Divorce and Decline: The Division of East and West Roman Empires | History Hit

Divorce and Decline: The Division of East and West Roman Empires

Colin Ricketts

30 Jul 2018
Map of the Roman Empire, with provinces, in 150 AD (left); Massacre in the Hippodrome of Thessaloniki in 390, 16th-century wood engraving (right)
Image Credit: George R. Crooks, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons (left); Unknown author, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons (right)

The Roman Empire was split again in 395 AD upon the death of Theodosius I, Roman Emperor in Constantinople, never again to be made whole. He divided the provinces up into east and west, as it had been under Diocletian’s tetrarchy over a century earlier, between his two sons, Arcadius and Honorius.

The Western Roman Empire had been steadily weakening for years until constant invasions of those territories and increasing pressure from threats such as the Huns, Goths and Vandals.

In some cases the Empire had drawn back their borders, leaving some places to fend for themselves, exposing provinces like Britain to assault and settlement by Germanic tribes like the Jutes and Saxons.

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East weakening west

Constantinople was the capital now. It was an increasingly well-developed and well-fortified city, mirroring the rest of the Eastern empire. The strength of the East prompted any aggressors to turn their attention towards the West.

Constantine had weakened the West during his rule, other than favouring the East in development of infrastructure, but in economic governance too. He raised taxes in the West to bring them up to the level of those in the East to seem fair.

This did not take into account the economic disparities between the two halves of the Empire, and the extra taxes on the West served to further cripple their economy, which had dwindled due to the constant pressures of war and low trade.

Bronze statue of Constantine the Great outside York Minster, England. The Emperor looks down upon his broken sword, which forms the shape of a cross. Image credit: Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons

The fall of Rome

BY 410 AD it was clear that the East and West had become separate entities. Rome was sacked by the Visigoths under King Alaric and no help came from the East. To those living in Constantinople, Rome was merely a symbol, a memory of a former time, not of any political of strategic importance. The highest ranking political official in residence was the bishop of Rome.

Many historians cite the actual fall of the Western Empire as 476 AD. At this time the Emperor Romulus Augustulus was deposed by a man named Odoacer, who lead a revolt of the many Germanic ‘barbarian’ peoples that now inhabited that part of the Empire, against the Latins in power.

After he successfully removed Augustulus from command he sent the emperor’s iconic imperial regalia, sceptre, and robes with a message saying: ‘We no longer have need of these, or an emperor here in Rome’. No Roman emperor would ever rule from that seat again.

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The West crumbles under its own weight

Both the Western Empire at large and Rome’s unimportance to the East is highlighted by the ease with which they ceded Italy and the surrounding areas to the Germanic invaders.

The split of the Empire was due in part to the difficulty of governing an empire as large as the Roman’s with any kind of continuity. Despite their advanced network of roads and bureaucratic mechanisms, word simply could not travel fast enough for the Empire to grow and change as a whole.

When Constantine decided to move the capital to the old city of Byzantium — a strategic and lucrative position — to found Constantinople, the western parts of the Empire were the furthest from the economic stability and defensive power of the leaders of Rome; easy picking for the barbarians beyond the borders.

Map of the Roman Empire, with provinces, in 150 AD. Image credit: Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons

The splitting of the Empire and the loss of the West was the end of what many see as Ancient Rome, as the Eastern Empire developed the old traditions were left behind and a new entity emerged, the Byzantine Empire — a nation that would last another 1000 years.

Colin Ricketts