The adjective byzantine (which is sometimes written Byzantine) is pronounced in different ways by different people. Some stress the second syllable and some the first; for some the last syllable rhymes with 'line' and 'fine' while others rhyme it with 'Queen' and 'seen'. OED's preferred pronunciation is 'bi-ZANT-eyen' (IPA: /bɪ ˈzænt aɪn/); LPD records, as secondary, 'BI-zent-eyen' (IPA: /ˈbɪ zənt aɪn/) (this half-way house is not recommended by COBUILD) and 'BI-zant-een' (IPA: /ˈbɪ zənt iːn/). Burchfield's Fowler also records an initial syllable like 'by', rhyming with 'why': Professor Burchfield says "The [pronunciation] I use myself is" 'by-ZANT-eyen' (IPA: /baɪ ˈzənt aɪn/).
The word has two main meanings.
- Literally, it is the adjective derived from the place-name Byzantium, the original name of the city founded in 667 BCE which became Constantinople in 330 CE and is now known as Istanbul after the Ottoman Turks captured it in 1453.
- Most commonly nowadays, its literal use is as a descriptor or identifier of the state of which Constantinople was the capital, the Eastern Roman Empire. It has become normal in modern English to call this the Byzantine Empire, although this is not a name used by contemporary inhabitants of the Roman Empire: the trend seems to have started in the nineteenth century, and is now established.
- In art history, it refers to the styles developed in the capital. These are characterized by an emphasis on the religious as subject matter, and by central organization of buildings, as opposed to the longitudinal form of western Christian churches. Domes and arches are frequent. There is much use of gold, as leaf in paintings and in mosaic in buildings. The art is intimately connected with the Orthodox Church (also known as the Byzantine Church), in which icons assume an important part.
- In religion, it is used to describe the Orthodox Church, which developed in a symbiotic relation with the Eastern Roman Empire.
- Figuratively, byzantine (the capital is less appropriate in these uses) is used to describe certain practices and habits which are held to have been typical of the government of the Eastern Roman Empire. Nowadays, this is almost always developed from the idea of the complexity of the administration of that vast area, so that byzantine is often a pejorative word meaning 'complicated', 'intricate', 'manipulative' or 'secretive, undercover': it is never a compliment to a modern civil servant. A byzantine structure is one that is over-complex, or labyrinthine.
- In former times, it could also be used to mean 'inflexible', 'strict', 'rigid' or 'hierarchical'. This sense should be avoided, although you may find it in eighteenth and nineteenth century writing.
- Sometimes this usage strayed into a rather stereotyped and prejudicial sense which was dismissive of what was seen as 'oriental' (see Said, 1978) habits.