Disclaimer: I am not a
Byzantinologist Byzantinist Byzantine specialist. However good my Latin and Greek; I don’t have access to Armenian, Arabic, Syriac etc and that inevitably colours my readings. In terms of secondary sources, I don’t have enough Russian or, indeed, any Slavic language. Make of that what you will.
Anthony Kaldellis is one of the most interesting historians working in our fields today in that he is actively seeking to revise something that needs revising and not needlessly prevaricating (‘problematising’ in current parlance) something for the sake of clicks/citations. Even so, I initially couldn’t help but roll my eyes at the idea of another work on identity. Thankfully, I was wrong.
K’s claim that the Byzantines were really just Romans is obvious to anyone with a smattering of familiarity with antiquity. The interest lays in his asking two fundamental questions:
- How has the occlusion of this self-evident fact came about, and why?
- What are the implications in how we read late Roman history, esp regarding ruled vs ruler?
Chapter 1 – A History of Denial – is largely concerned with the first of these. K begins by providing a few ‘snapshots’ which he uses to illustrate various arguments throughout. This is intuitive and familiar to both fledgling Classicists (‘gobbet questions’) and consultants etc (‘case studies’). I am surprised this isn’t used more broadly. The conclusion he draws from these is that the Romans saw themselves as an extended kinship group for a lengthy period (from the election of Anastasius to the 13th century).
One of the most illustrative of these is a letter sent to the Byzantine court by the Frankish emperor Louis II, in 871. Therein, the emperor tries to make the case that the Byzantine’s aren’t really Roman.
What is fascinating is how little the Franks understood what made Romans Roman. Throughout the letter they decry the fact that Emperors are made and elevated by the Senate and the people (where have we heard that phrase before?). For the Franks, the only model is their own inherited monarchy. The Frankish (later French) kingdom benefited from an unusually uneventful succession in the main Capetian branch all the way down to the unfortunate sons of Philip Le Bel. In contrast, the Roman politics of the Byzantine state must have looked…well Byzantine. I half suspect this is the origin of the term as a pejorative.
The rest of the chapter is dedicated to explaining how this occlusion came about. In short, the Western stereotypes arose out of something like jealousy of anxiety over legitimacy and we have in part inherited this. I was fascinated by K’s mentioning that the Arabs would try to delegitimise the late Romans reasons of their own and wished this was further expanded.
References to Persian literary sources are sadly missing, I know that Rum often served as a romantic setting and that they had a schizophrenic relationship with Alexander ‘the Roman’. But this is hardly a loss given the rest of the book.
I also wish the development of modern Greek identity got more of a showing. One of K’s claims (right to my mind) is that if there was something of a proper modern Roman ethnicity (akin to how we have Jews, Armenians etc) to fight back against academics, none of this occlusion would have happened. Well, the Greeks are the direct inheritors of Rome and the story of how a Greek identity was constructed internally and externally – through historians like Paparrigopoulos and selective readings of aberrant, classicising, authors such as Plethon – would have been useful. K touches on this material here and there, but he is clearly a master and I would be interested in reading further. But for a throw of a dice or two, we could have had a modern Romania or Roumeli.
You need to be warmed up for Chapter 2 – Roman Ethnicity – which introduces a few more snapshots and continues to strengthen the overall argument by referring a broad variety of evidence, readings, and modern theoretical framework.
One point in particular made me put down the book in astonishment: the tendency for scholars to dismiss Roman identity in favour of some atavistic label is…well its racist, or at least racialist and essentialising.
Much of the chapter is spent on fleshing out the Roman ethnicity in its own terms. One of the most interesting parts deals with how Byzantines envisioned their relationship with the Romans of the classical era. Suffice it to say they saw them as ancestors and evoked this past in interesting ways. Students of the early Byzantine period may be familiar with Julian’s Caesars, the antiquarian work of Giannis Lydus, or the classicising references in Procopius’ Buildings, but K undoubtedly makes the case for continued importance of the Roman past throughout Byzantine history.
By any theoretical framework, then, the Byzantines saw themselves as Roman by ethnicity and descent.
The last chapter of part 1, Romanland, is my favourite. Some of the charges against a Roman ethnicity have been to claim that this was only ever elite and at any rate restricted to political language and court ceremony. Again, I find this pretty racialist, the idea that we can see that they really were Greeks. K here lays out the case for a popular sense of Romanitas based at least in part on a good old-fashioned lexical study.
The philological evidence is undeniable. Words like Romania and Roumeli arose strictly in the vulgar tradition and made their way into high cultural discourse against the intensely classicising elite culture. That they managed to do so is surely testimony to the strength of this identity. The key takeaway is that during this period there is a transition from seeing Rome as an empire, ruled by Romans for Romans over non-Romans (imperium Romanorum) to an imagined community of Romans living in the titular Romanland. This is intuitive, and perhaps the expected outcome of changing demographics and the Constitutio Antoniniana. The transition from a Roman world of essentially allied city states, to one conceptual city state (as in the words of Themistios), to something like a nation state is interesting. The fact that academics have systematically avoided talking about this, is telling.
My favourite part, however, relates to the presence of Latin in Byzantium. Honestly, this is something I am incredibly interested in. I loved Planoudis’ translation of Ovid as an undergraduate and the work of Baldwin on Virgil’s Βyzantine reception. Before Greek was ‘cleansed’ it also had a fair few words borrowed from Latin, which makes sense historically. This is really, really, interesting to me. If you’re also interested, here’s a link to a PDF bibliography via HistoryTwerp.
The fact that the Byzantines spoke Greek rather than Latin forms a huge mental hurdle in the minds of we moderns who have only ever known the nation state, for all we talk about diversity and multiformity. The ancient world has many such parallels and I do think this segment, which should have been expanded, could have benefited from a more expansive, comparative, framework. E.g the ancient near East where East-Semitic speakers like the Assyrians (speaking a dialect of Akkadian), inherited a culture in an unrelated language (Sumerian) before their own flourished, only to eventually adopt Aramaic as an everyday language. This would be a great area for sustained study.
The eventual preponderance of Greek over Latin was always going to happen as a matter of demographics. I find the semantic shift for the word Romaika interesting. The Hermeneumata Pseudodostheana use it to mean Latin, but it quickly shifts to mean Greek. Again, as late as the 19th century this was common. It’s used to mean ‘Greek’ through Dumas’ LE COMTE DE MONTE-CRISTO.
On to part two, and I will try to speed things up here. Having established that the Byzantines were Roman, saw themselves as such, the extent of how this ethnicity was imagined, constructed, and continued as well as the causes for its scholarly and popular obfuscation; K goes on to explain the implications of this for viewing Byzantine history. Answering the second of the two fundamental questions I posit at the start of this review.
Chapter 4 – Ethnic Assimilation – makes a few obvious points. We consistently talk about Byzantium being cosmopolitan, assimilating and so on, but for the first time we (by appreciating the majority population) we can accurately begin to see the cause and affects of these assimilatory processes.
The next chapter, The Armenian Fallacy, could just as well be called The Armenian Pathology given the apparent illogical urge for scholars to try and find Armenian ancestry for so many players in Byzantine history. K makes some interesting points, why single out Armenian ancestry and act as if its unusually resistant to Romanisation cf to others such as Greeks, Dacians, S. Italians etc etc? In part, its motivated by special interest groups, but on the whole, this seems unintentionally racist.
I was surprised to find just how little evidence we have for the alleged Armenian ancestry of Heraclitus and that so much in the otherwise brilliant Kaegi commentary is built on supposition. I recall an abject lesson in the reconstruction of epic motifs delivered to me years ago during a tutorial: You can read the evidence and make a conclusion, you’ll be on fairly firm ground, you can’t then continually make things up based on assumption after assumption: That’s castles in the air.
I had honestly thought his Armenian ancestry explained the increase in Greek court usage – though wondered how that tallied with his most important posting being in the Latin west – so, that really is something.
This chapter, which might seem random, is the most important from a methodological standpoint: Once you’ve laid out your framework and your toolset you have to test it on specific cases, and this is a great chapter for that reason.
The last two chapters directly access the concept of empire in the later period. Like the rest of this section, this is more a case of applying the method but are, of course, interesting in and of themselves.
So, as we reach the end, what do we make of this important book? I think it worrying that something so obvious and so consistently well evidenced has been ignored by academics, systematically. I don’t think, necessarily, there’s been a perfidious conspiracy. It’s a combination of inherited biases and training: How many medievalists can read Latin and Greek with anything like the fluency of a classicist? How many are immersed enough in the texts, epigraphy, and papyrological sources of the Roman period enough to understand Roman self-definition before their period? Scant few, I think.
Not that any of that forms an excuse. It is the job of the historian to work beyond such constraints. K goes beyond offering a mere corrective (however sorely needed), and shows an interesting new angle for mainstream byzantology to adopt.
For anyone interested in Byzantine history, for the intellectual history and historiography of working with our sources, or simply what the sons of Romulus were doing in the middle ages, this book is a must buy.
I am not a
Byzantinist Byzantonologos Byzantine specialist. This book almost makes
me wish I was.
 For the role of popular sentiment and pseudo republicanism, it would also be worth reading K’s THE BYZANTINE REPUBLIC.
 We forget how important Greco-Roman antiquity was to the Persians. The Arascids were essentially a post-Hellenistic people, and when the Sassanid’s took over much of their ‘Achaemenid’ heritage was intermediated via Classical sources. Hence why they, e.g, had a special military unit called the ‘immortals’. This isn’t direct continuity! Despite what special interest groups claim.
 In a way this is unfair. K has written a whole book on this, HELLENISM IN BYZANTIUM, which is THE text on the topic.
 Of course, we would then have to deal with yet another special interest group. Christ preserve us.
 E.g ρήγας, king, < rex, regis (still a proper name, see the hero Ferraios), σπιτι, house, < hospitium. Greek assigns foreign verbs its own conjugation based on Latin coniugatio prima – are etc etc. The single best study is E. A. Sophocles’ GREEK LEXICON OF THE ROMAN AND BYZANTINE PERIODS.