Museum Closed: On the Desecration of the Hagia Sophia

You catch more flies with honey than vinegar, they say. Who wants more flies? Well if this blog is honey (or vinegar) perhaps Twitter Classicists are flies; they certainly have been absolutely rolling in faeces lately. Let me explain. You see the transformation (rape…defilement…) of the Hagia Sophia by tinpot wannabe genocidal dictator Erdogan has been met with the kind of twee, historically uninformed, illiterate twaddle most of us have come to expect from any “Classicist” with an institutional affiliation nowadays. My particular favourites have been attempts to compare this to the consecration of the Parthenon or Pantheon as churches. This, incidentally, is an excellent litmus test for our classical courses. If you do not know why, when, how and under whose aegis those buildings became churches, you do not know even Roman History to teach the next generation.

It would have been one thing to say nothing, but this batch of classicistuli has the insane urge to comment on anything and everything related to Greece for some reason. It is a bit like their habit of capping speeches or exchanging pleasantries in badly accented (both meanings!) Greek at conferences and events. Why? What is this? Do people do this with Italian? Does reading about Pompeii vs Sertorius give me especial insight on Spanish politics? Should I wish people happy birthday in Tamazight because I am up on the Punic wars? There is no substance here, only signalling. “Oh, look how detached, clearheaded and above it we all are! Can’t they see this is no different from x, y, z”. Disdainful, supercilious, fools.

This is what I am going to do here. I am going to attempt to flesh out the context, of the significance of this gesture and attempt to give some sense of the weight behind it. In a comparatively short piece. I am not an expert. Late Byzantine, Ottoman, Modern Greek Studies and Diplomacy are very much their own fields, with their own epistemological frameworks, arcane languages, foundational texts, and highly trained experts. A few of these experts may even be found on twitter, who offer some pretty good takes on this. I am reluctant to wade into this, I know full well this will lose me even more readers (oh no, stop, come back…), but I write this in the hope that some people will be chastened and even more will be informed.

…ἔστιν οὗ σιγὴ λόγου There is a time when silence may be stronger than
κρείσσων γένοιτ᾿ ἄν, ἔστι δ᾿ οὗ σιγῆς λόγος. speech; but sometimes speech is stronger than silence

Euripides Orestes 638-9

The Church


To understand the Hagia Sophia you need to understand a little bit about Constantinople herself. How historians assess Constantine’s decision to build a new city on the Bosporus depends largely on how they assess his character – cynical self-aggrandiser or strategic genius? For the former, Constantine’s new religion and outsized sense of self must have sat poorly with the built environment of Rome.[1] Building anew allowed him to leave his mark in marble. Suetonius tells us that Augustus could truly boast himself to have marmoream se relinquere, quam latericiam accepisset, that is “to have left behind marble where he had found mud-brick” and it makes sense that Constantine, armed with a new religion and dusting off the tetrarchy, could set himself to rival this.[2] After all, we know that for some time yet sis felicior Augusto, melior Traiano would remain the accessional chant for new emperors.[3]

Against this is common sense. Constantine was happy to dress his Christianity in a Roman guise, needed to keep the traditional aristocracy on side, and at best issued toleration.[4] Rivalry with the past was all well and good, it was practically expected of Roman emperors, but he still needed to perform. The building of Constantinople must have been in no small part a practical decision. Ensconced as it was in Latium, Rome had increasingly become less viable as a capital for a state that stretched from Britain to Mesopotamia. The multiplication of emperors under Diocletian to match an increasingly complex and varied theatre of operations naturally necessitated several bases.[5] In addition to Rome, Milan, Nicomedia, Trier, Ravenna, and Antioch would all serve as imperial residences for extended periods of time. Constantinople would prove a genius choice. Its Greek predecessor, Byzantium, had held out against Septimius Severus for years and once properly fortified it would withstand siege after siege, whilst being able to maintain its supply lines.[6] Constantinople’s very success at defence tends to obscure how good a decision this was. Rome, and the West, fell to Germanics but the city held out against its own equivalent threat(s) like the Isaurians,[7] Avars, Arabs, etc etc.

This was the city Justinian inherited. Rapid expansion and adornment had, by the 6th century, given it a sense of importance but it was still hardly a rival for Old Rome (or even old civic centres like Alexandria and Antioch). Justinian, who deserves to be remembered as well as Augustus or Trajan, would make renovatio the watchword of his reign. He would return old imperial provinces (including the Italian heartlands) to the fold, supervise the standardising of Roman Law, and embark on an empire wide rebuilding that would not have been out of place in the time of the Antonines.[8] He would attempt to be a third Augustus, a second Constantine.[9]

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Justinian, left, offering the Hagia Sophia. Constantine, right, offering the City. 

Naturally, Constantinople too benefited from rebuilding, and when the church situated on the site of Hagia Sophia was burnt down during the Nika riots of 532,[10] Justinian saw his chance. The new building would not only surpass the old, it would surpass every single church then (or, frankly, since) in existence.  Here is what frenemy Procopius had to say on the church:

τῷ τε γὰρ ὄγκῳ κεκόμψευται καὶ τῇ ἁρμονίᾳ τοῦ μέτρου, οὔτε τι ὑπεράγαν οὔτε τι ἐνδεῶς ἔχουσα, ἐπεὶ καὶ τοῦ ξυνειθισμένου κομπωδεστέρα καὶ τοῦ ἀμέτρου κοσμιωτέρα ἐπιεικῶς ἐστι, φωτὶ δὲ καὶ ἡλίου μαρμαρυγαῖς ὑπερφυῶς πλήθει. φαίης ἂν οὐκ ἔξωθεν καταλάμπεσθαι ἡλίῳ τὸν χῶρον, ἀλλὰ τὴν αἴγλην ἐν αὐτῷ φύεσθαι, τοσαύτη τις φωτὸς περιουσία ἐς τοῦτο δὴ τὸ ἱερὸν περικέχυται.[11]

For it proudly reveals its mass and the harmony of its proportions, having neither any excess nor deficiency, since it is both more pretentious than the buildings to which we are accustomed, and considerably more noble than those which are merely huge, and it abounds exceedingly in sunlight and in the reflection of the sun’s rays from the marble. Indeed, one might say that its interior is not illuminated from without by the sun, but that the radiance comes into being within it, such an abundance of light bathes this shrine

(1.1 29-32)

θαυμάσειε γὰρ ἂν εἰκότως τῶν μὲν τὸ ἁλουργόν, τῶν δὲ τὸ χλοάζον, καὶ οἷς τὸ φοινικοῦν ἐπανθεῖ καὶ ὧν τὸ λευκὸν ἀπαστράπτει, ἔτι μέντοι καὶ οὓς ταῖς ἐναντιωτάταις ποικίλλει χροιαῖς ὥσπερ τις ζωγράφος ἡ φύσις. ὁπηνίκα δέ τις εὐξόμενος ἐς αὐτὸ ἴοι, ξυνίησι μὲν εὐθὺς ὡς οὐκ ἀνθρωπείᾳ δυνάμει ἢ τέχνῃ, ἀλλὰ θεοῦ ῥοπῇ τὸ ἔργον τοῦτο ἀποτετόρνευται· ὁ νοῦς δέ οἱ πρὸς τὸν θεὸν ἐπαιρόμενος ἀεροβατεῖ, οὐ μακράν που ἡγούμενος αὐτὸν εἶναι, ἀλλ᾿ ἐμφιλοχωρεῖν μάλιστα οἷς αὐτὸς εἵλετο.

For he would surely marvel at the purple of some, the green tint of others, and at those on which the crimson glows and those from which the white flashes, and again at those which Nature, like some painter, varies with the most contrasting colours. And whenever anyone enters this church to pray, he understands at once that it is not by any human power or skill, but by the influence of God, that this work has been so finely turned. And so his mind is lifted up toward God and exalted, feeling that He cannot be far away, but must especially love to dwell in this place which He has chosen.

(1.1 60-2)

οὐ χρήμασι δὲ αὐτὴν ὁ βασιλεὺς ἐδείματο μόνον, ἀλλὰ καὶ πονουμένῃ τῇ διανοίᾳ καὶ τῇ ἄλλῃ τῆς ψυχῆς ἀρετῇ,

But it was not with money alone that the Emperor built it, but also with labour of the mind and with the other powers [virtues] of the soul

(1.1 67-8)

It is hard to give a sense of place, of physical reality, solely with text. Procopius somehow manages to combine imperial veneration, ekphrasis, and an almost Pausaniasque tour guide sense of place. His work on buildings is undoubtedly under read, understudied, and underappreciated and I would happily recommend it to readers. His preface situates the work quite well. It is classicising and meant to exult the emperor and his renovation, especially after the Nika riots. It would be easy to dismiss this as mere propaganda were it not for the sense of reverence Procopius has for the church. He seems quite earnest in thanking god for bringing together Anthemius, Isidore, and Justinian (the latter must have been happy to share credit) and whilst he makes frequent reference to the church’s height this is never done in a boastful manner. I hope the above selections give some sense of what it must have been like to see it. Most of the description is technical in nature, I went for the sense of wonder.

We will never be able to see the church as they did. The broader architectural complex and its Roman context has long been changed, demolished, built over. The church itself, raped and ruined. Threatened by minarets on the outside, the inside is bereft of the decoration Procopius and others mention. What few mosaics there are, were saved by Thomas Whittemore (excellent blog post on that, here); instead of glittering gold we have vomit and diarrhoea yellow paint, and the images of Roman and biblical history have been replaced with attempts at Islamic art. Anyone who has been spoilt by the clever geometry and naturalism of Iranian painters will be, at best, bemused.[12] So much for sight, but did not God give you four more senses just to annoy me?

The aim of the project, performed by Acapella Romana and supported by various scholars, to try and recreate the acoustic properties of the Hagia Sophia, something many thought lost to the mists of time. More information may be found on the project, here. It is a wonderful mixture of art and science, and really an example of what the various historicising disciplines can do best. “Ah, but Croc” I hear you say, “Justinian was born in the Balkans, Byzantine chant had not yet been formalised, what would he have heard?”. Actually, we do have some sense of that.

Led by Marcel Pérès, the Ensemble Organum has attempted to recreate what Pre-Gregorian chant sounded like. The musical evidence is scant (Westerners were as keen to eject tradition for modernity as ever), and even though the languages themselves offer some help, a fair bit must be said to be speculative. Nevertheless, this is as good a recreation as we are going to get to experiencing something similar to what Justinian (or at least Heraclius) did. Think about this for a minute: you are sharing an experience with the Romans. If that does not excite you, you are on the wrong blog.

So that was the church that became simply known as the great church or monastery in everything from official laudatory orations to illiterate peasant poetry.

The Fall


Depending on how much emphasis you put the continuity of government as a perquisite there are two possible “falls” of the Roman state. The first, to Latin crusaders during the fourth Crusade, in 1204 remains a watershed date: Despite (in fact, because of – they were keen relic hunters) their Christianity, the Latins were happy to loot and quite a bit of what makes Venice’s built environment remarkable. The Latins did not have to be as brutal as the Ottomans to be, well, brutal. Nowadays the primary difference seems to be that academics are quite happy to line up and criticise the Catholic Latins yet remain silent on the Ottomans. Even the Bishop of Rome apologised. A good, no a great, source on this is the work of Niketas Akominatos, surnamed Choniates (it was a demonym).[13]

It is difficult to overestimate how much this one sack changed things.  I think the world that resulted was a little less Roman. What Alexios tried to do with Boniface and Baldwin – use outside barbarians to secure the purple – seems to have become a time-honoured stratagem by the late empire. Think of Zeno and his Isaurians , whatever the fuck the Valentiniani were trying to do with the Goths and Huns (???), the Heracleans with their Avars, Slavs etc etc. But if Alexios was hoping to find a Stilicho, he got an Odoacer instead. The empire was broken down, partitioned, brought further in line Frankish culture (brutal feudalism over the citizenship that had existed since Caracella’s time and against what Kaldellis sees as a nascent nation state), and this would greatly effect the successor states. In fact, I can not help but wonder if at least part of the reason the Palaeologoi ruled for so long was due to the influence of this new Western model of kingship.[14] The previous tendency towards short lived dynasties (or no dynastic succession at all) is what prompted the Western use of “Byzantine” as a pejorative. I have never failed to be amused as the supreme irony of this, given that this is an utterly Roman behaviour.[15]

Let us leave off here, it is sufficient to say that even after the reconquista 0f 1261, the empire was fractured, weak, and not in a position to put up much of a fight. I do not say that the city was worthless! There is persistent strain of Ottoman apologetics that seems to argue this against all common sense and evidence. This is not the place for extensive source criticism and apologetics, but I should state that after the recapture of the city population numbers began to soar and some scholars even speak of a Palaeologan Renaissance. Maybe this term is too strong, but the period is marked by an intense engagement with the classical past and vibrant cultural production. It was not a rotting apple waiting to be plucked by an Ottoman hand.

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Theophilos Hatzimihail Constantine Palaeologos

Ah. 1453. The other, more traditional, date for the fall. What needs to be said? Runciman produced probably the most popular and well-known account in English, even if not the most clinical, and recent academic work has improved on the technical details of the siege.[16] The Ottomans had rapidly passed from subject allies to rivals to overlords, and Mehmet saw his chance. The siege was brutal and the aftermath more so. The sources are fairly unambiguous about this, again, despite Ottoman apologetics with no basis in source or facts. There are four commonly cited historians: Laonikos Chalkokondyles, Michael Critobolos, George Sphrantzes, and Doukas. I have deliberately put them in that order. Laonikos and Critoboulos arguably belong together as the most intensely classicising, whereas whilst Sphrantzes and Doukas were both well educated, they adopt a more vernacular style and more or likely to lift from the bible and church father’s than Thucydides.[17] All authors were intimately connected with the city and its fall.

Normally I would copy paste in the Greek/Latin text and translate. But I am having to rely on the poorly scanned, low res, Patrologica Graeca. So instead I will rapidly translate/summarise one of the accounts to give you a flavour of the fall. I am going to choose Doukas because I like his Greek style and he is actually close to a hostile witness. He seemed to at least partially blame the fall on the inability of the Palaeologoi to make the reunification of the churches more fact than fiction. He is also happy to castigate the poor showing of the Romans, wherever relevant, and praise the Italian mercenaries led by Giovanni Giustiniani.

Sections 39-41 of the chronicle describe the fall and its immediate aftermath. The Emperor falls as a common soldier, the Turks break in. The great ancient monasteries are looted, the women are raped. Some Romans fall back to the Hagia Sophia but even that gets sacked. Doukas is reticent to speak “how shall I describe it…. I am unable to breathe” but describes the way holy icons are hacked apart and golden and silver carried off. At one point the sultan stops a soldier from smashing a church “for the faith” not out of piety but because he is now in possession of the city (40). The sultan seems to vacillate between playing the magnanimous conqueror, on one hand, and raping the only surviving son of Loukas Notaras on the other. “Oh, City, Oh City” (41) he ends, and I think that cry has echoed down the ages. George Sphrantzes’ account is similar, with the addition of a sad personal anecdote. His family are amongst those enslaved and he tries to track them down to ransom them. By then, his wife had been sold to a Turkish cavalry commander and his son and daughter to the royal harem.

There are endless amounts of such stories. You do not have to delve into folk poetry (girls and boys held and raped at the altar, the priest and deacon disappearing mid service to return, the last emperor becoming marble etc) to find them. In accordance with Islamic tradition, the Sultan gave his soldiers three days to sack the City and they seemed eager to do a century worth of harm.

What of the City? The monasteries and churches were looted and or torched. It would be a while before some of the monumental architecture disappeared completely – travellers a century later still saw Justinian’s equestrian statue, and in fact a few mosaics also lasted another two centuries. The initial rape was violent and sudden, the residual molestation and abuse more protracted. Like Doukas I find it hard to speak here. Not out of any religious sense, but because I genuinely have no idea where to begin. The famous Stoudios  Monastery now became the Imrahor Mosque, Constantine’s Church of the Apostles was demolished to make way for Fetih (Conquest) Mosque, they did not even bother rebuilding over the St. Mary of Blachernae…the list goes on and on and on and on. It is easier to simply mention that one church was left standing as a church, St Mary of the Mongols – though it was still looted.

Before we return to the Hagia Sophia I just want to take a second to talk about Constantine’s Church of the Apostles. The process of converting churches into mosques was often architecturally violent, we have to rely overmuch on artwork and travellers account, but there is ample evidence that the similarly named church at Venice was built to resemble it. So that is something. Worse to me is that this was where several Roman Emperors from Constantine onward were buried. Their graves were desecrated, sarcophagi looted and smashed etc, but we have a few remaining.

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Who is buried there? Constantine? Anastasius? Justinian? (well no, they smashed his corpse for the gold), Theodosius? JULIAN? Who knows? There they are for the wind to buffet and dogs to piss upon.

Back to the great church that started all this. It was, as I said, turned into a mosque. Here is a great thread by @History_Twerp detailing the ways in which the Ottomans used temple conversion and minarets to psychologically humiliate and mock conquered populations. The academic citations talk about Aleppo etc, but strategy is the same:

The loss of the great church as loomed large in the Greek folk tradition. Greek folk poetry is interesting, amongst Classicists Homeric specialists might be tangentially familiar with it due to the work of J Notopoulos on Crete, here is some quick context for everyone else. It is composed in “political” metre named not for any especially political theme but for the City. Just as in Latin Urbs is always Rome and in English City is always London, likewise in Greek Polis is always Constantinople. There is ample evidence that this oral metre goes back to the middle/end of the Byzantine period. It is 15 syllables across with a typical caesura at the eighth beat. Anyway, here is one version of a popular lament for the church. I include it because it has a reflex in many versions in many Greek dialects, and because specialists argue that it goes back to the fall of the city.[18]

I am conscious as to my lack of space, but the final couplet jumps out. After lamenting the fall of city and church and accepting that is gods will, the mourners sing:

“Hush now, lady maiden, neither cry nor weep

Again, with years and time, it will belong to thee”

Maybe. Hopefully. Unlikely. There certainly was not a god when Mehmet made his way through the City. He had a poem of his own. We are unsure whether he uttered these words at Hagia Sophia, the Chora, or even the Apostoleion Church where generations of Caesars were buried. Either way, they have come down to us:

“The spider weaves the curtains in the palace of the Caesars;

The owl calls the watches in the towers of Afrasiab.”

It is perhaps ironic that the death knell of the Roman state was a Persian couplet. But I do not think, had they any way of knowing, the sons of Sassan would be smiling…

Fetih Redux


We have covered, at an admittedly rapid pace, some of the history and context of the initial conquest in 1453. I am now going to untangle some of the language and context behind the recent decision, which will require us to get our hands dirty with Eastern Mediterranean geopolitics. But there you go.

It would facile, however fitting, to point out the humour behind this. Erdogan reciting a poem he did not write, in a language he does not speak, to celebrate the desecration of something another culture built. Cruel commentators might even highlight the juxtaposition between doughy, pig-eyed, Erdogan and the trim, handsome, Ottoman and Safavid princelings who grew up hawking, hunting, and composing poetry with one hand tied behind their backs. But this is a serious statement as to Erdogan’s intent and vision for his administration, this co-option (or, to use fashionable modern language, appropriation) of the poetry of Mehmet the Conqueror sends a clear message. It would be laughable were his supporters not so widespread and violent. His attempt to portray himself as a new sultan has gone so far as to prompt his wife to openly praise the Ottoman harem. Hmm.

Despite the limp-wristed international condemnation, Erdogan’s move will certainly prove to be an astute one with much of the Turkish population offering at least tacit approval.  “As the grandchildren of Mehmet the Conqueror, seeking the re-opening Hagia Sophia as a mosque is our legitimate right” said one youth leader.[19] There have been protests towards this for years. Perhaps the name itself is cursed. There are at least seven such named churches in Turkey, two in Constantinople (both are now mosques), and five outside. Most of these are mosques, including the dilapidated Hagia Sophia at Nicaea (I am unsure about the recently restored one at Trebizond).[20]

One should not underestimate the inherently international nature of this gesture either. Erdogan is adept at speaking from both sides of his mouth and the Turkish bet that idiotic westerners will neither learn foreign languages nor check foreign press has, overall, proven to be a good one. How many are commenting on this? How many know the relevance? The Al-Aqsa was built directly on the old temple complex as ritual humiliation of the city’s native population, it has proven to be a serious source of unrest between Israel and Palestine. These sorts of promises serve not only to enflame his base but to signal to the broader Muslim world that he is ready to take on the role of Caliph as his Ottoman predecessors did upon taking Constantinople.

Imperial states are inherently supranational and much of Turkish foreign policy has been cast in this imperial mode. You might recall the recent opening of a mosque at Cambridge.[21] Sensible watchers might wonder why a head of a foreign government was visiting the opening of a minority religious structure (well, it seats 1000), in a provincial town. If so, they are far too intelligent to work for any of our news agencies. Erdogan turned up in state, and Cambridge found itself hosting both Turks from all over the country and protestors (Armenians, Kurds, Turkish liberals/secularists etc etc, interesting how the news has erased these voices). The same year saw similar behaviour in Bosnia, with the addition of his bodyguards clashing with local police over giving up their guns.[22] Those with slightly longer memories might recall a similarly, violent, kerfuffle outside the Turkish ambassador’s residence in the US.[23] In the US. Ah well, what are laws or sovereign states to an emperor, am I right?

Similarly, the heating up of the Eastern Mediterranean should be cause for alarm for us all. The constant violation of Greek air and sea space, the weaponization of refugees (can there be anything fucking lower? Really?), interference in Libya and Syria, clashes with France over the former… this will not end well.[24] So this is the context of the recent Hagia Sophia decision. Not because Turkey needs another mosque (it really, really, does not) but because history can be powerful, and the “reconquest” of the great church is replete with Ottoman imagery and sends a powerful message to those who know how to read it. Sometimes they are as blatant as this:

Sometimes you need to know a little history. Take this:

That almost sounds lovely, does it not? No, I am joking, if you for one moment thought so please take yourself to the nearest primary school and enrol in a Mathematics course you moron.  The land currently known as Turkey can boast two of the five ancient pentarchy sees (Constantinople and Antioch), as well as all seven churches of revelation.[25] Asia minor in particularly was, for well over a thousand years, the most significant Christian built environment. Even with the whole scale conversion and destruction of churches, do you have any idea how much genocide you have to commit to get a ratio like that? Ask an Armenian. If you can find one.

The Greeks have been involved in Asia Minor almost as long as there have been Greeks. We do not necessarily know where Ahhiyawa was, whether it included any land in Asia (though Miletus – Milawanda – seemed to be in their orbit), though it seemed like the king of Luwian Troy had a Greek name. They were there after the bronze age collapse.[26] They were there to borrow Assyrian words, to mingle with Persians and Medes before either had an empire, to trade stories in a pan East-Med tradition that goes back to the Sumerians. They are not there now. How do you think that happened? Besides a cheeky bit of genocide and forced conversion, there was also forced “repatriation” (a silly word here, given history!). Let me reinforce the recency of this. At the dawn of the 20th century, there were more Greeks in Constantinople and Smyrna than Athens. Again, it is no coincidence that the church will resume duties on the 24th of July, the signing of the Treaty of Lausanne. This date celebrates the mass exodos of Greeks and the formal handing over of Constantinople from the Allies to the Turks. This is a provocation, a threat, and a nod and a wink to certain domestic voters.

Ok, let us sit back a second before finishing off. Now, if after all of this, you can see any similarities with a Roman emperor like Phokas or Constans II or Justinian handing over public buildings to the ecclesiastical authorities to become churches, please let me know. I honestly can not see it. It is the difference between your grandfather handing you sweets and someone breaking into his house, killing him, burning the house and taking the sweets for himself. I wonder whence this malaise of thinking. Perhaps because we are not used to thinking of the Romans as Christians (or later Rome at all), we assume that Christianity came as foreign and violently as did Islam. I think this is western chauvinism as much as it is illiteracy. We associate ourselves with the pagan Romans, convinced we are just like them. Turks are going to Turk. They are a sovereign nation state, and nobody expects better. It is, however, particularly annoying when hordes of academics – self professed experts in their fields insist on spewing such bull shit. Congratulations! You can now add not speaking Modern Greek to your CV alongside not knowing Latin or Ancient Greek! I marvel at the kinds of intellect which can sit there at the British or American Schools at Athens, drinking overpriced “coffee”, thinking themselves so wise and seeing so little. It would be funny if the rest of us did not have to have our taxes scalped to pay for it. You are at best useful fools and at least contemptuous of the past. You should be ashamed.

I am going to end now with an explanation of why Turkey is behaving the way it is, with a deep schizophrenia towards its history. But rest assured this is not over. Turkish irredentism towards the Ottoman Empire and former Caliphate (however they choose to define it, hence constant references to Al Andalus) is only intensifying, the treatment of the historical record is a reflection this. True, I have focused here on the Greco-Roman past – because that is what I know – we could just as easily talk about the ruinous damming of the nearly 12,000 years’ old Hasankeyf site or a dozen others…

The schizophrenia of Turkey lies in the fact that its extensive non-Turkish past is a source of both tourist revenue (which it depends upon) on one hand and shame on the other hand.  Let me explain. Classicists often have cause to study the way peoples write themselves into their environments. It is counter intuitive, but there is no real inexorable link between humans and their land anymore than there is for other animals. So, we study the ways in which people draw up aetiological myths, complicated genealogies, the way they name or build upon natural features.[27] These histories are often not factual: did the Greeks know, for example, that various “Cyclopean” structures were built by their Mycenaean ancestors? Does it matter? The way we interact with history, with the past, builds our present and sets the timbre for the future.  Turkey’s past is emphatically non-Turkish. For a vibrant, productive, confident civilisation this is scarcely a problem. England can roll its non-Germanic elements into its sense of self. Rome’s careful shepherding of Anatolia is a brilliant example of this and the focus of some interesting recent studies.[28] The Romans were caretakers of the various ancient cultures and not just the Greek elements. The Isaurians may, ironically, have spoken an Indo-European language related to Luwian, the Palaelogoi probably took their eagle (for all its reminiscences of Ianus) from Hittite reliefs, you find men with names like Trokondas well into our common era.[29]

Turkey has chosen another way. Dismissive, brutal, rapacious, conquering. Almost a decade past a film was released, Fetih 1453, which typifies this attitude. You can read the limpid Guardian review here in full (or just watch the film). It is a hilariously violent, racist, chauvinistic film. Naturally, it was critically acclaimed and widely viewed in Turkey. To put this in perspective, Americans still make sympathetic films about the Natives, Ben Kingsley’s Gandhi could win awards, and even the Russians moderate their Soviet history. This would be the equivalent of the Germans releasing a film which starts with Hitler defecating in front of a synagogue and winking at the camera. Movies not enough for you? Want something more interactive? Why not visit the Panorama 1453  Museum and relive the conquest in all its glory? At least they are honest about their mission statement: “We hope that your enthusiasm for the conquest remains as fresh and permanent as is, and gives inspiration for the conqueror of the future…[30] Now, to my knowledge, the British Museum does not have a life-sized cardboard cut out of Lord Elgin with his dick out in front of the marbles and a “get fucked, losers” speech-bubble – though I will admit none of the museum trustees will reply to my e-mails on this allegation. Erdogan’s insanity does not exist in a vacuum.

Did it have to be this way? Historians love employing counterfactuals (because you do not have to cite anything), in and around the carnage there do seem to be brief glimpses of a different world. Nothing will mitigate the brutality of conquest and the subsequent subjugation of a broad swathe of peoples, of course, but see that Mehmet was also able to utilise the language of Greco-Roman mythic diplomacy (declaring himself a Trojan against Greeks, very clever) and whilst a popular recent study on “Classics” and the “East” inevitably descends into Western guilt ridden navel gazing,[31] diligent readers can see the way “Easterners” were able to use these texts to define themselves on their own terms. It is tempting to point to Islam as the distinguishing factor here, there is certainly some truth to that, yet better models of Islamic kingship could be found all over the Persianate world. The Mughals could produce blood thirsty Babur and open, pluralistic Akbar.[32] The magnanimity of Alp Arslan has passed into legend. Some of this penetrated later Ottoman culture too. Who can forget Evliya Çelebi’s honest appreciation of the Parthenon or his ability to sympathise with the various peoples of the empire? It is to this nativist strain, as much as Western Humanism, that Ataturk’s moderation belonged. It could have been so different. Oh, but that too has failed.

Alkinoos, play us out.

[1] Zosimus, arguably the last pagan historian, somewhat takes his direction. IIRC Constantine partially has to leave Rome because he made himself persona non grata to the resident aristocracy. Yeah, Z was not a fan.

[2] I am not entirely au fait with the archaeology of early Constantinople (but then, who is?), but I think even with the heavy appropriation/destruction we can have some slight sense of the early capital.

[3] “be thou luckier than Augustus, [and] better than Trajan”. Eutropius 8.5. Incidentally, Eutropius was a member of Julian’s comitatus and had firsthand experience of late imperial attitudes. See also Julian’s Caesars for similar attitudes (though predictably, given the author, M. Aurelius comes out on top). “Lucky” is a poor translation of felix, something like “propitious” or “well omened” might be more like it. It may even be a pun on Augustus as, well, being august.

[4] It would take Theodosius to really put the knife into the old faith(s).

[5] Listen, no emperor ever really solved this. The tetrarchy, the limes, field armies, themata etc were all attempts of various success at various times. Nobody has ever solved this problem.

[6] Mere lists do not tell a story (unless you are Homer, I guess), but look at this:

[7] Though, ok, they did put a dynasty on the throne…that worked out great. Amazing. Yuge benefit.

[8] Justinian and Hadrian’s building policies would make a good comparison. For the philologist, Justinian’s age saw a gigantic outpouring of texts. If not Augustan, it was at least Neronian in its scope here.

[9] These three names really do belong together. Constantine very quickly became someone to be emulated throughout the (post)Roman world. The letters of the quisling Cassiodorus, the coinage, legal issue, and building of the Frankish kings (if only more Merovingian stuff survived…), even the Anglo-Saxon coronation ceremony all derive from this era. Despite the insistence of Greekless popular “historians” that this marks an Eastern break from Rome (???). Likewise, Constantine IV named his son Justinian (second of that name, 685-695, 705-11) in hopes of further renovatio. Tbf, he did famously renovate his own face, so that was something.

[10] Procopius literally calls it stasis, the same word we use for civil war. Whether this is because he was classicising, or he had a better sense of the danger than we moderns, who knows? Either way – Justinian and Theodora faced the rioters down.

[11] Call it laziness, call it expediency, I am taking text and translation directly from Dewing’s Loeb (because it is online). I have excerpted heavily from the sections on the great church. The translation is actually not that bad, outside of the technical bits, the text hardly that insane. Nice.

[12] I will leave specific recommendations to experts. As a child I owned and enjoyed Canby, S. R. (1993). Persian painting. London: British Museum Press. It was decently illustrated and I found the bits on Timurid/Mongol influence interesting.

[13] I am going to assume this is widely available. I mean it is easy to get Geoffroi de Villehardouin’s account, which was composed in a barbarous language of little account.

[14] 192 years! Even if we – as we should – add the Theodosian and Valentinian dynasties together we get 92 years, and almost half of that is Theodosius II. This is such an outlier in Roman history of any period.

[15] Our western conception of kingship is literally barbaric, in the sense that it has Germanic origins. In fact, other non-Germanic Western languages often take their vocabulary for kingship from Germanic. E.g Lithuanian karalius (king < Charlemagne), kunigaikštis (duke < kuningaz); Finnish kuningas (<kuningaz); Polish król (< Charlemagne).

[16] Runciman, S. (1965). The fall of Constantinople 1453. Cambridge University Press; Philippides, M., & Hanak, W. K. (2017). The siege and the fall of Constantinople in 1453. Routledge

[17] The former should be of great interest to Classicists.

[18] The argument here is based on how the various versions depict the final service. One effect of 19th century national formation is that Greek academia has taken folk lore studies (laography, laistics) very seriously, and produced a lot of good work.

[19] literally the first such quote I found, there are a ridiculous amount of these.



[22] ; guns


[24] So my predominant knowledge of these important current events, sorry, comes from the financial markets, but honestly the FT special report on Turkey and the Arab world is a good place to start. As are most Greek language newspapers for the Greek aspects.

[25] Ephesus, Smyrna, Pergamum, Sardis, Laodicea, Philadelphia, Thyatira.

[26] J Latacz (2001) Troia und Homer. Berlin remains the best source on this for classicists. You can also find English translations of the Ahhiyawa letters and Alaksandu treaty quite easily.

[27] Hydronomy is for this reason an incredibly fecund source of myth. A good example of myth applied to natural environs might be the Peloponnese (< the island of Pelops) or how the Gibraltar straits became the Pillars of Herakles. Built, rather than natural, is probably a bit more intuitive. From Scythian grave mounds, to Stone Henge, to the Parthenon…

[28] Rojas, F. (2019). The remains of the past and the invention of archaeology in Roman Anatolia: Interpreters, traces, horizons. Cambridge University Press; Thonemann, P. (2013). Roman Phrygia: Culture and society. Cambridge University Press.

[29] Trokondas son of Trokondas son of Atteous was named after the bronze age Anatolian stormgod. Compare that to the fate of Greek speakers in modern Turkey. Yeah…

[30] they have made the mistake of directly translating the Turkish, breaking a Turkish state rule of saying one thing to the west and another to the east.

[31] Toner, J. (2013). Homer’s Turk. Harvard University Press.

[32] The best appreciation of Akbar, and those like him, remains Truschke, A. (2016). Culture of encounters: Sanskrit at the Mughal court. Columbia University Press.



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:

  1. How has the occlusion of this self-evident fact came about, and why?
  2. 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?)[1]. 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’.[2] 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.[3] 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.[4] 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.[5] 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 Byzantinologist Byzantinist Byzantonologos Byzantine specialist. This book almost makes me wish I was.

[1] For the role of popular sentiment and pseudo republicanism, it would also be worth reading K’s THE BYZANTINE REPUBLIC.

[2] 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.

[3] In a way this is unfair. K has written a whole book on this, HELLENISM IN BYZANTIUM, which is THE text on the topic.

[4] Of course, we would then have to deal with yet another special interest group. Christ preserve us.

[5] 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.

#Neverbyzantium? We would be so lucky

The antipathy between ‘Byzantium’ (here used as convenient shorthand for the surviving Roman Empire) and the ‘West’ is longstanding indeed. One can trace it, perhaps, in the machinations of the various Germanic tribes who are once mimicking the trappings of civilisations engendered by the Romans – with about as much understanding as a parrot has of a poem. Certainly, this is in evidence by the time of Charlemagne.

Let us be clear. There never was a zweikaiserproblem. Instead, the Bishop of Rome found his ecclesiastical throne to sit on a very mundane plinth indeed: Rome, alone of the ancient sees, stood in the West and thus wielded immense auctoritas. But the mitre and crook was hardly proof against the Lombard’s sword or local politicking, the Emperor’s presence in Italy was hardly to felt and so Leo turned to another protector.

The rest, as they say, is history and resulted in the founding of a state neither Holy, Roman, or in any sense an Empire.

Now, we could talk about how awful the west was. Forgeries such as the false Donatio Constantini, the differing Germanic law-codes which granted native Romans less than second citizen status (why else assimilate?). We could venerate the bravery of honest Romans like Boethius or the dream of Belisarius and Justinian. These things shouldn’t need repeating.

The real antipathy began in 1054, with the bizarre excommunication of the East. Bizarre in the sense that one still can’t understand just how this happened. Constantine, Theodosius, Justinian I and II had all proved decisively that the Emperor, not any single bishop, is the head of the church. On what authority was this carried out? On whose? Part of the reasoning was the omission of flioque in the creed. Omission! That’s #fakenews for you.

We in the West have had several reasons, both temporal and ecclesiastical, to castigate and malign the medieval Roman Empire. I think any putative connection to Russia is a new one, unlearned and pathetic even by the low low standards one holds what passes for the American press these days. 

‘Oh but the workings of the state were ones of occlusion and complexity!’ This from a state which literary hoards terabits of data on both its and foreign citizens. From a state with entrenched civil servants, where corporations may count as personages and wield more influence than federated states. Hmm.

Ah, Byzantium – it’s hard to see what so many could hate about it. The dedication to learning as evidenced by the great academies, monasteries, and law school? The pandidakterion was as much a university as Bologna or Oxford. The welcoming attitude to (assimilating) foreign populations? (I thought this was a virtue we shared?). The wonderful art, poetry, and music? Have you heard the hymns of Kassia?

Even the traditional image, of autocracy and despotism, may not be wholly true as recently argued by Kaldellis in his excellent ‘The Byzantine Republic’. Going by recent news stories, is our democracy really that much better? 

In short, there is much to love and admire about Byzantium and little to castigate from our glass houses. Spitting on the toe of a giant doesn’t make you big, it just makes you uncivilised.

Further Reading

If you’re interested in Byzantium, you’re lucky to have three wonderful introductions. Averil Cameron’s ‘Byzantine Matters’ is a thematic history, characterising the best of recent scholarship. Cyril Mango’s edited volume, ‘The Oxford History of Byzantium’ (section on the Macedonian dynasty is very strong), is of a similar vein. Jonathan Harris’ ‘Constantinople’ is ostensibly about the city herself but reveals a lot about wider history and culture.

If you would like a more narrative driven account, Timothy E Gregory’s addition to the Blackwell Ancient History series is up to date and emphasises the Roman connection beautifully. Ostrogorsky’s ‘History of the Byzantine State’ is old but remains a classic.

Of course if you want to physically experience Byzantium, head to your nearest Orthodox church.