Comparing the Byzantine Empire and Medieval Western Europe

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The Byzantine Empire and medieval Western Europe share similarities and differences in their historical development, political leadership, and cultural aspects. These two regions, while distinct, have contributed to our understanding of governance and society during their respective eras.

The Reign of Justinian I and Charlemagne

The reigns of Justinian I in the Byzantine Empire and Charlemagne in medieval Western Europe were marked by significant historical developments. Justinian, who ruled from 482 to 565 C.E., presided over both glorious achievements and destructive changes.

He is renowned for reconquering large portions of the former Roman Empire, leaving a lasting legacy that includes the construction of the Hagia Sophia, the world's largest cathedral. However, his rule also brought about substantial alterations to the empire.

Justinian introduced new laws and regulations, altering established customs and dismantling existing offices. His motivation for these changes was driven by a desire for novelty and personal aggrandizement. Procopius, in Chapter VII of the Secret History, provides a scathing portrayal of Justinian, depicting him as deceitful, cruel, and treacherous.

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While this portrayal may be exaggerated, it reflects the negative perception of Justinian's rule.

Despite these criticisms, Justinian's reign witnessed remarkable achievements, such as the construction of the Hagia Sophia and the establishment of the Justinian Codes. These accomplishments, although not universally admired, demonstrate Justinian's impact on Byzantine culture and governance. However, his dependence on his wife, Theodora, during critical moments raises questions about his decision-making abilities.

In contrast, Charlemagne, crowned Holy Roman Emperor in 800 by Pope Leo III, left a lasting legacy in medieval Western Europe.

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Einhard's "Life of Charlemagne" portrays him as a multifaceted leader of remarkable talents. Charlemagne's reign was characterized by efforts to promote Christianity, centralize government, and protect his empire amid the chaos of the Middle Ages.

Einhard's account of Charlemagne's life is laudatory, reflecting the writer's high regard for him. Charlemagne's successful continuation of his father's policies, including his suppression of the Lombards, showcases his political acumen. His endeavors to strengthen Christianity and establish a centralized government are noteworthy contributions to medieval Europe.

Comparing Justinian and Charlemagne, both sought to strengthen their respective empires, but Charlemagne's accomplishments appear more enduring. While Justinian aimed to regain lost territories, Charlemagne extended his influence over central Europe and Italy. Charlemagne's introduction of local officials known as counts, responsible for justice and military affairs, contributed to effective governance. In contrast, Justinian's legacy rests primarily on the Justinian Codes and cultural achievements, albeit amid criticisms of his rule.

Religious and Political Differences

Religious and political disparities played a pivotal role in the contrasting histories of the Byzantine Empire and medieval Western Europe. The Byzantine Empire, primarily Eastern Orthodox Christian, was characterized by its strong connection to religion. Tensions between the Pope and the Patriarch over authority and practices within the church ultimately led to the Great Schism.

In contrast, Western Europe during the Middle Ages also practiced Christianity but experienced a less pronounced influence of the church in political affairs. This difference in religious involvement contributed to the rift between the two regions.

Furthermore, political structures diverged significantly. The Byzantine Empire, with its centralized rule under an emperor, employed a civil service system for efficient governance. In contrast, medieval Western Europe comprised numerous small kingdoms, each with distinct languages and feudal systems. Centralized government in Western Europe did not emerge until the Late Middle Ages.

Economic disparities further exacerbated the divide. Western Europe's reliance on manorialism led to an agrarian-based economy with limited external trade. In contrast, the Byzantine Empire, facilitated by its strategic location as a bridge between Europe and the rest of the world, became the wealthiest empire in Europe, fostering extensive east-west trade.

Political Philosophies: Medieval Ages vs. Renaissance

John of Salisbury's "Policraticus" and Niccolò Machiavelli's "The Prince" offer distinct perspectives on the ideal ruler, reflecting the shift from the Medieval Ages to the Renaissance. These works emphasize differing views on religion, political power, and governance goals.

John of Salisbury, writing during the Medieval Ages, emphasizes the divine origins of political power. He posits that an ideal ruler derives authority from God and should govern in accordance with divine principles. Salisbury underscores the ruler's duty to fear the Lord and follow God's words, promoting a harmonious blend of religion and governance.

Conversely, Machiavelli's "The Prince," penned during the Renaissance, diverges from religious considerations. Machiavelli separates religion from politics, focusing on the pragmatic aspects of ruling. He asserts that the ruler's authority is rooted in human law and politics, rather than divine mandate. Machiavelli's perspective prioritizes the ruler's ability to maintain power and satisfy the needs of the people, advocating for a secular approach to governance.


The Byzantine Empire and medieval Western Europe, while sharing historical connections, are distinguished by their religious, political, and economic differences. These disparities contributed to tensions and conflicts between the two regions, including the Great Schism. Moreover, the transition from the Medieval Ages to the Renaissance brought changes in political philosophy, as reflected in the works of John of Salisbury and Niccolò Machiavelli.

While Justinian and Charlemagne left indelible marks on their respective empires, Charlemagne's achievements appear to have had a more lasting impact. His efforts to centralize governance, protect the empire, and promote Christianity contributed to his enduring legacy. In contrast, Justinian's rule, marked by both successes and criticisms, remains a subject of historical debate.

In examining these historical periods and leaders, we gain insights into the complexities of governance, the role of religion in politics, and the ever-evolving nature of societies. The Byzantine Empire and medieval Western Europe, with their similarities and differences, continue to offer valuable lessons in understanding the dynamics of historical change.

Updated: Nov 10, 2023
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Comparing the Byzantine Empire and Medieval Western Europe. (2016, Aug 12). Retrieved from

Comparing the Byzantine Empire and Medieval Western Europe essay
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