No, I’m a Roman

A soldier of the eastern Roman empire (republic)

I just finished reading “The Byzantine Republic“, a wonderful book by historian Anthony Kaldellis. In the book the author argues that “Byzantium” should be viewed as the continuation of Rome, and indeed that the republican polity of Rome survived in the politics and life of Constantinople as well as the rest of the Eastern Roman Empire, till its very end. This is a thesis that explains many things, including how emperors had to be popular with the people if they wanted to keep their throne (and often their head).

For me, the book offered additional and much-needed elucidation over modern Greek identity, as it was shaped after Greece’s emergence as a state in the middle of the 19th century. As I have argued before, modern Greek national identity is an artefact that was constructed by intellectuals of Greek Enlightenment who, by accepting and adopting the dominant – and rejecting – western narratives about Byzantium, they aimed to dissociate modern Greece from its medieval history and instead root it in the ancient, classical era of Pericles and Demosthenes. In many ways, the tribulations of modern Greece have much to do with the confusion around national identity; as I have also argued in my (much discussed) article for the Washington Post

Last summer  I happened to be in New York and I was told the following anecdotal story, that demonstrates what I mean.

It was 1912, during the First Balkan War , when the Greek army landed on the island of Lesvos and liberated it from the Ottomans. As the army advanced inside the island taking positions a Greek soldier noticed a young local boy who stood by and looked at the Greek soldiers full of curiosity.  So the soldier went over to the boy asked him why he was looking at the soldiers like that.

“Because I was told that the Greeks were coming”, said the boy in perfect Greek, “and I wanted to see how you Greeks look like”.

“But you are a Greek too”, said the soldier.

“No”, said the boy. “I’m a Roman”.