Book Review: Romanland: Ethnicity and Empire in Byzantium


by Anthony Kaldellis

Cambridge, Ma.: Belknap Pres of the Harvard University Press, 2019. Pp. xviii, 374. Maps, notes, biblio., index. $45.00. ISBN: 0674986512

The Byzantine Nation

‘Of that Byzantine Empire the universal verdict of history is that it constitutes, without a single exception, the most thoroughly base and despicable form that civilization has yet assumed….The history of the Empire is a monotonous story of the intrigues of priests, eunuchs and women, of poisonings, of conspiracies, of uniform ingratitude, of perpetual fratricides.’

W.E.H. Lecky’s History of European Morals (1869) expressed the view of most Victorians about the empire of the medieval “Greeks,” a decadent, effeminate, treacherous, hopelessly corrupt “race” unworthy of the Glory that was Greece and the Grandeur that was Rome.

Even the dictionary definition of “Byzantine” reflects sneering disdain for a civil service system that lasted over a thousand years:

‘(of a system or situation) excessively complicated, and typically involving a great deal of administrative detail.’

When the Emperor Constantine I moved his capital to the strategically located ancient Greek town of Byzantium in 330 CE, he modestly gave it his own name: “Constantinopolis.” Little did he know that centuries later, European antiquarians would describe his remarkably durable Eastern Roman Empire using that old Greek name: “Byzantine.”

Describing the so-called Holy Roman Empire (c. 962-1806), French philosopher Voltaire (1694-1778) noted that it was "neither holy, nor Roman, nor an empire." A more accurate description might be the “mostly Catholic German federation.”

In this book, Anthony Kaldellis (Professor and Chairman of the Classics Department at The Ohio State University) argues persuasively that the so-called Byzantine Empire (c. 491-1453) was neither Byzantine nor an empire; a more accurate description might be the “Roman nation.” Systematic denial of the Roman identity of the Byzantine people has served a variety of different objectives including Western religious and political supremacy, and Balkan ethnic nationalism.

By about the year 800, Latin was a dead language in this Greek-speaking land. Common folk spoke koine, the Greek dialect of the New Testament. The educated elite wrote in “Attic”, the prestigious, difficult Athenian dialect of Socrates and Xenophon. But the identity of these people was Roman: they called their country “Romanía” (ro-ma-NEE-ya, stressing the next-to-last vowel) and their language Romeika.

‘Byzantine writers called Latin their “ancestral language” which implies that they viewed the ancient Romans as their own ancestors. By contrast, when they talked about the ancient Greeks…they referred to them in a distant way, as a people of the ancient world who were no longer around in the present, the way we might talk about the ancient Egyptians….’ (Kaldellis, p. 71)

The concept of “empire” normally involves a dominant ethnic, language or religious group ruling over conquered subordinate groups; for example the Anglo-Saxons of the British Empire, who divided and ruled many Asian and African peoples (c.1583- c. 1960.) Kaldellis shows that this was almost never the case with the Byzantines. There were Armenian, Slavic, Persian and other minorities within Roman territory, but they usually assimilated within a few generations (Jews were a notable exception), and they lived under the same Roman law.

For many readers, the most controversial part of Romanland will be the lucid and richly documented chapter that debunks the pervasive myth that much of the Byzantine elite had “Armenian blood.” Kaldellis shows how this claim is often based on flimsy or non-existent evidence, such as personal names (often from Iranian roots) that were common in Armenia.

Romanland offers a bold challenge to the narrow, insular and rather snobbish academic community of Byzantine studies, which needs to broaden its perspective and take account of current developments in social theory. It is refreshing to see an established scholar willing to passionately defy the entrenched traditions of his field. Romanland will be of interest to anyone who cares deeply about this endlessly fascinating and much-neglected part of human history.

--Mike Markowitz

Note: Romanland is also available in several e-editions


Our Reviewer: Mike Markowitz is an historian and wargame designer. He writes a monthly column for CoinWorld and is a member of the ADBC (Association of Dedicated Byzantine Collectors). He has previously reviewed To Train the Fleet for War: The U.S. Navy Fleet Problems, 1923-1940, The Grand Strategy of the Byzantine Empire, The Age of the Dromon: The Byzantine Navy, ca. 500-1204, Military Saints in Byzantium and Rus, 900-1200, Heroes and Romans in Twelfth-Century Byzantium: The Material for History of Nikephoros Bryennios, The Power Game in Byzantium: Antonina and the Empress Theodora, Siege Warfare and Military Organization in the Successor States (400-800 AD), D-Day Encyclopedia: Everything You Want to Know About the Normandy Invasion, Fighting to the End: The Pakistan Army's Way of War, Loyal Sons: Jews in the German Army in the Great War, Holocaust versus Wehrmacht: How Hitler's "Final Solution" Undermined the German War Effort, Governments-in-Exile and the Jews During the Second World War, and Constantine XI Dragaš Palaeologus.

StrategyPage reviews are published in cooperation with The New York Military Affairs Symposium



Reviewer: Mike Markowitz   

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