Lost to the West

I’ve always been a sucker for the Byzantine Empire. The eastern outpost of what was once called Christendom, the last remnant of the old Roman Empire, slowly melted away on the maps, until in 1453, it gets winked out altogether. (The timing of that fall also fascinates. It would be only 39 years before Columbus would open up the West, at a time when the East seemed to be closing in.) The Empire would never stop thinking of itself as Roman, the Emperors would always think of themselves as heirs to the Caesars.

Because of its descent into chaotic palace intrigue, and its relentless decline, Byzantium doesn’t get the credit it deserves. The fact that it was only a shell for several centuries before its final conquest also cemented its feeble image in Western minds. By 1453, the last emperor couldn’t be crowned for fear of religious conflict, and even said that the city needed a mayor more than an emperor. Despite that decline, the empire revitalized itself three different times, each time altering its character to the political and military environment that it faced. In doing so, it performed two invaluable services to the West.

First, it bought time for Western Europe to get its act together. By the time the Empire lost its breadbasket and source of manpower, Asia Minor, at the battle of Manzikert, Western Europe was on the cusp of the High Middle Ages, beginning to develop cohesive social structures, a revival of trade, and would soon begin to reconquer the Iberian Peninsula.

Second, it preserved classical literature and wisdom. In contrast to currently popular imaginings, it was not the Muslims who preserved the Greek & Roman world for Western Europe, but rather Byzantium. Those works would become the common cultural inheritance of the west, and would greatly inform the Founders as they struggled to create the United States.

I haven’t heard Brownworth’s podcasts, but they’ve been fairly widely praised. So I had pretty high hopes for this history of Byzantium. The subtitle led me to hope that it would take on that myth about who had preserved classical learning, and that it would discuss in detail the relationship between Byzantium and the West. Instead, what I got was a fairly linear history of the Empire, which touched on those subjects.

It’s not entirely fair to judge the book by my expectations, but even on its own terms, it fall short in a number of key areas. The storytelling is uneven. Repeatedly, we’re told that armies are scattered, treasuries are emptied, frontiers broken, and yet as if by magic, the next general is somehow paying men and leading them to victory. Another time, “every citizen” takes turns manning the walls. Every citizen? Really?

Brownworth could also have benefitted from a little editing. Several times, we’re treated to the same turn of phrase within paragraphs. And on one occasion, the details of a succession struggle prove too much even for the author, as he fails to identify one of the key participants. It left me flipping back over the account to see what I had missed. Imperial murders, riots, rampages, coups, and poisonings are difficult enough to follow when you do have a scorecard. And if we’re going to have to plow through them, they ought to have a point. Too often these accounts seem to lead nowhere but the next rebellion.

Finally, there weren’t enough maps. Military history is geography. A few more well-placed maps should have been easy to place. Instead, I often found myself looking for cities on maps from hundreds of years earlier. They might tell me where a city was, but often it was in the wrong context.

One studies history to learn about today, and some lessons do come through. Basil II, perhaps the last great emperor, cemented his power through tactics that would seem familiar to close observers of the current administration. And inheriting a sound empire, his successors tossed it away through infighting, civil war, and counterproductive tax and fiscal policies. Sadly, these resonances are too few and far-between to rescue the narrative.

A couple of years ago, I bought the Teaching Company’s audio course on the Byzantine Empire. While the professor had a little more time to make his points, I thought he covered the material in a more sensible manner, filling in gaps that Brownworth leaves open. If you have the time to read the book, you also probably have time to commute to those CDs. I think you’ll come away having learned a lot more.

In the meantime, I’m still looking for that other history, the one I hoped I was getting.

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