No, I’m Roman!

When did the Roman empire end? Well, at one level, the western empire ended in 476 AD when the Germanic general Odacer deposed Romulus Augustulus and had himself made king of Italy. But on another level, the eastern Roman empire continued right up until 1453 AD with the fall of Constantinople to the Turks.

It is common to call the eastern Roman empire the Byzantine empire, however, this is an 18th-century scholarly invention. The Byzantines did not call themselves “Byzantines” but “Romans.” What is more, even after the fall of Constantinople, one can still find a certain cultural consciousness of Greek-speaking non-Muslims in the region regarding themselves as Roman.

Technology author George Zarkadakis opines how modern Greek identity is largely the product of intellectuals from the Greek Enlightenment who accepted western narratives about Byzantium, aimed to dissociate modern Greece from its medieval history as a continuation of Roman culture, and instead rooted it in the ancient, classical era of Pericles and Demosthenes. Yet, he argues, the medieval heritage of the Greeks as the heirs of the eastern Roman empire actually lasted and lingered far longer than people realize. He gives one amazing anecdote about just how late this Roman consciousness goes. He writes:

Last summer  I happened to be in New York and I was told the following anecdotal story, that demonstrates what I mean.

It was 1912, during the First Balkan War , when the Greek army landed on the island of Lesvos and liberated it from the Ottomans. As the army advanced inside the island taking positions a Greek soldier noticed a young local boy who stood by and looked at the Greek soldiers full of curiosity.  So the soldier went over to the boy asked him why he was looking at the soldiers like that.

“Because I was told that the Greeks were coming”, said the boy in perfect Greek, “and I wanted to see how you Greeks look like”.

“But you are a Greek too”, said the soldier.

“No”, said the boy. “I’m a Roman”.


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