Are there modern Byzantines?

Aug 05 2011

Dogukan asks what nation (if any) can claim to be the blood descendants of Byzantium.  The obvious answer would be Greece, but the modern state draws much more of its identity from Athens than Constantinople.  In any case, though Greek was the language of Byzantium it wasn’t ‘Greek’ as we think of that term today.  The best way I’ve heard it put is that Greece is like the elder brother of Byzantium’s offspring- the Balkan countries, Georgia, Armenia, Syria and Lebanon with their ancient Christian communities, the Copts in Egypt, etc.

Byzantium was always a polygot empire so no one modern nation can really claim to be a direct descendant although many have a piece of it.  The truest scion- some would say a living remnant of the empire itself- is Mount Athos; administratively separate from modern Greece, it still keeps Byzantine time and flies the imperial flag.

In some ways it’s easier to trace individual Byzantines.  I’ve met descendants of Basil I and Isaac Angelus, and the ex-King of Greece Constantine II traces his line back to Alexius I and John Tzmisces.  Even Prince Philip of England has some Byzantines in the closet- he’s descended from Constantine XI through the latter’s niece Sophia.  But it’s not just the high and mighty.  In Greece today there are many whose names reflect their proud Byzantine origins: Xylis, Dragazis, Kedros, Lemos, Costopouloi, Dimopouloi and Stathakopouloi among many others.

I’ll end with the words of Jacques Chirac.  In 2004 Turkey applied to join the EU and the objection was made that they were clearly not European in culture, tradition or religion.   The former president of the French Republic defended the application with a curious argument.  First he pointed out that the Ottomans had maintained Byzantine traditions, and preserved imperial chancellery habits and tax-keeping methods.  Then he concluded with a verbal flourish on what it meant to be a European:

“We are all children of Byzantium.”

15 responses so far

  1. Kimonas Seimenis

    This is mostly right, and for some ‘unknown’ reasons the Greek state chooses not to corelate its past with Byzantium as it does with ancient Greece (there is a relatively small – compeared to the archaeological foundings – Byzantine museum in the center of Athens, and most Byzantine churches in Athens and in Greece in general are just neglected).Truth is, though, that modern Greeks trace more cultural and – if we could say so, blood – relations to Byzantium than Ancient Greece.And I have of course no offence with the Turks, but i’d say that chancellery habits and tax keeping collections don’t turn the mostly Arab/Persian – inspired Turkish civilisation into a European one.

  2. Exactly right. As far as Chirac’s argument I think it’s pretty weak. Turkey does not culturally self-identify as European and is clearly not European unless we completely change the definition of the word.

  3. Ricky "The Hitman" Hatton

    I love this blog.
    By all means, delete this comment after reading it.
    But I just wanted to say it.

  4. But Ricky, this is pure gold- why would I delete it:)

  5. Ricky "The Hitman" Hatton

    Would you be able to do a post on Theodosius I.
    Including why he decided to unite the empire under him alone. Was he good as a ruler and how his kids screwed things up again???

    Thanks and God bless!!!

  6. I’ll add it to my list. Next post should be up soon.

  7. Devon Papapoulos

    Did commodus really bind disabled people together and act like it was a monster and then kill it?

    Thank you.

    I really like you podcasts!!!

  8. In my opinion the reason for choosing Greek over Byzantine (Roman) identity of Greece rests in the history of formation of contemporary Greek state and the importance of the ancient Greek heritage for the roots of the entire European civilization. During the existence of the Ottoman Empire the Greeks were called “Roman people” or “Roman population”. Modern ethnic Greeks have a lot more byzantine than ancient in their traditions.

    I am very sad to hear that museums and churches which bear Byzantine heritage are neglected.


  9. Very much enjoying your podcasts.

  10. Hi guys I’m Greek and I just wanted to comment that I see more ancient Greek sites than churches being neglected! If you go to Argos or Mycaenes you’ll see what I mean! The churches are well preserved by the Church. And I do agree we have much more in common with the Byzantines, they are also much more close (timewise) to modern Greeks than ancient Greeks. The reason the modern Greek state has a tendency to prefer the ancient Greeks is a complicated one. When Constantine split the empire between Rome and Constantinople, he did it with the intention to facilitate the state affairs by have two control zones. Gradually the 2 new halfs got separated even further, as the latin speakers were predominantly living in the West and the Greek speakers in the East. The Western and Eastern Roman Empires gradually developed slightly different characters and became a bit ‘cold’ between them for political reasons. The division became so immense that during the Crusades they attacked and sacked Constantinople. The city was so robbed that it never recovered. One of the modern Popes actually apologised on behalf of the Catholic Church for that attack to the Greek Patriarch some years ago! (funny!) When the Turks were finally almost outside the city walls, the Byzantines were arguing if they should accept help from the West or accept their defeat by the Turks. The Pope’s message was that he would help only if the Greek Church would recognize him as the ultimate Head of Christendom. In the end they accepted but it was too late and the Pope didnt seem to be so bothered too. After the Fall, the Greek Patriarch told the Pope to f… o.. (not with these words I’m sure lol) and the Greek Church stayed autonomus.
    The Byzantines (as the modern Greeks did for the Byzantines) didnt like to be associated with the ancient Greeks as they were considering them as pagan and therefore they preferred the title Romans (ΡΩΜΙΟΙ) for themselves as it was a legitimate Christian term. Some Byzantine churches in Greece have ancient marble stones as part of their building material, and some times placed in a very symbolic way i.e. upside down. A similar thing happened after the Greek revolution against the Ottoman Empire. During that period there was a crazy ancient Greek fashion in the high circles of Europe. They were in love with everything ancient Greek so actually timing was great for the Greek scholars to take advantage of it, and ask help from the West As well as encouraging the rest of the Greeks who for 400 years were under foreign occupation, they needed to reinforce their Ego and identity. The problem also was that only recently researchers are starting to realize how important the Byzantine culture was for the whole of European History, until a couple of decades ago it was considered a very ”dark” culture! That coming from the ”broken glass” between the West and East. need to go to sleep now! Goodnight!

  11. And Lars, Good job! Happy new year!

  12. rohit रोहित

    Excellent Book sir i really enjoyed it!! I was in tears at the end of reading it.. Well Done Sir.
    Your efforts on Blog to connect to readers is marvelous. I never even
    knew about Byzantine Empire. Thank You for sharing your work with us…

  13. Thanks for reading!

  14. Terence Jenkins

    Princess Eugenie Palaeologus is buried in the Greek necropolis in West Norwood cemetery in South London.

  15. I believe Columbus was related to Constantine XI
    And that his mother was the secret daughter of Prince Henry the navigator.

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