Vasco Arnaudov
The Roots of Balkan Imperial Myths


Considering the myth as a significant and exemplary story, which purpose is to revive and reinforce the sacred act or moment I would like to focus my attention on the Balkan imperial myths and Byzantine influence and legacy.

A few years ago I found an interesting announcement in Serbian newspaper. An organization with striking name "New Byzantium" was created in Serbia. Its aim was to unite the former Yugoslavian lands under the sign of Orthodox Christianity. The spirit of great Byzantine Empire appeared again. Namely this spirit, in my opinion, is a basis of constructing the Balkan imperial myths. I mean a revival of the ideas about great Bulgarian and Serbian medieval states. Despite the widespread survival of Turkish cuisine, coffe houses, bazaars, mosques and minarets, the art, architecture, customs, values, beliefs and physical appearance of Balkan villages and towns owe much more to the Byzantine heritage than to the Ottomans and Islam. The modern Balkan states were inherit a native culture, which was basically Byzantine but modified by centuries of Muslim domination.

What is the essence of those myths? In retrospect, Bulgarians and Serbians have naturally tended to see the medieval Bulgarian /Bulgarian empire of Simeon (893-927)/ and Serbian /Serbian empire of Stefan Dushan (1331-1355)/ empires as nascent or embryonic nation-states, whose "glorious national development" was rudely cut by foreign conquerors - Ottomans. They have also been inclined to threat the maximum extension of their medieval empires as the natural historical boundaries for their nations. Historical memories of these medieval states have translated into modern nationalist political programs. We can find the same idea in Greek nationalist program - the so-called "Megali idea" (The Great idea), which recall the glorious Byzantine past. Thus the myth of former great state comes to mobilize the national memory and also to revive the "sacred time" - the time of glory, power and providential role.

The roots of these notions lie in the basis of Byzantine political ideology. The firmest principle of it is the belief of empire as "chosen vessel" of divine providence. The Christian Empire has to be the earthy image of heavenly kingdom and the emperor has to imitate in his rule the heavenly king - Christ. There can be only one empire and it is the empire of Constantinople. The oikoumene /the world/, as byzantines conceived it, was composed of an immense family of nations and rulers organized in hierarchical order, at the head of which stands the basileus /emperor/ of Romans. After him came, in succession of kingship, his "spiritual children", e.g., the rulers of Armenia and Bulgaria; his spiritual brothers, e.g., the French and German rulers; his "friends" and so on.

More fundamentally, Bulgarian and Serbian medieval states can be seen less as close forerunners or prototypes of the modern Bulgaria and Serbian nation-states than as attempt by Bulgarians and Serbians to create Orthodox Balkan empires modelled on Byzantium and capable of usurping its imperial power, status, and mission. National identities were still fluid. They were much weaker than the widely shared identification with Orthodox Christianity and Byzantine civilization. Byzantium was always regarded by its rulers as the foremost civilization of the time. That view was very much shared by its neighbors, who repeatedly aspired, not to destroy Byzantium and its order, but to occupy the imperial city, Constantinople, and to claim for themselves the prestige and position of the Byzantine emperor. Balkan rulers copied the court ceremonial and they used Byzantine architectural styles for their buildings. Significantly, Byzantium served as a role model not only for other Orthodox Christian states but also for the Ottoman Turks, who were to inherit and reconstitute the Byzantine imperium in the Balkans.

Thus Byzantium imposed a model, that was accepted with some resistance from Balkan states. As D.Obolensky pointed out, the Byzantine religious, cultural and political influence borne the so-called "Byzantine Commonwealth", that is the areas which accepted the Byzantine model of civilization - Balkan states, Russia and the Eastern part of Asia Minor. As far as the frontiers of that Commonwealth remained imaginative, the term has to examine in metaphysician sense. What D.Obolensky had in mind is the common religious and cultural spirit.

That spirit was preserve after the fall of Byzantine Empire in 1453. The famous Romanian historian N.Iorga pointed out that phenomenon in his brilliant work "Byzance apres Byzance". Now Russia, as an heiress of Byzantium, was responsible for the Orthodox Christianity. It is important for us to mention the main features of Byzantine legacy in Russia:

1\ The Orthodox Christianity

2\ The idea of Moscow as the Third Rome

3\ The so-calld "caesaro-papism" - a model of relations between state and church in which the state dominates.

Proceeding further we can find even in Soviet Russia the "aura", spirit of Byzantine world. One providential religion - the communism - replaced the other providential religion - the Christianity. The change was rather formal then essential. It is curiously but Soviet Russia built up similar world hierarchical order like the Byzantine Empire. In this hierarchy each state had strictly defined place and status. I mean the states of Eastern Europe after the Second World War and especially these ones of Southeastern Europe /Yugoslavia, Bulgaria, Romania/. So, during the Middle Ages we have "Byzantine Commonwealth" in the Balkans. In the middle of 20-th century we find the same states united in similar Commonwealth, which I would call "Soviet Commonwealth". The hierarchical order and state status are defined precisely by ceremonial practice like in Byzantium. I shall give only one example - the pompous parades on the Red Square. Let's remember the row of communist state leaders in the lodge of Lenin's mausoleum. The order was very strict and it showed the position of each leader, respectively the status of his state in commonwealth's hierarchy.

May be the Byzantine spirit is still alive!


Thus to conclude, the roots of Balkan imperial myths lay in the world of Byzantine political ideas. The Byzantine religious, cultural and political impact was important for raising the "Byzantine Commonwealth". Balkan medieval states sought after the Byzantine world power and prestige. They copied many features of Byzantine civilization. The impact was strong and its consequences could be traced out in the next centuries till present days.


Iorga,N., Byzance apres Byzance: Continuation de l'Histoire de la vie byzantine, Bucharest, 1935

Jelavich, C., Jelavich, B., History of the Balkans, Vol. I-II, Cambridge, 1983

Obolensky,D., The Byzantine Commonwealth: Eastern Europe, 500-1453. L., 1974

Ostrogorsky, G., History of Byzantine State, Rutgers University Press, 1964


Wroc³aw, 10.07.2000