Why did the term "Byzantine Empire" enter common usage instead of "Eastern Roman Empire" or "Roman Empire"? (or Imperium Graecorum?)

Wikipedia says that the term Byzantine wasn't used until 1557, and that pope Leo around 800 AD named Charlemagne "Roman Emperor" for political reasons. Note that the Eastern Roman Empire fell to the Turks in 1453, so this name change comes more than 100 years later, during the protestant reformation.

Wikipedia also says:

in the Islamic and Slavic worlds, where the Empire was more straightforwardly seen as the continuation of the Roman Empire. In the Islamic world, the Roman Empire was known primarily as Rûm.[21] The name millet-i Rûm, or "Roman nation," was used by the Ottomans through the 20th century to refer to the former subjects of the Byzantine Empire, that is, the Orthodox Christian community within Ottoman realms.

How and why did the term Byzantine supplant other western European words for the Eastern Roman Empire? Did the Historians who did this have ulterior motives?

Was it Gibbon in particular who is responsible for this? What were his motives?

  • What's the big deal? Is it always a good idea to accept uncritically what people call themselves? German Democratic Republic? – Ne Mo Feb 15 '17 at 23:06

Warren Treadgold, one of the most eminent scholars on the Byzantine Empire puts it simply as follows:

Modern historians have called this empire "Byzantine" because it was ruled not from Rome but from Constantinople, the former Byzantium

Hieronymus Wolf was the earliest known historian to use the name of the Byzantine Empire's capital to refer to the empire itself. As far as we know, there where no other "ulterior motives" other than to simply distinguish between an empire in two different stages of history. In the eyes of historians, the Empire was always named after its capital city. So since the Roman Empire was without Rome for a great part of its history, the name of its later capital was used to replace it.

Other terms for the Byzantine Empire, particularly "The Greek Empire" or "Empire of the Greeks" (Imperium Graecorum) was used by 19th century historians interchangeably with "Byzantine Empire" where appropriate. Mostly when highlighting the ethnic or linguistic differences between the Byzantine Empire and its western neighbours. One notable historian who used "The Greek Empire" was George Finlay.

As for Gibbon, like other classicists he was not too fond of the Byzantine Empire. He saw it as a betrayal of everything that ancient Rome and Greece stood for. (see Norwich). Although still accepting Byzantium as a continuation of the Roman empire, he is well known for trying to distance his ideal Roman Empire from that of "barbaric" Byzantium by highlighting key differences. Differences which were the cause of the Empires downfall. He did not however promote "Byzantium" as an alternative to "Roman" as such practices by his time where already widespread in western Europe.

In summary, the use of the term "Byzantine" came naturally and spread through Europe over time as a way for historians to conveniently distinguish the later history of the Roman Empire to its early history. The negative connotations associated with the term came much later.

This book goes significant detail of the reception of Byzantium in western europe after its fall. I have not read it but it might be worth a shot.

|improve this answer|||||

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.