Byzantine or Romaion?

Astronomy, physics and mathematics are three fields that come to mind where radical new theories are continually proposed only to find inevitable resistance to their widespread adoption. Despite the ostensibly objective nature of the scientific method it ends up being the case that the promoters of a new thesis often end up "emotionally attached" and seek to advance their position while those holding on to the status quo refuse them for the same - or even political - reasons. The community then polarizes along progressive/conservative fault lines only for time, and hopefully lots of testing, to eventually determine whether the new paradigm takes root. The world of numismatics, as elsewhere in the other sciences, often gets bogged down in controversies that to the outside world must seem utterly trivial. One such controversy divides a segment who call the post-Roman empire based out of Constantinople as the "Byzantines" from a spalling group who prefer a new moniker "Romaion". As far as I can tell the replacement name was suggested by Wayne Sayles, a prominent dealer and author of literature on ancient numismatics. With him being the founder and editor of the only monthly magazine on ancient coins, the Celator, editorial policy is such that instances of "Byzantine" in articles are replaced with "Romaion". Personal crusades spring from convictions, it's true, and having the right pulpit is a good way to grease the skids into your position being accepted. In some cases the technique worked so well that the editor's will alone was sufficient to reshape the literary landscape of an entire nation. Witness the success of the Chicago Tribune's insistence on re-spelling the British "programme" into "program". Then, as an example leading nowhere, contemplate the continued obstinacy of the New Yorker adorning diphthongs with diareses so that we get cutesy forms like coöperate.

Despite opposition, the power of media is sometimes enough to bring change. Now, by not accepting the new term in this instance, I find myself in a default "conservative" camp. I attribute my stubbornness to nothing more than the inertia of going along with what historians at large have been using for centuries for lack of any issue with the traditional name. Is there, I should ask, a compelling reason to adopt the new word? Am I finally an old fart?

To answer we should probably review why it was seen fit to suggest a replacement in the first place. There are a number of reasons why certain words fall into disuse. In medicine, for example, old terms like dropsy and apoplexy were replaced long ago with the newer edema and stroke on account of a greater understanding of these ailments. More commonly, and I suspect the case here as well, words fall out of favor when through colloquial usage they become profane. A hundred years ago calling someone a retard or negro (or worse, ahem!) carried far less negative baggage than does so today and so more neutral descriptives have been employed. The Romans' "gentium barbarum" initially referred to all non-Roman people without the added weight that barbarism brings to mind. The Vandals, likewise, irrespective of whatever achievements and innovations they may have attained, will regardless trigger an automatic connection to vandalism and thus malign the memory of an entire civilization. In this context perhaps it was felt the time was ripe to retire Byzantine as a noun since as an adjective it links with thesaurus-mates conniving, subterfuge and red tape. Whatever merit the politically correct find in this cause is to me eye-rollingly inconsequential - the last Byzantine having died around the time Colombus set sail and all - but even if it were seriously considered I would say the proposed Romaion is a worse substitute on several accounts.

For starters, the argument goes, "Byzantine" is not a word that anyone used contemporarily; the term only coming into use during the 19th century and was in any case named from Byzantium, a city name that long predated the very people it meant to describe. Why not the more appropriate "Constantinoplan" perhaps? I don't know. I wasn't around back then but evidently succeeding historians adopted it without considering alternatives and that was that. On the other hand, the neologism Romaion is simply the Greek word for "Roman". Any Roman who spoke Greek, whether an actual Greek person under Roman jurisdiction or an ordinary Roman living in Britain who happened to know Greek, would have called themselves as such across time and geography. It is thus too lexically imprecise to neatly rein in what we mean by Byzantine today. The argument that holds that it's inappropriate in light of it not having been used contemporarily must reconcile the irony that Romaion is the very word they would have used to convey the concept of belonging to the older civilization rather than the intended disassociation into separate eras!

To poke another hole into the argument, an ordinary Roman who lived in what is now Greece and Turkey would have been regarded as simply Greek even when additionally, as an abstract and political concept, they were also Roman. This in the same way that for us it's effortless to be considered, say, both a New Yorker and an American. Stripped of the pejorative concerns what other reason is there to fix that which ain't broken? Japan, and its derivative Japanese, are both examples of a people given a demonym with which they themselves never had any part of. Nobody knows where "Japan" came from but it stuck and no one is seriously campaigning for the more etymologically pure Nippon and Nihongo. If Germans demand we rid them of their Latin shackles will we accept to call them Deutscher? Unthinkable.

Romaion therefore so far proves only to be an awkward and inexact term with no added benefit except, as far as I can see, divorce the people and period it describes from add-on connotations the word picked up along the way. It doesn't work that way. Say Chinese or Mexican and perhaps less than desirable adjectives come to mind but the solution isn't, and can't be, a fresh coat of semantical paint. So the Vandals, bummer, will continue to be linked with rampaging riffraff and a Made in China tag will continue to inspire the dread of imminent malfunction. To the ghosts of ancient Greeks who lived in the Balkans and what is now Turkey during the approximate 400-1500 millenium, sorry, you are to us "Byzantine" and we mean no disrespect!