Is America Repeating Cultural Split Between Rome and Byzantine Empire?

In A.D. 286, the Roman emperor Diocletian split in half the huge Roman Empire administratively—and peacefully—under the control of two emperors.

The Western empire encompassed much of the modern-day West Europe and northwest Africa. The Eastern half controlled Eastern Europe, parts of Asia, and northeastern Africa.

By 330, the Emperor Constantine institutionalized that split by moving the empire’s capital from Rome to his new imperial city of Constantinople, founded on the site of the old Greek polis of Byzantium.

The two administrative halves of the once great empire continued to drift apart. Soon, there were two more distinct but still related versions of the once-unified Roman Empire.

The Western empire collapsed in chaos by the end of the fifth century A.D.

The Roman east half survived for nearly 1000 years. It was soon renamed the Byzantine Empire. However, it was overthrown by the Ottoman Turks at 1453 A.D.

Historians are still divided on the reasons why the East survived and the West failed. They also cite the different roles of geography, border problems, tribal enemies, internal challenges, and other factors.

Moderns have unjustified stereotypes of a supposedly decrepit late imperial Rome of Hollywood sensationalism. And we likewise mistakenly typecast a rigid, ultra-orthodox bureaucratic “Byzantine” alternative that supposedly grew more reactionary to survive in a rough neighborhood.

In both cases, however, distinct geography exacerbated the growing differences in between a Greek speaking, Orthodox Christian and older civilisation in the East versus a more polyglot and sometimes fractious Christianity at the Latin West.

Byzantium stood firm against its ancient Persian, Middle Eastern and Egyptian rivals. But the West fell apart into a tribe-like amalgam of its former inhabitants.

Unlike in the West, the glue that held the East together against centuries of foreign enemies was the revered idea of an ancient and uncompromising Hellenism—the preservation of a common, holistic Greek language, religion, culture, and history.

Around 600 A.D., at a time in which the West had long since been fragmented into tribes, and proto-European Kingdoms, Constantinople was still the nerve center for the most impressive civilization anywhere in the world. It stretched from Eastern Asia Minor through southern Italy.

There is now much talk of a new American red state/blue state split—and even wild threats of another civil war. Millions of Americans annually self-select, break away from their political opponents, and make moves based upon diverging ideology, culture and politics.

More traditionalists move to the interior, between the coasts. Here, there is often smaller government, fewer tax, and more traditionalists.

These modern Byzantines are more apt to define their patriotism by honoring ancient customs and rituals—standing for the national anthem, attending church services on Sundays, demonstrating reverence for American history and its heroes, and emphasizing the nuclear family.

The definition of immigration in fly-over countries is still melting pot assimilation of new arrivals into the body political of a hallowed, enduring America.

Although the red states welcome changes, they believe America does not have to be perfect to be successful. It will always survive if it sticks to its 234 year-old Constitution, remains united by English language, and accepts newcomers into an American culture that is enduring and exceptional.

The more liberal blue states are richer because of globalist wealth. Trade with a thriving Asia has been a boon for the West Coast, which stretches from Seattle to San Diego. It is bounded by the East Coast window of the European Union, Boston to Miami.

The great research universities of the Ivy League—the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Caltech, Stanford, and the University of California System—are bicoastal. As Rome was once the center of the entire Roman Project, so is Washington, D.C., the nerve center of big-government America.

The bicoastal model of immigration is the salad bowl. Newcomers can preserve and rebuild their cultural identities.

Religion is less orthodox than atheism or agnosticism. The majority of the social movements that have emerged in America today, including transgenderism and feminism, were born out of academia and coastal cities.

Foreigners see blue coastal Americans as the more vibrant, sophisticated, cosmopolitan—and reckless—culture, its vast wealth predicated on technology, information, communications, finance, media, education, and entertainment.

In turn, they concede that the vast red interior—with about the same population as blue America but with vastly greater area—is the more pragmatic, predictable, and home to the food, fuels, ores, and material production of America.

Our Byzantine interiors and Roman coasts interpret their common American heritage in a different way. They are increasingly plotting divergent paths to survive in dangerous times.

It is more likely than ever that one model of a state will fail and fall apart, as it was in the past.


The Daily Signal offers a variety perspectives. This is not intended to represent The Heritage Foundation’s views.

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