Why did the Eastern Empire survive?

As my previous posts discussed, the two halves of the Roman empire of the fourth and fifth centuries experienced different pressures and their eventual futures diverged, the West fragmenting and finally falling under the domination of Germanic warrior elites while the East stumbled, regrouped and survived.

The important question is why? What were the qualities of the East that allowed it to recover and go on to become the dominant political and military power of Late Antiquity?

I touched upon this briefly in my earlier post The Fall of the Roman West Part 1, where I wrote that;

… it can be seen that the roots of the decline of the Roman West lie in the socio-political and economic changes wrought by the Crisis of the Third Century. The cleavage between the New Empire and the traditional Provincial elites led to a situation where the increasingly centralised East became more unified and more “patriotic” than the West. Christianity helped to create this sense of unity and purpose and the meaning of being “Roman” began to mean something new. Being Roman came to mean being Christian and it soon became apparent that the Empire and the Emperor were synonymous. Power, privilege and preferment all flowed from the centre.

In the revitalised East, there was no identification with a nostalgia for the old Rome, Romanitas was linked to the Emperor and the Roman Christian faith.

The East had long formed a distinct and generally culturally unified polity, originating from the late-Hellenistic society of the Diadochi of Alexander the Great.

Although the Hellenistic rulers of Egypt, The Middle East, Asia Minor and Greece fought countless wars against one another, Greek language and culture spread across this huge region and influenced the philosophy, culture, daily lives and religious sensibilities of the people who lived in those lands. The Greek concepts of the polis and urban culture spread to areas that had previously not been Greek and there were waves of Greek colonisation across the near and Middle East, as well as a real Hellenisation of the eastern part of the North African coastal littoral and the Levant.

By the later Roman period, Hellenistic culture was almost synonymous with being Roman and Greek koine was the near universal common language of the East, even if people spoke Aramaic, Syriac or Coptic in their personal lives.

From the age of the Antonine emperors, Hadrian in particular, Greek urban culture had undergone a resurgence in the East, leading to a real revival of Greek learning and of the life of Greek urban elites.

As Peter Brown makes clear, what we consider as the great classical Greek tradition really stems from the work of Greek philosophers, Sophists, and cultured wealthy elites collecting and preserving the knowledge of the Greek past and forming the cultural and linguistic treasury that would inform the literary, scientific and philosophical endeavours of the Byzantines until the eventual end of the Empire in 1453.

This Greek resurgence at the end of the second century brought about what really amounts to a Greek takeover of the the Roman Empire in its wealthy and populous eastern heartlands.

The Greeks had long been used to the rule of despots and absolutist kings, so the creation of the Dominate form of imperial government under Diocletian was no shock to the Greek educated elites of Asia Minor, the Levant and Egypt. Only an Autocrat could rule, binding together the empire into a unity.

This unity was further reinforced as the Christianisation of the empire continued under the successors of Constantine the Great (with the exception of the abortive attempt to turn back the clock under Julian). The unity of language and culture, the acceptance of an autocratic emperor and the growing identification of Romanitas as being synonymous with Christianity gave the Eastern Empire a sense of purpose and direction that was lacking in the fragmented West.

Patterns of land ownership were different in the East. The peasantry of the Eastern empire were less downtrodden and more financially able to meet the demands of the imperial tax system, retaining their independence where their Western equivalents were forced increasingly onto the land holdings of rich absentee magnates.

The greater wealth and population of the East meant that more members of society were what we might call in modern terms “stakeholders”. It was simply much more in the interests of the people of the East to support the imperial system and identify themselves as Rhomaioi “Romans” than to seek to secede from the shared values of the Empire.

In the East, the Empire was synonymous with the person of the Emperor, something that would be seen as increasingly important in the Mediaeval period when the Basileus in Constantinople was styled as God’s Vicegerent on Earth and the imperial court was considered to mirror the court of Heaven.

Finally, Christianity was a more demotic, more inclusive thing in the East.

In the West, bishops and Church dignitaries came from the same classically educated, Latin-speaking elites as the great landowners and senatorial families. They were remote from the general population.

In the East, mainly due to the development of Monasticism and the spread of Christianity among the rural peasantry of Egypt, Syria and Asia Minor, the Church was closely identified with all classes in society. The bishops of the eastern cities identified with the monks, anchorites and mystics, drawing them into the life of the cities and using the monks to bolster their own positions. Monastic institutions provided employment for villagers and urbanites alike, as well as serving to create social structures that were of benefit to the community.

Finally, and crucially, the East contained the undisputed capital city, The City, of the empire.

Whereas, in the West, Rome had long ceased to be the seat of government, with Trier, Mediolanum and later Ravenna alll serving as imperial capitals, in the East Constantinople was the sole and undisputed imperial city. The imperial court was there, the city was the centre for a huge system of patronage and power, with the Emperor at its heart.

Although I have stressed the primacy of the Greek language across the Eastern empire, paradoxically Latin remained the language of government and of the army, at least until the sixth and seventh centuries when Greek finally replaced it.

The emperors of the fourth and fifth centuries were military men, hard-faced soldiers and products of the new military elite that had emerged from the Crisis of the Third Century. Latin was identified with the power of the Empire, even to the Greeks. Therefore the Greeks who flocked to the City to take part in the administration of the empire were obliged to learn Latin, but at the same time they brought their Greekness and Greek ideas to the court. The Latin of the administration was not the rough camp Latin of the army or the vulgar Latin on the western Mediterranean littoral, it was the measured classical language of Virgil or Cicero. Not a living tongue, it was a written representation of the unbroken line of rule from the past. It gave gravitas to the business of government.

However, regardless of the conscious knowledge of the tradition of Rome, the loyalty of the new administrative and military elites was not to the memory of a fading city in Italy but to the body of the Emperor and to the New Rome (although they would not have used this name themselves), the Christian capital of a Christian Empire.


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