What’s in a name?

The fans of the eastern Roman empire, known popularly as the Byzantine Empire, will often quibble about its capital’s name – insisting on continuing to call it Constantinople rather than Istanbul. Their loyalty to the old empire is estimable, but perhaps misplaced so far as the city’s name is concerned.

As I have researched this fascinating civilization, I’ve been fortunate to find translations of histories written by Anna Comnena, Michael Psellus, John Skylitzes, and Michael Attaleiates. The one thing that struck me was how infrequently these writers used their city’s proper name. Instead, they called it “the Queen of Cities”, “the city of Byzas”, “Byzantium”, “the Reigning City” or just “the city”. Almost never did they call it Constantinople.

I was so struck by this that when I saw “Byzantium” used in the translation of John Skylitzes’s history I e-mailed the professor who had translated it and asked him about it. He assured me he had translated it correctly. In thinking it over, I realized that it wasn’t that different from the nicknames of cities today – “L.A.” for Los Angeles, “Vegas” for Las Vegas, “the Big Apple” for New York City, and “D.C.” for Washington, DC. The nicknames often shorten the number of syllables used to name a place – and “Constantinopolis” in Greek with its six syllables needed shortening!

The city’s current name, Istanbul, is just a slurring of the Greek words meaning “go to the city”, reflecting how that great city that has drawn millions to it through the ages is still the city calling you to visit.

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Eileen Stephenson

Eileen Stephenson

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