Western Historians’ Somewhat Biased Labeling of the Eastern Roman Empire

The Eastern Roman Empire is commonly referred to as the Byzantine Empire by modern historians. Basically, the empire was the continuation of the Roman Empire in its eastern provinces during Late Antiquity and the Middle Ages. This term, “Byzantine,” originated well after the period itself had ended; the citizens of the empire considered themselves Roman and referred to their empire as the Roman Empire, or Romania.

The labeling of this empire as “Byzantine” instead of “Eastern Roman” by Western historians is fraught with historical, cultural, and ideological layers that reveal as much about the historians themselves as about the subject they study.

Western historians have opted to designate the Eastern Roman Empire with a different term, the Byzantine Empire. Why this hesitance to acknowledge the Eastern Romans by the name they used for themselves? Image: A map of the empire, in red and pink, in 555 AD.

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Origins of the Term “Byzantine”

The term “Byzantine” derives from “Byzantium,” the ancient name for the city of Constantinople before it was re-founded by Emperor Constantine I (also known as Constantine the Great) in 330 AD and renamed as Constantinople, which would later become Istanbul.

The term was popularized by the German historian Hieronymus Wolf in the 16th century, long after the fall of the empire in 1453 to the Ottoman Turks. Wolf used “Byzantine” to distinguish the Empire’s later Greek-speaking phase from its earlier Latin-speaking Roman phase. This distinction was based on the cultural and linguistic shift that the empire underwent during its millennium-long history.

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Reasons Behind the Labeling

Below are some of the possible reasons why there was the hesitance by Western historians to acknowledge the Eastern Romans by the name they used for themselves – Romans:

Firstly, Western historians may have felt the need to distinguish the medieval state from its ancient predecessor due to significant differences in territory, culture, language, and administration. The Eastern Roman Empire gradually became predominantly Greek in culture and language, particularly after the loss of its western territories to Germanic tribes and the Arab conquests of the 7th century, which reshaped the empire’s demographic and political contours.

Another reason for the adoption of a different name by Western scholars could be the perceived political and moral decadence of the empire compared to the Roman Republic and the early Roman Empire. Byzantine politics were often characterized by complex intrigue and brutal power struggles, aspects that Western historians used to illustrate a decline from the Roman ideal of governance.

Thirdly, the religious differences between the predominantly Roman Catholic West and the Orthodox Christian East played a significant role in the labeling. Following the Schism of 1054, and especially after the events of the Fourth Crusade and the sacking of Constantinople in 1204, animosity towards the Eastern Empire hardened in Western Europe. The term “Byzantine” in its pejorative sense encapsulated Western criticisms of what they saw as Eastern religious and cultural practices that deviated from the true Christian teachings and Roman traditions.

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Finally, it must be noted that during the time of the Renaissance and the Enlightenment, admiration for the classical past was immense. Renaissance scholars saw themselves as the inheritors of Roman virtues—a view that was romanticized and idealized. The Eastern Roman Empire, conversely, was often portrayed as a failed state that had lost the classical Roman virtues. This portrayal was compounded by the Ottoman rule over Constantinople, which influenced the European view of the East as fundamentally different.

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Impact of the Labeling

The term “Byzantine” has carried with it an array of connotations—many of which are negative. “Byzantine” in common parlance has come to mean excessively complicated and bureaucratic, with a hint of underhandedness. Such connotations reflect Western biases and misrepresentations, oversimplifying a complex civilization and its rich contributions to art, culture, law, and politics. This simplification has led to a general misunderstanding and underappreciation of the Byzantine Empire’s role in preserving and transmitting classical knowledge and in shaping the medieval world.

Moreover, the use of “Byzantine” rather than “Eastern Roman” emphasizes the perceived discontinuity rather than the continuity of the Roman tradition. This has significant implications for how history is written and understood, affecting everything from academic discussions to cultural perceptions.

Conclusion

The labeling of the Eastern Roman Empire as “Byzantine” by Western historians is more than a mere semantic choice—it is a reflection of deeper cultural, ideological, and historical currents.

While it helps distinguish the different phases of Roman history, it also reflects and reinforces the cultural and religious prejudices of the time when the term was coined.

As modern historians continue to debate and discuss the appropriateness and implications of the Byzantine label, it remains a crucial example of how history is shaped not only by the facts but also by the perspectives of those who write it.

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FAQs

Here are some questions and answers based on the historical context of the Eastern Roman Empire, often referred to as the Byzantine Empire:

What significant change did Roman Emperor Constantine implement in 330 AD?

In 330 AD, Emperor Constantine relocated the capital of the Roman Empire from Rome to the Greek city of Byzantium, renaming it Constantinople. This move shifted the cultural, economic, and political center of the empire, reflecting the changing dynamics within the Roman Empire.

What name do Western historians use to refer to the Eastern Roman Empire, and why?

Western historians commonly refer to the Eastern Roman Empire as the Byzantine Empire. This term was adopted to differentiate the Eastern tradition, which had evolved culturally and linguistically from its Roman roots, and to assert Western Europe’s claim as the true inheritor of the Roman legacy, particularly after the fall of the Western Roman Empire.

How did the division of the Roman Empire affect its identity in the East and West?

Despite the formal division of the Roman Empire into Eastern and Western empires in 395 AD, both parts continued to identify themselves as Roman, maintaining the legacy and traditions of the ancient empire. However, the Eastern Empire, while evolving in its language and administrative practices, never lost its sense of Roman identity, even as it came to be known as the Byzantine Empire by external observers.

What were the main differences between the Eastern and Western Roman Empires that emerged over time?

The Eastern Roman Empire, or Byzantine Empire, primarily used the Greek language and developed unique legal and cultural practices that distinguished it from the Western Roman Empire, which continued to use Latin. These differences were further emphasized by the religious schism of 1054 between the Eastern Orthodox and Western Roman Catholic Churches.

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What does the labeling of the Eastern Roman Empire as “Byzantine” signify about Western perspectives on history?

The labeling of the Eastern Roman Empire as “Byzantine” reflects a Western-centric view of history that emphasizes the end of the Roman Empire with the fall of Rome itself. It underscores a historical narrative that seeks to marginalize the Eastern tradition, which continued until the fall of Constantinople in 1453, portraying it as a departure from the “true” Roman principles preserved in the West.

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Why is it important to recognize the continuity of the Roman Empire through the Eastern Roman Empire?

Recognizing the continuity of the Roman Empire through the Eastern Roman Empire, or Byzantine Empire, challenges the traditional Western narrative that limits Roman history to the borders and timelines of the Western Roman Empire. It highlights the enduring legacy of Roman governance, culture, and law that persisted in the East and acknowledges the complex interplay of identity, legacy, and historiography in understanding historical developments.

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