What were the main differences between the Eastern and Western Roman Empires?  

Some main differences between the Eastern and Western Roman empires are that the main language of the Eastern Roman Empire was Greek, while the language of the Western Roman Empire was Latin, and that the Eastern Roman Empire was more cosmopolitan.

Expert Answers

An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

The Roman Empire grew out of the city of Rome, which gradually expanded to include all of Italy. During the Punic Wars, Rome began to acquire an empire and gradually expanded north into Gaul and Britain and south into Spain and North Africa in the west. In the east, it acquired Greece and the other areas that had been conquered by Alexander the Great. Culturally, the various parts of the empire remained distinct. Although both eventually became Christianized, they had very different approaches to Christianity.

In the west, the main language was Latin and the main center of wealth and power was Rome itself. The west was surrounded by vibrant barbarian cultures which eventually mingled with Latin culture to form what became Europe. The west tended to rely on barbarians for its military and various Gothic tribes eventually invaded and conquered Rome itself, with the western Roman Empire falling in 476. The decline of the western empire meant that the main functioning central authority became the church, which began to aggressively assert its power and central authority, arguing that the Bishop of Rome was a Pope with authority over all of Christendom, something the Eastern Orthodox saw as overreach.

The Eastern Roman or Byzantine Empire survived until the fall of Constantinople in 1453. The language of the eastern part of the empire was Greek and the east maintained traditions of past wealthy and powerful empires such as the Persian and Egyptian. It was wealthier and more cosmopolitan than the western empire and as the west lapsed into barbarism and illiteracy maintained a rich tradition of science, philosophy, and literature. Eastern Christianity had a closer relationship to the monarchy and rather than a Pope, had coequal bishops or patriarchs. While Latin degenerated into modern Romance languages in the west, the east continued to speak Greek and had greater cultural continuity.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

The citizens of the empire in Constantinople believed that they were the citizens of Rome.  Even after the city of Rome fell in the Fifth Century, contemporary Romans felt that the empire survived by moving East.  In this way, Eastern and Western Rome were one in the same.  It was only later that historians designated the title Byzantine Empire to the remaining remnants of the Roman Empire in the East.  The reason that historians made this distinction is because of some of the cultural differences that exist between the East and West.  These differences included variations in religion, language, and architecture between the two cities.  

Aside from the obvious language and religious distinctions between Rome and Constantinople, other important cultural differences existed.  The Eastern Roman empire was more cosmopolitan in nature than Western Rome and had accepted differing philosophies, religions, and ideas than the city of Rome.  While Rome was an important center of trade and commerce, Constantinople was one of a number of important cities in the east.  It could be stated the Roman Empire in Constantinople was more of an urban culture than it was when centered in Rome.  

Because of the urban nature of the East, it had a much larger population per square mile.  The East was also much wealthier than the West.  The wealth of the empire was distributed more evenly than the East, which led to less class struggle and more harmony.  While Western Rome was rich in territory, much of the land was undeveloped forests.  In the East, centers of trade were firmly established and a strong network of trade existed with Asia.  

Another important distinction existed in the relationship between the church and the state.  Towards the end of the imperial empire in Rome, the Roman Catholic Church exerted considerable authority over the emperors.  In the East, the emperors established a system by which the state was firmly in authority over the church and the two entities remained separated. Other differences existed in the legal realm.  In Western Rome, laws were diverse in different regions.  The Eastern Roman empire established a unified code of law for the entire empire.  This allowed for a more unified society.  The wealth and trade networks, separation of church and state, and codified system of laws that the Byzantine Empire possessed allowed it to thrive long after Rome fell to barbarian invaders.  

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

The Western portion of the Roman Empire was centered in the city of Rome in Italy in the mid-Mediterranean.  The Eastern portion of the Roman Empire was centered in Constantinople, a city built by the Roman Emperor Constantine in 324.

The story of how they were divided begins with Emperor Diocletian who believed the empire was too big to be governed from Rome.  He decided to split Rome up into Western and Eastern Rome, each of which would be ruled by co-emperors.

Despite sharing a political system and military, the two portions of the Roman Empire differed culturally.  Eastern Rome picked up the Greek language and cultural elements, while Western Rome maintained Latin as a language.  Additionally, Eastern Rome split from Roman Catholicism and practiced Orthodox Christianity.

Once the Western Roman Empire fell in 476, the East continued to rule under the Byzantine Empire, which fell to the Ottoman Turks in 1453.  Despite the Roman Empire "continuing" until the 15th century, the Eastern portion had such a different culture that it inevitably became a separate entity from its Western Roman counterpart.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

Before the "fall" of the Western Roman Empire, there were two major differences between the two halves of the empire.  First, the West was a Latin civilization.  In that part of the empire, Latin was spoken and Latin/Roman culture dominated.  The East was essentially Greek in its language and in its culture.  This difference extended to the second main difference, which was religion.  The West was dominated by Roman Catholicism.  By contrast, the East followed the Orthodox faith.  

Distinctions between the two regions became more pronounced after the fall of the Western Empire.  But the two parts of the empire were already growing apart even before Rome fell.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team