For far too many otherwise historically savvy people today, the story of the Byzantine civilization is something of a void. Yet for more than a millennium, Byzantium reigned as the glittering seat of Christian civilization. When Europe fell into the Dark Ages, Byzantium held fast against Muslim expansion, keeping Christianity alive. When literacy all but vanished in the West, Byzantium made primary education available to both sexes. Students debated the merits of Plato and Aristotle and commonly committed the entirety of Homer's Iliad to memory. Streams of wealth flowed into Constantinople, making possible unprecedented wonders of art and architecture, from fabulous jeweled mosaics and other iconography to the great church known as the Hagia Sophia that was a vision of heaven on earth. The dome of the Great Palace stood nearly two hundred feet high and stretched over four acres, and the city's population was more than twenty times that of London's.
From Constantine, who founded his eponymous city in the year 330, to Constantine XI, who valiantly fought the empire's final battle more than a thousand years later, the emperors who ruled Byzantium enacted a saga of political intrigue and conquest as astonishing as anything in recorded history. Lost to the West is replete with stories of assassination, mass mutilation and execution, sexual scheming, ruthless grasping for power, and clashing armies that soaked ...
©2009 Lars Brownworth; (P)2009 Random House
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I've been fortunate to read numerous histories which bring their periods to life with sympathetic verve for their interacting groups; with analytical insight into the interplay of trends and individuals; with insight into the relationships these trends and individuals had to each other and subsequent periods' trends and individuals; as well as informed discussion of believable, multi-dimensional societies with arts, economies, so forth. I can happily praise dozens of books on audible and in print up and down along these lines. I am chagrined that I cannot include Lost to the West in that number.
Rather worse than failing to dig in to any breadth or depth, as the book proceeds it becomes more and more difficult to overlook that it suffers badly from its fairly exclusive dedication to a single side of a great thousand year story: the side of the Byzantine monarchy. If not the most modern or broadly informative, focusing on history as the story of successive monarchs is a grand old historiographical tradition. But if what's lost to the West is a long line of autocrats, and not the rest of a fleshed out civilization, too, then why read the book anyway? Ably narrating the personalities and dynastic shenanigans of this long series of individual men and women, the work glimpses any other sort of human life or achievement even in passing only as far as it serves to glorify the monarch on hand. Architecture comes up insofar as it makes certain emperors more accomplished, for example, and then apparently the Byzantines stop building anything anywhere until an emperor becomes directly involved again. Lost's thesis--entirely believable on its face--that the history of Byzantine civilization is vibrant, too little represented in popular literature, and our benefactor through enduring cultural and intellectual legacies is very poorly served by putting all the burden of representing said *civilization* with a single, categorically unusual set of individuals and their tendencies to blind and murder one another.
The monarchical close-up hides any illustration of a clear or dynamic Empire for the monarchs to live in. Geography, demography, economics, art, literature, institutions (other than the high executives and the faceless aristocracy they sometimes wrangle to retake tax incomes) necessarily take larger parts in the life of an understandable empire than they take in this book. Whereas, while religion is continually in nominal evidence, for finishing the work I can say very little about what an Orthodox believer does, sees, hears, expects, avoids, or says to distinguish himself from any vague Christian of any other time or place. From the book, I can describe some roles Orthodox religion played in the lives of Byzantine rulers, but little about what it did in the lives of anyone else. On several occasions the narration spends a moment to assert that the trying circumstances we've heard from the trials of the emperor have promoted a cultural flowering from his subjects. The Byzantine legacy should have done better had Mr. Brownworth turned some of his descriptive talent to claims of this sort insofar as he was taking a moment away from the emperors' frustrations and iterative irreconciliations with the Pope. Tellingly of Lost's throne-shaped lens, for many generations of Byzantine history (most of them where no would-be usurper appears) Brownworth's scope of the empire's inhabitant encompasses fewer than four distinct characters, at least one of whom instead lives in the Vatican.
Perhaps showing close, if not critical, attention to the feelings of its primary sources and its desired sympathy for Byzantium's emperors, Lost privileges Byzantine lives, though it doesn't animate them. Basil the Bulgar Slayer earns praise to compare directly to the greatest of his predecessors for his 20 years' defiance of the traditional campaign season as he pillaging and blinding Bulgarian peasants without stopping for winters, ever hunting the Bulgarian monarch. (Typical of the depth I miss praising in a work narrowly focused on imperial biography, I am left wondering *how* Basil the Bulgar Slayer managed his stand-out logistics.) But when the Byzantines are the targets rather than the aggressors, war turns out to be a lot of rapine and horror. To be fair, this might not be so evident except it's fair to praise Mr. Brownworth's writing talent: he paints scenes of raping and sacking vividly, and the dissonance only arises if the reader takes cognizance on his own that "barbarians" and "infidels" experience their own rapes and sacks vividly outside of the book. Even still, the imperial myopia encloses this aspect of the book, as well, as the emperors personally often take the active part in sentences about Byzantine arms: e.g., Constantine XI stepped into the breach and repelled the Ottoman army.
A note to add to the unfortunate imbalance of the account, the reader shall better sympathize with this book if he, too, seems oddly prejudiced against the Ottoman Empire or its religion. No justification is given why life under the Ottomans would be "slavery" or "living death" for the Byzantine population (whom the book leaves faceless anyway) for the half dozen times such attributions are made. Like that of the Slavic rivals to the Byzantines who are made an outgroup deserving of pillage and conquest by their ethnicity, this narrative's phrasing gives no quarter or coverage to the neighboring people of formerly Byzantine lands as soon as they become religiously incompatible with rule by the Byzantine monarchy. Its feelings toward the Catholics, who seem like the Muslims to represent a monotheistic rivalry and who certainly don't present less potential as a rapine menace (as Lost's account of the Fourth Crusade artfully presents), are more ambivalently presented. Almost bizarrely in contrast to the slavery imagery leveraged against historical Muslim powers, the introduction candidly points out that Byzantines would have been horrified by democratic sensibilities of personal freedom and the epilogue trades on imperial Russia's credit as a "free" (read not Muslim) state to bolster the Byzantine legacy. As it would be counterintuitive to my current understanding of Russian and Ottoman history, I would be very interested in how imperial Russia was freer than imperial Turkey; but until then, the suggestion seems to say more about the author's sharing the biases of the Byzantine monarchy. To be fair, given the point of view that we can see Byzantine civilization by staring at its monarchy, then rule by the Ottomans or anybody who overthrew that institution would seem like slavers and living undeath for subjugating the monarchs, however they treated the rest of the people. On the other hand, surely if this work would honor the Byzantine heritage that it rightly points out was not extinguished by 500 years in Ottoman custody, devaluing as "living death" the lives and accomplishments of those 500 years of descendants is suboptimally productive. In all, I personally have an opinion about the study of social sciences that a 21st century historian does well to show more awareness and scrutiny of medieval religious and ethnic biases than the medieval histories do in order to see farther than did they.
Virtues of Mr. Brownworth's account include a smart prose style, heartfelt audiobook narration, and very accessible coverage of Byzantine dynastic history and its most famous characters. This is a book that may appeal well to lovers of unambivalent narrative history and courtly drama--nothing wrong with that. On those bases, I wanted to give it four stars. Because when I buy a history I value it more for presenting multiple points of view and for offering their field new insights, and I value it less for being narrower than their title and thesis, I do not recommend this book to whomever may share my taste. I believe the whole difficulty with the book is summed up in saying that a 10th century Byzantine autocrat should highly recommend it.
I love audio books! From science to fiction, business to history. Stories, novels, fairytales, descriptions, guides, explanations, etc.
A very detailed and entertaining account on the Byzantine empire from the time of the fall of the wester Roman empire in 476AD to the final fall of Byzantium and Constantinople in 1453. The author describes the struggle of the Byzantine empire in a very interesting, capturing way. The role that Byzantium and its neighbors, allies and enemies played for the kingdoms of western Europe are very well explained. The narrator is doing a great job in really bringing the history alive!
Enlightening and captivating, this audiobook was everything I could have hoped for and more. The Byzantine Empire is an absolutely fascinating study. 1000 years of European history most people know nothing about. It answers the age old question: What happened between the fall of Rome and the Enlightenment? In a word: Byzantium. I wish this audio book never ended. I could listen to it again and again (and probably will). Loved it!
I would only recommend this book because there were no alternatives with a broad overview of Byzantium. This book takes a bit of simple approach to some complex issues that are better dealt with by other books that only consider them tangentially. I also found that occasionally I'd be hearing about a person for up to five minutes before the person's name was used - very annoying when you can't flip ahead a few pages.
I just love this book
It talk about begging to end Byzantine empire
If you only want to get one book on the Byzantine and know 95% then I would get this book
I really enjoyed this book. It was a great introduction to a period in history that I had never learned anything about in school. Lars Brownworth does a great job reading with all of the enthusiasm you would expect from an author reading his own work.
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