When the Roman Empire disintegrated over the course of the fifth century, only half of it actually fell, the western half. The eastern half of the Roman Empire would survive in one form or another for a thousand years.
The Empire had always included a tremendous amount of ethnic, cultural, and linguistic diversity within its borders. Since it stretched from the Sahara to the North Sea and Britain to Arabia, that’s only to be expected. The greatest split, however, was between the Greek-speaking east and the Latin-speaking west.
When the Romans began acquiring bits and pieces of the eastern Mediterranean in the second century BC, they encountered a highly developed, urban, populous, and rich series of societies stretching from Greece to Egypt. This was the Greek world, the product of both centuries of Greek colonization and the conquests of Alexander the Great. Cities like Antioch in Syria and Alexandria in Egypt were centers of culture and trade, holding hundreds of thousands of residents. Even after hundreds of years of Roman rule, the language and culture of these places remained essentially Greek.
When emperors wanted to talk to their subjects in the east, they did it in Greek. When those subjects wanted to talk to the emperor, they used Greek to do so. Latin was a learned language of government administration, not what everyday people were speaking.
Constantinople, the city founded by Constantine the Great on the spot of the Greek colony of Byzantium, became the center of this Greek-speaking eastern world. That essential cultural and linguistic unity became one pillar of the Eastern Empire; the others were Roman political concepts and a deep, ostentatious, public Christian piety. Over the course of the fifth century, while things were falling apart in the west, these three things fused to create the unique mixture that would define the Byzantine Empire. What the Ottomans ended in 1453 with the final capture of Constantinople was, in fact, a Roman Empire.
The fifth century was bad for the entire Roman Empire. While we think of Attila and the Huns as a threat to the west - after all, he was eventually stopped in Gaul and went on to ravage Italy - he actually did most of his damage along the Balkan frontiers in the east. Like the west, the east had to manage powerful groups of barbarians within its frontiers, and it had its own internal political divisions and usurpations.
Why did the east survive while the west fell apart?
The east had always been richer and more populous than the west, so it had a much greater resource base on which to draw. Its capital, Constantinople, was also its most important city; after the construction of its epic walls in the middle of the fifth century, it was practically impregnable. These were deep, structural things from which the east benefited.
Despite some upheavals, though, the east also benefited from political stability just at the time when the west was going to hell in a handbasket. The emperor Theodosius II ruled from 408 to 450; in that time, there was a whole succession of temporary emperors, usurpers, and backstabbing court officials populating the west. Theodosius II was feckless at worst and ineffectual at best, but he ruled for 42 years. In that time, he provided the anchor around whom that mixture of Greek language and culture, Roman political concepts, and Christian piety could take shape.
The pieces of government apparatus that allowed the east to run, its civil bureaucracy and standing army, never collapsed the way they did in the west. There was an institutional stability that outlasted any individual emperor, general, or court official.
All of those factors and more played into the survival of the east.
I’m Patrick Wyman, and if you’ve been around for a while, you probably saw a post or two about my old show, The Fall of Rome. My new show, Tides of History, is my attempt to go pro with these podcasts. Tides of History covers the fall of the Roman Empire in addition to a parallel series of episodes on the rise of the modern world between 1350 and 1650. Think of Tides of History like a TV show that happens to have two seasons running simultaneously.
If any of what this post has discussed sounds interesting to you, check out these two episodes below. The first explores the Eastern Roman Empire and what made it tick, while the second goes in depth into how and why the east survived and the west didn’t in the fifth century. You can subscribe on Apple Podcasts, iTunes, Stitcher, Google Play, NPR One, and any other podcast app you can think of.
Give it a listen and let me know what you think in the comments.
Episode 3 - Why Didn’t the Eastern Roman Empire Fall?
Episode 4 - How the Eastern Roman Empire Survived Attila the Hun and the Disastrous Fifth Century:
Fergus Millar, A Greek Roman Empire: Power and Belief Under Theodosius II (408-450) (Berkeley, 2006)
Anthony Kaldellis, The Byzantine Republic: People and Power in New Rome (Cambridge, 2015)
Stephen Williams and Gerald Friell, The Rome that Did Not Fall: The Survival of the East in the Fifth Century (London, 1999)
Christopher Kelly, Ruling the Later Roman Empire (Cambridge, 2004)