The term “Byzantium” often creates confusion when brought up in conversations. Was it a city-state or an empire? Was it inhabited by Greeks or Romans? And how did it get its name?
Disambiguation of Byzantium/ Byzantion
The term itself is the latinized version of “Byzantion” (Βυζάντιον), which can refer to two different but connected things: the ancient Greek colony on the European side of the Bosporus, and the Byzantine Empire, which is another name for the Eastern Roman Empire.
The Ancient Greek Colony Named Byzantion
In 667 BC, a group of Dorian Greeks from the city-state of Megara, sailed in the northeastern Aegean to establish a colony. Their leader was allegedly Byzas, although some scholars are now doubting his existence. According to the legend, Byzas was informed by an oracle that he will establish a city opposite to the “Land of the Blind”, without providing more information. But now, let’s focus on the historical events that we know from the ancient historians Herodotus and Pausanias.
After some exploration, the Dorian Greeks of Megara found a perfect location for creating a port-city. The new Greek colony was located where the Sea of Marmara meets the Bosporus – where two continents, Europe and Asia, connect. The area allegedly took the name of Byzas and it was called “Byzantion”.
Along with the Chalcedonians, who were settled on the opposite side of the Bosporus, the Byzantines controlled the entrance to the Black sea. In fact, the Greeks of Megara were surprised to see that the Chalcedonians hadn’t sieged the opportunity to take full control of the area before they arrived there. They reportedly called Chalcedon “Land of the Blind” for this exact reason, fulfilling the prophecy.
Byzantion was a successful trading city, which comes as no surprise considering its location. It soon conquered Chalcedon and expanded. But in 513 BC, Byzantion was conquered by the Persians under the leadership of King Darius I. In 411 BC, it was taken over once more by the Greeks. First, at the hands of the Spartans, later at the hands of the Athenians. But Byzantion’s destiny forever changed in 196 AD.
The Byzantine Empire (Eastern Roman Empire)
Outside of Europe, many scholars tend to focus on the Archaic, Classical, and Hellenistic periods of Greece’s history. Some even imply that Greeks vanished with the Roman conquest in 146 AD, after the battle of Corinth. But Greek populations continued living and thriving in the areas in which they resided in ancient antiquity.
The lyric poet Horatius (Horace) is quoted saying “Graecia capta ferum victorem cepit” (Captive Greece captured her rude conqueror). Indeed, the Greeks influenced the Romans culturally more than the Romans influenced Greeks. Many Roman Emperors were fond of Greeks, including Nero and Hadrian. During the Pax Romana, the Greek language became the lingua franca in the eastern part of the empire and Roman intellectuals would often produce their work in Greek.
As time passed by, the differences between the East and the West became more prominent. It was obvious that the areas that were inhabited by Greek populations before the Roman conquest, were under Greek rather than Latin influence. Between the 3rd and 5th centuries, the Roman Empire’s structure changed, and two different administrations were established.
The Eastern Roman Empire included the Greek-speaking areas, and the grand majority of the population were of Greek origin. Byzantion (Byzantium in latin) was the most important city, due to its key location. The city was later named Constantinople, after the emperor Constantine the Great. The latter had moved the capital of the empire from Rome to Byzantion.
When it comes to religion, the Hellenistic polytheistic traditions had declined, and most people were now converting to Christianity. In 1054, the Great Christian Schism occurred, which resulted in the Catholic and Orthodox Churches. The differences between the Latin West and the Greek East were becoming more and more prominent. It is important to note that the Eastern part of the empire was conquered by the Ottoman Turks in 1453, changing the course of history.
Conclusion: Is Byzantium Greek?
Today, modern scholars refer to the Eastern Roman Empire as the “Byzantine Empire”. Modern Greeks study the history of the Byzantine Empire along with the history of Archaic, Classical, and Hellenistic Greece. It is the Medieval history of Greece and equally important to our ancient history.
From time to time, the Greek origins of Byzantium are disputed, mostly for geopolitical reasons. After the Greek War of Independence against the Ottoman Empire, the Greek populations were able to create an independent state. But not all Greek-populated regions were freed, including Constantinople. One of the arguments was that Byzantion was never Greek but Roman.
But not everyone who disputes that the Byzantine Empire is Medieval Greece is doing it for geopolitical reasons. The term “Eastern Roman Empire” implies that the people residing there were Romans. But the term “Roman” is used both for the people who belonged on the cultural and ethnic group of ancient Rome and those who lived under Roman rule. The Greeks living under Roman rule were also called Romans, although they did maintain their linguistic, religious, and cultural differences.
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