I was reading J.H. Elliott’s NYRB review essay (cached) on several new histories of the conquest of Mexico when I was struck by this minatory footnote:

Both authors have difficulties not only with “empire” but also with “Aztec,” which is a highly questionable term. The inhabitants of Tenochtitlan and surrounding regions that recognized their dominance were technically Mexica, but as far as is known the Mexica, along with other peoples of central Mexico, never identified themselves as “Aztecs.” Irrespective of their geographical location and political status, each ethnic or social group referred to itself when dealing with outsiders and others as “we people here.” To avoid inconvenience and make the nature of their topic clear to nonspecialists, [Frances] Berdan and [Camilla] Townsend tend to fall back, with obvious misgiving, on “Aztec.”

I thought I pretty much knew what Aztec meant, but as Augustine said about time, “If no one asks me, I know what it is. If I wish to explain it to him who asks, I do not know.” So for the benefit of others in the same boat, here’s the thorough discussion at Wikipedia:

The Nahuatl words (aztecatl Nahuatl pronunciation: [asˈtekat͡ɬ], singular) and (aztecah Nahuatl pronunciation: [asˈtekaʔ], plural) mean “people from Aztlan”, a mythical place of origin for several ethnic groups in central Mexico. The term was not used as an endonym by Aztecs themselves, but it is found in the different migration accounts of the Mexica, where it describes the different tribes who left Aztlan together. In one account of the journey from Aztlan, Huitzilopochtli, the tutelary deity of the Mexica tribe, tells his followers on the journey that “now, no longer is your name Azteca, you are now Mexitin [Mexica]”.

In today’s usage, the term “Aztec” often refers exclusively to the Mexica people of Tenochtitlan (now the location of Mexico City), situated on an island in Lake Texcoco, who referred to themselves as Mēxihcah (Nahuatl pronunciation: [meːˈʃiʔkaʔ], a tribal designation that included the Tlatelolco), Tenochcah (Nahuatl pronunciation: [teˈnot͡ʃkaʔ], referring only to the Mexica of Tenochtitlan, excluding Tlatelolco) or Cōlhuah (Nahuatl pronunciation: [ˈkoːlwaʔ], referring to their royal genealogy tying them to Culhuacan).

Sometimes the term also includes the inhabitants of Tenochtitlan’s two principal allied city-states, the Acolhuas of Texcoco and the Tepanecs of Tlacopan, who together with the Mexica formed the Aztec Triple Alliance that controlled what is often known as the “Aztec Empire”. The usage of the term “Aztec” in describing the empire centered in Tenochtitlan, has been criticized by Robert H. Barlow who preferred the term “Culhua-Mexica”, and by Pedro Carrasco who prefers the term “Tenochca empire”. Carrasco writes about the term “Aztec” that “it is of no use for understanding the ethnic complexity of ancient Mexico and for identifying the dominant element in the political entity we are studying”.

In other contexts, Aztec may refer to all the various city states and their peoples, who shared large parts of their ethnic history and cultural traits with the Mexica, Acolhua and Tepanecs, and who often also used the Nahuatl language as a lingua franca. An example is Jerome A. Offner’s Law and Politics in Aztec Texcoco. In this meaning, it is possible to talk about an “Aztec civilization” including all the particular cultural patterns common for most of the peoples inhabiting central Mexico in the late postclassic period. Such a usage may also extend the term “Aztec” to all the groups in Central Mexico that were incorporated culturally or politically into the sphere of dominance of the Aztec empire.

When used to describe ethnic groups, the term “Aztec” refers to several Nahuatl-speaking peoples of central Mexico in the postclassic period of Mesoamerican chronology, especially the Mexica, the ethnic group that had a leading role in establishing the hegemonic empire based at Tenochtitlan. The term extends to further ethnic groups associated with the Aztec empire, such as the Acolhua, the Tepanec and others that were incorporated into the empire. Charles Gibson enumerates a number of groups in central Mexico that he includes in his study The Aztecs Under Spanish Rule (1964). These include the Culhuaque, Cuitlahuaque, Mixquica, Xochimilca, Chalca, Tepaneca, Acolhuaque, and Mexica.

In older usage the term was commonly used about modern Nahuatl-speaking ethnic groups, as Nahuatl was previously referred to as the “Aztec language”. In recent usage, these ethnic groups are referred to as the Nahua peoples. Linguistically, the term “Aztecan” is still used about the branch of the Uto-Aztecan languages (also sometimes called the Uto-Nahuan languages) that includes the Nahuatl language and its closest relatives Pochutec and Pipil.

To the Aztecs themselves the word “aztec” was not an endonym for any particular ethnic group. Rather, it was an umbrella term used to refer to several ethnic groups, not all of them Nahuatl-speaking, that claimed heritage from the mythic place of origin, Aztlan. Alexander von Humboldt originated the modern usage of “Aztec” in 1810, as a collective term applied to all the people linked by trade, custom, religion, and language to the Mexica state and the Triple Alliance. In 1843, with the publication of the work of William H. Prescott on the history of the conquest of Mexico, the term was adopted by most of the world, including 19th-century Mexican scholars who saw it as a way to distinguish present-day Mexicans from pre-conquest Mexicans. This usage has been the subject of debate in more recent years, but the term “Aztec” is still more common.

It seems like one of those terms that would be best avoided if only there were a universally accepted, or at least comprehensible, substitute.


  1. Estadio Azteca – the stadium of people whose forebears lived in Aztlan.

    I wondered whether von Humboldt (in French) and Prescott’s use (in English) of Aztec influenced Mexican uptake of Azteca, or whether Azteca was being used somewhat fluidly in Mexico in late colonial days?

    The paragraph mentioning these sources is footnoted to an article by Leon-Portilla, which is available here:

    He does support the idea that up to 1810, Mexica was predominant, that von Humboldt and Prescott were central to the development, and their usage slowly changed that of others, including people in Mexico.

    I also wonder whether Mexican independence made Mexica problematic as a term for a small subset of the population’s ancestors, and propelled Aztec(a) into wider acceptance. (In fact, as I continue reading Leon-Portilla past the section on Humboldt and Prescott, he makes this point.)

    Obviously the whole cluster of terms and meanings is fluid and interrelated, hence Estadio Azteca as the home stadium for the nation. Hegemony through metonymy. Land of the Pilgrim’s Pride.

  2. This hand-wringing seems to presuppose a norm “never use an exonym if you can find the right endonym.” I see no basis for that. Also the notion that “X Empire” (or “X-ish Empire”) should always involve the same relationship between X and the Empire seems contrary to the variousness of usage in English over time. The Byzantine Empire is maybe a high-profile example of an entirely anachronistic endonym?

    To Ryan’s point, I guess I don’t know to what extent in colonial days “Mexico” was already a common way to refer to “that portion of New Spain located north of the Captaincy-General of Guatemala,” or whether independence itself made “New Spain” obsolete and required a new name for that region, with the central-dominant Mexico being treated as a synecdoche for the whole? Another possibility is that in colonial times most/all of the various dioceses throughout modern-day Mexico were administratively subordinate to the Archbishop of Mexico in the capital city, which would lead to a much larger ecclesiastical province “of Mexico” than the boundaries of the Archdiocese proper.

  3. David Eddyshaw says

    At least “Aztec” as an exonym is not pejorative, just weird.

    I propose that we take to calling the Roman Empire the “Trojan Empire”, which seems to be a fair parallel.

  4. This hand-wringing seems to presuppose a norm “never use an exonym if you can find the right endonym.”

    That seems an exceedingly uncharitable way of reading it. I’d say rather “Try to use names that mean something reasonably clear.”

  5. On a more prosaic note, the Wikipedia article mistakenly gives the pronunciation of ‘Aztecatl’ with a short e. The -ecatl suffix for ethnonyms has a long e. (And the final a of the -tlan locative suffix in ‘Aztlan’ is also long.)

  6. Speaking of the suffix -ēcatl and its plural form -ēcah, it seems to have been borrowed into Mesoamerican Spanish as -eco/-eca even for demonyms or adjectives for non-Nahuatl names, such as yucateco from Yucatán, copaneco from Copán, and even santaneco from Santa Ana in El Salvador. Here, the more Castilian-like distinction is made between masculine -eco and feminine -eca. There is also the exonym zapoteco of disputed origin.

    By contrast, the demonyms or adjectives clearly modelled on Nahuatl names often use -eca for both masculine and feminine forms, such as azteca, olmeca, and tlaxcalteca corresponding to Nahuatl aztēcah, ōlmēcah, and tlaxcaltēcah respectively. But then you also have mixteco, tolteco, and zacateco corresponding to Nahuatal mixtēcah, tōltēcah, and zacatēcah respectively, so this is far from universal.

    Catalan, Galician, and Portuguese follow Spanish in using azteca/asteca and olmeca as both masculine and feminine, but outside of languages all these seem to be treated as if they had typical Romance suffixes. So Italian uses azteco and olmeco for Spanish azteca and olmeca, and English turns everything into -ec as in Aztec, Olmec, etc.

  7. “ But then you also have mixteco, tolteco, and zacateco corresponding to Nahuatal mixtēcah, tōltēcah, and zacatēcah respectively, so this is far from universal.”

    Tolteca is still used to refer to the Toltecs. The modern Mixtec people are usually called Mixtecos in my experience but I thought I remembered “mixtecas” used when I was a child and indeed a Google search brought up a Facebook page named “Los Mixtecas” and a page entitled “ Historia de los Zapotecas y Mixtecas” from an online university ( also news of a motorcycle club (gang?) from the Midwest named Los Mixtecas.) Zacatecas is still the name of a city and a state. Their people are called “Zacatecanos” and they have a large diaspora in the U.S.

    I think most modern Mexicans don’t have a problem with the name Azteca for its different uses and wouldn’t see a need to change. I think it’s become too engrained in the national/ethnic identity by now. For Mexicans, the meaning is clear enough.

  8. Thanks for the explanations about the usage of these names, Pancho. As a non-Spanish speaker, I was going on dictionaries and other resources I could find online but it’s hard to figure out what the actual usage is and I haven’t been able to find an explanation of when -eco and -eca are used.

  9. I also had not realized that Aztec was not a self-designation.
    No doubt Humbolt’s usage was influential, but not the earliest.

    OED online cites
    1787 C. Cullen tr. F. S. Clavigero Hist. Mexico I. ii. 112 The Aztecas or Mexicans, who were the last people who settled in Anahuac.

    And Robert Southey’s Madoc of 1807 uses “Aztecas, an American tribe” who “forsook Aztlan” and “became a mighty people” multiple times (hathitrust affirms) in a story of a man who arrived from Wales long ago.

    A reverse suprise about a self-designation obtains with hoodlums:

    1866 _San Francisco Evening Bulletin_ 14 Dec., page 5, column 4 (America’s Historical Newspapers) We yesterday mentioned the arrest of five boys who have been committing petty thefts for some days past. … It is doubtful if any thieves ever did a more driving business than these young fellows, for all of their plunder has been stolen since last Saturday night. They call themselves the “Hoodlum Band,” and unless their thieving propensities are nipped in the bud, the reputation of Orliniski will fade before that of a “Hoodlum.” … Among other exploits of the “Hoodlums” was the stealing of a lot of keys from the pockets of a clerk in an office on Montgomery street, to enter the office and unlock and rob the safe of $2 in silver.

  10. That’s great!

  11. stealing of a lot of keys

    Is this ‘lot’ in an older and more specific sense?

  12. Yes, “set of keys”, and The Crying of Lot 49.

  13. Hugh Thomas says of Aztec (The Conquest of Mexico, p. xix): “It was made popular by the Jesuit scholar, Francisco Javier Clavijero, in the eighteenth century, and then by Prescott.” He cites an article by R. H. Barlow from 1945.

  14. Byzantine Empire

    the Byzantium and Friends podcast has an episode making a very convincing argument for retiring “byzantium” as a rubric (less because it’s useless and misleading, which i think practically everyone acknowledges it is, than because of the specific work it does), which i found both interesting and convincing.

    and also an episode (that i wanted much more from, in honesty) looking at laments for the falls of constantinope and tenochitlan alongside each other.

  15. the Byzantium and Friends podcast has an episode making a very convincing argument for retiring “byzantium” as a rubric (less because it’s useless and misleading, which i think practically everyone acknowledges it is, than because of the specific work it does), which i found both interesting and convincing.

    I didn’t listen to the episode, but I’m very familiar with such arguments. Theoretically, they’re convincing; in practice, people other than specialist scholars are going to keep talking about Byzantium and Byzantines (at least in part because of the familiar adjective byzantine).

  16. Anna Comnene, in her history of her father’s reign as emperor, sometimes distinguishes between Byzantium and Constantinople,* and between the residents of the two communities. I don’t know how closely the suburban area outside the walls that she thinks of as “Byzantium” corresponds to the location of the old Greek city from before Constantine moved the capital. She also distinguishes sharply between Romans and Latins—although she does not always draw careful separations between Latins, Franks, Lombards, and other Latin-rite Christians.

    The relevance of Byzantium being a separate town outside the walls of the capital is most relevant during the First Crusade. Emperor Alexios’s previous wars generally took place on fringes of the empire, but the crusaders were allowed to march right up to walls of Constantinople—which tended to frighten the inhabitants of the unwalled outlying communities, including Byzantium. Anna insists that most of the crusader counts are really more interested in conquering the Byzantine empire than doing anything in Palestine. She has special venom for Bohemond of Antioch* and his nephew Tancred, who really were only interested in conquering territory. Even if she had not had the benefit of hindsight, the de Hauteville Normans had been enemies of the Byzantine emperor for decades by the time of the crusade. Strangely however, Anna’s father apparently found Raymond of Saint-Gilles to be the one truly trustworthy crusader leader, when he was—unlike, say, Godfrey of Bouillon—most likely just as much of a pure adventurer looking to make money and capture land as the Normans.

    * She usually refers to Constantinople not by name by epithets—most commonly variations on the “queen of cities” motif.

    ** Although obviously, he’s not of Antioch yet.

  17. people other than specialist scholars

    and, as in so many fields, it causes problems when scholars don’t act like their conclusions matter when they talk (either in classes they teach or when they have a chance to speak to larger publics). it lets the same bad analysis (often sedimented into specific terminology) continue to propagate unchallenged. which among other things makes their own work harder, and likewise the work of anyone who wants to build on what they’ve done – especially folks interested in popularizing their analysis, or in drawing broader conclusions based on it. this is a fatalism that seems to primarily (if not exclusively) affect liberal scholars*; reactionaries are generally quite dedicated to promoting their analyses and terminology far and wide.

    * perhaps because actually taking their own work seriously as something that can/should affect the world would challenge the status quo they’re committed above all else to protect, or perhaps because of the basic liberal** axiom that the truth – unaided, gagged, and thrown down a well – will somehow inevitably set everyone free.

    ** i.e. christian literalist with the labels torn off.

  18. David Marjanović says

    Publish or perish. We’re not paid to promote our analyses or terminology except in publications that have an impact factor; doing so for free takes away time we could use to publish with an impact factor. By the time we have tenure, we’ve never thought about the general public and simply remain in the ivory tower.

  19. John Cowan says

    i.e. christian literalist with the labels torn off.

    Umm, no. Historical origin is not current use (another flavor of the etymological fallacy). Would you care to be referred to as a Babylonian with the labels torn off?

    We’re not paid to promote our analyses or terminology except in publications that have an impact factor

    Actually, those who do it are paid pretty well: Asimov was able to refuse to do research at all, on the grounds that as a researcher he was no more than mediocre, whereas as a writer of popular science (as well as a teacher) he brought considerable luster to his institution. The then dean threatened to fire him if he didn’t knuckle under, to which Asimov replied that he had tenure. If they didn’t want to pay him, fine; he would stop teaching and make even more money writing, but the title he would keep. (Later incarnations of the university were happy to have him and even gave him a promotion honoris causa.) When a colleague congratulated him for his principled stand for academic freedom, he replied: “Do you know my definition of ‘academic freedom’? […] Independent income.” So a strictly economic explanation will not do: it must have more to do with peer repute, like “pure” vs. “applied” science or mathematics.

  20. You are surely not suggesting that Asimov is a representative specimen. DM’s statement is correct for the overwhelming majority of cases.

  21. This is exactly why I’m glad I spent my career in small teaching colleges where my publications were looked upon kindly but not tracked.

  22. David Marjanović says

    So a strictly economic explanation will not do:

    Even Asimov waited till he had tenure. All the other few exceptions seem to as well.

    Most science writers quit academia right after their doctorate as far as I’ve noticed.

  23. J.W. Brewer says

    “Byzantine” is less of a mouthful than “Constantinopolitan.” The problem IMHO with the pejorative senses of “byzantine” in English is not that they don’t accurately describe the often-unedifying palace intrigue of pre-1453 Contantinopolitan politics, but that they may be taken to have an implicature that this sort of stuff didn’t really happen in more Western European polities at the same time …

    But the word “B/byzantine” need not inevitably bear the discredited conceptual baggage of some of those who used or popularized it in prior centuries. That’s just the Etymological Fallacy.

  24. David Marjanović says

    “Byzantine” is less of a mouthful than “Constantinopolitan.”

    But more than “East Roman”…

  25. The problem is not with the pejorative senses of “byzantine” — it is that “Byzantine Empire” makes it sound like an entirely different entity than the Roman Empire, whereas it was in fact simply a continuation of the latter. People at the time called it Roman (and of course the Arabic term Rum is still widespread), and they would not have understood the idea that it was something other than that. It is modern Europeans, who presumably wanted to distance their beloved Roman Empire, fons et origo of all civilization worthy of the name, from the degenerate Levantine entity based in Constantinople, who came up with the distinction. If people could somehow be persuaded to call the whole thing, from Augustus to the fall of Trebizond, the Roman Empire, their understanding of history would be dramatically improved.

    Edit: That was responding to JWB, not DM, who snuck in while I was typing.

  26. J.W. Brewer says

    I don’t dispute anything that hat says, but getting non-specialists in “Western” societies to overcome a long-established-if-flawed historiography premised on the “Roman Empire” falling when its Western half (you know, the bit containing the city of Rome …)* did seems an impractically heavy lift, and not a good use of time and resources for the more specialized and less numerous circles of folks (including me!) with a genuine interest in the 476-1453 continuation. I take it the “Rhomaias [“Rhomaious?”] Empire” would be a bit too confusing?

    *Which city obviously remained under differing/varying degrees of Byzantine influence and/or control for the next three centuries or so anyway.

  27. seems an impractically heavy lift

    As I said in my response to rozele. But you never know, and there’s no harm in trying.

  28. J.W. Brewer says

    Re “no harm in trying,” that depends inter alia on what it is you might otherwise be accomplishing with the time and energy devoted to the apparently-quixotic campaign.

  29. Oh, sure, like Byzantine scholars would otherwise be solving climate change.

  30. J.W. Brewer says

    I don’t think the opportunity cost needs to be that exalted to be concrete and real. It could be as modest, mankind-benefitwise, as e.g. having the time available to post a series of 83 reactions/reflections on 83 different albums first released in 1983 but listened or relistened to in 2023 – a project I myself am currently engaged in. I’d like to think that the selection of albums is pretty diverse but I don’t think any of them are from the formerly “Byzantine” lands unless of course you assume a “Byzantine” irredentist claim to the lost western provinces including Londinium et al.

  31. I don’t have any strong feelings about terminology for the Eastern Roman Empire after Odoacer’s capture of Rome. There was waning, but still extant institutional continuity through the likes of Justinian, Maurice, Irene, and Alexios. However, I do think that continuing to refer to the Palaiologos kingdom as the “Roman Empire” after the fall of Constantinople in 1204 is probably misleading. That last phase of the Byzantine Empire was a completely medieval, feudalized state—something which the empire had been moving towards for a long time; but the remaining classical institutions (military, governmental, economic and social), apart from the Orthodox Church, were really all gone and were never reconstituted when the Franks were driven out of the Queen of Cities a couple decades later.

    However, the terminology of the post-classical Roman Emptire bothers me far less than a (comparatively? recent??) trend in the terminology of Chinese states. There is a tendency to conflate the names of dynasties with the states they ruled. For example, it’s easy to find instances of the final, blood Manchu conquest of China described as the “conquest of the Ming Dynasty.” Go back one turnover of the Mandate of Heaven, and you can read about the “conquest of the Yuan Dynasty.” That’s like referring to the Parthian Empire as the “Arsacid Dynasty.” “Ming Dynasty China,” or the “Great Yuan Empire” would work, but the dynasty is not the nation or the country. I presume this poor terminology is partially a consequence of the fact that the name of the country, “China,” is not taken to change during these transitions.

  32. That last phase of the Byzantine Empire was a completely medieval, feudalized state—something which the empire had been moving towards for a long time; but the remaining classical institutions (military, governmental, economic and social), apart from the Orthodox Church, were really all gone and were never reconstituted when the Franks were driven out of the Queen of Cities a couple decades later.

    So what? The institutions of the original (Western) Roman Empire changed quite a bit over the centuries too. Nomenclature isn’t dependent on such things. If the people of the (Eastern) Roman Empire called it the Roman Empire, and the surrounding peoples called it Rome, I see no reason why we shouldn’t do the same.

  33. J.W. Brewer says

    Of course the issue also arises synchronically after 476 (and especially after 1054), because Old Rome did not cease to be of significance after it no longer served as capital of (some portion) of the Empire. It is often for example necessary in religious contexts to distinguish contrastively between the traditions and practices associated with the True Church affiliated with the Ecumenical Patriarch in Constantinople, on the one hand, and the traditions and practices associated with the heretick Western Popes usually resident in Old Rome when not hanging out in Avignon, on the other. Calling both of these things “Roman” is unhelpful, and “Eastern Roman” and “Western Roman” is simply not the jargon that has been used for lo these many centuries. The “Byzantine” tradition of calling the Western hereticks “Franks” or “Latins” makes sense in a Constantinople-centric Hoi-Rhomaioi-‘r’-Us point-of-view, but it’s hard to just transplant that point of view into the languages of societies that historically have not held to it.

  34. J.W. Brewer says

    @Brett, the post-1992 polity consisting of only Serbia and Montenegro called itself Yugoslavia/Jugoslavija until 2003, which might seem a bit silly or grandiose considering that all the other sorts of South Slavs who had been stuck inside the prior Yugoslavia had gone their own way. And indeed, the Western powers and U.N. (no doubt dominated by Franks and Latins, and probably the Freemasons and Illuminati to boot) deprecated the name insofar as it represented a claim to be *the* sole successor to the 1918-1992 (with some WW2 interruptions …) Yugoslavia. But they called themselves what they called themselves.

  35. J.W. Brewer says

    To give the Hattic position its due, just saw an online news headline “Ancient castle used by Romans and Byzantines destroyed in Turkey earthquake,” which is admittedly pretty ridiculous. The castle in question had most recently served as the quarters of the “Museum of Gaziantep Defense And Heroism Panoroma,” which I suspect is a reference to the struggle of the Kemalist forces against the Franks and Latins, plus their local Armenian allies (although I assume the Freemasons and Illuminati were in Ataturk’s camp) in 1920-21, as referenced here:

  36. that the name of the country, “China,” is not taken to change during these transitions.

    ‘Zhōngguó’ means only (geographically and metaphorically) central state — with no implication of continuity of dynasties. (Also translated as middle kingdom. I see from wp this might be a bogus etymology.)

    It would be hard to claim either Rome or Constantinople as central over the whole history of the Empire.

  37. David Marjanović says

    *Which city obviously remained under differing/varying degrees of Byzantine influence and/or control for the next three centuries or so anyway.

    And hadn’t been the capital of the West for decades; for safety reasons the capital had been moved to Ravenna.

    a completely medieval, feudalized state—something which the empire had been moving towards for a long time;

    Yes, beginning with the Crisis of the Third Century.

  38. Calling both of these things “Roman” is unhelpful

    Why? You might as well say calling both Milan and Naples “Italian” is unhelpful. Yes, they’re very different, but the fact is they’re part of the same entity. And I remind you once again that the people of the day considered the whole thing the Roman Empire, which (I remind you) had (like China) more than once been divided into (temporarily) squabbling subentities. But Rome (they say) is eternal.

  39. J.W. Brewer says

    But you can call Milan and Naples (or things associated therewith) “Milanese” and “Neapolitan” when it is helpful to contrast them and call them both “Italian” when it is helpful to stress their commonalities.* If “Roman” is the highest level of generality, then you need a vocabulary for contrasting lower levels, which is difficult in the current English lexicon not least because “Rome” and derivative words can depending on context refer to the city proper, the city and its vaguely-defined environs, or the whole Empire.

    *These regional notions are of course not stable over time. Go far enough back and Milan is not in Italia proper, but rather in Gallia Cisalpina.

  40. if we’re gonna call something the Holy Roman Empire because that’s what a congeries of negligible hamlet-states (and a few larger-scale regional warlords) insisted on calling their ineffective (if intermittently historically significant) feudal federation, the least we can do is call a major mediterranean power that survived for a millennium by something approximating what it called itself. (there are plenty of options: New Rome, East Rome, just plain Rome, Rūm, etc.) choosing to call it by a name selected for it specifically because the folks doing the selecting saw themselves as the rightful heirs of its theological, economic, and political enemies and rivals is at best foolish.

    it’s the same maneuver as calling putin’s russia “soviet”, calling maine “massachusetts”, or calling germans “huns”. all equally defensible, if(f) you’re willing to embrace a very specific political position and accept any strained interpretation of history it deems necessary. the only difference with “byzantium” is how central the ideologies behind the term have remained (in the academy as elsewhere) since it was propagandized into prevelance in the 19th century.

  41. January First-of-May says

    from Augustus to the fall of Trebizond

    If you’re including Trebizond as a splinter that happened to persist longer, you might as well count their splinter that persisted longer yet: the Principality of Theodoro only fell in 1475.
    (As I pointed out in the other thread, by that point it was mostly populated by Ostrogoths – an ironic fate for the last remnant of Rome.)

    Incidentally, as it happened, some of the Crusader states survived even longer, with the Duchy of the Archipelago only submitting in 1537, and some remnants of it staying independent into the 17th century; of course some islands ended up in Venetian hands and weren’t lost to the Ottomans until even later, if ever.

  42. which is difficult in the current English lexicon

    Changing the use of words (aka “the current English lexicon”) is precisely what we’re talking about.

    Consider how differently we’d think about history if we used different terms for pre-unification “China,” Han “China,” Tang “China,” etc., with a “barbarian” period under the Manchus and different nomenclature for every period in which it was broken up into competing states and the history of the current version of “China” beginning in 1949 (“One of the newest of the great nations, China has come a surprisingly long way in only a few decades…”).

  43. Consider how different our terminology would be if China had briefly existed as a unified whole, then broken into parts during antiquity, including a slowly waning, long-dead successor state in a completely different place from an area still known as China.

    Or how we might name the Empire that lived on after Rome fell if the Roman Catholic church hadn’t survived, the Holy Roman Empire had never existed in strange symbiosis, and the ruins of Rome lay like Persepolis on a barren site.

    We typically use Roman Empire in English to refer to a regime that ruled the Mediterranean and vast lands around it. After 800 CE, the Eastern Roman Empire ruled the Balkans, Anatolia and a couple islands. To re-direct the old joke, it was neither eastern, Roman nor an empire.

    I think everyone that gives more than a minute’s thought to the “Byzantine Empire” knows the other name. But having dual terminology accurately reflects the combination of minor continuity and significant discontinuity. Maybe we could call it the Romaious Empire.

  44. J.W. Brewer says

    Maybe in the Chinese analogy the late Paleologue iteration of the Rhomaious Empire is KMT-ruled Taiwan?

  45. Consider how different our terminology would be if China had briefly existed as a unified whole, then broken into parts during antiquity, including a slowly waning, long-dead successor state in a completely different place from an area still known as China.

    In point of fact, the entity we sloppily call “China” has had its center moved a number of times, if you’ll take a look at historical maps — first from east (Anyang) to west (Changan), then east again to Loyang, then further east to Kaifeng and Hangzhou, then north to Beijing, then south to Nanjing, then back to Beijing. If China had not had such historical luck and had split up permanently, all those cities might be in different countries.

    We typically use Roman Empire in English

    Of course that’s how we typically use it; the point is we could use it better.

    I think everyone that gives more than a minute’s thought to the “Byzantine Empire” knows the other name.

    That is not even a little bit true, unless by “everyone” you mean “everyone who has done some serious reading on the relevant history.”

  46. If by serious reading on the relevant history, you mean “got all the way through the first sentence of the wiki,” then I concede your point.

  47. Believe it or not, most people don’t spend their time reading Wikipedia articles on random subjects. I expect most people who are even aware of the “Byzantine Empire” heard about it in high school or college and has not freshened their awareness since.

  48. Sure.

    However, the first sentence of a wiki is a better gauge of what is/was mentioned on the topic in high school and college than your personal memories.

  49. Fair enough. I would certainly be interested in a poll of recent college graduates about what names they were familiar with.

  50. the first sentence of a wiki is a better gauge of what is/was mentioned on the topic in high school and college than your personal memories.

    i’d be quite surprised if this were true, especially of highschools. what’s mentioned on most topics – and history in particular – in highschool classrooms in the u.s. has for decades had more to do with the political leanings of the texas state legislature than literally anything else (i’ve seen claims this is changing, but little evidence), including basic historical accuracy, let alone the current state of widely accepted scholarship. wikipedia editors as a group, for all their problems, are driven by rather different priorities than the heirs of sam houston, and have substantially more oversight by people who know things about things.

    (i can’t speak for secondary education outside the states)

  51. Oh, please. Here’s a link to the very first syllabus I found googling Illinois hs history syllabus.:

    I’m sure the Texas legislature was really keen on getting the Underground Railroad in there.

    And that’s from a tiny rural district south of Peoria – ie, a part of Illinois settled by Kentuckians, not Yankees.

    The next useful syllabus that comes up is for the St. Louis Public Schools. (One can’t tell the valence of references in the Amundsen HS US History curriculum to the Civil War, Reconstruction and Civil Rights, though their inclusion is suggestive. I can’t imagine they treat Reconstruction as the binding of regional wounds opened by an aggressive North during the CW.) Not sure why St. Louis came up in an IL google search, but anyway, the goals of the SLPS curriculum include
    – Analyze the origins, goals, and key events of the continuing U.S. movements to realize equal
    rights for women, African Americans, and other minorities
    – Evaluate the short and long-term impact of western expansion on Native American and other
    minority populations.

    No doubt that’s driven by their view that the TX legislature really wants those things highlighted.

    I’m sure you don’t believe anything you see on Fox. Justifiably. Use the same rule for 90% of what you hear on MSNBC, and you’ll have a much more accurate understanding of the country.

  52. better gauge of what is/was mentioned on the topic in high school and college than your personal memories.

    Memory deceives, of course, and I was at a British Grammar school not a U.S. High school …

    We covered the Roman Empire as much as ‘Romans in Britain’/Julius Caesar/Shakespeare’s plays. I’m pretty sure there was only vague mention of the dwindling of the empire in Rome/Dark Ages in Europe.

    I knew the word ‘byzantine’ as a commentary on politics. If I knew anything about ‘Byzantium’ it was only as the place the adjective came from.

    My ‘O’ level curriculum was European history 1870-1945 (scraped pass). It wasn’t ’til I got to University to study Politics I discovered Britain had two revolutions in C17th. Let alone that Rom(ans) had multiple Empires.

    This was a C of E school. Perhaps the Catholic schools taught differently, but if so, it didn’t ‘stick’ with anybody I met.

  53. J.W. Brewer says

    I remember in AP European History (12th grade, 1982-83) getting a fairly sophisticated description of three-way jockeying for power in the Mediterranean world circa the 8th/9th centuries w/ Byzantines v. Carolingians v. Abbasids, but (a) that was a fairly advanced/optional class; and (b) it’s entirely possible-to-probable in that bygone era that the late Mr. Smith (1937-2017, αιώνια η μνήμη) was actually in large part teaching us about what he personally thought was interesting rather than merely “teaching to the test.”

  54. David Marjanović says

    Yeah, it’s not the syllabi, it’s the textbooks. Car standards are set by California, textbooks are made for Texas (hence the name).

    It wasn’t ’til I got to University to study Politics I discovered Britain had two revolutions in C17th.

    I’ve heard a horror story or two about the teaching of history in the UK, but this is unbelievable.

  55. @J.W. Brewer: When I took A. P. European History, the course (and what was ultimately on the exam exam) basically started at 1400-ish. We learned about the schism of 1054 as background, but one of the key facts, that the Orthodox churches had historically been controlled by the Eastern Roman Emperor, never came up.. The material was also heavily slanted toward western Europe. Discussion of the Russian and Ottoman Empires was unavoidable, but there was very little about Poland or the pre-1900 Balkans. For example, we talked a bit about the Time of Troubles, but there was no mention of Poland’s role.

  56. the teaching of history in the UK

    I doubt the horror stories you’ve heard are as bad as how actually bad it was — that example I quoted was but one of many I discovered later. 1066 And All That is only lightly-spiced spoof.

    wrt C17th, to the spoof’s ‘2 Genuine Dates’ (of 54BC, 1066) we might add 1666 Fire of London — a nice clickety-click rhyme with Battle of Hastings; Pepys’ Diary. Nothing else happened.

    (I don’t think it’s that I was unusually inattentive. Although History was taught in a particularly dull monotone of just one darn thing after another.)

  57. >Yeah, it’s not the syllabi, it’s the textbooks.

    The assertion was “what’s mentioned on most topics”. A sampling of syllabi is a good gauge of that.

    But the fact is that Texas doesn’t even present a monolithic constraint on textbooks.:

    Populous states can make their own way, and little states are constrained by those choices. But that leaves a spectrum of options.

    None of that is relevant to exactly how texts would refer to the (somewhat less) Roman Empire. Bringing politics into that was gratuitous.

  58. J.W. Brewer says

    FWIW, later this month you can hear a concert in NYC (or in Cambridge, Mass the night before) of what everyone calls (however anachronistically) the “Byzantine” style of church music by an ensemble named Capella Romana, a name I believe was chosen to emphasize the Rhomaiousness of the milieu in which Byzantine chant arose. So up to a point you can in practice mix and match nomenclature.

    EDITED TO ADD: Forgot to note that the program for these concerts will include what I guess you would have to call a “post-Byzantine” choral piece recently commissioned to celebrate the discovery of the Higgs boson, which might pique the curiosity of some of the more physics-oriented Hattics.

  59. Stu Clayton says

    The Higgs habanera, score extract here.

    In the score of the sonification, the bump corresponding to the Higgs boson is represented by an F note two octaves above the preceding F note, a C representing the peak of the Higgs, and a E note.

  60. Sono pazzi quelli Romani.

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