Abraham Ortelius - Romani Imperii Imago

How Seriously Should We Take Divisions Between East And West Within The Roman Empire?

Rome appeared as a kingdom, and turned into a republic and then an empire, lastly divided and ceased. In that long period, the realm which was Europe’s source of pride extended its borders from Britain to eastern borders of Anatolia. It was the only empire which surrounded all the Mediterranean, and thus named it as “mare nostrum”, our sea. This vast empire lived long despite of many problems; plagues, invasions, riots and wars that it faced and its traces remained until today not only in every corner of Europe but also in other parts of the world. The Roman domain was enormous; it contained plenty of cultures, ethnicities and languages. Despite the enormity of the Roman Empire, Romans were not the only developed people. The grandeur of the empire did not come from being developed compared to others. There were even more developed societies in the country. This level of development was the base of the division of east and west of the empire. The empire was vast so there were lots of places different from each other but it was roughly divided into east and west by the means of culture and socio-economic terms. The division was occurred when Rome met with the eastern societies, according to its geographic position and then these cultural and socio-economic differences turned into real political division in 395.

If there was an east and a west, what was the border of these two worlds? What was east and west? What were the characteristics of these lands? And this essay is written to try to answer these questions.

Divisions between East and West within the Roman Empire

Rome was founded on the middle and west side of the Italian peninsula. In time, the city of Rome conquered the whole Italian peninsula. At that time, there was no such developed realm in the Europe except the successors of Alexander the Great. Rome tested its power by facing with Carthage. The victory of Rome was not gained easily. However, after this supremacy Rome was the prominent power in the known ancient world. During the war with Hannibal, Roman legions captured southern Gaul, Hispania and the northern Africa in the west; Greece and Asia Minor in the east.

At first, the direction of expansion of the republic was westward. Rome which was not as strong as Carthage on the sea to pass its army through the Mediterranean chose to push forward the army through the southern Gaul and Hispania peninsula. During this voyage they conquered an enormous non-developed land. Then, Romans turned their attention to east; the Balkans, Greece and Asia Minor because a possible alliance between Macedonians and Carthaginians might have been a real threat. Thus, Republic faced with the east but these lands were not non-developed as in the west. These lands were the cradle of the civilizations. Here, there was an important deposit of intellectual knowledge. The new world that Romans faced with was very different from their own. They had already had commercial contact with the east but now these territories were under the control of the Republic.

So, the Republic met with east, but what was the border between east and west? When we mention a direction, firstly we should put our position. The basic division between east and west was roughly language. When the empire was divided by Theodosius, the borders of the separation were almost like that. And Rome was middle of the empire, in the east of Roma Greek was prominent; in the west of it Latin was spoken. After the conquest of Alexander the Great, Hellene culture was prominent in the Middle East. Greek language was lingua franca of these lands; Balkans, Anatolia, Middle East and Egypt; not spoken by all of inhabitants, only by the member of upper classes. When Romans met with this advanced culture, they admired it. Rome was advanced, too but comparing with west not east. Greeks had a language advanced in every subject; science, philosophy, literature, religion and medicine. Greek speakers in the eastern Mediterranean maintained a cultural identity through language, literature, philosophy, and rhetoric.[1] Greek language was so powerful that Greek was used for scientific purposes even in Alexandria which was the scientific centre of the empire. In schools Greek was used in the east but in the west Latin was learned and taught, the places where east and west came closer the language turned to be bilingual. Rome had little to offer the Hellene, and therefore that “Romanization” is chiefly a word which describes what subsequently happened in certain areas of the western empire, and what did not happen in the East.[2] Because the western part of the realm was not developed so they were opened to assimilation of superior culture which was Rome for them and lingua franca turned to be Latin after the Roman conquest. “The Romans made little effort to impose their culture on the peoples of the empire, asking only that taxes be paid and peace maintained. Areas such as Egypt or Judea whose cultures were long established and fundamentally alien to Greco-Roman values therefore remained unassimilated. Tribal societies, or those in which the ideal of civic life had native roots, were more likely to imitate Roman models. By the end of the principate, Italy, Spain, Africa, and much of Gaul had been thoroughly Romanized, while Greece, Syria, and the Greek-speaking communities of Asia Minor, though they retained their native cultures, were drawing closer to the Roman orbit.”[3] On the other hand, Rome was getting more and more under influence of Greek culture. Horace: “Conquered Greece conquers the wild victor and introduces her arts into rustic Latium.”[4]

The reason of superiority of east came from fertility of its lands and trade. Another distinguishing characteristic between east and west was prosperity. The east was more prosperous than the west. The economic activity was high because of the trade with Far East. The aristocrats of the east took their power from trade and merchandise while the notables of the west took it from their political positions and their latifundias. This fertility and trade made the east where coinage was first used flourished. Prosperity brought population and communication, and the gorgeous cities of the east emerged; Antioch, Alexandria, Athens, Seleucia and later Constantinople. All these cities were bound with each other by trade routes. In the west conversely the biggest city was the capital, Rome and to some extent Carthage even after the Roman destruction, and there was no city to compete with eastern cities in the west. East was the treasure of the empire, and the most civilized and fierce enemy lay the eastern border. Therefore, the centre of the gravity of the empire was moved from west to east. And this movement reached its peak by the time of Constantine the Great moving the capital to newly founded Constantinople. East was so much important that priority of the rulers of the empire was east when the empire was under attack of barbarians. When those savage raiders defeated the west, the rulers of west had no choice but to accept. On the other hand, when the east was defeated by its enemies or wanted to keep them away, they could offer a ransom. Therefore the west could not survive long; it collapsed not even two centuries later while the east survived until the 15th century. “The East, always the richer, was now more Christian, better governed and more stable, and boasted a capital which was splendidly placed both for defence and for commerce. The poorer and more rural West, by contrast, had a far less stable government and was far easier prey to the barbarians. As the two parts diverged politically, the West received less cultural influence, less political direction, and less money from the East; it was forced to rely on its indigenous resources. In a word, it was becoming more European.”[5]

The Middle East was plentiful in terms of religion. Abrahamic religions and other kinds of sophisticated beliefs were flourished here. First monotheistic religion, Judaism which troubled the administration later and resulted of destruction of the temple and dispersion of Jews, sprang here. Christianity which was wanted to be suppressed by the government but then got the empire under influence, spread from here, too. Mithras which came from Persia which was the fiercest enemy of the Roman Empire, was wide spread among the Roman army and known as the kings’ religion. The sophisticated east could produce sophisticated religions. On the other hand, in the rural west there was only paganism. The fate of west about religion was bound to east. The east produced beliefs and west accepted them. However, one of them changed the destiny of the empire and whole Europe. When Christianity began to spread to every direction, the emperors firstly tried to suppress this belief with their all power. But they could not succeed it and this new religion began to undermine the empire. Constantine the Great decided to turn the direction of the empire to a different way. He was the first emperor who accepted Christianity and made way to Christian belief in every corner of the empire. Constantine wanted to use that powerful stream instead of being destroyed against it. He wanted to gather a council to put an end to differences between beliefs in Christianity in 325. In this council, he was successful to form a roughly united faith declaring the other beliefs against the will of council as heretic. Constantine could subordinate the Eastern Church which was under his hand and use it as governmental office. But the Western Church, which was not as under influence as the eastern one, could behave a more independent from central government. This led the Western Church more powerful in social and political life in Western Europe. In the west it was to result in the independence and ultimately in the supremacy of the Church; in the east the Church was kept in subordination to the head of the State, and finally ecclesiastical affairs seem little more than a department of the Imperial Government. Even in the fourth century the bishop of Rome has a more independent position than the bishop of Constantinople.[6]

The differences between east and west were not limited with these. The others, however, were not as important as the factors mentioned above. Even the ways of enjoy of easterners and westerners were different. Greeks built amphitheatres to enjoy with the stages and organized sport competitions without shedding blood. “On the other hand, the Romans enjoyed seeing convicted criminals mauled by bears or lions almost as much as the gladiatorial contests in which specially trained slaves fought to the death. Chariot racing, too, was a blood sport in which fatal accidents were common.”[7]

Social structure and daily life was different from each other, too. While the Western Europe was imitating the Roman style, the east had its own manner. Slavery was much less widespread, and the bulk of the artisans and labourers were citizens. Most of the latter, though poor, appear to have been self-supporting. In general, craft production in the eastern cities was far more important than in the more agrarian west.[8]


The Roman Empire, which was imitated by most of the European kingdoms and empires after its final collapse, was very vast including a number of ethnicity, culture, language and religion. This empire spread out from where civilization ended and rustic lands began. The realm united these two different worlds under one dominion. However, this brought a differentiation between developed east and non-developed west. Rome brought civilization to the west which imitated Rome, but it had less to offer to the east. The distinction between east and west was primarily language. The empire divided Latin speaking sphere and Greek speaking sphere. The other factor of distinction was prosperity. The east was more prosperous than the rural west. The long distant trade with Far East made the wealthier and that led flourishing of gorgeous cities of the east. There was no huge city except Rome itself in the west which could compete with the eastern ones. Finally, these distinctions were ended with political splitting in 395 after the death of Theodosius. At the end of this mortal survival the east outwore than the west.


Ando, Clifford, Imperial Ideology and the Provincial Loyalty in the Roman Empire, (Berkeley, 2000)

Bowersock, G.W., Augustus and the Greek World, (London, 1965)

Bury, J.B., History of the Later Roman Empire From the Death of Theodosius I to Death of Justinian, (London,1925)

Geberding, Richard, “The Later Roman Empire”, The New Cambridge Medieval History, Vol. 1 c.500-c700, Edt. Paul Fouracre, (Cambridge, 2005)

Hause, Stephen; William Maltby, Western Civilization: A History of European Society, (Belmont, 2005)

Stirling, Lea, “Art, Architecture, and Archaeology in the Roman Empire”, A Companion to the Roman Empire, edt. David S. Potter, (Malden, 2006)

[1] Lea Stirling, “Art, Architecture, and Archaeology in the Roman Empire”, A Companion to the Roman Empire, edt. David S. Potter, (Malden,2006), p.94-95

[2] G.W. Bowersock, Augustus and the Greek World, (London, 1965), p.72

[3] Stephen Hause, William Maltby, Western Civilization: A History of European Society, (Belmont, 2005) p.91

[4] Clifford Ando, Imperial Ideology and the Provincial Loyalty in the Roman Empire, (Berkeley, 2000), p.50

[5] Richard Geberding, “The Later Roman Empire”, The New Cambridge Medieval History, Vol. 1 c.500-c700, Edt. Paul Fouracre, (Cambridge, 2005), p.20

[6] J.B. Bury, History of the Later Roman Empire From the Death of Theodosius I to Death of Justinian, (London,1925), p.65

[7] Stephen Hause, Western Civilization, p.97

[8] Stephen Hause, Western Civilization, p.98

Ahmet İlker Baş