An old saying goes that Rome was not built in a day, meaning that great projects take time to complete. The Roman Empirefor example, it was gradually established and grew over hundreds of years from a city-state to a colossal empire stretching from Britain to Egypt.
And just as Rome and its empire were not built in a day, neither was it destroyed in one. For centuries, Rome was the center of the empire, but as Rome’s fortunes changed, the seat of power eventually moved away from the city, and the empire finally split into two separate states in 395 AD. — one in the east and one in the west. But why was the Roman Empire divided into the Western Roman Empire and the Eastern Roman Empire? And was it done quickly?
In short, the sheer size of the empire played a role—its colossal borders made it a challenge to govern—but other factors, such as political and social instability, rebellions, invasions, and invasions of the empire, also led to disintegration.
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A vast empire
It’s easy to think that the Roman Empire broke up because it got too big, but according to Mark Humphries, professor of classics at Swansea University in Wales, “it’s more complicated than that.” In addition to its size, the Roman Empire also faced multifaceted problems, such as rival Roman rulers and foreign tribes and empires threatening its borders.
However, the size of the empire was impressive and created many challenges.
“The Roman Empire was the largest state that western Eurasia has ever seen, and although it looks big on the map, it was even bigger in practice because of the speeds of communication,” Peter Heather, professor of medieval history at King’s College London in England. he told Live Science in an email. “On land, it was possible to travel about 20 miles [32 kilometers] a day, whereas now we can go maybe 400 [miles, or 640 km]. Since the true measure of distance is how long it takes a man to cover the ground, the Empire was, for all intents and purposes, 20 times larger than it appears to us today.”
At its height, the Roman Empire covered much of Europe, as well as parts of Africa and Asia. It stretched from the Atlantic Ocean in the west to what is now part of Iraq, Kuwait, Turkey and Syria in the east.
The Roman Empire was, to some extent, a victim of its own success. It grew so large that it incorporated many different regions and cultures, and as it grew, so did its borders. As a result, attacks and unwanted border crossings — mostly by Goths and other barbarian groups — became more common and more difficult to deal with in an effective and timely manner.
But Heather agreed that its size wasn’t the only factor in the breakup of the Roman Empire. “Size is not the total explanation, because it was so big from the 1st century AD, and we only see a systemic breakup in the 4th century,” Heather said.
So what else did he play? “In my view, two additional factors contributed to the basic problem of distance. The first is the rise of Persia to superpower status in the 3rd century. [A.D.]which meant that Rome had to have an emperor somewhere near the Persian borders,” Heather said. The second is that by the fourth century, the definition of “Roman” had changed to include provincial elites all the way from Scotland to Iraq. Many “Romans,” given the scale of Empire, they had little or The disintegration of the empire, it was believed, would make it easier to oversee these various, very often different, regions and cultures.
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The breakup of the Roman Empire was a long time coming, and divisions had occurred before the final, permanent East-West divide in the fourth century, according to Humphries.
“We often think [the split] happens at a certain point in time. The most common date given is [A.D.] 395, when [Roman emperor] Theodosius I died and was succeeded by his sons Arcadius and Honorius, who became rulers of the East and West respectively,” Humphreys said.
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“Yet the principle of collective governance [having more than one emperor] it had been part of the framework of imperial rule for more than a century at that point. Diocletian, who became emperor in [A.D.] 284, experimented with various configurations of imperial government.” Diocletian established a tetrarchy, or rule of four, between two senior emperors or augustus—one in the east and one in the west—and two junior rulers or caesars.
The tetrarchy collapsed shortly after the abdication of Diocletian in AD 305, and after various Augustus and Caesars fought for power, the empire was reunited when Constantine I defeated his fellow rulers in AD 324. three of his sons.
So, if the Roman Empire was divided much earlier than the often-quoted date of 395, why do historians identify that year as the time the empire split in two? “I suspect what happens after the 395 is that the section looks sharper in retrospect,” Humphries said.
There was, perhaps, an “overemphasis on the unity of the Empire before 395,” Humphries said, adding that “the idea that Theodosius I was the last ruler of a united Roman Empire is complete nonsense.” For example, Theodosius “almost always ruled jointly with someone else, even if he chose not always to recognize some of these co-emperors as legitimate emperors,” which would indicate that, before 395, there was already effectively a “split Humphries said.
So when the empire split in two, how were the relations between the two states? Did both sides of the empire work closely together and function as a single body?
“Not always,” Heather said. “It was very difficult to divide the office and maintain good relations between colleagues in the long term. It was done because it was necessary, but it usually caused tension and that was an unavoidable problem.”
Humphries agreed with Heather’s claim.
“The ideal was two parts dominating in harmony,” Humphries said. “Emperors in the East and West issued coins in each other’s names, and military aid was sent to the West from the East against the Vandals. That said, there were moments of tension. Occasionally, relationships could break down,” Humphries said.
“For example, it often happened that the East and the West refused to recognize the consuls appointed by the other. During the Stylicho period [a powerful and influential Gothic military leader] supremacy in the West, Eastern appointees to the consulate were not recognized in the West [A.D.] 399 and 400,” Humphreys noted. “This refusal to recognize consuls was characteristic of earlier disturbances in relations between emperors in different parts of the empire.”
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At this point in time, the consulship was, according to Humphries, “an entirely honorary post” and was generally seen as a reward rather than a high-powered job. To shun a consul, therefore, was to show contempt for a respected, often heroic person.
A house divided…
The Western Empire finally collapsed in AD 476 when Odoacer—a Germanic leader often referred to as The first “barbarian king” of Italy (opens in new tab) — rebelled and overthrew the emperor Romulus Augustus. This is widely regarded as the endpoint of the Western Roman Empire.
The Eastern Roman Empire, also known as the Byzantine Empireit survived until 1453, although many historians – including Heather – do not consider this to be part of the “true” Roman Empire.
“I would argue — and I’m not alone in this — that the Byzantine Empire was just as much a successor state to the Roman Empire as any to the west of it, like the Visigothic or Frankish kingdoms,” Heather said.
Originally published in Live Science.