Where was Byzantium?

We have to try and place ourselves in the shoes of a Roman inhabitant. The concept of the Empire was not the same as ours. To us an empire is a central power governing and controlling colonies and countries that have been conquered – like the British Empire. The Empire to the Roman was not a number of countries ruled by Rome, but the civilised (after 325, Christian) world. Rome was the sentimental capital, but they had no trouble in moving the capital to New Rome ( Constantinople).

So to be a Roman was to be a citizen of the civilised world. Sometimes there were two emperors ruling side by side, that was not regarded as divisive – a good example was Romanus I and Constantine VII who governed successfully together and were not related. Also when the Empire was divided East and West, it was not regarded as two empires, but a purely administrative division of the whole Empire. This is illustrated by time when after the overthrow of the last western Emperor Romulus Augustus, Theodoric the Ostrogoth, who made himself King of Italy sent the Imperial regalia back to Emperor Zeno in Constantinople as an acknowledgement that he was simply ruling Italy in the name of the Emperor.

All through the history of the Empire, the balance of power and trade was biased towards the East, the major production was there, trade and so on. The lingua franca of the Eastern half was predominantly Greek. From southern Italy eastwards, Greek was the the major language. So Greeks from Greece itself saw themselves as Greek speaking Romans, as the people of Anatolia, Alexandria etc saw themselves. Emperor Justinian, in the sixth century was the last Latin speaking Emperor, but Latin had always been the minority language in Constantinople. “Byzantium “ was the name of the small town upon which Constantinople was built. Nineteenth century British historians liked to see the Roman Empire as an early version of the British Empire – to them it was Latin, the Greek speaking Empire in the East after the fall of the West, was foreign, exotic, Eastern, almost Russian. So they coined the term “Byzantine” and imposed it on our concepts. To The Greeks, in Anatolia and Greece itself, Roman meant Christianity and civilisation.

After the fall of Constantinople, Despot of Morea ( Greece) regarded himself as the Roman Emperor in Mistras ( very well worth a visit). Even under Turkish rule Greeks regarded themselves as Roman, so when the Greek kingdom was set up in 1834, the rulers numbered themselves after the last emperor. The last king of Greece was Constantine XIII, numbered after Constantine XI the last Emperor in 1453, when Constantinople fell to the Ottomans. This was the driving force behind the Greek attempt to take Constantinople in 1920. I’m told that some Greeks still refer to themselves as ” Romans” even today.

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