By this I mean: in English or other European language from which it may have entered English with the meaning — in Mirriam-Webster:

often not capitalized
a : of, relating to, or characterized by a devious and usually surreptitious manner of operation a Byzantine power struggle

b : intricately involved : labyrinthine rules of Byzantine complexity

The same in Cambridge Dictionary.

What I mean is not one or other bad opinion about "the Byzantine", but the use of the term itself as a negative attribute. I think these are three separate things:

  • a bad opinion about "the Byzantines"

  • the use of the term "byzantine" as derogatory, instead of a neutral (descriptive) use

  • the initial adoption of the term "Byzantine" (instead of "Roman", "Late Roman" or "Roman Oriental") with a negative/deprecatory intention (consciously or not).

Like "baroque" or "Gothic", it is not derogatory per se, but in some circumstances it can become a "bad name". I can imagine that like "baroque", it means "excessively complex, heavy, convoluted, hard to understand" by contrast to clarity, rationality, purity. The "baroque" was mostly typical of the Catholic Counter-reformation art (mainly in Habsburg-dominated Italy, Spain and Austria). The "byzantine" is typical of the Eastern Christian Orthodoxy. I imagine "baroque" could have gained a negative connotation from a Protestant (anti-Catholic), a French (anti-Habsburg) perspective, or from a general rationalistic perspective. I think I know the perspective from which "byzantine" could have gained such a connotation: I have even posted an answer to the question Why did the term “Byzantine Empire” enter common usage instead of “Eastern Roman Empire” or “Roman Empire” where I try to identify why the term was adopted in the first place and why it sometime had negative connotation.

Michelet uses it in 1846 as adjective meaning "of excessive subtlety" - « qui est d'une subtilité excessive ».

I see a Reddit question "When and how did "Byzantine" become a derogatory term meaning overly complicated" and under there an answer saying "the earliest OED verified mention for the derogative meaning is as late as 1937, from Koestler’s A Spanish Test: "In the old days people often smiled at the Byzantine structure of the Spanish Army." I found no older English uses of this sense on Google, either. Before the 30s it was in widespread use to describe the art, architecture and styles of Byzantium; the derogative meaning may be a semantic shift from the artistic one (compare the adjective "baroque")."

Is that true?

The Greek Byzantologist Helene Ahrweiler at the France Culture radio — in French, Les inconnus de l'Histoire - A Byzance, quand l'Empereur était une femme 1/4, accessible on the France culture website and on Youtube — more precisely HERE — stated that, when “the Byzantine” culture entered the field of interest of the 16th and 17th century humanists, it had to be placed on an intellectual map defined by the exalted ideal of the ancient Greece and the ancient Rome. That created the problem of differentiating “the Byzantine” from “the Greek” (meaning classical Greece) and from “the Romans”. This logical necessity for differentiation was doubled by an axiologic necessity imposed by the negative judgment that Renaissance humanists (and their classicist and rationalist successors) made on the Medieval era: “the Byzantine” inherited thus a "Medieval" connotation in the same way the term “Gothic” did.

I would like to know exactly exactly who, when and where used "Byzantine" as a negative term for the first time or in the most influential manner.

  • 4
    This seems like an etymology question that would be better asked at English Language & Usage. Commented Nov 25, 2020 at 15:27
  • 2
    I think this question should be reopened. In the Conclusion, in her book Byzantium - The Surprising Life of a Medieval Empire, 2007, Judith Herrin discussed this: "Yet the modern stereotype of Byzantium is a tyrannical government by effeminate, cowardly men and corrupt eunuchs, obsessed with hollow rituals and endless, complex and incomprehensible bureaucracy." With references to Montesquieu & his 17th century caricatures & also to Voltaire, with, "Perhaps both were also provoked by Louis XIV's use of Byzantine models as a means of celebrating despotic kingly rule."
    – user122572
    Commented Nov 26, 2020 at 10:41
  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat.
    – Semaphore
    Commented Nov 27, 2020 at 9:18
  • @Semaphore - As I have given an answer to the initial question that I wanted, now I have modified this one in order to migrate it to English Language & Usage. But how to do that?
    – cipricus
    Commented Nov 27, 2020 at 15:42
  • Please could you (a) reformat to replace or at least redesign more sedately the screenshots or apparent screenshots and (b) separate out the 'answer' part as an 'answer' (quite acceptable to answer your own question if it's valid / novel, and interesting enough). Commented Nov 27, 2020 at 17:18

1 Answer 1


Dictionary discussions of figurative use of 'byzantine'

Merriam-Webster's Eleventh Collegiate Dictionary (2003) gives a first occurrence date of 1651 for Byzantine in English as both an adjective and a noun, and lists the pejorative senses of the term (those in definition 4 below) late in the entry for the adjective:

Byzantine adj (1651) 1 : of, relating to, or characteristic of the ancient city of Byzantium 2 : of, relating to, or having the characteristics of a style of architecture developed in the Byzantine Empire esp. in the fifth and sixth centuries featuring the dome carried on pendentives over a square and incrustation with marble veneering and with colored mosaics on grounds of gold 3 : of or relating to the churches using a traditional Greek rite and subject to Eastern canon law 4 often not cap a : of, relating to, or characterized by a devious and usually surreptitious manner of operation {a Byzantine power struggle} b : intricately involved : LABYRINTHINE {rules of Byzantine complexity}

The first dictionary in Merriam-Webster's Collegiate series to include a definition 4 was the Eighth Collegiate (1973), which provided a single-word meaning and a fairly lengthy example of its usage:

4 : LABYRINTHINE {searching in the Byzantine complexity of the record for leads, defenses, and, in the case of Government lawyers, evidence of perjured testimony —B.L. Collier}

This eventually becomes definition 4b in Merriam-Webster's entry for byzantine. Definition 4a debuts in the Ninth Collegiate (1983). Notwithstanding this chronology, one authority reports that Merriam-Webster had identified the 4a ("devious and surreptitious") meaning back in 1971. From Roy Copperud, American Usage and Style: The Consensus (1980):

byzantine. The word was in wide use in a figurative sense before the meaning was to be found in any dictionary. But it finally appeared in the 1971 Addenda Section to Webster III [Webster's Third New International Dictionary], which gave "of, relating to, or characterized by a devious manner of operation (the government with its own Byzantine sources of intelligence —Wesly Pruden)." The Eighth Edition of Webster's Collegiate gave "labyrinthine" ("searching in the Byzantine complexity of the record"). But no dictionary yet explains what there was about ancient Byzantium (the modern Istanbul) that gives rise to the figure, although associations with art, architecture, and literature are listed.

Very early occurrences of 'Byzantine' in English texts

Merriam-Webster's first occurrence date of 1651 for Byzantine is off by at least 82 years, however, as we see in this excerpt from a 1579 translation of Plutarch's "Life of Alcibiades" by Thomas North, from a search of Early English Books Online:

The battell was terrible of both partes: but Alcibiades in the ende obtained victorie, leading the right winge of his battell, & Theramenes the lefte. The victorie being gotten, he tooke 300. of his enemies prisoners, who had escaped the furie of the battell. But after the battell, there was not a BYZANTINE put to death, neither banished, nor his good cōfiscated: bicause it was capitulated by Alcibiades with his cōfederats, that neither he, nor his, should hurt any of the BIZANTINES either in persone or goodes, nor any way should rifle them. And Anaxilaus being afterwards accused of treason in LACEDAEMON, for this practise: he aunswered, and iustified him self in suche sorte, that they could not finde he had committed the faulte layed vnto his charge. For he sayed, that he was no LACEDAEMONIAN, but a BYZANTINE: & that he sawe not LACEDAEMON in daunger, but BYZANTIVM, which the enemies had compassed about with a walle they had built, that it was vnpossible to bring any thing into the cittie.

A 1561 translation by Thomas Blundeville of Plutarch's "The Fruites of Foes" includes a reference to "Leo Bizantine," which may count as an even earlier instance of the word.

The earliest instance of Byzantine as a modifier that an EEBO search finds is interesting because, although it uses the term to designate a nationality, it does so in the context of a lawyer of calculation and jurisprudential relativism. From Thomas Batchelar, "Vox Dei: Iniustice Cast and Condemned in a Sermon Preached the Twentieth of March 1622" (1623):

So that the sinner here questioned is the corrupter or violater of iustice, which hee is accused to doe two wayes: first, by Iustifying the wicked; secondly, by Condemning the iust, which two though they seeme and are indeed contraryes yet are they brethren in euill, both wounding sacred iustice, which like Sampsons foxes turned tayle to tayle, and looking two seuerall wayes as if they had contrary intendments; yet they both agree in Combustion of State, and violation of truth and Iustice.


1. Who doe this sinne first by pleading ill causes, casting mists before mens eyes, making ill seeme good, and good euill; setting faire pretexts on foule matters, putting a great shooe vpon a little foot, and an orient glosse vpon a sullied cause; who in a word, can alter the Case, and stretch or shrinke the law at pleasure, and make it hold what length they list: like to that Byzantine Lawyer, who being asked what the law was in such a case, answered, Prout ego volo [According as I wish it].

Batchelar seems to be using "Byzantine lawyer" in England in 1622 to convey much the same implication of learned and subtle pettifoggery that "Philadelphia lawyer" would carry in the United States 150 years later. I can't say, however, how widely shared this association of "byzantine lawyer" with a sophisticated and relativistic view of justice and the law may have been. EEBO turns up no additional allusions to it through the year 1700 (the upper limit of its range).

Pejorative use of 'Byzantine' in the historical record

A more likely source of the modern association of byzantine with something complicated and potentially artificial and deceptive, it seems to me, is the concept of "Byzantine Logic." This term first appears in Google Books search results in 1871 but becomes quite common shortly thereafter in discussions of Duns Scotius (for example, in James Mullinger, University of Cambridge: From the Earliest Times to the Royal Injunctions of 1535 {1873}) and William of Occam (for example, in "William of Occam and His Connexion with the Reformation," in The British Quarterly Review {July 1, 1872}), among other scholastic logicians. It is not clear when this designation arose, but the term seems to have had some currency for several decades after 1871 and is associated with the subtleties of scholastic logic. Thus, for example, The Century Dictionary and Cyclopedia (1889/1914) has this entry for logic:

logic, n. Byzantine Logic, a name given to the development of logic which Dr. Carl Prantl supposes to have taken place in Constantinople, solely on the evidence of one book which he supposes to be written in Byzantine Greek, but which Professor E.A. Sophocles regarded as plainly belonging to a later stage of the language. It is loaded with Latinisms and appears to show plain marks of the influence of Priscian. It was possibly written in Italy after the fall of Constantinople. This work and the Latin Summulæ Logicales of Petrus Hispanus are identical ; one is a literal translation of the other.

The associations of "Byzantine Logic" may be responsible—at least in part—for such formulations as "Byzantine subtlety," "Byzantine distinctions," "Byzantine intrigue," and "Byzantine confusion" over the next half-century—including the following.

From H. van Laun's 1875 translation of Hippolyte Taine, History of English Literature, volume 3 (1871):

Hardly ever does a book paint a man in a disinterested manner: critics, philosophers, historians, novelists, poets even, give a lesson, maintain a theory, unmask or punish a vice, represent a temptation overcome, relate the history of a character being formed. Their exact and minute description of sentiments ends always in approbation or blame ; they are not artists, but moralists : it is only in a Protestant country that we will find a novel entirely occupied in describing the progress of moral sentiment in a child of twelve. All co-operate in this direction in religion, and even in the mystic part of it. Byzantine distinctions and subtleties have been allowed to fall away ; Germanic inquisitiveness and speculations have not been introduced ; the God of conscience reigns alone ; feminine sweetness has been cut off ; we do not find the husbands of souls, the lovable consoler, whom the author of the Imitation of Christ follows even in his tender dreams ; something manly breathes from religion in England ; we find that the Old Testament, the severe Hebrew Psalms, have left their imprint here.

From Pierre Lanfrey, The History of Napoleon the First, volume 3 (1876):

[Czar] Alexander was not unworthy of the confidence he inspired. His character blended Byzantine subtlety with really lofty sentiments; but, notwithstanding his power, he could not with impunity have touched the integrity of the empire.

From "Parisian Sayings and Doings" in The Illustrated London News (1881):

This year more than ever before models have been the reward, not of merit but of camaraderie, successful intrigue, and calculations of Byzantine subtlety.

From "France," in the [Melbourne, Victoria] Argus (November 19, 1881):

I have come back to Paris, although the holidays are not yet over The return from the ocean and channel seaboards, and from the medicinal watering places, has come off much earlier this year, and the constant wind and rain have driven the gentry from their country seats and mansions. Besides, the re-opening of Parliament is near at hand, and the newly elected deputies rush to the "Palais Bourbon" to choose their seats, and see what is or will be going on. A recent Presidential decree bas appointed the 28th of October for the meeting of Parliament. It is generally regretted that the Cabinet, yielding to a constitutional scruple that can hardly be looked upon as serious, and which is designated by the Parliament as a "Byzantine subtlety," has not fixed upon a nearer date.

From "From Across the Sea: The Chaotic State of French Politics" in the Indianapolis [Indiana] Sentinel (April 6, 1885):

Tonquin and the fate of the French army have troubled Paris less this week than private squabbles. The ministerial crisis overshadows everything. People go about anxiously asking who will be the next Minister of the Interior? How much has M. Ferry made on the Bourse since his downfall? No one thinks it worth while to speculate whether General Biiere De l'lsle will hurl back the invaders or how many soldiers were killed at Latg Son. Non-political people, growing weary of Byzantine intrigue, would gladly welcome almost any Ministry, even a Ministry presided over by Dr. Charcot, whom Gil Bias, satirizing the hysterical excitement of Frenchmen, advises M. Gravy to make Prime Minister.

From a translation by Joseph Workman of Eugenia Tanzi, "The Germs of Delirium," in Alienist and Neurologist (January 1891):

The raskol is split up into a thousand sects, which are formed around individual points of a rite. These sects patch up a liturgy, and they reproduce, like our paranoiacs, the sophistries of Bizantine formalism. The part of religion, now most neglected, but which, in the estimation of persons of good sense, proves so valuable to us by never being named, and which in our eyes has no value beyond its antiquity, is to the Russian sectaries an object of fervid interest, an the most lively controversies.

From "Will Moral or Religious Life Die with the Death of Dogmatic Belief?" in the New York Sun (April 10, 1910):

In a world of religious struggle not for truth but for ascendency Mohammedanism when it came into the world played its part.

Then comes Byzantine subtlety turning the Gospel into its webs of dogma and afterward the Crusades, propagating with sword and fire the Kingdom of the Prince of Peace.

From "Rain Wettest Thing in City as Big Crowds Greet 1920," in the [Philadelphia, Pennsylvania] Evening Public Ledger (January 1, 1920):

More than 7000 merry-makers, some in formal dress, others in business clothes, but all with fantastic paper caps jauntily perched on their heads, picnicked in the gayly festooned dining halls of the city. Smiles, the flash of graceful arms and white throats, brilliant gowns, all in a kind of Byzantine confusion, characterized the New Year feasting.


In all of the nineteenth-century and early twentieth-century instances of Byzantine noted above, the element of sophistry and deception looms large. On the one hand, the notion of "Byzantine intrigue" may owe its popularity to the image of the imperial court in Constantinople as a place of deep corruption, back-stabbing temporary alliances, and endless plotting. On the other hand, I would not be surprised if "Byzantine subtlety" emerged from the idea of "Byzantine Logic" back in the 1870s. It is even possible that an apocryphal Byzantine lawyer who, according to tradition, treated the letter of the law the way Humpty-Dumpty treated the word of glory—namely, as meaning whatever he wanted it to mean—may bear some responsibility for setting byzantine off on its course toward becoming an unflattering figurative word.

Perhaps the most surprising thing about the word's evolution is that it seems to have taken English dictionaries a couple of centuries to recognize the specialized sense of byzantine as "subtle, devious, complicated, intricate, or labyrinthine."

  • Could you please recommend some really good books on/about words: their etymologies, stories behind them, and such stuff. I am sure I would greatly benefit from your recommendations @Sven Yargs
    – user405662
    Commented Nov 28, 2020 at 7:01

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