Is America Becoming Rome Versus Byzantium?

Victor Davis Hanson
American Greatness

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

A Western empire included much of modern-day Western Europe and northwest Africa. The Eastern half controlled Eastern Europe, and 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 huge empire continued to drift apart. Soon there arose two increasingly different, though still kindred versions of a once unified Romanity. 

The Western empire eventually collapsed into chaos by the latter 5th century A.D..

Yet the Roman eastern half survived for nearly a thousand years. It was soon known as the Byzantine Empire, until overwhelmed by the Ottoman Turks in 1453 A.D..  

Historians still disagree over why the East endured while the West crumbled. And they cite the various roles of differing geography, border challenges, tribal enemies, and internal challenges. 

We moderns certainly have developed unfair stereotypes of a supposedly decadent late imperial Rome of Hollywood sensationalism that deserved its end. And we likewise mistakenly typecast a rigid, ultra-orthodox bureaucratic “Byzantine” alternative that supposedly grew more reactionary to survive in a rough neighborhood. 

Yet in both cases, separate geography multiplied the growing differences between a Greek-speaking, Orthodox Christian, and older civilization in the east, versus a more or less polyglot and often fractious Christianity in the Latin West. 

Byzantium held firm against ancient neighboring Persian, Middle Eastern, and Egyptian rivals. But the West disintegrated into a tribal amalgam of its own former peoples.  

Unlike 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.   

By A.D. 600, at a time when the West had long ago fragmented into tribes and proto-European kingdoms, the jewel at Constantinople was the nerve center of the most impressive civilization in the world, stretching from the Eastern Asia Minor to southern Italy.

There is now much talk of a new American red state/blue state split—and even wild threats of another Civil War. Certainly, millions of Americans yearly self-select, disengage from their political opposites, and make moves based on diverging ideology, culture, politics, religiosity or lack of it, and differing views of the American past. 

More conservative traditionalists head for the interior between the coasts, where there is usually smaller government, fewer taxes, more religiosity, and unapologetic 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. 

Immigration in fly-over country is still defined as melting pot assimilation and integration of new arrivals into the body politic of a hallowed and enduring America. 

While red states welcome change, they believe America never had to be perfect to be good. It will always survive, but only if it sticks to its 234-year Constitution, stays united by the English language, and assimilates newcomers into an enduring and exceptional American culture.

In contrast, the more liberal blue state antithesis is richer from globalist wealth. The west coast from Seattle to San Diego profits from trade with a thriving Asia. It is bookended by the east coast window on the European Union from Boston to Miami. 

The great research universities of the Ivy League, MIT, Caltech, Stanford, and the University of California system are bicoastal. Just as Rome was once the iconic center of the entire Roman project, so blue Washington, D.C. is the nerve center for big-government America.

The salad bowl is the bicoastal model for immigration. Newcomers can retain and reboot their former cultural identities. 

Religion is less orthodox; atheism and agnosticism are almost the norm. And most of the recent social movements of American feminism, transgenderism, and critical race theory grew out of coastal urbanity and academia. 

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 interior and Roman coasts are quite differently interpreting their shared American heritage as they increasingly plot radically divergent courses to survive in scary times.

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8 thoughts on “Is America Becoming Rome Versus Byzantium?”

  1. Very astute observation. That would make 3 independent former United States of Americas: NE America from Minneapolis to Chicago to the Atlantic and north south from Maine to North Carolina; Pacific America from Washington to Mexico, including Nevada, Colordo and Northern New Mexico with an Autonomous Navajo nation connecting the Pacifc to Rocky Mountan states; and finally a Central-South nation centered on the Missippi river with ocean outlets on the Atlantic and Gulf. In that scenario the Pacific U.S. would fall to China in 5 years and the NE would be an impoverished socialist state in 3. The Federated Union of North American states could last another 200 years. As a Texan I could live with that.

    1. A viable hypotheses. However, i think most of Colorado is still red: Denver is the sinkhole. being in Oklahoma, I am good with the split.

    2. As a returning rural Minnesotan, who lived in Murderapolistan until George Floyd and Covidiocy destroyed the city, I’m onboard with these demarcations. Having traveled the country extensively for business and leisure, and a half decade living in suburban Denver, I can confidently say the threads that have bound our country together are unraveling. Hardworking interior Americans have been ridiculed/demeaned by the coastal left for at least 40 years. They’ve mocked our traditions, our hobbies and our religion. They’ve decimated our manufacturing, mining and agriculture industries to cheap foreign labor and transnational corporations. They’ve addicted us to pharmaceuticals and foreign opiates. They have scorned our very existence as clingers, deplorables and every ‘ist’ or ‘phobe’ developed. While we pray for their salvation, we can no longer empathize with people who despise the very country that has enabled their affluence.

  2. I’ve been thinking about this analogy for some time, but it takes Victor to lay this out in a clear and concise narrative. Byzantium was a multi-cultural and multi-racial state that survived another thousand years after Rome. Their cities were far advanced than anything in the West at the time. Despite the methods used to select the Emperor, (no constitutional system) power was centered in the provinces making them effective for governance. They also had secure borders until Manzikert. Perhaps Victor will comment further on these themes in other essays!

  3. Great and insightful article as always, thank you for another enlightening read.

    I do fear that the red states are more like the Western Empire and the blue states more like the Eastern Empire. The Byzantines were obsessed with Orthodoxy, persecuting heretics and turning on their own creed with the iconoclasm controversy, much like our own SJWs who embrace cancel culture and topple statues. The red states seem more like Western Rome where even after the advent of Christianity some were reluctant to abandon their old ways, myths, and gods and goddesses.. The East is the world of cities – Constantinople, San Francisco, DC – which is and was tied to globalism, goods from China and home of ambitious, scheming bureaucrats, some of whom are even willing to topple leaders they dislike. The red states are more like the West – more rural than urban and seen by the elites in the city as expendable. Either way, here’s hoping sense and sanity can reign once more in all 50 states.

  4. Dear Victor,
    You have been my history teacher and social teacher for many years.
    Your academic language is carefully chosen and easy to understand…by the academic and professional elites.
    Could you, please, please, throw a larger net, and use the least denominator words?
    I believe you would attract and retain a larger audience – which, I hope would spread as an oil stain on a white sheet – if you used simpler language. Talk to us like we are 10 years old.
    Also, remember, the many conservative new immigrants who don’t have yet your level of English language.

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