capitals. The Eastern capital and emperor persisted. There's really nothing more to discuss.
The US Constitution has also undergone a number of changes since the founding, and society is very different than it was 300 years ago, yet it would be absurd to say it's not the same entity.
Internal changes are just that: internal changes. The Empire itself never fell until 1453.
Even the distinction between republic and empire may be incorrect. They called themselves res publica the entire time. I mean, if they’re considering themselves Roman Republicans, how much can we look back and contradict them?
Would the Romans who cut their hands off rather than submit to a king, who viewed the Greeks as indolent & corrupted, look at the Byzantines and think “those are Romans?”
We of course can’t know but it shows that what the last of the Byzantine’s called themselves is not necessarily the end of the discussion.
>We of course can’t know but it shows that what the last of the Byzantine’s called themselves is not necessarily the end of the discussion.
Agreed. Always an interesting discussion.
> We distinguish between the Roman Republic vs Roman Empire
Not to a great extent. People doing detailed historical work on the relevant era would, sure, but general popular history probably wouldn't.
Rome had Greek as an official language even back during the "real" Roman Empire.
Religion? I'm not sure I get the point, they were Christian, some would say, they were the actual "real" Christians :)
Sphere of influence? Can you even quantify that?
Culture, see language above.
Laws? They had Roman laws + laws added during the normal evolution of a state. More than that, the Justinian code was also adopted by Western countries...
I strongly disagree. The proper meaning of words is established by usage, and it often changes over time. Historians have long used the term Byzantine Empire to refer to the Eastern Roman Empire, and this usage confuses no one who has any familiarity with the history.
The only alternative theory of proper linguistic meaning is that it is based on perfect, permanent, non-material essences, as in Platonism.
But then what is the Holy Roman Empire?
An artificial construct which had nothing to do with the actual Roman Empire. I'd quote Voltaire but that quote is so tired now, I'll just let it rest.
For those interested, the excellent History of Byzantium podcast is covering the entire history of the empire, from the fall of the western empire, up to the sack of Constantinople. It gets pretty in-depth, with each episode covering a distinct event or topic, and stops every century to give a survey of what's going beyond the empire's borders and broad changes in the lives of its people and their culture.
I really enjoyed the 12 Byzantine Rulers podcast too, along with the accompanying book Lost To The West
And of course, the History of Rome podcast sets the stage for the development of the Byzantine Empire.
The History of Byzantium was initially intended to be a continuation of that podcast.
I also recommend the Fall of Rome podcast:
All of the above have utterly changed my perspective on world history.
The rise of the caliphate at the expense of the Romans (and Persians) seems a lot less shocking after listening to the History of Byzantium. The Romans thought the deserts were a natural southern border. But they became a giant highway in the face of unifying desert tribes.
It's quite similar to how the Vikings inverted the strategic safety of the sea and rivers in the north.
That's the second Byzantine-related posting I've seen today. I'll chime in with Ghost Empire by Richard Fidler, which I'm reading because I'm organizing some author events for him in China. Seems very well researched and well written; a popular account rather than a historical deep dive, but lots of fun to read.
Great article, told me a whole lot I didn't know about the Byzantine empire
Articles like this are good because most people mistakenly believe that the Roman Empire ended with the fall of Rome, and don't realize the Eastern branch lived on for another thousand years, and with enormous impact.
> ...infamous wife, Theodora
What an odd aside. I would hardly call her 'infamous' -- she was influential and charitable!
I would also recommend Season 2 of Tides of History podcast series.