38

I've been reading a lot about the Byzantine Empire recently, and one of the things I see pointed out over and over again is that "Byzantine" is a term coined by historians, not by the people themselves. If you'd asked a citizen of the Byzantine Empire what he was, he would say "I am Roman." In fact, even the term "Romania," as I understand it, came from these ethnically eastern but politically Roman people.

I remember hearing in my youth that the Greeks continued calling themselves "Rhomaios" even after the Byzantine Empire fell, and that they only reclaimed their independent "Greek" identity in the 1700s, as a response to increasing interest in ancient Greece over in England and France.

Is this true? When did the Greek (and Eastern European in general) identity finally drop its association with the Roman Empire? The only article I've found (Wikipedia) only covers the earlier period, not that which followed "Rhomaios."

  • 8
    This is a fascinating question. A wild guess is that the Roman identification was a in a certain vague sense picked up by... the Ottoman Sultans. The Sultans called themselves, among other things, "Caesar of the Roman Empire" (Kayser-i-Rûm). So perhaps this made the Roman name odious to the Greeks. Just a wild guess. – Felix Goldberg Oct 15 '14 at 1:30
  • 5
    Ρωμιός (Rhomaios) is still used, albeit mostly casually. – yannis Oct 15 '14 at 12:39
  • 5
    @MarkC.Wallace The title is not misleading, it's exactly what I meant: as far as I can tell, the Byzantines called themselves "Romans" right up to the end. The post-Byzantine peoples living in the area of Greece are who I'm asking about, and referring to as "Greeks." – Nerrolken Oct 15 '14 at 16:21
  • 1
    I hope there is no confusion between "Roman" as in Roman Empire and "Romelian" as in en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Eastern_Rumelia – Ziezi Jan 26 '16 at 21:06
  • 2
    Although Rhomios was widely in use, my grandmother who was a WWI refugee from Bithynia used to tell me that Rhomioi are the people from the 'city' (Istanbul) and that her people did not use that term. She generally disliked it, but I never really asked her why (I was too young to care back then). – Midas Aug 17 '16 at 18:03
18

You are right, the name Hellenes means “pagans” in the New Testament, and was consequently abandoned by Greek Christians, who preferred to call themselves “Romans”. The term Hellene was revived by the Greek philosopher Giorgios Gemistos Plethon in the 15th century as part of his endeavour to replace Christianity by the “Religion of the Hellenes”. It was revived a second time by the Greek nationalist movement in the 19th century.

  • 3
    And revived a third time in 1990s. – LateralFractal Nov 23 '14 at 1:27
  • People also used the term Γραικοί (alongside Rhomaios/Rhomios) before the 15th century. At what extend is unknown however. The Varangians came in contact with people who called themselves and their language Greek. This is attested in numerous runestones across Sweden. – Midas Aug 17 '16 at 18:13
17

The Byzantine empire was a continuation of the older Roman empire in the East but it was gradually transformed into a different political entity. Meaning:

  • The original Roman empire used Latin as an official language, as expected, while Byzantium was Greek-speaking
  • They basically inherited the Roman legal system from the Roman empire.
  • They considered themselves a Christian state and even the ONLY true Christian state (that's what orthodox means, "one with the right faith").

Having this in mind, the people who considered themselves Byzantines called themselves Romans, which in Greek is "Romaios" (read as Romeos) or "Romios" (read as Romios), which was a more vulgar version, that eventually dominated. In this aspect, "Romiosyni" was used in modern Greek (which is considered the Greek language after 1453) to describe the descendant of the Roman empire, but its main meaning was "all Greek people". For example, in 1945-57 the Greek poet Giannis Ritsos wrote a poem named Romiosyni which has nothing to do with the Byzantine empire (though some might argue that the people it refers to consider themselves descendants of the Byzantines).

In modern Greek though, "Romios" is not used normally and the word used in its place is "Hellinas" meaning Hellene. So, to answer the original question, they gradually stopped using this word (and I mean gradually as the example above is quite recent and it does not suggest an absolute termination) to identify themselves in the late 19th century. I guess the process continued until the 20th century.

The OP asks many secondary questions like

When did the Greek (and Eastern European in general) identity finally drop its association with the Roman Empire?

This is a different question. The association with Byzantine is quite strong even nowadays in modern Greece and most people consider themselves descendants of Byzantines while there are some that believe there is a continuous connection to the ancient Greek people, Byzantines and modern Greeks.

P.S. The Byzantine empire was a multinational empire (though it cannot be compared with modern nation-states) and there are many people in the Balkans who have some association with its inheritance. The Albanians, for instance, have a flag which is a variation of the Byzantine flag (this does not mean that they consider themselves descendants of the Byzantine empire though).

  • 8
    "Peter Charanis, born on [Lemnos] in 1908 and later a professor of Byzantine history at Rutgers University recounts when the island was occupied [in 1912] and Greek soldiers were sent to the villages and stationed themselves in the public squares. Some of the children ran to see what Greek soldiers looked like. ‘What are you looking at?’ one of them asked. ‘At Hellenes,’ the children replied. ‘Are you not Hellenes yourselves?’ a soldier retorted. ‘‘No, we are Romans.'" — Wikipedia, citing Anthony Kaldellis's Hellenism in Byzantium – Michael Seifert Aug 18 '16 at 15:29
4

Simpler answer: the Roman Empire centered in Constantinople was always the Roman Empire and the Greek-speaking Roman Christians continued to refer to themselves as Romans even during Ottoman rule (and indeed the Ottomans referred to them this way as well). "Greek" was the name of the language and the name of the ancient people that the Romans conquered.

When the independence movement arose in the late 18th/early 19th century, the leaders needed support from the European Christian nations. They realized that in the bigoted rewriting of history that had occurred in Western Europe, the Western Europeans were the sole descendants of the "Roman Empire" and did not approve of the name "Roman" being applied to anyone outside Western Europe, certainly not the descendants of the "Byzantine Empire" which they had so long tried to erase from the history books.

The independence leaders formulated a new strategy billing their people as the descendants of ancient Greece, whose culture had seeded the ancient Romans, thus making them the intellectual ancestors of the Westerners. This reformulation endeared the "Greeks" to Western European intellectuals and soon "Greece" had its independence. It took some time, of course, for the Christian Romans to adjust to referring to themselves as "Greeks" instead of "Romans" but it gradually happened.

  • 4
    This would benefit from some references to your sources. – Steve Bird Aug 16 '16 at 20:14
3

The Greek state aggressively promoted a Hellenic identity for Greeks since independence, but the Romaic identity, looking to Byzantium rather than Antiquity, and to Orthodox Christianity and folk culture rather than the Enlightenment and high culture, persisted, and served as a rallying point for cultural debate well into the 20th century. And Greek populations outside the cultural influence of Greece—e.g. ethnic Greeks in the Ukraine or Kemalist Turkey—kept using "Roman" for a good while longer.

"Romaic" remained in use through the 20th century, both as a homely reference and as a pejorative. For example (as I describe in Four Romaic Names for Greece) the linguist Kazazis wrote how in the 50s, it was impossible to refer to "dumb Hellenes", since Hellenes were by definition glorious; one could only refer to "dumb Romans". And the philosopher Castoriades in the 90s cited disapprovingly the traditional abdication of civic responsibility, "Am I going to be the one to fix The Romaic State?" The pop song "A Roman boy fell in love with a Roman girl" dates from 1971, although by then the reference is likely already literary.

References to Roman identity likely passed from something live and subversive to something quaint and historical when Greeks started regarding themselves as fully European, something which would not long have predated their entry into the European Common Market in 1981.

-1

We Greeks are Romans, and us Romans are Greek. Till this very day all Greek folk songs of old use the term Romaios ie. Roman and not Greek, the term Greek took on a religious pagan meaning and was abandoned for over 1000 years. Ethnically we consider Old Rome as just another Greek city state.

You will find detailed explanations and history in this site.

  • 10
    The Roman Empire was a multinational (54 modern countries), multi-continental entity (Europe-Africa-Asia-Middle East ). To say that Romans are Greeks is a bit far-fetched. – Ziezi Jan 26 '16 at 21:11
  • 5
    @AdrianTodorov - I checked out the website. There's nothing commercial there, so I don't think this quite qualifies as spam. Otherwise, it is exactly as you suspected. I almost never do this, but this answer is so colossally factually incorrect I'm downvoting it. – T.E.D. Feb 26 '16 at 14:41

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.