What Do We Get Wrong About the Byzantine Empire?

Four historians evaluate perceptions of Rome’s eastern successor beyond the piety, icons, bureaucracy and gold of Byzantium.

Gold medallion with Saint Paul from a Byzantine icon frame, c. 1100. Metropolitan Museum of Art. Public Domain.

‘The “Byzantines” were no less Roman than Caesar or Hadrian’

Anthony Kaldellis is author of The New Roman Empire: A History of Byzantium (Oxford University Press, 2024)

The first thing we get wrong is that we use made-up terms. ‘Byzantium’ and ‘the Byzantines’ were invented by western European scholars to deny the identity of this state and its people, who were Roman, no less so than Caesar and Hadrian. But this is now widely recognised, so I will move on.

The next biggest mistake we make concerns the nature of the east Roman state and its relationship with its subjects. For too long, this empire was seen as an example of ‘oriental despotism’, an oppressive tyranny that stripped its subjects of freedom, rights and dignity, forcing them to become servile flatterers or peasants who were bled dry by crushing taxation. In the later 20th century, historians rejected this caricature, but the picture they put in its place – that of a state which did little more than tax its subjects from a distance for the benefit of a few cynical ‘elites’ – is just as wrong. The truth is much more interesting and helps to explain how this state managed to survive over a thousand of the most dangerous years of history while rival empires were collapsing around it.

The east Roman state cultivated a relationship of responsiveness and accountability towards its subjects. Emperors routinely announced that tax revenues would be used for the common good and public interest, not for private advantage. They made good on this by spending most of their money on a pan-Roman army for the defence of all provinces. Furthermore, they welcomed petitions and appeals from their subjects on matters legal and fiscal – and answered them. They issued laws that enabled those subjects to bring formal complaints against the abuses of officials. Emperors presented themselves as protectors of the weak and poor against the oppression of ‘the powerful’. Overall, I believe they persuaded their subjects of their sincerity. As a result, subjects paid taxes, generally followed the law, and did not seek to break away from central control. By premodern standards, Romanía (its real name) was a highly accountable, responsive – and therefore resilient – state.

‘Byzantine historians are all too aware of its baggage’

Averil Cameron is President of the Society for the Promotion of Byzantine Studies

Byzantium? Ah, yes – bureaucratic, unclassical and unoriginal. No Renaissance or Reformation, absent from western European heritage, over-religious but not Protestant or Roman Catholic – and, of course, doomed to fall. 

But also fascinating – all those lovely icons, exotic because Orthodox (even if mostly misunderstood), eastern and mysterious (think of Yeats’ ‘golden smithies of the Emperor’) or over-familiar (Justinian and Theodora in Ravenna), theatrical (Sarah Bernhardt as Theodora), an inspiration for fiction (Graves’ Count Belisarius) and currently a magnet for gamers, military buffs and conspiracy theorists.

There’s a lot to unpick. Gibbon wrote of seven centuries of decline after the sixth century, and of a long line of weak ‘Greek’ emperors, a prejudice perhaps reinforced for some by an awareness of the idea that Moscow is the ‘Third Rome’, or that Putin lays claim to Byzantium and its history. Byzantine historians are all too aware of this baggage. They know that ignoring it and writing only for their peers will condemn the subject to its small niche, the preserve of only a few. The search for better strategies is therefore imperative. Can Byzantium be made to seem more familiar, less bureaucratic, more creative and less of a backwater – normalised, in fact? Perhaps those Byzantine editors of classical texts were not so stupid, and perhaps all that ceremonial pomp was deceptive (a thought prompted by the ostentatious displays at our own recent royal funeral and coronation). The current fashion for the term ‘Roman’ rather than ‘Byzantine’ is simply a further move in the quest to rescue Byzantium from prejudice (though having to add ‘Eastern’ hints at an underlying uncertainty) and aims to deal with the uncomfortable prominence of religion. 

A different and better strategy would be to raise consciousness, acknowledge the problem and confront it full-on. Byzantium was part of the entangled histories of late antiquity and the medieval and early modern periods. Were that to be recognised it might finally achieve the place in our consciousness that it richly deserves.

‘The veneer of “Greekness” can disguise the empire’s diversity’

Mirela Ivanova is Lecturer in Medieval History at the University of Sheffield

The east Roman Empire we refer to as Byzantium is often seen as the ‘empire of the Greeks’ – certainly after the reign of the sixth-century emperor Justinian, the last emperor to be a native Latin speaker. From the seventh century onwards Greek became the language of Byzantine administration and the territories of the eastern Mediterranean became the imperial heartlands. 

But this veneer of ‘Greekness’ can disguise the fact that the empire was profoundly ethnically and linguistically diverse. This was certainly the case at the frontiers and margins: Byzantine Egyptians spoke and wrote in Coptic; Byzantines of the Holy Land in Syriac and, later, Arabic; Byzantines of the Caucasus in Armenian, Georgian and Albanian; Byzantines in the Balkans in Slavonic and Romance. Such diversity was not necessarily a cause for concern. Unlike the Catholic Church, the Orthodox Church was not bothered by liturgy being celebrated in different languages.

The only surviving Byzantine epic, a verse text recorded in the 12th century, tells the story of the adventures of Basil, also known as Digenis Akrites, the son of a Muslim emir and a Byzantine noblewoman, who roams the Byzantine-Arab frontier. His life continues to be celebrated in folk songs today. His epithet means ‘the bi-racial man of the borderlands’.

But it wasn’t just the periphery that experienced such heterogeneity. Although probably composed as an oral poem in the frontier-zone, Digenis Akrites was recorded in Constantinople. The imperial court took interest in this. Emperor Manuel I Komnenos (1143-80) is even referred to as a ‘new Akrites’ in a panegyric poem dedicated to him. Meanwhile the 12th-century Byzantine intellectual John Tzetzes (probably of a mixed Georgian origin himself) opens his Theogony (an account of the genealogy of the Greek gods) by bragging about his language skills. He claims he can greet people on the streets of Constantinople in Scythian (Turkic, probably Cuman), Persian (probably Seljuq), Latin, Alan (probably Old Ossetian), Slavonic, Hebrew and Arabic. ‘You will find me to be a Scythian among Scythians, a Latin among Latins, and among all other ethnicities being like one of their race’, he writes. Tzetzes saw himself as a citizen of the world, and all the world was Byzantium.

‘We should focus on what the Byzantines called “thyrathen”’ 

Dionysios Stathakopoulos is Assistant Professor of Byzantine History at the University of Cyprus

What do we get wrong about the Byzantine Empire? Where to begin? Despite a huge number of publications on the state, its history and culture, and impressive attendances at exhibitions devoted to it around the world, the popular understanding of Byzantium is skewed towards the religious sphere. To some extent, this is the result of preservation: most of the buildings, works of art and a large proportion of the texts that survive from Byzantium have religious themes. 

This essentialist identification of the state with the Church does not tell the whole story, but seems crucial to perceptions of the Byzantine Empire. For the Balkan nations that emerged from the Ottoman Empire (which conquered Byzantium, occupied its geographical position and reused its capital), the Orthodox Church (and its Byzantine roots) became one of the most powerful and enduring agents of identity during the Ottoman centuries. For western European and American audiences (at whom many publications and exhibitions are aimed) the religious hue of commercialised Byzantium takes a different form, standing for transcendence, spirituality and luxury, an ancient, exotic, ‘Other’, which indirectly emphasises the superiority of the West as rational, unfrivolous and modern. 

What can we do to change this perception, to counterbalance the mental image of the ever-praying Byzantines? I advocate focusing on what the Byzantines called ‘thyrathen’, which means outside the (Church) door, or what is secular. The playful imitations and allusions to antiquity on silk, ivory, glass, silverware and illuminated manuscripts; the vast but little-known collections of scientific literature (on medicine, astronomy, philosophy and much more); the volumes and volumes of ornate prose and poetry devoted to entirely non-religious subjects including friendship, hunting, satire and romance, proving that the Byzantines also exercised, laughed and liked to think about sex (in case you were wondering). And let’s not forget Greek fire, a Byzantine weapon so powerful that it appears in the Game of Thrones universe. A recalibration of our perception of Byzantium is long overdue.