Dedicated to the military history and civilization of the Eastern Roman Empire (330 to 1453)

"Time in its irresistible and ceaseless flow carries along on its flood all created things and drowns them in the depths of obscurity."

- - - - Princess Anna Comnena (1083–1153) - Byzantine historian

Saturday, May 16, 2015

Singidunum Fortress in Belgrade

Skyline of the Sava's bank of Ušće by night, seen from the Kalemegdan fortress.  The hilltop Roman-Byzantine fortress commanded a panoramic view of the Danube.

Singidunum  -  Roman Serbia

The Danube Limes

The frontier of the Roman Empire, from the Danube to the Black Sea, played a crucial role in making and breaking emperors and protecting Roman society along its course.

Along the Danube from Bavaria to the Black Sea there is a frontier system with fortresses and fortlets built by the Roman army such as Carnuntum (Austria), Aquincum (Budapest, Hungary), Viminacium (near Belgrade, Serbia) or Novae (Svistov, Bulgaria). Together with hundreds of watchtowers and large urban settlements they are part of an impressive military machine.


The river itself was the most dominant element of the frontier system, used as a demarcation line against the Barbarian world to the north and as a fortified transport corridor.

The forts, situated mostly on the right side of the river, acted as check-points to control traffic in and out of the empire. Their ruins, above and below ground, visible or non-visible, are often in remarkable shape and well integrated in the landscape.

The Fortress of Singidunum was one of the limes strongpoints.

Singidunum is the name for the ancient city in Serbia which became Belgrade, the capital of Serbia. It was recorded that a Celtic tribe, the Scordisci, settled the area in the 3rd century BC following the Gallic invasion of the Balkans 

The Roman Empire conquered the area in 75 BC and later garrisoned the Roman Legio IV Flavia Felix in 86 AD. It was the birthplace to the Roman Emperor Jovian. Belgrade has arisen from its ashes 38 times.

It wasn't until the rule of Octavian, when Marcus Licinius Crassus, the grandson of the Caesarian Triumvir and then proconsul of Macedonia, finally stabilized the region with a campaign. 

Beginning in 29 BC Moesia was formally organized into a province some time before 6 AD, when the first mention of its governor, Caecina Severus, is made. Singidun was Romanized to Singidunum. It became one of the primary settlements of Moesia, situated between Sirmium and Viminacium, both of which overshadowed Singidunum in significance. Singidunum became an important and strategic position along the Via Militaris, an important Roman road connecting fortresses and settlements along the Danubian limes, or border.

Was this the Byzantine Fortress?
In the probing of the medieval walls of the Belgrade Fortress the walls of the Roman castrum Singidunum were discovered beneath.  
Governments are always on a budget.  It is common for the military to 
take the line of least resistance and expense by using or improving 
upon existing older fortifications.  We do not know what the original
Roman-Byzantine fortifications looked like.  But it would be a good 
guess that they might have looked much like the surviving structures.

Roman Empire around 600AD
The Fortress of Singidunum was one of several strongpoints 
on the Danube Limes defense system.

Belgrade Fortress consists of the old citadel (Upper and Lower Town) and Kalemegdan Park on the confluence of the River Sava and Danube, in an urban area of modern Belgrade, the capital of Serbia

Belgrade Fortress is the core and the oldest section of the urban area of Belgrade. For centuries the city population was concentrated only within the walls of the fortress, and thus the history of the fortress, until most recent times, equals the history of Belgrade itself. 

The first mention of the city is when it was founded in the 3rd century BC as "Singidunum" by the Celtic tribe of Scordisci, who had defeated Thracian and Dacian tribes that previously lived in and around the fort. The city-fortress was later conquered by the Romans, was known as Singidunum and became a part of "the military frontier", where the Roman Empire bordered "barbarian Central Europe". Singidunum was defended by the Roman legion IV Flaviae, which built a fortified camp on a hill at the confluence of the Danube and the Sava rivers.

Singidunum reached its height with the arrival of Legio IV Flavia Felix in 86 AD. The legion set up as a square-shaped castrum (fort), which occupied Upper Town of today's Kalemegdan

At first, the fortress was set up as earthen bulwarks, but soon after, it was fortified with stone, the remains of which can be seen today near the northeastern corner of the acropolis. The legion also constructed a bridge over the Sava, connecting Singidunum with Taurunum. The 6,000-strong legion became a major military asset against the continuous threat of the Dacians just across the Danube. 

Another step the Romans took to help strengthen Singidunum was the settlement of its legion veterans next to the fortress. In time, a large settlement grew out from around thecastrum. The town took on a rectlinear construction, with its streets meeting at right angles. The grid structure can be seen in today's Belgrade with the orientation of the streets Uzun Mirkova, Dušanova, and Kralja Petra I. Studentski Trg (Students' Square) was a Roman forum, bordered by thermae (a public bath complex whose remains were discovered during the 1970s) and also preserves the orientation the Romans gave Singidunum. 

Other remnants of Roman material culture such as tombs, monuments, sculptures, ceramics, and coins have been found villages and towns surrounding Belgrade. Hadrian granted Singidunum the rights of municipium during the mid 2nd century. Singidunum later outgrew this status and became a full-fledged colony. The Roman Emperor Jovian who reestablished Christianity as the official religion of the Roman Empire was born in Singidunum in 332. Singidunum and Moesia experienced a peaceful period, but that was not to last, due to the growing turmoil not only from outside the Roman Empire, but also from within.
The Roman Empire began to decline at the end 3rd century. The province of Dacia, established by several successful and lengthy campaigns by Trajan, began to collapse under pressure from the invading Goths in 256. By 270, Aurelian, faced with the sudden loss of many provinces and major damage done by invading tribes, abandoned Dacia altogether. Singidunum found itself once again on the limes of the fading Empire, one of the last major strongholds to survive mounting danger from the invading barbarian tribes.

Statue of Eastern Emperor Justinian I.
The Emperor rebuilt the fortress in 535 AD.

The Byzantine Period

In the period between AD 378 and 441 the Roman camp was repeatedly destroyed in the invasions by the Goths and the Huns. Legend says that Attila's grave lies at the confluence of the Sava and the Danube (under the fortress).

In the 5th and 6th centuries, Moesia and Illyricum suffered devastating raids by the successive invasions of the HunsOstrogothsGepidsSarmatiansAvars, and Slavs. Singidunum fell to the Huns in 441, who razed the city and fortress, selling its Roman inhabitants into indentured servitude. 

Over the next two hundred years, the city passed hands several times: the Romans reclaimed the city after the fall of the Hun confederation in 454, but the Sarmatians conquered the city shortly thereafter. In 470 the Ostrogoths seized the city around, expelling the Sarmatians. The city was later invaded by Gepids (488), but the Ostrogoths recaptured it in 504. Six years later the Eastern Roman Empire reclaimed the city according to a peace treaty.

The Eastern Roman Emperor Justinian I rebuilt the fortress around 535. In the following centuries the fortress suffered continuous destruction under the Avar sieges. 

The Slavs (Serbs) and Avars had their "state union" north of Belgrade with the Serbs and other Slavic tribes finally settling in the Belgrade area as well as the regions west and south of Belgrade in the beginning of the 7th century. 

The name Belgrade (or Beograd in Serbian), which, not just in Serbian but in most Slavic languages, means a "white town" or a "white fortress", was first mentioned in AD 878 by Bulgarians. 

The fortress kept changing its masters: Bulgaria during three centuries, and then the Byzantines and then again Bulgarians. The fortress remained a Byzantine stronghold until the 12th century when it fell in the hands of the newly emerging Serbian state. It became a border city of the Serbian Kingdom, later Empire with Hungary. 

The Hungarian king Béla I gave the fortress to Serbia in the 11th century as a wedding gift (his son married the Serbian princess Jelena), but it remained effectively part of Hungary, except for the period 1282–1319. After the Serbian state collapsed after the Battle of Kosovo in 1404, Belgrade was chosen as the capital of the principality of Despot Stefan Lazarević. Major work was done to the ramparts which were encircling a big thriving town.  

Belgrade remained in Serbian hands for almost a century. After the Despot's death in 1427 it had to be returned to Hungary. An attempt by Sultan Mehmed II to conquer the fortress was prevented by Janos Hunyadi in 1456 (Siege of Belgrade), saving Hungary from Ottoman dominion for 70 years.

Think of the word "Porous"
The Danube Limes was not a solid wall defending the Empire's frontier.  Rather it a was a series of fortified cities, small forts and watchtowers.  The Limes was porous with assorted invading Slavs, Huns or Avars pouring through on raids dedicated to looting or conquest.  In theory the Roman/Byzantine strongpoints would slow down invaders allowing for troops stationed close by to push the enemy back over the border..

See:  The Danube Limes - Protecting the Roman Balkans 

(Belgrade)      (belgradepass)      (voiceofserbia.org)      (Singidunum)

(Belgrade Fortress)

Sunday, May 3, 2015

First Contact - Seljuqs vs Byzantines at the Battle of Kapetron

First Contact - The Coming of the Turks
A Byzantine-Georgian army meets the 
Muslim Turks for the first time.

It seems that the Eastern Roman Empire could never catch a break.  For centuries the empire had been fighting Muslim Arab invasions in Anatolia and Italy as well as endless Bulgarian invasions in the Balkans.

Then along comes the great Roman Emperor Basil II (976 - 1025).  His long reign were dominated by civil war against powerful generals from the Anatolian aristocracy. Following their submission, Basil oversaw the stabilization and expansion of the eastern frontier of the Byzantine Empire, and above all, the final and complete subjugation of Bulgaria, the Empire's foremost European foe, after a prolonged struggle. For this he was nicknamed by later authors as "the Bulgar-slayer", by which he is popularly known. 

At his death, the Empire stretched from Southern Italy to the Caucasus and from the Danube to the borders of Palestine, its greatest territorial extent since the Muslim conquests four centuries earlier.

From the seventh to the 12th centuries, the Byzantine army was among the most powerful and effective military forces in the world – neither Middle Ages Europe nor (following its early successes) the fracturing Caliphate could match the strategies and the efficiency of the Byzantine army. 

Restricted to a largely defensive role in the 7th to mid-9th centuries, the Byzantines developed the theme-system to counter the more powerful Caliphate. 

From the mid-9th century, however, they gradually went on the offensive, culminating in the great conquests of the 10th century under a series of soldier-emperors such as Nikephoros II PhokasJohn Tzimiskes and Basil II. The army they led was less reliant on the militia of the themes; it was by now a largely professional force, with a strong and well-drilled infantry at its core and augmented by a revived heavy cavalry arm. With one of the most powerful economies in the world at the time, the Empire had the resources to put to the field a powerful host when needed, in order to reclaim its long-lost territories.

Eastern Roman Themes
The themes were the main military-administrative divisions of the middle Byzantine Empire. They were established in the mid-7th century in the aftermath of the Muslim conquests of parts of Byzantine territory, and replaced the earlier provincial system established by Diocletian and Constantine the Great. The first themes were created from the areas of encampment of the field armies of the East Roman army, and their names corresponded to the military units that had existed in those areas.
A theme was an arrangement of plots of land given for farming to the soldiers. The soldiers were still technically a military unit, under the command of a strategos. They did not own the land they worked as it was still controlled by the state. Therefore, for its use the soldiers' pay was reduced. By accepting this proposition, the participants agreed that their descendants would also serve in the military and work in a theme.
The commander of a theme did not only command his soldiers. He united the civil and military jurisdictions in the territorial area in question.  Military staffing for local themes might range up to 9,600 men.

The Seljuq Turks

By 1045 the Byzantines had stabilized their eastern borders with the Arabs and eliminated Bulgaria as a threat.  But they were still being pressed by Muslim armies in Italy.

This fairly peaceful situation did not last.  A new enemy appeared.  The second half of the 11th century was marked by the strategically significant invasion of the Seljuq Turks, who by the end of the 1040s had succeeded in building a vast nomadic empire including most of Central Asia and Persia.

The Seljuqs united the fractured political scene of the eastern Islamic world and played a key role in the first and second crusades. Highly Persianized in culture and language, the Seljuqs also played an important role in the development of the Turko-Persian tradition, even exporting Persian culture to Anatolia. 

The settlement of Turkic tribes in the northwestern peripheral parts of the empire, for the strategic military purpose of fending off invasions from neighboring states, led to the progressive Turkicization of those areas.

A Seljuk horse-archer


The Battle of  Kapetron

Once again we are faced with major political and military events about which there is near zero meaningful information.

The 1040s saw the Muslim Seljuk Turks first appear on the eastern borders of Byzantium.  Word of the aggressive and militaristic Turks would have long before reach Constantinople's leaders.  Since the 900s the Seljuqs had slowly expanded their empire from central Asia through Persia to the borders of Byzantium.

The Turks had invaded the Roman military theme of Iberia (see map below), and for some time there appears to have been a considerable amount of fighting on the eastern border.

The Turks under İbrahim Yinal attacked the city of Arzen, a vibrant commercial center in the Byzantine-administered in Iberia.  The city was home to warehouses belonging to Syrian and Armenian merchants.

The city defended themselves for six days by barricading the streets and attacking the Turks from roof tops.  Roman troops in the area refused to march to the defense of the city, and the Turks were focused on destroying a supply base for their enemies.  The Turks set fire to the city reducing it to ashes.

Emperor Constantine IX
The Emperor organized an allied army
to face a Turkish invasion.

Armenian historians claim that 140,000 people were killed and that the Turks filled the slave markets of the east with women and children from Arzen.  

As Roman troops entered the area in 1048 it was reported that tens of thousands of Christians had been massacred and several areas were reduced to piles of ashes. 

Both Byzantium and the Christian Kingdom of Georgia were alarmed and agreed on an alliance to face the Turks.

The Emperor Constantine IX ordered a defensive strategy till the arrival of Georgian reinforcements.  The Emperor sent to the Georgian warlord Liparit, whom the Byzantines had aided in his struggle against the Georgian king Bagrat IV, to unite with Roman forces against the advancing Seljuqs.

A combined Byzantine-Georgian army of 50,000, under the command of AaronKatakalon Kekaumenos and Liparit, met the Seljuqs head-on at Kapetron on September 10, 1048.

For reasons that are not explained the allied army took on the Turks in a fierce nocturnal battle.  The Turks might have been outnumbered and may have tried to surprise their enemies in a night attack.

Night battles in any war are more about anarchy and the blind attacking the blind.  That was most likely the case at Kapetron.  Blind or not, the Christian allies managed to repel the Turks, and Aaron and Kekaumenos, in command of the two flanks, pursued the Turks "till cock's crow". 

In the center, however, Yinal managed to capture the Georgian prince Liparit, a fact of which the two Byzantine commanders were not informed until after they gave thanks to God for their victory.

Losses on both sides were said to be great.

Ibrahim Yinal was nevertheless able to safely leave the Byzantine territory, laden with spoils and captives. The Emperor later sent ransoms to the Turks who refused them, however, and released Liparit on condition that he would never again fight the Seljuqs.


The devastation left behind by the Seljuq raid was so fearful that the Byzantine magnate Eustathios Boilas who moved to Iberia described, in 1051/52, those lands as "foul and unmanageable... inhabited by snakes, scorpions, and wild beasts." The Arab chronicler Ibn al-Athir reports that Ibrahim brought back 100,000 captives and a vast booty loaded on the backs of ten thousand camels.

The Roman-Georgian army had driven their enemy from the field of battle and earned a "victory" of sorts . . . the right to rule over a countryside that was devastated by their Muslim enemy.

It was not a good sign that the Allied generals decided they would not, or could not, follow and crush a defeated enemy.  The allies may have felt they were too weak, the Turks still too strong or both.  

But allowing a defeated enemy army burdened with captives and loot to slowly escape sent a strong message of Christian weakness to the Turks.

Seljuk Turks

Eastern border of Byzantium in 1025
The Turks invades the Byzantine military theme of Iberia.

(Battle of Kapetron)      (Seljuk Empire)      (Byzantine Army)

(Iberia)      (Battle of Kapetron)

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Court Pageantry in the Court of Heraclius

Emperor Heraclius receiving the submission of Persian King Khosrau II

A Glimpse into the Past

Pageantry has always been part of nations.  Partly it exists to stroke the egos of the leadership class and partly to impress the common people as to how important that leadership class is and that they must be respected as their "betters".

We are blessed with a fairly large number of first person accounts and histories from the Roman Republic and the early Empire periods.  But those accounts become few and far between as we go deeper into the Byzantine period.

In the book Heraclius, Emperor of Byzantium the author Walter Kaegi provides a number of quotations from original accounts of official events during the Emperor's reign (610-641AD).

At this point below we are 162 years after the fall of Rome to the barbarians.  Imperial pageantry was in full swing as the 63 year old Eastern Emperor Heraclius crowned his son Constantine as co-Emperor to strengthen his dynasty's hold on the throne.

Pageantry helped present an image to the public of a strong and powerful empire and government during troubled times of invasion by Slavs in the Balkans and Muslims in Syria.
Roman coin depicting Heraclius and
his sons Constantine and Heraklonas

each with a crown.

July 4, 638

. . . on 4 July, eleventh indiction, the the Imperator (Autokrator) and great Emperor (Heraclius) wishing to announce the promotion of his son from the rank of Caesar to the dignity of Emperor acted in the following manner.

The Patriarch and all the Senators were summoned.  The Patriarch approached the Emperor, with Constantine his (Heraklonas') brother being present.  Prayer took place in the chapel of the holy Stephen of Daphen.  His kamelaukion (a kind of cap or head covering) was removed from his head and the Imperial crown was placed on his head.

There was a prayer for the despotes David as the kamelaukion was placed on his head as he ascended to the rank of Caesar.

That having been done, the most glorious Patricians were summoned according to custom, and they entered the Augusterm and received the great Emperor and his sons, with the Caesar being present.

All the ex-consuls and those with ranks as high as illustres departed and stood on the steps of the forecourt.  The gates of the armory we opened and all the standards (signa) and scholae and demes (factions) entered.  The Patriarch exited with them (the Emperor and his sons).  And with everyone acclaiming them, the Emperor and his sons departed for the Great Church.  Everything took place according to form in the Great Church.

January 12, 639

On the first month of January, 12th indiction, the Emperor made a procession to the Great Church.

The despotes Constantine departed with him, wearing a tunic, and despotes Heraclius and (his, the Emperor's) son wore the toga praetextata, and supported on the arm of his own brother.

The Patricians Niketas and John and the Patrician attached to Iesdem (Yazdin) and the Patrician Dometios and the magister Eustathios wore togas, while the other officials wore pure silk tunics, and some of the ex-consuls wore the consular loros (sash).  Having entered the Great Church they lit candles and everything went according to form and was valid.

(Editor  -  We see a splendid ceremony with great attention to dress and a show harmony within the Imperial family.  The presence of the Sasanian Perisan dignitary Yazdin, former Treasurer of the Persian Empire, underscores the vain hope of Rome and Persia working together even as both empires were being over run by Muslim armies.)

The impressive Great Church Hagia Sophia was prominently
featured in many important Roman functions.

January 15, 639

(Editor  -  This passage records a public demonstration of Imperial and familial solidarity with Heraclius' second wife Martina and their families.  Both Latin and Greek are used in the text.  The call "to conquer" is a reminder that the Empire is being invaded on every front as they speak.)

On the fourth of the same month, there being a horse race, the Emperor received the usual persons in the Augusteum, and he ordered them to come to him in the Hippodrome.

He received all of the officials, and having entered the Augusteum, they found the Emperor and the Augusta standing.  In front of them stood Augistina and Anastasia, their daughters and Augustae.

The Patricians were present and on the right stood the other children of the Emperor, and on the left were the cubicularii (chamberlains) and they cried out, saying:

"Good fortune to the government, good fortune to the government, good fortune to the government.  Heraclius Augustus, conquer!  Anastasia Martina, conquer!  Constantine Augustus, conquer!  Heraclius Augustus, conquer!  Augustina Augusta, conquer!  Davis Caesar, conquer!  Martina most noble, conquer!"

Then the Emperor left for the Hippodrome.

(Heraclius - Emperor of Byzantium, Chapter 8)        (Heraclius)

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

OSU Professor: The Byzantines were Romans

Wall of Constantinople

The Byzantine Republic

(From the Sandusky Register)  -  Conventional historical thinking is that the Roman Empire "fell" in A.D. 476, when the Germanic tribes finished their occupation of western Europe by deposing the last Western Roman emperor. 
But Byzantine and classical scholar Anthony Kaldellis, a professor in the Department of Classics of The Ohio State University, argues that not only did the eastern half of the empire survive for centuries, it kept its Roman identity, even though its citizens mostly spoke Greek.
His new book, "The Byzantine Republic: People and Power in New Rome" (Harvard University Press), defies the received wisdom in Byzantine studies by insisting that Byzantium, as the Eastern Roman Empire is usually known, was a Roman republic in which the people were sovereign. Although it had an emperor, he did not rule as the absolute monarch that he's usually depicted as, Kaldellis asserts.  His startling book is aimed at scholars but is well written enough to interest general readers who enjoy history. 

Kaldellis' official university website lists 18 different books that he wrote, translated or edited, and numerous articles, book chapters and reviews. His translations include major Byzantine historians such as Prokopios, the major source for figures such as Justinian I and Belisarius.

He's currently working on a narrative history of Byzantium from 955 to 1097 A.D., just before the beginning of the Crusades, and he has other projects in the works. He also shoulders a full load of classes, including classes in Latin, Greek, classical literature and classical  history.

Despite all that, he took time to answer our questions about his new book and other issues: 
Sandusky Register: Your new book, "The Byzantine Republic," argues that the Eastern Roman Empire was a republican state at least as much as it was a monarchy. How did the obvious effect that the people had on Byzantine governance (you assemble lots of evidence) escape the attention of historians for so long?
Kaldellis: Like economists, historians see what they are trained to see, and prioritize their attention based on the theories they have been taught. Suppose I tell you that you are about to enter a room that contains a powerful king, a queen, a general, and a bishop. You go in and, indeed, there they are, in all their finery, and make quite an impression. They are everything you expect. Then, when you come out, I ask you what you saw. You will say, a king, a queen, a general, and a bishop. You will most likely not mention the non-descript servant who entered now and then. But for all you know he was holding them hostage with a pistol. Gosford Park has a similar version of how this bias works.
There are many reasons why the role of the people is systematically overlooked. Like political scientists, historians are trained to think of politics as something that takes places among elites. It’s all about factions, alliances, economic interests, and the like. Even when they study democratic Athens, the most radically egalitarian society that has ever existed (for men), they still look for elites. Yet notice how unprepared all the experts are when the people rise up even today and try to overthrow regimes, in Paris, Cairo, Athens, and Istanbul. The experts don’t understand what’s going on, they don’t have the vocabulary for it, they can’t analyze it. It’s not how they think politics works. When it comes to popular interventions specifically, historians and other social scientists are averse to seeing instability as systemic. They like to know the rules of the game, and hate the idea that what no one can foresee or control comes along and upends everything, like Taleb’s Black Swan. 
Popular interventions were a regular but unpredictable fact of life in the Byzantine empire. Historians “see” them because they are all over the place in the evidence, but in every individual case they marginalize them, saying that it was only an isolated incident from which we can’t draw general conclusions. You often hear this kind of thing in the news today. Then suddenly there are a hundred thousand people in the streets screaming for blood.
Finally, Byzantine Studies is an extremely repetitive and conservative field. You read the same thing over and over again, that the emperor was there to do God’s work, and you don’t “see” that he was also there to do well by his people and that they could do something about it when he failed. Historians take all this imperial propaganda about “emperors protected by God” at face value as if that was how society worked. In reality, not a single emperor was protected by God. Go ask Mubakar.

The Hippodrome of Constantinople
(Antoine Helbert.com)

Sandusky Register: The ancient Greeks have enjoyed a good press for centuries for their contributions to the idea of liberty. (John Stuart Mill, the famous British libertarian philosopher, said the Battle of Marathon was an important "event in British history.") Why do the Byzantines get such bad press?
Kaldellis: First I should say that the Byzantines have been getting a much better press lately. Exhibitions of their art are great successes, and may even draw more visitors than exhibitions of classical or Renaissance art. Our courses in Byzantine history also draw large enrollments – in Ohio! But of course you’re right, historically Byzantium has not been served generously by opinion-makers in the west. There are reasons for this, but they will teach you more about how opinion is manufactured in the west than about Byzantium. Specifically, in the Enlightenment, a number of political theorists chose to use Byzantium as a negative model for absolutism and theocracy, for all the bad things that happen when Christianity takes over both culture and government. They couldn’t talk directly about their own nasty governments, often run by priests, so they talked about them indirectly as “Byzantium.” They did not know much about it, but they didn’t have to. It was a useful imaginary construct that promoted their enlightened projects. Then, once they had had their Revolutions and what not, the model ceased to be useful and they dropped the anti-Byzantine polemic, but the odium remained attached to the name.
There have been other reasons why the west has at times demonized Byzantium. During the Cold War, it was taken by some to be the matrix of the Soviet Union. While “free” ancient Greece explains the capitalist west, Byzantium explains everything wrong in the Russian Mind (i.e., servility, superstition, the outrageous idea that Christians should share with each other…). All complete nonsense, of course. Can we move on now? Let’s see.

Hagia Sophia

Sandusky Register: Is there a good survey of Byzantine history that you can recommend to an interested amateur such as myself?
Kaldellis: There used to be such a book, but it is now hopelessly outdated. More recent efforts are closer to textbooks, or dry narratives, or way too long, or extremely condensed. One that is neither too long nor too condensed is my colleague Tim Gregory’s History of Byzantium. There are also books that try to present the civilization as a whole to beginners, and that is a good way to go about it for a state that lasted over 1100 years. Here I recommend Judith Herrin’s Byzantium: The Surprising Life of a Medieval Empire, though it plays it too safe for me at times, still too much about emperors, monks, and orthodoxy. Do you know that still today, in the year 2015, we have only a single book about the Byzantines’ interest in erotic matters, and that was written thirty years ago in German? The material is all there, but Byzantinists don’t “see” it, even when it’s right there, and they are too addicted to the model of the “Orthodox society” to make sense of it. The Byzantines were not as prudish as modern Byzantinists are, and hardly as respectful of imperial authority or the Church. The field is suffocating in its own incense.
If I may deviate from your question, I would recommend that you bypass modern historians and go straight to the sources: start with translations of the historians Ammianus Marcellinus (fourth century), Prokopios (sixth), Psellos and Attaleiates (eleventh), and Choniates (twelfth-thirteenth). That is how I started my study of Byzantium: I read the sequence of the historians in Greek from beginning to end. Man, was that a good investment of my time! And it kept me out of trouble during my twenties.

The Palace of Boukoleon, Constantinople
Built by Theodosius II in the 5th century. The palace is located on the shore of the Sea of Marmara, to the south of the Hippodrome and east of the Little Hagia Sophia.

Sandusky Register: A bestselling book, "How the Irish Saved Civilization," argued back in 1995 that Irish monks deserve credit for preserving classical literature. Shouldn't the Byzantines get more credit than the Irish?
Kaldellis: Other than that book, which made a lot of money by catering to a specific demographic in the U.S., I am not aware of anyone else believing or promoting such amusing claims. I mean, a lot of people played a part, whether large or small, in the huge story that was the preservation of classical culture. It is an ongoing story, and it remains to be seen whether our own civilization will do as well as the Byzantines or the Arabs did. They were the two peoples who played the major roles during the Middle Ages, the Byzantines mostly for the poetry, history writing, and rhetoric, the Arabs for the philosophy and science, including medicine.
Actually, the Byzantines get recognition for this service, but it is often grudging. Down to about 1900, historians had an incentive to present Byzantine culture as radically unclassical. This was because the western powers were in the business of stealing classical art, manuscripts, and monuments from the former-Byzantine lands and they had to invent rationalizations for doing so, such as “they never liked this stuff anyway,” “they don’t appreciate what they’ve got,” “they believe statues are full of demons.” So you, a modern European, can take it from them, because you are its “true” heir, and you put in a museum or a library. But you acknowledge that they kept it through all those centuries, even if you believe that it was “meaningless” to them. These attitudes are still very much around, by the way. In this view, Byzantium was not part of Europe. Recently, however, there have been moves to include Byzantium in a generalized European preservation of classical literature, but I am skeptical. The goal seems to be to deny that Europe needed the Arabic contributions – which were in fact crucial – because they had the Byzantine ones. Byzantinists should resist this poisoned gift. So now they want to include us… but not because they like us; they just need us to fight Islam. Thanks, but no thanks.

Equestrian Statue of Justinian

Sandusky Register: You have written, and other historians have written, that the Greek speakers in the Byzantine Empire referred to themselves as "Romans." Did they do that right up until 1453? And if so, when did they finally stop?
Kaldellis: The short answers are, Yes, and, Around 1900 AD. Of course, technically there weren’t any Byzantines after 1453. Being Roman in Byzantium – just as in ancient Rome – meant being part of the Roman polity: sharing its customs, obeying its laws, serving in its armies, taking part in its politics, and worshipping its gods (or God). But there was no Roman polity in Constantinople after 1453, only a multi-lingual Orthodox population which the Ottoman sultans grouped together, for their own purposes, as the Rum (Romans). The Greek-speaking portion of that group continued to call itself Roman well into the nineteenth century, and in some places into the twentieth. After the Greek Revolution in 1821, it had to be reeducated into accepting a Greek national identity. For a while the two labels and identities coexisted, then finally the Greek one won out.
The real question is, will western scholars ever accept the Byzantines as true Romans? Not merely to say that “they called themselves Romans” – a strange way of putting it that we use for no other people in history – but to actually accept them as such. I am not saying that we abandon the term “Byzantium,” but that we understand better what it refers to. This will require some serious rethinking about who “owns” the Roman tradition. I put it to you that just as strong a case can be made for the Greek-speaking Byzantines as for the Latin-speaking Catholics of the Middle Ages. Are we ready for a Roman Byzantium? To finally accept the Byzantines for who they (said they) were? 

Emperor Constantine I presents a representation of the city of Constantinople as tribute to an enthroned Mary and Christ Child in this church mosaic. St Sophia, c. 1000

Roman Emperor Constantine IV (652 to 685) and his court.
 Constantine's reign saw the first serious check to nearly 50 years of uninterrupted Islamic expansion.

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