Why Did the Eastern and Not the Western Empire Survive?

From Michael Grant’s The Fall of the Roman Empire, Appendix 2:

It is no use claiming to detect a complete explanation of the fall of the Western Empire in any factor which applied to the Eastern Byzantine Empire as well, since the latter did not collapse in the 5th century AD, but instead remained in existence for a much greater length of time, until 1453 (with only a short interlude between 1204 and 1261). It is therefore necessary to speculate on the reasons why the two Empires had these quite separate and difference experiences and fates. [Emphasis added]

Above all else, the Western Empire was far more vulnerable to external attack owing to its geographical location….

Secondly, the Eastern Empire possessed a sounder social and economic structure than the West, embodying fewer glaring disunities. The American historian Glanville Downey explained why this was:

“…The structure of the government differed significantly in the East and West. In the West, the land-owning aristocrats, some of them fantastically wealthy, contributed much less money than they should have to the cost of the army and the government. The Eastern Empire, in contrast, possessed a civil service composed largely of middle-class professionals, and while graft unavoidably existed, the Eastern government received in taxes a higher proportion of the national income than the Western government could enjoy.”

The government of the East, as a result, possessed much greater resources than the government of the West; it was therefore much more capable of maintaining its defenses….

Downey’s favourable reference to the Eastern bureaucracy also reminds us that the middle classes, which formed its traditional nucleus, possessed much more ancient and firmer roots in the Eastern regions – going back to Greek times – and continued to enjoy much better economic conditions.

[The quote from Downey is presumably from his The Late Roman Empire, 1969, which is listed in Grant’s bibliography.]


Earlier in this millennium I visited Oxford, England. On that trip I spent parts of several days in Blackwell’s, an enormous and wonderful bookstore (as well as a publishing house).  It occupies four or five townhouses, three and four stories high.

Seldom have I spent time or money (about 250 pounds sterling) so happily and so well.

On one occasion, on my wanderings through the stacks, I found myself near the Classics area and sought out a clerk. He appeared to be one of those Oxford graduates who had been unable to leave town – we have them in Cambridge, Massachusetts and in New Haven, and in points south and west as well.

I asked about books concerned with the fall of the Roman empire – not Gibbon, you understand, but other books. He happily took me to an alcove where he showed me shelves containing about a yard of books on that empire’s fall. I bought several. I have read only one seriously and in depth. That is Michael Grant’s book referenced above.

One Response to “Why Did the Eastern and Not the Western Empire Survive?”

  1. The Empire suffered from Information Overload. Diocletian and Constantine both instituted reforms to deal with and the reforms bought the Western Empire 200 years and the Eastern Empire over a thousand years.

    The reforms were attempts to make the empire more manageable – uniformity in religion (leading to persecution), autocracy (streamlining law and decisions), and reorganization (decentralization).

    For the West, the reforms also held the seeds of the destruction of the Empire Decentralization led, of necessity, to more local control. The Empire was unable to assure the Pax Romana, the roads deteriorated and were unsafe soon people began to wonder why they were paying taxes to Rome when they received no benefits. When the last western Roman emperor, was overthrown in 476 CE, all control passed to the local authorities and the Church.

    for more see http://information-revolutions.com/chapter06/ from my book “Winning Information Revolutions: from the Ice Age to the Internet” being previewed at http://information-revolutions.com