Being Roman: Byzantine Ethnicity

A lot of the people I encounter online, meaning everyday people not scholars, have widely varying conceptions of Byzantine identity. Many see them as just Greeks, which is complicated. Separating Greek from Roman is complicated and needless. They were Romans, and wanted to be known as such, but Roman at this time meant a lot of what we think of as Greek today.

In the 21st century it is generally far more accepted in the academic community that the “Byzantine” Empire is the direct continuation of the Eastern Roman Empire in the medieval period, lasting beyond the fall of the Western Roman Empire until conquest by the Ottoman Turks in 1453. However, a much more complex issue producing several divergent claims, none achieving universal consensus, is who these medieval Romans were in terms of an ethnic identity. The Eastern Roman Empire in its early period was a continuation of the multi-ethnic Roman society of antiquity when Roman was a more political identity. However, primary sources provide evidence that via political and religious events, and most of all the loss of territory, the medieval Roman identity evolved beyond an identity based on citizenship to an ethnic identity of its own in accordance with modern definitions. So, as one might expect if they think about it, the conception of Roman changes over a period spanning over a thousand years.

Modern academic discourse on ethnicity must be applied in order to assess the identity of the medieval Romans. An ethnicity is defined by Dr. Anthony Kaldellis in his book Romanland: Ethnicity and Empire in Byzantium based on his research as “a constellation of factors that converge to produce a unique cultural profile, though groups can always be found that lack one or two of these factors.” The elements of ethnic identity, according to Kaldellis are “shared ancestry and history, a common homeland, language, religion, cultural norms and traditions, and an ethnonym to tie it all together along with a perception of difference from outside groups.” This definition is well-constructed because it has the necessary ingredients of an ethnicity, yet is flexible enough to allow for an exception for one of its factors.

In Ethnicity as Political Resource in Different Academic Disciplines, Christoph Antweiler defines ethnicity in similar terms in the chapter “Ethnicity From an Anthropological Perspective. ”He asserts the crucial nature of self-conception in ethnicity, by stating that “the core of ethnicity is the consciousness of a ‘we’-group, and their behavioral actions in light of this feeling.” He stresses the importance of identification, and that is crucial when it comes to answering the question of the medieval Roman identity. For it is clear in their own writings they certainly displayed this identification, for them “we” is the Romans. Antweiler identifies common history, traditions, and a collective claim to be a separate culture as key elements, and wrote that religion and language were forces could help differentiate ethnicities. This is a similar framework to Kaldellis’s definition. With these two definitions in mind, it is clear the people today known as Byzantines possessed the requisite ethnic markers that perfectly fit these conceptions of ethnic identity.

To decipher the true nature of Roman ethnicity, it is important to look at them and see if they possess the elements of ethnicity we apply to other groups in a standard way. The Romans certainly had a common homeland after the 7th century, which was primarily in the Balkans and Anatolia and centered on Constantinople as the clear capital of this homeland. To lend credence to their ethnic identification as Romans is that their name for their state was Romania, or “land of the Romans.” There was an ethnonym to define them, they were “Romans,” and this is the ethnonym one encounters in the primary sources over and over. The group had a language, Greek, which to them was just the Roman dialect. They had spoken Greek throughout the time of the ancient Roman Empire as well. As their religion the Romans practiced Chalcedonian Christianity. They also had a common ancestry, which was not necessarily racial or exclusive of any specific ancestry. They had a sense of common history. They clearly saw themselves as continuing the Roman Empire, but they were the New Rome of Constantine. Which to them did not mean a new state, but the Christian era of that state. Their shared history and common ancestry was the Roman Empire which they perpetuated, but which by then had become ancient to the medieval Romans. To illustrate how ancient this history was, the period from Augustus to the Arab siege of 717 was a longer period than has lapsed since the end of Byzantine civilization in 1453 to the present, an event which itself was over 700 years after 717.

The Romans had distinct customs; this was stated by Byzantine historian Niketas Choniates when writing about the aftermath of the fall of Constantinople to the crusaders in his work O City of Byzantium.  He recorded that the “Latins ridiculed Roman customs.” Choniates also wrote that some Italian city-states had been influenced by the Byzantines, and had been “nurtured in Roman customs.” The fact that the Italians, formerly Romans themselves, ridiculed the Roman customs shows the fluidity of ethnicity. They had been Romans, but then they were not. This also doubles down on the notion there were Roman cultural markers. For them to be ridiculed and identified by the crusaders there must have been some societal customs which defined the Romans. Further, this means that these customs were identifiable by outside groups, not just the Romans themselves. They clearly had shared norms and customs, which along with the Greek language, served as markers since clearly it was not a race or gene-based ethnicity. People from many regions and ancestries could become Romans by identifying and behaving as a Roman, speaking as a Roman, worshipping as a Roman, and living in Roman society. Thus, despite what some people might say, Roman in the Byzantine world not just mean citizen.

The Byzantines were surely Romans in their own self-conception, as well as being seen as Romans by other societies around them. However, it is often overlooked or even specifically negated that the medieval Romans constituted an ethnicity. As there is no Roman nation or self-identifying population today, no Byzantine civilization, the depiction of its legacy is at the mercy of historians since its demise. Yannis Stouraitis, a historian at the University of Edinburgh, wrote in the Medieval Worlds journal that “two basic approaches can be discerned: the first points to a configuration of a dominant Roman ethnicity within the framework of the medieval eastern Roman imperial community – at least from the twelfth century onwards; the second suggests that Romanness had already taken the form of a civic or state-framed national identity in the late Roman Empire and that the medieval Rhomaion politeia was a nation-state and not an empire.” Though both are true, the second approach is the better argument. After the loss of territory in the Balkans to Slavic groups, Avars, and Bulgars, as well as the loss of the Levant, Egypt, and Africa to the Caliphate, the Byzantines were left as a more homogenous group. Those changes facilitated the formation of an ethnic identity, making the Byzantine polity more of a nation state of sorts than an empire. Because it is known as the Byzantine Empire, there is frequently a surface level assumption that it was a typical empire with a demonym rather than an ethnonym, and the name Byzantine further undermines the Roman identity.

The Byzantines are often not studied on their own terms nor is their ethnic status identified in line with the way ethnicity is conceived in modern academia. One of the leading scholars in pointing this out is the prominent Byzantinist Anthony Kaldellis, who uses several examples in his book Romanland: Ethnicity and Empirein Byzantium to argue this. He cites a work by historian Cyril Mango, writing that “Mango refers without difficulty to Slavs, Armenians, and other minorities of the empire, but when he turns to the bulk of the population, he says that it ‘had been so thoroughly churned up that it is difficult to tell what ethnic groups were living where.’” Mango does not even consider the idea of a Roman ethnicity formed out of the mixing he alluded to. It is striking how one can argue the Byzantines did not have a Roman

ethnicity without having to prove such an extraordinary claim, as is typically required when such a claim so strongly undermines a group’s claimed identity. Kaldellis calls out another historian Averil Cameron for outright denial of a Roman ethnic identity for the Byzantines in a 2006 publication despite acknowledging they identified as Romans. Kaldellis writes in shock that “ethnicity can be denied without any argumentation,” as she simply cited a vague and undefined mixing of the population as a reason that there was no Roman ethnicity. This is flawed because it assumes an ethnic group cannot have a mixed background. If that were true then no new ethnic groups could emerge, which is demonstrably false. No ethnicities are pure, they are socially constructed, can mix, evolve, disappear, and new identities can emerge. Yannis Stouraitis argues that historians often arbitrarily use terms and categories to identify historical ethnicities are identified and how states were organized. It is crucial to consider whether the Romans fit the definitions of ethnicity, not to gloss over it with broad statements that blur their identity needlessly. One needs to look in the primary sources and see how the Byzantines identified, and it is clear in those sources that there was a majority group that identified as Romans.

One needs to investigate the manner in which Byzantine Romans conceived of their own identity is to see how they called out non-Roman ethnic origins in their own society. Although Byzantium did not exclude other people from becoming Roman, people whose non-Roman origins were within memory often had this reflected in their name or nickname. An interesting source to examine is that of the Byzantine historian John Skylitzes, and his translated work A Synopsis of Byzantine History. In typical Byzantine fashion, he referred to groups by their ethnic origin in a way which highlighted that Romans were clearly delineated from other groups. He refers to the strategos (general) of the Antolikon thematic (provincial) army, as Leo the Armenian. Skylitzes is not alone in referring to him by this name; another example being the emperor Constantine Porphyrogennitos having done the same in his 10th century writings. Leo went on to be emperor of the Romans, so clearly he was accepted as Roman enough to rule the empire.

Now, if Roman was simply just a vague political label/tradition that anyone could use with no parameters, would his ancestry need to have been pointed out, especially considering Armenians constituted such a large minority in Byzantine society? It indicates that his kin had been Romanized, but that their ancestors were known to be non-Roman. Ethnicity is fluid, which is how the term Roman denoted civic status in the imperial society of antiquity and then grew into a term to define ethnicity in medieval Byzantium. Not all people are called out by ethnicity, there is no one called “the Greek” for example, even though a great many people in the empire were of Greek origin. The best way to explain it is that a new ethnicity had formed out of the old multi-ethnic Roman identity. As the Roman Empire lost territory, regions which spoke different languages and had different cultures, such as Egypt and the Levant, were lost. This left for the first time in Roman imperial history a mostly homogenous Roman society. The Romans were clearly now Chalcedonian Orthodox Christians, Greek-speaking Romans. The Byzantines were the last Romans left standing from the once mighty empire. Thus, the Greeks and other peoples having already fully shifted to a Roman identity despite knowing of and referencing past identities, thoroughly felt Roman above all other identities. This is why they casually refer to themselves as Roman in their writings; Byzantine authors simply did not feel a need to prove that to their audience.

The medieval Romans also demonstrated their own ethnic identity in the way they wrote about foreign peoples in their sources. Skylitzes Synopsis describes the history of Thomas the Slav, a usurper against the emperor Michael II as having what the author describes as a barbarian lineage. In Skylitzes history there is a passage about how Thomas had assembled a diverse coalition of foreign peoples from near and far to assault Byzantium and seize the throne. This also was probably highlighted to portray Thomas as treacherous for using foreigners to defeat the Romans. Interestingly, Skylitzes recorded that Thomas had claimed to be a long lost son of the Empress Irene, the empress who had her own son blinded to keep power. Skylitzes claims Thomas was working for the Arab Caliphate, and was “designated chief of a war band and dispatched against the Christians, for he had undertaken to deliver the empire of the Romans into their hands. To ensure that his difference of race and religion provide no obstacle to his reception by the Romans, he gave it out that he was Constantine (VI) the son of Eirene.” Skylitzes was explicitly and clearly saying that there was a Roman “race” and religion. It is reasonable to infer that by race he refers to what we think of as ethnicity, as it was clear that in Byzantine society people of diverse origins could be Romanized. This is unambiguous evidence that there were ethnic markers that made it clear who was Roman and who was not. Skylitzes was making the accusation Thomas did not fit them closely, and thus had to find a way to be accepted in those parameters as clearly he fit them less than Leo the Armenian had.  

De Adminstrando Imperio is a text written by 10th century Emperor Constantine VII Porphyrogennitos. It is a work which acts as a sort of guide for future emperors regarding the nature of foreign peoples as the Byzantines saw them. In it Constantine wrote that a Roman emperor should never “ally himself in marriage with a nation of customs differing from and alien to those of the Roman order.” This is yet another demonstration that the Romans had their own customs, which they thought were important to preserve, especially for the imperial family. If being Roman was just a political allegiance, then there is no reason to think a marriage alliance would depend upon the customs of an enemy, but only the prospective political value. Another inference one can make from Constantine’s work is that it was not enough to be a Chalcedonian Christian to be considered a Roman. In a passage considering the Bulgars, Constantine said that “they are Christians and of like faith with us.” However, this was not enough to make them Romans; they were still Bulgars, because Roman was a complex identity as much as any other ethnic identity. There is no simple answer to what made one Roman; it was a multitude of factors as well as self-identification. The Bulgars were not just politically different, but they had their own language, way of life, identity, and customs.

There is a plethora of other examples which illustrate the distinct ethnic identity of the Romans in the primary sources. Stouraitis in his article Reinventing Roman Ethnicity in High and Late Medieval Byzantium demonstrates that Romans were distinct by referencing the aftermath of the Roman reconquest of Crete by Nikephoros Phokas from the Arabs. Citing Leo the Deacon, whom he states “testifies to an image of the Rhomaioi (Romans) as a distinct ethno-cultural category,” he uses the source’s description of the resettling of the island to prove this. Leo had written that Armenians and Romans were sent to the island as part of re-Christianizing it. Stouraites demonstrates that though both Armenians and Romans were treated equally with equal rights and dues to the state, that these groups were the same politically in this situation but still different ethno-culturally. This makes sense as they have different defining cultural traits. Armenians have their own ancient history and they speak Armenian, as well as being Apostolic in faith. Armenians are also mentioned in the On Skirmishing tactical guide written by Nikephoros Phokas, the same emperor mentioned above. Essentially in a passage regarding sentry duty he states that Armenians typically do sentry duty, presumably because the empire by this time had moved east into territories more occupied by Armenians. He says they are poor at their job as scouts because “after all, they are still Armenians.” This seems to indicate the author has an ethnic bias against Armenians, though he does not refer to them as barbarians, heretics, or infidels. Armenians occupied the majority in some provinces of the Roman Empire at this time; therefore, if Roman was not in reference to an ethnicity, it seems these Armenians would simply be Romans. In fact, he refers to these eastern provinces as “Armenian themes,” yet still they are not called Romans. In all parts of the text he refers to the Roman army, and yet singles out the minorities in it, because in his eyes they are not part the Roman ethno-cultural polity even if they are political subjects of the empire.  In the Alexiad, Anna Comnena, daughter of the Emperor Alexios Komnenos who ruled during the first crusade, similarly scorned certain inhabitants of the empire including Armenians. Anna had stayed with her father in the Roman city of Phillipi in Macedonia in modern Greece. She remarked in the text that it had once been a great city in ancient times based on its ruins, but was in her time overrun by Armenians and heretical groups, such as the Bogomil and Paulician religion sects, who did not subscribe to Chalcedonian Christianity. These groups were singled out and not referred to as Roman because they had their own customs, religion, and identity.

Another crucial piece of the argument that the medieval identity of Roman was ethnic rather than political was the fact that there were Roman communities outside the empire. Procopius, the 6th century historian, who documented Justinian’s reign already referred to Romans in ethnic terms, even before changes in the Roman world strengthened that identity. He specifically referred to “Romans who live in distant lands.” Diverse examples are found throughout the primary sources that align with this identity. For example, Bulgarians had been in the Balkans for hundreds of years by the time Skylitzes recorded an anecdote about the Bulgar King Boris. The king had summoned a certain monk named Methodios, who was native to Bulgaria, to help decorate his new palace. Skylitzes said this person was Roman by birth despite not being born in the Roman Empire. Stouraitis points out that Skylitzes who was citing an earlier work, known as Theophanes Continuatus, which had the phrase “a certain monk from amongst us Rhomaioi (Romans)” in it. Thus, two different historians are claiming a man was Roman who was not born within the boundaries of the state. 11th century historian Michael Attaleiates refers to the emperor Nikephoros Botaneiates as having addressed a measure to clear debts to “all Romans, wherever on earth they lived.” This use of the Roman ethnonym by Botaneiates precludes any kind of citizenship-based definition, and concretely affirms it was an ethnic identity. The historian John Kinnamos discussed an incident from the 12th century, after the Seljuk Turks had overrun much of Anatolia, and after the crusades had begun. Emperor John II Komnenos was campaigning in Anatolia to reconquer Roman lands. The Emperor had encountered resistance from a community of Christians living on islands in a lake. Kinnamos referred to them as Romans even though this territory had been outside the territory of the Byzantine state since the 1070’s following the disastrous battle of Manzikert. This is because to him they had all the previously defined ethnic traits that defined Romans as different to other groups, even if they no longer politically aligned with the Empire.

The Romans were a clear and distinct ethnic group. They felt Roman, and one should not downplay their explicit self-identification. They had clear linguistic, religious, historical, and customary markers for their Roman ethnic identity. This argument is not intended to say Byzantine society was not multi-ethnic, nor that non-Romans could not be politically part of the state. Armenians, Arabs, Slavs, Italians, Jews, Turks, and others formed part of the state at various times in its long history. Eunuchs were often employed in state roles and were usually of foreign origin. However, it is historically important to understand that the Romans were the majority ethnic group in this state and that it was not just a purely political label. For modern people to quickly conclude that the Romans did not view themselves as ethnically unique is demonstrably false according to and contradicted by the sources. At the very least, the ethnic identity of the Byzantines is worthy of more study with consideration for how this group of Romans viewed themselves.


Antweiler, Christoph. “Ethnicity from an Anthropological Perspective.” In Ethnicity as a Political Resource: Conceptualizations across Disciplines, Regions, and Periods, edited by University of Cologne Forum »Ethnicity as a Political Resource«

Choniates, Niketas. O City of Byzantium, Annals of Niketas Choniates. Translated by Harry Magoulias. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1984.

Comnena, Anna. The Alexiad. Translated by E.R.A Sewter. New York: Penguin Classics, 2003.

Kaldellis, Anthony. Ethnography After Antiquity: Foreign Lands and Peoples in Byzantine Literature. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2013.

Kaldellis, Anthony. Romanland: Ethnicity and Empire in Byzantium. Cambridge, Massachussets: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2019.

Phokas, Nikephoros. “Skirmishing” Three Byzantine Military Treatises. Translated by George. T Dennis. Washington, D.C.: Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection, 1985.

Porphryogennitus, Constantine. De Administrando Imperio. Edited by Gyula Moravcsik. Translated by Romilly J.H. Jenkins. Washington, D.C.: Dumbarton Oaks, 1966.

Skylitzes, John. A Synopsis of Byzantine History 811-1057. Translated by John Wortley. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2010. Stouraitis, Yannis. “Reinventing Roman Ethnicity in High and Late Medieval Byzantium.” Medieval Worlds no. 5 (2017)