Christos Malatras

The making of an ethnic group: the Romaioi in the 12th-13th centuries


The topics of Hellenism in Byzantium and the nation-making of Greece have received in the past a great deal of attention by scholars. In this paper, I suggest that the Byzantines of the 12th century did not consider themselves actual descendants of the ancient Greeks, even though the rehabilitation of ancient Greek literature had been taking place from the time of Michael Psellos. This however does not mean, as scholars have suggested in the past and even recently, that the Byzantines did not have a sense of ethnic or ‘national’ identity and that they were all united under the banner of the emperor and Orthodoxy. On the contrary, the Byzantines of the 12th century perceived themselves as a distinct ethnic group, among the other ethnic groups in the world and among the subjects of the Byzantine emperor. Moreover, they started building their identity on the basis of some kind of East Romanitas, i.e. descendants of the East Romans, Christianity and language. Language most of the times plays a significant role in distinguishing the various ethnic groups and setting up effectively their boundaries, and this was also the case in 12th century Byzantium. Since the majority of the empire’s inhabitants were in fact native Greek speakers, they proved the best “candidates” for this ethnic group of the Romaioi. However, we have to distinguish between the Greek language and Hellenism. By Hellenism we mean that system of thought that was linked with the study of ancient Greek authors and thought. My view is that it was not Hellenism that helped the ethnic group of the Romaioi be identified with the native Greek speakers, rather it was because the Romaioi were in fact Greek speakers that helped Hellenism emerge. The link that Hellenism might sometimes imply with the ancient Greek past, which many scholars have searched for, is something that simply did not exist during the 12th century. But the year 1204 proved a most decisive year in terms of Byzantine identity. The writings of the same authors before and after the fall of Constantinople show that. The “ethnic pride” of the Romaioi was hurt decisively and their reaction was fierce. Before the 12th century the Byzantines, the Romaioi, only displayed Hellenism rhetorically but now it becomes their essence and, to a degree, the state ideology. The terms Romaioi and Greeks sometimes are used interchangeably. Nevertheless, the boundaries of the ethnic group do not change. What changes is its essence, the identity of the group. Hellenism served as the most effective way to clearly distinguish Byzantines and Latins; it became the basis of 13th century ethinicity. However, this change of identity would be unthinkable if two basic elements had not made their contribution during the 12th century: the formation of a clearly distinguished ethnic group (that of the Romaioi) and the progress of the element of Hellenism in the ethnic identity of that group.

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