10 Reasons Why the Western Roman Empire Collapsed but The Eastern Empire Didn’t

10 Reasons Why the Western Roman Empire Collapsed but The Eastern Empire Didn’t

Patrick Lynch - February 10, 2018

The bare facts about the fall of the Western Roman Empire and the continuation of the Eastern Roman Empire (which I will refer to as the Byzantine Empire at varying times during the article) are known by those with even a passing interest in ancient history. In September 476, Romulus Augustus was deposed by Odoacer as Rome officially ‘fell.’ Meanwhile, Zeno ruled what proved to be a long-lasting empire in the east as he managed to regain the crown from the usurper Basiliscus.

In reality, the year 476 is not as epoch-making as was once believed. The Western Empire had arguably been on the verge of collapse for the previous two years; it probably would have ended in the midst of the Third Century Crisis had it not been for the military brilliance of Emperor Aurelian. The Sack of Rome in 410 by Alaric was the beginning of the end in the West, a fate arguably sealed by the official division between East and West in 395 when Theodosius’ sons, Honorius and Arcadius, inherited the Western and Eastern Empires respectively.

As the West was the weaker part of the empire, its collapse was inevitable once the separation became official. When considering the reasons for the demise of the Western Empire, it is easy to simply say ‘barbarians’ and be done with it. Of course, the pressure exerted by Huns, Vandals, and Goths played a role, but the East faced similar threats and survived. In this article, I will look at 10 reasons why the Western Empire ended while the Eastern Empire survived and thrived for centuries.

10 Reasons Why the Western Roman Empire Collapsed but The Eastern Empire Didn’t
Theodosius I – Alchetron

1 – Leadership

There was nothing remarkable about the emperors of the Eastern Empire during the fourth, fifth and early sixth centuries, but they were competent at least and also benefited from continuity of sorts. After the death of Theodosius I, who ruled the entire empire, in 395, the West had at least 14 emperors up to the point of Romulus Augustus’ deposition. In contrast, there were only seven in the East. Critically, at least eight Western emperors were murdered while the same fate befell only the usurper Basiliscus in the East.

The main reason for this stability in the East was a clear pattern of succession. In the West, emperors were beholden to the military. Indeed, every emperor after Valentinian III’s murder in 455 was installed by the army; and all but Olybrius were deposed. Ricimer and Gundovald, the so-called Masters of Soldiers (magistri militum), killed at least five of these pretend emperors in a 17-year spell. While the West allowed generals to decide the administration of the empire, it was civil officials who ruled the roost in the East; and these individuals were clearly more qualified to rule a kingdom.

Theodosius II was the Eastern Emperor for over 42 years, and while he is classified as ‘lazy’ by many historians, he did manage to place some distance between his empire and the crumbling ruins of the West. The Eastern emperors successfully handled military threats to their crown. Leo I ‘the Thracian’ for example, killed general Aspar in 471 after the German tried to take control of the empire. Zeno was briefly dethroned by Basiliscus in January 475 but regained his empire within 19 months and murdered the usurper, along with his wife and son.

The Eastern Roman Emperors were typically men of action. Even if their decisions were not always the right ones, at least they were able to see the threat and act upon it. Western Emperors such as Honorius were completely ineffectual. Rather than take on Alaric, he decided upon the ‘strategy’ of doing nothing. A. Ferrill says that Honorius doesn’t deserve the criticism he gets and claims the emperor’s passivity would have worked had someone not opened the gates of Rome to the Visigoths in 410. In reality, the threats the West faced in the fifth century meant they needed a brilliant leader but Majorian aside, no competent ruler ever sat on the throne. Better leadership against the imminent danger also had an impact on the respective wealth of East and West.

10 Reasons Why the Western Roman Empire Collapsed but The Eastern Empire Didn’t
Image of Valentinian III on coins – Dirty Old Books via Jean Elsen

2 – Wealth

With so many enemies to combat, both parts of the empire had to raise finances, but the East was far more successful. To be fair, Constantinople possessed far greater wealth than Rome, but its expenditure was still heavy. Rome was also sacked a few times in the fifth century; Alaric and his Visigoths stole an absolute fortune in 410. The Vandals also launched a large-scale robbery of Rome in 455 when the city was stripped of anything even resembling value.

In the West, successive emperors tried to place the burden on the people by increasing taxation. As the crisis deepened, the levels of taxation became more punitive. For example, the land tax accounted for approximately one-third of a farmer’s gross produce. In the modern era, we lament the tax-dodging exploits of the wealthy, but the rich were guilty of the same thing in the fifth century. After the wealthier citizens failed to pay their dues, it was the poorer elements of society that had to pick up the slack. Valentinian III even admitted that the level of taxation was severe and remitted arrears, although once again, the wealthy benefited the most.

Things were a little different in the East. Trade was of greater importance which meant a more balanced society. For example, while half a dozen clans owned Gaul and Italy, probably ten families were sharing the region of Antioch alone. The peasants of the East would receive a decent price for their produce and could comfortably afford rent and taxes. By implementing a fairer system, the Eastern government ultimately extracted far more money from its citizens.

With more money to play with, the Eastern Empire could afford to hire better soldiers and improve its defenses. The extra finance also came in handy for bribes. As you know, Attila the Hun and his men rampaged through Europe in the middle of the fifth century and caused immense damage to the Western empire. However, he initially set his eyes on the East and launched attacks in 441, 443 and 447. While Attila probably recognized that the challenge of taking Constantinople might have been too great with its new and improved walls, the 700 pounds of gold Theodosius II gave him certainly sweetened the deal. Attila went West and knew it was ripe for the picking.

Although the East had wealth, its emperors were very adept at spending it. For example, Leo I emptied his treasury’s reserves which amounted to 700,000 pounds of silver and 65,000 pounds of gold. However, his empire was always able to recoup the money, something that was beyond the West. By the end of Anastasius I‘s reign in 518, the treasury contained over 320,000 pounds of gold even though the empire had been involved in three wars within the previous quarter-century. Overall, the better defenses of the East played a major role in its survival and the demise of the West.

10 Reasons Why the Western Roman Empire Collapsed but The Eastern Empire Didn’t
Constantine the Great – Wikimedia Commons

3 – The East Was a Tougher Nut to Crack

In many ways, an empire is only as strong as its capital city, and while Rome was extremely vulnerable, Constantinople was one of the best-protected cities in history. The city was inaugurated as the empire’s capital in 326, and its dedication took place four years later under the reign of Constantine the Great. It was an exceptional choice for a capital because it was easy to defend by land and sea. As well as being very difficult to conquer, Constantinople’s location meant it was the ideal commercial site as it was on the sea channel between north and south.

As well defended as Constantinople was, it was a natural disaster that helped it become almost impregnable. As I mentioned earlier, the Huns threatened the city and the Eastern empire and were bought off several times. Eventually, Theodosius II refused a demand for higher tributes, and the Huns defeated the Byzantine army at Chersonesus in 446. Attila was just 20 miles from Constantinople and was determined to capture it. In 447, an earthquake destroyed a significant section of the city’s walls, and it was wide open for an attack.

The city banded together to repair and improve the walls which were rebuilt, top to bottom, in just 60 days. The emperor enlisted the help of prefect Flavius Constantinus, and he oversaw what was one of the greatest defense projects ever completed. It was finished so quickly out of necessity and not a moment too soon as Attila, and his men came within a few miles of Constantinople. However, after analyzing the reinforced walls, he decided to go West towards Rome.

Whatever mystique Rome had was long gone by this stage. The Visigoths had shattered the notion of a ‘powerful’ Rome by sacking the city in 410. From this point onward, it was a question of ‘if’ rather than ‘when’ the Western empire would fall. While Alaric’s successor, Ataulf, elected to support the empire, it was only delaying the inevitable. Victory at the Battle of the Catalunian Plains in 451 was the last hurrah as the West lacked the army, defenses, wealth, leadership, or unity to survive. When Odoacer deposed Romulus Augustus in 476, it wasn’t so much the end of an era as it was putting a suffering animal out of its misery. For all its other problems, there is no question that location only added to the West’s woes.

10 Reasons Why the Western Roman Empire Collapsed but The Eastern Empire Didn’t
Attila the Hun – History.com

4 – Geography

The advantageous location of Constantinople is well documented, and it was indicative of the Eastern empire’s better positioning on the map. By the fourth century, various tribes were looking to settle on new territory. The Visigoths, Huns, Vandals, Alans, and others, all set their sights West. That’s not to say the East didn’t have its fair share of problems with invaders. Remember, the Huns launched several invasions and while they caused a lot of damage, they didn’t capture a great deal of territory.

The disastrous Battle of Adrianople in 378, which resulted in the death of Emperor Valens, could have destroyed the Eastern empire. However, future Emperor Theodosius was able to re-establish the empire’s position in the east. In 395, trans-Caucasian Huns raided as far as Syria, and from 396 to 401, the Alans had control over the eastern Balkans. However, no tribe was able to cause major damage in the East or maintain control over its territory.

Matters were very different in the West as the empire gradually lost territory to enemies. As well as suffering the humiliation of 410, the West also pulled its troops out of Britannia and lost parts of Gaul and Hispania in the 410s. Further losses occurred in the 420s, 430s, and 440s, as the West lost Carthage. The empire was clearly only a hollowed-out husk by the time Attila the Hun and his men ravaged what was left. Further losses in Gaul in the 450s meant there was little of the ‘empire’ left. A brief attempt at a revival was snuffed out upon the death of Emperor Majorian at the hands of Ricimer, and there was little left outside the city of Rome which was finally taken in 476.

Aside from the Huns and Alans, the main threat to the East was the Persian Empire. However, the superior diplomatic skills of the officials in Constantinople (which I focus on later) ensured that a long-term peace ensued which was mutually beneficial. While Rome’s enemies felt as if they had nothing to lose, rivals such as the Sassanids recognized the folly of trying to take on a fellow major power. Despite the East’s relatively stable position, it didn’t do nearly enough to help the West during its hour of need.

10 Reasons Why the Western Roman Empire Collapsed but The Eastern Empire Didn’t
Stilicho – Wikipedia

5 – Poor Relations Between East and West

You could make the very reasonable argument that no amount of help would have prevented the fall of the Western Empire once it had been split from the East in 395. At this time, it was necessary for full cooperation between the two empires but instead, there was a rather acrimonious divorce. One of the main reasons for the worsening of relations was the actions of a general named Stilicho; who was the de facto ruler of the empire under Honorius until the emperor had him executed in 408. Stilicho was determined to reunite the empire and viewed himself as the leader.

While Stilicho plotted in the West, Rufinus, his personal enemy, and guardian of Emperor Arcadius was viewing his rival with suspicion, and rightly so. For Stilicho to carry out his plan, Rufinus would have to be suppressed. However, Stilicho miscalculated what was to become a disaster for Rome. At one point, either Stilicho deliberately enabled Alaric to penetrate into Greece, so the Visigoths would switch attention East, or else Rufinus withdrew his troops on purpose. It was probably the former, and in 399, Rufinus was assassinated.

If part one of Stilicho’s grand plan was a success, the next one was an utter failure. For reasons historians are yet to agree upon, he allowed Alaric to escape from his grasp in 397. In 401, Alaric began raiding the West but was comprehensively defeated two years running by Stilicho. However, the Roman general allowed his enemy to escape yet again when he had the chance to kill him. It was a bizarre decision that had grave repercussions; Stilicho was not alive to see Alaric sack Rome in 410.

The East offered token assistance in 425 when Emperor Theodosius II responded to an appeal from Placidia to install her young son, Valentinian III, on the throne. He sent troops but demanded a huge tract of territory in the center of Europe to add to the Eastern Empire. Theodosius II helped remove Joannes, and Valentinian III ruled for over 30 years. The East also offered some assistance against invaders of North Africa, but soon, the East realized that its one-time sibling in the West was a lost cause. The legal code of Theodosius II in 438 was the last shared enterprise between both empires.

There were also a number of ecclesiastical disputes between the empires which only served to deepen the rift. When Marcian became Byzantine Emperor in 450, the West was initially reluctant to recognize him as a leader. Perhaps mindful of this snub, Emperor Leo I, who succeeded Marcian, refused to recognize Majorian, who is widely believed to be the last competent emperor in the West.

It is important to note that the East had problems of its own in the fifth century, so its reluctance to help wasn’t entirely borne out of spite. When Julius Nepos, the second last Western Emperor (474-475), appealed to his Eastern counterpart, Zeno, for help, he received nothing, and he was usurped by Orestes who in turn placed his son, Romulus Augustus on the throne. Zeno did ask the Roman Senate to take back Nepos, but Odoacer ignored him. Nepos ruled as a figurehead until he was murdered in 480; Zeno officially abolished the office of the Western Roman Empire at that point. Not only did the East fail to help the West, but it also sent dangerous barbarians West, whether this was by accident or design is not clear. Certainly, the East was better prepared for attacks, so would-be conquerors usually switched their focus West, with disastrous consequences for Rome.

10 Reasons Why the Western Roman Empire Collapsed but The Eastern Empire Didn’t
Painting of Honorius and his ‘yes’ men – Badassoftheweek.com

6 – There Was Too Much Discord Within the Western Empire

I already touched on this point in section two as heavy taxation targeted the poor while the wealthy were able to keep the majority of their estates. It was an incredibly corrupt system, and the emperors were not only aware of it, they willfully turned a blind eye. In the midst of the chaos, the rich merely withdrew to their estates which were fortified and economically self-sufficient. As well as not paying tax, they employed tax system refugees to work for them. As the poor had nothing left to give, the Western government was bankrupt, and its citizens didn’t have the stomach for a fight.

As well as the problems with the military, which I will analyze later, the chief engine of Roman economic production, agriculture, had started to fall apart during the Third Century Crisis. The aforementioned overt-taxation ensured the serfs often didn’t have enough to eat. While the land-owning classes were far better off, even their living standards plummeted, so they no longer clamored for positions in the public service.

While bribery and corruption always existed in the Roman Empire, it was the norm by the fourth century. So much so in fact that it was no longer a case of abusing the system as much as it was creating an alternative one. There was practically nothing that wasn’t for sale. You could buy a judge’s verdict, army command, and of course, tax assessments. It was even getting easier to buy the emperor.

The entire power structure within the empire became fragmented into thousands of private channels in what became a very weak and useless system of rule. If an emperor hired someone to investigate corruption, they would simply become part of the system of corruption in exchange for enough land, servants, and cold hard cash. Military commanders avoided serious fighting whenever possible, and the people of the empire had no identity. When the West was threatened, few people gave a damn. Compare this to citizens of the East who were far more unified, mainly in the belief that they had something to fight for.

10 Reasons Why the Western Roman Empire Collapsed but The Eastern Empire Didn’t
Alaric in Athens – Creating History

7 – Meanwhile, The East Stuck Together

Although the Eastern Empire wasn’t exactly a paradise, life was significantly better for the majority of its citizens. Never underestimate the survival instincts of people who feel as if they have something to lose. The East followed the Greek principle of Energeia, a situation where great houses competed in their efforts to aid the community. As a consequence, there was a more egalitarian feel to Eastern society as even peasants fared reasonably well. The system also resulted in an abundance of educated and talented civil servants which helped keep the system of governance at a much higher level than in the West.

The unity of the East is well illustrated in how it dealt with the Gothic threat. When Alaric marched on Constantinople in 395, Rufinus initially bought him off with gold, grain and the rank of general in the army. In 399, Stilicho sent men to the city, ostensibly as reinforcements. The group contained a Gothic opportunist named Gainas who apparently gave the signal to assassinate Rufinus. He installed a junta of sorts in Constantinople and was effectively the ruler of the city for a few months.

Rather than accept their fate, the people of the city made it clear that Gainas was not welcome. He made matters worse by removing all anti-Gothic officials in late 400, but soon, the people decided that enough was enough. With Emperor Arcadius’ wife, Aelia Eudoxia, pulling the strings, the city’s inhabitants rose against the Gothic usurper and killed 7,000 auxiliary Goth troops who were stationed in the city. Gainas and the rest of his men tried to escape via the Hellespont, but their fleet was destroyed. Gainas was captured by the Huns and executed. The Hunnish leader, Uldin, sent Gainas’ head to Arcadius as a diplomatic present.

All of the above was in stark contrast to the reaction in Rome when Alaric marched on the city. Emperor Honorius did nothing as the Visigoths sacked the city after their demands were not met in time. His inaction was partly due to the fact he was in Ravenna, and partly due to his inability to rule. Rather than having to face an army or at least a group of citizens determined to preserve their lives, and the might of Rome, Alaric had an easy time sacking the city and taking what he pleased.

10 Reasons Why the Western Roman Empire Collapsed but The Eastern Empire Didn’t
Remains of the Theodosian Walls – Realm of History

8 – Military Might

The Western Roman Empire’s army was once feared throughout the known world but its influence and quality waned in the latter part of its existence. One of its biggest failures at this time was neglecting to introduce conscription. Instead, the army became dependent on regimentation with a compulsion to remain in the profession of one’s father. By the fifth century, the practice of forcing the sons of soldiers to follow suit was obligatory. Alas, this resulted in a severe decline in the quantity and quality of the troops. These were not battle-hardened men or talented commanders. They were men thrust into positions they didn’t want, and the results became clear on the battlefield.

This scarcity of soldiers meant a reliance on barbarian mercenaries. It would have been problematic had these troops merely been of a lower rank, but in the fifth century, a significant number of generals were German; a situation that only exacerbated the problem. These soldiers had questionable loyalty, and they ultimately had far too great an influence on who became emperor. German Masters of Soldiers, such as Ricimer and Orestes, chose who ruled, so every emperor after Valentinian III was a ‘lame duck.’

With so many enemies, the Western Empire had no chance of survival as it had such a dearth of quality within its ranks. The writing was on the wall by the beginning of the fifth century when Stilicho was unable to prevent the Suevi, Alans, and Vandals, from crossing the Rhine. These tribes destroyed and depopulated several cities and caused a number of the Western Empire’s subjects to switch sides. Those who immediately succeeded Alaric were happy to share in the relative prosperity of the empire but by 425, the northern frontier was weak, and there were five Germanic kingdoms in the Western Empire. Add in an increasingly Gothic army, and it was clear that the West was doomed.

Meanwhile, in the East, the empire was strong enough to withstand attacks from Huns and other groups. Payoffs were a big part of its tactics, but it also had a far stronger army than the West. While the likes of Honorius and Valentinian III did nothing to prevent the Goths from taking over the army, Leo I of the East quickly replaced his German troops because he doubted their loyalty. He brought Isaurians into the fold in return for making them subjects of the empire. Zeno went a step further by creating an army of native troops. The Eastern Empire survived several wars toward the end of the fifth and beginning of the sixth centuries and began to flourish under Justinian.

10 Reasons Why the Western Roman Empire Collapsed but The Eastern Empire Didn’t
Leo I The Thracian – Wikipedia

9 – The West Treated Barbarians Poorly

There was an obvious Gothic crisis for both empires to deal with in the latter decades of the fourth century. It is likely that the disruption was caused by a major environmental shift as malaria was recorded in the North Sea while glaciers started to advance in China. Reports of barbarian hordes cramming into the Rhine started appearing with greater regularity from 376 onwards. Tens of thousands of people were displaced by the marauding Huns who caused terror wherever they went.

Gothic families fled from the terrifying Huns and were soon crammed together near the edge of the Danube. The Goths and Visigoths who had suffered the wrath of the Huns were often converted to Christianity and were also occasional allies of the Roman Empire. When Valens allowed them to cross the Danube, it was a golden opportunity to increase the empire’s might. Bringing these so-called barbarians into the empire on fair terms would have been a great move. They were cultured and organized people who were also excellent fighters.

Instead, the Romans refused to help and the 150,000 or so Goths who had crossed the Danube expecting some kind of welcome, turned against the establishment and ultimately hastened the demise of the Western Empire. However, it was the East that suffered first as Valens died and his army was practically destroyed at the Battle of Adrianople in 378. Goths marched on Constantinople but were repelled by the Arab troops that fought for the East. Theodosius initially pursued the enemy but wisely agreed to sign a treaty.

The treaty didn’t last long as Alaric marched on the city less than 20 years later. Further diplomacy helped quell the advances of Alaric who received lands in modern-day Albania. In 401, Alaric decided to expand West. Stilicho apparently had eyes on seizing the Byzantine throne, but he didn’t follow through and was killed in 408. The ensuing chaos resulted in the slaughter of thousands of barbarian women and children. They were the families of foederati: people who received the benefits of the empire in exchange for military service, but were not Roman citizens). The outraged barbarian men readily joined Alaric’s ranks; as many as 30,000 of them. On August 24, 410, they got their revenge as Rome was sacked.

10 Reasons Why the Western Roman Empire Collapsed but The Eastern Empire Didn’t
Theodosius II – Wikipedia

10 – The East Were Experts in Diplomacy

In contrast to the ham-fistedness of the West, officials in the East had some grasp of diplomacy. One of the most prominent examples was how it dealt with the threat of Alaric. As soon as the Visigoth’s power was apparent, Rufinus entered into secret negotiations with him to put an end to Alaric’s march on Constantinople. As well as bestowing the rank of general upon Alaric, Rufinus ensured the followers of the Visigoth were well compensated with grain and gold. It is important to note that Alaric was only too happy to agree. His scouts realized that they didn’t have the special weaponry necessary for a successful siege.

Perhaps a better example is the negotiation between the Eastern Empire and the Sassanids. Although it seems as if the West faced the greater external threat in the fifth century, the Byzantines had the powerful Persian Empire on their doorstep. As dangerous as the barbarian tribes were, they consisted of a diverse range of tribes that were not organized as a collective. In contrast, the Sassanid Empire was a coordinated and mighty state.

It seemed as if there could be a war between the two empires when Sassanid Emperor Vahahran invaded in 421. Although Theodosius II started getting the better of his enemy in 422, he still agreed to a peace treaty because the empire was having problems in Thrace. It was peace that lasted, with the occasional break, for over 150 years. True, there were mitigating circumstances. For example, the Kushans were threatening Persia and the kingdom suffered from a seven-year famine in the 480s, followed by a wipeout of an army and the death of its King, Firuz, in 488 or 489. Even so, the Eastern Empire was forced to exercise diplomacy with the Persians on occasion. For example, Kavad I attacked Emperor Anastasius I in 502 but peace was quickly resumed.

In hindsight, the fall of the Western Roman Empire was practically a certainty when it split with the East in 395. The Eastern Empire had a few advantages that the West didn’t; namely the location of its capital and the relative lack of barbarian threats. However, the West signed its death warrant by allowing the military to hold an unhealthy amount of power. It also did nothing to prevent the infiltration of its army by barbarians, and it allowed corruption to eat away at the fabric of its society. While the East had many flaws, it had far less than its Western counterpart, which is why it survived for almost 1,000 years after Rome was taken in 476.


Corruption and the Decline of Rome – Ramsay MacMullen

From Rome to Byzantium: The Fifth Century AD – Michael Grant

A Tale of Three Cities: Istanbul – Bettany Hughes

The Fall of the Roman Empire: The Military Explanation – A. Ferrill

The Fall of the Roman Empire – Michael Grant

The World of Late Antiquity – P. Brown

Rome and Byzantium – N. Clive and P. Magdalino

A Handbook of the Byzantine Empire Part I – H. Goodacre

The Later Roman Empire – A. H. M. Jones