Tuesday, 19 May 2020


by Pavlos Andronikos

Emperor Nikephoros II
The roots of some of the attitudes of Western Europe towards the modern Greeks go back to medieval  times when the West, keen to deny the Eastern Roman Empire its dues as the only legitimate continuation of the Roman Empire, called the eastern Romans Greeks and/or, from the sixteenth century, Byzantines. The “Byzantines”, however, called themselves Romans (Ρωμαίοι), [1]  and were proud of that identity. As Romans and Orthodox Christians they considered  themselves superior to the barbaric and sinful West in every way.

In addition, from late in the 12th century some of these eastern Romans also began to identify themselves as Hellenes, being both Greek speakers and keepers of the knowledge of the ancients, as well as, in many instances, descendants of the ancient Hellenes. This latter identification was another way for them to assert cultural superiority over the West—a mindset by no means unheard of in contemporary Greece. ☺

In the West the Eastern Romans were admired, envied, resented, and denigrated. To illustrate, when in 968 Liutprand, the Bishop of Cremona, visited Constantinople to negotiate a prestigious imperial marriage for the son of the German “Holy Roman Emperor” Otto the Great, the Emperor Nikephoros II “railed against diplomatic letters from the Pope in Rome which employed incorrect titles: Instead of Emperor of the Romans, Nikephoros was addressed as Emperor of the Greeks.” Liutprand, in return,  insulted his hosts (according to his own report to his superiors) “by asserting that the name ‘Roman’ comprehended ‘every form of lowness, timidity, avarice, luxury, falsehood and vice’”! [2]

To be fair this was Liutprand’s second visit to the great City, and in contrast to his first visit he was not treated at all well. Nor did his delegation succeed, because: “It is an unheard of thing that a daughter born in the purple of an emperor born in the purple should be joined in marriage with strange nations.” However the Romans/Greeks were willing to overlook Otto’s lowly birth if his father would hand back Ravenna and Rome “with all the adjoining places which extend from thence to our possessions”. [3]

On the one hand the prestige of the eastern Romans made marriage into the imperial family desirable, [4]  on the other hand that same prestige engendered a desire to denigrate, particularly as the West became more powerful, and wanted to give pride of place to its own church and its own optimistically named “Holy Roman Empire”.

In conclusion, when you read that the Roman Empire ended in 476, don’t believe a word of it. The Roman Empire did not end until 1453, when Constantinople, the new Rome, fell to the Ottoman Turks. The Greeks of today are descendants of both Hellas and Rome. [5] ☺


[1] Ρωμαίοι (Ro-me-i), through a natural linguistc process, morphed into Ρωμιοί (Rom-yi) in the modern language.
[2] Byzantium: The Surprising Life of a Medieval Empire by Judith Herrin (London: Penguin, 2010), pp. 178-9.
[3] Otto’s son, lowly birth notwithstanding, did get his own Roman princess in the end, when Nikephoros was assassinated and succeeded by John I Tzimiskes. The new emperor sent his niece Theophano (Θεοφανώ) to Rome to marry Otto II in 972.
[4] Otto also saw the proposed marriage as a way of ensuring peace between himself and the eastern Romans, and was hoping that Nikephoros would give Apulia and Calabria as the princess’s dowry.
[5] “The Greeks of today” refers not only to the Greeks of the Greek state (wherever they happen to be) but also to Cypriot Greeks, as well as to all those Greeks from Asia Minor (Turkey) who survived persecutions and pogroms and fled to other countries. A large number of them settled in the USA.  In Turkey itself only a very few Greeks are left.

The illustrations show a 1961 Greek stamp commemorating the Emperor Nikephoros II; and an icon depicting him as a saint.

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