Lost to the West: The Forgotten Byzantine Empire that Rescued Western Civilization
© 2009 Lars Brownsworth
The Roman empire not not fade quietly into history in 474, when a Gothic warlord decided to run the city of Rome directly instead through a faux-imperial proxy. It went out in a blaze of glory, in an epic battle in which an Emperor himself stood in the line and bid a massing enemy to do its worst. For Rome continued long after the Empire faded from Italy, and it not only prevailed but flourished against a host of enemies until finally falling a millennium later. Lost to the West is highly storied introduction to the eastern Roman empire, one that reduces eleven hundred years of war, politics, and religion to three hundred pages. I learned of this book through the author’s podcast, “Twelve Byzantine Rulers“, and Lost to the West improves on it. Instead of having twelve distinct episodes, Brownsworth moves smoothly through an entire epoch, lingering on leaders and events which were especially impactful. It’s essentially a shorter Short History of Byzantium, even more storied.
For those completely in the dark, the ‘eastern’ Roman story begins in the third century A.D., when the Emperor Diocletian decided that an empire that wrapped around the entire Mediterranean was more trouble than it was worth, and divided it into administrative halves. His intentions were good, but the move didn’t save Rome from the curse of dynastic wars, and when Constantine the Great seized total command, he transformed the entire Empire. Not only did he established a new capital in the east (Constantinople), the better to focus on the realm’s Persian foes, but he began the process that turned classical Rome into Christian Rome. His unity didn’t hold for long; distracted by the constant problems of the Balkans and Persia, the Emperor was unable to come to the rescue of the badly-led western realm. Weakened by its own civil wars, the west fell easy prey to rampaging barbarians. Constantinople would reclaim bits of Italy later on, only to lose them again as the centuries passed, but the heart of the Empire, the heart of western civilization, was fixed in the east. In comparison, old Italy was a dump, and Europe little more than a wilderness with a few wooden forts occupied by belching brutes.
Religious unity took longer to destroy. The Bishop of Rome held an esteemed place in Christendom, being one of the five great metropolitans of the Empire with Jerusalem, Antioch, Alexandria, and Constantinople. After the first three fell to the Arabs, however, Rome and Constantinople were a rivalry of two. While their respective Latin and Greek cultures were different, eventually it was politics that sundered Christendom. The iconoclastic epidemic, for instance, saw the eastern emperor attempting to order Christians throughout the empire to destroy their religious art, either by breaking it or whitewashing murals. This originated in the emperor’s belief that the Empire had become idolatrous, and was being punished by God. To regain divine favor, Christians should purge themselves of representational art in the manner of the triumphant Muslims and in the ancestral way of the Jews. The eastern church was coerced into going along with the emperor, but the Roman bishop was incensed that a secular figure would dictate doctrine to the church — and order the destruction of soul-edifying art, to boot! So began a merry round of excommunication and growing hostility between east and west, politically and religiously, that was made permanent when a western army sacked Constantinople on its way to redeem Jerusalem yet again. That tragedy, the Fourth Crusade, came after the ‘official’ schism, but the eastern Romans suffered so at the hands of the west that they would never submit to the Roman papacy. “Better the Turk’s turban,” they snarled, “than Rome’s miter.”
Lost to the West is a story of long, gradual decline, occasionally arrested by great leaders like Justinian, and occasionally hasted by abysmal ones and the plague. The sporadic maps tell the story; from an empire that appeared to be united Rome at its height, the east declined under constant outside attack and civil war to controlling the city of Constantinople, a bit of Greece, and bits and pieces of Asia Minor’s shoreline. Constantinople would beat foes again and again, but so long lived was it that it would have to face them as they revived, zombie-like. Eventually woe came from the east: despite surviving the Persians, Arabs, Mongols, and Seljuk Turks, the Ottoman Turks were able to wear down the great walls of the city with cannon and seize a prize lusted after for centuries by the Islamic world. New Rome went down fighting, however, achieving an end far more glorious than both western Rome and the Ottoman Empire which succeeded it.
This is a fast run through a millennium, and for me it was mostly review. I enjoyed Brownsworth’s voice, though his title is curiously chosen. He hints at the topic from time to time; in both the defense of Europe against eastern armies and Constantinople’s preservation and increase of knowledge lost to the west during its brooding Gothic phase, but never devotes a lot of attention to a thesis that Byzantium ‘saved’ the east. Influence is covered a little more in books like Sailing from Byzantium, though.
- Constantinople: the Forgotten Empire, Isaac Asimov; Sailing from Byzantium, Colin Wells; A Short History of Byzantium, John Julius Norwich; The War of the Three Gods: Rome, Persia, and the Rise of Islam, Peter Crawford.
- The Lost History of Christianity, Philip Jenkins