The Unbroken Continuity of the Roman Empire: Gregory Heers

Livy, the Roman historian that lived around the time of Christ, wrote, ‘I do honestly believe that no country has ever been greater or purer than ours, or richer in good citizens and noble deeds’ (Early History 30). It is therefore lamentable that in the common mind this most glorious empire should be endowed with an end so ignoble and unworthy of mention. According to any typical history-book, the Roman Empire ended by being divided into two halves: the Western Roman Empire was weakened internally and overrun by barbarian tribes, while the Eastern Empire was somehow transfigured into the ‘Byzantine Empire’ through a gradual process and, although it ‘survived for another thousand years’, apparently deserves no further attention. Thus anyone with an elementary historical education will believe that the Roman Empire, that mighty force that subdued the entire Mediterranean world, silently evaporated, vanished into thin air, at some point in the fifth or sixth century. This, however, is a lie. There never was a Byzantine Empire. What many now call the ‘Byzantine Empire’ is nothing other than the Roman Empire continuing through the ages. The Roman Empire did not fall in the fifth century. The Roman Empire fell in the fifteenth century AD. Everyone knew this at the time, but the rewriting of history for political purposes has obscured it for the eyes of the contemporary world.

There is, however, yet another threat lying in wait for the Roman Empire. Although acknowledging that historically the Roman Empire was never called ‘Byzantine’, many claim that such an appellation is fitting for its latter phase because in that phase the Empire was substantially different: although it was called the Roman Empire, it was not really Roman but had a different character. It is this slyer attack that the present dissertation wishes to ward off, namely by demonstrating that the continuity of the Roman Empire was never broken. In so doing it will examine various aspects of Roman society through the ages and ask two questions: “Did this aspect change?” and “If it changed, did this change negate the Roman identity?”

Of all the institutions of Roman government, continuity is most obvious in the emperors. Like the rolling years, emperors succeeded one another without interruption from Augustus to Constantine XI.1 In stark contrast with the custom in other contemporary kingdoms, the imperial office in the Roman Empire was never officially hereditary, since the Roman Empire always retained its republican character. Anthony Kaldellis, Professor of Classics at the Ohio State University, writes in his book The Byzantine Republic, “Byzantium must first be understood as a republic in the Roman tradition…The Roman people remained the true sovereign of the political sphere, and they both authorized and de-authorized the holding of power by their rulers…The politeia was the Byzantine Greek translation and continuation of the ancient res publica” (ix).2 Therefore, the so-called ‘Byzantine’ Empire is not only a continuation of the ancient Roman Empire, ruled by the emperor, but also of the Roman Republic, ruled by the senate.

This Senate presents another example of the continuity of the Roman Empire, since it also existed to the very last day of the empire.3 Although it is true that its actual power gradually decreased to the point of non-existence, this was no novel phenomenon of the sixth or seventh century. From the very beginning of the monarchy, from the reign of Augustus, the emperor had seized most of the power for himself, leaving to the Senate only a semblance of authority.4 As the memory of the senatorial republic faded, there was increasingly less need for that semblance of senatorial power and the Senate became an imperial counselor (Kyrmeles 668). Nevertheless, even in this the Senate was actually returning to its original state: the senatus(‘assembly of elders’) of the early days of Rome had been precisely an advisor to Rome’s first kings.5

However hardworking he might be, the emperor needed assistants, governors and prefects over different regions. Immediately after the emperor in rank was the Prefect of the City who was responsible for all the affairs of the capital (e.g. trade, employment, justice, food supply). This was the case in New Rome just as it had been in Old Rome.6 The provinces had their own governors. In ruling the empire’s far-stretching domain, the fourth-century emperors Diocletian and St. Constantine the Great had divorced the military and civilian functions of a province’s governor (Freeman 477). In the mid-seventh century, however, the political and military rule of the provinces, henceforth called themes, was reunited in the same person. Once again, far from being a deviation, this was actually a return to Roman custom, since ‘traditionally the governor of a Roman province had also been its military commander’ (Freeman 477). Thus, if anything, the empire was more Roman in the seventh century than it had been in the fourth.

Roman law is another domain wherein continuity is grandly displayed.7 The laws of the Roman Empire took form between the approximate years of 150 BC and 150 AD and drew from five sources: the will of the citizens, the Senate, the Praetors (a type of magistrate), the Emperor, and the jurists. These laws were systemized, clarified and reformed on the orders of Emperor Justinian in his Codex Justinianus (AD 534). In addition to this, Justinian also produced the Digesta or Pandectae which, according to the twentieth-century historian Will Durant, was ‘[A] gather[ing] into a system [of] those responsa or opinions of the great Roman Jurists which still seemed worthy to have the force of Law’ (111) and the Institutiones, which ‘reproduced, amended and brought up to date the Commentaries of Gaius, who in the second century had … summarized the civil law of his time’ (112). Thus Justinian’s law-code was nothing new; it was entirely based on the pre-existing corpus. Durant concludes, ‘And this, with some interruptions, remained the law of the Byzantine [sic] Empire till 1453’ (113), and further on, ‘[The Code] soon ceased to be obeyed except in a narrowing realm. The Eastern nationalistic heretics [i.e. the Monophysites] whom it flayed opened their arms to the Moslems…. Italy under the Lombards, Gaul under the Franks, England under the Anglo-Saxons, Spain under the Visigoths, ignored the edicts of Justinian. … It continued to the end the code of the Byzantine [sic] Empire’ (114). The ‘Byzantine’ Empire alone created and used this code because it alone was, not simply the successor of the Roman Empire, but the Roman Empire itself.

The social structure and taxation of the empire also entered the Code of Justinian, and these, just like other aspects of the law, were structures erected upon foundations laid long ago. In the Code, the two basic classes of citizens were the honestiores (the aristocracy, senators, and magistrates) and the humiliores (the commoners). This distinction, however, had already developed in the second century AD (Freeman 432), and, as a part of the Code, remained in force for the rest of the empire’s history. Likewise, a system of taxation developed by Emperor Diocletian was also used throughout the subsequent years of the empire. In his book on the ancient Mediterranean Charles Freeman states, ‘Diocletian developed a system under which each individual was assessed on the production potential of his land rather than its extent’ (477), while George Kyrmeles, in his book on the history of the Roman Empire after St. Constantine, mentions that ‘The fields, the γαῖες, were divided into three categories depending on their quality and production’ (672), not their size. Thus the institutions of the later empire are nothing other than a continuation of what was laid down in the early days.

In speaking of institutions one cannot overlook education, yet another splendid example of the continuity of the Roman Empire. There was absolutely no structural change in the education of the empire through its history.8 This cannot be oversimplified. A paragraph from H. I. Marrou’s ‘History of Education in Antiquity’ will suffice to demonstrate this and also serve as a summary of the past four paragraphs: ‘Surprising as it may seem, there is to begin with a whole area where, strictly speaking, the old classical school never came to an end – in the Greek East; for Byzantine [sic] education was a direct continuation of classical education. This is in fact simply one particular aspect of the fundamental fact that there was no gap, no difference, even, between the civilization of the Late Roman Empire and the early Byzantine [sic] Middle Ages’ (340).

A major objection raised against the Romanity of the later empire is the change of the empire’s official language from Latin to Greek. Although at least half of the empire’s population had always spoken Greek,9 Latin was the official language up until the seventh century.10 At this point, several questions must be asked. First, is Latin an indispensable, inseparable part of the Roman identity? Also, is Greek definitely a non-Roman language? Ultimately, is language essential to national identity? A reply to the last question would be that it depends on the context. Although language is tremendously important for any sort of identity, especially a cultural identity, its change alone does not necessitate a change in a people’s national identity, especially in vast multicultural empires such as the Roman Empire or contemporary America. Certainly the original Americans were English-speaking Protestant Englishmen, yet no one would argue on that basis that the Catholic Irishmen or the African-Americans or the Spanish-speaking Floridians or anyone else, of whatever race or religion, is not a true American. Furthermore, supposing that one day Spanish should become the official language of the United States, would those States no longer be America? Surely not. If then this is the case today regarding Spanish, which, one must admit, has not played a major role in the history of the United States, how much less of a problem should Greek be to the Roman identity when the Greek-speakers of southern Italy had been neighbors of Rome from the very beginning and contributors to Rome’s cultural formation?11 How is the Greek language unromanly when, according to Vergil’s Aeneid, a Greek settlement on the Palatine Hill predated Rome?12When finally the city of Rome itself is named after the Greek word ῥώμη, ‘strength’?13 Seeing that the language of ancient Rome is called precisely Latin and not Roman,14 what further proof is necessary to show that the Latin language, or any one language for that matter, is not an integral part of the Roman identity? Likewise, it is equally ridiculous to maintain that there is such a thing as a Roman race by blood, taking into account that when Romulus, the legendary founder of Rome, wanted to populate his newly-established city, he declared it a haven and attracted the outlaws, debtors, and political exiles of the entire surrounding region.15 Rome was thus an ecumenical city from its very birth. When in AD 212 Emperor Caracalla granted Roman citizenship to all freeborn inhabitants of the empire, he was simply repeating on a grand scale what Romulus had done in his nascent town.16Given these thoughts, the replacement of Latin by any language and certainly by Greek does not signify a divergence from Roman identity at all.

If not language, what about religion? Can Romans still be themselves after relinquishing their ancestral gods? In other words, is religion essential to national identity? One would think that to the modern, secular ear the answer to this question would seem obvious, yet this argument is often used, paired up with the argument of language, against the continuity of the empire. It is true that in several circumstances religion and nation have been conflated throughout history. The most obvious example is the Jews, whose name denotes at one and the same time a people and a religion. Similarly, the Assyrians consider as their countryman only him who belongs to the Assyrian Church of the East. In the early centuries of the Christian era, however, such religious nationalities did not exist. On the one hand, polytheism can hardly be called an organized religion, since gods of other traditions such as Isis or Cybele could easily be integrated into the Greco-Roman pantheon and worshipped alongside Zeus or Aphrodite. On the other hand everyone in the empire, with the exception of the Christians and the Jews, worshipped a set of gods that were to a certain degree equivalent with each other: he whom the Romans called Juppiter was known as Zeus among the Greeks, as Ammon among the Egyptians, as Taranis among the Celts. Even within a specific tradition some especially honored Apollo while others worshipped Dionysus, to give a simple example. In this loose kind of religion a Roman could even worship an Asian goddess without raising the least doubt concerning his identity. Therefore it is unreasonable to claim that by being baptized the Romans ceased being Roman. One might as well say that all those formerly pagan peoples entirely vanished upon entering the baptismal font, that we cannot speak of a Christian Greek or a Christian Syrian or for that matter of a Christian Russian, since obviously no nation was Christian before it was baptized.

The fate of the Roman name, however, is strangely intertwined with the Christian Faith and has persevered in close connection with it down to the present day. Far from considering it paradoxical to be Christian and Roman at the same time, the Romans of the eighth century and thereafter considered those two names virtually synonymous.17 This mentality was shared most notably by the Franks, whose king, Louis II, clearly expressed it in his letter to Emperor Basil I in AD 871: ‘[J]ust as we are the seed of Abraham through the faith of Christ, and the Jews ceased to be the sons of Abraham because of their treachery, so we took up the rule of the Roman empire on account of our good belief and orthodoxy; while the Greeks ceased to be emperors of the Romans because of their cacodoxy, that is their bad belief’ (Elijah Wallace). In other words, it is impossible to be a heretical Roman. Ironically, Louis’s own argument speaks against him and his own words condemn him, since it was the Franks, not the ‘Greeks’, that introduced the Filioque into the Nicene Creed. This identification of ‘Roman’ and ‘Orthodox Christian’ penetrated deeply and left its mark even on language: Pontic Greek contains the verb ῥωμανίζω (‘romanizo’) with the definition, ‘I become a Christian, a Roman’. Moreover, in the Ottoman Empire all Orthodox Christians were legally grouped together in the millet-i Rum, the Roman race. Even today the followers of the Pope of Rome use the Roman name, probably without realising it themselves, to denote what they perceive as the true faith, namely Roman Catholicism, while in the Middle East canonical Orthodox Christians are called Rum Orthodox, ‘Roman Orthodox’, to be distinguished from the other Christians groups of that region. The Roman name has had a long association with the Orthodox Christian Faith; that the Roman Empire was not really Roman because it was Christian should be the last conceivable argument of any knowledgeable person. It can only stand on a basis of ignorance.

The continuity of the Roman Empire in its several aspects was never interrupted or broken. Whether in the city orr the countryside, the laws or the taxes, the language or the religion, things either ancient or recent, what radical break has there been with the past? What sudden turn did the empire ever take? What took place except gradual and organic change? If England is still called England after having been overtaken by a people of different blood, tongue, and faith,18 why is not Romania19 given her rightful name? Political motivations, rivalry, and men’s own interests have purposefully slandered her for more than a millennium. Too long has the Roman Empire been deprived of a thousand years of its history. Breaking habits is always difficult, but for the sake of truth this habit of using the word ‘Byzantine’ must be broken! The only Byzantines that ever existed were the inhabitants of that small Greek colony on the banks of the Bosporus. An invention and vehicle of Frankish and German propaganda,20 Byzantine terminology distorts and obscures the truth of things. Even if one accepts that the empire was technically not Byzantine, if he persists in calling it by that name his perception of history shall inevitably and subconsciously be influenced. Unless a man understands history deeply and truly, his gaze penetrating beneath the surface, he will not fully realize his own place in history and consequently what his own path should be. Of all the empires that have ever existed, the Roman Empire, with its 1480-year-long history, has had arguably more impact on mankind than any other. Let every lover of truth understand: the Roman Empire is one and the same, from its beginning to its very end in the fifteenth century.

Post Scriptum: A Roman Civilization?

Speaking in strict and accurate terms, there is no such thing as a Roman civilization. Here ‘civilization’ is understood in the sense usually applied to the ancient world, that is, as a distinct cultural and technological development expressed in forms of art such as architecture, literature, or sculpture. In this sense we speak of the Egyptian, Mesopotamian, Chinese, or Greek civilizations, each of which had developed the arts in its own distinct ways. The ancient Romans, however, did not develop their own distinct forms of the aforementioned arts to any significant degree. (The indigenous tribes of Africa or North America also have their own styles of pottery or weapons, yet no one would go so far as to characterize each of them a civilization. This is what is meant by ‘significant degree’.) What is considered ‘Roman civilization’ (sometimes called ‘Graeco-Roman civilization’) is nothing more than an adaption of the Greek civilization to the Latin language and mindset.

The Oxford Latin Course has at the end of each chapter a short essay on some aspect of ancient Roman history or culture. According to one of these, ‘The extraordinary intellectual and creative inventiveness of the Greeks dazzled the Romans. Their discoveries in mathematics (Pythagoras), geometry (Euclid), astronomy (Ptolemy), science (Archimedes) and natural history (Aristotle), their unrivalled architecture and sculpture (Pheidias, Praxiteles), their great philosophical tradition (Plato) – all seemed wonderful to the Roman nation. It was perhaps in literature especially that the superiority of the Greeks lay. … [H]ere was a great literary inheritance that gave the Romans everything to study and little to invent’ (Part II, 29). Part III provides more information on the active adaptation and translation of Greek literature into Latin, which until then did not have much to speak of: ‘It was not until it came under the influence of the Greek writers that Roman literature got off the ground. … Livius Andronicus (c. 284-204 BC) … was a Greek war-captive and slave and founded the Latin literary tradition by translating Homer’s Odyssey and Greek tragedies and comedies into Latin’ (46). ‘Catullus (c. 84-54) was the first great writer to use poetry to express his thoughts and emotions … He too found his inspiration in Greek models. … The earliest surviving didactic poem is by a Greek called Hesiod who lived around the same time as Homer. … Virgil says that Hesiod’s poem was the model for his Georgics’ (47). Therefore, since the Romans based themselves so extensively on the Greeks, theirs is not a separate civilization but rather a different version of the same one.

Furthermore, the previous statement was acknowledged and accepted by the ancient Romans themselves, who saw themselves as primarily a political, not an artistic, race. In his Aeneid, Virgil has Anchises prophecy to his son Aeneas, the legendary forefather of the Romans:

Others will cast more tenderly in bronze

Their breathing figures, I can well believe,

And bring more lifelike portraits out of marble;

Argue more eloquently, use the pointer

To trace the paths of heaven accurately

And accurately foretell the rising stars.

Roman, remember by your strength to rule

Earth’s peoples—for your arts are to be these:

To pacify, to impose the rule of law,

To spare the conquered, battle down the proud (VI.1145-1154).

In these words, Vergil accurately summarizes the gifts of each race: the Greeks received from God artistic creativity, while the Romans were given a political mind. Conversely, while the Romans could not produce their own civilization, the Greeks could never form a stable, unified Greek state. Thus it can be argued that each nation benefitted from the other: the Greeks produced the civilization, the Romans provided the state, and together these two formed the Roman Empire. With the addition of the Orthodox Christian Faith, Romania, that republic (res publica, politeia) whose citizens were adamantly Orthodox and loyally Roman, is complete. The spirit of this empire, what is called in Greek Ρωμηοσύνη, ‘Romanity’, has persisted to the present day among the Orthodox peoples of the Balkans and the Middle East.

It is fitting to close this dedication to the Roman Empire with the words of Basil Michaelides, a 19th-century Roman poet from Cyprus:

Romanity’s a nation contemp’ral with the world;

None was found that could extinguish, blot her out,

None, since God Almighty protects her from the heights.

Romanity will perish when the world is gone.


Balme, Maurice, and James Morwood. Oxford Latin Course: Part II. New York: Oxford UP, 1996.

Balme, Maurice, and James Morwood. Oxford Latin Course: Part III. 2nd ed. New York: Oxford UP, 2006.

Butler, Alban, Rev. The Lives of the Fathers, Martyrs, and Other Principal Saints. Dublin: James Duffy, 1866; 2010. 25 Mar. 2019

Charles Freeman. Egypt, Greece, and Rome. New York: Oxford University, 1999.

Durant, Will, and Ariel Durant. The Story of Civilization. Vol. 3. New York: MJF Books, 1993.

Hierotheos, Metropolitan of Naupactus. γέννημα και θρέμμα Ρωμηοί. Levadia: ‘Nativity of the Theotokos’ Monastery, 2000.

Kaldellis, Anthony. The Byzantine Republic: People and Power in New Rome. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 2015.

Κυρμελῆ Γεωργίου. Ῥωμανία: Ἡ Μεσαιωνική μας Αὐτοκρατορία. Thessaloniki: Παλίμψηστον, 2018.

Livy. The Early History of Rome. Penguin Classics.

Marrou, H. I. A History of Education in Antiquity. Madison: University of Wisconsin, 1956.

‘Prefect: Ancient Roman Official’. Encyclopædia Britannica. Ed. The Editors of Encyclopædia Britannica. 20 July 1998. 25 Mar. 2019

‘Rome.’ Online Etymology Dictionary. 16 Apr. 2019

‘St. Nino (Nina), Equal of the Apostles and Enlightener of Georgia.’ Orthodox Church in America. 25 Mar. 2019

Susan Wise Bauer. The History of the Ancient World. New York: Norton, 2007.

Moss, Vladimir. The Fall of Orthodox England. 2007. Orthodox Outlet for Dogmatic Enquiries. 11 June 2010. 14 Apr 2019

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Vergil. The Aeneid. Trans. Robert Fitzgerald. New York: Vintage, 1983.

Wallace, Elijah. “Imperium et Credo: Frankish-Byzantine Rivalry over Leadership of the Roman-Christian Credo-State in the Ninth Century.” Hortulus: The Online Graduate Journal of Medieval Studies. Ed. Ryan Lawrence and Natalie Whitaker. 25 Mar. 2019

Will Durant. The History of Civilization: Volume III: Caesar and Christ.

[Edited and Revised, June 15, 2019]


1 Only when New Rome was captured by the Fourth Crusade (A.D. 1204) was this succession interrupted, giving way to an interregnum of three rival Roman Emperors, viz. of Nicaea, of Trapezon, and of Epirus. Cf. “The Imperial Index: The Rulers of the Roman Empire”:

2 For more on this, see Anthony Kaldellis, The Byzantine Republic: “In sum, modern scholars say that under Augustus the Republic was abolished and the Empire instituted. An ancient Roman scholar, by contrast, would say that the form of governance of the res publica changed from that of the consuls to that of the emperors. … The res publica in ancient Rome and the politeia in Byzantium did not refer to a type of regime but to a political sphere that legitimated the exercise of power with reference to the common interests and ultimate sovereignty of the Roman people. The res publica could be governed by a monarchy” (23).

3 Tuesday, 29th of May, AD 1453. On this day the last Roman Emperor, Constantine XI Paleologue, addressed a final speech to the Senate shortly before his death. See Γεωργίου Κυρμελῆ, Ῥωμανία: ‘[Constantine] gathered generals, officers, the senate, political or other officials and gave the following poignant speech’ (638-39).

4See The Usborne Internet-Linked Encyclopedia of the Ancient World: ‘In 27BC, [Octavian] offered to let the Senate take over, but this was just for show. Octavian was supported by the army, and everyone knew that only he could unite the Roman people. The Senate gave Octavian the new name Augustus … and he gradually gained total control over the Roman world’ (283).

5 ‘Early Rome was ruled by a king, who was chosen and advised by a council of elders – or senes’ (The Usborne Encyclopedia, 269).

6 See Γεωργίου Κυρμελῆ, Ῥωμανία, p. 668. For the function of the Praefectus Urbi in Old Rome, see Encyclopaedia Britannica (, ‘Prefect: Ancient Roman Official’: ‘Under the late empire he was in charge of Rome’s entire city government’.

7 The information for this entire paragraph is taken from Will Durant’s ‘The History of Civilisation’, Book II, Chapter 18.

8 Doubtless, some changes did occur, but they were never such as to alter the very nature of education. Let it be remembered that the education of pagan antiquity also underwent changes until it reached what can be recognized as ‘classical education’: Homer did not receive from heaven a ready, complete curriculum. Regarding the changes in the education of the so-called ‘Byzantine’ Empire, Marrou writes, ‘From 425 to 1453 the University of Constantinople was a most fruitful centre of study, the main pillar of the classical tradition. Naturally, in the course of a thousand years it had many ups and downs, periods of decline and even temporary disappearances, that were then redeemed by splendid revivals … Like all living things it underwent many transformations, but it always remained loyal to the spirit of its original foundation in the time of Theodosius II’ (340).

9 See Freeman: ‘Latin made virtually no progress in the eastern part of the empire’ (460) and ‘the main spoken language of administration was Greek, which had spread widely in the east after Alexander’s conquests. Antioch, the second city of the empire, and Alexandria were both Greek-speaking’ (536).

10 Ibid.: ‘An important moment comes in 629 when the emperor Heraclius officially titled himself basileus rather than the traditional imperator. Court titles become Greek. … When the defenders of Constantinople had finally triumphed in 626 they san the great Greek hymn Akathistos, which still survives to be used in services in Lent’ (552).

11 The traditional date for the founding of Rome is 753 B.C. Greek colonists, on the other hand, began settling southern Italy at about the same time. The first Greek colony was founded in 775 B.C. on the Bay of Naples, while colonization began in earnest at about 740 B.C. Furthermore, there was indeed an exchange between the colonists and the natives and an influence of the former on the latter. For example, the ‘Etruscans traded with the Greeks in southern Italy, and adopted the Greek alphabet, which they passed on to the Romans’ (The Usborne Encyclopedia, 269), while according to Susan Wise Bauer ‘the story of Romulus and Remus [the founding legend of Rome] contains a patchwork of parts from older Greek myths’ (359). Finally, ‘[a]s well as bringing goods to trade … the Greeks also brought with them their science, literature, drama, art and architecture. All of these had a huge effect on Roman culture’ (The Usborne Encyclopedia, 268).

12 See Vergil, The Aeneid. Trans. Robert Fitzgerald.

In this country an Arcadian tribe, descended