Tuesday, March 20, 2012

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

This is how history books should be written! No, it doesn't read like a novel (which only works really in a biography and also is highly difficult to pull off - and stay nonfiction - unless there are extensive background notes which there often just aren't.) But it reads like history should: informative, knowledgeable, and occasionally funny.

A previous boss had recommended this book to me, and so when I was on my third date with my boyfriend at a bookstore (shoulda known when he suggested it that this was meant to be!), who I knew had been a history major specializing in ancient cultures (mostly Greek and Roman) and I saw this book, I had to get it. After all, this book tells the story of whatever happened to the Roman Empire. In school we're taught about Greece and Rome until it's inconvenient and then we switch to Europe. Occasionally the Holy Roman Empire or Byzantium pops up out of seemingly no where, something big happens, and then they disappear again. To say that the Eastern Roman Empire or Byzantium gets a short shrift in American schools is an understatement.

Mr. Brownsworth starts with Diocletian in the third century and ends with Constantine XI in 1453. Some emperors were insane, some lazy, more than a few drunk and not just with power. In between were brilliant statesmen, gifted leaders, and trusted generals. There are certainly lessons to be learned about things they did right (don't let the aristocracy get too powerful or too rich) and wrong (hereditary succession). Many Byzantine lessons political leaders could afford to learn today about effective diplomacy, not letting the tax inequality grow too great, and the power of civic building projects to reinforce loyalty. But lest this sound like a pedantic list of emperors and their construction projects, let me tell you some of the more juicy tidbits Mr. Brownsworth throws in from time to time, unfairly relegating the best ones to footnotes. Some of them are quite gross, I warn you:

"While walking in the Forum of Constantinople, Arius [a powerful priest] was suddenly seized with a desire to relieve himself. Squatting down in the dust behind a column, his intestines spilled out, along with his liver and kidney, killing him almost instantly." (25)

When Britain was attacked by Saxons they asked Emperor Honorius for help but he told them "Look after your own fates." "Such advice was typical of the rather pathetic Honorius. When informed that Rome had fallen, he thought at first that something had happened to his pet rooster Roma and was relieved to find that it was only the city that had been sacked." (53)

"In 1004, a Byzantine aristocrat named Maria sparked enormous interest in Venice by eating with an ancient Roman double-pronged instrument. Touted as the latest word in sophistication, the device became enormously popular, and soon the fork was common throughout the West." (219)

"As a Muslim, the Mongol warlord didn't want to shed the blood of the heir of Muhammad, so he had the caliph wrapped in a carpet before trampling him with a horse. The invaders then settled down to a thorough sack of the city. According to legend, so many books from its great library were hurled into the Tigris that the river ran black from the ink for six months. The story is an obvious hyperbole, but Baghdad has never been the same since." (273)

It was fascinating to read about how, while the West and Europe were wallowing in the feudal Dark Ages, the Eastern Roman Empire was still a place to great learning where the arts flourished. Without Byzantium, all of the great classical works of Greece and Rome would have been lost forever. I was surprised to learn that while of course Catholicism endorsed the Crusades, the Orthodox church did not, condemning anyone who thought warmongering could lead to martyrdom, instead to excommunication.

I loved the author's thoroughness, but he skipped the boring parts which was great. I also loved that he didn't treat his subjects with too much reverence, a common flaw among historians I've found. Instead, Mr. Brownworth sometimes calls the Emperors idiots or worse, and I appreciated him calling a pot a pot. He does stick up for the great Emperors too, many of which were not recognized as such at the ends of their lives and therefore were buried ignominiously. And while the book was a great, galloping read, it sadly had to end, not with the fall of Rome, but the fall of Constantinople once its enemies acquired a cannon, rendering the walls which had protected the city for a millennium, impotent. Despite a valiant effort, the Turks ruled the day.

Lost to the West is a must-read for anyone with any interest in history, politics, or how the world got to where it is. I will think twice before using the adjective "byzantine" in the future as it has negative connotations I now find unfair.

I bought this book at Joseph-Beth booksellers, an independent bookstore which has since closed.

1 comment:

Christy said...

Glad to hear that this book is good. I put it on my to-read list when it first came out and so of course at the time, there weren't any opinions of it out there.