Numismatic and History Discussions > Byzantine Coins

What is in a Name? The question of the Eastern Roman Empire (aka Byzantine.)

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The Byzantines spoke Greek, did not rule in Rome nor were they Roman Catholic, thus they were not Roman.

That is the basis for all arguments that dismiss the title of the Eastern Roman Empire. In a complex world, its history becomes complex as well.

Constantine the Great created a second capital for the Romans in the 4th century, it was called New Rome and then Constantinople after its creator Constantine. Its creation was because the Empire was too large and to spread out. The location he chooses was excellent for defense and for trade and taxation. At the time of its creation, it had no enemies close by, just conquered lands of the Romans. Originally the population spoke Latin, that changed after the revolt of Heraclius in the early 7th century.

As time passed, the city of Rome fell. The Empire changed and new ones appeared in it place but the Empire of the Romans still stood in Constantinople. In the west it was referred to Res Publica Romana, In the mid-8th century the popes of Rome made a change, in the west, the empire became known as Graeci. That is the earliest test to the empires name and Emperor’s title.

In the 9th century the real push to remove the title from the Eastern Roman Empire, they began to question if the Eastern Emperor had the right to call himself Emperor of the Romans. This came about as the Germans powers were drawing heavily on Roman prestige. They saw the Eastern claim to the title as a major obstacle.

As the title Graeci was used with more frequency, it became known as a name with many negative connotations, treachery, excessive sophistication, love of luxury, verbal trickery and cowardice.

During the time of the Empire, they themselves called it the “Roman Empire” and their enemies called it “bilad al-Rum ( Lands of Rome)

In the West It again changed, Western literature began calling the Emperor, Emperor of the Greeks and Emperor of Constantinople, also less frequently used, The Low Empire, The Late Empire, The Roman Empire. These remained in usage until long after the fall of Constantinople. The 19th Century was the first regular usage of the word Byzantine.

Now the first usage of the word Byzantium came from the title of a commissioned book of translations, the author was a translator Hieronymus Wolf the work was” Corpus Historiae Byzantinae” ( 1557-62) In it he makes his contempt for the Empire known.

“I am surprised, not sorry, that such dregs and bilge water of a iniquitous people so long remained unmolested and were not conquered earlier.”

So the word Byzantine was born after the empire and not as a compliment, just another way to disassociate it from Rome.

At this point the word Byzantine was not in regular usage to describe the Empire, the real time when this word becomes common is in the mid-19th century. No one knows for certain what created the movement of referring to the Romans as Byzantines, it seems to be a buildup of modern politics, racism and theological conflict. Some have surmised it was brought into use after the Modern Greek state in 1820 to deny the Greeks their history and claim to their old territories. In other theories it was to prevent Russia from creating a new Puppet state in the Ottoman territory. This story is more complex, but it again had to do with the Modern Greek state.

 Regardless the results are the same, with the name Byzantine in leaves an empire without a known heritage, it was based on the original long forgotten town the city of Constantinople was built on.

It is interesting that this question is being asked in multiple books, now Byzantium is a name of convenience to represent the time. For Numismatics Byzantine begins at the coin reform of Anastasias, for some it is the change of language after the revolt of Heraclius and for some The Roman Empire ended during the fall of Constantinople in 1453 so Byzantium never existed.

The flip side to this is the question was Byzantium an Imperial Roman state or is it just a continuance of the history of Greece?


My primary sources for this write up were two newly published books, both are filled with abundant info, far more detailed than my brief write up.

Romanland Ethnicity and Empire in Byzantium by Anthony Kaldellis

The Invention of Byzantium in Early Modern Europe  Edited by Nathanael Aschenbrenner and Jake Ransohoff


We have discussed this before, early in the boards beginnings. I thought I would share what I recently read.

Joe Sermarini:
Very interesting. Thanks for sharing.

I long wondered how Constantinople was able to withstand long sieges. Yes, they had amazing walls, but how could the people survive within them? More recently I learned part of the answer. The population had fallen considerably and part of the city within the walls had been returned to farming.

I think "Roman" was never attached to the Byzantine Empire in the Western mindset, simply because, in Western education, "Rome fell in AD 476", and thus, one cannot continue to talk about the Roman Empire continuing to exist after the Roman Empire had fallen. "Rome fell, and never really came back, though there were many claimants to the 'Roman' title", say our histories. If the German "Holy Roman Empire" was a pretentious ambit claim and the Seljuks of Rum was a pretentious ambit claim, then the Greek "Roman Empire" was a pretentious ambit claim, too.

In that sense, although never actually expressly stated as such, the Eastern Roman Empire could be considered a "breakaway state", much like the Romano-Gallic Empire of Postumus to Tetricus.

Imagine an alternate history, where the Roman Empire of Rome itself had fallen, but the empire of Postumus had survived for several centuries. Would modern historians call that Roman remnant "The Roman Empire"? Almost certainly not. Why not? "Well, they never ruled Rome", would be the usual reply. At the same time, they did co-exist at one point, so we can't go around labelling two different, separate, rival countries "The Roman Empire" on the same map - we need some distinguishable name for each one. Just like in the modern world, where we have two Chinas, two Koreas and (within living memory) two Germanys and two Vietnams. We need some way of distinguishing between two countries claiming the same name, to avoid confusion.

We even see this in late Byzantine history, with the Empire of Trebizond. It outlasted the Empire of Constantinople by a decade or so, but we never call them "The Byzantine Empire" - it's always "The Empire of Trebizond".

The Byzantine Empire, the Romano-Gallic Empire, and even the Empire of Trebizond all would have considered themselves "true Romans". But future historians don't care what they thought of themselves, and don't call them "Roman".

Now, we can debate whether or not they deserve to be called something other than "Byzantine". Wayne G. Sayles in his books agrees that "Byzantine" is inappropriate and makes the case for calling them the "Romaion Empire" - thus emphasizing both their continuity of succession with the Romans of Rome and their Greek nature. However, I don't think it'll catch on, partly because Greek-based names for "Roman" empires never seem to catch on. The spelling is also a little bit too close to "Roman", and if you're trying to make a distinction, that additional "io" may not be enough.

Joe Sermarini:
I would prefer to use Romaion but, as you said, it didn't catch on. I have to use what people are more likely enter in search engines.

Kevin D:

--- Quote from: Simon on October 10, 2022, 08:00:37 pm ---Now the first usage of the word Byzantium came from the title of a commissioned book of translations, the author was a translator Hieronymus Wolf the work was” Corpus Historiae Byzantinae” ( 1557-62) In it he makes his contempt for the Empire known...

So the word Byzantine was born after the empire and not as a compliment, just another way to disassociate it from Rome.

--- End quote ---
"The Greek name Byzantion and its Latinization Byzantium continued to be used as a name of Constantinople sporadically and to varying degrees during the thousand year existence of the Byzantine Empire." References are cited for this statement.


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