For most people, the Roman Empire collapsed in 476 AD after the Barbarian statesman Odoacer declared himself ruler of Italy. The fact that the Eastern Roman Empire continued with its centre in Constantinople (present-day Istanbul) has often been treated as a mere footnote of history and not particularly important; as a kind of imposter rather than the real thing. There could be many reasons for this, but over the past few decades Byzantium has found more people wanting to explore its history and revive academic and public interest in it.
The New Roman Empire: A History of Byzantium, by Anthony Kaldellis, is perhaps the most ambitious attempt to look at the history of the “other” Roman Empire since Judith Herrin’s 2008 Byzantium. They have more than convinced me that that history did not end in 476, and can at the very least be extended to 1453. Indeed, I think it can be argued that it continued throughout the Ottoman period and the Russian Tsars up to and including the Vatican today.
The extent to which Byzantine history has been erased from public consciousness astounds me. If you go to any university in the Western world and study classics — the study of ancient Greece and Rome — you are unlikely to be offered any courses on the Byzantines. This is how much they’ve been pushed out of our understanding of history.
This is the context in which The New Roman Empire has been written. It basically covers the whole history of Byzantium from its origins to its fall, which takes up to 1,000 years.
Kaldellis offers three main contentions: public opinion mattered — everyone from city-folk to provincials played a key role in society and rulers cared about having legitimacy in their eyes; elites were expected to fill their roles in line with virtues held by the general public, and so studying them also gives us insight into the hopes, values and frustrations of the majority of the people; and Byzantium was an exercise in big government and was able to shape people’s lives, control events and govern extensively. This marked a shift from the pre-Byzantine situation. How successfully Kaldellis defends these positions will be for those who have a firmer grounding in Byzantine history than I have; no doubt academics will come forward one way or the other. Even so, the author does the job well, I believe, and needs to be taken seriously.
Romania [Byzantium] was not a dynastic state
Unlike the Sasanian Persian and Ottoman empires and the European monarchies, its rulers did not come from one family. In fact, any Roman could become emperor.
Of course, there were conditions for becoming emperor, as Kaldellis points out, but its unique form of government did produce longevity. The shift towards big government with a centralised state was perhaps the most important feature, which began with Diocletian and his reforms. “He set into motion a more rational, uniform, efficient and even equitable system of national taxation, dispensing with the distinction between Roman conquerors in Italy and conquered non-Romans in the provinces.” The state grew so large under Diocletian that, “A hostile observer groused that there were more employees in Diocletian’s government than there were taxpayers.”
What could have facilitated the rise of a pre-modern centralised governing system, something which was hard to achieve before the industrial revolution? Well, part of the answer, as Kaldellis notes, is that the world of Byzantium was less diverse than the world focused on Rome before it. Christianisation, Romanisation and Hellenisation had spread far and wide, and many of the local populations from provinces to cities in the empire shared a common identity with the elite. Thus, they had stronger ties to the state than they would have had in the times of ancient Rome. However, this did not mean the total erasure of different cultures. Kaldellis argues that local customs were often respected and incorporated into governing structures. Perhaps this goes some way to explaining the endurance of the empire until its fall to the Ottomans.
The New Roman Empire… will leave you with some interesting areas of inquiry to pursue, whether you agree with the arguments or not. The book is a narrative history and intended for a general audience. In this it is certainly a comprehensive introduction to Byzantium. It is not a textbook, per se, but makes it points and advances specific arguments to back them up, while giving a detailed account of the empire.
“The history of Romania was one of resilience, marked by an extraordinary capacity to recover from setbacks and adapt to new circumstances,” writes Kaldellis. Hopefully, his book will foster more general interest and understanding about the place of Byzantium in world history.