Byzantine vs. Rome: Eastern Orthodox & Roman Catholic

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  • 0:08 Late Empire & Early Church
  • 1:39 The Byzantine View
  • 2:28 The Roman View
  • 3:16 The Split
  • 4:57 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Kevin Newton

Kevin has edited encyclopedias, taught middle and high school history, and has a master's degree in Islamic law.

The Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Churches developed largely in the same places as the Western Roman and Eastern Roman (or Byzantine) Empires. Coincidence? This lesson answers that question.

The Late Empire and Early Church

By 313 CE, the Roman Empire was definitely on the decline. While the new Emperor, Constantine, showed some hope, Rome had not had a truly effective emperor since Marcus Aurelius more than 120 years earlier. Invaders, both Persian and barbarian, crept closer to the empire from all angles. To top it all off, a new religion calling itself Christianity had begun to infiltrate the empire, even among the army. Riots and revolts plagued the major cities of the empire—clearly a change was needed.

So the government acted quickly and, in 313, allowed the open worship of Christianity. Within a few more decades, it was made the official religion of the empire. The Roman government saw that Christianity was going places, and wanted its popularity to save the empire. Of course, Christianity did not exist to help the Roman Empire. After so many years in the shadows, Christianity had a parallel structure of authorities, with bishops ruling cities, patriarchs having authority over great territories, and the pope in Rome, in theory, ruling supreme.

Meanwhile, as the Church gained strength, the empire lost it. One of the biggest problems that the Roman Empire faced was the fact that it essentially united two cultures: the semi-barbaric West and the ultra-civilized East. These two halves could not function together and soon split. By 476, Rome had not only split, but the Western half of the empire ceased to exist.

The Byzantine View

The Eastern half of the empire had long been regarded as the more important half. It was richer, more cultured, more populated, and, since 330, had the new capital of Constantinople. While the attacks that destroyed the West had certainly weakened this new empire, called by historians the Byzantine Empire, it had by no means destroyed it.

In fact, the emperor of the East had grown stronger. As such, he soon sought to gain control over the only force that could really oppose him, the Church. Luckily, the Church in the East agreed to allow the emperor to appoint church leaders throughout the Byzantine Empire. This gave the emperor incredible control, which combined with his political and military power, made him especially powerful. One person who did not like this increased control was the pope, or the bishop of Rome.

The Roman View

Given the actions of the Byzantine emperor, the pope felt cheated. After all, it was the pope who was traditionally the leader of the whole Church, and now someone who was not even a priest was deciding who should run the Church in the richest part of the Christian world. Of course, the pope was relatively powerless to stop this.

Unlike the Byzantines, he had no great empire to send its army to back his rulings. In fact, he was lucky if people in the West stopped fighting each other long enough to even go to church! Also, while he was technically respected throughout the Christian world, he found that the bishops and patriarchs from the East thought of him as backwards. Imagine a bunch of college professors, all very self-assured in their knowledge, then introduce someone who is just as smart as them but comes from a redneck neighborhood, and you'll have a pretty good idea of the battle that the pope faced.

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