Not Greeks, But Romans

In the Turkish language, the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople, the first primate among equals in the Orthodox Church, is known as the “Rum,” or “Roman” Patriarch. This is no accident: the Ecumenical Patriarch is the direct descendant of the Patriarch of the Eastern Roman Empire–what we commonly refer to today as the Byzantine Empire. The Byzantines spoke Greek, but thought of themselves as thoroughly Roman. That we think of them as something else reflects Western suspicion and hostility, as well as an effort to retain the heritage of Rome exclusively for its descendants on the European continent.

A new book from Harvard University Press, Romanland: Ethnicity and Empire in Byzantium, by classicist Anthony Kaldellis, explains how, in the Western mind, Byzantine Romans became Greeks. Looks fascinating. Here’s the description from the Harvard website:

A leading historian argues that in the empire we know as Byzantium, the Greek-speaking population was actually Roman, and scholars have deliberately mislabeled their ethnicity for the past two centuries for political reasons.

Was there ever such a thing as Byzantium? Certainly no emperor ever called himself “Byzantine.” And while the identities of minorities in the eastern empire are clear—contemporaries speak of Slavs, Bulgarians, Armenians, Jews, and Muslims—that of the ruling majority remains obscured behind a name made up by later generations.

Historical evidence tells us unequivocally that Byzantium’s ethnic majority, no less than the ruler of Constantinople, would have identified as Roman. It was an identity so strong in the eastern empire that even the conquering Ottomans would eventually adopt it. But Western scholarship has a long tradition of denying the Romanness of Byzantium. In Romanland, Anthony Kaldellis investigates why and argues that it is time for the Romanness of these so-called Byzantines to be taken seriously.

In the Middle Ages, he explains, people of the eastern empire were labeled “Greeks,” and by the nineteenth century they were shorn of their distorted Greekness and became “Byzantine.” Only when we understand that the Greek-speaking population of Byzantium was actually Roman will we fully appreciate the nature of Roman ethnic identity. We will also better understand the processes of assimilation that led to the absorption of foreign and minority groups into the dominant ethnic group, the Romans who presided over the vast multiethnic empire of the east.