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.