Lost to the West by Lars Brownworth

Subtitled: The Forgotten Byzantine Empire that Rescued Western Civilization.

I was first introduced to Lars Brownworth’s Lost to the West thanks to his outstanding podcast 12 Byzantine Rulers. He presented tangled, complicated history so compellingly that I just had to read the book.

The book is a fantastic read. The history is clearly presented with an eye to both the big picture and the little details that bring it all to life. The way he tells it, Byzantine history casts new light on everything I ever learned about British history and European history. I wondered why I never knew anything about the centuries of Constantinople’s dominance over huge swaths of Europe, Asia, and Africa, other than Justinian and the Hagia Sophia. In these pages, I met the brilliant general Belisarius, ruthless empress Irene, conniving eunuch Narses, and the loyal Varingian guard, who were given royal fiat to raid the treasury whenever the current emperor died. Given that most Byzantine emperors lasted only a few years (a whopping 88 rulers in 1000 years!), many of them retired as wealthy men.

Despite the fact that most successions of power involved assassinations, blindings, torture, usurpation, and just about any type of ambitious chicanery you can think of, the Byzantine empire managed to hold onto vast territories well into the 2nd millennium, gaining and losing ground on the peripheries in Italy and eastern Europe. Even though we say that Rome fell in 476 AD, the rulers and people of Byzantium considered themselves the Roman empire, only with the capital moved to Constantinople. It took several centuries for the infamous split between the Catholic pope and the leaders of the eastern church to occur, and the Byzantine emperors seemed infused with the sense that they were to protect or reclaim (depending on the current shape of the map) both Rome and Jerusalem. The celebrated first Holy Roman Emperor, Charlemagne, only came to power because the current Pope wanted to seize power for himself. He used the fact that the throne in Constantinople was occupied by a woman (the empress Irene) to say that there was no emperor at all, since Paul said he prohibited a woman to lead. He quickly crowned Charlemagne, claiming for himself the right to make kings and establishing the supremacy of church over state.

The tragic fall of Constantinople and ruin of the Byzantine empire may have happened at the hands of the Turks, but they were not the first to sack and pillage the famously luxe city. After a series of backdoor machinations on the part of some wily politicians, the fourth Crusade became an attack against Constantinople. The so-called holy warriors of Christendom sacked the city, looting, pillaging, and raping their way into the destruction of the noble capital. The Byzantines had historically opposed the premise of the Crusades, that a man could earn salvation by killing infidels, but were committed to stemming the Muslim tide, and in fact stood as a bulwark between the rest of Europe and invaders from Muslim lands. It seems that the fatal blow struck by the Crusaders weakened the city to the point where the Turks were able to subdue it completely. I was heartbroken to read how the Hagia Sophia was defiled, with rapes of women and children happening on the altars where the priests once served the Eucharist–and really, how much farther is this, morally, from raping women and children in the streets? The flag of Turkey still bears a waning moon as a reminder that the moon waned the night that Constantinople fell.

I highly recommend this book to anyone with an interest in history. I loved it!

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