The Migration of “Rome”

Two thousand years ago, Rome spread its culture, language, and political power around much of Europe and some of Asia and Africa. Later, during and after its decline, it exported its own name, which traveled eastward.

What we today call the Byzantine Empire would not have recognized that name. The word “Byzantine” was coined by a German historian in 1557, over a century after the fall of Constantinople to the Ottoman Turks. The term is derived from Byzantion, the name of the small Greek trading city that was remade by the Roman emperor Constantine I into his new capital of Contantinople. As another blog has pointed out, this is sort of analogous to a future civilization deciding to refer to scholarship on the U.S.A. as “Jenkins Hill Studies,” since that was the name of what’s now Capitol Hill before it became the seat of the American government. Ironically, an even better analogy would be if scholarship on America were referred to as “Roman Studies,” since the core of Washington, DC was formerly a small town named Rome, Maryland.

So why don’t we refer to the Byzantines by the name they called themselves? That would be too confusing, since they called themselves “Romans” (or, in Greek, Rhomaioi or Rhomioi). Modern historiography draws a line between the Roman Empire, which eventually split into two halves and fell in 476 C.E., and the Byzantine Empire, which emerged from the eastern half of the Roman Empire and lasted until 1453 C.E., but the Byzantine empire saw itself as fully Roman and even used Latin as its official language until 610 C.E., when Heraclius changed it to Greek.

Constantinople itself was often referred to as Nova Roma (“New Rome”), especially in the empire’s early years. Later, after its fall, the title of Third Rome was famously claimed for Moscow in a letter the monk Filofey wrote to Grand Duke Vasili III of Moscow, whose mother was the niece of the last Byzantine Emperor. Not long after, Vasili’s son Ivan IV the Terrible changed his title from Grand Duke of Moscow to Tsar (“Caesar”) of Russia, in part based on his descent from the Byzantine emperors.

Even at the time, though, Western European countries resisted referring to the Greek-dominated Byzantine state as the Roman Empire, especially since they often claimed the symbolic legacy of Rome for themselves. In 800 C.E., when Pope Leo III crowned Charlemagne as Emperor of the Romans, it was a win-win for both men; Charlemagne assumed a title appropriate to the dominion he had carved out, and the Pope struck a symbolic blow against Byzantine emperor Irene of Athens (1), who believed the title was rightfully hers. She and her successors protested but were unable to do anything about it, and the title of emperor was used (with intervals here and there) by Charlemagne’s successors as Holy Roman Emperor until 1806.


Meanwhile, the Byzantine Empire was in frequent contact, both peaceful and military, with the Persian, Arab, and Turkish powers to its east. Unlike the Western Europeans, the easterners drew no distinction between the Roman Empire of the classical period and the Byzantine Empire, which they referred to by the Arabic name Rûm or Rum. This name was particularly associated with Anatolia (the Asian part of modern Turkey), which was lost and regained several times by the Byzantines, especially after their loss to the Persianized Turks of the Seljuq Empire at the climactic Battle of Manzikert (1071). Six years later, a cousin of the Seljuq sultan set up an independent state in conquered Anatolia called the Sultanate of Rûm. Despite its literal meaning of “Rome,” a name connected with a city some thousand miles to the west, Rûm was the only name Turkish Anatolians knew for their country. For example, the great Persian poet Rumi (literally “the Roman”) was called that because he lived most of his life in Konya, the capital of the Sultanate of Rûm.

The Sultanate and the Byzantine Empire fought for control of Anatolia for two centuries until the Mongols under Möngke Khan swept in and conquered the entire region. (To give you an idea of the extent of the Mongols’ power at that point, Möngke Khan also conquered Korea and Vietnam.) Not long afterward the Ottoman dynasty arose from a small Turkish state to conquer all of Anatolia and, eventually, the remains of the Byzantine Empire.

When Constantinople fell in 1453, the conquering Ottoman sultan Mehmed II claimed the title of Kayser-i-Rûm (“Caesar of Rome”). Seventeen years later he even invaded Italy in an attempt to restore the empire he believed he’d inherited through conquest. His Italian adventure came to naught and his successors ceased calling themselves Caesars, but civilizations farther east learned of the Ottoman Empire by the name Rûm. In Ming Dynasty China, for example, Anatolia and, at least at times, the Empire were known as lu-mu (鲁木), the Chinese pronunciation of Rûm. Centuries later in British-ruled India, Muslims (and possibly Hindus as well) referred to Turkey as “Rūm.”


The name Rome has never traveled east of Anatolia to my knowledge, but it did spread to several other areas east of Rome. Another pre-1453 Turkish name for Anatolia was Rumeli (“Land of the Romans”), often Europeanized as Rumelia. But unlike Rûm, the name Rumeli didn’t stay attached to Anatolia, and when the Byzantine holdings had contracted to only the lower Balkan Peninsula, the Turks referred to that area as Rumeli. After the fall of Constantinople, the Ottomans continued to use Rumeli to refer to their European possessions. For several centuries it also had a more specific meaning, a province that included what’s now Albania and some of Macedonia. Today Rumeli is still used colloquially in Greek to refer to Central Greece, and it’s occasionally used in Turkey to refer to European Turkey.


The name Romania is a straightforward derivation from Rome meaning something like “the land of Rome.” It was sometimes used in the Middle Ages by Western Europeans to refer to the Byzantine Empire. Today, however, it is most familiar as the name of a country in the Balkans that is still sometimes spelled Roumania. So how did an Eastern European country far away from Italy end up with the name “land of Rome”?

It’s not really clear who the ancestors of today’s Romanians are or where they came from. Modern Romania is located in what was once the Roman province of Dacia, and it’s possible that Romanians are descended at least in part from the Romanized population of Dacia; the Romanians would certainly like to think so. If so, it’s not clear that they were there continuously; a competing theory holds that the Romanized Dacians retreated west and south before the waves of Slavic and Magyar invasions, returning to Dacia only a few centuries later. Regardless, what’s clear is that the modern Romanian language is descended from Latin.

In fact, it would be hard to miss the connection, since Romanian looks so much like Roman. But this is no coincidence; it’s by design. The Romanians had no idea their language was descended from Latin until philologists discovered the connection. When the Romanians were informed of their noble heritage, they hastened to lay claim to it. Previously when Romanian had been written, it had usually been in Cyrillic, but in the mid-1800s it was switched to the Latin alphabet. As for their self-designation: Hungarian historian André DuNay writes, “This [Romanian] population, whom their neighbors called by the equivalents of the name Vlach […] called themselves rumîni (sing. rumîn). The use of this word with an ethnical meaning is attested from the mid-sixteen century on, beginning with the writings of deacon Coresi. Showing the regular sound changes of an inherited Latin word, romanus, it was, from the 17th century on, consciously changed to be more like the classical Latin form. Thus, -u- was changed to -o- and -î- was written â; român.” The name of the country today is România, but other languages tend to omit the diacritic over the â—a letter which actually sounds nothing like the vowel a; it’s a lot closer to the Russian ы, a sound notoriously difficult for English speakers to produce.

Eastward migration

When pondering the migration of Rome, the question may arise: why eastward? Why Constantinople, Moscow, Anatolia, the Balkans, Central Greece, Albania-Macedonia, and the former Roman province of Dacia but not Spain, France, or England? There was the Holy Roman Empire, of course, but that’s just about the only example of the name Rome appearing elsewhere in Western Europe, and even that has disappeared leaving no trace on the modern European map. The answer may have something to do with the long survival of the Eastern Roman Empire—but the name Rome didn’t really spread until the Byzantines’ decline and fall. It might be related to the frontier in the east between Romanized and non-Romanized populations—but the Western Roman Empire was overrun by Germanic tribes and, in Spain, Arabs and Berbers. What do you think?

(1) Irene claimed the title of basileus (king or emperor) rather than basilissa (queen or empress) for herself, presumably for the same reason Leo III felt free to crown Charlemagne emperor: a woman had a much weaker claim to the throne.

Cross-posted from Empire Avenue.


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