Why white supremacists and QAnon enthusiasts are obsessed – but very wrong – with the Byzantine Empire
Inspiration to a lot of angry white men? Getty Images From Charlottesville to the Capitol, medieval images have been shown repeatedly at right-wing extremist rallies and riots in recent years. The depiction of crusader shields and tattoos derived from Norse and Celtic symbols comes as no surprise to medieval historians like me, who have long documented the appropriation of the Middle Ages by today’s far-right party. But amidst all the expected Viking images and nods to the Crusaders was another dormant “Middle Ages” that had not yet been fully recognized in coverage of the far-right and conspiracy theorists’ movements: the Byzantine Empire. Byzantium – or rather the medieval Roman Empire – controlled much of the Mediterranean in the middle of the 6th century at the height of its territorial rule. The capital of Constantinople, located in what is now Istanbul from 330 to 1453, was a thriving intellectual, political, and military power. One of their crowning achievements, the church of Hagia Sophia, is a testament to the architectural and artistic prowess of the empire. The Hagia Sofia is a testament to the achievements of Byzantium. Salvator Barki / Getty Images But in the western world, the Byzantine Empire was largely overlooked and forgotten. Students in the United States likely know little about the empire. And nowadays the word “Byzantine” simply means complicated, secret and bureaucratic. This degradation of his status is not an entirely new process. As early as 1776, the English historian Edward Gibbon disparagingly referred to the inhabitants of the empire as “the submissive and female Greeks of Byzantium”. A “New Byzantium” Despite this modern contempt for Byzantium in the west, it has recently served as an inspiration to various factions of the far right. In September 2017, Jason Kessler, an American neo-Nazi who helped organize the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, opened a new supremacist group called The New Byzantium. The New Byzantium was described by Kessler as “the leading organization for pro-white advocacy in the 21st century” and is based on the misrepresentation of history by the leader of the white supremacist. Its premise is that the Byzantine Empire preserved a white European civilization after the fall of Rome. That is not true. In reality, the empire consisted of different peoples who walked the streets of its capital and came from Nubia, Ethiopia, Syria and North Africa. Contemporary sources noted – sometimes with contempt – the racial and ethnic diversity of both Constantinople and the emperors of the empire. But Kessler’s “New Byzantium” is supposed to maintain white dominance in what he calls “the inevitable collapse of the American Empire”. The organization has been operating under the radar with a low online footprint since 2017. The original “deep state” Kessler is not the only one appropriating the empire. Through my research, I have monitored references from Byzantium on online forums. The mentions of Byzantium are scattered across message boards frequented by both white supremacists and QAnon enthusiasts – spreading conspiracy theories about a profound cabal of satan-worshiping, blood-drinking pedophiles around the world. On 8kun and other online platforms that I have reviewed, the Byzantine Empire is being discussed as either continuing the legacy of Rome after they understand it was “destroyed by the Jews,” or it is the only true empire, being Rome just a historical myth is created to degrade Byzantium’s power and importance. This latter story comes up in a QAnon thread on the subject of “baking” – that is, the connecting and weaving of drops (messages) through the enigmatic Q. In one post it says: “It all makes sense when you learn that the books of the Bible are plagiarized copies of the chronology of Byzantium, as is the mythical Roman Empire, which never existed in Italy but was in Constantinople. “Other QAnon commentators on message boards and Twitter refer to the” exiled throne of Byzantium “and remark,” The empire never disappeared, it just became occult. ” They exclaim “Long live Byzantium” and demand a “return to Byzantium” to save the people from the Satanists. While some hold up the Byzantine Empire as the avant-garde of white supremacy, a smaller group of white supremacists and conspiracy theorists strangely see it as “the original deep state.” In some representations, Byzantium is the origin of the “deep state” through some blurred Illuminati connections – the myth of an underground cabal of elites who rule the world in secret. It has remained a secret since the fall of Constantinople and has either traded eunuchs in the clandestine market or preserved whites and Christianity, depending on the thread’s negative or positive view of the empire. Recapturing 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 believers in mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand in 2019, railed against the Turks and the conquest of Constantinople in a 74-page manifesto. “We’re coming to Constantinople and we’re going to destroy every mosque and minaret in the city. Hagia Sophia will be free of minarets and Constantinople will rightly be in Christian possession again, ”wrote the Sagittarius. In all QAnon forums, the retaking of Hagia Sophia is a symbol of the destruction of Islam and the restoration of a mythical white Byzantium. One post says: “If we liberate Constantinople and Hagia Sophia, maybe we can talk.” “Third Rome” This “recapture” of Constantinople was even tied to the presidency of Donald Trump in some online posts, with online dissemination Pictures apparently prophesy that this would happen under his tenure. One picture shows Trump congratulating Russian President Vladimir Putin “on the reconquest of Constantinople” and shaking hands in front of the presumably Hagia Sophia, although it is actually the Sultan Ahmed Mosque, also known as the Blue Mosque is known. Putin himself is not averse to relying on the symbolism of Byzantium. The Russian state has long tried to position itself as the legal successor to the Byzantine Empire, with Moscow as the “third Rome”. This is part of a religious and political doctrine tied to Russia’s territorial expansion and dating back to the late 15th century. The far-right appropriation of Byzantium in the US seems to be influenced by this Russian interpretation. Indeed, Russian proponents of the “Third Rome” doctrine have been cited as influences by prominent figures on the American right. Regardless of the origin of the recent interest of white supremacists and conspiracy theorists in Byzantium, one thing is clear: it is based on a very distorted notion of the Byzantine Empire that emerged from the tense place of the Empire in our history, ancient and medieval, spiritual and bureaucracy. [Over 100,000 readers rely on The Conversation’s newsletter to understand the world. Sign up today.]This article was republished by The Conversation, a non-profit news site dedicated to sharing ideas from academic experts. It was written by: Roland Betancourt, University of California, Irvine. Read more: Why Hagia Sophia Remains a Powerful Symbol of Spiritual and Political Authority Sacred violence is not an ancient story – when it is defeated, human action is taken, not divine interference. Roland Betancourt does not work for a company, does not consult, owns any shares in or receives funding from any company or any organization that would benefit from this article and that has not disclosed any relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.