Orthodox Outlet for Dogmatic Enquiries Historical themes


"Byzantium" was an unbroken continuation

of the Roman Empire


By Professor Glanville Downey

Taken from “Phoenix” magazine (Vol. 12, No. 3  pp. 125), a journal of the Classical Association of Canada, article “Review: Byzantium and the Classical Tradition”.

Anyone coming to the study of Byzantine history for the first time might well be puzzled to find that Byzantinists are by no means in agreement as to when the Byzantine era begins. Some Byzantine scholars consider that their period opens with the reign of Diocletian (284-305). A larger number would start with Constantine the Great (305-337). Others would take the reign of Theodosius the Great (379-395) or those of his sons Arcadius and Honorius (395-423) to be the beginning of the new epoch. The British Museum starts its catalogue of Byzantine conis with Anastasius I (491-518). Many students consider Justinian (527-565) the first Byzantine emperor, while others hold that the Byzantine state properly so called is inaugurated with Heraclius (610-641). The fourth volume of the “Cambridge Medieval History”, which bears the title “The Eastern Roman Empire (717-1453), follows the historian Finlay in drawing the dividing line at the accession of Leo III, the Isaurian (717-741).


            In most cases these divergent views are based on the fact that various political changes occurred at these different periods which can be thought to have marked the end of the Roman Empire proper and the beginning of a new state. But what the diversity of opinions really means is that , regardless of the changes, there was an unbroken continuity which was so evident that no one may say, in such a way that everyone will agree, that at one specific point there was the end of one state and the inauguration of another. Even when  Greek had become the sole language of the empire , the rulers of Byzantium continued to call themselves Roman emperors, and the Byzantines spoke of themselves  as the Roman people to the very end of the Empire, with the fall of Constantinople in 1453. While they might recognize changes which had come about as a result of external factors , the Byzantines were not aware of being a separate state and a separate people, and the last emperor , Constantine XI Palaeologus (1449-1453), would have looked upon himself not merely as the heir of Constantine the Great, but as the successor of Augustus. Something of this feeling is reflected, for example, it the title of the study by F.W. Bussell, “The Roman Empire: Essays on  the constitutional History from the Accession of Domitian (81 A.D.) to the Retirement of Nicephorus III (1081 A.D.) (London 1910)




NOTE: Glanville Downey was for many years the  professor of history and classical studies at Indiana Univ. He authored several books, which reflected his wide knowledge of events in the Roman Empire and in the Near East. He passed away on Dec. 18, 1991.


Article published in English on: 27-3-2008.

Last update: 29-3-2008.