The Empire That Never Existed

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You may have heard of many of the largest empires in world history. The Romans, the Mongols, the British, the Persians, the Incas, and the Byzantines.

That last empire, however, the Byzantines, never actually existed.

How can one of the world’s greatest empires not have existed?

Learn more on this episode of Everything Everywhere Daily.

The Byzantine Empire had as its capital the city of Constantinople, what is now modern-day Istanbul. History books will tell you the empire lasted over 1,000 years.

Under the emperor Justinian in the year 555, the empire reached its greatest extent with territory around the Mediterranean, Egypt, North Africa, The Balkans, and the Levant.  Over its millennium of existence, they had 94 different emperors, and it was the center of Orthodox Christianity. 

Over time, the empire shrank. By the time of its final defeat at the fall of Constantinople in 1453 to the Ottoman Turks, the empire had dwindled to what is today parts of eastern Turkey, Greece, and some of the Balkans.

With all of that history, how is it possible to say that the Byzantine Empire didn’t exist?

It’s actually pretty easy. 

At no point in their one thousand some year history did they or anyone else ever call themselves Byzantines, or refer to their empire as Byzantium.

They considered themselves Roman.

The Byzantine Empire was really nothing more than the continuation of the Eastern Roman Empire after the Empire in the west fell. In every real sense of the word, the Byzantine Empire WAS the Roman Empire. You can draw a direct line from the Byzantine emperors to the Emperor Augustus, Julius Caesar, and the Roman Republic. 

How did this come about? Why do we not just call it the Roman Empire?

To understand how the Roman Empire kept going until the Renaissance, we need to go back to the Roman Emperor Diocletian.

By the time Diocletian became emperor in the late third century, the Roman empire had become very large and difficult to centrally administer. Sending orders and getting updates from distant corners of the empire could take months. 

In the year 293, Diocletian devised a new system for the Roman Empire whereby it would be split up into two parts: east and west. Each part of the empire would be lead by a senior Emperor called the Augustus, and a junior emperor with the title of “Caesar”. The system was known as the Tetrarchy. 

Diocletian established himself as the Augustus in the east, and his top general Maximian was the Augustus in the west. 

This system lasted for only twenty years as rivals and claimants fought each other for power after the death of Diocletian. In the year 312, the two parts of the empire were unified once again under the rule of Emperor Constantine I (aka Constantine the Great), who established a new capital city for the empire. A city he called “Nova Roma” or New Rome, but eventually became “Constantinople”.

After the death of Constantine the Great, the empire once again split into two parts.

This is the first of the possible starting points for the Byzantine Empire. 

Constantine is sometimes considered the first Byzantine Emperor because he founded the city of Constantinople and legalized Christianity in the empire, but he was in every sense of the word, a Roman Emperor. 

After Constantine, there were attempts after this to reunify the two halves of the empire. Emperor Theodosius was successful in reconquering the Italian peninsula and was the last person who could lay claim to being the emperor of a united Roman Empire. 

Upon his death in 395, he split the empire between his sons Arcadius in the East and Honorius in the west, and the empire was never unified again.

The year 395, and the final split of east and west, is also sometimes used as the starting date of the Byzantine Empire.  

In the year 476, the last emperor of the western empire, Romulus Augustulus, was killed and was replaced by the “King” of Italy, a  barbarian by the name of Flavius Odoacer. 

476 is the date usually given in most history books for the fall of the Roman empire. In reality, it was anything but. If they had newspapers back there, there never would have been a headline saying “Roman Empire Falls!”.  To the average person living in Italy, it was just one ruler replacing another, which had been going on for centuries.

As you can guess with a name like Flavius, Odoacer was very romanized even though he was considered a barbarian. While he stylized himself as “king”, he considered himself subservient to the roman emperor back in Constantinople, the Emperor Zeno. He sent the robes of Romulus Augustulus to Zeno, and Zeno even had coins minted showing Odoacer ruling Italy under the name of Zeno.

I mention this because even after the Roman Empire ended, the people that took over still considered the empire as an ongoing concern.

476 is also sometimes used as a starting date for the Byzantine Empire as well, as it coincides with the end of the empire in the west.

The reason why it is so hard to pin down a starting date for the Byzantine empire is that there was never any single event that you could point to, to say that that was the starting point. It could be considered the founding of Constantinople, it could be considered the death of Theodosius, or it could be considered the fall of the western empire.  Either way, it was just the Roman empire chugging along like it always had, just a bit different.

While we can’t put a date on when it started, we can certainly put a hard date on when it ended. That happened on May 29, 1453, when the walls of Theodisian Walls of Constantinople were breached for the first and only time, the last emperor Constantine XI was killed, and the city was conquered by the Ottoman Sultan Mehmed II. 

So, if this empire was really just the Roman Empire, why do we call it the Byzantine Empire?

It is basically something which was devised by western historians to distinguish the greek speaking, Christian empire centered in Constantinople, from the earlier Latin speaking, pagan, empire centered in Rome.  The first use of the term “Byzantine” was by the German historian Hieronymus Wolf who in 1557, 100 years after the fall of Constantinople, published a work titled “Corpus Historiæ Byzantinæ”.

In the Islamic and Slavic worlds, there was never really a distinction. The Islamic world referred to it as millet-i Rûm, or the Roman Nation, and the term was used to describe all Orthodox Christians in Muslim lands well into the 20th century.  

The name “Byzantine” comes from the word “Byzantium” which was the name of the small town that existed in the location where Constantinople was built.

So strong was the Roman identity amongst the people we call Byzantines, that it wasn’t until the 18th and 19th century when people in what is today Greece stopped calling themselves Roman and started referring to themselves Greeks again. In fact, as late as the early 20th century, some researchers found people on what are today Greek Islands who still called themselves Roman.

This Roman heritage exists to this very day in the name of the country which uses the exact same name that the Byzantines used to describe their empire: Romania.