What is Byzantium?

A frequent question that I am asked when people find out that I am a major in ancient and medieval history is what I am going to do with my degree. I tell them that I intend to pursue a PhD in Byzantine Studies. At this point, I usually get blank looks, and then spent the next few moments reassuring people that they are not clueless for never having heard of such a thing. I attempt to simplify the term “Byzantium” by defining it as the Eastern half of the Roman Empire that continued on after the West had fallen away. As such, I feel that it is important to give some time discussing exactly what this “Byzantine” civilization was, and hopefully after reading this, you’ll be able to understand where the term came from and its limitations.

The first major hurdle that we come to face when using the term “Byzantium” is simply that those people in the Eastern Roman Empire did not consider themselves to be Byzantine. (Do not be fooled by the frequent references to “Byzantium” in the texts. The term “Constantinople” did not exist when Thucydides wrote, and thus there is no reason for classicizing authors to use such terms.) These are attempts at classicizing. The term was coined by a Hieronymus Wolf in the 16th century, in an attempt to differentiate that fake “Greek” empire in the east from the true Holy Roman Empire in the west. This differs from many other societies that we study. For example, when we think of classical Rome, there is no reason to believe that the most upper class Romans viewed themselves as anything other than Roman. In the case of Byzantium, we have a society which has a label that sets it apart from Rome, and yet one where the people considered themselves to be Roman, and one that can claim a direct, uninterrupted succession from the Roman state of antiquity. This is not the case of a Sultanate of Rum that simply took on the name upon conquering Roman lands – this is a case of direct continuation and evolution of the Roman state.

This presents a fundamental problem in studying Byzantium. If the state is a direct continuation of the Roman Empire, despite not territorially holding Rome, where does one begin? Should be look at Byzantium as just one more phase of Roman history since Romulus and Remus? The answer to that question is yes. We need to view it as a continuation of Rome, but we still need to draw the line somewhere for pedagogical reasons. Just as the distinction between Early Empire and Late Empire is very foggy, so is the distinction between Late Empire and Byzantium. This is not like the establishment of the Principate, where a change in government has been used to define a change in era. For the purpose of teaching and writing books, one needs to define a beginning and an end, regardless of the fact that they are artificial constructs.

Where then to start? Constantine has been a popular choice in the past. Previous generations of scholars, often seeing the Byzantine world through Gibbon-tinted lenses, emphasize the focus on the priority of religion in Byzantium, viewed his conversion (coupled with the foundation of Constantinople) as the beginning of a new era. The problem with this thesis is that it often misrepresents Constantine as a very Roman emperor. However, done properly, Constantine would be a good place to start, as it would allow students and readers to see the gradual transformation of the Roman world. But how useful is it? Can one really understand the changes that Constantine set in motion without background in Diocletian and the Tetrarchy? On that note, can one understand that Tetrarchy without understanding the crisis in the third century? From a pedagogical standpoint, do the benefits of starting in a more recognizably classical Roman context outweigh the time that it will take to even get to the sixth century?

The point that I’m getting at here is that to simply slice eras up neatly just won’t do, as time is fluid and so was the Roman state. This issue here is simply context – if we fail to understand the Tetrarchy, we might just take the founding of Constantinople as some world-changing event that turned the eye of the Empire eastwards. I’m not suggesting that we need to go back and study relations between Rome and the Samnites in order to understand the land legislation of Nikephoros Phokas. The point is simply that we cannot view Byzantium as some monolithic block of the later Roman Empire that just came into existence one day. From a pedagogical standpoint we need to start and end somewhere. That is perfectly reasonable. What is not reasonable is to claim that, for example, the Empire was Roman under Justin I and suddenly became Byzantine when his nephew Justinian took over the throne. As such, the only correct standpoint to take on the “beginning” of Byzantium is one that stresses the flow of time and the continuity of Rome in the East.

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2 Responses to What is Byzantium?

  1. Jonathan Harper says:

    It probably doesn’t help that when you say “Byzantium is a continuation of the Roman Empire” the question that appears in many people’s minds is “What’s a Roman Empire?”, which is then promptly followed by “So you’re going to be poor forever?”. Alas, the life of the misunderstood ancient historian continues. At least your books will always understand you.

  2. Gary Pezet says:

    Very well expressed and I agree wholeheartedly. Many try to exlude the Roman element in assessing the ‘Byzantine’ Empire to the detriment of the OSS.

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