The Byzantine Gemistus Plethon.

Poemas del río Wang has a post on an interesting topic: “since when is Byzantium called Byzantium?”

The “Byzantine” Empire in reality never existed under this name, which put roots and is exclusively used in historiography. The term was coined about a century after the fall of the Roman Empire – as it was really called – by a German humanist historian, Hieronymus Wolf.

Wolf learned self-taught Greek. In 1549 he published the first translation of Demosthenes’ speeches. From 1551 he worked the Augsburg Fugger library, where he catalogued the medieval Greek manuscripts brought from Venice. In 1557 he published his main work, the Corpus Historiae Byzantinae, compiled from the Greek sources in the Augsburg library, with which he unintentionally rewrote world history. When in the early 17th century the compilation of a similar summary from the surviving Constantinople sources was encouraged by Louis XIV of France, it obviously had to be based on Wolf’s work, so that Philippe Labbé, the Jesuit scholar leading the project did not even try to find a new title for the 34-volume collection: it was also published as Corpus Scriptorum Historiae Byzantinae. The scholars dealing with the late Roman Empire, centered on Constantinople, all adopted this terminology (e.g. Corpus Scriptorum Historiae Byzantinae, Bonn 1822-1897). The adjective “Byzantine”, which during the Enlightenment spread worldwide, especially due to the writings of Montesquieu, was impossible to be detached from the (late) Roman Empire. And the adjective was also associated with an explicitly negative connotation, which was deduced from the supposed qualities of state power: courtly intrigues, complicated bureaucracy, incomprehensible and over-decorated ceremoniality and fraudulent diplomacy.

It continues with fascinating historical details and the usual gorgeous images (I spent quite a while staring at the 1422 map of Constantinople: “This is the oldest surviving map of the city, and the only one made before the Turkish conquest”), and points out that the Rimini tomb of “one of the last great Greek Neoplatonic philosophers, Georgios Gemistus Plethon” has an inscription beginning:

[The mortal remains of the Byzantine Gemistus Plethon, the greatest philosopher of his age]

[…] If we assume that the tomb inscription was not made after Wolf’s work of 1557 (and the tombstone-carver did not keep pace with the latest scientific research), then we must also assume that the term “Byzantine” already existed before 1557, as a typical Renaissance hyper-classicism (like Istropolis instead of Posonium), but it was only applied to the city, and not to the state. Wolf was probably aware of this use, and as he tried to draw a caesura between the ancient and medieval Greek literature and sources, he adopted the term “Byzantine”, which was later extended on the basis of his work to the Constantinople-centered Roman Empire.

I would quibble, however, with the post’s final sentence: “Nowadays, if anybody talks about the Roman Empire in connection with the period between the 6th and 15th century, he will shock his listeners just as much as if he used the term of Byzantine Empire in those very centuries.” For a long time now, serious scholars have talked about the Eastern Roman Empire and used the term “Byzantine” with restraint, mainly because it is so familiar; you’d have to have ignored the subject for decades to be shocked by such usage.


  1. The term Byzantium was used pretty often in contemporary Greek sources referring to the capital city of Constantinople and by implication to the empire as a whole.

    Obviously they didn’t intend any pejorative meaning, Byzantine authors just wanted to show off their classical erudition and emphasize traditions of ancient Greece (which they really adored)

    In a same vein, 19th century authors sometimes talked of Gaul, Britannia or Albion referring to contemporary France and Britain.

    I presume they knew very well that the countries in question were officially called French empire and United Kingdom of Great Britain

  2. Can I keep calling it Miklagarð?

  3. Mickleyard in Modern English, I would hope.

  4. J.W. Brewer says:

    Just looking at the website of Dumbarton Oaks, which probably has the highest density-per-acre of scholarship on the post-late-antiquity-eastern-roman-empire-thingamabobby in North America, if not the world, shows rather promiscuous use of the B-word and no evidence of any taboo.

    In a less scholarly context, Kennywood amusement park (near Pittsburgh) has lots of “ethnic heritage” days each year, most of which are self-explanatory like “Croatian Day” or “Greek Day.” But my favorite is “Byzantine Day,” the target audience for which I believe to be adherents of the local “Byzantine Catholic” parishes (like the one Andy Warhol attended as a boy), who are not Hellenes, but Ruthenians/Rusyns/Carpatho-Russians.

  5. shows rather promiscuous use of the B-word and no evidence of any taboo

    I certainly did not mean to imply any such taboo; I was just countering the suggestion that people these days would fall over in a dead faint if they heard the term “Roman Empire” applied to the thingamabobby.

  6. I was shocked to learn that, in the nineteenth century, there were plenty of serious historians who regarded the Holy Roman Empire as the most important institutional successor to the classical Roman Empire. For some of them at least, this mean explicit rejection of the Byzantine Empire as the natural successor state to Rome. While there are certainly legitimate reasons to question how Roman the Byzantine Empire was during the middle ages, to consider the Holy Roman Empire far more Roman seemed practically laughable to me.

  7. J.W. Brewer says:

    How can Moscow be the Third Rome if there’s no consensus about what counts as the Second Rome (i.e. sure as heck not Aix-la-Chapelle or Vienna)?

  8. There was a consensus in Moscow, at any rate. (Spoiler: it was Constantinople.)

  9. Yeah, I was shocked to see that view from western European historians. From eastern European historians, it seems practically unthinkable.

  10. You underestimate the self-absorption and self-satisfaction of Western Europeans (for whom the mysterious/barbarian/subhuman East begins wherever they place the boundaries of civilized Europe, often the Danube).

  11. (I hope it’s obvious that in saying that I do not in any way intend to diminish the self-absorption and self-satisfaction of Americans/estadounidenses.)

  12. J.W. Brewer says:

    The Danube? I learn from wikipedia that “The saying ‘The wogs begin at Calais’ (implying that everyone who is not British is a wog) appears to date from the First World War, but was popularised by George Wigg, Labour MP for Dudley, in 1949.”

  13. Konrad Adenauer, the first Western German Chancellor, is supposed to have said “Siberia begins behind the Elbe”. (He was from Cologne, so he obviously already thought of everybody East of the Rhine as barely civilized).

  14. The Danube?

    I said “often,” not “always.” The British are of course a special case, who only reluctantly consider themselves a part of Europe at all.

  15. I think the Roman Catholic Church is a better candidate than the Holy Roman Empire for the title of successor to the Western Roman Empire. That’s what Hilaire Belloc believed.

    What did Western Europeans before 1557 call the byzantine empire? What did they understand “roman empire” to mean?

  16. Didn’t the “Byzantines” refer to themselves as Romans, Ρωμαιοι? Also, I think their use of “Byzantium” to refer to their capital city probably went along with the Atticizing tendencies of many authors writing in Greek that persisted to the end of the empire and beyond, i.e., adhering (or attempting to adhere) to the language of 5th and 4th c. BCE Athenian authors.

  17. Greg Pandatshang says:

    I guess if you have a legal theory in which legitimate authority stems from the pope on behalf of Jesus, then it’s natural to treat Charlemagne and Otto I as the rightful emperors of Rome. It would be a strange attitude to hear from a protestant, though.

  18. What did Western Europeans before 1557 call the byzantine empire?

    After 1453, they called it the Turk.

  19. Greg Pandatshang says:

    P.S. Could the current bishops of Mainz and Trier, the archbishop of Cologne, the duke of Bavaria, the current top Hapsburg, the current top Wettin (take your pick), Kaiser Bill’s great-great-grandson, and Queen Elizabeth’s cousin Earnest get together whenever they feel like it and elect someone a new Emperor of Rome for the 21st century?

    A: of course not. That person would be merely king of Germany and emperor-elect until the pope also signed off on it.

  20. From what I’ve read, at some point Greeks started calling themselves ‘Romans’ exclusively (Greek language was romeiki glosa or sth like this) and Ellin(as) was only reintroduced in the 19th century after prolonged disuse.

  21. What did Western Europeans before 1557 call the byzantine empire?

    I think they most often called it the Greek Empire.

  22. He’d be King of the Romans, though I don’t think the Romans would care for it. Francis would have to confirm him as Holy Roman Emperor, and that isn’t very likely.

  23. Now, now, Francis is full of surprises.

  24. marie-lucie says:

    Thus far Francis does not seem to enjoy hobnobbing with the high and mighty of this world, let alone making them higher and mightier. Now Benedict would have been just the man.

  25. What did Western Europeans before 1557 call the byzantine empire?

    They called it Romania or Roman Empire:

    One of the titles of the Venetian doge after the 4th Crusade was Dominator quartae et dimidiae partis totius Romaniae (“Lord of a quarter and a half quarter of all of Romania”).

    The present-day Romania is something that used to be called called Rumania before WW2 and (in its core territory) Wallachia before 1866.

  26. Didn’t the “Byzantines” refer to themselves as Romans, Ρωμαιοι?

    The modern Greek language was called Romaic as late as the 19th century:

    – See the 1858 Romaic or modern Greek grammar by Evangelinus Apostolides Sophocles (published in London)

  27. Greg Pandatshang says:

    P.P.S. I never could figure the contrast or relationship between the King of Germany title and the King of the Romans title. Wikipedia sheds not much light. There were also archchancellors for Kgr. Italy and Kgr. Burgundy, which I’m not aware of as having any other vestigial existence.

  28. Sir JCass says:

    Peter Heather’s The Restoration of Rome deals with various attempts to lay claim to the legacy of the Western Empire by Theoderic the Great, Justinian and Charlemagne. I haven’t read the book but from what I can tell Heather’s point is that ultimately none of them succeeded and the real heir to the Empire in Western/Central Europe was the Roman Catholic Church.

  29. marie-lucie says:

    The modern Greek language was called Romaic as late as the 19th century

    So that’s what le romaïque was! The only place I had encountered the word before now was while reading Le comte de Monte-Cristo at age 10 or so. The mysterious count, who appears on the Paris social scene seemingly out of nowhere, sometimes appears at the Opera with an even more mysterious young woman dressed in a sort of harem costume, swathed in veils. Rumour has it that he rescued her in Janina (the actual site of a battle? a siege? a revolt?). Nobody but him can speak with her as she only speaks le romaÏque. I don’t think I had seen the word since, and I was too young to wonder about this language.

    So it was just Modern Greek (demotiki no doubt). I don’t think that “modern(e)” was used about languages in the early 19th century, even if the word actually existed.

  30. Haun Saussy says:

    In the inscription, BIZANTII (genitive of BIZANTIUS) must mean “man from Byzantium,” the city not the empire, so that’s not so remarkable.

  31. Good point.

  32. @marie-lucie: Yes, in the chapter titled “Haydée” – the young woman’s name – she addresses the count, and he replies to her, in le romaïque. Then Monte-Cristo asks Albert (his biological son, I think) if he can speak “modern Greek” and the young man admits he isn’t even good at ancient Greek. The count then orders the girl to speak Italian, regretting Albert’s ignorance of the two Greek languages, since Haydée speaks both admirably.

    Janina is Ioannina, the city in Epirus that was the capital of Ali Pasha, the Albanian warlord who was appointed by the Porte to govern the region and who eventually rebelled against the sultan in 1820. The Ottomans besieged Ioannina and seized it a year and a half later. Ali Pasha was killed and his Greek wife was taken prisoner by the Porte, but later allowed to return to the newly independent Greece.

    All that must have been common knowledge by the time Dumas started Monte-Cristo, thanks to Byron and other Romantic authors and artists. Haydée appears to be Dumas’ invention, the daughter of Ali Pasha and Kyra Vassiliki. Greek was indeed spoken at Ali Pasha’s court in Ioannina (and natively by la belle Vasiliki) so Dumas got the language right.

  33. Ellin(as) was only reintroduced in the 19th century after prolonged disuse

    Not so much disuse, as a disinclination by modern Greeks to apply the term to themselves. It was the word for ancient, and therefore pagan, Greeks, with whom they were far less identified than their Western European sponsors would have liked them to be. Similarly, it was Western influence that arranged for the capital to be in cramped, unimportant, and mostly Arvanite-speaking Athens in place of ensible Nafplio (Nauplion), an important seaport in Ottoman times and the original capital of independent Greece.

  34. Sir JCass says:

    Haydée appears to be Dumas’ invention, the daughter of Ali Pasha and Kyra Vassiliki

    Haydée’s name is obviously taken from Haidée in Byron’s Don Juan, so there’s another reference to the Greek War of Independence. Byron met the real Ali Pasha and describes him in Childe Harold, but I can’t remember much about that poem. Don Juan is great though.

  35. My father was in Greece in 1946 as part of the foreign contingent supervising the elections, and he loved Yannina — used to talk about it frequently.

    My rants on the topic of the imposition of “classical” Hellenism on the initially unwilling Greeks (Romaioi) are under the title Purity vs. History (1, 2, 3, 4).

  36. marie-lucie says:

    Merci Alexei et Sir J. I should reread the book when I have a chance.

    The volume I read was part of my father’s grandfather’s library. It was a large bound book with lots of (I think) copperplate engravings.

    I remember references to le pacha de Janina but I had no idea at the time that they were about real people and events, not fictional ones like those of the rest of the novel (except of course that I knew about Napoléon).

    I vaguely remember “Albert”, a rather uninteresting young man. Isn’t he the son of Mercédès? But he can’t be the count’s son: Edmond Dantès was shocked when someone suggested that Mercédès was his ‘mistress’ as well as his future wife, and he never saw her again until he reappeared as the count, years after she had reluctantly married one of his enemies.

    A few years ago I read an interesting book called les Trois Dumas (the general born from a slave woman and her owner, his son Alexandre Dumas père, his grandson Alexandre Dumas fils). The book gives the origin of the name “Monte Cristo” (a small island in the book, where a treasure was hidden) as that of a small island off of Haïti.

  37. Ah, so it was you who said that Nafplio and Corinth were mooted as national capitals! I remembered that but without a source, and when searching failed to find any reference to Corinth as a possible capital (as opposed to Nafplio which was the former capital), I removed it from my comment. Do you remember where you got that from?

  38. Jeez, I have no idea — it’s been a long time. Molly Mackenzie? Makriyannis? Something I’d recently been reading? I’ll keep it in mind, and if I run across it I’ll let you know.

  39. Aha, from German Wikipedia (the only one I’ve found that has more than a derisory account of the city’s history): “Zu Beginn des griechischen Unabhängigkeitskampfes war eine Zeit lang erwogen worden, Korinth zur Hauptstadt des freien hellenischen Staates zu machen.” Not a primary source, of course, and not (tsk) referenced, but at least I wasn’t making it up.

  40. @marie-lucie: You are quite right – Albert was the son of Mercédès and Fernand. He turns out a decent young man in spite of his villainous father (a cartoonish figure overall, I think, unlike de Villefort and Danglars).

    @Sir JCass: Haidee, the daughter of a Greek corsaire. Thank you. By the way, in Childe Harold Byron rhymes “Pasha” and “saw” – I’m not surprised at the second-syllable stress, only at the “shaw” sound.

  41. Eli Nelson says:

    @Alexei K.:

    Byron uses various imperfect rhymes in Don Juan, so I don’t think it’s clear that he pronounced “Pasha” with “shaw.” He also rhymes “want” with “cant,” “war” with “Trafalgar,” and “tongue” with “song” and “wrong.” However, it is interesting to learn that he rhymes “Pasha” and “saw,” since there’s another similar example where he rhymes “grandmamma” with “law.”

  42. Considering that another form of the word is bashaw /bəˈʃɔː/, it doesn’t seem at all unlikely that he used that vowel in “Pasha.”

  43. I’d suspect Persian influence in that rounded vowel. Though on the other hand, the b is a bit Arabizing.

  44. @Eli Nelson: The rhyme appears in a “lay” half-sung, half-screamed by a band of irregulars:

    Since the days of our prophet, the crescent ne’er saw
    A chief ever glorious like Ali Pasha.

    One might think literary off-rhymes don’t really belong in a song like that, but it begins with

    Tambourgi! Tambourgi! thy larum afar
    Gives hope to the valiant, and promise of war…

    And further on, there’s a “scimitar-war” rhyme as well.

  45. David Marjanović says:

    Mickleyard in Modern English, I would hope.

    How about Michel-? The OHG version mihhil has enough front vowels for that to happen.

  46. OE mycel came out mickle in Northern English varieties and muckle in Scotland, and these are the usual English and Scots spellings now insofar as the words are used at all (mostly dialectal, archaic, and poetic). The saying many a little makes a mickle ‘great aches from little toe-corns grow’ was later garbled into many a pickle makes a mickle to the still more meaningless many a mickle makes a muckle, but both mickle and muckle have always meant ‘large, great’.

  47. Stephen C. Carlson says:

    The velar in mickle suggests to me that it derives from (or was influenced) by the Old Norse cognate mikill (cf. Swedish mycket).

  48. Yes, absolutely.

  49. In Act II of Ruddigore, the song “The Great Oak Tree” has this verse:

    When she found that he was fickle,
    Was that great oak tree,
    She was in a pretty pickle,
    As she well might be –
    But his gallantries were mickle,
    For Death followed with his sickle,
    And her tears began to trickle
    For her great oak tree!

    Gilbert is clearly here interpreting mickle as ‘little’, probably based on the distorted version of the saying.

  50. Tolkien has Michel Delving and Little Delving in the Shire, and he knew his English sound laws. That makes me wonder – are there any English place names with Michel-? (Too lazy for even a little delving in the internet.)

  51. Oh yes, in Southern England it would certainly be /mɪtʃɪl/, as in Mitcheldean, a chartered market town in the Forest of Dean in Gloucestershire. Tolkien was big on native palatalization: he even pronounced the name of Hengest, one of the legendary leaders of the Saxon colonization, as [hɛndʒɪst]. But the Dwarf-town of Belegost (an Elvish name) in the Mountains of Beleriand in the First Age was rendered in Mannish languages as Mickleburg.

    Relevant civil parishes (the smallest units of local administration) in England include Mickleton in Gloucestershire, Michelmersh and Timsbury in Hampshire, Mickle Trafford in Cheshire, Micklefield in the West Riding, Mickleby in the North Riding, Mickelton historically also in the North Riding but now in administrative County Durham, and possibly Mickfield in Suffolk.

  52. Roger Micheldene, in Kingsley Amis’ One Fat Englishman, pronounces his name with a /tʃ/. (And is an awful person, even by Amis standards.)

  53. I encountered “mickle of beef” a couple nights ago while watching Chopped late at night on the Food Network. (I was stuck in a hotel, waiting to give a talk at a university early the next morning.) The mickle was a huge cut of meat, full of fat and connective tissue, which made it an especial challenge to make it part of an entree in less than half an hour.

  54. I present for your consideration Store Magleby near Copenhagen.

Speak Your Mind