The Byzantine vs. The Roman Empire

Christianna Otto

April 13, 2018

A comparison of the Byzantine and Roman Empires at the time of their split

The Byzantine empire, which lasted roughly one thousand years (established in 330 A.D. by Constantine, conquered in 1453 by the Ottoman Turks), grew out of the previous Roman empire (which lasted roughly five hundred years, from year 31 B.C.E. to 476 A.D.) to the east. The growth of the Byzantine empire out of the Roman empire directly resulted from the political and military turmoil toward the end of the Roman empire’s time. In 285 A.D., the Roman emperor Diocletian divided the Roman empire in half in an effort to manage the empire more efficiently. He helped to establish the tetrarchy, a political unit of three emperors who were supposed to work hand in hand to manage the empire’s territory. However, after Diocletian voluntarily retired from the emperor’s position, the two other members of the tetrarchy, Maxentius and Constantine, began a civil war against each other for control of the whole empire. Constantine eventually defeated Maxentius, and credited his victory to the Christian god. He subsequently established Christianity as the official religion of the Roman empire and moved the capital of the Roman Empire to the city of Byzantium, or “New Rome,” in the east. Constantine later renamed the city of Byzantium after himself, calling it Constantinople, which remained the capital of the Byzantine empire for the remainder of the Byzantine empire’s existence. Soon after Constantine’s death, the two empires became officially divided, and the Roman empire fell roughly one hundred years later.

There are certain similarities between the two empires, though they lasted during different time periods. Both the Byzantine and the Roman empires were centers of trade, and much of the wealth in the empires was generated through their extensive trade routes. During the Pax Romana (peace of Rome) trade flourished in the Roman empire. Widespread roads were built all throughout the empire, which aided in land transportation and general travel/communication between cities. The Byzantine capital of Constantinople was located at a key location for water travel and trade between Asia (through the Black Sea) and the rest of Western Europe (through the Mediterranean Sea). Therefore, the Byzantine Empire was able to support merchants and traders.

Additionally, both empires established large-scale building projects. The Roman Empire established aqueduct systems throughout their empire to distribute fresh water into cities and towns, and this water often was carried from faraway sources. The Roman Empire under Vespasian and the Flavian Dynasty was especially influential in constructing large buildings and is known for its ambition in construction projects. For example, Vespasian began the building process of the Flavian Amphitheatre (more commonly known as the Coliseum of Rome). His son Titus later finished construction of the Coliseum. In the east during the Byzantine Empire, the emperor Justinian constructed the Hagia Sophia. The reign of Justinian and information concerning the Hagia Sophia church is more fully outlined in sections below dedicated to those topics.

Key differences between the two empires concern their religions, relative amount of conquered territory, and their practices in artistry. Up until the Edict of Milan in 317 under Constantinople, which legalized Christianity throughout the empire and emphasized religious tolerance, the Roman empire was primarily pagan in nature. The official Roman pantheon drew much of its inspiration from the Greek gods. In contrast, the Byzantine Empire was officially Christian in nature throughout much of the heights of its reign, and specifically was Eastern Orthodox in nature after the Great Schism between the Roman Catholic church in the West and the Eastern Orthodox church in the East in 1054 CE. However, during the beginning centuries of the Byzantine empire paganism retained a significant role in the lives of many people. Even as orthodox Christianity remained the prominent religion in the empire throughout its thousand-year duration, due to the extensive trade and amounts of travelers throughout the region, other religions and cultures were tolerated more in Constantinople than in other areas throughout the middle ages.

Though both empires were quite expansive in nature, the Roman Empire ultimately covered more land area and territories than the Byzantine Empire, and this is due largely to the militaristic and disciplined structure of the Roman Empire. At its peak, the Roman Empire reached into regions of the British islands, Germania, Spain, parts of North Africa, and much of Asia Minor. In contrast, at the height of Byzantine militaristic power under Justinian throughout 527-565 CE, only some of the wealthy areas in Italy and parts of North Africa and Spain were reconquered. (Since the Roman Empire had fallen roughly fifty-seventy years prior, much of the area had to be re-conquered and occupied).

Roman art, especially sculpture, focused much more on imitating the true form of people and objects. Much of Roman art drew on the precepts founded in Greek art and architecture. Artwork was often funded by patricians and decorated triumphal columns or celebrated Roman achievement and advancement. Unlike Roman art, Byzantine art appears to the modern viewer to have made few attempts to mimic reality. Images are often two-dimensional and flat, and is anti-naturalistic in its most basic form. Art in the Byzantine Empire was largely dedicated to religious and imperial purposes, and decorated the interior of churches most prominently. However, the advent of iconoclasm in the late 700’s sparked a debate over the use of figural imagery in religious artwork, and at times resulted in the destruction of previous religious artistic depictions. Further description of art in the Byzantine Empire is outlined in the section below regarding Byzantine art.

All empires come to an end with time, and the Byzantine and Roman empires are similar in that their end was predicated by a slow decline. These declines were characterized by slow losses of territory and lack of strong leadership. The Byzantine empire extended the influence of the Roman empire after the fall of the Roman empire by incorporating similar themes of leadership, prioritization in building, and focus on trade in their structure, but altered the cultural sentiments of the Roman empire through its own religions, relative focus on military conquest, and artistic styles.

Bibliography

Livius. “Byzantine Empire.” Ancient History Encyclopedia, 28 Apr. 2011. www.ancient.eu/Byzantine_Empire/.
Mark, Joshua J. “Roman Empire.” Ancient History Encyclopedia, 22 Mar. 2018. www.ancient.eu/Roman_Empire/.