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.