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The Ethnic Backgrounds of Byzantine Emperors

The Byzantine Empire was extremely cosmopolitan. Inside its borders lived Greeks, Armenians, Syrians, Cappadocians, Pahlagonians, Germans, Isaurians, and many others. Nonetheless, Byzantines identified as Roman, a supra-ethnic form of identity that was continued from the Roman Empire. But while this Roman identity may have bound Byzantines together, ethnic identities and divisions still existed. Byzantine primary sources are replete with references to specific ethnicities inside the Empire, such as “Armenians” and “Isaurians.” Byzantine emperors were no different than their subjects in this respect; they were an ethnically diverse cadre of rulers.

Some Byzantine emperors were never ethnically identified in primary sources. In other cases, historians used terms that could refer to both a geographic or ethnic origin. It is not an easy task to delineate the ethnic origins of the Byzantine emperors. In the following paragraphs, I will try to lay out the ethnic origins of the 90 Byzantine emperors (not counting Basiliscus, Mezezius, Artabasdos, Michael IX, Andronikos IV, John VII, or Andronikos V, all of which were short-lived usurpers or junior emperors). Continue reading “The Ethnic Backgrounds of Byzantine Emperors”

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In the Footsteps of Rome: Byzantine Conceptions of Imperialism

Byzantine Eagle Outside of Constantinople Patriarchate Colossus
Double-Headed Eagle, Symbol of the Late Byzantine Empire, at the Ecumenical Patriarchate in Constantinople | Colossus

When we think of empires, size is often what first comes to mind. Empires are big not only in geographical extent, but in power and number of people, often composed of many different ethnicities. But there are two sides to the coin for being an empire: what outsiders consider a state and what that state considers itself. Despite early reluctance to accept its imperial mantle during the Republic, Romans eventually developed and accepted an idea of themselves as masters of an empire. Its neighbors, however, had long before recognized Rome’s imperialism.

But what of Rome’s successor, the Byzantine Empire? By the time Constantinople fell in 1453, Byzantium was just a shadow of former Roman glory, territory, and might. But until the end, the difference between Rome and Byzantium was that Byzantium had no doubts as to its imperial nature but as time went on, its neighbors did. Continue reading “In the Footsteps of Rome: Byzantine Conceptions of Imperialism”

The Danubian Principalities: National Memory from the Ottoman Era

Those that lived in the dark woods and mountains to the north of the Danube had long remained on the edge of autonomy. The Romans had defeated the ancient Dacians of today’s Romania in 106 AD, but the new Roman province of Dacia only incorporated part of these lands. As Germanic tribes swept into this region in the 3rd century, the Romans pulled out. Local rule persisted for centuries, with semi-regular foreign incursions, until the Danubian Principalities, Moldavia to the north and Wallachia to the south, became independent in the mid-14th century.

Italian Map of Wallachia and Moldavia by G. Pittori, 1782.jpg
Italian Map of Wallachia (South) and Moldavia (North) from 1782

It was in the 15th century, however, that these two principalities began their unique relationship with the Ottoman Empire that defined the two principalities for nearly four centuries and left its mark on the region, culture, and people. Continue reading “The Danubian Principalities: National Memory from the Ottoman Era”

Genocide: The Cursed and Unrecognized Legacy of Armenians and Greeks

Greeks and Armenians have often had connected experiences over the centuries. They lived as neighbors since pre-Roman times, Armenians were a prominent minority in the majority Greek Byzantine Empire, and both were subjects of the Ottoman Empire.

But they also shared the most tragic of experiences: genocide. In 2014, the Greek Parliament passed law 4285/2014, which outlawed the denial of not only the Holocaust, but also the Greek (1913-1922) and Armenian Genocides (1915-1922) in the Ottoman Empire. This law not only presents a strong stance against genocide deniers, but also shows the solidarity of the Greeks and Armenians in the face of lack of recognition and continued Turkish denial. Continue reading “Genocide: The Cursed and Unrecognized Legacy of Armenians and Greeks”

The Second Bulgarian Empire: Taking Advantage of Chaos in the Balkans

When Basil II conquered Bulgaria in 1018, he inaugurated over 100 years of Byzantine rule in Bulgaria. But under Basil’s successors the fortunes of the Byzantine Empire began to fall. Although Byzantium briefly recovered under the first three emperors from the Komnenos Dynasty (1081-1180), after 1180 came a string of mostly incompetent emperors. Bulgaria took advantage of a weakened Byzantium, reasserting its independence and then taking advantage of the fractured Balkans region following the sacking of Constantinople during the Fourth Crusade. Continue reading “The Second Bulgarian Empire: Taking Advantage of Chaos in the Balkans”

The First Croatia: A Medieval Memory and the People That Never Died

Modern Croatia only became independent in 1991, but although it may be one of Europe’s youngest states, it has existed in some capacity since the 10th century. The medieval Kingdom of Croatia only lasted roughly 200 years (925-1102), but ever since then, Croatia, under foreign kings and emperors and part of multinational states, has persevered. As a people, the Croats never disappeared, like so many other peoples that came and went throughout history. Continue reading “The First Croatia: A Medieval Memory and the People That Never Died”

The Megali Idea: The Dream to Restore Byzantium

 Πάλι με χρόνια με καιρούς, πάλι δικά μας θα ‘ναι!

“Once more, as years and time go by, once more they shall be ours.”

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Ever since the Ottoman Turks had conquered Constantinople in 1453, Greeks had yearned for liberation from the Ottoman Empire. When that independence came in 1832, it was only a fraction of ethnic Greeks that became free. Only southern Greece was part of the newly independent Kingdom of Greece, while the vast majority still lived under Ottoman rule. The mission to rescue them would consume Greece for the next century. Continue reading “The Megali Idea: The Dream to Restore Byzantium”

Icons, Blood, and Legacy: How Empress Irene Got Past the Byzantine Glass Ceiling

Female rulers were an anomaly in medieval history. Many of the most notable thrones of the Middle Ages were never graced by a female monarch. While there were queens and empresses who had power through their husbands, few ruled in their own right. The Kingdom of France never had a female ruler in its entire history. The Holy Roman Empire was similarly situated (the only exception, Maria Theresa of Austria in the 18th century, was barred from being Holy Roman Emperor due to her gender).

The Byzantine Empire lasted for over a millennium (330-1453), and had three independent empresses. England is only coming up on the millennium mark in the 21st century, and even they have only had five queens (including the long-lived Elizabeth I, Victoria, and Elizabeth II). Although their reigns were relatively brief, the fact that Irene (r. 797-802), Zoe (r. 1042), and Theodora (r. 1042, 1055-1056) could rule at such a time shows the different mores Byzantium held in comparison to most of its medieval counterparts. The longest reigning of these, Irene, shocked the world and illustrated the greater access to power by Byzantine women than their neighbors by becoming the first female “Roman Emperor” in history. Continue reading “Icons, Blood, and Legacy: How Empress Irene Got Past the Byzantine Glass Ceiling”

Greek Independence Day: A Complex History for Just 24 Hours

On March 25th, Greeks across the globe celebrated Greek Independence Day. It has been nearly two centuries since Metropolitan Germanos of Patros raised the flag of revolt at the Monastery of Agia Lavra, the traditional start of the Greek War of Independence. Much like other national memories of independence, fact and myth have become blurred over time. What were the Greeks fighting for then and was it really achieved? Continue reading “Greek Independence Day: A Complex History for Just 24 Hours”

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