If you're seeing this message, it means we're having trouble loading external resources on our website.

If you're behind a web filter, please make sure that the domains *.kastatic.org and *.kasandbox.org are unblocked.

Main content

Comparing Roman and Byzantine Empires

Similarities and differences between the Roman Empire and the "Byzantine Empire" (which considered itself the continuation of the Roman Empire).

Want to join the conversation?

Video transcript

- [Instructor] We already have several videos talking about the Byzantine Empire which is really just the continuation of the Roman Empire after its fall and they even call themselves the Roman Empire. But I wanna do in this video is a bit of a deep dive to make sure we understand the different elements of continuity and change between what we consider the Roman Empire when it was one unified western and eastern Roman Empire and then what we later call the Byzantine Empire, so what was the same between them and then what changed over time? So let's just do a review, this is what things look like at around the year 400. As you can see from an administrative point of view, even though it was considered one empire, it was already being governed separately, the west being governed from Rome, the east being governed from Constantinople. And most historians mark the beginning of the Byzantine Empire with the rule of Constantine, who moves the capital to Byzantium, it gets renamed Constantinople. But as we've talked about in multiple videos, in 476, you have the fall of the western Roman Empire and the west becomes fragmented, a bunch of various Germanic kingdoms, but the eastern Roman Empire with its capital at Constantinople, continues. And once again, they did not call themselves the Byzantines, they called themselves the Romans, they called themselves the Roman Empire. It was only much much later that historians tried to separate this period of the Roman Empire by calling it the Byzantine Empire. There is a bit of a resurgence under Justinian, he's able to capture significant portions of the west including the Italian peninsula but then over time the Byzantine Empire contracts, especially in the east, it has to contend with the spread of Islam. As we go even further in time, as we enter into the second millennium, we can see that the Muslim Turks make further inroads into the Byzantine Empire. Also during the Fourth Crusades, western crusaders sack Constantinople. And we can go all the way to 1453 where all that was left at the time of the Byzantine Empire or you could say the eastern Roman Empire is Constantinople and in 1453, that also gets sacked by the Ottomans and that's the official end of the Byzantine Empire, the eastern Roman Empire, which you can see continues on for another 1000 years after the fall of the western Roman Empire. Now with that review out of the way, let's think about how the Byzantine Empire was the same and different from the Roman Empire. So first let's think about the center of power. Well the Roman Empire is named after its seat of power during the great majority of its history. The seat of power of the Roman Empire is Rome. Near the end of the western Roman Empire it becomes Ravenna and of course we talk about Constantine changing the capital to Byzantium which eventually became Constantinople and that's the official start of at least the roots of the Byzantine Empire although Constantine was emperor of both. It's fair to say that Rome was the capital of the Roman Empire from its early days as a kingdom all the way until the first several centuries of the common era. The roots of the Byzantine Empire are with Constantine changing the capital, the seat of power of the combined empire and moving it from Rome to Byzantium, which will eventually be called Constantinople. Now let's think about language. So the language of the Roman Empire is Latin. In the early days of the Byzantine Empire, Latin is used in conjunction with Greek but over time, it becomes more Greek. In fact, Heraclius in the seventh century makes Greek the official language of the Byzantine Empire. Now religion, for most of Roman history, their religion is the Roman Pantheon. Now near the end of what is called the Roman Empire, when Constantine comes around in the early fourth century, Christianity gets legalized and Theodosius, who is the last emperor to rule over both east and west, he makes Christianity the official religion. Since the eastern Roman Empire's roots, the Byzantine empire's roots are considered to be with Constantine. It has a Christian nature from the beginning and it only becomes more and more Christian over time. In other videos, we will talk about the eventual spiritual split between east and west, the Latin Christian church and the Greek Christian church and they're going to diverge more and more as we go into the year 1054 when there is the official Great Schism. In terms of law, the Roman Empire has a long tradition of law and I guess we could just call it the Roman law. In fact, so profound has its influence been on western civilization that many of our legal terms today come from Latin. What historians would consider the Byzantine Empire would continue Roman law, much of it written in Latin. Justinian would famously try to reform Roman law, make it more consistent, make it more clear. Justinian's code. And you have the emperor Leo III has the famous Ecloga but as you have these revisions and these reformations of Roman law, they are more and more written in Greek than Latin and they do have more and more of a Christian influence. In terms of governance, especially under the Roman Empire, the notion of a province was the main subdivision under which the empire was governed. Once you have Emperor Dioclesian come onto the scene and this is shortly before the time of Constantine, he reformed it and he set up what is known as a tetrarchy where you had these two emperors of east and west and then you would have essentially their subordinate emperors but along with that, he redefined what a province is, so you had smaller provinces which then would go into diocese, which would then go into prefects, which would then go into a tetrarch. Once you have the start of the Byzantine Empire, they would have elements of this. Constantine, remember Constantine wasn't only the Byzantine, wasn't only the emperor of the east, he was emperor of both east and west, but he got rid of the tetrarchy but he kept Dioclesian's notions of these smaller provinces going into diocese, going into prefects, so you have that continuity but then later on in the mid seventh century, it was turned into more of a feudal-themed system in the Byzantine Empire, and once again, this was under Heraclius who also made Greek the official language. And the reason why I say it's feudal, it was comparable to the feudal system in western Europe at the time, was that it provided land grants to local rulers in exchange for their military service and the ability for them to send resources up to the emperor. In terms of culture, you have many of the things that we associate with the Roman Empire, you have chariot racing, you have gladiator fights, you have imperial birthdays, you have the Olympics, which carries over from the Ancient Greeks that actually lasts over 1000 years as we go into the Roman Empire. Some of these continue and some of them don't. So for example, the notion of chariot racing does and famously Justinian is almost overthrown after a rowdy chariot race, you don't have the Olympics, Theodosius felt that it wasn't in line with Christian tradition, but you did have things like imperial celebrations, imperial birthdays, so the Byzantine Empire definitely continued some of the traditions but also eliminated others. So this is a just a rough overview. I encourage you to think about it yourself. Are we missing any dimensions? And what other aspects do you think were the same as we go from the traditional Roman Empire into the continuation of the Roman Empire, which historians will later call the Byzantine Empire?