Sunday, July 14, 2013

Lost to the West: The Forgotten Byzantine Empire That Rescued Western Civilization by Lars Brownworth


My biggest complaint regarding Lost to the West: The Forgotten Byzantine Empire That Rescued Western Civilization by Lars Brownworth is that it is too short. At 352 pages, this account covers over twelve hundred years of the history of the empire. A longer work would have filled in so much more detail and gaps. The narrative is gripping and even exciting. This book should have been 700 pages plus. 


With that said, this is a fascinating and enlightening account of the Byzantine Empire, or as the author contends, the second half of the history of the Roman Empire. This is the story of emperors and empresses, political intrigue and innumerable wars. It is also the story of an empire that fostered an unbelievably rich culture of art, religion, science and technology. For it’s relative brevity, Brownworth’s book does an amazingly effective job at balancing and telling this complex and diverse story.


As I like to do, I want to focus on just one of several of the main points of this book. One of Brownworth’s major contentions is that the Roman Empire did not fall in 476 AD. Most of the traditional histories one encounters go something like this: in the fifth century, a Christianized Roman Empire was weakened by internal corruption and economic decay, this proverbial “house of cards” succumbed to “Barbarian” (I find that this word, which has become the standard to describe the diverse peoples who attacked Rome during this period, to be terribly inaccurate and misleading. Unfortunately, it has become so widely accepted that I must at least mention it here. Furthermore, Brownworth uses it without reservation) invasions and finally collapsed in 476 AD. A vestigial state in the East, known as Byzantium, lingered on after the fall of the west.

The picture that Brownworth paints more or less mirrors what was my own less organized take on events up until this point. I can summarize it as follows: though not yet halfway through its lifespan, the fifth century was a dark time for the Christianized Roman Empire. The state was plagued by internal corruption, poor leadership and economic decay and was subjected to Barbarian attacks both inside and outside its borders. The Western provinces, where the decay was worse, were lost to the Empire. The East also came close to collapse. However, beginning around 470, a series of competent, even brilliant, emperors successfully reorganized the Empire and its economy, fought off and decisively defeated its internal and external foes. The reenergized Empire, whose vibrant heart and capital was Constantinople, went on to re-conquer many of its Western territories including Italy and the city of Rome.  Though it could not hold on to all of the old Western provinces, the Empire flourished and lasted for another eleven hundred years. At times, it was the most powerful state in the region and even the world. 

Not just a technical continuation of the Roman Empire, Brownworth argues that throughout its history, Byzantium carried on the unbroken tradition of Classical, Christian and Roman Civilization. Throughout this period, the nation was known internally and externally as Rome. The author argues that while Western Europe descended into the dark ages, Byzantium maintained a high civilization with a corresponding high level of prosperity, life expectancy, physical comforts, literacy and culture. The author writes about his early learning experiences on the subject,

“I found myself confronted with a rich tapestry of lively emperors and seething barbarian hordes, of men and women who claimed to be emperors of Rome long after the Roman Empire was supposed to be dead and buried. It was at once both familiar and exotic; a Roman Empire that had somehow survived the Dark Ages, and kept the light of the classical world alive.”


Brownworth faults Western European intellectuals, who for political and religious reasons were unwilling to recognize the Empire’s true origins and heritage. The author points out that the name Byzantium was their creation and that throughout its history, the Empire was simply known as Rome. He writes,

“Only the scholars of the Enlightenment, preferring to find their roots in ancient Greece and classical Rome, denied the Eastern Empire the name "Roman," branding it instead after Byzantium the ancient name of Constantinople. The "real" empire for them had ended in 476 with the abdication of the last western emperor and the history of the "impostors" in Constantinople was nothing more than a thousand-year slide into barbarism, corruption, and decay.”


Though I think that these are just alternate ways in viewing history and that there is truth to both assessments, I find that this alternate interpretation is in many ways more useful than more traditional accounts.

There is a lot more here. I have only touched upon one of multiple and fascinating aspects about this book. This is the history of one of the richest cultures that ever existed. The interplay between the Imperial government and the Eastern Church is of particular importance and is also highlighted. It is also the history of innumerable characters such as Constantine I, Justinian I, Flavius Belisarius, Irene of Athens, Constantine XI and many others. 

I must give a few sentences to the legacy of Constantine XI, the last Byzantine and, some would say, the last Roman Emperor. Unlike the last western Emperors who cowered under the heal of their foreign overlords who eventually deposed them, Brownworth depicts Constantine XI as a virtuous, capable and brave man.  Taking the reigns of a terribly weakened Empire that was constantly under attack from the Ottoman Empire, his heroic diplomatic and military efforts to save the state proved to be ultimately futile. He died on May 29, 1453, the last day of existence for the Empire. Constantine XI had the chance to escape to safety. Instead, he refused to abandon the Empire’s citizens. As Ottoman forces poured over the walls of Constantinople, bringing doom to Byzantium, Constantine charged into the enemy’s ranks, sword in hand, and fell along with the Empire. 

I find that Brownworth is a terrific writer of history. His prose is lively and fun but also informative and precise. One flaw worth mentioning, however, is that Brownworth at times shows a bit too much bias. He obviously has favorite emperors as well as those he does not like. He tends to celebrate those that he esteems while  vilifying those he does not a little too much. This is just a minor quibble, however. His engaging style paired with such a compelling story makes this a must read for anyone in interested in this period. Though I hungered for more detail, this is one terrific history book.

22 comments:

Guy Savage said...

This may sound weird but whenever I am considering a history book, I look at the number of pages. 300 pages just can't cut it for a book that hopes to cover the promised material. Had a laugh at the author's bias. That sounds like something I'd do.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Guy - It is amazing how much information that Brownworth packs in here. In addition he concentrated on the lives of the Emperors in order to narrow things down a bit. If one knows little of the Byzantines, and I did not, this is a great introduction.

Harvee @ Book Dilettante said...

Isn't history fascinating. I did not know much about the Byzantine Empire and that it continued what we knew as Rome. Sounds like an excellent but short book!

Suko said...

This does sound like a terrific history book. Thank you for your honest review.

Sharon Henning said...

Great review! I am reading an encyclopedia of Christian World History. It's very involved and doesn't gloss over the shortcomings of leaders pagan or Christian.

However, other than going into the irreconcilable differences the Roman and Byzantine churches had over doctrine, their battle for leadership and eventual victory of the Roman pope over the Byzantine Bishop, it doesn't focus as much on what came to be the Orthodox church.

This book sounds like it would cover a lot of material the books I've been reading lack.

I'm glad you're able to discern author bias. That's one reason why I would like to read this book: to get another perspective from a different source.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Harvee- The thing is that I did not know much about the Byzantine Empire before reading this either.It is amazing just how much history that there is out there.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Suko - Indeed, this book was not just informative but entertaining.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Sharon - A fair number of pages were devoted to the conflict between the Roman church and the eastern Church.

Speaking the history of Christianity, Brownworth makes the contention that had the Byzantine Empire not existed, no other power would have stood in the way of the Islamic Empire from conquering all of Europe. I admit to not knowing enough to really have an opinion on this claim.

Lucy said...

This book seems fascinating, particularly the elements about the empire's rich culture. I'm also amazed that the empire managed to sustain such a high level of civilisation.

If I finish a book and wish for more pages, I can always tell it's well-written!

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Lucy - At least according to this book the "Dark Ages" were not so dark in the Eastern Mediterranean.

This really was well written as well as entertaining.

Violet said...

History is such a contested field of scholarship, isn't it? I don't think it's humanly possible to be "objective" and not to engage in bias, but some historians are better at covering their tracks than others. :) I like fat history tomes too and always wonder what has been edited out when the book is short.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Violet - Agreed that bias in history is inherent. Even if one only sticks to the facts, the particular facts chosen will have an enormous impact upon how history is interpreted.

Caroline said...

I'm not keen on fat books but I know what you mean and agree in this case. It's a long period and 300pages seem short.
I agree with Violet. I think it's very difficult to imagine that a historian is not biased. Is it not already a bias to choose a topic or time epriod over another and very likely your reasons will influence?

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Caroline - I agree that every piece of writing has some bias. However, when it becomes that a writer is favoring or excoriating a historical figure this much, I would call it a flaw.

Ryan said...

The Byzantine Empire fascinates me for the very reason that it is largely forgotten. It was such an influential culture on Europe and most people will stare blankly at you when you bring it up. Thanks for this. I'll keep an eye out for this title.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Ryan - Very true. I am a bit of a history buff and I knew very little about the Empire before reading this book. Yet it had such an impact.

Naida said...

Sounds like a great history book especially if you wanted it to be that much longer. I know next to nothing about the Byzantine Empire but this sounds like an informative book.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Naida - The thing is that I knew little of the Empire before reading this. I learned so much from this work despite its relative brevity.

Maria Behar said...

Hey, Brian!

OMG....you make me feel so ashamed for not reading more history....but in a good way, never fear! You motivate me to investigate and read about this fascinating topic! So I'm very much indebted to you for publishing these very interesting posts on history books, and thus, rounding out my wish list and TBR pile, which are crammed full of fiction and other types of nonfiction!

Thanks so much for sharing!! : )

Brian Joseph said...

Hey Maria - One cannot read everything as we have discussed there is so little time. I would say that one should have a fair grasp of the history of Rome before trying this 0one as it is a "sequel" of sorts.

JaneGS said...

I will definitely be adding this book to my shelves--while too short, as you suggest, it does sound like a great introduction to a time and place I don't know much about. Like many people, I tend to skip from the "Fall of the Roman Empire" to the Norman Conquest, and my reading about Venice and it's spot straddling East and West has whetted my appetite for more.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Jane - Not only did the time period seem obscure but so does the place, I for one focused upon the formation and early centuries of the Western and Northern European States. Throughout this period the Byzantine Empire was a major force in the East.