Four Romaic names for Greece

By: | Post date: 2017-09-15 | Comments: 1 Comment
Posted in categories: Culture, Linguistics, Mediaeval Greek, Modern Greek

As ably explained in Wikipedia: Names of the Greeks, there is a tension in mediaeval and modern times between names for Greeks based on their ancient heritage (Hellenic; Hellenes), and names for Greeks based on their Roman and Byzantine heritage  (Romaic; Romioi = Romans). The tension was clearer within Greek, because Western languages used a term that was neither: Greek. (And that term turns up in Greek itself as Graikos, though it was never as popular as the other two.) I have posted at some length about this several times, e.g. in Are Greeks an Ethnoreligious Group?

Somewhat less well known is the comparable tension around what the name of Greece was. There was Hellas, of course, and Hellas survived in Byzantium as the name of a theme (province), what is now southern Greece. But Hellas was not the name Byzantines called their empire. And inasmuch as the Romioi identified with the Eastern Roman Empire and not with Ancient Greece, Hellas was not always the name Greeks called their country either.

Romans came from Rome originally; but the name Romans gave their country in Latin, once their country became far bigger than Latium, was Romania. That was also the name that people who considered themselves as Roman gave their own country, even if their country did not include Rome; that’s how Romanians came to call their own country România, for example. For that matter, that’s how some Romance linguists name Romance-speaking Europe, although the confusion with Romanian România is enough to make that a very bad idea.

Half the Roman Empire used Greek as its official language instead of Latin, and that half referred to the Roman Empire as Rhōmania as well (Ῥωμανία). They saw no particular reason to stop calling it Rhōmania once the capital moved from the Elder Rome to Constantinople the New Rome, nor once the Elder Rome was lost to the Goths or the Papacy. The first text I know of that uses the term Rhōmania is AthanasiusHistory of Arianism (written before he died in 373)—

καὶ γὰρ οὐδὲ Λιβερίου τοῦ ἐπισκόπου Ῥώμης κατὰ τὴν ἀρχὴν ἐφείσαντο, ἀλλὰ καὶ μέχρι τῶν ἐκεῖ τὴν μανίαν ἐξέτειναν, καὶ οὐχ ὅτι ἀποστολικός ἐστι θρόνος ᾐδέσθησαν, οὔδ’ ὅτι μητρόπολις ἡ Ῥώμη τῆς Ῥωμανίας ἐστὶν ηὐλαβήθησαν
And they [Arians] did not even spare Liberius as the duly appointed bishop of Rome, but they extended their madness to the Christians there. They neither respected the fact that his see was Apostolic, nor did they care that Rome is the metropolis of Rhōmania. (§35.3)

followed shortly after by Epiphanius’ Panarion, written around 375:

καὶ οὕτως εἰς τὰς ἄλλας πατρίδας διὰ θαλάσσης διερχόμενοι οἱ ἀπὸ τῆς Ἰνδικῆς ἐπὶ τὴν Ῥωμανίαν ἐμπορεύονται.
And thus do those who navigate to other countries by sea trade from the Indian Ocean to Rhōmania. (§3.17)


ἀλλὰ καὶ μεταξὺ ἄργυρον προσλιπαρήσας τὸν ἐπὶ τοῦ δεσμωτηρίου δίδωσι πολὺν καὶ φυγὰς ἀπαλλάττεται, καταλείψας τὴν τῶν Περσῶν χώραν, καὶ τῇ Ῥωμανίᾳ προσέβαλε.
And in the meantime, importuning the jailer, he gave him much silver and was let go to be a fugitive: he [Mani] abandoned the land of the Persians, and assaulted Rhōmania. (§3.25)

The term continued to be used right till the very end, and it was used by people whose authority Constantinople would have contested; Stefan Dušan for example signed himself in the 1340s, in Athonian documents, as  ΣΤΕΦΑΝΟΣ ΕΝ ΧΡΙΣΤΩ ΤΩ ΘΕΩ ΠΙΣΤΟΣ ΒΑΣΙΛΕΥΣ ΚΑΙ ΑΥΤΟΚΡΑΤΩΡ ΣΕΡΒΙΑΣ ΚΑΙ ΡΩΜΑΝΙΑΣ, “Stephen, faithful in Christ God, King and Emperor of Serbia and Rhōmania.” The name is all over the Epic of Digenes Akrites and the Chronicle of the Morea (occasionally as Rhoumania). It certainly outlasted the Empire itself: we just saw Nathanael Bertos use it in possibly the 1460s; and Schreiner’s collection of Byzantine (and post-Byzantine) chronicles, Die byzantinischen Kleinchroniken, includes the following note for 1523:

τῷ αὐτῷ ἔτει ὁ ῥηθεὶς ἀμηρᾶς ἐξήβαλεν πολλὰς φαμιλίας ἀπὸ τὰ κάστρη τῆς Ῥωμανίας καὶ ὑπῆγέ τας εἰς τὴν Αἴγυπτον, καὶ Τούρκους.
In the same year, the aforementioned emir [Suleiman the Magnificent] expelled many families from the forts of Rhōmania, and sent them to Egypt; Turks as well. (§33,4.89)

Inexplicably, Kriaras’ dictionary of Early Modern Greek does not include the word; presumably because it was so common in Early Modern Greek. The word did not survive into Modern Greek. At least, it did not survive into the standard language; it certainly survived in Pontic Greek enough that a much cited folk song uses it to describe the Fall of Constantinople:

Ἕναν πουλίν, καλὸν πουλίν, ἐβγαίν’ ἀπὸ τὴν Πόλιν,
οὐδὲ ’ς σ’ ἀμπέλια ’κόνεψεν, οὐδὲ ’ς σὰ περιβόλα·
ἐπῆγεν καὶ νἐκόνεψεν καὶ ’ς σοῦ Ἡλί’ τὸν κάστρον·
ἐσεῖξεν τ’ ἕναν τὸ φτερόν, ’ς σὸ αἷμαν βουτεμένον,
ἐσεῖξεν τ’ ἄλλο τὸ φτερόν, χαρτὶν ἔχει γραμμένον.
Ἀτὸ κανεὶς ’κ’ ἐνέγνωσεν, οὐδ’ ὁ μητροπολίτες·
ἕναν παιδίν, καλὸν παιδίν, ἔρχεται κι ἀναγνώθει.
Σεῖτ’ ἀναγνώθ’ σεῖτα κλαίγει, σεῖτα κρούει τὴν καρδίαν.
«Ἀϊλὶ ἐμᾶς, καὶ βάι ἐμᾶς, πάρθεν ἡ Ρωμανία!»
Μοιρολογοῦν τὰ ἐγκλησάς, κλαίγ’νε τὰ μοναστήρα,
κι ἅϊ Γιάννες ὁ Χρυσόστομον κλαίει, δερνοκοπᾶται.
«Μὴ κλαίς, μὴ κλαίς, ἅϊ Γιάννε μου, καὶ δερνοκοπισκᾶσαι.
Ἡ Ρωμανία ’πέρασεν, ἡ Ρωμανία ’πάρθεν.
Ἡ Ρωμανία κι ἂν ’πέρασεν, ἀνθεῖ καὶ φέρει κι ἄλλο.»

A bird, a fine bird, leaves Constantinople.
It lingered not in vineyards, nor in gardens;
it flew and lingered at Elijah’s fortress.
It shook one wing, and it was dipped in blood.
It shook the other: there’s a written note.
Noone could read the note, even the bishop;
a lad, a fine lad, came and read the note.
He reads, he cries; he reads, he beats his breast.
“Woe and alas for us! Rhōmania’s taken!”
The churches mourn, the monasteries lament,
and St John Chrysostom, he cries and wails.
“Cry not, cry not, St John, and do not wail.
Rhōmania’s passed. Rhōmania now is taken.
Rhōmania, passed, will bud, and bear a new one.”

… Hold that thought.

There were good extralinguistic reasons for Greeks to forget the name Rhōmania, once there was no Empire of the Romans, just the Romans [Romioi] themselves. There were good linguistic reasons as well: Rhōmania is a Latin word, and the Roman– stem was only used in Rhōmania. A Roman in Greek was never a Rhōmanos, but a Rhōmaios (a Rhomäer, as German scholarship renders it, to differentiate them from Rome Romans). The –ia suffix was still used to form country names, but attached to Rhōmaios, it would give you the awkward form *Rhomaiïa (Ῥωμαιία), which the vernacular would end up rendering as [romˈja], indistinct from Rhōmaia > [romˈja] “Roman woman”.

If you’re looking for Greeks who’ve forgotten the details about their glorious past, late Venetian Crete is a good place to start. Not all the urbane writers writing in Cretan dialect were Greek Orthodox; most of them seem to have written in Latin script; and whether Catholic or Orthodox, what they knew of Ancient Greece was mediated through Italian: they named the gods and heroes of Hellas with Italianate names in their dramas and poems, not Hellenic names.

An odd word shows up in Crete to replace  Rhōmania. It shows up in an intermezzo of Fortounatos, a comedy written in the 1650s by Marcantonio Foscolo (in Latin script). It also shows up in the 1700 dictionary of Modern Greek by Somavera.

The word is Romikato (Foscolo), or Romekato (Somavera). It’s formed from Romaic (rome[i]kos), the vernacular form of the adjective “Roman”, and the suffix –ato. The suffix –ato does not see much usage in Greek; it’s Latin, corresponding to English –ate, and you see it in calques like protektorato “protectorate”, or ðukato “duchy”. Somehow,  the *Romanate (or I guess the *Romicate) ended up as a word for the  land of the Romans in the 17th century. And to confirm how blunted the Cretans’ command of the subtleties of Hellenism was: Foscolo uses it to refer to Ancient Greece, Hellas. Here’s his passage, complete with Menealaus and Helen in Italian accentuation:

του Μενελάο είναι γυνή [η Έλενα], οπού την Σπάρτα ορίζει·
στο Ρωμικάτο ευρίσκεται, και φέγγει και πλουμίζει.
She’s [Elena] Menelao’s wife, who rules in Sparta;
she shines and ornaments the Romanate. (Intermezzo II 160)

The Romanate did not survive in Modern Greek either. What did survive was something much simpler, though also more awkward: the neuter adjectival form of Romaic, το Ρωμαίικο to Romeiko. The Roman [thing]. The Romaic State, if you will.

Makriyannis refers to both Hellas and The Romaic in his memoirs of the Greek Revolutionary War and its aftermath; you can see the transition happening in its text if you’re attentive, from the Romaic country aspired to by the unlettered revolutionaries, to the Hellenic state administered by learnèd governors. Hellas was a glorious thing—or so the learnèd governors kept telling the people. The Romaic started as a glorious dream itself, as Makriyannis reports someone excitedly telling him on the eve of the revolution:

Τι στοχάζεσαι, αυτό το Ρωμαίγικο θα κάμη άργητα να γένη; Θα κοιμηθούμε με τους Τούρκους και θα ξυπνήσουμε με τους Ρωμαίγους.
What are you thinking, is that Romaic going to be slow in coming? We’ll go to bed with the Turks and wake up with the Romans!

Or as something his contemporaries falsely hoped Ali Pasha of Tepelena would bring them:

Αυτείνοι δεν πίστευαν τίποτας απ’ όσα τους έλεγα, αλλά τον ήθελαν νικητή να τους λευτερώση, αυτός ο τύραγνος να φέρη το Ρωμαίγικον και την λευτεριά της πατρίδος -και αν έβγαινε αυτός, δεν θ’ άφινε μήτε ρουθούνι απο ’μάς.
They wouldn’t believe a word I’d tell them; they wanted him to be the victor to liberate them, that this tyrant should bring about The Romaic and the freedom of our motherland—and if he did come out on top, he wouldn’t leave a nostril of ours alive.

Dreams sour; and the Greek Revolutionary War degenerated quite quickly into internecine strife. After witnessing one atrocity, Makriyannis (a partisan in that strife himself) exclaimed:

Κι’ από τότε βλέποντας αυτείνη την αρετή, σιχάθηκα το Ρωμαίικον, ότ’ είμαστε ανθρωποφάγοι.
And from that point onwards, seeing such virtue practiced, I was sick of The Romaic; for we are cannibals.

Makriyannis’ revulsion stuck. When the pedants preached that to be a Hellene was glorious, and to be Romaic was shameful, the Romaic stopped being a dream, and started being Dorian Gray’s picture. Hellas was the glorious, storied ideal; anything wrong that happened thanks to creatures of mere flesh and blood was lodged against the ledger of The Romaic. The Romaic became a term of mockery. The Romaic was everything that was wrong and un-Hellenic—until at long last the term Hellene had displaced the term Romaic so completely, that Hellas, the official name of Greece, could now be used negatively.

(There’s a paper I read once—Kazazis, K. 1981. Έλληνας vs. Ρωμιός Anecdotally Revisited. Folia Neohellenica 3: 53–55—noting that it was impossible for the author as a child to speak of “dumb Hellenes”; Hellenes were by definition glorious, and the only possible thing to say was “dumb Romans”. He observed that in the last decade or so, “dumb Hellene” had finally become possible to say.)

Cornelius Castoriadis was a philosopher who worked in France. I don’t know much about Castoriadis. I do know that, when googling for instances of The Romaic, I found that he said something heartbreakingly obvious about it, in an interview he gave in the 90s, Η Πολιτική Ζωή στην Ελλάδα (Political Life in Greece). I’m going to cite two related excerpts, because they are as poignant now as they were 20 years ago:

Can we claim that this was all imposed on the Greek people in the absence of the Greek people? Can we say that the Greek people did not understand what it was doing? What it wanted? What it was voting for? What it was prepared to put up with?

If that’s the case, then such a people would be an infant. But if it is an infant, then let’s not talk of democracy. If the Greek people is not responsible for its history, then let’s appoint it a guardian. But I say  that the Greek people, like any people, is responsible for its history, and is accordingly also responsible for the situation it finds itself in today.


The late Giorgos Kartalis joked to me in Paris in 1956: “Cornelius, you forget that Greece never went through a French Revolution.” And true enough, there has never been a time when the people has demanded its rights, even at a rudimentary level. And the responsibility I’ve referred to is expressed through the irresponsibility of the proverbial expression:

“Am I going to be the one to fix The Romaic?”

Well yes you are, sir. You are going to be the one to fix The Romaic, in the  domain and sector you find yourself in.

The Romaic is not much used any more, though I note with approval the self-consciously erudite hip hop lyrics of Όλο το ρωμαίικο from 2007.

But in the middle of the mockery of The Romaic, in the 40s, the poet Yannis Ritsos, the laureate of the Greek Left, reached back at a fourth term for the country of the Romans. Wiktionary informs me that that the term is first attested in a Cretan ballad written about a revolt in 1786; but Ritsos made the term his own, in his poetic cycle of the same name. And through Mikis Theodorakis‘ setting of the cycle, the whole country got to hear of it.

The term is Romiosyni, Ρωμιοσύνη. If I have to English it, it’s Romandom, or Greekdom: it’s formed by analogy to Χριστιανοσύνη Christendom. It is expansive and vital and inclusive, like “Christendom” is: it is a collective, an ideal, that ranges beyond the confines of a state as The Romaic had ended up doing.

And Ritsos’ verse restored the ideal of the Romans to where the Pontic folk song had left it. “Rhōmania, passed, will bud, and bear a new one.”

Τη ρωμιοσύνη μην την κλαις εκεί που πάει να σκύψει
με το σουγιά στο κόκκαλο με το λουρί στο σβέρκο.

Νάτη πετιέται απο ξαρχής κι αντριεύει και θεριεύει
και καμακώνει το θεριό με το καμάκι του ήλιου.

Don’t cry for Romandom, as it bows down—
a pen-knife to its bone, a strap to its neck.

Look, it springs up again, grows brave, grows fierce,
and with the sun’s own spear it spears the beast.

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