Thank you to those who commented on my post of May 29! Let’s unravel the mystery.
What is “The Roman Empire”?
The Roman Republic slowly became the Roman Empire as Octavian (Julius Caesar’s adoptive nephew) took on more and more authority after his defeat of Cleopatra and Marc Antony at the battle of Actium in 31 BCE. By the end of his life, he was called Imperator (“Victorious One,” and also “Emperor”) and Augustus (“Outstanding One”). More importantly, he was designated Princeps (“First Head,” “Prince”) by the Senate. His power over Rome and the Provinces increased steadily.
The Romans had a great distaste for the title of Rex (“King”). The legendary founding of Rome by Romulus on April 21, 753 BCE (after he had killed his brother Remus), was followed by the reign of seven equally legendary Kings. They were not well liked by the Roman nobles and people, and were overthrown in 509 BCE, when Rome became a Republic. Res Publica, the origin of our word, means “Public Thing/Business.”
Because of this, they could not stomach calling Octavian Rex when he began consolidating his power in 27 BCE, so they used Princeps, Imperator, and Augustus instead, as well as Caesar, indicating his link to the now divine Julius Caesar. After Augustus’s death in 14 CE, Tiberius was chosen as his successor. This solidified the unique position of the Princeps in the Empire. Future Emperors would clearly be in charge, and the power of the Senate became more and more attenuated. The Empire rolled on, with good years and bad. One of the best sites for this history is Dr. Kelly Ross’s massive: Rome and Romania. It may be Web 1.0, but it is still my go-place for so much information. (I don’t always agree with his political philosophy, but his history is top notch!)
In 285/6 the Emperor Diocletian ran a jurisdictional line through the middle of the Empire, and began a political experiment known as The Tetrarchy. A Co-Emperor assisted by a Co-Caesar would govern the eastern half of the Empire, and a second pair would govern the western half. Note that they were understood as each governing a half of The Roman Empire. Not two Empires…one.
Some things last a long time. If you extend the line far enough north, it splits Eastern Europe. It runs between Croatia to the West, and Serbia to the east. For the most part, eastern European countries on the west of the line are predominantly Roman Catholic (Croatia), while those on the east are Eastern Orthodox (Serbia). Serbs and Croats speak the same language, but the Croats write it in Latin letters, while the Serbs use the Cyrillic alphabet shared with Old Church Slavonic, Ukrainian, Russian, Bulgarian, etc. The world is still fighting across this line today.
In This Sign Shalt Thou Conquer
In the early 4th Century, (St.) Constantine was Emperor of the western half of the Empire. He combatted a number of rebellions, and on his way to oust one of his rivals, Maxentius, from Rome, he had an unusual experience. It is recounted that on the night of October 27, 312, Constantine had a vision, in which he saw a sign in the sky, with the words, “ἐν τούτῳ νίκα” En toutō níka, “Conquer in This!” which is rendered “In hoc signo vinces,” in Latin: “In this Sign Shalt Thou Conquer.”
What he saw is reported variously, however the Labarum, his Vexilla or battle standard, used the now familiar Chi-Rho:
Other forms include ✼ (I X) as well as a simple crossed capital Rho (see left). All of these play on the name and title Ἰησοῦς Χριστός Iēsous Christos–That is, Ieshouah the Messiah. The Chi-Rho and the crossed Rho is the first two Greek Letters of Christos: X P. The “asterisk” is I X, the Greek initials of the name and the title.
In any case Constantine (whose Mother was a Christian: [St.] Helen) defeated his rivals and became sole Emperor of both halves of the Empire. In 313 he tolerated Christianity (he was not baptized until his deathbed), and in 330 removed the seat of the Empire to a city on the Golden Horn, Byzantium, which he re-named New Rome. Common custom also referred to it as Constantinople–Greek: Κωνσταντινούπολις, Konstantinoúpolis; Latin: Constantinopolis, Constantine’s City.
The Hellenized, Christian, and still Roman, Empire
Constantinople was “New Rome,” and although the old Senate remained behind in Old Rome, its power was steadily declining, and there were new Senatorial families in the new capital. Over the years, some Emperors, like Constanius II (317-361), Julian II (331-363–the last Emperor of the Old Religion), (St.) Theodosius I (347-395) and (St.) Justinian I (482-565) ruled as sole Emperor, while at other times, some form of the Tetrarchy was revived.
Culturally and linguistically, the Roman Empire had already been Hellenized. As we saw above, Constantine’s vision was in Greek, and language of the Imperial Court was Greek. Justinian was the last Emperor to speak Latin as his first language. The title of the Emperor could now be the Greek βασιλεύς, Basileus, King, since that term had no pejorative historical connotations for the Romans.
The old city of Rome was now very much the “Old Capital,” much as Philadelphia is today in the United States, an historical curiosity–I actually love Philly, but it isn’t still the capital.
First Milan, and then Ravenna became the western capital. When there was a sole Emperor, the Imperial Legate resided there. When the clergy and the people of Old Rome elected their Bishop, his name had to be taken to Milan–and later Ravenna–for Imperial approval before he could be ordained and installed.
While it is true that (St.) Theodosius I “divided” the Empire between his two (weak) sons, Honorius (384-423) and Arcadius (377-408), and closed the remaining Pagan Temples–much to the distress of scholars and esotericists–this division was in the spirit of the old Tetrarchy. They (and their successors) were co-Emperors of the two halves of one Empire.
Old Rome was taken by “barbarians” (the ancestors of many of us!) several times. Roman rule in the west first ended in 476 when the Heruli chief Odoacer invaded Ravenna, the western Imperial Seat, and dethroned Romulus Augustus (460-ca. 500) who was the last “western” Emperor. Note that Romulus was not recognized in the East. The last official western Roman Emperor was Julius Nepos, who was deposed in 475.
The final push of Roman civilization in the West (Romanitas) was during the reign of (St.) Justinian I, who by his death in 565, had reconquered all of North Africa, southern Spain, and Italy, which he ruled as sole Emperor. These borders were slowly eroded until finally Ravenna was taken by the Lombards in 751. Romanitas was lost to the West. During this period, it became common to refer to the Roman Empire as Βασιλεία Ῥωμαίων, Basilea Rōmaiōn, the Roman Empire, or simply Ῥωμανία, Rōmania, Roman-land.
The Eastern Empire is the Roman Empire
The later Latin term Romanitas, describes the quality of being a Roman, also denoting the virtues and totality of Roman civilization. Its Greek equivalent, Ῥωμαιoσύνη, Rōmaiosunē, literally, “Romanness,” has come to mean the totality of the Christian Roman Empire with its seat at New Rome.
The inhabitants of Constantinople and the remaining territories of the Roman Empire in the East called themselves οἱ Ῥωμαῖοι, hoi Rōmaioi, The Romans. When the Ottoman Turkish Sultan Mehmed II and his troops breached the walls of The City on Tuesday May 29, 1453 (at about 2pm, I believe–not that we have long memories!), he is said to have proclaimed “I have conquered Rome!” The last Roman Emperor Constantine XI Palaiologos may have fallen in the final defense of Constantinople, although reports vary.
According to legend, the priests serving Divine Liturgy in the Great Church of Ἁγία Σοφία, Hagia Sophia, Holy Wisdom during the siege, picked up the Chalice and Diskos with the Holy Gifts, and walked into the walls, to return only when The City is returned to Christendom.
The Sultan Mehmed II, called himself Kayser-i Rûm, Caesar of Rome, not only because of his conquest, but also because he claimed to be descended from John Tzelepes Komnenos, a nephew of Emperor John II Komnenos. Κομνηνός, Komnenos may be related to κόσμος, cosmos (world, universe, beautiful ornament), and means beautiful.
Based on the Arabic الرُّومُ ar-Rūm, Rome, still today in the Middle East these terms are in use:
- Rūm Ortodox = Greek Orthodox (the Church of the Empire)
- Rūm Katolik = Greek Catholic (Melkites, in union with Rome)
- Lateen = Roman Catholic.
The Legacy of The Roman Empire
Mehmed II was not the only one to claim the title of the Roman Caesar. Moscow is considered The Third Rome by Russians. The Russian monk Philoteus (Filofey) of Pskov in 1510 proclaimed in a Eulogy for Grand Duke Vasili III,
“Two Romes have fallen. The third stands. And there will be no fourth. No one shall replace your Christian Tsardom!”
The Russian Emperor was called царь, Tsar, from the Latin Caesar. This association was bolstered by the fact that Moscow is built on seven hills, as was Old Rome and New Rome.
(Although San Francisco actually has many more hills–47+ by last count, by tradition it is said to be on seven hills: Telegraph Hill, Nob Hill, Russian Hill, Rincon Hill, Mount Sutro, Twin Peaks and Mount Davidson. Together with the resemblance of the Golden Gate to Constinople’s Golden Horn, this clearly shows why The City will be the headquarters of Star Fleet in the 22nd Century!)
The symbol of the Roman Empire, especially of its military, was the Eagle. The standards carried by the Legions were named for eagles, aquilae, Latin for eagles. By the 10th Century, the Roman Eagle had two heads, one looking East and the other looking West, to demonstrate the Emperor’s right to rule both halves of the Empire. Moscow also adopted this, since it claims to be The Third Rome.
Naturally western Europe wanted in on the act, too. As early as the 9th Century, Charlemagne and Roman Pope Leo III plotted to usurp the title Imperator Romanorum, Emperor of the Romans, when Leo crowned Charlemagne on Christmas Day, 800. The only problem was, there was an Emperor–or rather Empress–on the Imperial throne, the Empress Irene (752-803).
She was without doubt the Roman βασίλισσα, Basilissa, Empress. Both Leo III and Charlemagne rejected the idea that a woman could head the Empire, and used that as a pretext, after she turned down Charlemagne’s offer of marriage!
The Germans entered the picture, with their own version, Heiliges Römisches Reich, Imperium Romanum Sacrum, the Holy Roman Empire from 962-1806, with most of the territories of Central Europe. They used the double-headed eagle as well. The only problem was, as one of my professors put it, the Holy Roman Empire was neither Holy nor Roman!
Many of the European nations, and their American children, symbolically claim to be the heirs of Rome. This can be seen in the use of the Roman symbols of the eagle and the fasces in so many cases, as well as the ubiquitous Imperial architecture used in Government buildings.
There are actual heirs to the Imperial Throne. One was Mario Bernardo Angelo Comneno (1914-1988), an Italian descended from the Imperial family, the Komnenoi. His children now inherit this lineage. One branch of his family had escaped to Trebizond on the Black Sea after the tragic Fourth Crusade sacked and occupied New Rome from 1204-1261. Other Roman refugee outposts included the Empire of Nicaea and the Despotate of Epirus. Roman rule was re-established in 1261.
There are many descendants of the Palaiologoi, the last Roman dynasty, throughout Eastern and Western Europe. I actually know a fine young man who through his Russian Noble lineage, is a descendent.
So How did We get the “Byzantine Empire”?
The one term you have not heard me use in this essay is “Byzantine Empire.” There was no such thing…ever. The term is not ancient. Everyone in the ancient, mediaeval and Renaissance world knew perfectly well that the Roman Empire continued in New Rome and its territories. The Imperial succession, and the governmental continuity were clear. So where did the term come from?
To answer that, we must return to our old friend, Cui Bono…No, not a child of Sonny and Cher…it is the Latin phrase “Whom does it Benefit.” Here is my take on this.
One of the primary culprits is the 18th Century historian Edward Gibbon, famously the author of The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (1776-1789…interesting dates!).
Although generally a good historian, and in some ways the founder of modern historical methodology, he had a problem. He, like many of his contemporaries, was a fan of the Classical, Pagan world–I have no problem with that, but it does blur one’s objectivity.
A great example is William Wordsworth’s “The World is Too Much with Us” (1802):
“The world is too much with us; late and soon,
Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers:
Little we see in Nature that is ours;
We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon!
The Sea that bares her bosom to the moon;
The winds that will be howling at all hours,
And are up-gathered now like sleeping flowers;
For this, for everything, we are out of tune;
It moves us not.–Great God! I’d rather be
A Pagan suckled in a creed outworn;
So might I, standing on this pleasant lea,
Have glimpses that would make me less forlorn;
Have sight of Proteus rising from the sea;
Or hear old Triton blow his wreathed horn.”
(C.S. Lewis vigorously responded with “A Cliché comes out of Its Cage.” I’ll let you decide for yourselves.)
Here’s what Gibbon actually said about the Christianizing of the Roman Empire. Some of this may also have been the result of his conversion from Protestantism to Roman Catholicism, and then back again to Protestantism. Any Animus noted?
“As the happiness of a future life is the great object of religion, we may hear without surprise or scandal that the introduction, or at least the abuse of Christianity, had some influence on the decline and fall of the Roman empire. The clergy successfully preached the doctrines of patience and pusillanimity; the active virtues of society were discouraged; and the last remains of military spirit were buried in the cloister: a large portion of public and private wealth was consecrated to the specious demands of charity and devotion; and the soldiers’ pay was lavished on the useless multitudes of both sexes who could only plead the merits of abstinence and chastity. Faith, zeal, curiosity, and more earthly passions of malice and ambition, kindled the flame of theological discord; the church, and even the state, were distracted by religious factions, whose conflicts were sometimes bloody and always implacable; the attention of the emperors was diverted from camps to synods; the Roman world was oppressed by a new species of tyranny; and the persecuted sects became the secret enemies of their country. Yet party-spirit, however pernicious or absurd, is a principle of union as well as of dissension. The bishops, from eighteen hundred pulpits, inculcated the duty of passive obedience to a lawful and orthodox sovereign; their frequent assemblies and perpetual correspondence maintained the communion of distant churches; and the benevolent temper of the Gospel was strengthened, though confirmed, by the spiritual alliance of the Catholics. The sacred indolence of the monks was devoutly embraced by a servile and effeminate age; but if superstition had not afforded a decent retreat, the same vices would have tempted the unworthy Romans to desert, from baser motives, the standard of the republic. Religious precepts are easily obeyed which indulge and sanctify the natural inclinations of their votaries; but the pure and genuine influence of Christianity may be traced in its beneficial, though imperfect, effects on the barbarian proselytes of the North. If the decline of the Roman empire was hastened by the conversion of Constantine, his victorious religion broke the violence of the fall, and mollified the ferocious temper of the conquerors.” (Chapter. 39).
Gibbon wanted to prove that a major factor in the Fall of the Roman Empire was its adoption of Christianity. He could do this if it is was scarcely more than a century from the toleration of Christianity in 313 to the Empire’s Fall in 476. He most certainly could not prove this if he stuck with the facts: from the toleration of Christianity in 313 to the Fall of the Empire was 1,140 years! Interestingly enough, the legendary foundation of Rome was in in 753 BCE, with its Fall in 1453, a nice symmetry.
Thus began a tradition of bad history that has plagued us for generations. Many modern scholars reject Gibbon’s stance, while correctly admiring many other features of his work. One recent scholar, Georgije Ostrogorski, in his History of the Byzantine State (1986) puts it this way:
“For Gibbon and Lebeau were genuine historians—and Gibbon a very great one—and their works, in spite of factual inadequacy, rank high for their presentation of their material.”
Dead White (Western) European Males
A contributing factor was also certainly the traditional bias of Western scholarship toward Western Europe. When I was in school, until relatively recently, “History” largely meant:
- Studying Ancient Egypt and the Ancient Near East, and then losing interest in that part of the world
- Ignoring the roots of western civilization and mysticism in Ancient Egypt, and moving on to Classical Greece and Rome, and after the 5th Century, focusing almost exclusively on Western Europe, and later America. The primary occasions when other parts of the world were mentioned was when Western European (and later, American) power extended itself, as in the Crusades (11th – 13th Centuries), the period of Western European Conquest of the World (15th – 19th Centuries) and the New Imperialism (19th – 20th Centuries). Eastern Europe was hardly thought of until we studied the 20th Century. One of the great Imperial colonizers, Russia, was usually ignored except for the purchase of Alaska, until the Communist Revolution. Only “Bible History” kept any focus on the Middle East. India and China: who are they, except European colonies?
In this academic climate, it is hardly a surprise that Europe’s most stable Christian Kingdom, and its capital, the largest and most prosperous Late Antique and Medieval city, were virtually ignored.
Thankfully, that Western European/American (“Dead White (Western) European Males”) bias is largely gone from academe, and scholars are thinking globally, inclusively, and multiculturally. But in the common discourse, not so much. The geographic ignorance of young Americans is well documented by National Geographic. In 2006, 60% of 18-24 year-olds surveyed could not find Iraq on a map. And let’s be fair, this is not confined to other countries. Even after Hurricane Katrina, 30% could not point to Louisiana on a blank US map, and 48% could not find Mississippi. Parents and Educators: we have a lot to do!
Case Closed. Res Ipsa Loquitur (The Thing Speaks for Itself). If it please* the court, I hope I have demonstrated why I say that the Roman Empire fell on May 29, 1453. I’ll be back soon with more Language and History! Thank you!
* That’s our very rare English Subjunctive! A Rara Avis (“Rare Bird”) indeed!
Steven A. Armstrong
Tutor, Editor, Consultant