Why is the Byzantine Empire a lot much less “common” than the (Western) Roman Empire?
I have been listening to the Historical past of Rome podcast and I’ve obtained about ten episodes left. I would like to start out one other historical past podcast afterwards and I am undecided what to decide on. I do know there’s one concerning the Byzantine Empire that I am contemplating as a pure continuation, however I spotted I do know virtually nothing about it. My normal historical past training within the US did not actually talk about it like Rome. And there’s virtually no common media about it or any normal consciousness of its historical past or main political figures (Julius Caesar might be a minimum of as properly referred to as Napoleon or Hitler, however I doubt many may title a single Byzantine ruler).
Why is that? The Byzantine Empire lasted longer and is way more latest. And based on cursory Wikipedia studying it appears the European Renaissance owes a lot to it. Do non-american or non-western cultures have extra consciousness in most of the people?
Comments ( 36 )
The roman empire touched most of Europe in one way or another. Most schools teach about the country’s history and belief system, which for most western countries are tied to roman/greek in some way. Humans are good at picking up information for understanding their surroundings and survival, which is why some awesome subjects aren’t talked about.
Just a classic case of East/West dilemma. Countries that developed after the fall of the Western Roman Empire thought of themselves as the natural successor. The Byzantines were always a constant in the East, so there was no reason to prop them up on a pedestal.
Because the ERE didn’t have the city of Rome, so people don’t feel like it was actually Rome. Historians can argue all day and concede that the ERE was in fact the Roman empire, but the average person is going to feel like it’s just a technicality since the actual city of Rome was no longer actually held by the ‘Romans’.
Additionally, the events that happened in the territories held by the WRE are a lot more relevant to people who live in those places today – I’m assuming you’re from one of those places? I’m sure if you lived in Greece or Turkey there’s a lot more emphasis placed on the ERE after the fall of Rome.
I’d imagine it gets more screen time in the Balkans and Turkey, though I could be wrong.
I’m guessing you’re coming from a “Western” perspective, and a lot of modern Western civilizations try and trace their roots geographically (from the Western Roman empire’s territory), culturally (The heart of “Civilization”), linguistically (as we type here on the Latin alphabet), until recently religiously (Christianity), and politically (with senates as key parts of various governments).
The Byzantine Empire was seen more as “Eastern” in all the ways; based in modern Turkey, divested off from Western Europe, it was always an empire and never a “people’s government,” religiously was Orthodox so more affiliated with Greece and Russia, linguistically shifted back to Greek until the Ottoman conquest, and ultimately ended up falling under said Ottoman Empire and become seen as a hostile/inconvenient foreign power by Western Europe once the Crusades really spooled up.
TL;DR – “Western” education in countries that had a lot in common with the Roman Empire focus on it far more than the more “foreign” Byzantine Empire which ended up being more of Turkey and the contemporary Middle East in realm.
(Obligatory I’m not a historian, just a fan of reading about it in general)
The Byzantines spoke Greek as opposed to Latin and were considered somewhat heretical since their brand of Christianity was different than the West as time went on. Many Romans from the west immigrated to the east as the Western Empire crumbled. The YouTube channels Kings and Generals and HistoryMarche have excellent videos on the subject
This might be an unpopular rationale, but for any empire, most people remember the people who did a lot and made it much bigger. Napoleon made France _the_ superpower of Europe. Hitler did the same, although Nazi Germany was (fortunately) transient. Julius Caesar did the same for Rome, as did many others. How many Roman emperors can you name after Trajan? Some people have heard of Constantine or perhaps even Caligula or Hadrian, but most of Roman history is ignored, too. (Any who want to point out that Rome existed for far longer before Trajan than afterwards, note that most people don’t know about anything between Romulus and Remus and Caesar with maybe a blip for the Punic Wars.)
The Byzantines don’t have many great stories of conquest. Justinian conquered a good chunk of western Europe but lost it almost immediately, and it didn’t include any land that hadn’t been Roman before. The most noteworthy things to affect the empire (plague, Arab invasions, Crusades, etc.) all ultimately weakened it. People like stories of going from nothing to everything through grit, determination, and careful planning, and the Byzantines didn’t do that.
The West tends to focus on Western history and the Byzantines were seen as eastern. Also the language barrier also played a role as Latin is the precursor to many Western languages and dialects which makes the western portion of the empire more interesting and relatable, greek not so.
Because western Europe claimed to be the proper successor to the Roman Empire over the Byzantines. Basic timeline would be Classical Greek>Classical Rome>Charlemagne>Holy Roman Empire>Modern Europe. Sine the Byzantines were contemporaries with Charlemagne and the HRE, it’s inconvenient for there to be a 2nd Roman Empire, so it’s mostly ignored instead.
Just as a side note, the History of Byzantium podcast is fantastic. Definitely go listen to it
I watched a documentary about how the ERE basically treated the west like barbarians literally until the end. Probably why they were not respected or seen in good light by the west. There were also plenty of wars fought by the east to retake the west, which diminished their standing as a Roman successor, since it was old Roman citizens who suffered.
Along with other comments, including the history of the ERE disrupts the narrative of the Holy Roman Empire.
The main historical points we like to communicate regarding the HRE is that Charlemagne was just randomly surprised with a coronation by Pope Leo during Mass on Christmas Day. Why did Leo do it? It’s a mystery! Or maybe Charlemagne did want the coronation but didn’t want to be coronated by the Pope; he wanted to do it himself. Anyway, let’s talk about the successor state to the Roman Empire, even though it was (I paraphrase) neither Holy nor Roman nor an Empire.
Rolling back the narrative a bit, Europeans in the 7th/8th centuries did not think of Roman as a fallen Empire. It’s right over there, on the Bosporus. Sure, it shrank a bit, but Constantine just moved the capital. The Emperor ruling in Constantinople can trace his line of inheritance and rulership to Caesar Augustus.
And then in 798, a woman declared herself Empress. Empress Irene had married Emperor Leo IV and had a son, Constantine IV, with him. But Leo died when Constantine was a baby and Irene was named regent. That’s all in keeping with tradition; mothers often assumed the regency for their infant children. But when the time came for Empress Irene to hand power over to her son, she… didn’t. Instead, she gouged her son’s eyes out so badly that he died soon after (it was commonly believed that the Emperor, as the vessel of God’s will on Earth, could not be ‘imperfect’, so a great way to get rid of your rivals without outright murder was to ‘just’ maim or blind them) (yeah what she did wasn’t great but let’s remember that Constantine I had his own wife and son boiled alive in their bath for fear they were conspiring against him and we call him The Great).
Pope Leo was so scandalized that a woman had ascended that he declared the Throne of Rome was empty. And *that’s* why he coronated Charlemagne, and why Charlemagne was both surprised and displeased. He didn’t want to be Emperor of Rome, he was content being a Frankish king. Indeed, this whole thing disrupted what were then discussions that Charlemagne and Irene might marry and unite their kingdoms and thereby restore Rome to what it used to be. Imagine if history had gone that way instead.
Anyway, what Pope Leo did gravely insulted the people living in the ERE and set the stage for several centuries of tensions, including the Great Schism and disaster of 1204.
People like stories about rising powers. They like winners.
The story of the Byzantine empire is one of slow, inexorable decline, arrested by an occasional period of recovery/expansion. It’s a story about losing, with occasional periods where that losing slowed down or was temporarily reversed.
Edward Gibbon gave them a very bad rep and it stuck for several centuries. People are just now starting to look closer at the Byzantines. They’re endlessly interesting.
Someone else said the “west vs easy dilemma” mainly that tbh
The religion was based in Rome, drew its authority from Rome and was in long standing conflict with Constantinople.
Plus when the NW of Europe took the lead in the world of science, history and creating modern research they seen themselves as descended from Rome rather than Constantinople.
I learned more history playing Rome total war than in school.
I see two reasons: Geography favoured the West once the age of sail and global trade took over, so historians focused more on the history of those nations, and the West stopped caring about the East one the Muslims took conquered Byzantium.
Fact is, Western historians cared more about the (non Orthodox) Christian world more than the Muslim. That’s not so much the case these days, but change is slow and chronicles lost.
One other reason along with the others is that it could be markedly less “showy” than certain periods of the Roman Empire.
When you see Rome in common media, almost always it’s showing the time period between Marius and Commodus. Very rarely do you see anything about the Dominate. I didn’t even know about the Dominate until I played Total War Attila and read about it in college. Even my courses on Roman history focused on the Principate, cause that’s the “apex” and the showy part of roman history.
I wouldn’t be surprised if the Byzantines are lumped into the same category as the Dominate. When you look at it with very macro lenses, the Byzantine empire looks like the constant decline of the remains of Rome over slow centuries, despite the growths and great things it did. I wouldn’t be surprised if that’s part of the reason that it’s not as popular, cause it’s not the rise or “apex” of Rome.
Byzantium was viewed by the west as **Eastern**, iE, despotic, orthodox and heretical.
[Here’s an episode of In Our Time talking about Byzantium.](https://youtube.com/watch?v=chEQUI0udTI) It gives a general overview and they also pose and discuss the question you asked about why it is often overlooked.
I think you somewhat answered yourself. We live in the west, so it’s natural that that we will learn about the one that’s more familiar to us. Byzantium invented othodox chistianty, one of the most common things in eastern (european) culture; While the western roman empire divided into the Visigothic Kingdom (today Spain and portugal), the frankish empire (today France and Germany), the anglo saxon kingdoms (today The U.K), and the (gothic) Kingdom of Italy. All of those (and their succesor states) had a great impact on western civilization ,and as I said, people are more prone to know more about things they are more familiar with.
The Eastern Empire was distinctly Greek by the fall of the Western Empire. Western Europeans, who used Latin in administration and liturgy, were dismissive of the Byzantine claim to an empire that they couldn’t hold and had little cultural affinity for.
I think historically, the West was highly literate in Latin. From the fall of the Roman West, to the 18th Century, the European elite spoke and read quite a lot of Latin, including the classics, as well as classical history. Although Ancient Greek was also read, it was to a much more narrow degree. Byzantine manuscripts were simply not being read or else not being circulated in the West.
Educated people in the West simply didn’t have access to the same amount of information about the East until relatively recently.
The Eastern Empire was under something of a vellum curtain.
I think that’s changed quite a lot in recent years, but the greater focus on the west is still present in that Classical historians and Medievalists are often quite narrowly specialized in their fields, and they aren’t reading the same sources as Byzantinists, nor in many cases can they. Historians in the West who write about Rome may very well not read Medieval Greek terribly well, and will probably rely more on those Latin language sources, which of course focus on the West in much greater detail.
Also speaking for myself in schools in England we didn’t do anything on Byzantine.
I literally had no idea about it until I started reading myself as I got older. I think a lot of people may be in the same boat
Because in the English-speaking world, we traditionally trace our history through Britain.
If you go to Eastern Europe and ask about history, you’ll find it’s very common to trace it through the Byzantines.
As someone who listened to the History of Rome podcast and moved onto the History of Byzantium I think it is a good move to go onto that yourself. Robin who hosts it has a different style but is still very well researched and presented.
You learn a lot and how much it really is the Roman Empire continuing. They never called themselves Byzantium always Roman.
As to the question. Well much of Western Europe sprang out of the Western Roman Empire and we’re proud of it, whilst often being at odds with Byzantium. Especially when it came to Christianity. Then with the encroaching Muslim Empires and the Turks Byzantium started losing a lot of land and influence.
I think there is a mix of the fact they were rivals but also a little guilt that they had not helped against the Turks as to why history was not taught so much about them in the west. They became a bit of a forgotten Empire despite lasting many centuries and once being the biggest power in Europe and the Near East.
Also like so often Victorians taught bad history on them when they did and distorted truths leading to a rather bad and patchy history which we only how are starting to rectify.
Definitely take up the new pod, and if hungry for more try the British History podcast which is one of the best researched and detailed pods I have ever heard,
A lot of has to do with the way modern nations trace their lineages.
After the fall of the Western Roman Empire, both the papacy and the HRE claim some level of descent from it, and the modern states in Western/Central Europe come from this lineage, so the Western Roman Empire get emphasized. And since Western/Central Europeans were the ones who did most of the colonization around the world the past few centuries, their lineage is the one we learn about now.
The lineage Eastern Roman/Byzantine Empire, though, doesn’t have that level of continuity. As others have mentioned modern day Greece still teaches Byzantine history, although my (very general) understanding is that modern day Greek identity is just as much based on ties to the Ancient Greeks as it is to the Byzantines. With Turkey, the Ottomans did claim some level of descent from the Roman emperors, but that lineage has also been deemphasized the past few centuries.
The Russian Empire traditionally also claimed descent from the Byzantines, as the protector of Orthodox Christianity, after the Fall of Constantinople in 1453, but that link has also been deemphasized since the Russian Revolution.
Because Western Europe derived from the Western Roman Empire, with the laws, culture, religion, literature, and languages becoming the basis for modern states like Spain, France, Italy, and to a lesser degree, England. Even Germany, which was never part of Rome, owes a lot of its culture to the Roman Empire. They even called themselves “The Holy Roman Empire” for a millenium.
Meanwhile, Eastern Europe doesn’t have the same ties to Byzantium. The Byzantines owed their culture and language to Greece, not the other way around. The Byzantines lasted to 1454, but they had lost most of their empire centuries before that to the Turks and Arabs, who brought in a very different culture. The Ottomans didn’t view themselves as the heirs to Rome the way the Western Europeans did. Their language, religion, and identity was Turkish and Muslim, not Greek Christian.
The Balkans and Russia were more directly affected by them, but as Westerners we don’t follow that tradition.
I don’t know if this is going to be a controversial opinion but Catholicism.
The Byzantine Empire were Eastern Orthodox Christians so the Catholic Church views them as somehow inferior. The Roman Empire is the popular choice because it influenced most of Europe thus being more well known. The Byzantine Empire has more significant role in the Balkans than the rest of Europe.
In my country, we learn in depth (well, in school levels depth) about it because: A) We are a Balkan country and B) My country had countless battles with the Byzantine Empire during those times.
To me it’s the aesthetic, it doesn’t have the same alluring Greco-Roman neoclassical appeal. Something so grandiose and beautiful about western Rome, reading the history feels like reading a very well written novel. Just do get the same spark from Byzantium.
Alexios Comnenos. Helped spin-up the first crusade. A good accounting of his part is found in Peter Frankopan’s “The First Crusade: The Call from the East”.
I think it’s mostly because most of today’s historical pop culture in the West is based on Western history. That is to say, America, and before that England, France, Germany, Spain, Italy. The western and southern European states that have a lot of interaction with each other through the middle ages and share either a Romantic or Germanic language history. And before that, the Roman Empire.
There is a clear line and progression of history, if you tell the story of Europe, to talk about the Roman Empire, then the medieval period that happened after the fall of the western Empire, to the holy Roman Empire and then the story of England and colonisation. Western history doesn’t talk about Greece much, because they usually aren’t grouped in with ‘the west’. So therefore the story of Roman Empire>Byzantine Empire>Ottom domination>independent Greece isn’t told often in western pop culture.
The Byzantines are not part of the ‘west’, so us westerners don’t make them a famous part of pop culture.
When you have thousands of years of history to tell, we tend to gloss over much of it and emphasise the parts we feel are important. So we tell the story of Julius Caesar and ancient Rome, then skip ahead 300 years to the fall of Rome, then skip ahead to Charlemegne, then skip to the crusades, then skip to colonisation and the renaissance. The Byzantine Empire only gets a footnote mention in that broad brush.
Byzantium was Orthodox Christian Greek empire heavily influenced by Eastern cultures.
Western world always found it easier to relate to Rome.
And even though Byzantium was around for a while, for the most part it never reached the strength and length of Rome, in terms of land mass. And many years of its existence was just spent clinging to Constantinople, as a city state, waiting for impending doom, which was an eventual Ottoman conquest.
So compared to Rome it is less appealing but I do find its history very intriguing nonetheless.
Ill just take a gander here. However, I am not a professional historian. I think it comes down to the fact that we humans study our own history first, and that western europe found the americas, which led to an explosion of wealth and cultural domiance that eastern europe could not keep up with. If you grew up in a western european country, im sure you focused almost exclusively on the western roman empire. Vice versa, Im sure eastern europeans study the byzantine empire much more than western europeans. I’ll elaborate my theory below..
The Roman empire split into the Eastern and Western empires around 600 AD. The western empire eventually was dominated by the catholic church, and the eastern empire became the Byzantine empire. From this split until the finding of the Americas (from around 600-1400), the Byzantine empire was far more wealthy than the holy roman empire and western europe. This is because they were far closer to areas of wealth and trade (the middle east, persia, the ottomans). In fact the silk road, which was the most profitable trade of that time period, stretched from China to Turkey and ended right next to eastern europe. Eastern europe was much more involved with the classical empires (persia, china, muslim empires, india) and those worlds of trade. If you look in western and eastern european churches built between 600 and 1400, you will notice much more amounts of gold in eastern european churches. Gold in churches is a great indicator of wealth in those time periods, because most societies would display their wealth in their greatest of churches. However, as I said before, in the 1400s, something happened that changed the course of history.
The western european nations were very poor compared to China, India, Persia, the Middle East, and the Byzantine empires. They were looking for a way to be a part of trade with the asian and indian empires, especially for their spices and silk. However, they were split by land from accessing that trade. So they took to the seas. They created the best high seas ships in the world at that time to be a part of that trade. And what happened? They stumbled on a gold mine that was much more valuable than direct trade with the India, China, and the middle east. They found the Americas, essentially new territory, because the natives of america were so cut off from the rest of the world, they were thousands of years behind technologically, and much of the new world was uninhabited. So western europe was able to attain immense wealth and colonize this new world. And from that point on until today, western european culture has dominated, and still dominates society today. Some say the western europeans got lucky. This is true, but they did create their own luck. Out of desperation they found a gold mine.
Essentially, we all study our own history first. Western europeans tend to see themselves as a little bit different from eastern europeans, and vice versa. Western europeans attained immense wealth in finding the americas, and wealth generally leads people to believe they are a little bit more superior than others. Also, eastern european culture and ethnicity is much more mixed with other cultures, especially middle eastern, and western european culture and ethinicity is not very mixed at all. This also leads to some differences between western and eastern europe, and why western europe tends to stay away from teaching Byzantine culture.
Personally I enjoy southeastern european culture (Greek, Balkan) culture more than western european culture. But to each their own.
Here is why:
Byzantium history is an ‘orphan’, there is no nation state apparatus to promote it and teach its history in its schools.
The primary ‘candidate’ would be Turkey but as long as its a fairly devout Muslim country (and that does not show any signs of changing soon), there are going to be issues with them promoting a regime run by a rival religion that was violently overthrown by the current one. The ‘natural’ perspective for Turkey would be to say they saved the land from heathens and to minimize their accomplishments.
Secondary candidates may be the two primary Eastern Orthodox countries, Greece and Russia, but these have their own national investments in laying claim to being the ‘head’ of the Church and promoting Byzantium might minimize their own sense of importance.
A distant third candidate would be the rest of the ‘western world’, but really, other countries have their own national mythologies to promote. For example, its accepted ‘wisdom’ that the Roman Empire fell when the city of Rome was attacked by marauders and ‘history’ did not begin again till establishment of the Roman Catholic church across Europe (TOTALLY discounting the Eastern Roman Empire was at its peak at this period).
This leaves individual historians with an interest in this area, but individuals just cannot equate the educational apparatus of a nation state. And it follows, who is going to invest money in say a movie or T show in a culture that ended centuries ago and was coopted my Muslims in the 1400’s.?
There are also disparate things that pop up, such as about 15 years ago Turkey launched a big tourism campaign in the US to ‘come to Turkey’ that really emphasized the Roman Ruins there, but that was a while ago now.