Charlottesville at Capitol
, medieval imagery has been featured repeatedly in far-right rallies and riots in recent years.
Displays of Crossed shields and tattoos derived from Norse and Celtic symbols hardly surprise medieval historians like me who has long documented the appropriation of the Middle Ages by the far right today.
But among all the expected Viking imagery and crusader nods, there is another dormant ‘medievalism’ that has yet to be fully recognized in reporting on far-right movements and conspiracy theorists: the Byzantine empire.
Byzantium – or more accurately the medieval Roman Empire – controlled much of the Mediterranean at the height of its territorial rule in the mid-6th century. Centered in modern Istanbul from 330 to 1453 AD, its capital, Constantinople, was a thriving intellectual, political and military power. One of its major achievements, the church of Hagia Sophia, testifies to the architectural and artistic prowess of the empire.
But in the western world, the Byzantine Empire was largely neglected and forgotten. High school students in the United States probably don’t know much about the empire. And nowadays, the word “Byzantine” has quite simply come to mean complicated, secret and bureaucratic. This lowering of its status is not entirely a new process. As early as 1776, the English historian Edward Gibbon was derogatoryly referring to the inhabitants of the empire as “the servile and effeminate Greeks of Byzantium”.
A “ new Byzantium ”
Despite this modern contempt for Byzantium in the West, it has recently served as an inspiration to various far-right factions.
In September 2017, Jason Kessler, an American neo-Nazi who helped organize the “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, inaugurated a new supremacist group called Project “The New Byzantium”.
Described by Kessler as a “leading organization for pro-white advocacy in the 21st century”, the New Byzantium is based on the misrepresentation of the history of the white supremacist leader.
Its premise is that when Rome fell, the Byzantine Empire continued to preserve a White-European civilization. This is not true. In reality, the empire was made up of diverse peoples who roamed the streets of its capital, coming from as far away as Nubia, Ethiopia, Syria and North Africa. Contemporary sources noted – sometimes with disdain – racial and ethnic diversity of Constantinople and the emperors of the empire.
But Kessler’s “New Byzantium” is intended to preserve white dominance after what he calls “the inevitable collapse of the American empire”. The organization has been operating under the radar since 2017 with a small online footprint.
The original deep state
Kessler is not the only one to appropriate the empire. Through my research, I monitored Byzantium references in online forums. Mentions of Byzantium are strewn across message boards frequented by both white supremacists and QAnon enthusiasts – who spout conspiracy theories about a deep cabal of blood-drinking, Satan-worshiping pedophiles who rule the world.
On 8kun and other online platforms that I have reviewed, the Byzantine Empire is seen as continuing the legacy of Rome after it was, according to them, “destroyed by the Jews” or as being the only real empire, Rome being only a historical myth created to degrade the power and importance of Byzantium.
This latest story emerges in a QAnon thread about ‘baking’ – that is, connecting and weaving drops (messages) through the enigmatic Q. One article states, “It all makes sense when you learn that the books of the Bible are plagiarized copies of the Byzantine chronology, as is the mythical Roman Empire, which never existed in Italy but was actually centered in Constantinople.
Other QAnon commentators across message boards and Twitter refer to the “exiled throne of Byzantium,” noting that “the Empire never left, it just went underground.” They exclaim “Long Live Byzantium” and call for a “return to Byzantium” to save people from Satanists.
Oddly enough, while some view the Byzantine Empire as the vanguard of white supremacy, a small group of white supremacists and conspiracy theorists see it as the “original deep state.”
In some interpretations, Byzantium is, through a blur illuminati connections, the origins of the “deep state” – the myth of an underground cabal of elites who rule the world in secret. It has persisted in secrecy since the fall of Constantinople, either by exchanging eunuchs on the underground market, or by preserving whiteness and Christianity, depending on the thread’s negative or positive view of the empire.
Reconquest of Hagia Sophia
For many on the far right, talk of Byzantium is shrouded in Islamophobia – both online and in tragic real-life events.
A white supremacist who killed more than 50 worshipers in mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand, in 2019 railed against the Turks and the conquest of Constantinople in a 74-page manifesto.
“We are coming for Constantinople and we will destroy all the mosques and all the minarets in the city. The Hagia Sophia will be free of minarets and Constantinople will once again be the property of Christians, ”the gunman wrote. On QAnon bulletin boards, the reconquest of Hagia Sophia is emblematic of the destruction of Islam and the restoration of a mythical white Byzantium. One article said: “When we liberate Constantinople and the Hagia Sophia, we may be able to speak.”
This “recapture” of Constantinople had even been linked in some online posts to Donald Trump’s presidency, with images circulating online appearing to prophesy it would happen under his tenure. In one image, Trump is seen congratulating Russian President Vladimir Putin “on taking back Constantinople” and shaking hands in front of what is presumably supposed to be Hagia Sophia, although it is actually the mosque. Sultan Ahmed, also known as the Blue Mosque.
Putin himself is not opposed to inspired by the symbolism of Byzantium. The Russian state has long tried to position as a legitimate successor to the Byzantine Empire, with Moscow as “Third Rome”. This is part of a religious and political doctrine linked to Russian territorial expansion which may be dating back to the end of the 15th century.
The far-right appropriation of Byzantium in the United States appears to be influenced by this Russian interpretation. Indeed, the Russian partisans of the doctrine of the “Third Rome” were cited as influence by personalities of the American right.
Whatever the provenance of the recent interest in Byzantium on the part of white supremacists and American conspiracy theorists, one thing is clear: it is based on a very distorted idea of the Byzantine Empire that emerged from the busy place. empire in our stories, caught between ancient and medieval, spirituality and bureaucracy.
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This article is republished from The conversation, a non-profit news site dedicated to sharing ideas from academic experts. It was written by: Roland betancourt, University of California, Irvine.
Roland Betancourt does not work, consult, own stock or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and has not disclosed any relevant affiliation beyond his academic appointment.