The Social Scope of Roman Identity in Byzantium: An Evidence-Based Approach

The Social Scope of Roman Identity in Byzantium: An Evidence-Based Approach

By Anthony Kaldellis

Byzantina Symmeikta, Volume 27, 2017

Byzantine seal of Andreas Palaiologos in Western style, with the Latin inscription “Andreas Palaiologos, by the Grace of God, Despot of the Romans”.

Introduction: After centuries of denials and evasions, the debate over the nature of Roman identity in Byzantium is finally picking up. I have previously argued that the Byzantines’ view of their own Roman identity was a national one,
making Byzantium effectively a nation-state. Being a Roman was premised on common cultural traits including language, religion, and social values and customs, on belonging to the ἔθνος or γένος on that basis, and on being a “shareholder” in the polity of the Romans.

This conclusion has been challenged by Ioannis Stouraitis, who offers “a critical approach” to the issue. He suggests that Roman identity was limited to a tiny elite in Constantinople, and sees the empire as a system of exploitation of the provincials that precluded meaningful identification between the two. The Roman label was part of a misleading homogenizing discourse used by elites and implied no horizontal community.

Both positions are revolutionary, albeit in different ways. The nation-state proposal breaks from the tradition of viewing Byzantium as a multi-ethnic empire with a “universalist” theocratic ideology, while the elite reading disrupts the assumption of many historians that all or most Byzantines at least called themselves Romans, that it was part of their identity. Most Byzantines were either far more Roman than anyone had thought, or not Roman at all, with the second option leaving their ethnic identity indeterminate.

Clearly, there is much to debate. This contribution will not tackle all the relevant issues, for example whether Byzantium had the institutions necessary to create or maintain a national identity, or whether it had a notion of a homeland. It concerns a specific point that no one has so far elucidated fully with reference to the evidence found in the sources: What was the social scope of attributions of Roman identity in Byzantine sources?

Click here to read this article from the National Hellenic Research Foundation

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