Byzantines? No, Romans

One of the mosaics of the Basilica of San Vitale in Ravenna depicting the Emperor Justinian together with Archbishop Massimiano together with court officials and the praetorian guard
When we talk about the Eastern Roman Empire, particularly after the fall of the Western Roman Empire, we identify it as the Byzantine Empire and its inhabitants as Byzantines. It is actually a conventional definition, more comfortable for the other, to distinguish the Eastern Roman Empire from the unified Roman Empire and, after the division, with that of the West, in which Rome is located.

 What we call the Byzantine Empire, in fact, never had this name, and its citizens, if not the inhabitants of the city of Byzantium, are never identified as Byzantines. However different in many respects from the Western Roman Empire, starting from the linguistic one, since the main language was Greek (although Latin was widespread especially for many official documents, such as the Corpus Juris Civilis of Justinian), and after the Great Schism also religious, seen from the Eastern Church, it is separated from that of Rome, its inhabitants are always called Romans, or in Greek Rhomanoi, and the Empire has always been called Roman Empire (Basileia Romaion), which we became Romania.

The emperor, therefore, was in effect a successor of Octavian Augustus. In addition to this, one of the names of the city of Constantinople / Byzantium was "Nova Roma", just to underline the continuity with Rome. We also see this aspect in other factors, and often the definition of Romans also emerged from the borders of the Eastern Empire. The city of Nauplio, for example, today in Greece, called by the Venetians "Napoli di Romania" (Naples of Romania) to distinguish it from the Italian city of Naples (Napoli in Italian), as testimonials such as the terms "Romans" and "Romania" to speak of the Byzantines kept well rooted even beyond borders.

Just to clarify: the current nation of Romania was never part of the Eastern Roman Empire, as this name obviously has to do with its link with the Roman Empire (of which, however, it was part for a short time). The name derives precisely from the Latin term Romanus, and the term with which it was called the principality that gave origin to the current Romania, Wallachia, derived from the Germanic term Vlah and Walsch, with which the Latin language populations were defined. Translated into Romanian, therefore, it became Tara Romaneasca, Roman land, and the Vlachs called themselves Romans. In 1862, when the principalities of Wallachia and Moldavia were unified, they therefore took the name of Romania.

In general, as we have seen there are cases where the Byzantines were identified as Romans also in Western Europe, the word Roman was generally used in the West differently, and the Byzantines were therefore identified as Greeks (graeci), made in the time, again for reasons of convenience, failed to avoid confusion with classical Greece and modern-day Greece.

The Byzantine civilization, with the passage of time, became more and more characterized as a stand-alone under different points of view: religious, linguistic, cultural and artistic, among others. This has therefore helped to use the term of convenience of "Byzantines", never used by them nor by Westerners and referable at that time only to the inhabitants of narrow Byzantium, to distinguish this civilization it was considered necessary to use a different term from Romans and Greeks to characterize them.

 In 1453 the Ottoman Turks entered Constantinople, which took the name of Istanbul, and the Eastern Roman Empire ceased to exist (the Despotate of Morea, the last territory controlled by the Byzantine imperial family, fell in 1460). Despite this, the identification as Romans of the non-Turkish populations of Greece and Asia Minor continued to exist. In the Turkish language, for example, the Greeks of the Anatolian peninsula are called Rum, which means Romans, while those living in Greece are called Yunan, which means Ionians. But this is not the only testimony of this fact. In 1912, during the First Balkan War, the Greek military landed on the island of Lemnos, in the northern Aegean, until then under the control of the Ottoman Empire. Many children went to see these soldiers personally, who asked him what they were looking at. The curious answered that they wanted to see "the Greeks", and they replied: "But why are you not Greek too?" and they answered "No, we are Romans".

This testifies that even at the dawn of the Byzantine Empire, especially in the Greek populations, this legacy of the Eastern Roman Empire still existed. These events show us how the history, culture and identity of Rome go far beyond the single city and can represent in some way a symbol for the continuity, union and friendship between peoples under the sign of a common origin.

Read this article in Italian

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