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An outstanding popular history that makes the Byzantine Empire accessible

  • Sep 20, 2009
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The Byzantine Empire - and by extension, the Roman Empire- existed for 1,123 years and 18 days. Yet most of us know little about it other than he word "byzantine" being vaguely synonymous for highly intricate, complex, murky or devious dealings. In fact, the story of the Byzantine Empire is the telling of what we now know as Western Civilization. Beginning as the capital for the Eastern part of the Roman Empire, its primary city Constantinople became the center of a very vibrant society the preserved Greek and Roman traditions while Western Europe slipped under the control of barbarians and into what we call the Dark Ages.

Lars Brownworth has written an absolutely stunning popular history of the Byzantine Empire. Remarkably, he covers in surprising detail more than a thousand years of growth, decline, war, peace, prosperity, poverty, devastation by plague, earthquakes, invading armies and internal sloth, corruption and incompetence in just over 300 pages. His writing style is relaxed and easy, yet packed with facts. There are occasions when things become confusing because he doesn't mention the years of certain event often enough and sometimes skips ahead by decades or even generation. By these are tiny criticisms to make in the context of his great achievement, making the history of the Byzantine Empire easily accessible.

I consider myself to be a history buff. Though my area of concentration is primarily 19th Century Europe and the United States, I consider myself well versed in global history. But I couldn't go more than a page or two in "Lost To The West" without learning something new to me. Without Byzantine standing in the way for centuries, the onslaught of Islam might not have been stopped. The Empire also kept alive the writings and learning of the Greeks and Romans which, ultimately, made their way to Western Europe as it shook off its lethargy.

While most of know the names of at least a few Roman Emperors, few of us know much, if anything at all, about the rulers of the Byzantine Empire, save perhaps for Constantine himself. Brownworth tells us of many8 of the 88 Byzantine emperors, a few of whom were worthy beyond measure and many who were incompetent and damaged the Empire and its citizens.

In fact, Brownworth focuses on the Emperors, their circumstances and actions. Relatively little detail is provided beyond this, about the people and their lives. He provides enough to give you the flavor of ordinary life here and there and in this way keeps his history brief. What he does say is enough to depict the cruelty of the invaders from the east and the vagaries of life in that age: brutal death or being sold into slavery. In our age of political correctness, we are rarely informed that the invading culture enslaved entire populations for more than a thousand years, well into the 20th Century.

One recurrent theme is the tension between the Roman and Orthodox Churches. It is fascinating to see how the Pope withheld aid from the Eastern Empire until an agreement to end the schism was reached - and then breached the agreement.

Brownworth devotes significant space to describing the repeated rebirths and flowering of Byzantine art and culture. In a way, the lack of photographs and illustrations of the art and architecture he describes is regrettable, but the truth is that much Byzantine art was destroyed or looted.

Ultimately Constantinople, shielded by its mighty walls for more than a millennia, succumbed to Muslim attackers and the Byzantine Empire was essentially extinct.

Brownworth successfully argues that the Byzantine Empire protected Western Europe until barbarism waned and the retrieved Greek and Roman masterworks opened the eyes of the Europeans and stoked the fires of the Renaissance. Without Byzantine to protect it, Europe would have been overrun by the Islam tide. It is a convincing argument.

Overall, Brownworth has written superb popular history. He makes the Byzantine Empire readily accessible. It is a journey well worth taking.


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More Lost to the West: The Forgotte... reviews
review by . September 23, 2009
The Roman Empire fell on Tuesday, May 29, 1453, when Mehmed II sacked Constantinople, and Constantine XI Dragases stripped off his imperial battle gear and died alone and unrecognized. If you dated the fall to September 5, 476, when Romulus Augustulus surrendered his crown and scepter to the Vandal Odoacer, you would be half right. That is indeed when the western half of the empire fell, setting off the so-called "Dark Ages" in earnest. But the eastern half lived on for another 1000 years, waxing …
review by . September 27, 2009
This book comes recommended by Anthony Everitt and Tom Holland, two of the best popularizers of ancient Western history. As such, I figured it had to be pretty good. Following his successful podcast, Lars Brownworth introduces the Byzantine empire to the modern world. Often overlooked, Byzantium was the heir to Rome and a major civilization that lasted 1,000 years after the "fall of Rome" in 476. As Brownworth points out, Western civilization owes a huge debt to Byzantium, from modern legal codes …
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I am an e-discovery strategist, computer forensics specialist and testifying expert witness - and an avid reader.      Aside from technology books, I love thrillers, suspense, mystery, … more
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The once common idea that the lights went out on classical and Western civilization when Rome fell in 476 C.E. has long since been debunked, but Brownsworth weighs in to illustrate that the Roman Empire's center of power simply shifted to Constantinople. In a narrative by turns spellbinding and prosaic, Brownsworth marches us through centuries of history, beginning long before the fall of Rome, and introduces the successive rulers of Byzantium, from Christian emperors to Muslim sultans, detailing a culture he describes as both familiar and exotic. He follows religious, political and cultural change up through the Islamic conquest of 1453. Christian refugees fled Byzantium into Europe, taking with them their longstanding love of ancient culture and introducing Western Europe to Plato, Demosthenes, Xenophon, Aeschylus and Homer, fanning the flames of the renaissance of Hellenistic culture that had already begun in various parts of Europe. Although Brownsworth admirably illustrates the ways that the Byzantine Empire lives on even today, Judith Herrin'sByzantium: The Surprising Life of a Medieval Empireoffers a more compelling and thorough history of this empire. Maps.(Sept.)
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ISBN-10: 0307407950
ISBN-13: 978-0307407955
Author: Lars Brownworth
Genre: History
Publisher: Crown
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