It was reading Owen Barfield’s History in English Words many years ago that first made me realise words are like the artefacts – the shards of shattered pottery, the unearthed house foundations, or the elaborate tombs filled with grave goods - the archaeologist uses to reconstruct the past. Or, as Barfield put it:
“It has only just begun to dawn on us that in our own language alone, not to speak of its many companions, the past history of humanity is spread out in an imperishable map, just as the history of the mineral earth lies embedded in the layers of its outer crust.”
The poet Coleridge says something similar:
“In a language like ours, where so many words are derived from other languages, there are few modes of instruction more useful or more amusing than that of accustoming young people to seek for the etymology, or primary meaning, of the words they use. There are cases, in which more knowledge of more value may be conveyed by the history of a word than by the history of a campaign.”
And it was while I was reading Roumeli, the late Patrick Leigh Fermor’s delightfully erudite portrait of northern Greece, that the insights of both Barfield and Coleridge came to focus themselves on a word that allows us to sink a trench into the past.
The word is Rome. The primary meaning of the word is, of course, the city and the empire that once spread from Britain in the north to the coastline of Africa, and from the Atlantic coastline to the eastern fastnesses of present-day Syria and Iraq. As the centuries passed, those who lived within its confines came to think of themselves as Romans – indeed, it was imperial policy to grant citizenship to the many diverse peoples Rome governed so they would identify their interests with those of the imperium.
By the end of the third century, administration of the empire had grown so complex that Diocletian (245-313AD ) divided it in half. Constantine (275-337AD ) carried this division further by building a new capital for the eastern portion, naming it Constantinople, with Rome the capital of the west.
By the middle of the fourth century, the Western Empire was falling apart at the hands of those whom the Romans called ‘barbarians’, and the name of the last emperor of the West – Romulus Augustulus (475-476AD ) - seems like the completion of a circle. Romulus was the name of the mythical founder of the Rome, and Augustus the name of the first emperor – only this was ‘little’ Augustus.
A contemporary historian pronounced the funeral elegy: “Thus did the western empire of the Roman people, which the first of the Augusti, Octavianius Augustus began to rule in the seven hundred and ninth year after the founding of the city [44BC], perished with this Augustulus … and from that time onwards the Goths held Rome and Italy.”
But it is easy to forget that the Eastern Empire, centred on the great city of Constantinople (present-day Istanbul ), did not finally fall to the Ottoman Turks until 1453 – 40 years before Columbus sailed to the New World.
From the time of the city’s foundation in 323, those in the Eastern Empire thought of themselves as Romans – as Romaioi - despite the fact that the chief language of its inhabitants was Greek. Today historians call the Eastern Empire Byzantium, which was the old name of the city before it was completely rebuilt by Constantine. The term was first used by a German historian in 1557 and has since been adopted as a means of distinguishing between the Western Empire and the Eastern portion.
Patrick Leigh Fermor points out that even before the Ottoman Turks conquered Constantinople in 1453, the territory they had already taken – most of what today is Turkey – was called by them the Sultanate of Rum, and their monarch the Sultan of Rum. Indeed, after Constantinople was captured, the early Sultans thought of themselves as the inheritors of the Roman Empire and said as much, but the claim was never recognised in the West.
To complicate things further, in the West, during and after the Crusades, those parts of the Eastern Empire in Europe, from Greece to the borders of present-day Turkey, were called Romania, and the Turks continued to call this area, Roumeli (‘land of the Rumis ). And today, as Leigh Fermor notes, Greeks in this region still refer to themselves as Romaioi.
As a footnote to all this, Jalel ad-Din Muhammad Balkhi (1207-1273 ), the great Muslim poet and Sufi mystic, is more commonly known as Rumi from the fact that he lived most of his life in the Sultanate of Rum.