The Byzantine Empire

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What are the similarities between the Byzantine Empire and Western Europe?  What are their similarities in politics, social, economic, and cultural?

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Post-Roman Europe and the Byzantine Empire are often defined by difference, and they certainly considered one another foreign cultures. But similarities did exist and are worth exploring.

Before beginning, however, there is one crucial difference to address. For most of its history, the Byzantine Empire was a unified state, while western Europe in the same period was not. Europe consisted of multiple nations, often at violent odds with one another. There is no single "western Europe" to which the Byzantine Empire can be compared as a political entity.

That said, the European nations did have several qualities in common with one another and with the Byzantine Empire.

Politically, both cultures were theocratic and authoritarian. As already stated, the Byzantine Empire had one political system, while western Europe had dozens, but virtually all had the quality in common of being ruled by powerful monarchs vested with political, military, and religious authority. Crucially, both the European monarchies and the Byzantine Empire were Christian and viewed their rule as being the will of God. A deep and longstanding divide existed between European Roman Catholicism and Byzantine Orthodox Christianity, but each group did consider one another Christian and historically had a sense of religious allegiance, not to mention a shared enmity toward neighboring powers espousing Islam, Judaism, or other faiths. An example can be seen in the First Crusade, which began when the Byzantine Emperor Alexios I called for, and received, military support from western Europe for military support against the Muslim Seljuqs on the basis of their shared Christianity.

Socially, one major similarity between European and Byzantine culture was that they considered themselves descendants of the Roman Empire. Again, in western Europe dozens of different interpretations of that descent existed, but "being Roman" was a consistent goal: everyone from the Carolingian empire of 800 CE to Fascist Italy in 1922 presented themselves as, and in most cases genuinely believed themselves to be, heirs to ancient Rome. So too did the Byzantines, who represented a continuation of the original Eastern Roman Empire, which had been an established body since the Roman Emperor Constantine I moved the seat of the Empire to the Byzantine capital of Constantinople (named in his honor after his death) in 330 CE. The western Europeans and Byzantines had different visions of what Rome was and should become, but both modeled their society on Rome as they understood it.

Economic similarities between Europe and the Byzantine Empire also existed. The economic relationship between the two was extremely complex, and their relative fortunes waxed and waned over hundreds of years of history. What they consistently had in common was an emphasis on trade and activity. Both European and Byzantine traders ranged over the medieval world seeking new opportunities, and both attached value to novelty that was less prevalent in other cultures.

Culturally, the vital shared quality between Europe and Byzantium was their Christianity. As already noted, while significant hostility often existed between the two branches of Christianity, as shown in the history of the Fourth Crusade, Roman Catholicism and Orthodox Christianity generally acknowledged a shared origin and tradition. Both also valued Greek and Roman culture, especially after conquests in Muslim Spain in 1100–1300 CE reintroduced much Greek thought to western Europe.

Similarities certainly existed between western Europe and the Byzantine Empire in the years of their coexistence. At the same time, profound differences also separated the two. Taking both into account is vital to understanding European history at the time.

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The Byzantine Empire and the empires of medieval Latin Europe (such as that of the Franks) are both descendants of the Roman Empire. Although the official language of the Byzantine Empire was Greek, while the language of the western empires was Latin, they both shared a Graeco-Roman cultural heritage. Plato and Aristotle both figured as important philosophers and Homer was a shared significant poetic model. They also shared legal systems that descended from those codified under Constantine, Theodosius, and Justinian. They also shared some artistic traditions, especially in religious painting.

Both the Greek East and Latin West were Christian, accepting as doctrine the seven ecumenical councils as well as the Bible and Church Fathers. Both had established church hierarchies containing an episcopate and a priesthood, as well as strong monastic traditions. Although there were some secular schools in the Byzantine empire, most schooling was provided in both regions by church affiliated schools. The Church in both societies provided careers that allowed for much of the very limited potential social mobility.

Both societies were highly stratified, organized as kingdoms with hereditary rulership, a hereditary aristocratic class, a small class of prosperous merchants, craftspeople, professionals, and a large number of peasants living in poverty. Gender roles were highly differentiated in both societies. 

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The primary similarity between the two is that they both considered themselves "Roman." The people of both Empires referred to themselves as Romans, and Latin was the official language of both. Culturally, there were a number of similarities: both had a hippodrome for circuses, gladiatorial fights and horse races, and both referred to their Emperor by the title of Caesar. Neither Empire recognized a nobility, although class distinction was apparent in both.

At that point, differences abound. Although Latin was the official language of both Empires, the common language of the Byzantine Empire was Greek. Additionally, the Byzantine Emperor was also the head of the church, a policy known as Caesaropapism. In the West, the head of the Church was the Pope; and the division of power between church and state led to constant struggles between the two. No such difficulty existed in the East. Religious differences between the two led the Pope and the Archbishop of Constantinople to excommunicate each other, as a result of which in 1054 the Eastern Church separated itself from the Western Church, the Eastern Church taking the title of Orthodox (meaning traditional) and the Western Church the title of Roman Catholic (Catholic meaning universal.)  

The Western Empire effectively ended with the forced abdication of Romulus II Augustulus in 476 C.E., a date considered the beginning of the European Medieval Age. That same age is considered to have ended with the fall of Constantinople (or Byzantium) to the Turks in 1453, after which it was known as Istanbul.

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