Book: Lost to the West by Lars Brownworth

Thoroughly interesting history of the Byzantine Empire

June 30, 2011

Lars Bownworth

Lost to the West: The Forgotten Byzantine Empire that Rescued Western Civilization

Three Rivers Press, 2009

ISBN: 978-0-307-40796-2

304 pages (main text)


“Everyone” knows that the Roman Empire fell in the year, er, four hundred and something.

And it’s true that the Germanic king Flavius Odoacer deposed Romulus Augustulus, commonly considered the last emperor in Rome, in 476 CE. But it’s wrong to say that the empire fell then. Because rather more than half of it didn’t.

Way back in 286 CE, Diocletian had ruled as co-emperor (with Maximian) from the eastern part of the empire. And there had been eastern emperors ever since. In 330 Constantine the Great re-founded the city of Byzantium (modern-day Istanbul) (at which time it began to be called Constantinople) and moved the capital there. So it was a good deal less than half the empire that was lost with Rome. And almost all of that was re-conquered (albeit temporarily) by the emperor Justinian (and his brilliant general Belisarius) a couple of hundred years later.

Although those eastern emperors were Christian (with one exception) and spoke Greek, and we commonly call them Byzantine, they considered themselves the proper heirs of Rome. Constantinople fell to the Ottoman Turks only in 1453.

That’s virtually a thousand years of Roman history and it’s commonly neglected in America. And, as Lars Brownworth shows us in Lost to the West, a lot of it is really interesting history.

Indeed, that eastern part of the empire survived long enough that the barbarians that sacked Rome had become Cristian peoples in the west and at least somewhat civilized. As the westerners were passing through what was left of the Roman empire on their medieval crusades, they were often pretty careless about the lives of the people whom they were less and less likely to consider their co-religionists. It was a city much weakened by crusaders that finally fell to the Ottoman Turks.

That was news to me when I read it. And that’s not even one of the most interesting things that I learned from this excellent book.

Mr Brownworth doesn’t try to be a neutral historian. He is a fan of the eastern empire and so he doesn’t like Turks at all. You might consider than an imperfection in the book or you might not.

There are a few minor infelicities in the book that an editor should have caught. For example, “By this time the citizens of Alexandria must have been suffering whiplash from wondering which of the two men was their bishop” (p. 24). And I’m pretty sure that “Turkisn” (p. 238) should be “Turkish”. There are also a few statements presented as fact that we’re not really quite that certain about. For example, it’s not a certainty that a hold-out Romanized Briton inspired the legend of King Arthur (footnote p. 53). But those are minor things, especially compared to the excellent job Mr Brownworth does of telling 1000 years of often-neglected history in a lively and readable way.