The Game of Names

Nov 17 2012

Ryan asks what the two “halves” of the Roman Empire (German and Byzantine)- thought of each other.  The word ‘dysfunctional’ about sums it up.  Their relationship over the six and a half centuries of their co-existence was perpetually stormy: two empires (neither of which controlled Rome) arguing over who was really ‘Roman’.  Generally speaking, the Byzantines considered Charlemagne and his successors to be jumped-up barbarians, uncouth boors pretending to be something that they were clearly not.  Constantinople tried its best to pretend that the Holy Roman Empire didn’t exist, and when power politics made that impossible, they reluctantly admitted that the German monarch was an ‘emperor’ (though not a Roman one).

The Franks for their part, acted like a younger sibling.  They viewed the ‘Greeks’ as soft, effeminate, easterners, unworthy of the name ‘Roman’, but were at the same time a bit insecure and jealous of the older empire’s greater legitimacy.  They at first stopped calling themselves Roman to appease Constantinople, and even when they resumed the claim, German monarchs would occasionally cross the border in southern Italy (where the two empires touched) to seek formal recognition of their titles, and ask for marriage alliances.  This finally paid off in 972 when the Byzantine princess Theophano married the German emperor Otto II.  Their son- Otto III- was therefore a union of both crowns and was probably the best hope for a reunification of the old Roman Empire.  Unfortunately, however, he died of a fever at age 21 and the empires resumed their antagonistic stances.

There was one more brief moment of cooperation.  During the reign of the pro-western Manuel Comnenus, the German emperor Conrad III led the (disastrous) 2nd Crusade through Constantinople.  The two became close friends, with Manuel personally nursing his brother-monarch back to health after an injury suffered during the campaign.  But when they exited the scene, relations quickly soured.  The terrifying Frederick Barbarossa (Conrad’s successor) threatened to sack Constantinople and throw its emperor into prison, and several of his successors invaded Byzantine territory.

The Holy Roman Empire never succeeded in getting Constantinople to recognize it as an equal, but it did outlast it.  Though its power largely collapsed in the 13th century, the empire limped along until the 19th, finally being swept aside during the Napoleonic Wars.  Before it disappeared, however, it had one last parting shot at its (by now) long dead adversary.  In 1557, the German humanist Hieronymus Wolf published a history of the medieval Greek world.  Not wanting to refer to the impostors in Constantinople as ‘Roman’ (since the real Roman Empire was in Germany) he coined a new term for them.


5 responses so far

  1. Well, actually it was different in the early period. Justinian hoped to use the Franks and according to what I recently read the son of the Frank that Justinian tried to use against the Visgoths didn’t say nice things about Justinian. Anyway, in the earlier period prior to Charlemagne the Franks were Catholics while some of the others were not so there were some alliances. It was pretty complex in the earlier period.

  2. I mean the Ostergoths. Justinian took a liking to the Lombards and we know how that work it in Italy.

  3. There was a map I seen before and after the 4th crusade, in 1200 and 1300 the Empire was basically the same size. It appears that once the Byzantines kick out the Latins they were able to recover most of the their land and decline set in after 1300 until 1453 and I’m not an expert in the time period but I’m aware their was internal strife among the later emperors and aristocracy. Some what akin to some of the problems of 5th century Western Roman empire with different political factions. Of course the Ottomans were more developed military.

  4. In the Iliad, Aeneas is a minor character, where he is twice saved from death by the gods as if for an as-yet unknown destiny. He is the leader of the Trojans’ Dardanian allies, as well as a third cousin and principal lieutenant of Hector, son of the Trojan king Priam. Aeneas’ mother Aphrodite frequently comes to his aid on the battlefield; he is a favorite of Apollo. Aphrodite and Apollo rescue Aeneas from combat with Diomedes of Argos, who nearly kills him, and carry him away to Pergamos for healing. Even Poseidon, who normally favors the Greeks, comes to Aeneas’ rescue after he falls under the assault of Achilles, noting that Aeneas, though from a junior branch of the royal family, is destined to become king of the Trojan people. He kills 28 people in the Trojan War, and his career during that war is retold by Roman historian Gaius Julius Hyginus (c. 64 BCE – CE 17) in his Fabulae.[1]

    The history of Aeneas is continued by Roman authors, building on different myths and histories. During Virgil’s time Aeneas was well-known and various versions of his adventures were circulating in Rome, including Roman Antiquities by Greek historian Dionysius of Halicarnassus (relying on Marcus Terentius Varro, Ab Urbe Condita by Livy (probably dependent on Quintus Fabius Pictor, fl. 200 BCE), and Gnaeus Pompeius Trogus (through an epitome by Justin). Likewise important in Virgil’s day was the account of Rome’s founding in Cato the Elder’s Origines.[2]

    [edit] Aeneas in Virgil Aeneas is mention in the Justinian Code, so people still thought of the Romans coming from Aeneas in the 6th Century. If the Romans thought of their ancestor as Aeneas and later Romanlius why is it hard for western historians to think of the Rum as not Roman just because they are in the east. It seems the Italian Romans of Latium were influence a lot by the Estrucians another eastern people.

  5. Brilliant. Absolutely brilliantly explained. thank you. I have been looking for this for ages!

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