It is often taken for granted that we know who the Byzantines were: we assume (and have frequently been told) that they were the ethnically diverse members of the empire centered at Constantinople, ancient Byzantium. The fact that they called themselves Romans, not Byzantines, has yet to sink very deep into analyses of the Byzantine question (that is, what it means to be Byzantine or to be an outsider to Byzantium) by scholars within the field of Byzantine studies, who usually see the Roman self-ascription as a political identity. This is due to a further entrenched assumption, namely that whatever it was that unified the Byzantines it could not have been ethnicity.

The practice of Byzantinists to claim that Roman was only a label of political or institutional identity is, according to Kaldellis’s Romanland, only a sustained and ideologically motivated perpetuation of “denialism.” Kaldellis’s caustic salvo against such denialism sees it as a continuation of the medieval western (and later, Greek nationalist) habit of labeling the Byzantines Greeks. Denialism negates the wide-ranging and pervasive occurrence of Rhomaioi throughout the breadth of Byzantine literature, a label that was limited neither to the elite nor to a state or political identification; it was instead a basically ethnic form of identification.

Following the enumeration of several literary snapshots expressing a conception of Roman ethnicity, the first chapter of Romanland offers a brief and highly polemical overview of denialism in which the unconscionable scholarly “evasions” of many luminaries in the field of Byzantine studies receive a thorough drubbing for not acknowledging the ethnic nature of the Byzantines’ self-acclaimed Roman identity. Instead, we need to accept that “the Byzantines were Romans” (17, emphasis in the original). To do otherwise is an act of scholarly “bullshitting” (36). The vices of the denialist position are alarming: it is “utterly unselfconscious and unreflective” and “strictly ideological” (19); there is “hypocrisy at its heart” (22) as it engages in “moral censure” against others (24); it wields an “arbitrary criterion invented ad hoc to justify a preexisting prejudice” (25), although its other criteria “are patently pretexts for a preexisting position…,” “inventing ad hoc criteria to patrol the borders of a separation that they feel they must enforce” (26); it suffers from “an acute form of…cognitive dissonance” and devises “various evasions and terms of art by which it can confuse the issue,” which become “tropes” of “the catechism that Byzantinists are trained to intone” (31). This all makes for spicy reading, but it may obscure as much as it clarifies, as I will remark below.

The second chapter grapples with those included in Byzantium’s Roman ethnicity (both those in the capital and the provinces, at all economic levels and of both sexes) and those excluded (elite foreigners at the court, foreign military units, and ethnic communities within the empire). An ethnic group is here defined as those identified by a convergence of many if not all of the following: “a belief in a shared ancestry and history, a common homeland, language, religion, cultural norms and traditions, and an ethnonym” (46–47). Kaldellis admits to rejecting his earlier belief that shared ancestry (however fictive) is a sine qua non of ethnicity, that there is a sharp distinction between ethnic and civic nations; he now sees ancestry as an unnecessary criterion of ethnic identity. At the same time, he canvasses the numerous instances where the national genos was represented as a family or kinship group. Such appeals to genealogical unity presented a strong sense of the fixed essence of the people, even while masking the people’s permeable boundaries and assimilationist capacities. Avoiding notions of ancestry for the most part, chapter 3 then focuses on the notion of a shared homeland (Romania), expressions of patriotism, and the shared Greek language (which gradually became known as romaïka), all of which marked a process of Romanization or Romanogenesis that had commenced already in the third century with the Constitutio Antoniniana. Religion, on the other hand, was complementary to (not included within) ethnicity.

The second half of the book addresses the successful or only partial processes of assimilation (chapter 4, with attention to Iranian Khurramites, Arabs, and Slavs); a focused discussion of the integration of Armenians into the Byzantine Roman ethnicity (chapter 5); and an assessment of the degree to which Byzantium can rightly be called an empire (with a multiethnic collectivity of subject peoples), a possibility denied for the tenth century (chapter 6) but partly allowed, insofar as it had an empire, for the eleventh when Byzantium reached its furthest extent since Justinian (chapter 7).

Romanland offers a powerful and frequently illuminating argument. But it may not be the definitive death knell to the scholarly hesitations of accepting Roman ethnicity for the people usually labeled Byzantines. At the heart of the issue is the conception of ethnicity itself. Kaldellis is surely correct to adopt a polythetic or multifactor nonessentialist understanding of ethnic identity. But many readers will feel a certain discomfort at his declaration that assertions of ancestral kinship need not be present in our sources for us to consider a group as an ethnicity. For if so, it seems difficult to distinguish an ethnicity from any other cultural or social identity, or for that matter some formulations of a national-political or religious identity. However loosely we may want to take these different types of identity and however much race might be “a floating signifier” and a discursive construct (as I believe, adopting the well-known wording of Stuart Hall’s seminal presentation), it remains useful to distinguish those moments in our sources in which racial-ancestral claims are variously rigidified, blurred, ignored, forgotten, or reconfigured with other ancestral claims. An overly capacious and supple notion of ethnicity (such as Kaldellis wields) may inhibit our investigations in attaining analytic precision.

It is precisely this capaciousness that allows Kaldellis to criticize as “denialist” any approach that sees the Rhomaioi of our sources as a political/state identity. But while the standard approach is wrong to downplay those many instances where the Romans are identified as a kinship group bound by descent from common ancestors, Kaldellis for his part appears to be overplaying his hand when he takes all invocations of “the Romans” to be basically ethnic in their identificational force, especially in those cases where military narratives refer only to Romans attacking or being attacked by their foes without further ethnic descriptions of these people. Unless additional markers of ethnic difference are present in such texts, it seems preferable to avoid implying ethnic valences where the textual connotations may be less (or, just different). Many “denialists” are merely practicing what they (and I) might deem to be appropriate caution; they are merely reserving identification of occurrences of ethnicity in the sources to those cases where an ethnonym is conjoined with claims to shared ancestry or kinship (and in any case, it seems rather disingenuous to attack “denialists” but then to dismiss kinship claims in the sources when it doesn’t fit one’s argument, e.g., at 165, 172, 181, 185). Others might readily assent to a wider notion of ethnicity that sees it as equivalent to broader cultural identities (what Kaldellis often designates “a cultural profile”); while an argument for such an equivalence has some merit, it is obfuscating and unhelpful to label as ideologically driven denialists those who have a more circumscribed and thus more analytically useful notion of ethnicity and who reserve it for groups that are described in our sources as bound by kinship. Identifying the implicit biases of scholarship is an ethical task of much importance; but it likewise violates a certain ethics of scholarship to adopt polarizing language in a smug dismissal of one’s peers whose caution is identified as ideological entrenchment. Certainly there have been too many ideologically driven pieces of scholarship; but Kaldellis’s scattershot approach has hit many less culpable victims.

For those like myself who have determined that an assumption of shared ancestry must be included among the markers of ethnic difference invoked in a source in order for us to identify its use of an ethnonym as an expression of ethnicity, Kaldellis’s book tells us more than we are looking for in its broad inclusion of a variety of invocations of identity in Byzantine sources. A reader interested in the numerous instances where a Roman identity was expressed in terms of descent from common ancestors and where assimilation (Romanogenesis) was conceived as incorporation of outsiders (across more or less permeable boundaries and by a more or less wide range of means) into that line of descent will find focused discussion of those instances only in a dispersed manner throughout Kaldellis’s book.

Furthermore, Kaldellis frequently seems comfortable going beyond the many overt expressions of Roman patriotism and assuming fairly pervasive affective states of identification and allegiance to Romanness on the part of those who were otherwise silent about such attachments. For instance, all Khurramites who were enrolled in military registers and incorporated under Roman law as part of their process of assimilation need not have internalized their identification as ethnic Romans, although Kaldellis claims such internalization was hard to resist (130). We should probably remain agnostic about the depth of feeling of such institutional or political identifications, especially when externally applied to individuals, unless there is sufficient expression of such feeling by those individuals themselves.

In spite of the resistance offered here, Kaldellis’s book possesses obvious merits as a theoretically and historiographically aware investigation of Byzantium’s self-ascribed Roman identity. This is a forceful and insightful—indeed, seminal—book that scholars of Late Antiquity and Byzantium will avoid at their peril.

Aaron Johnson
Lee University