On Romans, Holy Romans, and Byzantines

Clarity about the past is often sought by oversimplifying it. History is broken down into digestible chunks with neat borders and labels which, however useful, can sometimes be misleading. Dates which were hardly noticed at the time become watershed years, and epochs and ages are given names which would have been unrecognizable to those living during them. 

When national or imperial pride gets involved, the resulting propaganda usually muddies the water even further. The Middle Ages had two rival empires both claiming to be the true Roman Empire. For most of their history neither of them actually controlled Rome, yet both had claims on its legacy.  

The confusion stems from the third century AD when the Roman emperor, Diocletian, decided to split the old Roman Empire in half. The western half, with its capital in Italy, collapsed in the fifth century (the traditional date is 476), but the eastern portion survived until 1453 when a Turkish invasion and the guns of the modern world finally brought it down. 

Since the eastern half was centered on Constantinople, the old Greek city of Byzantium (modern day Istanbul), modern historians refer to it as ‘The Byzantine Empire’ or simply ‘Byzantium’.  Its location in the thoroughly hellenized east meant that Greek became the preferred language, so Byzantium is sometimes referred to as the Greek empire. Nonetheless, it is important to note that while it existed, both friends and enemies alike viewed it as Roman, and drew no artificial distinctions between the empire of Rome and that of Byzantium. 

The medieval competitor to the ‘Byzantine’ Empire arrived on Christmas Day in the year 800.  During a Mass in Rome, Pope Leo III (for political reasons of his own) placed a crown on the Frankish king Charlemagne’s head and named him Imperator Romanorum, announcing that the defunct Western Empire had been reborn. This version of the empire, however, which spanned both French and Germanic lands, was based in present day Germany and never completely controlled Italy.  Because of this, and in an attempt to simplify a complex series of events, most historians refer to Charlemagne’s coronation anachronistically as the start of the Holy Roman Empire or the German Empire.  Politically, Charlemagne’s state fell apart almost immediately, and when his direct line petered out in less than a century, the title of Roman Emperor soon followed it. In 962 the German Otto I (a distant relative of Charlemagne) revived the title, and in 1157 his successor Frederick Barbarossa officially added the term sacrum (holy) to his title.   

This German-speaking, Holy Roman Empire may have been - as Voltaire put it – neither ‘holy’, nor ‘roman’, nor (since the emperor was elected) an ‘empire’ – but it was resilient. It survived until the nineteenth century when, in a fit of Enlightenment pique, Napoleon swept it away. 

For clarity’s sake I refer to the Greek-speaking eastern empire as ‘Byzantine’, and the German-speaking western one as ‘German’ throughout the book.


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