Roman identity in Byzantium: a critical approach
By Ioannis Stouraitis
Byzantinische Zeitschrift, Volume 107, Issue 1 (2014)
Abstract: Collective identity in the so-called Byzantine Empire is a much-debated issue that has drawn a lot of attention over the years. The current paper attempts a critical assessment of the hitherto main lines of thinking about Byzantine identity, focussing on the period between the seventh and the thirteenth centuries. By proposing an alternative view on source material based on a comprehensive theoretical framework, I argue that a conceptualization of the collective identity of this medieval imperial social order with its constantly fluctuating geopolitical and cultural boundaries needs to be disconnected from essentialist and reifying views on perennial ethnicity as well as from the modern phenomenon of the nation-state.
Introduction: One could plausibly argue that the problem of decoding Byzantine identity lies in the fact that the term ‘Byzantine’, commonly used in the present to define the state and the subjects of the Christian Roman Empire (either since the time of Constantine I or alternatively since the post-Justinianic period), is a terminus technicus, a retrospective construct of scholars of the Early Modernity in Western Europe. This terminus technicus removes the spotlight from this society’s normative self-designation, i.e. Roman, and thus imposes upon the modern historian a latent bias, namely the bias that this society’s collective identity must be called and therefore understood differently from what its name denotes.
The main lines of thinking in the research on medieval Eastern Roman identity could be roughly summarized as follows: The first, extensively influenced by the retrospective Modern Greek national discourse, approaches this identity as the medieval form of the perennial Greek national identity. The second, which could be regarded as preponderant within the field, albeit by no means monolithically concordant in its various utterances, speaks of a multi-ethnic imperial state at least up to the twelfth century, the average subject of which was self-identified as Roman. The third, and more recent, approach dismissed the supposition of a multi-ethnic empire and suggested that Byzantium should be regarded as a pre-modern Nation-State in which Romanness had the traits of national identity.