Byzantine Greeks

Byzantine Greeks

Byzantine Greeks or Byzantines or Romaioi, is a conventional term used by modern historians to refer to the medieval Greek or Hellenized citizens of the Byzantine Empire, centered mainly in Constantinople, the southern Balkans, the Greek islands, Asia Minor (modern Turkey) and the large urban centres of the Near East and Northern Egypt. In systems of historiography such as Arnold J. Toynbee's, where Byzantium is defined as a civilisation rather than a state, the term "Byzantine Greek" is restricted to the inhabitants of the Byzantine Empire, while "Byzantine" can refer to any medieval state of the Orthodox faith (such as Moscovite Russia). [Cyril A. Mango. "Oxford History of Byzantium".] The terms "Byzantine Empire" and "Byzantine Greeks" were introduced in the English-speaking literature by Sir George Finlay in 1851, in his "History of Greece, from its Conquest by the Crusaders to its Conquest by the Turks".

During most of the Middle Ages the Byzantine Greeks identified themselves as "Romans" (Rhomaioi, meaning citizens of the Roman Empire), a term which in the Greek language had become synonymous to "Christian Greek", though in Latin it never lost its original meaning. [Steven Runciman. "The Great Church in Captivity", p. 301.] The ancient name "Hellene" was in popular use synonymous to a pagan, and was revived as an ethnonym only during the Empire's late period. While in the West the term Roman acquired a new meaning in connection with the church and the bishop of Rome the Greek form Romaioi remained attached to the Greeks of the Eastern Empire. [Encyclopedia Britannica. "History of Europe: The Romans", 2008, O.Ed.]

Byzantine Greek language

Since as early as the Hellenistic era, Greek had been the lingua franca of the Eastern Mediterranean, spoken natively in the southern Balkans, the Greek islands, Asia Minor and the ancient and Hellenistic Greek colonies of Western Asia and Northern Africa. This continued after Roman expansion in the region. Latin was also introduced by Roman administration but nearly all significant literature was written in Greek. [Simon Goldhill. "Being Greek Under Rome: Cultural Identity, the Second Sophistic and the Development of Empire".] After the reforms of Constantine the Great the ancient Greek city of Byzantium became Constantinople and the "Greek East" gradually evolved into a separate political and cultural entity, having Greek as its main language, while Latin was used as an official language of administration. However Latin had never been a spoken language in the East, and it was gradually displaced by Greek in all sectors. The evolution from the Eastern Roman into the Byzantine Empire, properly speaking, starts with the reign of Heraclius, when Greek replaced Latin completely in law and administration. At the same time the Empire lost most of its non-Greek speaking territories in the near East and Africa, along with its second largest city, Alexandria.

The main vernacular language of the Eastern or Byzantine Empire had been Medieval Greek, spoken natively in Constantinople and the largest part of the empire. Spoken Medieval Greek was an evolution of Koine Greek, which was the popular language of the Hellenistic world, and an intermediary stage between ancient and Modern Greek. Written Greek varied considerably, embracing an archaising "high" style which imitated classical Attic, and a moderate "middle" style continuing the tradition of written Koine. Relatively few written specimens of the spoken or "low" variety of the vernacular language have been preserved. The resulting diglossia of the Greek-speaking world (which had already started in ancient Greece) continued under Ottoman rule and persisted in the modern Greek state until 1976 - although Atticist Greek remains the official language of the Greek Orthodox Church. As shown in the poems of Ptochoprodromos, an early stage of Modern Greek had already been shaped by the 12th century AD and possibly earlier. Vernacular Greek continued to be known as "Romaic" up until the 20th century.

A Greco-Roman heritage

The Byzantine Empire can be defined as "the Christianised Roman empire of the Greek nation" due to the linguistic, cultural, and demographic dominance of Medieval Greek. [Winnifrith, Tom and Murray, Penelope. Greece Old and New. Macmillan, 1983, ISBN 0333278364, p. 113. "For August Heisenberg the Byzantine empire was 'the Christianised Roman empire of the Greek nation'."] [Moravcsik, Gyula. Byzantium and the Magyars. Hakkert, 1970, pp. 11-12.] [Lapidge, Michael. "The Blackwell Encyclopaedia of Anglo-Saxon England". Blackwell Publishing, 1998, ISBN 0631224920, p. 79. "Byzantium is the name given to the eastern, largely Greek speaking, part of the Roman empire, from the founding of Constantinople in 325 (and especially from the effective division of the empire into western/Latin-speaking and eastern/Greek-speaking under Honorius in 395) until the fall of Constantinople to the Turks in 1453."] [ [ Byzantine Empire - Encarta © 1993-2007 Microsoft Corporation. All Rights Reserved] . "Its predominant language was Greek, although some of its subjects spoke Latin, Coptic, Syriac, Armenian, and other local languages during its long (330-1453) history."] [ [ Byzantine Empire - Columbia Encyclopedia] : "Greek was the prevalent language, but Latin long continued in official use." The Columbia Encyclopedia, Sixth Edition Copyright© 2004, Columbia University Press. Licensed from Lernout & Hauspie Speech Products N.V. All rights reserved.]

From an evolutionary standpoint, it was a multi-ethnic empire that emerged as a Christian empire, soon comprised the Hellenized empire of the East and ended its thousand-year history, in 1453, as a Greek Orthodox state: an empire that became a nation, almost by the modern meaning of the word. [Helene Ahrweiler. "Les Europeens". Herman (Paris), 2000, p. 150.] The presence of a distinctive and historically rich literary culture was also hugely important in the division between 'Greek' East and 'Latin' West and thus the formation of a new identity, albeit by the same name. [Fergus Miller. "Rome, The Greek World and the East, Volume 2: Government, Society and Culture in the Roman Empire", p. 297.]

Byzantines ruled a multi-ethnic empire where the Hellenic element was predominant, especially in the later period.H. Ahrweiler and A.E. Laiou, eds., "Studies on the internal diaspora of the Byzantine Empire" (Washington, 1998), vii.] Like many other Imperial rulers of the time, Byzantines claimed the continuation of the mighty Roman Empire and indirectly laid claim to all Christian lands. The Latin west, for the most part, ignored such Byzantine claims and viewed the "Empire of the Greeks" as a schismatic Christian state. Some Byzantine Greek intellectuals responded by claiming for themselves the glories of ancient Hellas. A. Cameron argues that ethnicity is a modern concept, which medieval peoples would not have recognized, and that the inhabitants of the Byzantine Empire were not a 'people' in any ethnic sense. [A. Cameron, "The Byzantines". Oxford, 2006, p. 8.] Demetrios J. Constantelos agrees that the Byzantine Greeks emphasized the value of their culture and language rather than racial characteristics in order to identify themselves. However, Constantelos finds that the overwhelming majority of "Byzantines" regarded the ancient Greeks as their ancestors. Moreover, they possessed an ethnic identity in which they referred to themselves as "Graikoi" (Γραικοί). [ [ Constantelos, Demetrios J. "Christian Hellenism and How the Byzantines Saw Themselves." The National Herald. 12 September 2004.] ] Therefore, the "Byzantines" self-identified as Roman citizens of Greek descent, culture, and language who adhered to Orthodox Christianity.

The cultures of the Latin West and the Greek East were split due to religious issues regarding recognition of the Pope, procession of the Holy Ghost, purgatory, clerical celibacy, etc. If these questions were ever resolved, then the two cultures would be reunited in a new "Romanity."

Yet, the pretence of Romanity began to wear thin in the age of the Crusades. The result of the Battle of Manzikert was to make a largely Greek monarchy of what had been an ecumenical Empire. After that battle the non-Greek speaking regions of central Anatolia were permanently lost to the Seljuk Turks, and the map of the Byzantine Empire coincided to a very large extent with the areas of Greek colonisation in the ancient world, and also with those areas where speakers of the modern language were to be found up until the population exchanges of the early 20th century. The markers of identity (spoken language and state) that were to become a fundamental tenet of nineteenth-century nationalism throughout Europe became, by accident, a reality during a formative period of medieval Greek history.Roderick Beaton. "The Medieval Greek Romance". Cambridge, 1999, p. 9.]

In other words, the Byzantines of the 12th century had something very like a national identity, in the modern sense of the term, foisted on them. An identity, moreover, which Greek-speakers in later centuries never quite lost sight of, and which in the long run proved more enduring than the older Byzantine model of universal empire that was maintained at an official level until 1453.

Common Byzantine self-perception

Within Byzantium, a Greek or Hellenized citizen of the Byzantine empire was generally called a Polytonic|Ρωμαῖος ("Rhōmaios"), which was first of all defined in opposition to a foreigner, Polytonic|ἐθνικός ("ethnikos").H. Ahrweiler, "Byzantine concepts of the foreigner: the case of the nomads," in H. Ahrweiler and A.E. Laiou, eds., "Studies on the internal diaspora of the Byzantine Empire" (Washington, 1998), pp. 2-3.] The Byzantine Greek perception of "Romanity" was different from that of their contemporaries. "Romaic" had been the name of the vulgar Greek language, as opposed to "Hellenic", its literary form. "Greek" (Γραικός) had been merged with "Romaic" (Ρωμιός), to mean a Greek-speaking (and ethnic Greek) Orthodox Christian. There was always a question of indifference or neglect of everything not Greek, therefore "barbarian". At the same time, the popular definition of "Hellene" (Έλλην, which is today a synonym of 'Greek'), was that of a pagan. Yet most Byzantine emperors would list neither Augustus nor Pericles among their ancestors, but Constantine the Great and Justinian, and the Christian emperors of Constantinople.Krijnie Ciggaar. "Western Travellers to Constantinople: the West and Byzantium, 962-1204, cultural and political relations". Leiden, 1996, p. 14.]

In official discourse, "all inhabitants of the empire were subjects of the emperor, and therefore Romans." Thus the primary definition of "Rhōmaios" was "political or statist." In order to succeed in being a full-blown and unquestioned "Roman" it was best to be a Greek Orthodox Christian and a Greek-speaker, at least in one's public "persona". Yet the cultural uniformity which the Byzantine church and the state pursued through Orthodoxy and the Greek language was not sufficient to erase distinct identities, nor did it aim to. The Byzantines had no tradition of actively propagating their own culture or of actively combating foreign people or foreign elements in their society. The highest compliment that could be paid to a foreigner was to call him Polytonic|ἀνδρεῖος Ρωμαιόφρων ("andreios Rhōmaiophrōn": roughly, "a Roman-minded fellow").

Often one's local (geographic) identity could outweigh one's identity as a "Rhōmaios". The terms Polytonic|ξένος ("xenos") and Polytonic|ἐξωτικός ("exōtikos") denoted "people foreign to the local population," regardless of whether they were from abroad or from elsewhere within the empire. "When a person was away from home he was a stranger and was often treated with suspicion. A monk from western Asia Minor who joined a monastery in Pontus was 'disparaged and mistreated by everyone as a stranger'. The corollary to regional solidarity was regional hostility." [C. Mango. "Byzantium: the empire of new Rome". New York, 1980, Chapter 1.]

Revival of ethnicity

Beginning in the twelfth century, certain Byzantine Greek intellectuals began to use the ancient Greek ethnonym Polytonic|Ἕλλην ("Hellēn"-Hellenic: in popular use a "pagan") in order to describe Byzantine civilisation. [C. Mango, "Byzantinism and romantic hellenism," "Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes", 28 (1965), p. 33.] The use of the term accelerated following the Greco-Latin clashes of the 12th century, such as the massacre of all foreigners in Constantinople in 1182, and especially the occupation of Constantinople by the Crusaders in 1204.Donald Nicol. "The last centuries of Byzantium, 1261-1453". Cambridge, 1993.]

During that period, Theodore Lascaris tried to revive Hellenic tradition by fostering the study of philosophy, for in his opinion there was a danger that 'Philosophy' might abandon the Greeks and seek refuge among the Latins. Philosophy and Classical Greek studies had always been popular in Byzantium but never in such a patriotic context. In a letter to Pope Gregory IX, the Byzantine Emperor John Vatatzes claimed to have received the gift of royalty from Constantine the Great, and put emphasis on his 'Hellenic' descent, exalting the wisdom of the Greek people. He was presenting 'Hellenic' culture as an integral part of the Byzantine polity in defiance of Latin claims. Byzantine Greeks had always felt superior for being the inheritors of a more ancient civilisation, but such ethnic identifications had not been popular up until then.Michael Angold. "Church and society in Byzantium under the Comneni: 1081-1261". Cambridge, 1995, p. 528.] Hence in the context of increasing Venetian and Genoese power in the eastern Mediterranean, "Hellēnic" patriotism took deeper root among the Byzantine elite, on account of a desire to distinguish themselves from the Latin West, [P. Speck. "Badly-ordered thoughts on Philhellenism," in S. Takács, ed., "Understanding Byzantium: studies in Byzantine historical sources" (Aldershot, 2003), pp. 280-281.] and to lay legitimate claims to Greek-speaking lands.

However, Hellenic patriotism went even further, attempting to set boundaries between the various Greek royal families who laid competing claims to the throne of Constantinople (then under Latin rule). The theory that Constantine the Great had moved the Imperial capital to a Greek city for "racial" reasons (allegedly wishing to transfer Roman rule to the Greeks), gave birth to a new question: which of the Byzantine states was the "most Greek", and therefore worthy of ruling the "Roman Empire"? With that in mind, George Acropolites, a Byzantine historian of the Nicaean Empire, fixed the Pindos mountain chain as the boundary between Epirus and what Nicaean Greeks called 'our Hellenic land', thus disqualifying the Greeks of the Despotate of Epirus as potential Roman rulers.

Claims to Hellenic ethnicity were continued and augmented throughout the Palaiologan dynasty. The scholar, teacher and translator, John Argyropoulos addressed John VIII Palaiologos as ‘Sun King of Hellas’ and urged the last Emperor, Constantine XI, to proclaim himself ‘King of the Hellenes’. During the same period, the neo-platonic philosopher George Gemistos Plethon boasted "We are Hellenes by race and culture," and proposed a re-born Byzantine Empire following a utopian Hellenic system of government centered in Mystras. ["Woodhouse 1986, 109; Sp. Lambros, "Argyropouleia", Athens 1910, 7,29".]

Western perception

In the eyes of the West, Byzantines were never the inheritors of the Roman Empire. Byzantium was rather perceived to be a corrupted continuation of ancient Greece, and was officially known for most of its history as the "Empire of the Greeks" or "Kingdom of Greece". Such denials of Byzantium's Roman heritage and ecumenical rights would instigate the first resentments between Greeks and Latins. Popular Western opinion is reflected in the "Translatio militiae", whose anonymous Latin author states that the Greeks had lost their courage and their learning, and therefore did not join in the war against the infidels. In another passage the Ancient Greeks are praised for their military skill and their learning, by which means the author draws a contrast with contemporary Byzantine Greeks, who were generally viewed as a non-warlike and schismatic people. ["Medieval Sourcebook: Urban II: Speech at Council of Clermont".]

A major turning point in how both sides viewed each other is perhaps the massacre of Latins in Constantinople in 1182, a major source for Western interpretations of the Byzantines, particularly during this event is William of Tyre, a historian of the Crusades. He described the "Greek nation" as a "a brood of vipers, like a serpent in the bosom or a mouse in the wardrobe evilly requite their guests," highlighting the strained relations between both ethnic groups as a result of the Crusades and the Schism, which helped to define the modern identity of the Greek nation. [ [ Holt, Andrew. "Crusades-Encyclopedia: Massacre of Latins in Constantinople, 1182" (2005).] "It is said that more than four thousand Latins of various age, sex, and condition were delivered thus to barbarous nations for a price. In such fashion did the perfidious Greek nation, a brood of vipers, like a serpent in the bosom or a mouse in the wardrobe evilly requite their guests—those who had not deserved such treatment and were far from anticipating anything of the kind; those to whom they had given their daughters, nieces, and sisters as wives and who, by long living together, had become their friends."]


ee also

*Byzantine Empire
*History of Greece
*Byzantine Art
*Byzantine music
*Byzantine scholars in Renaissance

Further reading

*Peter Charanis. "Ethnic Changes in the Byzantine Empire in the Seventh Century", "Dumbarton Oaks Papers" 13:23-44 (1959) [ at JSTOR]

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