Decadence, Rome and Romania, the Emperors Who Weren't, and Other Reflections on Roman History

What do you think of the state of Romania?
Does it stand as from the beginning,
or has it been diminished?

Doctrina Jacobi nuper baptizati, 634 AD, A.H.M. Jones, The Later Roman Empire, 284-602 [The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1986, p. 316]


In a Dark Age,
there was a Great City, known by many names,
protected by indomitable Walls and mysterious Fire,
defended by men from the far reaches of Europe,
a City that held a whole Civilization --
immortal art, architecture, literature, history,
philosophy, and law -- our own Civilization...

Enklinobarangus (, with a nod to John Boorman's Excalibur, 1981; and of course, by "our own Civilizaton," that of Europe is meant -- and one of many names was actually Mikligarðr, "Great City," in Old Norse)


Vos non Romani, sed Longobardi estis!
You are not Romans, but Lombards!

The Emperor Nicephorus II Phocas to Liutprand of Cremona (c.920-972), who represents the "Roman" Emperor Otto I, 968 AD; "Embassy," XII, The Complete Works of Liudprand of Cremona, translated by Paolo Squatriti [The Catholic Press of America, 2007, p.246]; Latin text, "Liudprandi Legatio," Die Werke Liudprands von Cremona, herausgeben von Joseph Becker [Scriptores Rerum Germanicarum, Hahnsche Buchhandlung, Hannover und Leipzig, 1915, p.182; Reprint, University of Michigan Libraries, 2012]; Liutprand, of course, was himself the Lombard, not the Saxon Otto.

Decadence

Everyone knows why the Roman Empire fell. It became "decadent," meaning weak and immoral. The Romans were so busy at their orgies (often with their siblings), throwing Christians to the lions, poisoning their spouses, parents, and children, and eating exotic parts of animals (like hummingbird tongues), in between visits to the vomitorium so they could eat more, that they didn't notice all the Germans gathering on the frontiers. Then the ruthless pagan Germans rode in, trampled under their horses' hooves the few poor debauched legionnaires who remained, still foolishly fighting on foot, sacked Rome, destroyed civilization, overthrew the last emperor in 476, and ushered in the Dark Ages, from which Europe only emerged with the Renaissance, a thousand years later, when gunpowder finally could defeat mounted warriors. As the late columnist Joseph Sobran once wrote:  Christianity built a new civilization on the "ruins" of the old.

Although accepted by no real historians, this cartoonish image looms large in popular discourse, is lovingly promoted in the movies, like Federico Fellini's Satyricon (1970), is often assumed in political and moral debates -- where some practice (e.g. pornography) or policy (e.g. gay rights) is frequently said to represent the decadence that brought about the Fall of Rome -- and is inadvertently often reinforced by various kinds of serious scholarship. A very fine book by George C. Brauer, Jr., published in 1967, was called The Young Emperors: Rome, A.D. 193-244. It was about a period in which several emperors were in fact young men, usually coming to the throne because of some family connections. Reissued in 1995, the very same book was retitled:  The Decadent Emperors:  Power and Depravity in Third-Century Rome. This is a sexier title; and, since the "young emperors" of the period did include a couple of the more vicious, alarming, and bizarre characters among Roman emperors, Caracalla and Elagabalus, one is not disappointed to read the book for evidence of Roman decadence. Similarly, another very fine book, by Thomas Sowell, Migrations and Cultures, A World View, published in 1996, states flatly in its section on Jewish history, "the last Roman emperor was overthrown in 476 A.D." [p. 238]. Reinforcing the idea that the German invaders were pagan hordes who only slowly came to Christianity, morality, and civilization, Sowell says:  "After the Visigoths began to abandon paganism for Christianity, beginning with the Visigothic King Reccared in 589, a new era began" [p. 244].

A little digging, however, and the whole idea of Roman "decadence" begins to look more than a little peculiar. The list of particularly cruel, dissolute, and outrageous emperors -- Caligula, Nero, Domitian, Commodus, Caracalla, and Elagabalus -- although impressive, comes to an end more than two hundred years (222-476) before the "Fall" of the Empire -- and the recent two hour History Channel special, "Roman Vice," didn't even manage to make it past Nero -- implying that the whole history of the Empire was just more of same. For a while, perhaps; but the violence, ferocity, and duplicity of some of the later 3rd and 4th century emperors were not, by themselves, the sort of things that Bob Guccione, for example, was looking for. He needed them in the bedroom (or at least the bath), not just on the battlefield. So if Rome fell because Elagabalus wanted to marry a gladiator, then the effect was delayed, extraordinarily, by longer than it took the United States to get from George Washington to Bill Clinton. What happened during that period?

Well, with the Germans, indeed, on the frontiers (along with the Persians, Alans, etc.), the emperors up until 395 were mostly soldiers. They were a pretty grim lot, usually engaged in pretty grim business. Diocletian (284-305) doesn't seem to have spent much time in the vomitorium -- though, as the only emperor ever to actually retire from office, he did build a nice retirement village at Split (Spalatum) in Dalmatia (now Croatia). He said he would rather grow vegetables than try to regain the throne. Not our idea of the typical Roman emperor. More like Candide. Ethnically, Diocletian is supposed, like several of his colleagues, to have been an Illyrian, a people whose modern descedants might be the Albanians. Be that as it may, he is the first emperor (after, well, Philip the Arab) with a certifiably Greek name:  Dioclês. This is a name similar in form to Heracles (Hêras kléos, the "fame/glory of Hera"), with the stem for "Zeus" substituted for the stem for "Hera" (Diós kléos, the "fame/glory of Zeus"). This was Latinized to Diocletianus when Dioclês became Emperor.

Diocletian managed to go his entire reign with only one brief, ceremonial visit to Rome, in 303 -- on the Vicennalia, the 20th anniversary of his rule. The possession of the City, or residence there, was no longer of much political significance. Nobody had to "march on Rome," as Septimius Severus did, to become Emperor. Indeed, Julian, the past pagan emperor, never visited Rome during his short reign. Born in Constantinople, and drawn to Greece, he may never have visited Rome in his whole life. According to the poet Claudian (Claudius Claudianus, c.370-404), by 404 only three emperors in the previous century had visited Rome -- Constantine I (306-337) in 312, Constantius II in 353, and Theodosius I in 389. Actually, Constantine returned in 326 for his own Vicennalia; but in the 63 years from then until 389, the visit of Constantius II in 353 for one month was the only occasion of an Emperor's presence in the City. Some 5th century Western emperors, with their horizons reduced to Italy, spent more time there.

Neither of the Vicennalia visits of Diocletian and Constantine went well. In Diocletian's case, seats at the Circus collapsed and 13,000 were killed. The mood of the people was ugly, in part because of their obvious neglect by the emperors. With Constantine, we don't know quite what happened, but shortly after his arrival both his son Crispus and his wife Fausta either died mysteriously or were executed. The population was hostile once again, and Constantine left the City, never to return. He began the construction of Constantinople in 328.

Constantine, of course, had converted to Christianity -- or at least had given it official toleration, protection, and then promotion -- and all the charming archaic features of paganism, naked athletes at the Olympics, priestesses of Apollo in trances, ithyphallic Hermae on street corners, priests of Astarte cutting off their genitals, orgiastic Dionysiacs, etc., began to disappear.

The empire of 476 was therefore, except for philosophers and yokels (paganus, "pagan," means "rural"), in an official Christian hammerlock. Steady political and legal pressure would eventually eradicate the old religions and gods. The Roman army, which had previously been strongly Mithraic, showed its sympathies by electing the Christian Jovian on the death of the pagan Julian in 363, and then the Christian Valentinian I, whose son Gratian would remove the Altar of Victory from the Senate in Rome in 382. Indeed, at the time, the accusation was that Christianity itself was the cause of the empire's problems. What did they expect when they scorned Victory herself? St. Augustine of Hippo answered this charge in the City of God by denying that it even mattered -- only the City of God was eternal -- even as the Vandals took Hippo in the year of his own death. The charge was later taken up by Edward Gibbon, who saw religious superstition as more enervating than the antics of any Caligula or Elagabalus. Such a charge was still being repeated by James G. Frazer in his classic The Golden Bough [1890, 1900, 1906-15, note].

The picture of ferocious pagan hordes overcoming, not intoxicated catamites, but ascetic and otherworldly Christians is a little different from the standard one, but perhaps it would do....if not for another little problem:  The Goths, who defeated and killed the emperor Valens at Adrianople in 378, and who later established kingdoms in Spain (the Visigoths, 416-711) and Italy (the Ostrogoths, 493-553), were themselves literate Christians, converted by St. Wulfila (or Ulfilas, c.311-c.383, "Little Wolf"), who also designed the alphabet to write Gothic (which thus became the first written Germanic language) [note]. When the Visigoths sacked Rome in 410, the Empire was understandably shocked, but these savage hordes....respected the churches! They had entered the Empire by permission as refugees from the Huns and only went to war because of their mistreatment:  They had been reduced by the Romans to selling themselves into slavery for the sake of meals of rat meat -- at a rate of one rat for one slave. This now makes one wonder whom to call the barbarians.

The Visigothic king Reccared in 589 was not converting from paganism to Christianity, but from the heterodox Arian form of Christianity, advocated by Wulfila himself, to orthodox Catholicism. That made the Pope very happy, but it did not exactly effect a sea change in Visigothic religious practice. Similarly, the other German tribes who did the most damage to the Empire, the Vandals and Lombards, had also been Christians for some time. The only major German tribe that wasn't Christian was the Franks, and they never even got near Rome, much less sacked it. The Franks mostly stepped in after Roman authority had already collapsed in Gaul; but the conversion of the Frankish king Clovis (481-511) to Catholicism does make it sound like German tribes catching up with civilization. Not quite. The Ostrogothic king Theodoric (493-526) oversaw as much civilization in Italy as it had had in a while. Great literature was produced by Cassiodorus (c.490-c.583) and Boethius (476-524). Theodoric's tomb at Ravenna later became the model for a chapel built by Charlemagne at Aachen -- and an equestrian statue of Theodoric was actually removed to Aachen by Charlemagne. Italy certainly suffered more from the Roman reconquest (536-552) than from the Germanic occupation. Like Diocletian, Theodoric only bothered to visit the City of Rome once, on the 30th anniversary of his rule.

Another problem is with the "Fall" itself. No German chieftain sacked Rome or killed an emperor in 476. Instead, an officer in the army, Odoacer, who did happen to be German, deposed the commander of the army (the Magister Militum, "Master of Soliders"), Orestes. Since the titular emperor was Orestes's young son, known as "Augustulus," the "little Augustus," Odoacer sent him packing to a monastery. These events, also, took place, not in Rome, but in Ravenna, which had been the capital for most of the century. In the normal course of things, Odoacer would have set up his own titular emperor and then seen about getting recognition from the eastern emperor in Constantinople. That would be difficult, since the eastern emperor already recognized someone else as western emperor:  Julius Nepos, who had been overthrown by Orestes in 475 but who was still holding out in Dalmatia (in Diocletian's own retirement palace, which made a very nice fortified town all through the Middle Ages).

As it happened, Odoacer decided not to bother with a titular western emperor. He sent the imperial regalia back to Constantinople and informed the emperor that he would be content with his Roman military title and recognition as a German king. The emperor agreed, and before long Odoacer took care of Julius Nepos as well (480). Thus Rome (or Ravenna) "fell" in 476 (or 480) less with a bang than with a whimper, and without noticeable institutional change or unaccustomed violence -- the fall of Constantinople in 1453 would be a far different matter, in every respect. [note].

Rome and Romania

But wait a minute! "Eastern emperor"! "Constantinople"! What was that all about? Indeed, if word that "the last Roman emperor was overthrown in 476 A.D." got back to the people of that year, it would have come as a very great surprise to all, and especially to the emperor Zeno in Constantinople. Not only was he regarded by all as a proper and legitimate Roman emperor, with a Court and an Army that still spoke Latin, but after Odoacer's coup in 476, he was the Roman emperor, with the regalia of the West duly returned to him. And on his throne emperors continued to sit for the next thousand years, reckoning their direct succession from Augustus Caesar.

How this happened of course goes back to Diocletian and Constantine again. Diocletian realized that it was so much trouble for an emperor to rush from the Rhine to the Danube to the Euphrates that he decided to appoint some colleagues to share his authority. First there was a co-emperor, Maximian, then two junior colleagues, Constantius Chlorus and Galerius. The senior emperors were the Augusti, , and the junior emperors and heirs apparent were Caesares, . Diocletian then took for himself the business of the eastern half of the empire, with Galerius to help, and left the west to Maximian, with Constantius to help. The system is called the "Tetrarchy," the "Rule of Four." Diocletian also established a precedent by retiring in 305, after twenty years of rule (perhaps with the urging of Galerius). He also prevailed upon Maximian to do the same, with Galerius and Constantius becoming Augusti, appointing two new Caesars, Severus and Maximinus Daia. This was the closest Rome ever got to a constitutional, non-hereditary system of rule. It didn't end up working very well, but it was, with marriage alliances, still close to the system of Imperial adoption used by the Antonines.

Trouble arrived soon enough. Constantius Chlorus died unexpectedly at York (like Septimius Severus) in 306. His troops, enthusiastic about him and his family, immediately elevated his son Constantine to his position. This was irregular, but Galerius consented in ill grace as long as Constantine agreed to the status of Caesar rather than Augustus. Constantine agreed, and the Caesar Severus was recognized as the new western Augustus. Unfortunately, Severus had a problem. Since Constantius had now been succeeded by his son, Maximian's own son Maxentius didn't want to be left out. He seized Italy and even persuaded his father to come out of retirement. When Severus tried to establish himself in Italy, he was defeated, captured in battle, and then killed. Galerius unsuccessfully invaded Italy and returned to the East. Maxentius generated some enthusiasm at Rome by promising to restore the City to its former prominence -- an enthusiasm that faded when he began requiring the payment of taxes, from which the citizens had previously been exempt.

This left everything pretty much a shambles, but we need not worry too much about that. Constantine eventually defeated and killed Maxentius (in 312), an event around which the fateful story of his vision of the Cross (or something) grew up, and in the end he assumed sole rule of the Empire by defeating Galerius's successor Licinius (who had been appointed in 308) in 324.

But this was now a new empire. Not only did Constantine begin to institute Christianity, but the city of Rome itself had along the way assumed a very secondary importance in the life of the state. As we have seen, Diocletian seems to have visited the city only once. Rome had become Romania:  a great Empire with a City, rather than a great City with a Empire. Warren Treadgold says of the 4th century historian Ammianus Marcellinus:
...he held the view, by his time rather old-fashioned, that the Roman Empire belonged to the city of Rome. [The Early Byzantine Historians, Palgrave Macmillan, 2010, p.69].
As Peter Heather puts it [The Fall of the Roman Empire, Oxford, 2006], Rome was now an "inside-out" Empire -- the center and the periphery had exchanged places (as illustrated in the animation at left).

This transformation is scrupulously ignored in popular treatments of the Roman Empire, even in apparently well researched presentations on venues like the History Channel. I just watched a documentary [2011] which defined the "Roman Empire" as a domain "ruled from one city, Rome." All such shows treat the fate of the Empire as tied to the fate of the City, when their stories had long been separated and the City had ceased to be the center of events, politically, culturally, or militarily [note]. All free Roman subjects had been citizens since Caracalla. The emperors who restored the empire in the Third Century, Claudius II, Aurelian, and Diocletian, had all come from Illyricum. There was little time for the emperors to spend at Rome, which was strategically ill placed for frontier defense; and so for military reasons, Milan (Mediolanum) and later Ravenna became the practical western capitals, as Diocletian had taken up residence at Nicomedia (the modern Turkish Izmit, badly damaged by an earthquake in 1999) in Bithynia. The Roman citizens of the city of Rome were now distinct in no truly important way from the rest of the empire, though they still continued to receive subsidized food shipments and formal respects. "Roman" now meant the Empire, Romania, and the citizens, and only secondarily the City. That the City had become the World, one oikouménê, was even articulated as ideology in the "Roman Oration," ("To Rome"), of Aelius Aristides (117-181), delivered at Rome in 143 AD. This was a work much admired in Mediaeval Romania, although now scarcely noticed by Classicists [note].

Thus, Christianity did not build a new civilization on the ruins of the old, it was the old civilization (the ruins came later), transformed by a religion that had grown up out of its own internal elements:  the uncompromising Monotheism, exclusivity, historical drama, and destiny of Judaism, the divine King so dear to the Egyptians, the Hellenistic mystery religion's promise of immortality through initiation, the elaborate doctrine and argumentation of Greek metaphysics, and finally the unity and universality that Aurelian and Diocletian had already tried to institute through a cult of Sôl Invictus, the "Unconquered Sun." The birthday of Christ was even conveniently moved to the birthday of the solar Mithras:  December 25th (it's still on January 6th in Armenian chuches); and it is noteworthy how the push for the divinity of Christ consistently came from the Egyptians -- Athanasius of Alexandria had to contend with the Arian sympathies of several emperors. Orthodoxy did not firmly settle on Athanasianism until Theodosius I. But then the Egyptians continued pushing:  The orthdoxy of both divine and human natures for Christ was not good enough; the Egyptians didn't like the idea of two natures. The most extreme version was that the one nature was entirely divine. Condemned at Chalcedon, the Monophysite ("One Nature") doctrine remains the view of Egyptian Christians, the Copts, to this day (though most now regard the one nature as both human and divine). But we have one last echo of Mithras:  the sacred day of Christians is Sunday, established by Constantine, not because it is the day of the Resurrection, but because it is "the day celebrated by veneration of the sun itself" (diem solis veneratione sui celebrem).

Christianity thus brewed itself up over a couple of centuries as the first multicultural religion, a peculiarly Roman, which is to say a Latinized, Hellenistic, Middle Eastern religion. Indeed, the official name of the "Holy Roman Catholic and Apostolic Church" (Sancta Romana Catholica et Apostolica Ecclesia) doesn't even give much of a hint that it refers to Christianity, though you know for sure it has something to do with Rome. Indeed, Christianity was quite simply the Roman religion. The match of religion with times is evident enough in the circumstance that only one emperor subsequent to Constantine, Julian the Apostate, briefly and tragicomically tried to return to the old gods.

A curious feature of Greek influence on Christianity is the moral condemnation of trade and finance. This does not originate in Judaism, where (as in Islam) money and trade have always been legitimate, nor in primitive Christianity, which grew up as an urban religion among what was actually a prosperous middle class. Instead, the whole moral discourse of suspicion and condemnation of trade and money derives from Greek philosophy. While it may be assumed that the later Christian attitude went along with its world-denying and monastic tradition, we see a lot less of that in the East, in Constantinople, where a cash economy continued through the Middle Ages and the life of the City was much consumed with trade, while monasticism, of course, was taken no less seriously than in the West. Instead, the Latin West, under the influence of the former Neoplatonist, Augustine, and where the cash economy collapsed into subsistence agriculture, became the venue of suspicion of merchants, money, and cities, especially when these came to be associated with the Jewish merchants who, welcomed or not, nevertheless were able to travel and function in Christian areas where, for instance, Muslims were never allowed. After a modern economy developed in the West, money, buying, and selling, when these were regarded as bad things, continued to be associated with the Jews, as we see from the Enlightenment (e.g. Kant and Fries) to Marx to the socialist left of the present. The vitriol and violence directed against the Jews, however, finds no counterpart in the regard of defenders of Capitalism for the Greek philosophers, particularly Plato and Aristotle, who did so much to delegitimize merchants and bankers. When even Jefferson still valorized rural life and distrusted bankers and "stock-jobbers," and the modern left constantly seeks to shift the blame for the failures and irrationality of government over to bankers, brokers, and corporations, while American universities have become hotbeds of Marxism and anti-Semitism, the terms of the debate have really changed very little.

Tertullian had asked, "What then has Athens to do with Jerusalem, the Academy with the Church, the heretic with the Christian?" He represented a tension that would exist and continue between Greek culture, with the humanistic values of Greek paideía ("education"), and the often stern requirements of Christian faith, asceticism, and anhedonia. As it happened, despite the tension and occasional harsh words, conflict, and heresy trials, the influence of both continued in a strong and generally productive blend in Romania -- with even condemned heretics usually enduring no harsher punishment than exile to monasteries. Meanwhile, the culture and the religion had become all but seamless parts of Roman identity, a phenomenon that continues to perplex scholars, not because it is particularly hard to understand, but because it subverts the paradigm of pagan Romans at the baths, games, and orgies. The picture of Christian Romans who mostly speak Greek is both perplexing and (to secular biases) distasteful, and so it is occluded by narratives at once sexier and hostile. Yet Mediaeval Romania was far more unified a state, a culture, and a people than had been the Empire of Nero or even Trajan. The reproach of jumped-up Franks, both Mediaeval and Modern, that Romania had lost Rome, and so was alienated from its indispensable eponymous foundation, seemed decisive to them; but the Rhomaîoi knew that Rome had become New Rome, Constantinople, long before the Western Empire collapsed, while both Franks and Romans had lost the metropolis of their common religion, Jerusalem, to Islam. They were not thereby less Christian for it, and the Rhomaîoi were no less Roman for being Christian and speaking Greek.

Constantinople

Rome, queen of the world, thy fame shall never perish;
for Victory, being wingless, cannot fly from thee.

Anonymous, "On [New] Rome," [The Greek Anthology, Volume III, Book 9, "The Declamatory Epigrams," Number 647, The Loeb Classical Library, Harvard University Press, 1917, p.358-359]

Constantine thus built his New Rome (, Roma Nova), better situated
militarily than the old, a Christian Rome, decorated with the spoils of the dying paganism (including great bronze horses from Delphi, later relocated to Venice, and the Wonder of the World Statue of Zeus from Olympia, whose face evidently inspired portraits of Christ), but also with its own Senate, its own Consul, its own chariot races (in the hippodrome), its own factional riots (between the Greens and the Blues), and its own grain subsidies, drawn from Egypt and North Africa like those of Rome itself. The site was a natural wonder and a military engineer's dream, perhaps more beautifully situated, on hills flanked by water, than any great modern city save San Francisco, New York, or Hong Kong.

Approaching the City with the Fourth Crusade in 1203, Geoffroy de Villehardouin says:

I can assure you that all those who had never seen Constantinople before gazed very intently at the city, having never imagined there could be so fine a place in all the world. They noted the high walls and lofty towers encircling it, and its rich palaces and tall churches, of which there were so many that no one would have believed it to be true if he had not seen it with his own eyes, and viewed the length and breadth of that city which reigns supreme over all others. There was indeed no man so brave and daring that his flesh did not shudder at the sight. [Joinville and Villehardouin, Chronicles of the Crusades, "The Conquest of Constantinople," Penguin, pp.58-59]

Even the Ottoman City was described thus by English traveller George Sandys (1578-1644) in 1610:

There is hardly in nature a more delicate object, if beheld from the sea or adjoyning mountains: the loftie and beautifull cypresse trees so intermixed with the buildings that it seemeth to present a city in a wood to the pleased beholders. Whose seven aspiring heads (for on so many hils and no more, they say it is seated) are most of them crowned with magnificent mosques, all of white marble round in forme... [quoted by Jonathan Harris, Constantinople, Capital of Byzantium, Hambledon Continuum, London, New York, 2007, p.190, original spelling]

This City became Constantinopolis, , the City of Constantine, later shortened in Greek to Stamboul, and now remembered in Turkish as Istanbul [note]. We see Michael Psellus in the 11th Century surprisingly contrasting "the ancient and lesser Rome, and the later, more powerful city" [!, Fourteen Byzantine Rulers, Penguin, 1966, p.177]. It is now hard to grasp Constantinople as a greater city than Rome, but there would have been little in Rome's favor in Psellus' day. The great triple land wall of Constantinople, with almost two hundred towers, finished under Theodosius II (408-450), was perhaps the greatest fortification in world history, standing unbreached, through countless sieges, against Germans, Huns, Avars, Persians, Arabs, Bulgars, Vikings, Cumans, Crusaders, Mongols, and Turks, for more than a thousand years, protected by Holy Icons like the Hodêgêtria (the Virgin who "Shows the Way," kept at the Hodegon Monastery) or the Blachernitissa (or Blacherniotissa, the Virgin of the Chruch of Mary at Blachernae, where the Maphorion, the Robe of the Virgin, was kept and where there was a miraculous Spring, quite close to the wall itself), finally to shatter only under the gigantic cannonballs of the Sultân Meh.med II. Even so, in the midst of Istanbul, it mostly still remains standing, in some places even restored, its breaches merely allowing modern streets to pass [note].

"Oh!" you say, "You mean Byzantium! That's not the Roman Empire! That's some horrible medieval thing!" That certainly would have been news to Constantine, or to Zeno, or to Justinian (527-565), or even to Basil II in the 11th century (963-1025). "Byzantium," although the name of the original Greek city where Constantinople was founded, and often used for the City (as by Procopius and others), was not a word that was ever used to refer to the Empire, or to anything about it, by its rulers, its inhabitants, or even its enemies. Indeed, the City could simply be called "Rome," Rhômê, in Greek, which is what we see in the inscriptions recorded in The Greek Anthology [Volume III, Book 9, "The Declamatory Epigrams," Numbers 647, 657, 697, & 799; The Loeb Classical Library, Harvard University Press, 1917]. The emperor was always of the "Romans," Rhômaioi, in Greek; and to Arabs and Turks the Empire and land were simply Rûm, , "Rome" [note].

As Roman identity expanded from Old Rome into all Romania, it focused and contracted from the shrinking Empire onto the New Rome. "Byzantium" is in fact a term of ill will and scorn adopted and substituted by modern historians, who didn't want to admit that Rome did not, after all, "fall," leaving them personally as the eventual and proper heirs. As G.W. Bowersock, Peter Brown, and Oleg Grabar say, the term "Byzantine Empire" is "a modern misnomer redolent of ill-informed contempt" [Late Antiquity, A Guide to the Postclassical World, Belknap Press, Harvard University Press, 1999, p.vii]. As Roman historians liked to use archaic place names, and so frequently called Constantinople "Byzantium," their use of "Byzantine," Byzantinus, was simply and logically for residents of the Capital. Thus, Warren Treadgold [The Early Byzantine Historians, Palgrave Macmillan, 2010] says:

The Suda [a tenth century encyclopedia] calls [the historian] Malchus [of Philadelphia] a "Byzantine," which usually meant a native of Constantinople but in this case must have meant a longtime resident. [p.103]

When Liutprand of Cremona (c.922-972) and Frankish, i.e. German, envoys, in an embassy from Otto I, with their own pretentions as successors of Rome, arrived at the Court of Nicephorus Phocas in 968, their represenation of Otto as the "Emperor of the Romans" (Imperator Romanorum) was hotly disputed. Otto was not a successor of Constantine. A letter then arrived from the Pope addressed to the "emperor of the Greeks." For this "sinful audacity," Liutprand, who was ready to go home, was "detained," shall we say, pending an explanation of this insult -- Jonathan Harris says "thrown in prison" [Constantinople, Continuum, 2007, p.62]. Evidently the Pope had not heard of "Byzantium" as the name of the Empire [note].

While "Byzantium" is indeed used merely as a term of convience and custom by most historians, there is the awkward question of when "Rome" ends and "Byzantium" begins. If Rome "fell" in 476, then clearly "Byzantium" should begin there; but this boundary is rarely used. Since Constantinople itself must be explained, Byzantine histories commonly begin with Constantine, often in 324, when Constantine had defeated Lincinius and acquired the East. This is what one finds in A.A. Vasiliev, History of the Byzantine Empire [University of Wisconsin Press, 1961], George Ostrogorsky, History of the Byzantine State [Rutgers University Press, 1969], and John Julius Norwich, Byzantium, The Early Centuries [Knopf, 1989]. The flip side of this would be simply to end the "Roman Empire" with Constantine. This is not common, but I have seen Garrett G. Fagan do it, in his lectures for The Teaching Company, "Emperors of Rome" [2007]. With thirty-six lectures on Emperors, Fagan abruptly stops at Constantine, with a handoff to Kenneth W. Harl's lectures, "The World of Byzantium" [2001], to continue the story. Fagan says that, to him, Constantine was first Mediaeval, or the first Byzantine, Emperor; and so his job is done. The drawback of this approach is that the last century and a half of the Western Empire falls between the stools, not to mention the extraordinary and tragic Julian, who ruled the whole Empire. A Byzantinist is not going to pay much attention to Ricimer, as Harl, who doesn't even mention his name, indeed does not. And Harl has the annoying habit of saying "Stilichio" for Stilicho and "Visiogoths" for "Visigoths," forms that I do not see attested in any print source. So this approach really will not do.

On the other hand, David R. Sear's Byzantine Coins and Their Values [Seaby, 1987] is the direct continuation of his Roman Coins and Their Values [Seaby, 1988], and he chooses to make the division at the reign of the Emperor Anastasius just because Anastasius carried out a major reform of the copper coinage. Others take Phocas or Heraclius, under whom the Danube Frontier collapsed and the Arab invasion occurred, as the first "Byzantine" emperors:  A.H.M. Jones' monumental and authoritative The Later Roman Empire 284-602 [Johns Hopkins University Press, 1986] and Mark Whittow's complementary (if not as monumental) The Making of Byzantium, 600-1025 [University of California Press, 1996] take that approach. We also see this division in Andreas Thiele's Erzählende genealogische Stammtafeln zur europäischen Geschichte, where "Rom" covers genealogies from Julius Caesar to Phocas (Volume II, Part 2, Europäiche Kaiser-, Königs- und Fürstenhäuser II Nord-, Ost- und Südeuropa, R. G. Fischer Verlag, Part 2, Second Edition, 1997, pp.262-292), while "Byzanz" goes from Heraclius to the Emperors of Trapezond (Volume III, Europäiche Kaiser-, Königs- und Fürstenhäuser, Ergänzungsband, R. G. Fischer Verlag, Second Edition, 2001, pp.213-236). One nice touch for the division at Phocas could be that he was the last Emperor to place a monument, a column, in the Forum at Rome.

The most recent thorough history, however, Warren Treadgold's A History of the Byzantine State and Society [Stanford University Press, 1997], begins where many of the explanations must begin, with Diocletian himself in 284 -- elsewhere [Byzantium and Its Army, 284-1081, Stanford, 1995, p.viii], Treadgold lists possible dates for the beginning of Byzantium as, besides 284, "324, 395, 476, 565, 610, or 717." Whatever point one picks between Diocletian and Heraclius (or Leo III, Treadgold's "717" date), there is clearly a transition period; but all the later empire could still be distinguished from the earlier simply by calling it what its inhabitants did:  Romania. "Byzantine," for whatever reason it is used, still carries a connotation of the mediaeval, dark, nasty, labyrinthine, and treacherous -- the disapproval of even modern and secular Western Europeans for what Mediaeval Latins would dismiss as the Greek "Schismatics." Curious how the attitude stays the same despite the changes in culture, faith, politics, etc. [note]. A final date for the transition could be 750, which is used by Peter Brown and others to terminate "Late Antiquity." This could date the fall of the Omayyads, or the final fall of Ravenna to the Lombards (in 751). Both these events are significant, but they seem like variations on developments already far progressed.

So why should modern historians have ever scorned the successors of Augustus in Constantinople? Well, it isn't just them. The scorn goes back a little earlier. Nothing after Alexander Severus (222-235) is quite Roman enough for many scholars. The Cassell's New Latin Dictionary, of which I have the 1959 edition [Funk & Wagnalls, New York], only gives the vocabulary of classical authors from "about 200 B.C. to A.D. 100." Thus a number of late meanings, for words like comes or dux, or late vocabulary altogether, like diocesis (diocese, Greek dioíkêsis), Diocletian's new administrative groupings of provinces, or Romania (Greek Rhômanía), the name of the Empire itself, are missing [note]. This leaves one without the connections to the mediaeval and modern meanings of "count," "duke," or "diocese." Obviously the Latin literature or history after 100 A.D. was not worth considering -- a slight certain to be a disappointment to the great historian of the fourth century, Ammianus Marcellinus, or to Flavius Vegetius Renatus, one of the founders of military science, whose book (De Re Militari) was used straight through the Middle Ages into Modern times, or to Theodosius II and Justinian who took the trouble in the fifth and sixth centuries to gather Roman law together into law codes, or to Justinian's contemporary Boethius (Anicius Manlius Severinus Boethius, d.524), whose commentaries on Porphyry's Isagoge (the "Introduction") and Aristotle's On Interpretation, and his On the Consolation of Philosophy, were among the few clues to Greek philosophy preserved in Western Europe until the return of Greek literature beginning in the 12th century. Although Boethius lived under King Theodoric of the Ostrogoths, he was Roman Consul for the year 510, and his sons Consuls for 522.

This truncation of Classical Latin literature is also evident in the classic Latin textbook, which I bought in 1967, Frederic M. Wheelock's Latin [Barnes & Noble, 1956, 1966; revised as Wheelock's Latin by Richard A. LaFleur, HarperResource, 2000]. The periods of Latin literature include divisions of the Golden Age, 80 BC-14 AD (with Ciceronian, to 43 BC, and Augustan, from 43, subdivisions), the Silver Age, 14 AD-138 BC (to the death of Hadrian), with an "Archaising Period" coda (to "fill out the 2nd century"), and then the "Patristic Period" all the way to the "Medieval Period," with a conventional cutoff, apparently, around 476, and a great deal of talk about the "Vulgar Latin" used by the Church Fathers [Wheelock, pp.xxv-xxix, LaFleur, pp.xxxiii-xxxvii]. The "Patristic Period" leaves one with the impression that there was no secular Latin literature of the era -- indeed, Wheelock says that "most of the vital literature was the work of Christian leaders, or fathers (patrês)" [p.xxviii] -- and in fact none of the Sententiae Antîquae in Wheelock draw on Ammianus or Boethius, though we do get Isidore of Seville (d.636) and the Venerable Bede (d.735) without any cautions that these are Mediaeval and "vulgarized" texts (Boethius and even Bede, but not Isidore, are represented in the Loeb Classical Library). Secular Late Antiquity thus gets ignored and bypassed -- perhaps from a disinclination to admit that it even existed -- without this being motivated by any admiration for Chistianity.

Similarly, the Oxford History of the Classical World, Volume II, The Roman World (Oxford University Press, 1988), which is 422 large format pages long, devotes a miserable 22 pages to the last two hundred years before 476. The chapter is called "Envoi: On Taking Leave of Antiquity." Evidently, the editors couldn't take leave fast enough. Such impatience can also be seen in the large format and lavishly illustrated Chronicle of the Roman Emperors by Chris Scarre (Thames and Hudson, 1995, 1999; 232 pages of text). From Augustus to 235 AD, 52% of the time from Augustus to the "Fall" in 476, is covered by 65% of the text. The crisis of the Third Century, from 235 to 284, and the remaining time, from Diocletian until 476, each receive about 17% of the text, although in time they are (only) 10% and 38%, respectively. Thus, 192 years of Roman history, including a century (the 4th) with extensive ruins and literature, are given less than half the space that one might expect. Closer inspection reveals something else. Not a single pre-476 monument of Constantinople is shown, not the pillars of Claudius II or Constantine, nor the Walls of Theodosius II (though they are at least mentioned). In fact, after the Arch of Constantine and a part of one of his churches in Rome, there is not a single monument or building illustrated in the text, not even anything from Ravenna, the capital of the last Western Emperors. No wonder things could be wrapped up so quickly. One is left with the false impression, merely scanning the pages, that nothing was built, an impression as false and misleading (though consistent with expectations for decadence or the Dark Ages) as the title of the last chapter, "The Last Emperors," which disposes of everyone after Constantine (139 years -- George Washington to Herbert Hoover) in just ten pages. In The Penguin Historical Atlas of Ancient Rome, also by Chris Scarre [1995], 75 pages are devoted to the Roman Empire. Of this, 21 pages, 28% of the total, cover everything from Diocletian on. This is better than the Oxford History or the Chronicle, but it still represents 38% of the time.

Finally, there is The Complete Roman Army, by Adrian Goldsworthy [Thames & Hudson, 2003]. With a text of 214 pages, Part V of the book, "The Army of Late Antiquity," starting with Diocletian, is only 16 pages long, 7% of the total -- again for 38% of the time. For a summary treatment, Goldsworthy does a good job; but for an army that was twice as large as that of the Principate, with a much more complex organization, whose performance involves many very critical historical questions, the lack of proportion is obvious. Thus, while there is a nice two page feature on Julian's Battle of Strasbourg, it is perplexing not to have such a treatment of one of the most important battles in history, the defeat and death of Valens at Adrianople. Indeed, why Valens lost the battle is one of the most important questions in all of Roman, or even world, history. Now the new The Roman Army, the Greatest War Machine of the Ancient World, edited by Chris McNab [Osprey Publishing, 2010] does have an extensive treatment, with maps of Adrianople [pp.241-253]. At the same time, the "Late Empire" in this book ("AD 200-6th Century") gets 57 pages out of 265, 22% -- although, since the book covers the Republican Army also, the Late Empire (which seems to include the Severans here) actually gets 46% of the space devoted to the Empire, which is finally getting the proportions about right.

What's the problem? The truth is that the problem of Roman history for most historians, or cultural commentators, is not that the Empire fell in 476, which of course it didn't, but that it had changed, already, back in the 3rd and 4th centuries. The Empire of Diocletian or Constantine, let alone of Theodosius or Justinian, is certainly not the Empire of Augustus or Trajan, let alone Nero or Elagabalus. Rather than deal with those changes, which for the secular historian involve disagreeable topics like Christianity, it is much easier to dismiss them, write them off, and bundle the rest of the history of Romania into a different, and contemptible, academic subfield. This then preserves "Rome" as a glittering, static, Platonic Form of fascination, whether proudly pagan -- and therefore modern, since the old gods need not be taken seriously as religion -- or delightfully hedonistic and decadent -- and therefore modern again, like any good party in Greenwich Village. Diocletian and Constantine themselves become something rather like a footnote to the real story, whose interest is exhausted with Nero, or perhaps with Marcus Aurelius. Constantine has already sinned against the sensibilities of the Enlightenment (or is it the Renaissance? or is it the modern multicultural, non-judgmental liberal?), so we can't help it if he has bought into the darkness and obscurity of a Mediaeval world for which we have no sympathy, but do have considerable antipathy. He, and his successors, have willfully disqualified themselves from our serious consideration, let alone our respect. The "Fall" is thus not an event in history, but a boundary in historiography -- something more dramatic and absolute than anything some marauding Goths could have accomplished -- people whose identity and deeds are irrelevant anyway, besides the absurdity of that new religion, which is the real issue.

Classicists perhaps just should not bother with Roman history after 284. Their hearts just aren't in it, and we get a second rate treatment. They only continue down to 476 because they have taken that as the "Fall" and the end of Roman history, which they have a disagreeable duty to address. Since 476 is actually nothing of sort, they should just forget about it. They certainly have enough to keep them busy before 284. The first two hundred years of Roman history do make a pretty compact cultural and historical unit. The culture and religion are still pagan, the office of emperor maintains some pretense of republican form, Roman power is more or less triumphant and unchallenged, and there are those wonderfully entertaining "decadent" emperors, upon whom every indulgence and sexual excess can be projected (which may actually be what the Roman historians were doing themselves). That takes us from Augustus to Alexander Severus (30 BC to 235 AD). Then we have a world of trouble. Palmyra takes the East. Gaul and Spain break away. The Goths sack Athens. Pirates rake the seas. The Empire seems to be disintegrating. Soon philosophy turns from the grim determination of Stoicism to the otherworldly consolations of mysticism, whether in the pagan Neoplatonism of Plotinus or the new religions like Christianity, Mithraism, or Manicheanism. The emperors, who could no longer survive spending their time on debaucheries in Rome, were not, at first, very mystical; but the Zeitgeist caught up with them in Constantine's Christianity. This is all often too much for the Classicists, whose bias then distorts their estimation even of the facts of Late Antiquity. If inattention to the 3rd century onwards was due to a lack of events, a lack of literature, or a lack of ruins and archaeology, it might make some sense. But none of those things are lacking. It is the interest that is lacking:  the 3rd century on is just not the "real" Rome anymore. Classicists are all versions of Livy, whose historiography was driven by moral judgments that Rome was just not what it used to be (see what he says about Cincinnatus). Fortunately, there has been a reaction against this for a while now. Peter Brown's great The World of Late Antiquity 150-750 [HBJ, 1971] zeros in on many myths and misconceptions about the late empire and has inspired great interest and more critical appraisals of the period. Despite the date in the title, Brown essentially begins with the transformations of the 3rd century. This is, in essence, when Rome became Romania. But to those for whom "Rome" merely means the City, not the Empire, that is the problem. The transformation and universalization of the state means a loss of interest, despite complete continuity, even in language (for a while).

The new era for Romania begins neatly enough. The Era of Diocletian, beginning in 284, continued to be used in Egypt long after his death. Indeed, the Era of Diocletian is still used in Egypt by the Egyptian Christians, the Copts, in conjunction with the months of the ancient Egyptian calendar (Thout, etc.) and the leap day that Augustus Caesar imposed on the city of Alexandria in 26 BC. Thus, September 11, 1996, was the first day of the Year 1713 for the Copts. The Anno Domini Era itself was "inspired," if that is the right word, by the Era of Diocletian. In the Sixth Century, Dionysius Exiguus, who was making up the Easter tables for the Julian calendar with Alexandrian astronomical data, was offended that Christians should be using the era of a persecutor of Christians. He thought that Christians should be using an era based on the life of Christ. He didn't get it quite right (Jesus cannot have been born after 4 BC), but his system eventually became universal in Christendom and then simply universal -- now often called the "Common Era." The Copts, of course, had no intention of paying tribute to Diocletian. They call theirs the "Era of Martyrs," in homage to the martyrs, not to the person, of Diocletian.

The Era of Diocletian does suggest the unit of a later, or perhaps second, Empire. Its natural end is not 476, but 610, as in Jones and Whittow. The natural period ends, not with the German kingdoms in Italy, Spain, North Africa, and Gaul, two of which were actually restored to Rome by Justinian, but with the collapse of the Danube frontier and the advent of Islâm. The emperor Heraclius (610-641), who had to deal with those appalling events, ushers in profound changes in the Empire. As the armies retreated from the shattered frontiers, they were settled in areas of Anatolia intended to support them in the absence of all the revenues from the lost provinces. This was the beginning of the "theme" military divisions, which eventually replaced the old Roman provinces. Also Greek rather than Latin began to be used for all official purposes. Heraclius himself, very symbolically, adopted the Greek title of "king," basileus, in honor of his crushing defeat of the Persian emperor, who had always been called the "Great King," megas basileus -- though the Greek term autokratôr, "Autocrat" was always regarded and used as the equivalent of imperator (a practice that survived in Russia, where the Emperor was officially "Tsar and Autocrat").

Further divisions are clear enough:  from 610 to the end of the Macedonian Dynasty in 1059 we have a period, almost exactly covered by Whittow, of disaster, survival, recovery, and triumph. This great story gives us "Middle Romania," when a transformed empire found a new identity, achieved remarkable status and, at least against the Bulgars, exacted a terrible revenge. Finally, from 1059, when the late Macedonian Dynasty had already subverted, through debasement, favoritism, and neglect of the army, the pillars of Middle Romanian power, we have the decline, with periodic partial recoveries (the Comneni & early Palaeologi), all the way down to what John Julius Norwich calls the "almost unbearably tragic" end with the Fall of Constantinople in 1453. Whether "Late Byzantium" or "Late Romania," we have the story whereby the Cosmopolitan Empire of Nations, founded on conquest and history and refounded on religion, vanishes altogether. It is replaced, however, with an Islâmic Empire, that of the Turks, Rûm and Rumelia, that in some ways, mutatis mutandis, was not unlike Romania. That survived until the last Sult.ân was deposed in 1922, and Constantinople ceased being a capital, and a home for Emperors (Tsargrad), for the first time since Constantine. Thus, as in the imaginary volumes at left, the appropriate treatment would be a continuous history from Augustus to Mehmed VI. To be sure, it may be too much to regard the Ottoman Empire as a version of the Roman Empire, but Bâyezîd as the Sultân of Rûm was claiming to be a kind of successor, and the Ottoman state did encompass all the lands of Mediaeval Romania, from its own capital at Constantinople. [note]

First EmpireROMEROMAN EMPIRE
27 BC-284 AD
310 years
Second EmpireEARLY ROMANIALATE ROMAN EMPIRE284-610Era of Diocletian 1-327326 years
Third EmpireMIDDLE ROMANIAEARLY BYZANTIUM610-1059Era of Diocletian 327-776449 years
Fourth EmpireLATE ROMANIALATE BYZANTIUM1059-1453Era of Diocletian 776-1170394 years
Fifth EmpireTURKIYAISLÂMIC BYZANTIUM1453-1922Era of Diocletian 1170-1639469 years
Successor
Kingdoms
MODERN ROMANIA1599-
present
Era of Diocletian 1316-present411+ years

On a timeline, we can see the way this divides up the period (leaving aside the Ottoman sequel). I have extended the "Roman Empire" line up to its traditional termination in 476, which is still significant as the customary boundary between Ancient and Mediaeval Times. In terms of practice, the "Byzantium" line could begin almost anywhere within the "Late Roman Empire" period, or later. The Fall of Constantinople in 1453 itself is one of the traditional termination dates for the Middle Ages, though less popular than Columbus in 1492. [note]

With Heraclius the Roman Empire had returned to what in a sense had always been its true character:  a Hellenistic Kingdom. When Constantine XI was killed by the Turks in 1453, it was, in many real ways, the end of the Hellenistic world. The meaning of this will be considered in turn; but first, it must be asked:  "Well, OK, the Empire of Diocletian and Constantine has a natural transition to the collapse under the miserable emperor Phocas in 602-610, but can the collapse of the western Empire be so easily dismissed? Is 476 really so insigificant? Can the kingdoms of the Germans be so demoted? And why, after all, did the Western Empire collapse?

The Emperors Who Weren't

These are good questions, which brings us back to Odoacer, and his predecessors. The Roman Empire looked fine in 395, the year of the death of Theodosius the Great. The frontiers were secure, orthodoxy was established, the Visigoths were pacified, and Theodosius, doubtlessly with a mind at peace (he had even patched up a nasty excommunication by St. Ambrose, Bishop of Milan [not Rome, notice]), left the Empire to his young sons, Honorius and Arcadius, under the protection of his trusted, and in fact trustworthy, commander, Stilicho. Stilicho was Odoacer's first precedessor:  a German commander of the Roman army. This might sound odd, but it didn't seem so odd at the time. Germans had long been in the Roman army. Marcus Aurelius, who was Roman enough for any scholar, took a whole tribe of barbarians, the Iazygians (who had fought with Germans but were actually Iranian), into the Roman army. This had not created problems. And the army had always filled up with the most warlike inhabitants of the Empire. At the time, German refugees and interlopers were certainly the most warlike.

But with Stilicho, something was different. His young charges were weak and worthless; and worse, they had divided the Empire into east and west again, and the two courts were intriguing against each other, with Stilicho often caught in the middle. The Visigoths started acting up, and for obscure reasons Stilicho may have avoided, or lost, or been prevented from, having the chance to annihilate them. That, in retrospect, is what needed to be done. Germans in the army was one thing, but an independent, belligerent tribe in the midst of the Empire was something else. Theodosius had allowed, or been compelled to allow (he could not defeat the Goths), this to happen. The Visigoths, after their experience before Adrianople, were not going to be dispersed in settlement or in the army as Roman practice previously would have required. The individual Visigoths who were off in the Roman army at the time of Adrianople had been murdered. So now the tribe stuck together. Arther Ferrill, in The Fall of the Roman Empire, the Military Explanation [Thames and Hudson, London, 1986], identifies this as the fatal, catastrophic mistake in Roman policy. Germans in the Roman army became Romans. Germans in a German tribe remained German; and as the Roman army assimilated itself to the influence of the German model, it lost its advantage of discipline over its German enemies. It became a kind of German tribe itself.

Still, this need not have been fatal. Stilicho could have swept aside the intrigue, organized his resources, and annihilated the tribal Visigoths through one simple act:  seizing the throne. He didn't, and eventually was murdered by Honorius (in 408). What happened next is revealing:  the army seemed to disintegrate. The Visigoths swept into Italy and took Rome in 410, while Honorius sat safe in Ravenna. A Roman Army of Italy remained, but the Goths brought into the army by Stilicho were killed or expelled (many joined the Visigoths). This reduced the effectiveness of the force, perhaps also because of the loss of discipline, to the point that the Visigoths could not be met in battle with any chance of success. In seizing the throne, Stilicho would have lost legitimacy with the East, but by not seizing the throne, Stilicho and his successors passed on after them weak civilian governments, often with young emperors and scheming regents, at a time when the ferocity of third century warrior emperors was badly needed again. In 410, only fifteen years after the death of Theodosius, the western empire had become all but paralyzed, with the Goths in Rome itself, and Britain stripped of troups by the usurper Constantine, who moved into Gaul. The western emperors never recovered, as Britain itself was henceforth left to its own devices.

What may have been personal loyalty to the Throne in Stilicho obviously becomes something else later:  the commander Ricimer, who presided over a critical era in the dissolution of the western Empire, 456-472, made two or three emperors himself, briefly accepted a candidate from the east (Anthemius, 467-472), and through the whole business did not do what now seems like the obvious:  He did not get his own army to elevate him to the Purple. Like more than half a dozen commanders from Stilicho to Odoacer, Ricimer did not do what every legionary commander on the frontier back in the third century dreamed of doing:  becoming emperor himself. These were "the emperors who weren't," the soldiers who passed up the time honored Roman custom of killing an emperor, cleaning out the intrigue, paying off the veterans, and then marching out to massacre the barbarians. Why in the world would they not have done that? It doesn't make any sense. A book about them from 1983 by John Michael O'Flynn, is called Generalissimos of the Western Roman Empire [U of Alberta Press], giving them the title used by Joseph Stalin and Chiang Kai-shek in World War II to show that they outranked everyone. Why would someone who outranked everyone be content to "serve" some weak, pathetic puppet emperor?

The answer is simple enough:  They were Germans. They were not Roman citizens. They were resident aliens. They could have all kinds of Roman titles. They could aspire to be recognized as German kings federated with Rome, but they were simply not qualified to be emperors [note]. Just because Caracalla had made all Roman subjects into citizens did not mean that anyone who wandered in over the Rhine or Danube was automatically a citizen. They weren't. One commander, Gundobad, was already king of the Burgundians and simply returned to his tribe when Julius Nepos and Orestes deposed him (and his puppet emperor Glycerius) in 473. Nothing, indeed, is so revealing about the extraordinary symbiosis of Romania and Germania in the fifth century. The illiterate (who weren't illiterate) pagan (who weren't pagan) German hordes (who were actually in the Roman army) who trampled down the Roman legionnaires with their invincible cavalry (we'll get to that shortly) played by such Marquess of Queensberry Rules that it never occurred to them to claim a position that their citizenship didn't entitle them to! It was more than three centuries before a German, a Frank finally, dared to claim the imperial status for himself; and Charlemagne had the excuse of a woman, for the first time, on the throne in Constantinople (Irene, 780-802) and a Pope who was perfectly happy to inflate his own authority into that of emperor-maker.

So the western Empire crumbled, not because of decadence, not because of Christianity, not because of pagan hordes, but because of the scrupulous observance of the privileges of citizenship. That the Germans did not otherwise have any military advantage is also an important point. Cavalry may have decided the battle of Adrianople, but not because the Goths were all mounted, or because the Romans did not have much or much very good cavalry, or because cavalry had some kind of real military advantage over infantry. In most of military history, cavalry could decide battles only when infantry had become tired or disorganized and the cavalry managed to strike at a decisive moment. This happened at Adrianople. On their left flank, the Roman cavalry had actually defeated the Visigothic cavalry and driven it away. In the time honored manner, it began to sweep around to the rear of the Gothic army, to surround and destroy it. Unfortunately, it ran into the fortified Gothic camp, built with wagons into an effective defense against cavalry. This checked and damaged the Roman forces, just as German reinforcements arrived. The Roman cavalry was then defeated in turn, and the Goths were able to sweep around the Roman left. It was thus not really Gothic cavalry that won the battle, but, ironically, Gothic fortifications. When the Flemings and Swiss discovered in the 14th and 15th centuries that they could stop a charge of mounted and armored knights with nothing more sophisticated than pikes, it became obvious that all infantry had ever needed to win battles was discipline, determination, and some money. Gunpowder had little to do with the end of feudal knighthood. Rich cities and determined citizen soldiers had everything to do with it. Cavalry had dominated in the meantime, to any extent that it ever did, just because the money didn't exist to raise real armies and there was a premium on the mobility of the smaller, feudal forces, where the nobles could also supply their own horses [note].

The traditional story about German cavalry doesn't even make a lot of sense:  As Ferrill points out, an effective cavalry requires not one but many horses per rider. Whittow mentions Marco Polo's observation that each Mongol warrior maintained as many as 18 remounts. And horses need to be fed. This is not easy to do without organized logistics, unless you are nomads living on natural grassland like the steppe. The Mongols could move an entire mounted army from China to Hungary, but beyond that they encountered difficulties. The German tribes were in no position to maintain such a large mounted establishment. The Romans were. The Romans had stud farms and all the grain and logistics to maintain their cavalry. They had been doing it for some time. What the Romans lost then was their discipline and organization, and this occurred through the Germanization of the army, even as the German commanders of the same were no more ready to seize the ultimate Roman honor for themselves than the Romans were to bestow it on them.

This dilemma did not go unobserved or entirely misunderstood at the time; and the emperor Leo I (457-474) had in fact taken steps to remedy it:  He purged the eastern army of Germans and brought in the most warlike Roman citizens he could find, rebellious Isaurians from the mountains of Anatolia, to brace up the ranks. With them came the future emperor Zeno himself, who assumed a properly Greek name in place of his clearly un-Greek original one:  Tarasikodissa. This was just what the doctor ordered for the eastern Empire. And when Zeno invited the Ostrogothic king Theodoric to get rid of Odoacer and rule Italy, the eastern empire stood free of a German presence for the first time in a century. Soon the tables would be turned.

Recently, Peter Heather, who also rejects arguments about Roman decadence, argues in his The Fall of the Roman Empire [Oxford, 2006] that the Roman system was simply overwhelmed by the numbers of the immigrating tribes, that the Roman Army, although large enough on paper, could only bring to bear forces that were actually outnumbered by the Goths, Vandals, Suevi, etc., and that the occupation of Roman lands in Gaul, Spain, and North Africa damaged the Roman tax base enough that the Army could not recover. In his view Constantius and Aëtius went a long way to restoring the integrity of the Western Empire. Constantius defeated the usurper Constantine, recovered Gaul for the Emperor, and then got the Visigoths to help him destroy most of the Alans and Vandals in Spain -- unfortunately leaving the Suevi and Asding Vandals to do more damage. Nevertheless, this was progess, and Constantius was even made co-Emperor for it, marrying Honorius's sister and fathering Valentinian III. Unfortunately, Constantius then died, and before a strong hand could be restored, the Vandals crossed over into Africa. This was all some very bad luck, but not all was lost. When Aëtius gained control, it looked again like there was someone to handle things. The Vandals were stopped, and when they did move again and took Carthage, a joint East-West expedition was organized against them in 441. As Heather asserts, and the Romans agreed, it was essential that North Africa be regained, for its tax base, its food supply, and, I might add, to recover control of the Sea from the Vandals. Unfortunately, the expedition was cancelled because Attila became aggressive and all forces were needed against him. Previously, Aëtius had been able to call on the Huns for support. While the defeat of the Huns was followed by Aëtius's murder and a period of confusion, Ricimer accepted the Eastern candidate, Anthemius, as Western Emperor, as part of a plan for another joint expedition in 468 against the Vandals. With 1000 ships, this should have worked, but the Romans did not exactly have a lot of experience in amphibious operations, and the Vandals fleet was able to break up the landing. The treasury of Leo I had been exhausted by the effort, and as Heather puts it, this was the fatal moment when Western recovery became impossible. The Western Empire collapsed in a shambles, leaving only Italy to central control.

How far does Peter Heather's perspective go in explaining events? A good way, but there are still anomalies. His book begins with striking examples of Roman Legions fighting effectively against overwhelming barbarian forces. We never learn why purely Roman forces should have been so relatively ineffective in the Fifth Century. Little good was accomplished without barbarian help. Stilicho relied on Gothic recruits, Constantius on the Visigoths themselves, and Aëtius on the Huns. Arther Ferrill's argument provides an explanation. Roman discipline was compromised by too many unassimilated barbarian recruits. Where purely Roman forces were involved, with a good chance of success, in the expedition of 468, a combination of bad luck and bad strategy doomed it. How well it could have succeeded can be seen in Belisarius's landing of 533, with half as many ships, which was dramatically successful. If the expedition of 468 had gone as well, there is no telling what the consequences might have been. But by 533 it was really too late to revive the Western Empire the way it had been. Roman forces in the traditional form, in the West, had ceased to exist.

Which perhaps raises another question. When Hannibal wiped out whole Roman armies, Rome simply raised new ones. There doesn't seem to have been a problem with the tax base. Perhaps the loss of Roman strength in the 5th century was not entirely an artifact of barbarization. The paid, professional Army of the Late Empire was no longer a citizen army, and it could not simply be expanded rapidly with drafts of civilians. So I detect a number of problems in the Fall of the West:  (1) divided authority, without soldier Emperors, where a successful commander, like Aëtius, could be murdered out of envy, or German commanders were ineligible for the Throne; (2) loss of discipline as German recruits overwhelmed the traditional Roman model of discipline and organization (Flavius Vegetius in De Re Militari, c.390, himself liked this explanation); and (3) the inability of the Roman State to effectively draw on its manpower. The previous impression, that the Late Empire had declined in population and prosperity is something that Peter Heather effectively argues against. That leaves an institutional problem. The citizens of Romania were not expected, one and all, to become soldiers, the way those of Rome were in the 3rd Century BC. This was a problem effected simply by centuries of general peace, in which a merely professional army was sufficient [note]. The paradigm of the mounted knight, derived from the small forces used by barbarian nobility, would, significantly, be overthrown by citizen armies, those of Flanders, as at the Battle of the Golden Spurs against France in 1302, and those of the Swiss, as at the Battle of Sempach against the Hapsburgs in 1368, or especially at the Battle of Nancy against the Duke of Burgundy in 1477. A similar phenomenon could be seen when the professional armies of the 18th century were swept away by the mass citizen drafts of the French Revolution. The Roman Republic benefited from a comparable mechanism, but the Empire, largely because of its very success, had lost that advantage.

Summary

The Roman Empire grew and succeeded because conquered peoples became Romans. Thus, what began as a City State came to encompass Latium, then Italy, and then, eventually, the "world." Citizenship, indeed, was extended gradually; but that is precisely why the process worked. Citizenship had substantial benefits, people came to know about them, and the status was something to aspire to, something valued. In the course of this, people became acculturated to Roman institutions and interests and were subsequently proud to become citizens. We've been conquered, yes; but now we are the conquerors! An early effect of this was the difficulty that Hannibal had in tempting the cities of southern Italy away from their Roman allegiance. The Italians knew two things:  (1) Roman vengeance was sure and merciless; and (2) Hannibal could hardly offer the benefits that the Roman connection already did. All were then able to see what happened to the cities that did go over to Hannibal. Later, St. Paul, although a Jew, knew the value, and used it, of his own Roman citizenship.

Eventually, the whole process reached a culimination in Caracalla's Constitutio Antoniniana of 212 AD, which gave citizenship to all free subjects of the Empire. Now, one might think that this would devalue the privilege into meaninglessness. However, it signified a very formative step in the evolution of the Roman state. There is now no legal difference between inhabitants of Rome, of Italy, or of anywhere else. This means the end of the Empire as a possession of the inhabitants of the City of Rome. As noted above, Rome becomes Romania, and anyone from anywhere, such as (already) Septemius Severus himself, a North African probably of Phoenician origin, can become Emperor. Soon, Rome will lose almost all of its political importance; and Emperors such as Diocletian will not even visit Rome except as a symbolic afterthought. After a bit of wandering, political power will settled on Constantinople, where Constantine, despite some early attention to Rome, spent his last years.

This epic demographic evolution has had little impact on public awareness or discourse about the Roman Empire. I just saw a documentary with the positive assertion that the Roman Empire was "ruled from one City, Rome" -- a statement true enough in the first or second century AD, but increasingly false thereafter. Yet without an awareness of this evolution, we have no hope of understanding the history of the barbarian invasions, the "fall" of the West, or the continuation of Romania in the East. Thus, the process of Romanization did not end with the Constitutio Antoniniana, for Rome continued to accept non-Romans into the Empire. Barbarians joined the Roman Army. This became the means of their acculturation and naturalization. The original mechanism was that non-Romans became auxiliaries -- cavalry, skirmishers, etc. -- to the Legions. After their service, they received citizenship. We see a rough and ready version of this quite early, when the Numidian cavalry, which had been one of Hannibal's mainstays, went over the Romans and enabled Scipio Africanus to defeat Hannibal at Zama in 202 BC. Later, we get the full formal mechanism when Marcus Aurelius takes the Sarmatian tribe of the Iazyges, whom he had defeated in 175, into Roman service, settling them with the Legio VI Victrix in the north of Britain (where many of them, probably in retirement, ended up at Bremetenacum Veteranorum, south of Lancaster). This became an effective, venerable, and indispensable system. It brought new, wild blood into the Army, but it also domesticated barbarians into being good Romans.

What eventually went wrong is that the system became overwhelmed. The Huns bumped whole nations across the rivers and into the Empire. Thus, the Goths were accepted across the Danube as refugees. At first, the traditional process seemed to be working, as Goths entered the Army and began their acculturation in Roman ways. However, there were too many Goths, and the surplus remained in what were essentially refugee camps. We are all too familiar now with what life is like in such places. It is also rather like what happened to the Plains Indians when they were restricted to Reservations. Promises of supplies, even when delivered, still leave a people demoralized and with nothing to do. At the same time, if the provision of supplies is subject to corruption, theft, negligence, or even extortion, it becomes enough to, say, start a rebellion. This is exactly what happened with the Goths. The Romans did not have a tradition of caring for large numbers of refugees; and there was very little sense of how to do that, or how to stop the corruption and exploitation that would grow like mold on an apparently helpless people. The Goths were not demoralized enough that they were willing to take that, any more than Sitting Bull, and they had fellows, potential allies, who had not yet entered the Empire.

So we get the fatal moment at Adrianople in 378. Goths already in the Roman Army were murdered, and the victorious tribe would simply never be assimilated or naturalized. This was bad enough, but then at the beginning of 407 the Suevi, Vandals, and Alans crossed the Rhine without so much as a by-your-leave and embarked on a good ravage of Gaul and Spain. But there was a difference between the former and the latter. The Goths still rather aspired to be Romans. When pacified by Theodosius I in 382 the Goths became foederati, or formal Roman allies, as the Franks had been for some time. One difference there was that the Franks straddled the frontier in Gaul, while the Goths were lodged in the middle of the Balkans. But all was not lost. It did not help, however, that Theodosius put them, like Uriah the Hittite, at the forefront of the battle at the Frigidus River in 394. The result was some increasing estrangement and trouble (including a sack of Rome in 410), but then things settled down again. King Athaulf of the Visigoths (410-415) eventually said:

At first I wanted to erase the Roman name and convert all Roman territory into a Gothic Empire:  I longed for Romania to become Gothia, and Athaulf to be what Caesar Augustus had been. But long experience has taught me that the ungoverned wildness of the Goths will never submit to laws, and that without law, a state is not a state. Therefore I have more prudently chosen the different glory of reviving the Roman name with Gothic vigour, and I hope to be acknowledged by posterity as the initiator of a Roman restoration, since it is impossible for me to alter the character of this Empire. [Orosius, Adversum Paganos, translated in Stephen Williams, Diocletian and the Roman Recovery, Routledge, 1985, 2000, p.218, boldface added]

The Visigoths were officially settled in Aquitaine and eliminated the Alans and Vandals (if not the Suevi) from Spain. Thus, as with the Franks and then the Burgundians, the Goths were officially operating as subjects of Romania and might even have been an instrument, as Athaulf says, of restoring Roman power. The historian Orosius (c.418 AD), quoting Athaulf, was optimistic that the help the Goths would indeed enable the restoration of the Empire as it was.

For many years a colleague of mine had a cartoon on his office door showing a Goth, in some kind of barbarian dress (i.e. animal skins, like Neanderthals), amid the ruins of Rome, and some kind of pillaging going on in the background, but with him apologizing:  "We were just looking for some poems. Sorry if we broke some stuff." This bears some curious relation to reality. But it wasn't enough. The Vandals, Suevi, Lombards, and Saxons were never foederati, and the effectiveness, or the commitment, or even the meaningfulness of the Visigoths, Burgundians, Franks as allies faded as metropolitian Roman power, at least in the West, faded steadily. Soon there was no point to it.

The previously effective institutions of Romanization were thus overwhelmed by numbers, and even the adaptation of making tribes into foederati was not enough to handle the influx -- but only contributed to the erosion of discipline and loyalty in the Army. At the same time, the flood that swamped the West bypassed the East. So Romania survived (and the Army was purged of Germans), although, as noted above, this is another circumstance that in popular discourse, or even in academic opinion, is only poorly appreciated. Eventually pared down to the Balkans and Anatolia, the Empire finally consisted mainly of Greeks, or at least Greek speakers, as well as Armenians, Albanians, Vlachs, etc. Conquered and humiliated by Rome, the Greeks inherited Romania and subsequently always called themselves Rhômaioi. This, of course, is incomprehensible unless one understands the meaning and consequences of the Constitutio Antoniniana, let alone Christianization. As such, it is well over the horizon of popular culture, much academic culture, or Hollywood -- to whom the history of "Byzantium" is like something from science fiction, if even that. I cannot say that there has ever been a "Byzantine" Emperor represented in a Hollywood movie -- or a Constantinople that was not already Istanbul.

For my purposes here, what must be noted is that this demographic infiltration and undermining of the Roman West had nothing to do with decadence, Christianity, civil wars, monarchy, loss of civic virtue, orientalization, individualism, bureaucratization, demoralization, lead poisoning, slavery, or any of the other theorized or imagined failures or ills of Roman society in Late Antiquity. If those were real explanations, the East would have had as much of a problem as the West, and obviously it did not. At the same time, the collapse of the West was a catastrophe, and the Dark Ages were real enough. Some defenders of the traditional ideology of the "Fall of Rome" seem to characterize the opposing thesis, that Rome survived at Constantinople, as a view that nothing really bad happened and that the Middle Ages entered with a kind of cultural evolution but no real "Darkness." If anyone wants to defend the traditional ideology in such a way, I think they have created a straw man. The Dark Ages were real enough, since the failure of the West certainly attended an economic collapse. We know from the absence of contemporary coin hoards where a cash economy has disappeared, and this telling bit of evidence flows like a blackout across Europe:  Britain in the 5th century, Gaul in the 6th, Italy in the 7th, and the Aegean in the 8th. The beginning of this is obviously due to Germanic migrations, but the economic devastation of Italy or the Aegean has another cause:  the advent of Islâm, which shattered Roman control of the Mediterranean and devastated its trade system. Some historians protest that trade still existed, even conducted by the Muslims or Vikings. Well, yes, to an extent. But we can see what extent from the coinage. While the Lombards had still been minting gold, Charlemagne only issued a silver coinage. Both the high and low end (i.e. copper coinage) of the exchange system were missing. This tell us that daily needs in the West were met by subsistence agriculture or barter, while large scale trade, or capital investment, were gone. Practical and circulating gold coins would not be minted in the West until the 13th century.

At the same time, the blackout only goes so far. Gold coins were minted in Constantinople all through the Middle Ages; and while the Thematic Army was based on the land (tellingly after the Islamic Conquest), we can follow step by step as a paid professional military, the Tagamata, grows back, initially under the Syrian/Isaurian Dynasty -- in the very century, as it happens, the 8th, when we are aware of the economic damage done to the Empire. Thus, even Constantine V still had enough money to organize and pay his professional units, and subsequent Emperors only added to this. The paid military would eventually draw recruits from Russia, Sweden, Denmark, Norway, Iceland, and England. Meanwhile, the libraries and the Classical art of Constantinople might leave one wondering if very much had changed at all in the passing centuries, while visitors from the impoverished West or barbarian North were left to gape in awe at the bustle, wealth, architecture, and sophistication of a place unlike any other in Christendom. That is what the "Fall of Rome" usually leaves out. There is a joke in Monty Python and the Holy Grail [1975] that you can recognize the (British) King because he is the only person not covered in shit. But in the same era (Arthur's), the Emperors in Constantinople were the ones covered in purple and gold, while the Great City (Miklagarð) thrived around them, safe as a little Classical world behind its indomitable Walls.

Index

Reflections on Roman History is continued in The Vlach Connection, and Further Reflections on Roman History

Animated History of Romania

Philosophy of History

Home Page

Copyright (c) 1996, 1997, 1998, 1999, 2000, 2001, 2002, 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2008, 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012, 2013, 2014 Kelley L. Ross, Ph.D. All Rights Reserved

"Decadence, Rome and Romania,
the Emperors Who Weren't, etc.,"
Note 1

Frazer's statement reveals several significance prejudices and confusions:

The religion of the Great Mother, with its curious blending of crude savagery with spiritual aspirations, was only one of a multitude of similar Oriental faiths [I suspect we are expected to include Christianity among them, ed.] which in the later days of paganism spread over the Roman Empire, and by saturating the European peoples with alien ideals of life gradually undermined the whole fabric of ancient civilization. Greek and Roman society was built on the conception of the subordination of the individual to the community, of the citizen to the state; it set the safety of the commonwealth, as the surpreme aim of conduct, above the safety of the individual whether in this world or in a world to come. Trained from infancy in this unselfish ideal, the citizens devoted their lives to the public service and were ready to lay them down for the common good; or if they shrank from the supreme sacrifice, it never occurred to them that they acted otherwise than basely in preferring their personal existence to the interests of their country. All this was changed by the spread of Oriental religion [i.e. Christianity] which inculcated the communion of the soul with God and its eternal salvation as the only objects worth living for, objects in comparison with which the prosperity and even the existence of the state sank into insiginificance. The invevitable result of this selfish and immoral doctrine was to withdraw the devotee more and more from the public service, to concentrate his thoughts on his own spiritual emotions, and to breed in him a contempt for the present life which he regarded merely as a probation for a better and an eternal. The saint and the recluse, disdainful of earth and rapt in ecstatic contemplation of heaven, became in popular opinion the highest ideal of humanity, displacing the old ideal of the patriot and hero who, forgetful of self, lives and is ready to die for the good of his country. The earthy city seemed poor and contemptable to men whose eyes beheld the City of God coming in the clouds of heaven. Thus the centre of gravity, so to say, was shifted from the present to a future life, and however much the other world may have gained, there can be little doubt that this one lost heavily by the change. A general disintegration of the body politic set in. The ties of the state and the family were lossened:  the structure of society tended to resolve itself into its individual elements and thereby to relapse into barbarism; for civilization is only possible through the active co-operation of the citizens and their willingness to subordinate their private interests to the common good. Men refused to defend their country and even to continue their kind. In their anxiety to save their own souls and the souls of others, they were content to leave the material world, which they identified with the principle of evil, to perish around them. The obsession lasted for a thousand years. The revival of Roman law, of the Aristotelian philosophy, of ancient art and literature at the close of the Middle Ages, marked the return of Europe to native ideals of life and conduct, to saner, manlier views of the world. The long halt in the march of civilization was over. The tide of Oriental invasion had turned at last. It is ebbing still. [The Golden Bough, A Study in Magic and Religion, A New Abridgement from the Second and Third Editions, edited with an introduciton by Robert Fraser, Oxford University Press, 1994, p. 359-360]

This extraordinary passage tells us rather more about the 20th century than it does about the 4th or 5th. The chilling, "unselfish ideal" of the "subordination of the individual to the community" blossomed in Frazer's own lifetime into the totalitarian principles of Fascism and Communism. Despite the megadeaths and horror effected by such ideals, they still survive in the trendy doctrine of "communitarianism." Frazer has forgotten the philosophical basis of the British Constitution of his own day in John Locke's precept, also enshrined in the Declaration of Independence, that the purpose of government is to secure the rights of the individual. Again, this foundational principle, upon which modern Britain and America built their power and prosperity, is still under attack, for instance in the grotesque biography of Thomas Jefferson by Joseph J. Ellis, oozing with contempt and condescension for individual rights and the principles of the American (or English) Revolution.

Frazer thus starts off on a false and dangerous note. Even accepting this appalling ideology, however, there are already other problems. The Roman state for its last five centuries was ruled by absolute monarchs. Romans were then not sacrificing themselves for the "community" but for the Emperor. Frazer would have known of much the same phenomenon from the French Revolution, when dying for Liberty gave way to dying for Napoleon. In the 20th century it would become dying for Mussolini, Lenin, Hitler, Stalin, Peron, Mao, Castro, etc. True "patriotism" for the real "common good" is a matter easily subverted, but it is always pitched as equally "unselfish." The historic barrier to such perversions was the modern ideal of civil rights, which shield the individual from the state. Frazer is unaware of this, probably because it didn't exist in Classical thought. That many other people are unaware of it has led to the erosion of freedom and the rebirth of statism, as the idea of "civil rights" has itself come to be used to attack civil rights.

Frazer thus represents a frightening side of intellectual history. All we need is a strong interpretation of European "native ideals of life" to produce the racism to turn political totalitarianism into real Naziism; but even without that, we have notions that remain alive and threatening in our own day. And most people probably think that Frazer was simply attacking Christianity.

As history, this passage is also confused and hopeless. If the Roman Empire "fell" because unworldliness made people unwilling to fight and die for the "community," Frazer must account for (1) why the Eastern Empire, arguably more effete and religious than the Western, rode out the Germanic invasions and survived another 1000 years, and (2) Islâm:  No one, not even Nietzsche, would doubt for a second the "manliness" of the Arab armies that extinguished Sassanid Persia and swept Romania out of Egypt, Syria, and North Africa (classified by Nietzsche among the "noble races" of conquerors). The survival of Constantinople and the conquests and triumph of Islâm (ultimately over Constantinople itself) make complete nonsense out of Frazer's thesis. To be sure, monasticism is not characteristic of Islâm; but this is not the central issue:  Frazer cannot account for the willingness to die for Heaven as a factor in supporting the secular domain of the Islamic ummah ("community"). It is simply not true, as Frazer says, that "men refused to defend their country." The type of the Emperor Basil II, who remained celibate but crushed the enemies of Romania, would seem to be incomprehensible on Frazer's principles -- not to mention the Crusading monastic orders of knights like the Hospitallers. Ibn Khaldûn (1332-1406) gives us a better understanding of such history than Frazer.

Frazer is also being rather dishonest. The "Oriental faith" he is talking about is obviously Christianity, although he does not say so. Yet with the world-denying element of Christianity, looking to salvation from the world rather than in it, where did that come from? It is not obviously there in Judaism. Instead, it looks more like the theme of Mystery Cults that go all the back, at least, to the Eleusian Mysteries. This was long before Rome was even a cloud on the horizon. The later "Oriental" Roman Mystery Religions, like those of the Great Mother, Isis and Osiris, or Mithras, look more like assimilations to the Eleusian paradigm than the other way around.

Another problem with Frazer's thesis is how the Middle Ages ended. The "obsession" with saving one's soul certainly did not end with the Middle Ages, otherwise the wars of the 17th century, or the laws of Calvin's Geneva, are very hard to understand. The "revival of Roman law," although a real early modern event in western Europe, has the little difficulty, again, that such law was never lost in Constantinople -- in fact, the corpus of Roman Law as we have it, is largely the product of the Christian Emperors Theodosius II and especially Justinian in Constantinople. Roman Law was given to us by the "wrong" Romans, in Frazer's historiography. "Aristotelian philosophy" returned in the 12th and 13th century, and the ancient art and literature in great measure came with Greek refugees from the fall of Constantinople. Again, the "wrong" Romans.

In fact, the Fourth Crusade took Constantinople, Venice and Genoa dominated Romania, and Europe ultimately defeated Islâm all because of commercial culture, the very thing that today is attacked by the intellectual descendants of Frazer as selfish and "immoral." Individual freedom and the rights of property make commercial culture, and modern civilization, possible, but these do not appear on Frazer's ideological radar screen. The dissociation of the individual from the state, condemned by Frazer as part of the "Oriental" corruption of Roman virtue, in fact produces one of the sources for the principles of individual dignity and rights, the glory of a modern civilization, like the British "nation of shopkeepers," still despised by too many today who should certainly know better.

Return to text


"Decadence, Rome and Romania,
the Emperors Who Weren't, etc.,"
Note 2


Wulfila did not, to be sure, convert all the Goths en masse and all at once. There was disinterest, resistance, and even hostility at first, especially among the elite. The Gothic King Athanaric expelled Wulfila in 348 and wished to suppress Christianity. This didn't work very well in a tribal group where the very idea of police power didn't exist. When the Goths were allowed across the Danube in 376, much of the leadership still appears to be pagan; but by the time the Goths sacked Rome in 410, they were Christian enough to respect St. Peter's and other churches. The looting, as much as anything of the sort could be said to be, was restrained and limited. If only the same could have been said about the looting of Constantinople by the Fourth Crusade in 1204.

Return to text

"Decadence, Rome and Romania,
the Emperors Who Weren't, etc.,"
Note 3

If Rome "fell" in 476, people naturally suppose that something must have happened at Rome in 476. Since nothing did, we get the phenomenon of people mentally filling in the blank. Thus, Jean-Benoît Nadeau and Julie Barlow say, in The Story of French:

After the sack of Rome in 476, they [the Franks] moved into the province of Gaul, establishing themselves around Lutetia (now Paris). [St. Martin's Press Griffin, St. Martin's Press, 2006, p.23]

Clearly, Nadeau and Barlow do not know that there were no events at Rome in 476 having any relation to the "fall" of Rome. They reasonably suppose that the City must have fallen to some barbarians and consequently would have been sacked. They also seem a bit vague about what happened in Gaul, since the Franks actually didn't do anything that year either. Clovis was not in Paris until he defeated Syagrius in 486.

I don't mean to beat up on Nadeau and Barlow; for the problem is not them but is certainly the false impression that popular culture, and even many presentations of academic history, has given people. I don't want to blame the victims.

Falsehoods in statements about Roman history are a problem with many people who should, unlike Nadeau and Barlow, know better. Visiting the British Museum in March 2010, I noticed that they published a series of small booklets, "Pocket Timelines," apparently for children, covering various areas of world history. I picked up the Pocket Timeline of Ancient Rome, by Katharine Wilshire [The British Museum Press, 2005]. The book ends with a short chapter on "Later Rome," which summarizes everything from the Third Century onward, to Justinian and Heraclius (already betraying a certain kind of bias). We get a statement, "in AD 395 the Roman empire was officially divided into a western and an eastern part and was never again ruled by a single emperor" [p.30]. This is false in two respects:  The Empire was never "officially divided," and in fact its unity was restored when Odoacer returned the Regalia of the West to Constantinople. That is how contemporaries saw it; and the Venerable Bede, writing in the 7th and 8th centuries, simply ignored the very existence of the last (figurehead) Western Emperors.

Then we get the statement, "The last emperor of the western empire, Romulus Augustulus, was overthrown in AD 476. After this, Italy fragmented into many small kingdoms and states" [ibid.]. First of all, this gives no clue about what actually happened to Romulus Augustulus, who was a child and had no role in the political events of time. More importantly, it is simply false that "Italy fragmented into many small kingdoms and states," if, that is, Katharine Wilshire means to leave the impression that this happened any time soon -- despite the existence of the powerful Kingdoms of the Ostrogoths, Lombards, and Carolingians. By the 12th century ("after this" in 476) Italy had fragmented. In the centuries immediately following 476, nothing of the sort happened. If Wilshire does not wish readers to get the wrong idea, she has put this very badly.

A subsequent statement is, "The emperor Heraclius (AD 610-641) changed the way in which the eastern empire was run and it became known as the Byzantine empire" [ibid.]. It is less important that Heraclius "changed the way in which the eastern empire was run" (whatever that was) than that he needed to do so because of the Islamic Conquest, a minor (!) event that goes unremarked. But then, the assertion that the Empire "became known as the Byzantine empire" is simply false. It was not "known as the Byzantine Empire" until modern historians decided to call it that. It was never called that by itself or by any contemporaries. Wilshire needs to say that the subsequent Empire "is now known as the Byzantine empire." But this is a distinction about which even Byzantinists sometimes seem confused.

Finally, and out of chronological sequence, we get, "The emperor Justinian I (reigned AD 527-565) won back control of some of the western empire including Italy, which had been overrun by Germanic tribes [the Ostrogoths?], and North Africa. However, by the AD 560s Justinian had lost control of most of this territory" [p.31]. Wow. There is no more patently false a statement in the whole booklet. Justinian lost control of none of his acquisitions (as we see on the map below), and "most" of them remained under the control of the Empire at least until the Islamic Conquest of North Africa at the end of the 7th century. Rome and Ravenna remained under fairly effective control, preserved from the Lombards, until the 8th century, while Southern Italy was held, to varying degrees, until 1071.

But we know why these falsehoods, distortions, and oversights occur. The author wishes to convey an impression, and the ability of Justinian or Heraclius, let alone subsequent Emperors, to restore or preserve Roman power in the face of the tides of history does not fit the narrative. As I have noted elsewhere on this page, to people who are not themselves Romans in any sense, but some sort of jumped up Franks, those Greeks who inherited the Empire were just not really Romans, regardless of the continuity of the institutions and what, in fact, they kept, without interruption, calling themselves.

It is so easy for people to completely forget about "Byzantium." David P. Goldman, in How Civilizations Die (and why Islam is dying too) [Regnery, 2011], writes as though nothing of the Roman Empire survived 476:

[from 325 to 800 AD]...the great engineering, manufacturing, and trading network of Rome disappeared; cities were abandoned; and the great culture of the classical world was for the most part lost...

The Christian message... resonated through the rubble of ancient paganism...

After the fall of Rome [476?], the Church stood as the only cohesive entity between the Atlantic Ocean and the Black Sea -- even if it held on in just a few remote islands of faith and learning in a sea of anarchy. [p.162]

No one could possibly make these statements with any awareness of the surviving Roman Empire ruled from Constantinople, or even of the Empire of Late Antiquity. Let me count the ways. While a great deal of Roman engineering, manufacturing, and trade did decline, in some areas catastrophically, as we get into the Middle Ages, and cities were indeed abandoned, it is preposterous to say that "the great culture of the classical world was for the most part lost." No. The great culture of the classical world was alive, well, and resolutely enduring in Constantinople. Next, the "rubble of ancient paganism" had effectively been plowed under by Christianity well before 476. Even most of the Germans running around within the Empire were, as we have seen, already Christians. The story of the Middle Ages was the conversion of areas that had been outside the Empire -- Ireland, Scotland, Germany, Russia, Scandinavia, etc. Finally, the Church was hardly "the only cohesive entity between the Atlantic Ocean and the Black Sea" when the overthrow of the Vandals meant that all the islands of the Mediterranean were back in the hands of Romania, whose dominion then extended from Gibraltar to "the Black Sea" and beyond. This was slowly eroded, but Constantinople did not lose its last toehold in Italy until 1071. Meanwhile, the Arab fleet that Romania destroyed off Provence in 941 may have thought that they were safe in "a sea of anarchy," but then they learned otherwise.

I expect that Mr. Goldman has ignored Constantinople, perhaps because he doesn't know very much about it, but also because neglect serves his argument better. His thesis is that civilizations decline when they become demoralized (through the loss or denuminization of religion) and suffer a demographic collapse from simple lack of reproduction. Anyone familiar with early Roman history knows about the lack of children among the Roman elite and the desperate efforts to require marriage and encourage reproduction. Goldman himself offers the theory that Christianity triumphed in Rome because Christians did reproduce (forbiding abortion and infanticide) and demographically overwhelmed the pagans. Yet Goldman then forgets all this and attributes the fall of Rome to pagan demoralization and population decline -- phenomena that would have ceased, on his own account, well before 476. Nor is his theory likely to hold the slightest water when we consider Constantinople, where disasters of plague and invasion certainly eroded the population, but where the confidence of people in their state, their civilization, and their religion, was at full flood for many centuries. He might, indeed, have tried to work this into his own argument; but perhaps he did not do so from the beguilment of the "fall of Rome" narrative.

What I would like to do with the material on this webpage is present it as the sort of video essay that we see with Kenneth Clark's Civilisation (1969), Jacob Bronowski's The Ascent of Man (1973), or Carl Sagan's Cosmos (1980). Indeed, this now can done on a shoestring and posted on YouTube. Either way, it should begin with a stand-up (with me, Terry Jones, or whoever) before an video scene of a Roman market, or the Forum, in 476, with people quietly going about their business:

Ladies and gentlemen, here we are in the City of Rome in 476 AD. Thanks to the magic of time travel, we are ready to become eye witnesses to the Fall of Rome. Imagine, the barbarians at the gates, the slaughter, the destruction, the looting, the massacre, the rapine, the vandalism. Be prepared for all of it. [time passes; narrator looks at watch, taps ground with foot.] Well, any time now. [pause] Perhaps we are bit early. [animation speeds up] I wonder what the delay is. [looks around]

[looks on camera] The truth is, ladies and gentlemen, nothing out of the ordinary is going to happen here, all year. Life in Rome at the end of 476 was much as it was at the beginning. History has largely passed this City by, and the significant events of 476, such as they may be, occur elsewhere.

But you protest, "No! No!, Rome is the Capital of the Roman Empire! That is where the Empire is governed! That is where things happen!" Not anymore. The City of Rome has not been the administrative Capital of the Roman Empire for almost two hundred years at this point. Some barbarians, the Visigoths and the Vandals, have come and gone. Only the Vandals did a proper looting, and, you know, the Romans are going to get that stuff back. But the City is otherwise much as it has been and will continue this way into the next century. What happens next is another story, one that is not often heard.

Or at least not heard on the History Channel, etc. And so we go on with the rest of the story:  Milan, Constantinople, Ravenna, Odoacer, Theodoric, Belisarius, etc.

Another opening for a documentary would find the host sitting in the church of Santa Maria Maggiore in Rome. Tourists visit Rome looking for the ruins of the Roman Empire. They go to the Colosseum, ruins. They go to the Forum, ruins. They go to the Circus Maximus, ruins. They go to the Baths of Caracalla, ruins. They go to the Baths of Diocletian, ruins -- except that the church of Santa Maria degli Angeli e dei Martiri is built in two parts of the Baths, something that was only done in the 16th century. Then they go do the Pantheon. Well, not quite ruins; but it looks old. I just saw it described in a documentary as the "best preserved Roman building." They don't go to Santa Maria Maggiore. It is so well preserved that it doesn't even look ancient (and some parts were indeed remodeled during the Middle Ages); and, after all, we all know that a church can't be a "Roman building" anyway. But this church was built 432-440 AD. It is indeed ancient, and Roman, by date and place. But it doesn't quite look Roman, or really Mediaeval either. The form of a Roman basilica, decorated with mosaics, doesn't fit in the familiar categories and preconceptions. Yet nothing looks more Roman, in terms of the art and architecture of the 4th and 5th centuries. It is just that the style and the era, just by existing, make certain people uncomfortable. They would rather ignore them, mainly to fit the narrative that Rome simply disappears in 476. In the "Dark Ages" there was nothing. Just Germans dressed in animal skins, like Neanderthals, running around, looting and raping.

An interesting comparison to make is between a mosaic of Santa Maria Maggiore (at left), from the 5th century, and one in the Chora Monastery in Constantinople (at right), from the 14th century. The images shown here are too small to see the detail, but clicking on them will produce larger popups, where the detail is evident. The technique, style, and subject matter of the two mosaics are so similar that one might even think them contemporary, instead of separated by 900 years. What this shows us is how the craft and aesthetic of Late Antique art was preserved even to the last couple centuries of Romania. Mosaics, indeed, seem very "Roman," and one can often see a lot of "Byzantine" art without such mosaics being featured. But they are there; and the continuity of the culture is striking, despite the destruction, trauma, and disruption of the Fourth Crusade. Even the slightly awkward perspective, including the representation of the furniture, looks similar.

There is a Modern Marvels show on arches, vaults, and domes in architecture. It jumps directly from the Pantheon to the Gothic cathedrals and then to St. Peter's, not only with the implication but with the explicit statement that nothing was built in the era after 476. This is particularly grotesque when we realize that the architectural precedent for St. Peter's was Sancta Sophia in Constantinople. Like their Turkish contemporaries, the Popes wanted to build something that would surpass Sancta Sophia. Equally grotesque, given the treatment of the St. Louis Gateway Arch in the program, was the neglect of the Arch of Ctesiphon, also built in the 6th century, which until the Gateway Arch was the largest parabolic arch in history. Indeed, if Romania is neglected in popular history, Sassanid Iran might as well be on Mars. Indeed, it might get more attention if it were.

Thus, where Kenneth Clark discusses the "Fall of Rome" by standing before the ruins of a Roman aqueduct, a different location would introduce a different perspective, confusing the tendentious nature of the narrative. Santa Maria Maggiore is a kind of living fossil, as startling a survivor of the ancient Roman Empire as the Coelacanth is of much, much older life. Indeed, later in the series Clark does visit the church, and remarks on its age, without, however, noting that it is a counterexample to the historical picture that he has previously painted.

Speaking of an awkward treatment of history in Kenneth Clark, we get from him a curious response to "Byzantium." Clark begins his great video presentation Civilisation standing in Ireland and talking about the Irish monasteries at the beginning of the Middle Ages. Rome has "Fallen," mainly from some sort of "exhaustion" and demoralization, and from what Clark says, this sounds like an event of absolute reach which left nothing behind -- European civilization (though one notices he does carefully say "Western Europe") has been reduced to a few monasteries (apparently). As with the book How the Irish Saved Civilization [Anchor, 1996, by Thomas Cahill], one might think that nothing was left of either Roman civilization or Christianity except on this remote shore of the Atlantic. However, Clark does eventually get around to the surviving Empire, which he characterizes, without explanation, as the "strange posthumous existence [of antique civilization] in what we call the 'Byzantine Empire'."

This phrase, "strange posthumnous existence," sounds not so much hostile to the Mediaeval Roman Empire as puzzled:  he doesn't know quite what to make of it or where to place it in his conceptual universe. He pays considerable tribute to its civilization, crediting to Constantinople "some of the most nearly perfect buildings and works of art ever made." And he is the only historian I have ever seen doing a video documentary who films a personal visit to the church of San Vitale in Ravenna, showing the great mosaics of Justinian and Theodora in the context of the church -- a rare to unheard of favor. He then speaks about the Emperor and Empress as though their story were common knowledge, an assumption that certainly cannot be made now, if it even could in 1969. An untutored viewer could only be puzzled himself. Later, he attributes the veneration of Mary, which was not to be found in Western Europe previous to the 12th century, to Byzantine influence (she was the Patron Saint of Constantinople, as the Virgin Artemis had been of Byzantium). In regard to the Renaissance, however, he ignores the role of Greek scholars and philosophers in bringing manuscripts, Platonism, and the knowledge of Greek to Italy (he dismisses Byzantine civilization as "static").

Since Clark was an art historian more than a general historian, I think that the fragmented, puzzling, and incoherent picture that we get of the story of Constantinople is not something to rank as a fault in his own scholarship but rather as a fault in the picture of Roman history that was generally presented at the time of Clark's own education. The narrative of the "Fall of Rome," as ingrained as it still is now, was all but uncontradicted and undisputed that many years ago. Yet anyone with the slightest knowledge of the Middle Ages, and especially of its art, as we see in Clark himself, would know about Justinian. Yet Justinian's very existence is an anomaly, and the reflective person must feel some conceptual dissonance to be standing in a church in Italy, looking at images of a Roman Emperor and Empress from the 6th century, and yet maintain the view that Rome "fell" in the 5th. Indeed, just as Clark assumes familiarity with Justinian and Theodora, neither do we get much of an explanation why their images should be in, of all places, Ravenna. Mystery upon mystery.

Clark does give us a bit of an explanation of Ravenna in an aside, since he says, "Ravenna, which for a part of the 5th and 6th centuries was the seat of the Byzantine court." Since this is simply false, it doesn't give us a very good explanation. The "Byzantine" court, presumably meaning the government and persons of the Emperors in Constantinople, was never seated at Ravenna. Nor, for that matter, is it common for people to talk much about a "Byzantine" court in the 5th century. Instead, Ravenna had been the capital of the Western Roman Emperors from 402 until the end of their line in 476. It subsequently continued as the capital of Italy under Odoacer and then the Ostrogoths, until the city was taken by Belisarius in 539. Ravenna was then the Roman capital of Italy again until 751, though now under a governor, the Exarch, rather than a resident Emperor. Clark thus overlooks Ravenna's continuation as a "Byzantine" capital in the 7th and 8th centuries. A rather large oversight.

Meanwhile, Clark has unfortunately said something else false. Talking about Charlemagne's visit to Rome (and Ravenna), he said, "No emperor had visited Rome for almost 500 years." Since Charlemagne's visit was in 799/800, this would mean that "no emperor had visited Rome" since back to "almost" 300 AD. It is hard to know what Clark can have had in mind. Perhaps he is thinking of when Constantine (apparently) left Rome for the last time in 326, after which he founded and resided in Constantinople. This would mean, however, overlooking all subsequent Western Emperors, many of whom at least visited Rome and some of whom spent their whole (short) reigns there. Even after they were long gone, there was the remarkable visit of Constans II to Italy and to Rome, in 663. That was the last visit of an Emperor to Rome, which means that 136 years elapsed until Charlemagne, not "almost 500." One is inevitably left with the impression that Clark neither had much of a background in this history nor had thought much about the inconsistencies in his own understanding of it.

Return to text

"Decadence, Rome and Romania,
the Emperors Who Weren't, etc.,"
Note 4

A good example of a preoccupation with the City of Rome, rather than the Empire, was a recent (3 December 2005) History Channel treatment of Roman history in relation to Roman architecture ("Rome:  Engineering an Empire"). The last example of Roman architecture discussed were the Baths of Caracalla, who was also the last Emperor even mentioned. Giving a typical cursory and distorted summary of the "Fall," the show says that an "invading tribe" cut the aqueducts into Rome in 537. This might strike one as a little odd, since the City is supposed to have already Fallen in 476. Why would someone be cutting the aqueducts after the Empire was already gone? What is left out is that the tribe was not "invading." They were the Ostrogoths, already the rulers of Italy since 493, trying to retake Rome after a Roman army, led by the great general Belisarius, had begun the reconquest of Italy. The invaders were Romans, not Germans. The Ostrogoths besieged Rome for over a year until Roman reinforcements arrived from the East. Cutting the aqueducts would have been a reasonable siege strategy. It was not mere Vandalism. Saying that Rome was "repeatedly" sacked by barbarians, no mention was made that this meant twice. Twice was bad enough -- the Visigoths in 410 and the Vandals in 455 -- but it doesn't quite amount to "repeatedly" (well, we could count the Arabs in 846, but that may be getting into a different time frame); and of course Belisarius recovered the loot of the Vandals when he destroyed their kingdom in North Africa. Meanwhile, the bulk of the show, which was about Roman architecture, completely ignored Roman works in Constantinople, like the aqueduct of Valens (the longest Roman aqueduct), the great Land Walls, or the monumental Church of Sancta Sophia -- or the tombs and churches of Ravenna, where the mosaics of Justinian and Theodora are some of the most often reproduced images in history. Indeed, if the Romans kept building impressive structures, even in the 6th century, this spoils the impression of the "Fall" and the tendentious moral of the story.

To be sure, there was a separate treatment of things like the aqueduct of Valens and Sancta Sophia in a later show, bundled with the dissociation of Rome from Constantinople, in "Byzantium:  Engineering an Empire." One problem with that show was that the only engineering that they came up with for the height of Byzantine power in the 11th century was the counterweight trébuchet catapult, which was first mentioned by the historian Niketas Choniates in relation to the reign of Alexius Comnenus (1081-1118). What they missed was that one of the great works of the era was St. Mark's Cathedral in Venice, which was certainly built under the influence and likely with workers from Constantinople, in the last period of friendly relations between the former outpost of Romania and its cultural metropolis. St. Mark's is still said to be "one of the best known examples of Byzantine architecture."

More recently, we get a curious statement by G.W. Bowersock:

...Constantine moved the capital of the Roman Empire from Rome to Byzantium, which he renamed Constantinople after himself. The city was, however, soon to be generally known as the New, or Second, Rome, or simply Rome, and consequently the governors and soldiers that ruled its empire were widely referred to in the eastern Mediterranean as Romans. [Empires in Collision in Late Antiquity, Brandeis University Press, Historical Society of Israel, 2012, p.4]

What does the word "consequently" mean here? I think we must understand that in Bowerstock's mind there is a hidden premise that the inhabitants of the Rome Empire are called after the name of their capital city, so that the functionaries of the Eastern Empire are called "Romans" by anyone only because their capital was, in general usage, called "Rome" just as much as the original Rome in Italy was. But this is a false premise when we realize that by the 4th century the Roman identity of the citizens of Romania existed quite independently of whatever city, including Rome or not, was the capital of the Empire. We might suppose Bowersock to be thinking that the functionaries of the Eastern Empire, because their capital was at Byzantium, quite properly would be called "Byzantines," as is the usage of the modern historians. But, of course, this is anachronistic and ahistorical.

Other strange points about this statement are:  (1) Why does Bowerstock say just that "governors and soldiers" of the Empire were referred to as "Romans," when in fact all citizens of the Empire were called that? (2) Why does he say that these functionaries were "widely referred to" as Romans when the usage was instead universal? And (3) Why does he say that this wide usage was in the "eastern Mediterranean," when it was, of course, the language of the whole Empire?

First of all, these qualifications certainly reflect the traditional uneasiness of Bowerstock with the Roman identity of those "Byzantines." How it works in each of these specific cases must involve a little speculation. In the first point, he may say "governors and soliders" because these might be more directly associated with the capital city, in line with the hidden premise that they are named after the City rather than the Empire. We don't learn what citizens would be called outside the metropolis, but then Bowerstock isn't very forthcoming about the name or names that would have been the contemporary alternatives to "Roman."

The next point, which uses "widely," still doesn't explain what else they would have been called, and I can only conclude that it reflects a disinclination if not an antipathy to acknowledging the universal self-referential name of "Roman" for what it was. Finally, the use of "eastern Mediterranean" gives us the sense that the Romans of the East may have been called something else in the West. Since we are not told what that was, we are left to guess again. Later, what the Rhômaîoi were called by the Franks was "Greeks." Since "Byzantines" was not used by anyone in the Middle Ages for the citizens of the Empire, Bowerstock is really avoiding the candid admission of all the background information, and biases, that this passage densely presupposes and exhibits. If Bowerstock admits that he is thinking of the West calling the East "Greeks," he would be marked with the blatant anachronism of this for the period (Late Antiquity) about which he is speaking. But if he simply doesn't explain what he is talking about, then he can leave his readers thinking that the "Byzantines" weren't really Romans (or had a "pretence of Romanity," in the expression of Cyril Mango) in the judgment and usage of many contemporaries. It is a curious and revealing performance; and it is hard not to conclude that it is not just his readers, but himself, that Bowerstock leaves thinking that the Byzantines weren't really Romans.

Bowerstock footnotes the passage I have been examining with a reference to his own essay, "Old and New Rome in the Late Antique Near East," in a Festshcrift for Peter Brown, Transformations of Late Antiquity, Essays for Peter Brown [edited by Philip Rousseau and Manolis Papoutsakis, Ashgate, 2009]. That book also contains another essay, "Old and New Rome; Roman Studies in Sixth-Century Constantinople," by Averil Cameron. In the two essays by Bowerstock and Cameron, we are strongly given to understand that the adjective "Roman" refers to the original City of Rome, so that an expression like "Roman Studies" only means those matters that, in the Latin language, pertain to the time when the original City of Rome was the active capital of the Empire. Both essays thus scrupulously ignore the circumstance that by the 4th century the term "Roman" pertains to the Empire and its inhabitants as a whole and is not in the least confined to the original City of Rome and its inhabitants, language, or representatives. Between the City of Rome and that of Constantinople there is no middle term that unites their identity, leaving us with an uneasy sense that Constantinople represents some kind of alien presence, or insurrection, against a proper Roman identity. Since this is a false and ahistorical impression of the self-description of the citizens of the Empire at the time, it is effectively a falsification of the history that the essays are describing. Indeed, as is characteristic in these cases, the name "Romania" does not occur in the essays at all. Indeed, "Romania" does not occur anywhere in the whole book, which means that none of the contributed essays discuss one of the key insights of Peter Brown's own work, about the "transformation" of Roman identity from the City to the Empire. Despite their contributions to the discipline, neither Bowerstock nor Cameron have been awakened from their "Byzantine" dogmatic slumber by this point in Brown's The World of Late Antiquity.

Return to text

"Decadence, Rome and Romania,
the Emperors Who Weren't, etc.," Note 5,
On "Romania"


The City and the whole of Romania is delighted, the world rejoices.

Constantine VII Porphyrogenitus (d.959 AD), acclamation for Imperial banquet, De Ceremoniis, Book I, Chapter 65, "What it is necessary to observe at the dance, that is, at the banquet" [Constantine Porphyrogennetos, The Book of Ceremonies, translated by Ann Moffatt and Maxeme Tall, with the Greek edition of the Corpus Scriptorum Historiae Byzantinae (Bonn, 1829), Australian Association for Byzantine Studies, Byzantina Australiensia 18, Canberra, 2012, Volume I, p.295]

Peter Brown mentions, in The World of Late Antiquity, AD 150-750, that "the empire itself was now called Romania" [Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, Inc., 1971, p. 41]. Professor Brown informed me personally, when I happened to meet him on the campus of Princeton University (5 October 1999), that there are two extant 4th century texts that use the term "Romania," one of them in Greek. I thought the latter especially striking, when at the time I thought that the Mediaeval usage in Greek usually was just "the Empire of the Romans" (hê [tôn] Rhômaiôn Basileía -- Latin Imperium Romanorum) rather than "the Empire of [the] Romania" (hê [tês] Rhômanías Basileía -- Latin Imperium Romaniae). Now I know better.

I had already noticed that the -an- stem can be seen in the four Emperors named Romanus. In Latin Romanus simply means "Roman," and so one might suspect that in Greek the Emperors would have been named Rhômaios. Not so. Their name was written , Rhômanos. Conveniently, , borrowed from Romanus, could be used in Greek to mean "pertaining to the City of Rome," while , Rhômaios, part of Greek since the Hellenistic Age, could be used to mean "pertaining to the Roman Empire," even when the City of Rome was no longer in the Empire -- although, of course,
,
Rhômanós
Romanus,
Roman
Roma, Rome,
Rom,
the City, Urbs
,
Rhômaîos
Romanus,
Roman
Romania,
the Empire, Orbis
this distinction did not apply with the name of the Emperors in question. We do not get a similar distinction in English, where "Roman" is used for both the City and the Empire. This creates confusion in the Mediaeval period, when the City and the Empire follow different historical paths. "Romanian" is available for the Empire, but is not used. The awkwardness of this is avoided by historians using "Byzantium," but this, of course, involves its own problems.

In the Mediaeval period, the term Romania was used in Latin, of course, to refer to the contemporary lands of the Empire -- rather than the full Empire of Trajan -- especially by the Venetians and the Crusaders who took Constantinople and then ruled, for a while, most of those lands. A 7th century Latin text casually using "Romania" is given at the top of this page. The earliest use I find in Latin is in the Historiarum Adversum Paganos Libri VII, "Seven Books of Histories Against the Pagans" (or the Hormesta), by Orosius, who wrote about 418 AD. There is an interesting gloss on this, as "to put it in everyday speech" [Seven Books of History against the Pagans, Liverpool University Press, 2010, p.412], which implies that "Romania" was a term more common in speech than in literature.

As noted, I was long under the impression that the Greek form of Romania, [Rhômanía], was just not used in Mediaeval Greek. I did not see it in Procopius or Anna Comnena, for instance. But it was used. I initially found it in the significant book De Administrando Imperio by the Emperor Constantine VII Porphyrogenitus [cf. pp.62, 94, 204, 214, 220, 222, & 224 in Greek -- Greek text edited by Gy. Moravcsik and translated by R.J.H. Jenkins, Dumbarton Oaks, Center for Byzantine Studies, 1967]. It is also to be found all through The Chronicle of Theophanes [edited by Harry Turtledove, University of Pennsylvania Press, 1982, pp.34, 45, 47-48, 61-62, etc. -- but in the edition of Theophanes by Cyril Mango and Roger Scott, discussed below, the translation suspiciously conceals this usage].

Most terrible evils has Romania suffered from the Arabs even until now.

Constantine VII Porphyrogenitus (d.959) quoting The Chronicle of Theophanes (c.815) [De Administrando Imperio, op.cit., p.94]

Indeed, Constantine sometimes quotes passages from Theophanes that use the term (as quoted at right). I did not know how common this usage was, but I expected to find out as I examine other primary sources. Indeed, I subsequently found the Perì Paradromês, "Skirmishing," attributed to the Emperor Nicephorus II Phocas [Three Byzantine Military Treatises, text, translation, and notes by George T. Dennis, Dumbardon Oaks Texts IX, Dumbarton Oaks, 1985, 2008]. Phocas (or perhaps his brother Leo, according to Dennis) uses Rhômanía three times [pp.156, 162, & 220]. I was curious if the usage of the Porphyogenitus, drawing on Theophanes, was anarchronistic; but Phocas (d.969) is from a subsequent generation and is not quoting Theophanes. As it happens, "Roman Empire" was expressed as hê Rhômaiôn Basileía, but then hê Rhômanía was equivalent to that whole expression.

In 2014, I have been fortunate to acquire a new edition of De Ceremoniis by Constantine Porphyrogenitus. This is a text previously not easily available to casual English readers. Now we have The Book of Ceremonies, by "Constantine Porphyrogennetos" (with a transcription from Greek of his epithet, rather than the Latinate form I am using), translated by Ann Moffatt and Maxeme Tall [Australian Association for Byzantine Studies, Byzantina Australiensia 18, Canberra, 2012]. With a new translation, this two volume work also has the Greek text in images reproduced from the Greek edition of the Corpus Scriptorum Historiae Byzantinae, which has published at Bonn in 1829. This is still the most recent critical edition of the Greek text, which seems like a rather remarkable lapse in the progress of scholarship. In the main text of the work, there is only one use of "Romania," but it is a significant one. Book I, Chapter 65, has a section titled, "What it is necessary to observe at the dance, that is, at the banquet." This includes acclamations that are used in the ceremonies attending Imperial banquets for the political factions, the Blues and the Greens, in Constantinople. Among them is a formula given as an epigraph to this note, , "The City and the whole of Romania [literally, 'the whole Romania'] is delighted, the world rejoices" [Volume I, p.295]. What is striking about this occurrence is that it is in a formula that will be used regularly on very public occasions. Since the name is not used in acclamation on occasions such as the Coronation of the Emperor [Chapter 38], we are left to wonder if its presence does not reflect the custom "to put it in everyday speech," as I have noted centuries before in Orosius. This also may explain the absence of "Romania" from Procopius and Anna Comnena, since they use an elevated Greek which avoids place names not found in the Classical sources.

The use of "Romania" in Chapter 65 of De Ceremoniis is not its only occurrence in this edition. According to Moffatt and Tall, the "only surviving clearly legible manuscript" of De Ceremoniis is the one kept at the University of Leipzig library. In this manuscript, the main text of the book is preceded by "three short texts," which "are concerned with the organizing of military expeditions involving the emperor" [p.xxiv]. This is related to the topic of the whole in that it concerns the Emperor's train, accommodations, and logistics while he is on campaign. At the same time, the largest context overlaps the Three Byzantine Military Treatises, which are from the same era. There are five uses of "Romania" in these "three short texts" [pp.465, 487, 489, 491, & 493], which occur in much the same way as in the Military Treatises and even, in general, in Theophanes, i.e. in relation to the movement or presence of the Emperor, or enemies, within or outside Romania. This means that the name is not used in the nominative case at all, but with prepositions in the accusative or genitive. The most striking occurrence is in a passage about the use of warning beacons, which says, "When the army of the Saracens [nominative ] was seen by anyone approaching the state of Romania [, i.e. towards the 'system' of Romania], the emperor [] was immediately ready to meet it" [p.493]. Here we get the curious usage of the "system" (with an accusative neuter plural participle ending), rather than the "Empire" [] of Romania. Thus, all the texts of De Ceremoniis gives examples of its usage and clues to where it will be used and where it may not be.

I must say that when I first opened De Administrando Imperio and began finding the Porphyrogenitus using Rhômanía, my feeling was amazement and then something like betrayal. All these Byzantinists I had read for years had not bothered to even mention the proper name of the Empire that was used by its own inhabitants, including, in this case, its own Emperor. How could this happen? What is going on when a historian does not mention the name of the country he is studying? Does this ever happen, do you think, with other countries? A history of Germany that does not mention that "Germany" in German is Deutschland may overlook this circumstance because of an assumption that everyone with any knowledge of Germany would know this already. The same certainly cannot be said about "Romania," in either Latin or Greek. Neither Classicists nor Byzantinists have a proper name that they use for either the Roman or "Byzantine" Empires, unless it is simply "Rome" or "Byzantium" -- the names of the Cities.

As it happens, we see in the successor of Romania an interesting disjunct between what it was as an "empire" and a simple proper name. This was the Ottoman Empire. I have never heard that it was ever called "Ottomania." Instead, the country, from an early date and even before the Ottomans, was some version of "Turkey." We even see that the Romans had a more expansive idea of "Turkey" than later, since the King of Hungary is said to be the King of in a Greek inscription on Hungary's Sacred Crown of St. Stephen (which dates from the time of the Comneni). Since Hungarian is a Uralic language, related to Turkish, the identification may be more understandable than it seems now. The word was Turchia in Latin (Turkia, Turquia), as it is now Türkiye in Turkish. Of course, while the terms in "Ottoman Empire" and "Turkey" are unrelated, most people would be aware that both expressions can be about the same thing. The same, again, cannot be said about the terms "Roman Empire" and "Romania," where the origin and Mediaeval meaning of the latter word, despite its obvious etymology, is effectively buried and forgotten in both public and academic discourse, and very, very few would think "Roman Empire" (let alone "Byzantine Empire") when hearing it. But even the name "Turkey" had a rival. As the Seljuks had been Sult.âns of Rûm, the Ottoman Bâyezîd himself received a diploma from the Abbasid Caliph in Egypt as the Sult.ân of Rûm also.

An example of how I could go years and read extensively and yet not be aware of the use of Rhômanía in Greek may be seen with Warren Treadgold's A History of the Byzantine State and Society [Stanford University Press, 1997]. This is a comprehensive and impressive book. Treadgold tells us quickly [p.3] that "something calling itself the Roman Empire remained in the East" after the "Fall" of Rome in 476 and that "the name 'Byzantine Empire' was never used at the time." A good start. However, we can read the entire book and never learn that the Empire was called Romania in Latin and Greek from Late Antiquity through the rest of its history. "Romania" is in the index, but it is only used in reference to the modern Kingdom and Republic of Romance speaking people in the Balkans, which was united as "România" (or "Roumania," "Rumania," etc.) in 1859. Another example like this would be the more venerable History of the Byzantine State, by George Ostrogorsky [1940, 1952, 1963, Rutgers University Press, 1969]. The word "Romania" is not in the text at all. We have "Rumania" used in reference to the modern state (once), but that's it.

Even more recent than Treadgold is The Oxford History of Byzantium [edited by Cyril Mango, Oxford University Press, 2002]. Here "Romania" not in the text at all, in Greek or Latin. We learn from the editor that "Byzantines" regarded themselves as Romans, but we are favored with a characterization of this as "The pretence of Romanity" [p.2]. Now who is Cyril Mango to imply that the identity of the successors of Augustus and Constantine in Constantinople was a pretence? Presumably an affectation? Did they get the purple robe and red shoes from a theatrical costumer, like King Ferdinand of Bulgaria? No. As David Carradine says in Kill Bill, Part II [2004], with an Emperor in Constantinople, "Those are his clothes." Romania is their country. Yet even Mango then features a sensible discussion of the "elusive birthday" that separates Rome from Byzantium [p.2, from AD 284 to 716]. But we also have his implication that the only alternative to "Byzantine" for the Empire would be Constantinopolitanus:

The kingdom [?] of Constantinople, which had become extinct in 1453, needed a distinctive name, and that is how the adjective byzantinus came into being. It was less cumbersome than Constantinopolitanus and had a pleasantly 'classical' ring. [ibid.]

This quote makes it look like Mango thinks that the Empire (or "kingdom"?) must be named after its capital City, i.e. either Rome or Constantinople. And it also, and more alarmingly, makes it look like he is simply unaware (!) of the existence and use of the name Romania. Wouldn't "Romania" have a sufficiently and "pleasantly 'classical'" ring to it? Mango thus manages both to belittle the Empire, as a "kingdom," and to instinctively continue the project, common to all Franks, with their own jumped up pretentions, of denying the "Romanity" of Romania. This has aptly been described as characteristic of the "grumpy" school of Byzantinists.

But there is worse. Mango is responsible for a translation of The Chronicle of Theophanes -- i.e. The Chronicle of Theophanes Confessor, Byzantine and Near Eastern History AD 284-813, Translated with Introduction and Commentary by Cyril Mango and Roger Scott with the assistance of Geoffrey Greatrex [Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1997, 2006]. Theophanes, who uses the name "Romania" extensively, is translated by Mango et al. so as to conceal this usage. For every "Romania" in Greek, I find "the Roman territory" or "the Roman country" in the translation, without gloss, comment, or explanation. The name "Romania" is in the index only for where the word is used in geographical reference to the modern state. If it made any sense, one might almost think this looked like a conspiracy to suppress any use or awareness of . In any case, it strikes me as shocking and improper, a misrepresentation of the text that verges on scholarly misconduct. But why would a major contemporary Byzantine scholar like Cyril Mango display this bias, and then write elsewhere as though the word "Romania" didn't exist? It is hard not to infer that Mango, like Gibbon, does not like the people he studies and does not respect their country.

Some authors ignore the word "Romania" but then use quotations where it does occur. This then requires some kind of parenthetical explanation (unless it is to be translated, as John Julius Norwich does, as the "Roman Empire"). That is what we see with Judith Herrin (below), where "Romania" occurs in a Latin quote, and is then incorrectly glossed as "a western name for the empire." That mistake is not going to be made by Walter E. Kaegi in Byzantium and the early Islamic conquests [Cambridge Univ. Press, 1992], who features three different quotes containing "Romania," two of them from Greek sources -- St. Anastasius the Sinaite [p.208], the Doctrina Jacobi nuper baptizati [p.211], and The Chronicle of Theophanes [p.228]. Kaegi glosses the uses as "i.e. the Byzantine Empire," with no further discussion.

Even more venerable than Ostrogorsky is A.A. Vasiliev's History of the Byzantine Empire [University of Wisconsin Press, Volume I, 1961, Volume II, 1964], the first volume of whose original Russian edition came out in 1917, followed by the second volume [1923-1925] and then various translations in many years between 1928 and the Wisconsin editions. Vasiliev uses "Romania" a couple of times. On page 15 of Volume I, we get it in reference to the Latin Empire. Then in Volume II [pp.462 & 463], we get it the same way, translating the Partitio Romaniae, the treaty that partitioned Romania between Venice and the Crusaders in 1204 (where Vasiliev consistently and unaccountably renders the Latin Partitio Romanie [sic]). So far, this looks like the way Herrin treats the matter. However, Vasiliev apparently knows better, for he glosses "Romania" with "as the Latins and Greeks often called the Eastern Empire" [p.462]. This is a strange way to put it, since "Latins and Greeks" practically means everybody, while no contemporaries called Romania "the Eastern Empire." If "the Greeks" are calling the Empire "Romania," then clearly this is the name of the Empire to its own subjects, yet Vasiliev manages to admit this only in the most obscure and roundabout way.

Perhaps the most recent treatments of Byzantium would be The Cambridge History of the Byzantine Empire, c.500-1492, edited by Jonathan Shepard [Cambridge University Press, 2008] and The Oxford Handbook of Byzantine Studies, edited by Elizabeth Jeffreys with John Haldon and Robin Cormack [Oxford University Press, 2008]. Both of these massive books involve formats where different scholars write different chapters. The results can be uneven in histories of this form, with choppy treatment, discontinuities, and oversights. The Oxford Handbook, divided by topic, verges on encyclopedic form and so avoids the expectation of narrative continuity.

No sooner does one open the Cambridge History than this sentence is encountered:  "Byzantium lasted a thousand years, ruled to the end by self-styled 'emperors of the Romans'" [p.i]. "Self-styled" often means that someone has just up and decided, out of nowhere, to call themselves something. One would never guess from such a characterization that we are dealing rulers in unbroken institutional, religious, and cultural succession from the Roman Empire of Late Antiquity. They were "styled" Emperors of the Romans because they had always been, back to Augustus. "Self-styled" can also mean, of course, just that this is what they called themselves, which is quite true. But there is an ambiguity there, with an edge, like Mango's "pretence of Romanity." It's like:  Weren't these people smart enough to know that they weren't Romans anymore? Evidently not. "Romania" is given in the index only in relation to an entry in the Glossary:

Romania 'land of the Romans' (i.e. Byzantines); by the seventh century a term for the Christian empire of the east; from the thirteenth century, used of the former lands of the Byzantine empire which had been partitioned and were being governed by the Venetians, Franks and other westerners. [pp.900-901]

Unfortunately, although Peter Brown is listed in the Bibliography [p.984], the editor seems to have missed Brown's information that the use of "Romania" dates from the 4th century, not the 7th. It therefore was originally more than "the Christian empire of the east." Nor are we told about relative uses of the name in Latin and Greek.

The index of the Oxford Handbook lists only one use of "Romania," and this is in reference to the modern state, not the Roman Empire [p.200]. On the first page of text we learn of the Empire that, "Its emperors and citizens thought of themselves as Roman (romaioi)..." [p.3]. We thus have the same indirect acknowledgement and distancing, "thought of themselves," as we have seen elsewhere in this literature. On the second page, however, we have the interesting statement, "...although classicists (albeit often grudgingly) would admit that without the intervention of Byzantine scribes no texts in ancient Greek would have survived to the present day" [p.4]. One then wonders, Why "grudgingly"? Why would a Classicist not be happy to acknowledge that all of Greek literature is owed to Romania? Indeed, thanks to the Bibiotheca of the Patriarch Photius, we have an idea how much was lost thanks to the rough handling of the Crusaders and the Ottomans.

In contrast to these modern Byzantine histories we find The Life of Belisarius, by Philip Henry Stanhope, Lord Mahon, from 1829. On page two of his book [Westholme Publishing, Yardley, Pennsylavnia, 2006], Stanhope, after a Gibbonesque dismissal of "the rabble of Greek armies," simply says, "the name of Romania was applied to the varying limits of the Byzantine territory, until it has settled on Thrace [Rumelia, i.e. Turkish Rumeli, ], to which they were latterly confined" [p.2, boldface added]. Writing before the 1859/1881 creation of the Kingdom of Roumania, Sanhope did not need to explain the difference between Mediaeval Romania and the modern state. Now, was that so hard? So why couldn't Treadgold and the others have favored us with such a concise and informative statement at a similar point in their books?

All the examples that I have been examining here display oversights, slights, and even hostilities that strike me as professionally, morally, and even psychologically peculiar. There seems a positive resistance, with a selective memory (or sheer, unbelievable ignorance), to acknowledge the historical reality of the usage of "Romania," and this is a grave lapse of responsibility, or competence, for a historian. Even the way Treadgold refers to "something calling itself the Roman Empire," like Shepard's "self-styled" Emperors and Mango's "pretence of Romanity," sounds like we don't necessarily approve of this. "Well, we don't call it that!" No, we have this "Byzantium" name to use, so that we won't confuse virtuous pagan Romans like Trajan with miserable Byzantine Christians like Basil II -- or so we won't confuse virtuous Greek Christians like Basil II with miserable pagan tyrants like Caligula. Either way (as with Cyril Mango and others), there seems to be a tinge of hostility or arrogance or contempt. That certainly originated with the introduction of "Byzantium" for the Empire in the 16th century. By then the Empire was gone, and Renaissance scholars were thinking of themselves as the true successors of Rome -- and more of Trajan than of Constantine -- rather than the Emperors in Constantinople. While the Empire had always been "Romania" in Latin, well, that sounds just too Roman when we're really talking about a bunch of superstitious, treacherous, decadent Greek Christians from the Dark Ages.

We can see just how bad Western European attitudes have been about Mediaeval Romania with William Smith (1813-1893), the editor of A Dictionary of Greek and Roman Geography [1872, I.B. Tauris & Co., 2006]. Smith, of course, has no entry for "Romania," which one might think would be a very important term indeed in Roman geography and was certainly used in the period the dictionary covers. But we don't get how he really feels until we find the entry for "Constantinopolis" [pp.657-665]. There is what can only be called a most remarkable venting of high Victorian spleen against all of "Byzantine" history:

The city of Constantine, the birth of an elder and effete age, has throughout its long history borne the stamp of its parentage, and displayed the vices of its original conformation. The position of the Byzantine empire is unique; geographically it was European, but nationally it reflected the Oriental type of character. It had indeed Roman blood, but the people who had sprung from the loins of Mars, and were suckled by the she-wolf, gave it little but their name. It did not speak their tongue, and was completely severed from the old republican associations and free spirit which still survived the fall of Roman liberty. The despotism of the court of Contantinople could not endure even the forms of free institutions, and the relics of municipal privileges which inherited from Rome have had so much influence in moulding the law and constitution of modern Europe. The Caesar of the East was the counterpart of his Moslem conqueror, and the change from the Proto Sebast to the Sultan would have been one simply of name, had it not been for the superior energy and virtues of the first Osmanli princes. The one like the other had his viziers, his janissaries, his slaves, and his eunuchs alternately cajoling and tyrannizing over prince and people. Through the dreary monotony of the history of the Eastern empire, so deficient in moral and political interest, there are always coming into view the characteristic features of Asiatic tyranny: -- the domestic treason, -- the prince born in the purple, -- the unnatural queen-mother, -- the son or the brothers murdered or blinded, -- the sudden revolutions of the throne, -- the deposition of the sovereign, but the government remaining the same, -- and the people careless as to who or what their tyrant might be. Every thing by which a people can outwardly show what is within -- literature, art, and architecture, displays the influence of the East. The literature learned, artificial, florid, but deficient in elegance and grace, and without a spark of genius to illumine it. The art but the figure of their ceremonial life, deficient in all deep and sincere feeling, and showing, under the hardness of the shape, and the sameness of the expression, the dull and slavish constraint to which it was subject. A purer faith had indeed freed the later Greeks from the degradation of the seraglio, had given an impulse to intellectual development, and infused a sense of the responsibilities of power to which their Ottoman conquerors were strangers. But even Christianity failed to reconcile the conflicting elements and hostile influences of the East and West, and was itself penetrated by an admixture of Oriental thought and sentiment. And in later times, after the severance of Constantinople from the Latin Communion, the rest of Europe had no sympathy for what was considered an alien creed. Standing in this isolated position on the very outposts of Western civilization, and cut off from that by differences of language, manner, and religion, Constantinople, unable to comprehend but rather despising that vigorous Teuton stock upon which the elder races were engrafted, did not incorporate any of those elements which have gone to make up the aggregate of modern Europe; while, on the other hand, it is difficult to trace the slight reaction that the Greek empire has had upon the West, till its fall, when it contributed so mainly to the revival of letters and the modern spirit, by the dispersion of ancient literature and culture. [Volume I, p.660, boldface added]

So this is the thanks that Romania gets as the main bulwark of Europe against Islam for eight hundred years, all the while perserving and nurturing the Classical heritage that Smith himself must admit "contributed so mainly to the revival of letters and the modern spirit" -- an extraordinary achievement for some "race" so deficient in virtue, spirit, feeling, taste, morality, liberty, etc. I must conclude that Professor Smith would not have been among the English who fled the Norman Conquest to find refuge and employment with the Roman Emperor after 1066. He sees "Byzantium" as inferior to (1) "true" Romans, (2) the Ottoman Turks, (3) Modern Greeks, (4) Latin Catholicism, and (5) the "vigorous Teuton stock" that brought down the Western Empire. In short, the history and civilization of Constantinople, for a thousand years, was apparently worse than anything that has ever existed, except that, by the way, we owe her our entire knowledge of Greek literature and culture and our preservation from Conquering Islam. How such a debased people would have had the interest or dedication to preserve things like Greek literature or Roman law, or the courage and manliness to withstand the Arabs, is a little confusing.

But then Smith (like Frazer above) seems rather confused himself. He has missed how "the people who had sprung from the loins of Mars" had become all the free inhabitants of the Empire in the Third Century. The Court language of Constantinople was indeed no longer "the tongue" of Cicero, but then it was the tongue in which Marcus Aurelius wrote his diary, and in which, according to Suetonius, Julius Caesar spoke his last words -- let alone the tongue of Plato, Aristotle, Sophocles, Thucydides, etc. Why Smith would despise this tongue, i.e. Greek (a language whose name, note, he does not mention here), is surprising. As for the features of "Oriental tyranny," there are few that do not seem characteristic of the antics of Caligula or Nero, if not often already the court of Augustus. The original king-making Jannisaries were, after all, the Praetorian Guard -- a corps, like the Varangian Guard, happily free of the child-stealing and forced conversion that fed the Jannisaries. And after many "sudden revolutions," with the "deposition of the sovereign, but the government remaining the same," we might have thought this to be a characteristic of the Roman Empire in general, not some "Oriental" feature of the government in Constantinople. But the statement about a "people careless as to who or what their tyrant might be," is false on its face. The populace that deposed Michael V in order to restore Zoë, or Alexius IV for an anti-Crusader Alexius V, or who lynched the vicious Andronicus I, obviously had strong feelings about who the legitimate Sovereign should be. On the other hand, we see little of that in Mediaeval Western Europe, where for centuries urban populations scarcely existed to dispute the long succession of many dynastic governments.

To be sure, Diocletian introduced forms of the Persian Court into Roman ceremony. Smith could damn this as "Asiatic tyranny," but then it is a transformation that antedates Constantine, Christianity, and Constantinople, let alone Justinian, Heraclius, or Basil II (note Frazer's discussion tracing the "Oriental" influence to Christianity itself, something Smith does not seem to do). Yet these forms did not prevent the populace of Constantinople from often expressing its preferences and abruptly ending many reigns and dynasties. Somehow, I don't think that Smith would recognize these expressions as revealing a consciousness of "liberty." I bet the populace of Constantinople was just a mob. Smith, however, ignores rather than comments on this circumstance.

Most extraordinary is his dismissal of Orthodox religion, an "alien creed," for which "the rest of Europe had no sympathy." From this statement one would not know that the Russian and other Orthodox churches, covering a considerable part of the area of Europe, would not join in his lack of "sympathy." Quite the opposite. Nor would one know that Smith himself, and his fellow countrymen, no longer retained any sympathy for the "Latin Communion" that split itself from the Orthodox churches. As we often see in history, and even scholarship, the hostilities of earlier sectarian divisions survive even when the earlier loyalties themselves have been renounced. Smith despises the Greeks with all the feeling of a Papist, yet, not only was he no Papist, he was a "dissenter" who, rejecting the Church of England, could not attend Oxford or Cambridge. How can Smith, such a dedicated Protestant, not notice the echo of, let alone the "sympathy" for, the Iconoclasts in Martin Luther? More consistent would be the sentiment of Francis Ford Coppola, who thinks that, "The Orthodox religions, Greek Orthodox, Romanian Orthodox, Russian Orthodox, is [sic] in fact the original Christianity and, for my part, I think the most beautiful expression of Christianity..."

When one sees so much antipathy with so little self-consciousness or reflection, there is no doubt some deeply irrational commitment is involved. We also see this in another brief comment by Smith:

...the Byzantine builders founded an architecture peculiarly their own. Of this the cupola was the great characteristic, to which every other feature was subordinate. In consequence of this principle, that which at Athens was straight, angular, and square, became in Constantinople curved and rounded, concave within, and convex without. Thus the old architecture of Greece owed its destruction to the same nation from which it had taken its first birth. [ibid. p.661]

Of all the bile we find in Smith, this passage may be the most extraordinary. What "Oriental" influence corrupted the angular simplicity of Greek architecture? Oh, there wasn't any. The source of the domes and arches used in Constantinople was from Roman architecture and engineering. We see nothing of the sort in Egypt, Babylon, or Jerusalem, and domes in Islamic architecture are all due to the influence of Romania. Smith must resolutely forget his own knowledge of buildings like the Pantheon or the arches of Roman aqueducts marching across the countryside. Does Smith despise St. Paul's as much as Sancta Sophia, which first put a dome high atop a square structure? (Well, as a Nonconformist, perhaps he did.) In other words, Mediaeval Romania wasn't Roman enough for Smith, except for its architecture, which is now not Greek enough. Damned if you do, damned if you don't.

The shocking bias and self-deception of someone like William Smith may not be surprising in the footsteps of Edward Gibbon, who blazed a long trail of vitriol against Romania. Thus in 1734 Montesquieu said, "the Greek Empire is nothing more than a tissue of revolts, seditions, and perfidies... Revolutions created more revolutions, so that the effect became the cause." Actually, it is hard to know what he was talking about, since Roman government was no less stable during the Middle Ages than it had been under the Julio-Claudians, if not more so. No less puzzling is what Voltaire said in 1751, that the Empire was "a story of obscure brigands," which was "a disgrace to the human mind." Again, it is hard to know what he was talking about, since the dignity of the Constantinopolitan Throne and Court, whether under the Heraclians, Macedonians, Comneni, or Palaeologi, usually far surpassed that of contemporary European rulers, who very often do seem to have lived the lives of brigands. Indeed, Richard the Justicer, Duke of Burgundy, is supposed to have said on his deathbed, "I die a brigand, but have saved the lives of honest men." As we might expect, the hostile sentiments against Romania were reflected and repeated with a similar lack of specificity by Hegel in his oxymoronically named Philosophy of History:

Byzantium exhibits a millennial series of uninterrupted crimes, weakness, baseness, and want of principle: a repulsive and hence an uninteresting picture.

One wonders what kind of history, and not just of Romania, these people have actually been reading.

Although with nothing like the intense hostility and distortion perpetuated by such a tradition, I suspect that the oversights or dismissive comments of the likes of Warren Treadgold or Cyril Mango inevitably are its faint echo in recent historiography, even as they are scholars who might consciously and sincerely disclaim any bias or animus against Constantinople. As with the Dissenting Smith following Papal condemnation of the Greeks, it is an inertia hard to shake, just as modern liberal American historians insensibly join in the derision of Ulysses S. Grant, or in the praise of the racist Woodrow Wilson, following the precedent of Southern and Confederate-sympathizing historians from the era of Segregation. They should be ashamed to do that, but they often seem as lacking in reflection and self-awareness as William Smith.

In the end, I would say that Mediaeval Christian Greeks, far from having "failed to reconcile" the different elements of their heritage, seem more comfortable with the mixture of their own Roman and Classical past and their Christian present, which made them at once both Romans and Christians (indeed, to be Roman meant being a Christian), than modern historians who are neither Greek nor Roman and may or may not be Christians (and in fact may despise Christianity). Indeed, modern "education" now junks the whole business, and the modern student knows no Classical languages and possesses only the haziest ideas about the history involved. The modern West, at least in elite culure, no longer is conscious of its heritage or conscientious for its preservation. What we are lacking, indeed, is another Constantinople and its own honorable and heroic spirit.

Far more sober and respectable than William Smith, but with its own peculiarities and curiosities, is the recent treatment we see in The Classical Tradition, edited by Anthony Grafton, Glenn W. Most, and Salvatore Settis [The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2010]. This dictionary-like work has relevant articles on "Byzantium" and "Constantinople." The "Byzantium" article begins thus:

Successor state to the Roman Empire in the eastern Mediterranean. As with Rome, the name Byzantium (Greek Byzantion) originated with a founding city. Unlike Rome, the city of Byzantium was rechristened at a crucial point in its history, and only the state with its spreading dominions retained the name of its origin. [p.152]

First of all, a "successor state" is ambiguous enough that it could mean Visigothic Spain or the Vandal Kingdom in North Africa, not a state that is actually the continuous institutional, linguistic, and cultural descendant of the Roman Empire itself. But I will not quibble. More importantly, the founding of the city of Byzantium had nothing to do with the empire that will later be called "Byzantium." Byzantium was a Greek colony and then a Roman possession, and it gained Imperial significance only in being refounded by Constantine as the new capital of the Empire. Also, its being "rechristened" did not prevent that name from being remembered and continuing in use for the City for centuries. So, not only is it false that "only the state...retained the name," since the City retained the name (among several), but "the state" did not "retain" the name at all. The name was never used for the state while it existed. So this article begins with a statement that is gravely confused and misrepresents the case.

Another quibble might be that the Mediaeval Greek, like the Modern, pronunciation of "Byzantium" was Visantion. If you are going to make a point of giving a Greek rendering as well as a Latin, you might as well do it with right phonetic values.

After such an inauspicious beginning, the article somewhat improves. We quickly get a discussion about the "Byzantine Empire" that "Its beginning, however, might be fixed at several moments" [ibid.], with a sensible consideration of various possible benchmarks from the Edict of Milan (313 AD) to the Islamic Conquest.

This was truly a Dark Age, but to set the beginning of Byzantine history in the later 7th century is to ignore crucial earlier changes in the classical tradition: hence the utility of the traditional date of origin in the reign of Constantine. [ibid.]

This definitely gives one the understanding, without quite saying so, that there is an institutional continuity that renders any division between "Rome" and "Byzantium" something that is somewhat arbitrary and conventional, which is not at all what one would deal with in Visigothic Spain or Vandal North Africa.

Perusing the rest of the article, which in general is good, there are some locutions that have become familiar from Byzantine histories in general. Thus, "Although Byzantine historians aspired to write in the language of Herodotus..." [p.153]. "Aspired"? Does anyone say that Thomas Aquinas "aspired" to write in the language of Cicero? No. He was writing in the literary Latin that had come down to him. Renaissance scholars were more like the ones to "aspire" to write in the language of Cicero, since they tried to eliminate changes in the language that had developed through the Middle Ages. There had been "Atticizing" of Hellenistic Greek, as the article itself notes, in the 3rd century, but "Byzantine" historians were just writing what in Greek had become the literary language, just as St. Thomas was doing. The overtone of "aspired" is that we've got something like chimpanzees at typewriters. We find Edward Gibbon saying:

The vulgar dialect of the city [i.e. the spoken Mediaeval Greek of Constantinople] was gross and barbarous: a more correct and elaborate style distinguished the discourse, or at least the compositions, of the church and palace, which sometimes affected to copy the purity of the Attic models. [The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Volume III, Modern Library, p.298-299, boldface added]

Thus, while we get a characterization of Mediaeval literary Greek as an affectation, and a harsh denigration of the spoken language, Gibbon does see the literary language in its Classicism as "more correct," which more recent writers are unlikely to do.

A few lines further down in The Classical Tradition we get the statement, "the Byzantines regarded themselves as Romans (Rômanoi)" [ibid.], where, as in various examples I have cited, "regarded themselves" embodies our background judgment that, of course, they weren't. Perhaps some of these writers, in this case Robert S. Nelson of Yale, don't quite realize that this is what they are doing.

Nevertheless, Nelson's article finishes with a sharp paragraph that puts things in much better perspective than the first:

In 1557 the German scholar Hieronymus Wolf published the history of Nicetas Choniates. In his preface he distinguished antiquity from the 12th century by using the name Byzantium, the Latin form of Byzantion, to denote the ancient Greek colony that later became Constantinople. Only slightly more logical than the label America on a map of the New World, this ancient Greek city name came to be accepted for the medieval empire. With none of the Rômanoi left to protest, Byzantium thus separated from antiquity and entered the realm of scholarship, where it continues to be remade according to the needs and desires of scholarship, nationalism, and the classical tradition. [p.158]

Of course, what was significant about what Wolf did was not that he applied a Latin transcription of its name to the city of Byzantium, but that he applied the name "Byzantium" to Romania. Yet it certainly is only "slightly more logical" that "this ancient Greek city name came to be accepted for the medieval empire." Nelson should properly have begun the article with such a reflection and not allowed the confused impression that his first paragraph must make. Indeed, the Rhômanoi were not around to protest when their name was stripped from them by unsympathetic Franks -- just like the ones Choniates himself saw despoiling Constantinople after the Fourth Crusade.

The subsequent article on "Constantinople" starts with an edifying bang:

Capital of the Roman and Byzantine Empires, 330-1453 CE, Constantinople was important to the classical tradition in several ways: as the last great urban creation of antiquity, which survived as the greatest Christian city of the Middle Ages; as the main, and for long the sole, center of education in the Greek classics during the Middle Ages, where nearly all the ancient Greek texts read today were preserved; and as the home of early classicizing tendencies in ideology, art, and literature. [p.237]

This is very well said -- by Paul Magdalino of Koç University, Istanbul. Yet even with Magdalino we can't completely avoid one of those snippy moments. Thus, the extensive architecture of Constantinople, "enhanced the increasingly strident claim that Constantinople was a New (and better) Rome" [ibid.]. "Increasingly strident"? What the hell does that mean? When, beginning in the 6th century, the City of Rome was at times depopulated, one hardly need be "strident" for Rome to suffer in comparison with the undamaged and prosperous civilization of Constantinople. Considerable pride in the majesty and significance of the came naturally to anyone who enjoyed the advantages that Magdalino himself details for the life of the City.

The Classical Tradition contains no article or entry in the index for "Romania." Yet isn't the name of modern România part of the "Classical Tradition"? Its name has even been Latinized from "Rumania" to "Romania," doubtless because Romanians "aspire" to greater Latinate purity, as they have also shifted from the Cyrillic to the Latin alphabet and purged the language of Slavic, Turkish, etc. words. As the land that has indeed inherited the proper name of the Roman Empire, one might think some notice could be taken of this; but The Classical Tradition continues the scholarly blackout in this respect.

An interesting response to this history of "Byzantine" scholarship is expressed by Timothy Dawson in Byzantine Cavalryman, c. 900-1204 [illustrated by Giuseppe Rava, Warrior, Osprey Publishing, Oxford, UK, & Long Island City, NY, 2009]:

Consult a dictionary and under 'Byzantine' you will find it described as an adjective meaning something like 'complex, inflexible or underhand'. What should we make, therefore, of the suggestion that there was such a thing as the 'Byzantine Empire'[?]. The answer to that lies in where and by whom the term originated. It first appears in print in 1557 from the pen of a German, Hieronymus Wolf. In the tenth century Germany had looked to Byzantium (medieval Greek Vyzantion) as a paradigm of power and opulence seeking patronage and royal marriages from the City of Vyzantion. In the twelfth century their ambitions became much more grandiose, and led to formation of what they called the 'Holy Roman Empire' claiming the inheritance of the glory days of Old Rome. To take an inheritance, however, the ancestor must be dead, and the survival of the Roman Empire in the East was somewhat problematic. At first, the ideological expedient was to claim that with the schism between the Roman and Orthodox churches and supposed decadence, the Roman Empire was morally dead, despite its semblance of sometimes robust life. Wolf's expedient went further, by attempting to deny the empire's existence stripping it of its very name. He could only do that from his place after the final fall, for during its life, its people held to their true Roman heritage with all due tenacity, as some Greek speakers have done into modern times. From as early as the first century AD the empire's residents called it 'Rômania'. The adjectives for that were Rômaikos and Rômios, and to this day, descendants of the Greek-speaking population which had continued in Ionia, the portion of Anatolia bordering the Aegean Sea, who were expelled by the Turks in the early twentieth century, still call themselves 'Romiosi.' So what is 'Byzantine'? Properly used, it should refer to anything pertaining to the City of Vyzantion, and that is the manner in which it will be used in this volume. [pp.4-5]

Despite Dr. Dawson's commendable resolution, this principle of usage is violated by the title of his own book, which is not just about the cavalryman of the City of Byzantium. Also, by using Greek in transcription rather than in Latinized forms, he joins the ranks of scholars who, in the view of Warren Treadgold (see below), are "trying to use Classical Greek forms to force acceptance of a sharp break between Rome and Byzantium on those who disagree with them." This is probably not what Dawson actually wants to do.

I would like to know his citation for "Romania" used in "the first century AD," which is something I have not previously seen. He does not footnote his reference here. Also, it is not quite right to say that Germans formed something "they called the 'Holy Roman Empire'." The "Roman Empire" in Mediaeval ideology, as it had in Old Rome and in Constantinople, encompassed the whole world, so that the Emperor was "Keyser over alle dy Werlt," as the Sachsenspiegel (Saxon Mirror) of 1230 put it. And the ideology and institutions of the Germanic "Roman Empire" went back to Otto I, if not Charlemagne, long before the "twelfth century." The three word proper name for the Germanic domain is probably a modern development. I am not sure exactly what Dawson has in mind with this, but he is right if it involves a challenge to the historic heritage of Constantinople, which began to be belittled as the capital of the "Greeks" rather than the "Romans."

Hellenism in Byzantium,
The Transformations of Greek Identity and the Reception of the Classical Tradition
, by Anthony Kaldellis [Cambridge, 2007, 2011]

The attitudes of Byzantinists that I have been considering, with their curious but characteristic avoidance of the name "Romania," have now been addressed, exposed, and contravened by a new scholar in the field, Anthony Kaldellis, Professor of Greek and Latin at Ohio State University.

Kaldellis, once described as the "bad boy" of Byzantine Studies, now may well have blown the lid off the biased and tendentious tradition of Byzantine History, by which "Byzantine" scholarship was clouded with a sort of miasma of dislike, disapproval, and dismissal. There is no better way to say this than to let Kaldellis speak for himself, as he does forthrightly in Hellenism in Byzantium:

It is well known that the people we call Byzantines today called themselves Romans (Romaioi). In the middle period of Byzantium's history...this "national" label appears or is pervasive in virtually all texts and documents (excluding the strictly theological) regardless of the geographical or social origins of their authors, which, in Byzantium, were diverse. ("Byzantines" were for them only the residents of Constantinople, archaically styled after the City's classical name.) These Romans called their state Romania () or Romaïs, its capital New Rome (among other names, titles, and epithets), and its rulers the basileis of the Romans, whom we call "emperors"...

And yet this most indisputable and central fact, that the Byzantines firmly believed themselves to be Romans, has not received in scholarship the attention and emphasis that it deserves. That is because both Greek and western European scholars have had an interest in downplaying it, the former...because they desire to find a core of national "Greekness" behind what they take to be only a Roman facade, while the latter hold that the Roman legacy is fundamentally western and Latin and cannot bring themselves to accept that Byzantium "really was" Roman. In doing so both sides have perpetuated the western medieval bias against the eastern empire, according to which the Byzantines were only Greeklings, not true Romans. Rome belongs to the West, it is instinctively assumed, and to the Latin-speaking world, and so other "essences" have had to be imagined for Byzantium, for example Greek Orthodoxy or Ecumenical Orthodoxy or oriental despotism or even medieval Hellenism. For many western historians Rome also belongs to antiquity and so anything later than it can at best constitute a "reception," despite the fact that in the case of Byzantium alone are we dealing with direct political, social, and cultural continuity from Julius Caesar to Konstantinos XI Palaiologos. But the existence of a single state and political community with a continuous history lasting over two thousand years defeats scholarly specialization. Periodization, in this case arbitrary, requires new names such as "Byzantium" and new names suggest a different "essence." [pp.42-43, boldface added]....

BECOMING ROMAN

During the course of late antiquity the Greeks ceased to think of themselves as Greeks in any national sense and became Romans. The empire "constituted a new world-view, a Roman 'state of things' which replaced the Greek state of things." But how did this happen? Unfortunately, few modern discussions of Romanization are helpful since most deal with the empire's western provinces, reflecting the bias which claims the Roman tradition for the West. Romanization, according to this view, was the process by which the West learned Latin and became urbanized. As the Greeks did not learn Latin and did not need to be urbanized, they were not Romanized. This is one distortion of the history of the early empire that a modicum of knowledge about Byzantium would set straight. Why did the Greek-speaking subjects of the empire exit antiquity not only calling but deeply believing themselves to be Romans? A common answer is that the Greek label was barred by Christianity, which identified it with paganism. The Greeks were thus "forced to yield any sense of an internal identity based on their heritage." But this will not do. The conversion to Romania occurred before the one to Christianity, and, more importantly, it was an independent process with different causes; the pagan Hellenes of late antiquity were as Roman as their Christian fellow citizens; finally this explanation cannot account for the sincerity and earnestness of the Roman identity. The Roman name was not a label slapped onto a deeper Greek identity. [p.45, boldface added]

It is noteworthy in these passages that while Kaldellis often refers to mediaeval Romans as "Byzantines" and to Romania as "Byzantium," once even as the "eastern empire," we never get the expression "Byzantine Empire." We are told about the name "Romania," and we henceforth get "Romania" used in the appropriate way. But this is only the beginning:

THE TRANSLATION OF ROMANIA

Romania was neither a name artificially superimposed by the Byzantines on their state in a purely formal recognition of their political origins and legal system nor a default label used by medieval Greeks blocked by Christianity from using their "true" name. It represented a primary identification with a social and political community that was both directly continuous with that of ancient Rome and required the abandonment or subordination of any ethnic or local identities that diminished or fractured the unity of the Roman polity. This conception was not changed by the transfer of empire from Old to New Rome during late antiquity... Only the location of the capital had changed, but the "capital" in the third and fourth centuries AD had effectively accompanied the emperors on their campaigns and tours and had ceased to be at Rome before Constantinople was even founded. "Rome" was not a mere city, but an ecumenical community. The foundation of New Rome, then, represented a return to imperial stability; it was a deliberate transplantation of the former seat of empire to eastern Romania, a branch-office of Rome that contained all of its defining institutions, whose parity with the original fell short only in honor, not in rank or identity. [p.61]

Of course, although the capital did often seem to travel with the Emperors in the third century, by the fourth, as we have seen above, relatively permanent centers of government, like Nicomedia and Milan, or York and Trier, are found, until the seats of government settled on Constantinople and Ravenna. Later in the book, Kaldellis returns to questions of the usage of "Romania" and "Romans":

What is most important for our theme is that the Latins, now masters of Romania [i.e. after the Fourth Crusade, in 1204], refused to call the Byzantines Romans, preferring the ethnonym Graeci, which the Byzantines rendered as rather than translating it as Hellenes (they had no reason to believe that they were being called pagans). A variety of motives promoted this western usage. Sometimes the ethnonym was used to avoid confusing the Byzantines with the ancient Romans, with the contemporary Romans of Rome, or with anyone in the West who may have been claiming the name at any time. For example, the Carolingians had at first called their own realm Romania, then only the Italian provinces, and finally only the region of Ravenna (which still bears that name [i.e. "Romagna"]...

All this, however, glosses over the effective truth of the matter, which is that by the twelfth century western usage was politically motivated. Graecus was meant as a rejection of the Byzantine's claim to the imperial Roman legacy and thereby undercut their authority to rule first in the West and, after 1204, in their own lands as well. In short, to a great extent westerns called Byzantines Greeks because they did not want to call them Romans... [p.337, boldface added]

Modern historians have preferred to follow the western sources and simply call the Byzantines "Greeks" after 1204. Ideologically, however, this is not a neutral choice. It reflects the western bias that the Roman legacy is "essentially" western. It also conforms to the belief of many modern Greeks since the nineteenth century that Byzantium was "essentially" Greek and that medieval observers, otherwise reviled as colonial occupiers, saw more clearly what the Byzantines had denied to themselves for centuries... Here we will follow neither of these traditions uncritically. The Byzantines had every right to the Roman name and legacy, more so in some ways than any of their neighbors and rivals. [p.338, boldface added]

The general subject of Hellenism in Byzantium is the use by Romania in Late Antiquity and the Middle Ages of pagan Greek learning, which at times was condemned by Christian authorities. Nevertheless, such condemnations were contradicted or evaded by authorities of equal weight, and education in Greek speaking regions, which soon became all of Romania, remained based on Hellenistic paideia, using all the Greek authors whose hertiage had previously been organized during the Second Sophistic. At times, this also became the foundation for a revival of pagan Greek attitudes, i.e. Humanism, and eventually, especially after 1204, to such revivals of Greek identity that might be seen as precursors to modern Greek nationalism.

This is all of great interest and importance in its own right, but my concern here, of course, are the issues of Roman identity that I have been discussing. Kaldellis apparently is already writing a book specifically about this; but his remarks in this book already cover the essential points I have been making, especially the bias of modern Byzantinists who continue the project of the jumped up Franks to claim Roman heritage and identity for themselves and to deny it to the actual inheritors and perpetuators of the Roman State. There is some irony in that, since the historians who seem to be sneering at Romania (without calling it that), certainly do not take the "Romanity" of Charlemagne very seriously, while the later Holy Roman Empire becomes little better than a joke in retrospect -- neither Holy nor Roman nor an Empire in the memorable put-down of Voltaire.

Thus, Kaldellis notes:

In 871, [the Frankish Emperor, 863-875] Louis II wrote to Basileios I [i.e. Basil I] that "the Greeks" had ceased to be emperors of the Romans because of their heresies and because they had abandoned Rome, its people, and its language. [p.337]

While the Emperors of Romania were often offended at the effrontery of the Franks, Louis II was himself a curious figure to be making these reproaches. He himself ruled no more than Lombardy. While according to Suetonius (and Kaldellis, p.66) the Emperor Claudius had praised a barbarian for learning "our two languages," i.e. Greek and Latin, and both were taught in Constantinople, with the former as the language of the place, it is more likely that Louis spoke a Teudisca lingua, a form of German, rather than any form or dialect of Latin, much less Greek. Louis, to be sure had not "abandoned" Latin or Greek. They were just not his native languages. Since the Rhômaioi were the people of Romania, Constantinople had hardly abandoned them, while the City of Rome, still claimed by Constantinople, had been ceded by Louis's great-great-grandfather to the Popes. So hadn't the Carolingians "abandoned" Rome to the Church? It is doubtful that any modern (secular) historians think of that as a good idea. And what "heresies" is Louis talking about? Perhaps Iconoclasm; but that had long been settled in the days of Basil I and the Greek and Latin Churches were unified.

So Louis's charges must appear about as silly now as they would have sounded absurd to Basil. Meanwhile, even under the Ottomans, Roman identity survived into the 20th century. Kaldellis recounts an anecdote told by the late Peter Charanis, who, born on the island of Lemnos in 1908, under Ottoman rule, eventually taught Byzantine history at Rutgers. During the First Balkan War in 1912,

When the island was occupied by the Greek navy, Greek soldiers were sent to the villages and stationed themselves in the public squares. Some of the children ran to see what these Greek soldiers, these Hellenes, looked like. "What are you looking at?" one of them asked. "At Hellenes," we replied. "Are you not Hellenes yourselves," he retorted. "No, we are Romans." [p.42]

It is extraordinary to think that, 459 years after the Fall of Constantinople, Roman identity still persisted in the minds of Greek speaking children.

Despite all the excellent and salutary features of Kaldellis's book, there are a couple of curious features. His practice, with some thoroughness, is to transcribe names from Greek rather than giving English or Latinized equivalents. Thus, we get "Ioannes" for "John," "Konstantinos" for "Constantine" or "Constantinus" (a Latin name in origin -- but Kaldellis uses "Constantine" for Constantine I, as he does "Trajan" for Traianus, but "Innocentius" for Popes named "Innocent"), and, more confusingly, "Porphyrios" and "Aischylos" for the philosopher and tragedian otherwise known to all as "Porphyry" and "Aeschylus," respectively. Even a very literate reader could be excused for wondering for a moment who this "Aischylos" fellow is.

As I discuss below, Warren Treadgold uses English and Latinized forms in contrast to those who themselves transliterate Greek in order "to force acceptance of a sharp break between Rome and Byzantium on those who disagree with them." Now, Anthony Kaldellis is quite the opposite of anyone who wants to promote "a sharp break between Rome and Byzantium," so he must have his own reasons for this practice. Since Kaldellis and Treadgold apparently know each other -- Kaldellis thanks Treadgold in his Preface [p.xi]; and Treadgold thanks Kaldellis, for reading his manuscript, in his own most recent book, The Early Byzantine Historians [Palgrave Macmillan, 2007, 2010, p.xiv] -- they should get together about this. It is indeed Treadgold's approach that bespeaks the connection and the continuity between the Latinophone and Graecophone parts of the Roman Empire, as well as the historical practice in English usage of adapting Greek words by way of their Latin transcription. Kaldellis should take that to heart.

We get some notion of Kaldellis's thinking about transliteration in his book The Christian Parthenon, Classicism and Pilgrimage in Byzantine Athens [Cambridge, 2009]. Kaldellis says:  "Byzantine names are not Latinized or Anglicized but spelled correctly, except where they would not be easily recognized" [p.xiii, bolface added]. "Correctly"? Is there a single "correct" way to transcribe Greek? Certainly not. Treadgold himself lists four different ways of transliterating Greek [A History of the Byzantine State and Society, Stanford, 1997, p.xxii]. The basic challenge is that the Greek alphabet contains more letters than the Latin alphabet. One must therefore have recourse to digraphs and diacritics to preserve the distinctions in Greek orthography. Traditional renderings of Greek words into Latin have the virtue that there is indeed a "correct" way to do it. But information is lost, as it also is in most possible systems of general transliteration. I have seen authors use circumflexes to indicate the letters eta and omega, as I do. Neither Kaldellis nor Treadgold do this in any systematic way -- for instance in Hellenism in Byzantium, Kaldellis writes romiosyne instead of rômiosynê [p.42], but then in The Christian Parthenon we get kainê didachê (the "New Teaching") [p.55]. And I have seen no system in academic use that indicates accents, which are an essetial part of Greek orthography. If I want to show the presence of eta, omega, and accents, as on the pages at this site dealing with Greek, I must choose between using a circumflex to mark an eta or omega or using the acute or grave where those are the accents that go on the eta or omega. This is frustrating enough that it is relief to just use the Latinized or Anglicized form.

Nor does Kaldellis always observe his own proviso, "except where they would not be easily recognized." Apart from the cases I have already noted above, "St. Georgios" for "St. George" or "Gregorius" for "Gregory" introduce the potential for lack of recognition and moments of confusion. It is certainly not a transparent usage. Yet is the insistance on Latin forms for names that are familiar in English (e.g. "Innocentius" & "Gregorius") also a function of "spelling correctly"? Kaldellis himself spells "Athens" and "Constantinople" quite correctly, given that these are the forms of the names in English. The issue is a very different one from dilemmas about transcribing Greek. It begins to look like we have a scholar with a penchant for the esoteric, which is very unfortunate given the valuable and revolutionary nature of Kaldellis's work.

Kaldellis makes use of analysis devices from deconstruction and post-modern literary criticism. He does this sparingly and sensibly and does not inflict on us references from Michel Foucault or other deconstructionist luminaries. We do get some quotes from Nietzsche, without much indication whether Kaldellis really agrees with the "slave morality" condemnation of Christian ethics -- although he does say of one of Nietzsche's characterizations of Roman success and durability, "He meant this as an attack on Christianity, which shows that he knew nothing of Byzantium" [p.394]. Indeed, Christian Romania endured more than twice as long as the pagan Roman Empire, and Nietzsche seems to be no more sensible of than are the majority of general historians.

Where Kaldellis does offend good judgment is with recourse to trendy political ideology when he addresses the Fourth Crusade:  "In April 1204 the fourth wave of European colonialism in the Levant seized the capital of Romania" [p.334]. "European colonialism"? This an absurdly anachronistic and tendentious expression. Perhaps the Crusaders oppressed the workers also -- well, yes, since the peasants "were enslaved by a racist feudal order" [p.346]. John C. Calhoun must have had something to do with it. The Crusaders, indeed, would have liked in general a bit more colonization, since they were constantly desperate for manpower. People on Crusade tended to go home after a while. To be sure, there are innocent senses in which we could call Outremer a "colony" of Francia; but an expression like "European colonialism" reminds us of Lenin, not of Richard the Lionheart. And, when Nicephorus I began to repopulate Greece, after it was overwhelmed with Slavs, with colonies from Anatolia, does Kaldellis call this "colonialism"? Similarly, when Nicephorus II Phocas colonized Armenians and other Christians into the newly liberated Cilicia (Lesser Armenia), was this "colonialism"? Certainly there is going to be no love lost over the Crusades on the part of anyone sympathetic with the history and civilization of Romania; but doesn't it, perhaps, complicate things a little when the Crusades were in part inspired by the plea for help of Alexius Comnenus against the Turks? Wasn't Alexius asking for a bit of "imperialism" or "colonialism" on his own behalf? And didn't Venice, Romania's own prodigal daughter, have something to do with the Fourth Crusade? All of these questions cloud the Leftist dogmatism and self-righteousness that are implied by the expression "European colonialism." Kaldellis should know better.

Return to text, this page

Philosophy of History

Reviews

"Decadence, Rome and Romania,
the Emperors Who Weren't, etc.,"
Note 6

I hear from Phoevos Panagiotidis, in the Department of Language and Linguistics at the University of Essex (Aug 29, 1998), that the Modern Greek "Stamboul" is derived from the Turkish "Istanbul," not the other way around. Panagiotidis says that:

In detail: Greeks shortened Constantinoupolis to "Polis" (plainly "City") as early as the 11th century (we have that satirical poem about the multitude of ethnicities in the streets of "Polis"). The mainstream theory has it that Turks mistook "Is tin Polin" ("to the City", pronounced /Istimbolin/) to be the actual name of the city.

This derivation of the Turkish name Panagiotidis regards as no more than a folk etymology (although it is already found in William Smith, p.659):

Now, as a linguist, I see two arguments against that:
  1. How come we got this /i/ ---> /a/ ("Istimbol" ---> Istanbul). This should trouble anyone who knows the odd thing about the phenomenon of "vowel harmony" in Turkish (it should sound something like "Istönbul" or "Istenbul").
  2. Why mistake the expression "to the city" as a name? This fits in perfectly with the Ottoman (yes!) and Greek stereotype that Turks are stupid, but this is nowhere close to science...

Since I am not a real Byzantinist, I am not familiar with the primary sources for what I have cited in the text. However, the thesis that "Stamboul" comes from "Istanbul" seems unlikely to me, and not just because of the folk etymology proposed for "Istanbul." In the first place, "I.stanbul" (with the dotted "i") bears the unmistable mark of being a borrowed name, since it violates Turkish vowel harmony. Panagiotidis is aware of a vowel harmony problem but has not got the vowel harmony rules quite right, since to truly follow them "I.stanbul" would have to be "I.stenbil." "I.stanbul" breaks two rules, since it has back vowels (a & u) following a front vowel (i) -- front vowels must follow front vowels -- and it has a rounded vowel (u) following an unrounded vowel (a) -- only unrounded vowels followed unrounded vowels. These violations are characteristic of borrowings into Turkish, not of native Turkish coinages. Thus, the choices are that "I.stanbul" is borrowed from either Greek or from the standard classical sources of Turkish borrowing, Persian and Arabic -- it is in Arabic, with the emphatic "t," a consonant that does not exist in Persian or Turkish..

To address Panagiotidis's other points, it is not surprising that the major city of Romania should be called "the City" (hê Polis). This is not an abbreviation of the city's name. People around San Francisco Bay refer to San Francisco itself as "the City." On the other hand, "Konstantinopolis" is a name that is so long as to beg for abbreviation. In the past, "San Francisco" was reduced to "Frisco" (though these days that name is out of favor in the city itself, and not even much elsewhere). Similarly, "Philadelphia" is still commonly called, by one and all, "Philly." "Stamboul" is an obvious parallel, preserving a large fragment of "Con-stan-tino-pol-is." The assimilation of the "n" to the "p," as "m" (labialized), and of the "p" to the "n" as "b" (voiced), is not surprising for Greek. A similar parallel to the modern local disdain for "Frisco" might be the view reflected by Panagiotidis himself that "Stamboul" is not really Greek.

A linguistic objection might be made that the "ou" (Greek û) in "Stamboul" shows that it is not originally Greek. A real Greek abbreviation should be "Stambol." The "ou" might suggest instead that the Turkish name actually derived from Arabic rather than Greek, since Arabic, which did not originally have an "o," renders Greek "o's" as "u's" (Turkish itself has an "o"), and Arabic is where the device of adding "i" to an initial "st" cluster comes from. This, however, would simply move the abbreviation question back a step. This means that there was an Arabic abbreviation? Was the Arabic name based on a Greek abbreviation? Etc. But the answer to the "ou" may have been suggested by Panagiotidis himself, who uses, in passing, the Mediaeval and Modern Greek version of Constantinople, Konstantinoupolis. This is based, not the Classical Greek combining form, -o-, but on the uncombined hê Konstantinou Polis, "the City of Constantine." This gets us an "ou" immediately adjacent to "po," and it could well transpose into the place of the "o." Since it is reasonable to expect that, over the course of a thousand years, there was some Greek abbreviation of Constantinople, "Stamboul" sure looks like it.

An interesting light on this may come from an engraving of 1635, which is a view of the Istanbul skyline from up behind Galata. A Turkish colleague of mine had this displayed in his home; and after I expressed such admiration for it, he actually made a copy for me. The text is in Latin and German. The title in Latin is Constantinopolitanae Urbis Effigies, ad vivum expressa, quam Turcae Stampoldam vocant. Here we do actually have the vowel "o," which, with the absence of the prefixed "i," makes the name look more like what the city would be called in Greek, rather than in Turkish.

I have examined the Greek text of Anna Comnena's Alexiad (which does not seem to be currently available in print -- it ought to be in the Loeb Classical Library) and was intrigued to find that, while she often uses the form Kônstantinoúpolis, , she also just as frequently leaves out the polis altogether, saying hê Kônstantínou, "the, of Constantine." What she clearly has in mind, then, is the grammatical genitive, not a combining stem, with emphasis on Constantine rather than on the "City."

Return to text

"Decadence, Rome and Romania,
the Emperors Who Weren't, etc.,"
Note 7

Some idea of the relative area of Constantinople can be taken from the following maps, which overlay Constantinople onto modern San Francisco and Manhattan. The overlay map is at left, where the walls (of Theodosius, Constantine, and Byzantium) and major roads and monuments shown, but not labelled. The waters of the Golden Horn and a rim of the Sea of Marmara are left opaque below, obscuring the modern cities underneath, which introduces a confusing element. However, the other open ground in Constantinople is left transparent. Directions are kept rectilinear, with North at top.

In San Francisco, the Great Walls of Theodosius can be seen running south from the West Yacht Harbor, through the Palace of Fine Arts, south-west across the Presidio, and south across Golden Gate Park, near the De Young Museum, down along approximately 9th or 10th Avenues, down well south of the University of California Medical Center. The Hippodrome and Acropolis area of Constantinople falls in the area of San Francisco south of Market Street and not far from the base of the Bay Bridge. The southern shore of Constantinople runs roughly from the south-east corner of Golden Gate Park east to the point where Interstate 80 breaks off from US 101. Then it sweeps off north-east past where I-280 now ends (its northern extension was demolished after the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake). Chinatown falls in Galata.

In Manhattan, the Great Walls of Theodosius are shown beginning up around West 86th Street right at Riverside Drive. The Golden Horn goes south-east across Central Park along the 86th Street Traverse, hitting the East River and Roosevelt Island at about 74th Steet. The Hippodrome and Acropolis areas lie across the River in Brooklyn. The Great Walls would run south-west slightly into the Hudson River, then inland through the Chelsea District. The Golden Gate, near the southern end of the Walls, would lie right in the middle of Greenwich Village, very near the corner of West 4th and West 11th Streets (a little confusing -- West 4th curves up from Washington Square, while West 11th turns down at Greenwich Avenue). The Fifth Military Gate, where the Turks broke through in 1453, would be on the Hudson docks about even with 62nd Street.

To the Russians, Constantinople was Tsargrad, , the "City of the Emperor" (the final "soft" sign, , was in Old Church Slavonic but is lost in modern Russian). Since the Ottomans replaced one emperor with another, the city actually endured as Tsargrad from 330, when it was dedicated by Constantine, to 1922, when the last Ottoman Sultân abdicated:  no less than 1592 years. Indeed, as late as World War I the Russians were still referring to the city as Tsargrad. Without the Ottomans, it endured 1123 years, until 1453. This might be compared with the duration of the Papal States, which lasted from the Donation of Pepin in 754 until Rome was occupied by the Kingdom of Italy in 1870:  1116 years. If we count from Constantine's death, in 337, to 1453, the City lasted exactly 1116 years also. Now Istanbul is just another large European city. The Pope, however, has had the Vatican, at least, back as a sovereign Papal State since 1929.

"Large European city" may now have a particular meaning of its own. In the early 1990's, Istanbul was the fourth largest city in Europe, after Moscow, London, and Paris. Now, depending on how its population is counted, its has risen substantial in its ranking. Counting only the population of the city proper, it is the largest city in Europe and the third largest city in the world. However, because of the arbitrary nature of municipal boundaries, it is more common to count the population of the associated "urban area" of a city. The largest city in the world by urban area population is Tokyo (36,690,000, beyond 8,887,608); otherwise it is Shanghai (17,836,133). Istanbul proper has a population of 12,046,730, while together with its urban area this only rises to 13,275,000. Thus, in terms of urban area population, Istanbul falls behind Moscow (13,680,000) in Europe and is only 19th in the world. However, it still has grown well beyond Paris (10,485,000) and London (8,585,000). By comparison, Los Angeles proper has a population of 3,792,621 (51st in the world), while its whole "urban area" has one of 14,940,000 (15th in the world).

Apart from its walls, another essential feature of the defense of Constantinople was probably its position at the southern mouth of the Bosporus. This is because of the strength of the current coming down the Strait. The Black Sea receives the outfall of many rivers, including the Danube, the Dnieper, and the Don, which are among the longest rivers of Europe -- the Danube is 1771 miles long, the Dnieper 1420 miles, and the Don 1200 miles. In comparison, the Rhine, the longest river within Francia, is 820 miles long (the Danube flows 705 miles through Francia before reaching Serbia). Indeed, the Dniester, which also flows into the Black Sea, and which we could take to form the boundary between Romania and Russia, is itself longer than the Rhine, at 850 miles. All of the drainage from these rivers that flow into the Black Sea then empties out through the Bosporus.

It is no wonder then that the average strength of the current in the Bosporus is 3 to 5 knots, up to 7 to 8 knots at its narrowest point -- only 700 meters wide. Given Mediaeval technology, these speeds are equal or greater than what ships could ordinarily do at top speed under sail. Coming down the Bosporus, and unfamiliar with the geography and the currents, ships could easily be carried beyond the entrance to the Golden Horn before realizing what they needed to do to enter the harbor. The difficulties imposed by this, even for ships familiar with the waters, especially with contrary winds, may explain the presence of the small harbors on the south side of Constantinople, along the Sea of Marmara. With such a splendid natural harbor as the Golden Horn, why was there a need for harbors on the other side of the City? We may understand this as a provision against the difficulties often posed by the approach to the Golden Horn, especially from the south. In 2005, excavating for a subway station, the Harbor of Theodosius (or of Eleutherios), the largest of the southern harbors, was uncovered. It turned out to be a treasure trove of sunken ships, whose fate may testify to the vulnerability of the southern harbors (including the Harbor of Julian of the Boukoleon Palace) to tsunamis. These disasters, however, would have been rare in comparison to the daily challenges of sailing the Bosporus.

The speed of the Bosporus current would be a major help against attacks from the north, as with the earliest Varangians in 860. Later Varangians, of course, would be familiar with the waters. But then even with them, as in the Russian attack of 1043, the Roman fleet had no difficulty emerging from the Golden Horn ready to fight and to defeat the enemy, probably warned by watchtowers and beacons along the Black Sea. The whole Roman naval defense response must have been especially disconcerting to the Norsemen, who elsewhere dominated the seas and had little need to deal with enemy warships. And the Roman warships burned them with Greek Fire, as much a terror as flamethrowers in any war.

Perhaps more significantly, the currents of the Bosporus would raise hell with ships attempting to blockade Constantinople during a siege, from the Arab sieges of 674-677 and 717-718 to the final Ottoman siege of 1453. Sailing ships would find it all but impossible to keep station, while the crews of galleys, which could maneuver more easily, would quickly become exhausted. Thus we see the added importance for the Ottomans of dragging their ships overland into the Golden Horn. This allowed, not only for the investement of the City on three sides, but for a close blockade in the harbor. Nevertheless, we know that friendly ships came and went from Constantinople almost at will, probably docking in the harbors on the Marmara side.

While we have no details about the naval battles that were fought with the Arabs or the Varangians, we have information on a comparable engagement a world away. The Battle of Dan-no-Ura in 1185, was fought in the Kanmon Strait at Shimonoseki, between the major Japanese Islands of Honshu and Kyushu. Although no rivers were involved there, the tides funnel through the Strait, which is only 600 meters wide at its narrowest. When the tide changes, the waters become turbulent, and this played a role in the decisive outcome of the battle. We have no difficult imagining equally embarrassing difficulties besetting enemies unfamiliar with the currents of the Bosporus.

The position of Constantinople in terms of travel and commerce changes over time. It was never as central or as important as it was in its heyday in the Middle Ages. In terms of the Ancient World of the Mediterranean, the position of the City looks a bit like a backwater. Most trade and travel is back and forth in the Mediterranean, with some daring forays out into the Atlantic and down the Red Sea (all the way to India, actually), while the Straits -- the Hellespont/Dardanelles and the Bosporus -- only take one up into the Black Sea. Beyond Georgia and the (Crimean) Bosporan Kingdom, that is pretty much the end of the line. The Scythian nomads are out on the Steppe, and even knowledge about them is limited. In Roman times, the land route across the Bosporus becomes essential as the military highway along the Northern and Eastern frontiers of the Empire, but this is still at the periphery of things.

In the Middle Ages, the picture changes dramatically. Civilization moves North in Europe, and the Vikings move South. As the rivers of Russia open up to raiding and commerce, people begin to move between Scandinavia and the Black Sea. It actually becomes possible to sail from Sweden to Constantinople through Russia, and then back to Sweden through the Mediterranean and up the Atlantic Coast. This puts Constantinople, the largest and richest city in Europe for centuries, at the most important point on a Great Circle Route indicated on the map by the red ellipse. The Black Sea was not a backwater but part of a major through highway. Also, trade was beginning to filter out of Central Asia (as a branch of the Silk Road), along with nomads, across the Steppe to the Black Sea. Eventually an organized Mongol army would come that way. This was bad enough, but in 1348 the Bubonic Plague came down to Constantinople and began to spread through Europe -- precisely by following a clockwise route along the ellipse on the map. Curiously, despite the way being open from the South, the Plague only reached Northern Russia, almost two years later, by coming around from the Atlantic and through the Baltic Sea. This may indicate that the nomadic invasions had distrupted the earlier trade across southern Russia, even as we see Kiev decline in importance in comparison to the northern Russian cities.

In 1453, Constantinople fell to the Ottomans, and then in 1492 Columbus sailed to the New World. This now removed Constantinople from the new major through trade routes of world culture. Indeed, the Portuguese sailed around Africa precisely to avoid the bottleneck and tariffs that were imposed by the Mamlûks in Egypt and would be continued by the Ottomans, whose conquests extended all the way down to Yemen. There they would actually meet the Portuguese coming from the Indian Ocean. Not just the Black Sea, but the whole Mediterranean became a backwater -- until the Suez Canal returned some advantages to it. But Constantinople, and then Istanbul, never regained the central position it had had in the Middle Ages. It became another kind of bottleneck for the Russian Navy, whose Black Sea Fleet was prevented by the Turks from reaching the open ocean.

Return to text

"Decadence, Rome and Romania,
the Emperors Who Weren't, etc.,"
Note 8

The practice in Arabic is to use a mass noun for a whole people and an adjective for individuals. Thus ar-Rûm, , "the Rome," means "the Romans," al-Yûnân, (obviously from "Ionia"), "the Greek," means "the Greeks," and al-'Ifranj, , "the Frank," means "the Franks." A Roman is then Rûmî, , a Greek Yûnânî, , and a Frank 'Ifranjî, . Arabic usage for the mass of genies, al-Jinn, , "the Jinn," tends to carry over into English, though the adjective, Jinnî, , is much more familiar in its Anglicized form ("genie," if not "Jeannie" -- coincidentally rather like the Latin genius, "the guardian spirit of a man or place").

Today, terms like Rûm (for Asian Romania) and the related Rumelia (Turkish Rumeli, , Greek or , or Bulgarian , for European Romania) have disappeared in their original usage as place names, but the former is contained in an important place name in Turkey, the city of Erzurum, the Roman Theodosiopolis. This looks like a Turkish version of a phrase in Persian, Arz-i-Rûm, (pronounced Ærz-e-Rum in Modern Persian), the "Land" (ard., , in Arabic, eretz, in Hebrew) "of Rome." This is in eastern Anatolia (Turkish Anadolu, ), what the Romans would already have considered part of Armenia, far from the heartland of the Sultanate of Rûm, and so the name may well date from the earliest phase of the Turkish conquest. Indeed, we find Marco Polo mentioning it already in the 13th century (as part of Armenia).

Return to text

"Decadence, Rome and Romania,
the Emperors Who Weren't, etc.,"
Note 9

This misadventure of Liutprand is reminiscent of an episode in Chinese and Japanese history. In 607, Prince Shôtoku supposedly wrote a letter for his aunt, the Empress Suiko, to the Chinese Emperor Yang Ti of the Sui Dynasty. He referred to Japan as the land where the "Sun Rises," (Nippon, Nihon), and to China as the land where the "Sun Sets," (Nichibotsu). To the Chinese, however, there could be only one Emperor, , and Son of Heaven, . The ruler of Japan was simply the "King of Wa," , i.e. of the "land of dwarves." Yang Ti was furious at the pretention of there being another Emperor, and of China, the "Middle Kingdom," , being reduced to the place where the "sun sets" (which can also mean "dies" or "drowns"). Yang Ti informed his officials that he was not again to be shown a letter from barbarians who did not know how to address the Emperor of China. The Emperors of Romania, aware that they had once had Western colleagues, were more tolerant of recognizing an Imperial title among the Franks.

Liutprand (or Liudprand) had been on an earlier embassy to Constantinople, in 949. This was to the court of Constantine VII on behalf of Berengar II of Italy (at the time still just Regent for King Lothair II). Liutprand accomplished his mission, which was to arrange a marriage between Lothair's sister, Bertha (renamed Eudocia in Greek), and Constantine. Unfortunately, Bertha died the same year. Liutprand apparently was happy on the 949 embassy but had a bad experience on the one in 968. He did not get along with the Nicephorus Phocas and vented his dislike of Romania, as recounted in his work "Embassy" (cf. "The Embassy of Liudprand," The Complete Works of Liudprand of Cremona, translated by Paolo Squatriti, The Catholic Press of America, 2007, pp.238-282).

The curious thing about Liutprand's dislike of the contemporary Greek Romania is that he traces its evils back to Rome itself, all the way to Romulus -- whom he calls a "fratricide," "from whom also the Romans are named, was born in adultery; and that he made an asylum for himself in which he received insolvent debtors, fugitive slaves, homicides, and those who were worthy of death for their deeds." Thus, in his very hatred of Constantinople, he agrees that this is indeed the Roman Empire, with its sins traced back to the founding of the City of Rome. What he celebrates are the Germans, whom he lists comprehensively as "Lombards [himself], Saxons, Franks, Lotharingians [i.e. from Lorraine], Bavarians, Swabians [i.e. the Alemanni], Burgundians." It did not matter that Liutprand was at the time representing Otto I as the "Emperor of the Romans." Nicephorus was pushing his buttons, and Liutprand's true sympathies emerge. The ideology of Otto wanting to be the true Roman, according to which Nicephorus would be addressed as "Emperor of the Greeks," was a recent notion that Liutprand evidently did not always keep in mind. Disputing the Roman identity of Romania, of course, eventually culminates in calling it "Byzantium."

Note that the Venerable Bede (673-735) also considered Romania the "true" Roman Empire from the reign of Honorius, completely ignoring the last Western Emperors and what now we consider the "Fall" in 476. Thus, from Bede in the 8th century to Liutprand in the 10th, the judgment of the learned in Francia, taking Constantinople to be the capital of the continuing Roman Empire, was unchanged. Only with Liutprand do we see the beginning of serious ideas to dispute that, motivated by Papal and German pretentions.

Liutprand's embassy in 968 was also to arrange a marriage. Because of the poor relationship with Nicephorus, the embassy failed, and Liutprand returned home. However, after Nicephorus was killed by John Tzimisces in 969; Liutprand returned (971) and arranged a marriage between a niece of John, Theophano Scleraena, and the son of Otto I. The German Emperor Otto III would then be the son of Theophano and Otto II. Liutprand himself, returning home with Theophano in 972, died on the way.

Since Otto III died without issue, the succession jumped to his cousin Henry, the Duke of Bavaria, and then to the Salians. The princess of Constantinople thus had no other descendants on the German throne. Even apart from the essential failure to produce an heir, Otto III was altogether too distracted by his Greco-Roman heritage and wasted his reign with too much time in Italy and too little in Germany. Some want to blame this on the influence of his mother. It is a dynamic, however, that often helped distrupt the power of the German Throne, as the failure of an heir was also all too typical and repeatedly harmful to the stability of Germany. The Capetians committed no such oversights -- there would always be a male heir for France (even until today, as a matter of fact).

In the account of the Embassy in 949, we get a striking description by Liutprand of the technology employed in the Court of Constantine VII to overawe those in the Emperor's Presence:

For at Constantinople there is a palace next to the Great Palace, of wondrous beauty and size, that is called Magnaura by the Greeks... In front of the emperor's throne there stood a certain tree of gilt bronze, whose branches, similarly gilt bronze, were filled with birds of different sizes, which emitted the songs of the different birds corresponding to their species. The throne of the emperor was built with skill in such a way that at one instant it was low, then higher, and quickly it appeared most lofty; and lions of immense size (though it was unclear if they were of wood or brass, they certainly were coated with gold) seemed to guard him, and, striking the ground with their tails, they emitted a roar with mouths open and tongues flickering. ["Retribution," Book VI, ibid., pp.197-198]

We do not hear about automata such as these birds and lions again until the 17th century, when similar creations led Descartes to conclude that physical life, both human and animal, was mechanical in nature, just like the robots. One wonders what devices were actually used in the 10th century to reproduce the bird calls and lions' roars. William Butler Yeats invokes the mechanical birds in his poem, "Sailing to Byzantium."

In the footsteps of Liutprand we find Edward Gibbon, who says:

After the restoration of the Western Empire by Charlemagne and the Othos [sic], the names of Franks and Latins acquired an equal signification and extent, and these haughty barbarians asserted, with some justice, their superior claim to the language and dominion of Rome. They insulted the aliens of the East who had renounced the dress and idiom of Romans, and their reasonable practice will justify the frequent appellation of Greeks. But this contemptuous appellation was indignantly rejected by the prince and people to whom it is applied. Whatsoever changes had been introduced by the lapse of ages, they alleged a lineal and unbroken succession from Augustus and Constantine; and, in the lowest period of degeneracy and decay, the name of ROMANS adhered to the last fragments of the empire of Constantinople. [The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Volume III, Modern Library, p.298-299, boldface added]

One wonders how the Franks could have asserted "with some justice" a "superior claim" to a language, Latin, that few of them used (only the rare literate population) and a dominion only a small fragment of which they controlled, not even including the City of Rome itself, which was in their own concession the de jure and de facto dominion of the Pope, not of either Charlemagne or the Ottos. Similarly, while togas were perhaps no longer worn in Constantinople, the robes of Justinian and later Emperors bear little resemblance to the outlandish trousers of the Franks, even as the eastern Emperors' own Hellenic "idiom" could have been understood by Marcus Aurelius -- unlike the Germanic language of "these haughty barbarians." The greatest irony of this passage, however, is Gibbon's snipe at the "alleged" lineal and unbroken succession of Constantinople back to Augustus and Constantine -- a succession upon which Gibbon's own Decline and Fall is founded, recounting, as it does, all but uniquely in modern historical literature, the history of the Empire from the Antonines to the death of Constantine XI in 1453.

Return to text

"Decadence, Rome and Romania,
the Emperors Who Weren't, etc.,"
Note 10

Judith Herrin's recent Byzantium, The Surprising Life of a Medieval Empire [Princeton & Oxford, 2007] introduces the word "Romania" in a curious way. It is not in the index, but we first encounter it in the text in Latin, in the title of the Partitio terrarum Imperii Romaniae, the "Partition of the lands of the Empire of Romania" [pp.263-264], i.e. the document that split up the Empire after the taking of Constantinople by Venice and the Fourth Crusade. The word "Romania" is then glossed as "a western name for the empire" [p.264]. Since this was the late Roman name for the Empire, whose use had simply continued in the West, and, as noted above, I have also seen it used in Greek by Theophanes, Constantine VII Porphyrogenitus, and others, Herrin's statement is starkly and seriously false. One will not encounter "Romania" much in secondary sources, and so the casual dilettante such as myself could be excused for not being familiar with it, but Herrin, as a Byzantinist, has no such excuse.

But what is more intriguing is that she applies no such gloss ("a western name for the empire") to the word "Byzantium," although early on she does mention of "Byzantium" that the "name was not given to it until the sixteenth century, when humanist scholars tried to find a way of identifying what remained after the collapse of Old Rome in the West" [p.25]. By her own admission, they already had a name for it, unless, of course, they simply didn't want to use a name with "Rome" in it. Herrin displays a similar reluctance; and she uses "Byzantium" constantly and unproblematically, despite the fact that it is, by her own admission, supremely "a western name for the empire" -- although one now used by Greeks also. In relation to the quote above, that "Byzantine Empire" is "a modern misnomer redolent of ill-informed contempt," Herrin is at pains to address the "ill-informed contempt" part but gives us nothing, and expresses no appreciation, that the word might be "a modern misnomer."

Indeed, Herrin's book would seem to represent the flip side of the "Rome is the City of Rome" school of historiography, with an equal and opposite proposition that "Byzantium is the Empire of Byzantium." For instance, Herrin says of the Emperor Constantine XI, as the City was about to fall to the Turks:

...the most Christian emperor called out in Greek to his people to prove themselves to be true Romans. In so doing, he summoned a history that stretched back from 1453 to the dedication of the city in 330, one thousand, one hundred and twenty-three years earlier, and identified the Byzantines with their glorious forebears, the pagan Greeks and Romans. [p.329]

Now, there was nothing unusual about an Emperor addressing his people either in Greek, which is what he spoke, or as "Romans," which is what they were. In so doing however, one might wonder why Herrin thinks this particularly refers to the dedication of Constantinople in 330. If you are a Roman, this already bespeaks historical continuity back to Augustus if not to Romulus and Remus. Herrin makes it sound like Constantine's subjects are ordinarily addressed as "Byzantines" and that he has used some novel expression to remind them of the "pagan Greeks and Romans." No. It is Herrin, not Constantine, who thinks of there as being some discontinuity between "Byzantium" and Rome. But this is the modern idea, "redolent of ill-informed contempt," not the Mediaeval idea. The contempt here in Herrin, or at least the dissociation, is for the Roman identity of "Byzantium," as the opposite of Western contempt or neglect for Constantinople.

Herrin returns the neglect, if not the contempt, with a certain shocking carelessness for Roman history of Late Antiquity (despite her being a professor of "Late Antique" as well as Byzantine Studies). Thus, she says:

...and the last Roman Emperor in the West was deposed in 476, leaving a half-Vandal, half-Roman general, Stilicho, in control of Italy. [p.13]

Unfortunately, Stilicho had been assassinated in 408. Herrin is thinking of Odoacer. Similarly, she says of the original Constantine, who was proclaimed Emperor by his father's troops in 306, that "he was not recognized by Licinius, the senior emperor in the East" [p.4]. Again, unfortunately, Licinius was not made an Emperor until 308, and he was at that point junior to Galerius (d.311) and Maximinus II Daia (d.313). Indeed, in 308 he was junior to Constantine, who nevertheless was demoted to Caesar (until 309) -- Constantine rather resented this. Outside of Roman history, Herrin is also a bit careless. Thus, when she mentions the overthrow of the Omayyads by the Abbasids, she says this "split the Islamic world into rival caliphates, leaving the Umayyads based in Spain" [p.324]. However, this event was in 750 AD, and the Omayyads in Spain did not claim a Caliphate until 912 -- which then only lasted until 1031. This short-lived regime did not exactly split the Islamic world -- that would be done by the Shi'ite Fatimid Caliphate in Egypt (969-1171). We also get the statement that "The Seljuk Turks were a Mongol people speaking an ancient Uighur language" [p.325]. Perhaps I have missed something, but my understanding is that the several Turkish and Mongolian languages are in separate branches of the Altaic family of languages, while Uighur and the Oghuz language of the Ottomans, Azeris, and Turkmen, which is probably where Seljuk would have fallen, have been separate members of the Turkish group. As with the confusions over Roman history, I think what this reveals are the pitfalls of overspecialization in history. Perhaps a Byzantinist can't really be expected to know when there was a Caliphate in Spain or if Turkish isn't a kind of Mongolian, but it is shocking that a Byzantinist could not get straight some simple facts of Roman history in Late Antiquity. But Herrin, like the Classicists with nothing but contempt for "Byzantium," shares their perspective on the fictitious rupture and chasm that separates "Rome" from "Byzantium." "Romania" bridges the gap but is ignored.

Warren Treadgold, although not using, or even mentioning, the term "Romania," does express an awareness of the kind of reciprocal hositility that we see between Classicists and Byzantinists, as he addresses the issue of the form in which Greek "names and terms" will be cited:

To avoid making an arbitrary distinction between Byzantium and Rome, the forms I use here for Greek names and terms are Latinized (or sometimes Anglicized) ones, not the forms based on Classical Greek that many Byzantinists now favor. [Byzantium and its Army, 284-1081, Stanford, 1995, p.viii]

And why would Byzantinists favor "forms based on Classical Greek" instead of the Latinized ones? Treadgold explains in a footnote to the cited passage:

None of the established systems of transliterating Greek is perfect, and each has its advantages. But some scholars can be disturbingly passionate about the matter of transliteration, as if they were trying to use Classical Greek forms to force acceptance of a sharp break between Rome and Byzantium on those who disagree with them. [ibid., note. p.viii, boldface added]

This little aside speaks volumes about the peculiar relationship and attitudes I have been considering. There is another dimension to this particular problem of transliteration, however. A century ago, books citing Greek names and terms simply would have given them in the Greek alphabet. This is now rare, probably because of the expectation that students, and perhaps even some scholars (thanks to the achievements of modern education), will be entirely unfamiliar with the Greek language and its alphabet. A proper history of Romania should use Latin words as these would have been used, and Greek words as these would actually appear in Greek. Where a Latin word was a borrowed Greek word, or the Greek word a borrowed Latin word (both are quite common), the historian should give us both; but we are not always given such information. It is a tribute to Treadgold, however, to notice how even something as trivial as transliteration is used to drive a wedge between "Rome" and "Byzantium" -- breaking the unity of what here is recognized as Romania.

After writing to Judith Herrin about some of these issues, I actually did receive a very nice reply in the matter of the usage of "Romania":

You're quite right that Rhomania, in Greek, was always used for the empire by its inhabitants and the Latin equivalent goes back to late antiquity. During the Middle Ages, however, I've found less use of Romania in the West and, especially after 800, more references to the 'empire of the Greeks'. After their conquest of Constantinople in 1204, westerners use the term Romania in Latin much more frequently, at the very point where it increasingly drops out of use by the Greeks.

So Romania is the ancient western name, which had a revival from the thirteenth century on, as witnessed by the Assizes de Romanie etc. And yes, Byzantium is an entirely western creation based on the name of Byzantion, which remained in Greek medieval usage to designate the capital.

I shall try to clarify this in a reprint, if that's possible.

With renewed thanks and all best wishes,

Judith Herrin [15 May 2009]

What goes unexplained here is how, if Herrin is so familiar with the ebb and flow of this usage, something that is so much a misdirection or misrepresentation as "a western name for the empire" could make its way into her book. What I would hope is, not just that the erroneous gloss should be corrected, but that a brief discussion, even no more than is included in her e-mail, should be introduced early in the book to properly inform the reader about what the "Byzantine Empire" was actually called by its contemporaries.

A reference she makes here incidentally answers a question I had above, about A.A. Vasiliev citing the Partitio terrarum Imperii Romaniae as the Partitio Romanie. We see the point of confusion revealed in the name of the Les Assises de Romanie, a law code, the "Assizes of Romania," in French, from the Latin Empire. "Romanie" is thus simply the French form of "Romania." Vasiliev substituted the French word for the Latin genitive Romaniae -- as Herrin herself here casually mixes the English "Assizes" with the French "de Romanie." Of course, when we realize that "Romania" was used in French as well as in Latin and Greek, this makes it all the more peculiar that the principal "Byzantine" histories should not explain, discuss, or sometimes even mention the word.

Herrin begins her book by saying:

One afternoon in 2002, two workmen knocked on my office door in King's College, London [at right we see the door]. They were doing repairs to the old buildings and had often passed my door with its notice; 'Professor of Byzantine History'. Together they decided to stop by and ask me, 'What is Byzantine history?' They thought that it had something to do with Turkey.

And so I found myself trying to explain briefly what Byzantine history is to two serious builders in hard hats and heavy boots. Many years of teaching had not prepared me for this. I tried to sum up a lifetime of study in a ten-minute visit. [Princeton U. Press, 2008, p.xiii]

I have discussed the response I would give to the workmen it more detail elsewhere. Here I am reminded of a story told by the late astronomer Carl Sagan. When he was a child, he wondered what the stars were. He went to his local library and asked for a book about the stars. The librarian gave him a book about the famous Hollywood actors, the "stars," of his day. Once corrected on the error, the librarian gave him a proper astronomical book. It began with the answer to Sagan's question:  The stars are other suns.

I think that the simplest answer to anyone asking, "What is Byzantium?" is just, "Byzantium was the Roman Empire." This is the best answer because it may elicit the obvious response, "I thought that the Roman Empire Fell in 476," to which, of course, the rejoinder is, "No, it didn't." The follow-up is easily explained. What is less easily explained is why even the educated should be unaware or deceived about the whole business. A historian like Herrin gives us good information about Byzantium, in its own terms, but leaves the basic question still sufficiently confused that she is awkwardly left uncertain how to answer it herself.

Return to text


"Decadence, Rome and Romania,
the Emperors Who Weren't, etc.,"
Note 11


While Cassell's Latin dictionary is innocent of "Romania," so is the majestic, magisterial, trilingual (in English, French, & German) Mediae Latinitatis Lexicon Minus -- Lexique latin médiéval -- Medieval Latin Dictionary -- Mittelateinisches Wörterbuch, Volumes I-II, by J.F. Niermeyer & C. Van de Kieft, revised by J.W.J. Burgers [Brill, Leiden, 2002]. This is a grave oversight in such a work, since "Romania" was certainly part of Mediaeval Latin. However, since Niermeyer does not include the vocabulary of Ancient Latin -- it does not have Roma or Romanus in the dictionary -- it is possible that he assumed that Romania would be in a dictionary of the earlier language. But Cassell's, as I have noted, does not have vocabulary after 100 AD and so actually does not cover uses of "Romania."

Return to text

"Decadence, Rome and Romania,
the Emperors Who Weren't, etc.,"
Note 12

In one essential respect it is very difficult, indeed shocking or even offensive, to think of the Ottoman Empire as a continuation of Mediaeval Romania. The Turks bring a different religion and indeed a different civilization, Islâm, that violently and catastrophically replaces the religion, the tradition, the history, and the values of Romania. To Christians of the Empire, Greeks, Armenians, and Albanians, and to Christians who had become independent of the Empire, Bulgarians, Serbs, and Vlachs, especially the victims of massacre and genocide, this was an unparalleled and appalling revolution and catastrophe.

On the other hand, the culture and traditions of the Ottomans were already being skewed by the traditions of their own history over a couple of centuries of the Turkish occupation of Anatolia, including periods when Turks were allies, mercenaries, or even Christian converts to Roman Emperors. By the time Mehmet II took Constantinople in 1453, redeeming the defeats of Islâm in 677 and 718, his government and culture were already taking on some of the coloration of Romania. Nothing illustrates this more graphically and dramatically than the adoption of the architecture of Sancta Sophia for the new mosques, not just of the Ottomans, but soon for all of Islâm. At the same time, "Ottoman Byzantium" is no more or less appropriate for a Turkish Empire centered on Constantinople than "Byzantium" ever has been as the name of Mediaeval Romania -- neither are names used by contemporaries for either Empire. "Byzantium" used for any Empire, Christian or Muslim, is a neologism. If the rationale of Byzantinists is that "Byzantium" was the capital of Romania, well "Byzantium" was still the capital of Turkey until 1922. Indeed, even the Turkish City was still being called "Constantinople" until well after the name was officially made "Istanbul" in 1930.

Although the kidnapping and forced conversion of Christian boys for the Janissaries (following the most recent precedent of the Mamlûks in Egypt) was a uniquely vicious and characteristically Islâmic institution, the most notorious features of Ottoman rule, the massacre of Armenians and other Christians, was due more to the Modern ideology of nationalism than to the principles of Mediaeval Islâm. Soon Modern ideology led Turkey in another radically different direction from the rest of Islâm. Atatürk had no sympathy for Greeks, Armenians, or Kurds, but he also had little sympathy for most of the culture or traditions of Islâm. He wanted Turkey to be a modern, European country, and to look like it. His success over the years, and his extraordinary veneration in Turkish political culture, has only now been threatened by the revival of Islâmic fundamentalism elsewhere and its relative popularity in the most rural and conservative parts of Turkey. This, of course, is only part of the story of Modern Romania, as the Christian states of the Balkans and Caucasus all became independent in the 19th and 20th centuries. Their own nationalism has produced some of the ugliest and most dangerous events in modern history, not the least of which, to be sure, was the spark that set off World War I. Their story perhaps more directly continues the history of Romania than does Turkey, yet they emerge into Modern independence from the Ottomans much as they had early emerged from under the rule of the Roman Emperors in the 12th century.

Modern Romania, Ottoman Successor States in the Balkans

Return to text

"Decadence, Rome and Romania,
the Emperors Who Weren't, etc.,"
Note 13

Warren Treadgold, in the previously cited A History of the Byzantine State and Society, provides a dramatic graphic (p.8) for the history of the Empire beginning with Diocletian. Adapted and colorized from Treadgold's graph, here we see the full extent of Diocletian's Empire, about three and three quarter million square kilometers, the rapid collapse of the Western Empire, the substantial but ephemeral restoration under Justinian, and then the cyclical expansion and retreat over the centuries of the surviving Empire.

Diocletian's Empire was around 3.75 million square kilometers. A good comparison would be modern India, at 3,287,590 km2. To make up the difference, about 462,000 km2, we could add Papua New Guinea, at 462,840 km2. But British Imperial India, with Pakistan and Bangladesh, was substantially larger, at 4,235,201 km2. The full Roman Empire looks larger than it was because it was wrapped around so much water. The largest modern states are much larger in area than Rome:  Australia is 7.68 (more than twice the size of Rome), the United States 9.37, China 9.56, Canada 9.97, and Russia 17.08 million km2. Some accounts of the Roman Empire make it seem larger by adding in the area of the Mediterranean Sea (the Mare Nostrum, entirely enclosed by Roman territory), which from Gibraltar to the Bosporus is 2.51 million km2, giving a grand total of 6.26 million km2. Still not quite as large as Australia.

Justinian's Empire peaked at just over 2 million square kilometers, while the area of modern Mexico is 1,958,200, Indonesia 1,904,570, or Saudi Arabia 2,149,690 km2. The Empire of the Macedonians, after a long recovery, topped out at about 1.25 million km2, while the combined area of modern France, Germany, and Italy is 1,209,730 km2 -- or of South Africa 1,219,916 km2. The Empire of the Comneni was about 750,000 km2, which is rather close to modern Chile at 756,950 or Zambia at 752,614 km2.

The modern Chinese expression for "Roman Empire" is , where Roma has been rendered phonetically (Luoma). Phonetic writings are the modern practice. There may actually be a Classical Chinese name for Rome, however -- , "Great Ch'in." But this identification is tentative, depending on whether the embassy that arrived at the court of the Later Han Dynasty in 166 AD actually was from Rome. It seems likely. But at this point it is easier to use the phonetic writing. In differentiating the different periods of Roman history, we can follow the precedents in Chinese history, where dynasties are distinguished by compass directions and "early" or "late." Thus, we have the "Former" or "Western" Han and then, when the dynasty changes and the capital moves, the "Later" or "Eastern" Han. Well, the Roman Capital definitely moved, and we can use "West" and "East" in the broader Chinese senses, rather than in the way "Western" and "Eastern" are used for Roman history only when the Empire was actually divided in half. The Roman or Western Roman Empire is thus , while the Eastern Empire, or Romania, is . "Early," (e.g. "former"), "middle," , and "late," , can be used for the different periods of "Eastern" Rome.

First EmpireROME
27 BC-284 AD
310 years
Second EmpireEARLY ROMANIA

284-610Era of Diocletian 1-327326 years
Third EmpireMIDDLE ROMANIA610-1059Era of Diocletian 327-776449 years
Fourth EmpireLATE ROMANIA1059-1453Era of Diocletian 776-1170394 years

The habit of historians to use "Eastern Roman Empire" and "Byzantine Empire" interchangeably, of course, involves using terms that contemporaries never heard of. To its inhabitants, as we have seen, the Roman Empire, was just the "Roman Empire" or "Romania," whether the capitol was Rome, Milan, Ravenna, Nicomedia, or Constantinople. "Eastern Roman Empire" is used by Classicists, but also even by Byzantinists, to remind everyone that the Empire that survived after 476 was not the real Roman Empire -- the way after 1994 Dan Rather always referred to the "Republican Controlled Congress," although in all his years of broadcasting he had never said "Democrat Controlled Congress" when that was the case. He obviously believed that Republican control was improper and illegitimate [see the discussion of this sort of thing elsewhere]. Using "West" or "East" in the Chinese fashion is unrelated to those tendentious practices.

For Chinese titles of monarchy and nobility, see Chinese Feudal Hierarchy.

Return to text

"Decadence, Rome and Romania,
the Emperors Who Weren't, etc.,"
Note 14

I wish I can say that this was my own idea. Actually, I can say that, but I can't say that it was an idea that I had first. It was a thesis already in scholarly discussion. For instance, we find Michael Grant, in his From Rome to Byzantium, The fifth century AD [Routledge, 1998], saying:

With his fleet, Gaiseric controlled the western Mediterranean throughout his reign, and he died undefeated in 477:  he never became western emperor, because it was understood that no German could do so; but he put Rome in the shade. [p.21, boldface added]

Here Grant is talking about a King of the Vandals who was never a servant of Rome, or even an ally -- the Vandals were the only major German tribe who were consistently hostile and belligerent towards Rome. But the principle was the same for Roman commanders like Stilicho or Ricimer. With Gaiseric, it is not hard to imagine someone sacking Rome in 455 and then thinking, "Why not stay?" He had a better claim and grasp on power than most of the subsequent ephemeral emperors. But Germans were simply not Romans.

A curious feature of this is that it had long been possible for barbarians to become Roman citizens, as the reward of service in the Roman Army. Why we do not see this device in play in the Late Empire is a good question. To be sure, citizenship was awarded after military service, which means that Germans in a position to seize the Throne, i.e. the ones on active service, are precisely the ones who will not yet be citizens. Also, tribal Germans, like the Visigoths, even as allies of the Romans, are not actually in the Roman Army at all and would never qualify for citizenship.

The device of the king-making German commander may have begun with Arbogast, who was a Frankish Magister Militum under Gratian, Valentinian II, and Theodosius I. When Valentinian died, Arbogast raised the non-entity Eugenius to the Throne (392-394). Since Eugenius was not of the Valentian or Theodosian Houses, we cannot say that Arbogast was denying himself the Throne on a principle of dynastic legitimacy. No, he was denying himself the Throne because no one, including himself, believed that a German non-citizen was qualified to become Emperor. This may be the first time that such a thing happened in Roman history. Previous and subsequent usurpers like Magnus Maximus (383-388) or Constantine "III" (407-411) had no difficulty promoting themselves because there was no difficulty over their citizenship. By the same token, the Master of Soldiers Constantius (410-421) married Galla Placidia, fathered Valentinian III, and then was made co-Emperor before he died (as Constantius III, 421). Arbogast committed suicide after his defeat by Theodosius at the bloody battle of the Frigidus River in 394. Stilicho himself was then the successor of Arbogast as Magister Militum.

Not everyone agrees with the thesis about citizenship. John Michael O'Flynn says of Orestes making his young son, Romulus Augustulus, Emperor instead of himself:

...the fact that he, though a Roman, declined to ascend the imperial throne himself casts doubt on the theory that his barbarian counterparts refrained from a similar move merely because they were barbarian. [Generalissimos of the Western Roman Empire, U of Alberta Press, 1983, p.134]

O'Flynn seems to think that since "real power" lay with the barbarian army, Orestes was better off as Commander rather than Emperor. Such altenatives, however, only exist because people like Arbogast and Ricimer had already held military power without the formal political power. This division was a novelty that had not recommended itself to Magnus Maximus, Constantine "III," or Constantius III. I don't think O'Flynn gives us the reason why, if it isn't just because the Germans are Germans. Orestes in his day certainly can have had the thought that he should seem German in order to help hold the loyalty of his troops (which he lost anyway). Avoiding the Throne would have been consistent with that.

A more serious counterexample might be that of Aspar, the Alan Master of Soldiers in the East under Theodosius II and Marcian. Aspar was a king-maker who put forward both Marcian and then Leo I for the Eastern Throne. Indeed, Warren Treadgold says, "So great was Aspar's power that the intimidated senate apparently offered to elect him emperor, his Arianism and barbarian birth notwithstanding" [A History of the Byzantine State and Society, Stanford University Press, 1997, p.149, boldface added]. He then says, "Aspar would not risk accepting the title." Risk? Why not? "Since most Romans considered an Aspar or Ricimer ineligible to become emperor" [p.101]. Thus, if Aspar was offered the Throne, it was not politic even in his own judgment to take it. Since Leo then regarded this situation as perilous, as was becoming all too obvious in the West, he brought in the wild Isaurians who soon replaced German influence in Constantinople. Wild or not, the Isaurian Zeno, a Roman citizen, was soon on the Throne (474-491). Aspar was assassinated in 470 (or 471).

Return to text

"Decadence, Rome and Romania,
the Emperors Who Weren't, etc.,"
Note 15

Representative of how people used to think about this might be a 1940 statement by Lieutenant John Clarke (U.S. Army) in the preface to his translation of De Re Militari by Flavius Vegetius Renatus (c.390 AD):

Cavalry had adopted the armor of the foot solider and was just commencing to become the principal arm of the military forces. The heavy armed foot-soldier, formerly the backbone of the legion, was falling a victim of his own weight and immobility, and the light-armed infantry, unable to resist the shock of cavalry, was turning more and more to missile weapons. By one of the strange mutations of history, when later the cross-bow and gun-powder deprived cavalry of its shock-power, the tactics of Vegetius again became ideal for armies, as they had been in the times from which he drew his inspiration. [edited by Brig. Gen. Thomas R. Phililps, U.S. Army, Roots of Strategy, Military Service Pub. Co., 1940, Stackpole Books, 1985, p.69]

Thus, we get the picture that cavalry achieved a technological advantage over infantry that only the introduction of cross-bows and gunpowder could overcome. Unfortunately, the Romans had been dealing with armored cavalry for a long time. This had been introduced by the Parthians:  the "cataphracts" (Latin cataphractus, Greek katáphraktos, "mail-clad," or Latin clibanarius, from Greek kríbanos or klíbanos, an earthen or iron pot or pan). It is unlikely that any German cavalry was as well armored as the Parthians had been. And even if it was, this was nothing new. And although Vegetius complains about undisciplined soldiers in his day throwing away their armor, the gear of Roman soldiers was never heavier that what the modern soldier still carries. There was no problem of a Roman infantryman "falling a victim of his own weight and immobility." Infantry armies shrank in Western Europe, not from technological disadvantage, but from lack of money. They continued in Romania right through the Middle Ages. Then, as noted above, it was the pike, not cross-bows or gunpowder, that greeted cavalry when infantry revived in the West.

The romance of Germanic cavalry survived well beyond the day of Lieutenant Clarke. Thus, we find George T. Dennis saying, in his 1984 edition of Maurice's Strategikon [University of Pennsylvania Press]:

Although other factors were involved, the Gothic cavalry played a significant role in the battle of Andrianople on 9 August 378. The huge Roman army, mostly infantry, under the personal command of the emperor Valens was assaulting the barricaded camp of the Goths when suddenly the Gothic horsemen came up and charged into the left flank of the Romans. [p.viii]

I may be confused, but my understanding of the battle is that, having defeated the right wing of the Gothic cavalry, the Roman cavalry was discomfited by the barricaded camp, just when Gothic cavalry reinforcements and allies fortuitously arrived to fall on them from their rear. Even if Dennis is right, any implication that the Romans were generally deficient in cavalry, while the Goths possessed some advantage for their emphasis on it, is mistaken.

We might compare the statements of Clarke and Dennis with an extraordinary passage in Procopius:

...practically all the Romans and their allies, the Huns, are good mounted bowmen, but not a man among the Goths has had practice in this branch, for their horsemen are accustomed to use only spears and swords, while their bowmen enter battle on foot and under cover of the heavy-armed men. So the horsemen, unless the engagement is at close quarters, have no means of defending themselves against opponents who use the bow, and therefore can easily be reached by the arrows and destroyed; and as for the foot-soldiers, they can never be strong enough to make sallies against men on horseback. [Procopius, History of the Wars, III, Book V, xxvii 27-29, translated by H.B. Dewing, Loeb Classical Library, Harvard U. Press, 1919-2006, p.261]

We might think that Procopius has gotten this backwards. The Romans have better cavalry! Who would have dreamed of that! But of course Procopius is writing about the 6th century, not the 5th, and the Goths now are the Ostrogothic occupiers of Italy, about to be defeated by Besilarius. So perhaps this Roman cavalry has been reformed and improved over the earlier, miserably deficient, versions.

But we might, as well as Lieutenant Clarke, pay some attention to what Vegetius says about cavalry in his own translation:

Many instructions might be given with regard to the cavalry. But as this branch of the service has been brought to perfection since the ancient writers and considerable improvements have been made in their drills and maneuvers, their arms, and the quality and management of their horses, nothing can be collected from their works. Our present mode of discipline is sufficient. [p.174]

Vegetius, who is so sensible of the problems with his contemporary Roman Army, seems quite satisified with the Army's cavalry. This is not consistent with the picture we might get, as from Lieutenant Clarke, of Roman cavalry operating at some kind of disadvantage vis à vis the Germans. That was simply not the case.

An interesting perspective on all this now comes from Edward N. Luttwak in his The Grand Strategy of the Byzantine Empire [Belknap Press, Harvard University Press, 2009], which quite deliberately continues his The Grand Strategy of the Roman Empire [Johns Hopkins University Press, 1976]. Luttwak believes that the Huns possessed a technological advantage in their composite reflex bows, which had much greater range and penetrating power than the bows previously seen in Europe. This gave "Parthian" tactics an advantage they had not otherwise possessed. The problem with the bows, however, was that the glue to hold them together came apart in damp weather, limiting the reliability of their advantage in European conditions. Either way, the Goths did not have such technology at Adrianople, or in general; and, as Luttwak sees it, the adoption by the Roman cavalry of the technology and tactics of the Huns deflates the mythology of a durable barbarian advantage in comparison to the Romans. And we know, to be sure, how the great longbows of England annihilated the French armored knights at Crécy (1346) and Agincourt (1415). This then deflates the myth, again, of a Mediaeval technological superiority for cavalry.

Return to text

"Decadence, Rome and Romania,
the Emperors Who Weren't, etc.,"
Note 16

A new book weighs in on the "Fall" of Rome:  How Rome Fell, Death of a Superpower by Adrian Goldsworthy [Yale University Press, 2009]. So far, I have only seen reviews of the book, but they do not make it look promising. Goldsworthy's thesis is said to be that the Empire was weakened by civil wars and by the abandonment of the Republican system of consultation with the Senate. Unfortunately, any explanation of the Fall of Rome must simultaneously account for the collapse in the West and the lack of collapse in the East. That is to say, part of the Empire fell but not all of it. Both parts of Goldsworthy's argument would fail in this respect, since the East continued just fine despite this history of civil wars and despite the purely monarchical form of government. Indeed, the Roman Empire was created out of civil wars, and then recovered under Diocletian, and at other times, after nasty bouts of them. I am reminded of the Introduction by E.R.A. Sewter to his translation of Michael Psellus [Fourteen Byzantine Emperors, Penguin, 1966], where he says, "if they were so inferior, how did these wretched Byzantines manage to survive so long after the collapse of the West? and what about Santa Sophia? and wasn't a millennium rather a long time for a sustained decline?" [p.10]. To be sure.

As I have examined above, I think much of the problem is the disinclination of Classicists, by a kind of self-deception, to credit the starkly obvious record of the survival of the Empire. Those Greeks simply were not, well Romans, according to us. But if the "Roman Empire" is to mean a State ruled from the city of Rome by native speakers of Latin who are indigenes of Italy, Latium, and the City of Rome (true "Romans"), then the Roman Empire indeed already had "fallen" in the Third Century. Philip the Arab, Diocletian, and others were no longer Italian. Trajan already was no longer Italian, though he was born from a Latin colonial family, in Spain. Septimius Severus, born in Leptis (Lepcis) Magna, today in Libya, spoke Punic (i.e. Phoenician) as his first language and always retained an "African" accent in his Latin [A Phoenician-Punic Grammar, by Charles R. Krahmalkov, Brill, Leiden, 2001, p.14] -- Scipio Africanus must have been rolling over in his grave. And then Septimius married into some goofy Syrian family, which produced the bizarre Emperor Elagabalus (Heliogabalus). Once Caracalla, the son of Septimius, made all free Roman subjects Citizens, that was the end of any legal ethnic distinctions in the Empire. Diocletian's Empire had Latin as its court language (as he had Latinized his Greek name), but it was no longer based in Rome or governed or defended by natives of Latium. The Empire as such, not the City, was the nature of the State. It does not sound like Goldsworthy does a better job than many others in coming to grips with this circumstance. He likes the First Empire and thinks of the "Fall" as its end, the end of paganism and the dominance of the City. The transformation of the State and the Civilization, and its survival for twelve hundred years after Diocletian, is a disappointment to be ignored, distorted, or misrepresented to any extent possible.

Return to text