by Anthony Kaldellis
Harvard University Press
«In modern languages, the term empire follows the adjective Byzantine with the same ease off the tongue that democracy follows Athenian. But the parallel ends at that superficial level, and the problems begin. For the ancient Athenians really did call themselves Athenians, and they called their state a democracy. When they wanted to refer to their power (or “empire”) over non-Athenians, they called it their hegemony or tyranny. The Byzantines, however, did not call themselves Byzantines and did not call their state an empire. Instead, they consistently called themselves Romans, and they called their state variously the monarchy, polity, power, or public affairs “of the Romans.” They also had a proper name for their state, Romanía (i.e., Romanland), which is absent from most modern discussions. It is debatable which—if any—of these terms might have meant “empire” and in what context. This problem of terminology, moreover, hides a deeper historical one: Does the primary evidence establish whether or to what degree Byzantium actually was an empire? We call it that all the time, but it has never actually been proven or even systematically studied, and here is why.
Let us begin with empire. […] empires are by definition multiethnic, taking a broad view of ethnicity. Byzantium too is often called multiethnic, largely on the grounds that it was an empire. However, both the premise and conclusion are premature. Even though we are now experiencing an “imperial turn” in the study of history, modern theories and definitions of empire have not been systematically applied to Byzantium, where the term is used as if it were self-evident, carried on by the momentum of lingering medieval taxonomies. The Byzantine emperors and their western counterparts famously squabbled over who had the rights to the Roman imperial title, and they quibbled over how exactly their imperator or basileus was superior to other kings, earning him the label “emperor” in modern discussions. We can here dispense with this arcane and esoteric philology of titles. Such hoary antiquarian notions buttress conventional terminology and exclude Byzantium from the comparative discussion of empires that is now flourishing.
A proper study of empire in the case of Byzantium, as the present book aspires to be, requires that we understand who the ruling group was — these “Romans” of Byzantium — and how they were constituted as a group, who the ruled were, and how their relationship was configured within “the polity [etc.] of the Romans.” This, in turn, requires a direct engagement with the problem of ethnicity, which is abundantly attested in the primary sources but rarely (in fact, almost never) discussed in scholarship on Byzantium. Book and article titles that combine ethnicity and Byzantium are virtually nonexistent. Nor are modern theories of ethnicity used much in them, with the result that in some quarters nineteenth-century notions of fixed “race” still circulate. The study of Byzantium as an empire is, therefore, blocked by the field’s refusal to engage critically and directly with ethnicity.
Why, then, is ethnicity such a problem for Byzantine Studies at a time when it is energetically being discussed and debated in most other disciplines of premodern historical research? The difficulty, in fact, stems not from all the ethnic groups that formed part of Romanía at any given time, but from only one of them, the Romans, who encompassed the majority of the population. Scholars have no difficulty identifying others, who formed larger or smaller minorities, by name (Slavs, Jews, Armenians, Arabs, Franks, foreign mercenaries, and the like). This is justifiable, for they appear in the sources as different from the dominant Roman group and as subject to various policies of assimilation, distinction, or discrimination. However, I note two peculiarities in how these other groups are treated in the scholarship. First, they are usually discussed individually and not as part of a general mapping and articulation of how the nondominant ethnic groups were governed by the ruling one (the Romans). Historians interested in Jews in Byzantium work only on them, and likewise for Armenians, Lombards, and so on. No historian has tried to map all the ethnic groups that existed in the empire. There is much talk of multiethnicity, of the “variety of ethnicities, languages, and religions” that coexisted in the empire, but there is no standard study that backs this talk up with an “ethnic inventory” that weighs the relative presence of each group in the mix.
Second, only the minority ethnic groups in Byzantium are recognized by historians, never the majority. This is illogical because the boundary between a minority ethnicity and the majority must, by definition, be an ethnic boundary, meaning that the majority group was also bounded ethnically. If we follow the sources, moreover, we see that the majority clearly defined itself as Roman in a multiplicity of discursive, social, and political sites. Yet in most scholarship this majority remains opaque behind the invented term Byzantine. This term, in turn, creates fundamental confusions: Does “Byzantine” encompass all subjects of the “Byzantine empire” or only the (otherwise unnamed) majority from whom the (named) minorities were ethnically differentiated? Books vary in their usage. No clarity has emerged, and little effort has been made to seek it. This reticence is strange.
There is a reason behind it, which we need to take by the horns. As an ideological construct in the western imagination, “Byzantium” was shorn of its Roman identity already in medieval times. The dominant conceit in the medieval West was that the majority population of the eastern empire were not Romans as they claimed but rather “Greeks.” This at least recognized that they had an ethnic identity, even if it was mislabeled for political purposes. This tradition of Roman denialism then passed directly from medieval prejudice into modern scholarship, where it continues to fester. In the nineteenth century, moreover, these medieval “Greeks” were stripped of ethnicity and became deracinated “Byzantines.” Roman denialism is today one of the pillars of Byzantine Studies. Whereas visitors from outside the field can easily see that the primary sources speak clearly of a Roman ethnicity, most experts within the field continue to deny the obvious, sometimes zealously, asserting various pretexts, denials, and risible arguments by which to assert that the Byzantines were not “really” the Romans that they claimed to be. In some scenarios, “Roman” was allegedly just an empty label, a relic of past imperial glory or crusty antiquarianism; or it was a hollow piece of political propaganda; or an act of deception performed by a few elites for some reason; or a meaningless claim made by a population that was deluding itself; or it was equivalent to “Orthodoxy”; or any alternative that might avoid the ethnic implications that stare us in the face through so many sources, genres, and contexts, both social and geographical. The modern reading of “Byzantine identity” as religious, and even metaphysical, makes sense only after it had been stripped of its Romanness by self-interested western medieval powers and then stripped of its distorted alter ego, Greek ethnicity, by scholars in the nineteenth century.
As they say in Greece, we have to pull the snake out of this hole. We have to come to terms with the fact that the Byzantines were what they claimed to be, Romans, in ways that were simultaneously (and comprehensively) legal, ethnic, and political. That Romanness is the great taboo, the inconvenient truth, that has held us back in a state of perpetual cognitive dissonance. There is now simply no theoretical justification left for outright denying the ethnicity of a society and imposing upon it an incoherent medley of invented alternatives to accompany the invented label (“Byzantium”) that we have also foisted upon it. Another way of saying this is that we have to align our field with the practice adopted almost universally by the social sciences and humanities during the twentieth century, namely to study identity through the claims and narratives made by the culture in question. Otherwise, we are not understanding who they thought they were and the choices that they made but devising narratives that suit our politics and preconceptions. After we remove this blockage, the path opens for studying ethnicity in Byzantium in a way that is no longer limited to the minorities but can encompass the majority as well. And then we will finally be able to study empire in a rigorous way, because if we cannot ask basic ethnic questions—Who were these self-professed Romans and how did they differ from others?—we cannot answer the basic issue of empire—How did they govern non-Romans? Thus, we can properly constitute the study of Byzantium as an empire.
The plan and argument of the book are as follows. Chapter 1 offers a critique of Roman denialism, from its origins in the late eighth century down to today. Chapters 2 and 3 argue that the Romans of Byzantium were, and knew that they were, an ethnic group. This opens the door, in the second part of the book, to analyze relations between Romans and non-Romans. The case made here for a Roman ethnicity in the middle Byzantine period does not, however, explain how such a thing emerged from the earlier period of Roman rule over Greece and Asia Minor. Roman ethnogenesis in the late antique east must be examined separately, though the argument made here anchors such a study in its end result. Chapter 4 tackles a strategy of imperial rule, namely the acculturation, assimilation, and eventual absorption of foreign groups into the Roman people. This was a way of effectively eliminating foreign ethnicities in the body politic. How were ethnically foreign groups, such as Slavs, Muslims, and Armenians, made into Romans? Chapter 5 examines closely the case of the Armenians in Byzantium, rejecting outdated racial notions that flourish only because “Roman” has been effaced as a viable option. Finally, Chapters 6 and 7 provide an ethnic inventory of the empire at two moments in its history, the early tenth century and mid-eleventh century, respectively. These ascertain whether and to what degree Byzantium was multiethnic and what strategies of distinction shaped its rule over minority populations. As we will see, Byzantium sometimes veered close to being a homogeneous national state, with a vast majority of Romans and small ethnic minorities in the provinces (e.g., in 930 ad), whereas at other times, after a phase of conquests, it veered nearer to being a true empire, the hegemony of Romans over many non-Romans (e.g., by 1050). Sometimes Byzantium was an empire and sometimes not. This requires detailed empirical study for each period using consistent definitions for ethnicity and empire. This book aims to provide both working definitions and empirical evidence.
A Note on the Term Byzantium
It is well known that the term Byzantium is a modern label for the eastern Roman empire and its people, most of whom called themselves Romans. It is less well known that this term is only the most recent in a series of invented names that the West has devised during the last thousand years precisely in order to avoid using any Roman label in connection with the eastern empire and its people. This book exposes the politics of these invented labels and the historical misunderstandings that result from them. For example, the label “Byzantine” obscures the difference between imperial subjects who were ethnically Roman and those who were not, making it impossible for us to study ethnicity, which in turn makes it impossible to study this state as an empire. Why then, I am often asked, do I still use the term Byzantium? The term is still the internationally recognized and conventional name of a specific and still fairly coherent academic discipline: Byzantine Studies. I am a member of that field and address it as such with a contribution to an ongoing debate. Also, we will not solve this problem by making a word taboo. It is better to improve our understanding of the historical reality that lay behind the words that we (fallibly) use. Once we get the substance right, we can then reassess these labels. As noted above, “republic” and “empire” are conventional labels for previous phases of Roman history that were not used that way by the Romans themselves, and this results in more misunderstandings. In the short term, it is possible to retain the label “Byzantium” as a general term for the field and the civilization as a whole, for example in the titles of our books and articles, while referring inside them to Romans and Romanía.»