Stratos Myrogiannis

Naming the Void: the Invention of Byzantium in the Greek Enlightenment


In this paper I set out to trace the process of the theoretical assimilation of the concept of ‘Byzantium’ as a distinct historical era into Greek thought during the Greek Enlightenment. This issue is closely related both to the ideological practices followed by Greek-speaking intellectuals to forge a suitable Greek ‘ethnohistory’ and the construction of a Modern Greek identity during the era in question. So far, the mainstream view on this subject is that ‘Byzantium’ became a distinctive part of Greek history thanks to the remarkable work of two of the most prominent scholars of Greek Romantic historiography: Spyridon Zambelios and Konstantinos Paparrigopoulos. In this paper I revise this widely accepted view by reviewing key eighteenth-century works with historiographical qualities. To be more specific, I take into account ‘Geographia Palaia kai Nea’ (Meletios Mitrou) and ‘Neoteriki Geographia’ (Philippidis and Konstantas). Next, I focus on Katartzis’s writings and Korais’s works as well as his correspondence. By bringing new evidence I argue that during the eighteenth century, influenced by cultural developments in Europe, Greek-speaking intellectuals turned their attention to the philosophy of history and raised claims about the putative historical continuity of the Greek ‘nation’ from antiquity onwards. Their attempts aimed to construct a Greek ‘ethnohistory’. However, they faced a critical historiographical problem: the absence of a Greek ‘Middle Ages’, since European historians and antiquarians had only focused on Greek antiquity instead. In turn, Greek scholars conceived this historical absence as an urgent historiographical problem and struggled to respond. Nevertheless, only Korais managed to bridge the gap between Greek antiquity and his time. In fact, he coined in 1805 (namely earlier than is traditionally considered), the concept ‘Byzantine history’, probably borrowing the term (byzantine) that Western Europeans had used to define the Eastern Orthodox Empire. Moreover, I aim to show that by inventing a new concept he managed to transform the Byzantine cultural and religious decadence into a secular historiographical concept to fill the gap of the Greek ‘Middle Ages’. It is well known that Byzantium as a historical era was disdained by European historians, e.g. by Montesquieu, Voltaire, and Gibbon, who all stressed its corruption. In contrast, Korais’s charismatic sense of history made him aware of this issue long before it became an actual ideological problem for the newly-born Greek state during Greek Romanticism. All in all, by drawing on new findings, I set out to show that during the Enlightenment Greek-speaking scholars claimed the ‘Greekness’ of Byzantium quite earlier than is traditionally assumed, considering it a valid part of a Greek ‘ethnohistory’.

Η ανακοίνωση (PDF)