Wednesday, July 5, 2023

Byzantine Revisionism Unlocks World History, by Laurent Guyénot - The Unz Review


I am sure that many readers can relate if I say that learning about Byzantium feels like discovering the sunken civilization of Atlantis. You can read a thousand books about the “Middle Ages”, even do a Ph.D. in “Medieval Studies” (as I did), and hardly ever hear about Byzantium. And then, one day, when you thought you knew your basics about the turn of the first millennium AD, you read something like this:

At the turn of the first millennium the empire of New Rome was the oldest and most dynamic state in the world and comprised the most civilized portions of the Christian world. Its borders, long defended by native frontier troops, were being expanded by the most disciplined and technologically advanced army of its time. The unity of Byzantine society was grounded in the equality of Roman law and a deep sense of a common and ancient Roman identity; cemented by the efficiency of a complex bureaucracy; nourished and strengthened by the institutions and principles of the Christian Church; sublimated by Greek rhetoric; and confirmed by the passage of ten centuries. At the end of the reign of Basileios II (976-1025), the longest in Roman history, its territory included Asia Minor and Armenia, the Balkan peninsula south of the Danube, and the southern regions of both Italy and the Crimea. Serbia, Croatia, Georgia, and some Arab emirates in Syria and Mesopotamia had accepted a dependent status.[1]

The same author informs you that, in 1018, the same Basileios (or Basil) II was “the most powerful and victorious ruler in the Christian world,”[2] reigning from a city whose walls could contain the ten biggest cities in Western Europe. Vladimir the Great (980-1015), whom the Russians consider the founder and patron saint of their nation, wedded Basil’s sister, adopted his faith, and built a Church of Hagia Sophia in Kiev. The young German emperor Otto III (996-1002), himself half-Byzantine by his mother, was about to marry Basil’s niece when he died at the age of 21. Everything in the Ottonian court was modeled after Byzantium, with their title kaiser borrowed not from the Latin caesar, but from the Greek form kaisar.

At this point you may start to wonder if you have not accidentally stumbled into an alternate history. At least you suspect that you have been missing something in your “medieval studies,” that your picture of the “Middle Ages” has a huge hole in the middle, or, rather, that it is only a fragment of a much bigger image, the larger part of which has been torn off and thrown away. You begin to look for it in the proverbial dustbin of history. Before you know it, you are on the path of “Byzantine revisionism”.

I didn’t think of this expression until a French article recently called me a “Byzantine revisionist”. Coming from a Catholic, it was not meant as a compliment, but I decided to earn it anyway with the present article. I will explain what “Byzantine revisionism” can possibly mean, and what is so great about it. Byzantine revisionism unlocks world history. It gives you more than a glimpse of those karmic forces that move civilizations, and it can even help you guess in what general direction the world is going. It is one of the most exciting quests for historical truth that I have engaged into. Byzantine revisionism is not just about Byzantium: it is a mirror for the West to know itself. And I don’t mean a mirror for White man to hate himself. On the contrary, I will argue that it is a path of repentance for what White man did to himself, under the influence of an evil, deceitful and divisive god. It is a path to self-healing, renewed pride, and invigorating hope.

The name that first comes up if you Google “Byzantine revisionism” is Anthony Kaldellis, a Greek-born American professor who has brought new insights into the field, and made it attractive to hundreds of students. The quote above is taken from one of his books. I have read most of them and consider his reputation well deserved (see the list of his publications and videos on

I started reading about Byzantium about ten years ago. My first introduction was through the works of the British historian Steven Runciman (1903-2000), starting with his massive History of the Crusades (1951). Runciman had a talent for telling the story of Byzantium with accuracy, insight, and empathy, while Kaldellis is more into theories about Byzantium. With a prior training in hard sciences, he knows the difference between proving a point and just illustrating it. And he can tell a faulty argument when he sees one. This article is, in part, a review of Kaldellis’s major books, about Byzantine civilization. But I will use his material as a springboard to ascent to a higher viewpoint on the relationship between the West and the East, and the nature of Western civilization. In the last section, I will point to some incompleteness in Kaldellis’s Byzantine revisionism and push it into unexplored territory.

The End of the “Middle Ages”

Byzantine revisionism starts by putting Constantinople back on the map. Throughout the Middle Ages, it was by far the largest city in the Christian world. According to Runciman, its population reached one million in the twelfth century, counting the suburbs.[3] Its wealth deeply impressed all newcomers. In the twelfth-century French roman Partonopeu de Blois, Constantinople is the name of Paradise, a city of gold, ivory and precious stones. Robert de Clari, who was among the crusaders who sacked it in 1204, marveled: “Since the creation of this world, such great wealth had neither been seen nor conquered.”[4] Up to that point, Constantinople was the greatest international trade center, linking China, India, Arabia, Europe and Africa.

Constantinople must also be restored to its proper place in the timeline. Anthony Kaldellis writes:

Byzantine civilization began when there were still some people who could read and write in Egyptian hieroglyphics; the oracle of Delphi and the Olympic games were still in existence; and the main god of worship in the east was Zeus. When Byzantium ended, the world had cannons and printing presses, and some people who witnessed the fall of Constantinople in 1453 lived to hear about Columbus’s journey to the New World. Chronologically, Byzantium spans the entire arc from antiquity to the early modern period, and its story is intertwined with that of all the major players in world history on this side of the Indus river.[5]

From that perspective, the “Middle Ages” appears as a cover for what should be properly called the “Byzantine Age”.

The medieval world is a fuzzy construct in both time and space and it is never clear whether a particular society belongs to it properly. But Byzantium, the primary referent in the field of Byzantine Studies is by contrast extremely easy to identify. There is no ambiguity or chronological fuzziness here: the field is defined by the history of a particular state, which one can always spot in the evidence, and that state harboured a Greek-speaking Roman and Orthodox society that had a distinctive national culture.[6]

If the term “Middle Ages” coined in the Renaissance is “inherently problematic” when one takes Byzantium into account, Kaldellis says, the more recent invention of “Late Antiquity” just added to the confusion: “late antiquity drove a wedge between Byzantium and its ancient roots.” It also “appropriated for itself major areas of Byzantine innovation that had world impact, such as the creation of most aspects of post-Constantinian Christianity, including its doctrines, literatures, churches, councils, canons, and institutional structures. Most of this was created in the east by Greek-speaking Christian Romans, i.e., by Byzantines.”[7]

Byzantium doesn’t fit well in our picture of Late Antiquity and the Middle Ages, because those categories were created to marginalize Byzantium. We have been taught that Byzantium was the left-over of the fallen Roman empire, slowly declining into insignificance. A decline lasting 1,123 years! Think about it! The reality is that Byzantium was the Roman Empire until the West, having seceded from it, erased it from history. “Byzantium in the tenth century resembled the Roman empire of the fourth century more than it resembled any contemporary western medieval state.”[8] Late Antiquity and the Middle Ages are therefore provincial constructs that are irrelevant from a Byzantine perspective — as they are, of course, from a Eurasian perspective (what does “China in the Middle Ages”, or “India in the Middle Ages” mean?).

Even our Western notion of “medieval Christianity” is seriously biased, Kaldellis argues: “‘medieval Christianity’ is understood to be of western and central Europe, even though the majority of Christians during the medieval period lived in the east, in the Slavic, Byzantine, and Muslim-ruled lands, and farther east than that too.”[9] Not to mention that, until the 8th century, the bishop of Rome was appointed by Constantinople.

Byzantine revisionism also means getting the Byzantine side of the story of its long struggle with the West, acknowledging that the victor’s narrative is deceptive, as it always is. We have been told that the crusades were the generous response of the West to the Byzantines’ plea for help. And if, by some historian’s indiscretion, we hear about the crusaders’ sack of Constantinople in 1204, he at least explains that “the Venetians made them do it”, or that it was a regrettable case of friendly fire caused by the fog of war. Byzantine revisionism clears that fog away. “There was never a greater crime against humanity than the Fourth Crusade,” wrote Steven Runciman.[10]

It is hard to exaggerate the harm done to European civilisation by the sack of Constantinople. The treasures of the City, the books and works of art preserved from distant centuries, were all dispersed and most destroyed. The Empire, the great Eastern bulwark of Christendom, was broken as a power. Its highly centralised organisation was ruined. Provinces, to save themselves, were forced into devolution. The conquests of the Ottoman were made possible by the Crusaders’ crime.[11]

Anthony Kaldellis puts it in the correct perspective:

It was in fact an act of aggression by one civilization against another, in the sense that both the aggressor and the victim were acutely aware of their ethnic, religious, political, and cultural differences, and the extreme violence that accompanied the destruction of Constantinople was driven by the self-awareness on the part of many crusaders of those differences.[12]

It is good that John-Paul II publicly apologized for the fourth crusade 800 years later,[13] but it doesn’t change the fact that his predecessor Innocent III had responded to the news of the conquest of the city with joy and thanksgiving, and immediately tried to mobilize a fresh round of soldiers, clerics and settlers to secure the new Latin empire. In a sermon given in Rome and repackaged as a letter to the clergy accompanying the crusaders, “Innocent describes the capture of Constantinople as an act of God, who humbles the proud, renders obedient the disobedient, and makes Catholic the schismatic. Innocent argues that the Greek failure to affirm the filioque (a Trinitarian error), is akin to the Jewish error of not recognizing Christ’s divinity. And, as such, the pontiff suggests that both Greek error and their downfall were predicted in Revelation.”[14]

Sadly, the dominant narrative in the West has not radically changed. Speaking about one of the authors of the standard history of the Fourth Crusade, Kaldellis writes: “When I heard Tom Madden give a talk on the Fourth Crusade in 2005, I felt like I was hearing Donald Rumsfeld, the Secretary of Defense, talk about the US invasion of Iraq in 2003.”[15] That remark underscores the importance of studying history to understand the present. The interesting question is: to what extent have the crusades, their ideology and their celebration made the West what it has become today?[16]

Byzantine revisionism is controversial because it challenges not only the image that Westerners have of Byzantium, but also the image that Westerners have of the West. We are the civilization of the crusades, that have destroyed Byzantium, and have since tried to destroy all civilizations that stood in the way of our hegemony. We should know, at least, that this is the way Russia and much of the world is seeing us (watch “The Fall of an Empire: The Lesson of Byzantium”). As I have argued in “A Byzantine view of Russia and Europe,” we cannot understand Russia without doing some Byzantine revisionism, because Russia is Byzantium redivivus in many ways.

Learning about Byzantium can also help us take a different view at Turkey. No one, of course, will deny that the Ottomans stroke the final blow to Constantinople. But, as Romanian historian Nicolae Iorga showed in Byzantium After Byzantium (1934), there was never, from their side, the same hatred as from the Latins. That is why the city “was enlarged, repopulated, and deeply loved and respected, with care for all its needs and passions, by the emperors of Ottoman origin.”[17] About its conqueror Mehmet II, Steven Runciman wrote in The Great Church in Captivity: “He had Greek blood in his veins. He was well read and deeply interested in Greek learning. He was proud to see himself as the heir of the Caesars [taking the title Kayser-i-Rum] and was ready to shoulder the religious responsibilities of his predecessors, so far as his own religion permitted.”[18] The Turkish claim to a part of Byzantium’s legacy is not illegitimate, and, from a mystico-geopolitical viewpoint, it can be foreseen that a lasting alliance between Russia and Turkey will end the curse of the Fourth Crusade (read Israel Shamir’s article titled “Ottoman Empire, Please Come Back!”).

Byzantium’s Hellenistic roots

The best contribution of Anthony Kaldellis to Byzantine studies is the new light he shines on the true nature of Byzantine civilization, by first pealing off layers of Western prejudice, polemic, and deceit, but also by reading through Byzantium’s own imperial propaganda.

For example, Kaldellis argues that Christianity, although essential to Byzantine identity, was not as central and exclusive in everyday life as we have been led to believe, by reading too many ecclesiastical authors. Even during the reigns of Justin and Justinian, reputed to be an era of intolerant Christian orthodoxy, many officials and intellectuals showed not even nominal Christian faith: such is the case of the historian Procopius, who speaks of “Christians” as if excluding himself from that group, and regards as “insanely stupid to investigate the nature of God and ask what sort it is.” As I have argued elsewhere, the very name given by Justinian to his architectural masterpiece—the world’s greatest building for one thousand years—testifies to his high regard for Hellenism: Hagia Sophia, or Holy Wisdom, is the goddess of philosophers, not theologians.

The stereotype of Byzantium’s hair-splitting obscurantism has occulted its enduring love for ancient Greek culture, which Anthony Kaldellis documents in Hellenism in Byzantium (2007), complemented in Byzantium Unbound (2019). Unlike what happened in the West under the influence of Tertullian, Augustine and others, Eastern Church Fathers did not condemn the Hellenistic heritage. In the fourth century, Gregorios of Nazianzos made the case that the classical texts were not inherently religious and could be profitably studied by Christians. His friend Basil of Caesarea wrote a brief treatise on that issue, To Young Men on How They Might Benefit from Greek Literature, which became authoritative. Homer was always “the poet” to Byzantine schoolchildren, and his works have survived to this day only because they stayed on the educational curriculum. The same holds true for other ancient Greek historians, tragedians and poets.

Photios, patriarch of Constantinople from 858 to 867 and from 877 to 886, is recognized in the Orthodox Church as Saint Photios the Great, although he is mostly remembered for promoting the edition and study of pre-Christian Greek literature. Even the works of anti-Christian emperor Julian (361-363), known in the West as “the apostate”, were copied and preserved: “His legacy was a constant reminder that Hellenism was not, as many wanted to believe, merely a docile handmaiden of the faith but rather could be activated as a powerful alternative.”[19]

Knowledge of ancient Greek literature was brought to the West by Byzantine émigrés between the thirteenth and the sixteenth century.[20] One of them, Gemistos Plethon, who died around 1453, was “the real originator of Platonic studies in the West.”[21] “Virtually all Greek texts … had to pass through Byzantium in order to reach us,” writes Kaldellis. “So when you go into a classics seminar library and stare at rows of the Greek Loebs, Teubners, Oxford Classical Texts, or Budés, know that you are looking at a Byzantine Classical library.” The West has consistently tried to hide its debt to Byzantium: “even recent works continue to cast Byzantium not as a genuine participant but only as the caretaker of the classical tradition for the ultimate benefit of the West, its “true heir.”[22] But if Western civilization defines itself as the heir of Classical Greece, then “Byzantium emerges as the quintessentially western civilization.”[23] The reason why “there could be no Renaissance in Constantinople [is] because nothing had died that needed to be revived.”[24]

In the wake of Hellenism in Byzantium, Kaldellis wrote a shorter book on the Byzantines’ care for Athens and its Parthenon: The Christian Parthenon: Classicism and Pilgrimage in Byzantine Athens (2009):

after antiquity Athens and the classical legacy that it still represented in the minds of many Byzantines did not vanish from the stage of history as has been asserted. The Parthenon, converted into a church, became an important site of pilgrimage whose fame spread throughout the Christian world. Yet contrary to the modes of Byzantine piety, what attracted pilgrims and adoration were not any sacred relics or icons that were kept thereby but rather the Parthenon itself, the building, whose classical past was known and, indeed, quite visible. Christian devotion was here engaged in a direct and continuous dialogue with antiquity, in the very seat of its classical greatness.[25]

Byzantium’s intimate connection with Hellenism created a very different kind of Christendom than in the West, where most popes had a strong dislike for anything Greek (starting with Gregory the Great, 590-604) and instilled in the Church a horror of pagan literature. Although there were always tensions between the two cultures in the East, these tensions maintained a balance that prevented Christianity from sinking into the exclusivist madness that characterized Roman Catholicism.

Byzantine imperial power could always count on an abundant supply of secular officials trained in the Hellenistic heritage. One major consequence is that the political philosophy that guided the ruling elite was classical rather than biblical. In contrast, Western “political theology” was primarily drawn from the Old Testament. Roman Christianity was a twofold religion: while the people were told to imitate Christ and carry their cross, the ruling elite, from the time of Charlemagne, drew their inspiration from the Jewish Tanakh, thinking of themselves as anointed new Moses or new Davids (never as a new Jesus).

The ideology of the crusades came straight from the stories of Israel’s holy wars. In Eastern Christianity, this delusion was always held at bay by the counterweight of Hellenistic philosophy and history. Without this balancing force, Western Christianity fell under the spell of Yahweh to a much greater degree than the Eastern Church.

The papacy’s hatred of Greek culture also resonates deeply with the Old Testament. It is, after all, the essence of the anti-assimilationist messianism that shaped the final corpus of the Old Testament, with the Books of the Maccabees as the icing on the cake.

The spirit of Old Testament hebraism also manifested itself by the legalism that prevailed in the West, leading directly to the doctrine of Purgatory, to the Inquisition and the burning of heretics, and to so many aspects that are foreign to Orthodoxy. John Meyendorff and Aristeides Papadakis, wrote in The Christian East and the Rise of the Papacy (1994)d — an indispensable book for the Byzantine revisionist — about “the transformation of the papacy into the most complex tribunal in Christendom. … Legal rather than religious functions were to set the pattern of papal activity for the rest of the central Middle Ages. Practically every papal incumbent in the period 1100-1300 was to be a lawyer.”[26]

The Byzantine Republican Monarchy

Byzantine political life has been studied with unprecedented depth by Kaldellis in The Byzantine Republic: People and Power in New Rome (2015). Here again, he puts an end to centuries of disinformation. “An imaginary modern construct labeled ‘Byzantium,’ identified with theocracy and absolutism, has come to stand between us and the vibrant political culture of the east Romans.”[27] Byzantium, argues Kaldellis, was essentially a Republic, in the Roman sense of the term. It was a basileia (kingdom) in the service of a politeia (the Greek equivalent of res publica), a Republican monarchy in which popular acclamation made emperors, and popular disapprobation unmade them. It did not always work in practice, but that was at least “a deeply embedded ideology; that is, this was the only acceptable framework for the legitimation of imperial power in Byzantium, and it fundamentally shaped how it could be used.”[28] “There was no imperial legitimacy without popular consent.”[29]

Sure, there were dynasties, but “dynastic claims were not a right but only one among many rhetorical arguments that an emperor (or potential emperor) could make.”[30] “Just as the people could turn out in numbers to end a dynasty (in 695, 1042, ad 1185), so too could they rally to defend it when it was popular and they perceived it as being under threat.”[31]

According to Kaldellis, “the explicit or underlying assumption of all narratives, speeches, pronouncements, and documents relating to the basileia” is that “the emperor was supposed to work hard for the benefit of his subjects”. And so in 491, when Anastasios I was “elected” (acclaimed) emperor in the hippodrome, he declared: “I am not unaware how great a burden of responsibility has been placed upon me for the common safety of all. … I entreat God the Almighty that you will find me working as hard at public affairs as you had hoped when you universally elected me now.”[32] In 511, when a controversy pitted Anastasios against the patriarch Makedonios, and the threat of civil war was mounting, “Anastasios appeared in the hippodrome without his crown and offered to abdicate, which calmed the crowd. When the people told him to put his crown back on, they were symbolically reinvesting him with imperial authority.”[33]

The elective nature of kingship should not, of course, be confused with the modern use of individual secret ballots. “Election” meant collective popular acclamation, and this made the hippodrome, directly connected to the Imperial Palace for convenience, the heart of the Byzantine Republic.

The Byzantines were not passive subjects. “They were on the alert for opportunities to intervene in the politics of the City and could mobilize within hours. They tended to act as one group and were rarely split on opposite sides; minority groups were rarely successful.”[34] Kaldellis provides many examples of “episodes when the people of Constantinople took the initiative to defend and enforce their views when it came to religious, political, fiscal, and dynastic matters, or when they disliked an emperor and wanted to get rid of him.”[35]

Byzantium was a republican and not a “constitutional” monarchy. While there were no regular legal mechanisms by which the people could exercise power, there were also no formal agreements that could shield an emperor from the anger of the people or other elements of the republic when they had recourse to extralegal measures.[36]

Expressions of popular power often took the form of civil war. Byzantine chronicles make it clear that this was considered as an unfortunate but legitimate manifestation of the republican spirit. This is why “no state in history ever had more civil wars that changed nothing about the structure or the ideology of the polity. Byzantine civil wars were usually only about personnel.”[37]

In his introduction to Streams of Gold, Rivers of Blood (2017), Kaldellis covered other aspects of the republican tradition of Byzantium, contrasting it with the Western feudalism of the same period. The political hierarchy of Byzantium, he wrote, was an “an aristocracy of service, not blood, despite the occasional rhetoric.” The ruling elite “was marked by high turnover and had no hereditary right to office or titles, and no legal authority over persons and territories except that which came from office.” “families became powerful only when they succeeded in court politics and managed to retain imperial favor.”

Constantinople was a magnet for the most talented and well-connected, but also the most destitute, for it was there that imperial and Church philanthropy was most bountiful. It was a place of opportunity. The founder of the reigning Macedonian dynasty, Basileios I (867-886), was a peasant who went to the City to escape poverty, and maneuvered his way to the throne.[38]

Like a painting conservator, Kaldellis revives the original colors of Byzantium that had been darkened by centuries of Western calumny. Byzantium comes out as both intensely Roman, and profoundly relevant today. Runciman explained in Byzantine Civilisation: “That the Byzantine Empire should have endured for eleven hundred years was almost entirely due to the virtues of its constitution and administration. Few states have been organised in a manner so well suited to the times and so carefully directed to prevent power remaining in the hands of the incompetent.”[39] One better understands why Russian philosopher Konstantin Leontiev (1831-1891) saw “byzantinism” as the political ideal for Russia: an authoritarian, personalized power, backed by the Church and dependent on popular support. Byzantinism may be the recipe for lasting civilizational states.[40]

How Roman were the Byzantines?

In Romanland: Ethnicity and Empire in Byzantium (2019), Kaldellis confronts what he calls “Roman denialism,” the scholarly prejudice against the Byzantines’ self-professed Roman identity. It is, he says, “the original sin of Byzantinism in the West.”[41]

Roman denialism is today one of the pillars of Byzantine Studies. … most experts within the field continue to deny the obvious, sometimes zealously, asserting various pretexts, denials, and risible arguments by which to assert that the Byzantines were not “really” the Romans that they claimed to be. In some scenarios, “Roman” was allegedly just an empty label, a relic of past imperial glory or crusty antiquarianism; or it was a hollow piece of political propaganda; or an act of deception performed by a few elites for some reason; or a meaningless claim made by a population that was deluding itself; or it was equivalent to “Orthodoxy”; or any alternative that might avoid the ethnic implications that stare us in the face through so many sources, genres, and contexts, both social and geographical. … We have to come to terms with the fact that the Byzantines were what they claimed to be, Romans, in ways that were simultaneously (and comprehensively) legal, ethnic, and political. That Romanness is the great taboo, the inconvenient truth, that has held us back in a state of perpetual cognitive dissonance. There is now simply no theoretical justification left for outright denying the ethnicity of a society and imposing upon it an incoherent medley of invented alternatives to accompany the invented label (“Byzantium”) that we have also foisted upon it.[42]

Depriving the Byzantines of their Romanness is a Western tradition that can be traced to the second half of the eighth century, when the popes turned away from Constantinople and sought the patronage of the Franks.

At this point, the term Graeci began to displace Romani in western references to the eastern empire. This intensified when some Frankish kings began, if at first only sporadically and uncertainly, to claim for themselves the title of emperor of the Romans. By the ninth century, both popes and western emperors were, in their official correspondence, actively questioning the right of the eastern emperor to call himself emperor of the Romans. … Thus, the easterners were increasingly reclassified as Graeci, a term that in ancient Latin literature conveyed negative connotations that were now reactivated, connotations of treachery, effeminacy, excessive sophistication, love of luxury, verbal trickery, and cowardice.[43]

The process is illustrated by a letter from Louis II, great-grandson of Charlemagne, to Basileios I, the founder of the Macedonian dynasty: “The Greeks,” he states, “have ceased to be emperors of the Romans on account of their bad opinions when it comes to religious faith. Also, not only have they abandoned the city and the seat of empire [Rome], they have also abandoned the Roman people [i.e., of Rome] and the language itself [Latin], having migrated in all ways to a different city, seat, people, and language [Greek].” In Kaldellis’ paraphrase, Louis also “maintains that he has a better claim to the title because it was bestowed on him by the pope, whereas in the east the so-called emperors were sometimes acclaimed by the senate, the people, and the armies. In making this argument, Louis displayed how out of touch he was with ancient Roman tradition. In this particular aspect, eastern practice adhered to authentic Roman notions of acclamation, whereas western practice did not.”[44]

The resulting Western image of Byzantium “was a package of distortions and strategic misunderstandings that stripped Byzantium of its claim to Rome and eventually also justified its conquest, exploitation, and (failed) attempts at conversion by western powers. This image continued without interruption down to the nineteenth century, when the field of Byzantine Studies came into being, even though it had evolved in the meantime.”[45]

The most interesting part of Kaldellis’ thesis is that the Byzantines imagined their “Romanness” not only as political and cultural, but as ethnic too: “the Romans of Byzantium saw themselves as an ethnic group or nation, defined in the same way that ethnic groups and nations are understood by modern scholars and sociologists: they had their own ethnonym, language, customs, laws and institutions, homeland, and sense (even if imagined) that they were related by kinship and taxonomically different from other ethnic groups.”[46] They called themselves Romaioi, their land Romania, and their language Romaika; “for most of their history the Byzantines did not think that their language made them Greek; to the contrary, their ethnicity as Romans made their language ‘Roman,’ or Romaic.”[47]

Having established that “the Romans of Byzantium saw themselves as an ethnic group or nation,” Kaldellis asks: “Did the Byzantine Romans believe that they were collectively descended from the ancient Romans too?” He presumes that they did, although he cannot quote any statement to that effect. It was simply, he says, “presupposed in many discursive practices.”[48] But since Byzantine Romans cannot possibly descent from Italian Romans in a strictly genetic sense, Kaldellis finds himself in front of another enigma:

There was a time, after all, when the core regions of Romanía had no Romans. How had it come to be filled up with Romans? … it is worth keeping in mind that this is a major question in ancient history that has not yet been answered satisfactorily. Plausible terms for it include Romanization, Roman ethnogenesis, or Romanogenesis, namely the process by which people who formerly had other ethnic, national, legal, political, and cultural identities became Roman in those categories and let their previous identifications lapse. That this did happen during the Roman empire is understood, although it has not yet been fully theorized or explored, especially for the Greek East.[49]

Kaldellis cannot solve that mystery. This is because it is unsolvable within the dominant “Roman” paradigm, that Kaldellis does not question. He has definitely proven that the Byzantines saw themselves as ethnic Romans, but has misunderstood what his sources tell him about the meaning of “Roman”.

Byzantine Revisionism of the Third Kind

Among the eight “snapshots” that Kaldellis provides to “highlight the ethnic aspects of Romanness in Byzantium,” none of them indicate that Byzantines thought they descended from Italian or Western immigrants. Two of them indicate that their “Roman ancestors” came from the Balkans, and one indicate that they came from Western Anatonia.[50] The first one, taken from the Miracles of Saint Demetrios of Thessalonike, is about people captured in the Balkans and resettled in Pannonia, who kept “the ancestral traditions of the Romans and the impulse of their genos.”[51] The second one is about the population of Melnik claiming in 1246 that, “we all originate in Philippopolis [a Greek city west of Constantinople] and we are pure Romans when it comes to our genos.”[52] The third one is a twelfth-century comment regarding some people from Herakleia, a Greek city on the Black Sea, east of Constantinople, who were resettled by Basileios I (867-886) in Kallipolis (Gallipoli) in southern Italy: “This explains why that city still uses Roman customs and dress and a thoroughly Roman social order, down to this day.”[53] Here we have people living in Italy calling themselves Romans because they were immigrants from Asia Minor — and presumably regarding their Italian neighbors as non-Romans. A fourth example can be found in Kaldellis’ Hellenism in Byzantium, where he writes: “To attack his theological opponent Gregorios of Cyprus in the 1280s, Ioannes Bekkos argued that while he himself ‘had been born and raised among Romans and from Romans,’ Gregorios ‘was born and raised among Italians, and not only that, he merely affects our dress and speech.’”[54] Here a Byzantine affirms that he is a true Roman, while Italians are not. In fact, Byzantines always referred to Italians not as Romans, but as Latins.

So Byzantine sources indicate that when the Byzantines referred to their Roman ancestors, they were referring to a people living in what they called “Romania”, an area stretching West of the Black Sea, from ancient Dacia down to the Balkans and probably including West Anatolia. Italy was not part of this “Romania” — not, at least, until it became a Byzantine colony. Kaldellis read in his sources the opposite of what they say because he reasons from the premise that “Roman” means, etymologically, “from Rome, Italy.” But is this premise correct?

There are mounting doubts about the reliability of Eusebius of Caesarea’s tale of Constantine’s translatio imperii from Rome to Constantinople,[55] and Kaldellis himself complains that, “Almost every scholar who wants to illustrate what the Byzantines thought about politics or the emperor trots out some quotations from Eusebios.”[56] It must be observed that, even according to Latin sources, Rome was ruled by Oriental emperors at least since the Severan dynasty (193-235), if not since the Flavian dynasty (69-96). Constantine, a Flavian, was a native of the Balkans who had never set foot in Rome before he conquered it from Maxentius. His predecessor Diocletian was also from the Balkans, and so were many of his successors, including the Justinian dynasty.

The lack of record that the Byzantine Romans thought their ancestors came from the West, must be contrasted with the clear tradition among Italian Romans that their ancestors came from the East. Drawing on earlier legends, Virgil told in his Aeneid how Rome was founded by Aeneas from Troy, in the vicinity of the Bosphorus. “Rome itself was of Hellenic origin,” wrote first-century-BC historian Strabo in his Geographia. Even the names of Remus and Romulus in the alternative legend from Titus Livy indicate a Greek origin: Romos, Latinized as Romus, was a Greek word meaning “strong”. Greek-speaking Roman historian Herodian (c. 170-240 AD) wrote that, when Romans sent an embassy to Phrygia asking for a statue of the goddess Cybelle, “they easily got it by reminding the Phrygians of their kinship and by recalling to them that Aeneas the Phrygian was the ancestor of the Romans.”

Everybody knows that the Romans of Rome borrowed most of their culture, including their gods, from the Greeks. But no one can explain why the Romans had no gods and hardly any myth of their own. Cultured Romans, such as Marcus Aurelius and Hadrian (nicknamed Graeculus) spoke and wrote in Greek.

Dionysius of Halicarnassus (1st century BC) declared in his Roman Antiquities that “Rome is a Greek city.” He also claimed that “the language spoken by the Romans” derives from Aeolic Greek. This linguistic theory, called “Aeolism”, was taken up by Janus Lascaris, one of the most prominent Greek scholars of the Italian Renaissance, in a lecture delivered at the Florentine University in 1493. Lascaris argued that the “Latin people” (genus Latinum) was of ancient Greek extraction (which is why they imitated the Greeks in every domain of their public and private lives), and that “the Latin language is Greek.” This theory was replaced in the nineteenth century by the Proto-Indo-European hypothesis, tracing Latin and Greek to a common ancestor.[57] But is needs to be said that the origin of Latin remains a big mystery. The Romance language that most resembles Latin is Romanian, and some Romanian scholars argue quite convincingly that Latin actually originates from their part of the world, formerly known as Dacia.[58] This theory certainly makes more sense than the schoolbook assertion that the inhabitants of Dacia adopted Vulgar Latin from the Roman legions stationed on the lower part of their territory from 106 to 271 AD, and completely forgot their original language, to the point that no trace of it is left, after which they became so attached to their Vulgar Latin (Romanian) that no later invader (Germans, Huns, or Slavs) could impose their own language.

So Kaldellis may be right to assume that the Byzantines “were Romans who had lost touch with the Latin tradition,” and that when they referred to “the language of their ancestors,” they meant Latin,[59] — although the proofs are elusive — but that does not mean that they thought their ancestors were from the Latium.

Everything, except academic dogma, suggests that the relationship of Rome to the Greek or proto-Byzantine world was originally that of a colony, somewhat like Carthage in relationship to Phoenicia. Rome became hegemonic in the Mediterranean during a brief period marked by a power vacuum in the eastern Mediterranean, in the first century BC, and lost its dominant position at the beginning of the third century AD. By that time, it had successfully but only partially blurred its early history, which became even more distorted when the Franks took control of the papacy and claimed the heritage of the Roman Empire for themselves. From that period date a general scenario of world history that boils down to a two-way translatio imperii in three stages:

  1. from Greece to Rome: through the spread of Hellenism in the wake of Alexander’s campaign, the people of Rome became culturally Hellenized;
  2. from Rome back to Greece: with Constantine’s first translatio imperii to Byzantium, the Greeks became Romanized;
  3. from Greece back to Rome and Aachen: Franks and then Saxons were Romanized and took back the Roman imperium from Byzantium.

In my articles penned under the name “The First Millennium Revisionist” (expanded in my book Anno Domini), I have explored the possibility that the second stage is in a large part a fantasy, based on the spurious tales of Eusebius of Caesarea and reinforced by Western forgery and propaganda. There was never a transfer of civilization from Rome to Constantinople. Even Roman Law, supposedly Rome’s greatest gift to the world, was codified under Justinian and imported to Italy from Byzantium at the end of the eleventh century.[60]

The Byzantine did not receive their Romanness from Italy. It was always in the Balkans with them. The Byzantine are neither the descendants nor the spiritual heirs of the Italians. Their civilization originated directly from the Hellenistic civilization of the last three centuries BC. The quintessential Roman is Alexander the Great (called a Rumi in Arab, Persian and Afghan traditions). Hellenism was always, from the beginning, true Romanism.

What happened, I suggest, is that the Franko-Italians have copyrighted the name “Roman” by erasing its eastern origin, as part of an elaborate deception that included the false Donation of Constantine, the tale of Peter as first bishop of Rome, and many other pious frauds. The main purpose was the usurpation of Constantinople’s birthright by Rome and Aachen, and the outcome was the fratricide that destroyed the East and drove the West insane.


[1] Anthony Kaldellis, Hellenism in Byzantium: The Transformation of Greek Identity and the Reception of the Classical Tradition, Cambridge UP, 2007, p. 189.

[2] Anthony Kaldellis, Streams of Gold, Rivers of Blood: The Rise and Fall of Byzantium, 955 A.D. to the First Crusade, Oxford UP, 2019, p. 81.

[3] Steven Runciman, The Fall of Constantinople, 1453, Cambridge UP, 1965.

[4] Robert de Clari, La Conquête de Constantinople, Champion Classiques, 2004, p. 171.

[5] Anthony Kaldellis, Byzantium Unbound, ARC Humanities Press, 2019, kindle l. 728.

[6] Ibid., l. 1325.

[7] Ibid., l. 891.

[8] Ibid., l. 1369.

[9] Ibid., l. 1292.

[10] Steven Runciman, A History of the Crusades, vol. 3: The Kingdom of Acre and the Later Crusades (1954), Penguin Classics, 2016, p. 130.

[11] Steven Runciman, Byzantine Civilisation, E. Arnold & Co., 1933, on, pp. 54-55.

[12] Kaldellis, Byzantium Unbound, op. cit., l. 1480.


[14] George Demacopoulos, Colonizing Christianity: Greek and Latin Religious Identity in the Era of the Fourth Crusade, Fordham UP, 2019, p. 86.

[15] Kaldellis, Byzantium Unbound, op. cit., l. 1491.

[16] Check Michael Hudson’s insight in

[17] Nicolae Iorga, Byzantium After Byzantium (1934), The Center for Romanian Studies, Histria Books, 2022.

[18] Steven Runciman, The Great Church in Captivity, Cambridge UP, 1968, pp. 166-167.

[19] Kaldellis, Hellenism in Byzantium, op. cit., p. 144.

[20] Jonathan Harris, Greek Émigrés in the West, 1400-1520, Porphyrogenitus, 1995; Nigel G. Wilson, From Byzantium to Italy : Greek Studies in the Italian Renaissance, 1992, second edition, Bloomsbury Academic, 2017.

[21] Steven Runciman, The Great Church in Captivity: A study of the Patriarchate of Constantinople from the ever of the Turkish conquest to the Greek War of Independence, Cambridge UP, 1968, p. 124.

[22] Kaldellis, Hellenism in Byzantium, op. cit., p. 4.

[23] Ibid., p. 2.

[24] Kaldellis, Byzantium Unbound, op. cit., l. 1325.

[25] Anthony Kaldellis, The Christian Parthenon: Classicism and Pilgrimage in Byzantine Athens, Cambridge UP, 2009, p. xii.

[26] John Meyendorff and Aristeides Papadakis, The Christian East and the Rise of the Papacy, St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1994, p. 175.

[27] Anthony Kaldellis, The Byzantine Republic: People and Power in New Rome, Harvard UP, 2015, p. 199.

[28] Kaldellis, The Byzantine Republic, op. cit., p. 109.

[29] Ibid., p. 139.

[30] Ibid., p. 215.

[31] Ibid., p. 130.

[32] Ibid., pp. 55-56.

[33] Ibid., p. 120.

[34] Ibid., p. 137.

[35] Ibid., p. 124.

[36] Ibid., p. 181.

[37] Ibid., p. 138.

[38] Anthony Kaldellis, Streams of Blood, Rivers of Blood: The Rise and Fall of Byzantium 955 A.D. to the First Crusade, Oxford UP, 2017, p. 5.

[39] Runciman, Byzantine Civilisation, op. cit., p. 61.

[40] Christopher Coker, The Rise of the Civilizational State, Polity, 2019.

[41] Kaldellis, Byzantium Unbound, op. cit., l. 170.

[42] Anthony Kaldellis, Romanland: Ethnicity and Empire in Byzantium, Harvard UP, 2019, kindle l. 107-123.

[43] Ibid., l. 338-354.

[44] Ibid., l. 495-515.

[45] Ibid., l. 370-394.

[46] Ibid., l. 317-320.

[47] Ibid., l. 2214.

[48] Ibid., l. 1489.

[49] Ibid., l. 2385-2397.

[50] Ibid., l. 217, and l. 288.

[51] Ibid., l. 217.

[52] Ibid., l. 288.

[53] Ibid., l. 883.

[54] Kaldellis, Hellenism in Byzantium, op. cit., p. 107.

[55] In their introduction to their translation of Eusebius’s Life of Constantine (Clarendon, 1999, p. 1), Averil Cameron and Stuart G. Hall write: “it has proved extremely controversial. Some scholars are disposed to accept its evidence at face value while others have been and are highly skeptical.”

[56] Kaldellis, The Byzantine Republic, op. cit., p. 167.

[57] Han Lamers, “Janus Lascaris’ Florentine Oration and the ‘Reception’ of Ancient Aeolism,”

[58] See the documentaries “Dacians: Unsettling Truths” on Youtube,, and “Dacians: Unsettling Truths” on Youtube,

[59] Kaldellis, Romanland, op. cit., l. 2136, 2088.

[60] Harold J. Berman, Law and Revolution, the Formation of the Western Legal Tradition, Harvard UP, 1983; Aldo Schiavone, The Invention of Law in the West, Harvard UP, 2012.