Surprised By Research: The Myth of The Roman Empire

At first glance, the reader may wish to entertain the somewhat obvious question: What in the world do you mean by dubbing the Roman empire a “Myth,” since it has an extremely well established archaeological foundation?  My answer provides nothing like a typical or expected response.  Instead, it adduces several well-known points (non-controversial) to render an altogether surprising, but nearly “common-sense” repartee.  Given the initial sticker-shock one would expect for my apparently outlandish claim, I can only beg the reading audience’s indulgence here.  First read, THEN judge.  Here, the order of events waxes all-important.  Here, I will now begin to present the facts for my case.

  1.  Every one of the “Western” and “Roman” emperors, from Caesar (transitional figure) and Octavian, all the way to Justinian, whose death in 565 spelled the end of the “Roman” empire to the satisfaction of latest plausible date (some like 463), had one interesting feature — They were ALL Greek-speakers.  Justinian’s wife, Theodora, could not have been more Greek if you had been a dish of Spanikopita.
  2. In 221 B, when Rome began to overrun the Greek empire, and in the years following, the Romans self-c0nsciously adopted (and later adapted) the Greek culture nearly wholesale, from their religion — they only changed the names of the gods but observed dynamic equivalence between the almost scrupulously.
  3. This transition had already begun by an interesting precursor [of the same type], when the Spartans — a Greek empire very much like the Roman one — sacked Athens, winning the Pelopennesian War in 404B.
  4. The Roman aristocrats sought to hire Greek (intellectual) tutors for the high-brow education — one worth bragging about in high society — of their children.  Their education was Greek, their religion was Greek, and their language was Greek.
  5. As late as 250, according to Princeton’s Dr. Bruce Metzger, the predominant language spoken in the city of Rome was Greek, not Latin.
  6. When Julius “Caesar,” (Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s) after whom, in the minds of many, the chief principate of the empire was named, wrote the Gallic Wars, he wrote in good Greek, not Latin.  So also Suetonius when he wrote of the 12 Caesars.  This assumes Greek as the language best befitting the biography of “Caesars” (Presumably, Caesar writing in Greek had something to do with this choice).

Punchline:  The Roman empire was never uniquely something other than Greek.  It was both a continuation (self-consciously) and later a transformation by social, political and economic forces not foreseeable in the early centuries of the empire.  There was no Roman empire AS SUCH.  This is a long-standing historiographic fiction.

The empire in question, was by every standard typically employed by historians — religion, language of leaders and commerce, education, a Greek empire that was far more like the Spartan empire than the Athenian, and later the Hellenistic (Ptolemaic-Seleucid) empire — which we should say ended in 30b on the early side of the calendar (when Cleopatra died).  The Neo-Spartan, Greek empire — the proper name for the purposes of real history — was thoroughly Greek in every way important to historians, but it was a special KIND of Greek, hearkening back to 404 — and we should have noticed this earlier (Peace be upon the historians; they are our final judges).

What does this important correction to our historiographic grasp of the ancient world mean?

  1.  It means that the Greek empire continued unabated, though significantly altered, from the Athenian, to the Hellenistic, to the Neo-Spartan, and then from the death of Justinian (565) and after, the Constantiopolitan (notice that Constantinopolis is a Greek name for the capital of the Neo-Spartan empire, not a Latin name). From Justinian, the Greek empire continued all the way to 1453, when it was decisively trampled and burned by the Ottoman Turks.
  2. This reconstructs western civilization as almost entirely Greek by cultural indebtedness and historical trajectory.
  3. This challenges the existence of any legitimately ROMAN church, and shows this by an interesting fact. The closest thing we ever had to what the (false) donation of Constantine pretended was the choice of Justinian by way of imperial edict to be crowned by THE PATRIARCH of CONSTANTINOPLE, not the pope of Rome, who was just as self-consciously rejected for this role as the patriarch was self-consciously chosen for this role.  Given the conditions of early church, the original could have been nothing but Greek (not Roman).
  4. A certain falsity accrues to the notion of any Roman church as the official one, since there was no “Roman empire,” only a Greek (Neo-Spartan) one, followed by it Byzantine counterpart (until 1453).
  5. The old canard about the “Holy Roman Empire,” (Somewhat funny actually) that it was not particularly holy, certainly was more Frankish, Austrian and Germanic and Spanish, than it ever was “Roman,” and that it was more, well, a loose confederation of states and not-so-much an empire [The HRE was an empire like, er, Cobol was a “highly-advanced programming language”  — well, it was programmable anyway, in a broken Chinese kind of way].
  6. In light of this as a second historigraphic blunder — the “Barbarian empire” (that is what its nomadic constituents were considered in the 3rd and 4th centuries — note that the “barbarians” at the gates is a Greek category and “barbarian” a very Greek concept, meaning “uncivilized,” meaning not able to speak the Greek tongue with any facility.
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