Lost to the West: The Forgotten Byzantine Empire That Rescued Western Civilization, by Lars Brownworth (Crown Publishers)
When many think of the Roman Empire, they usually think of the “fall of Rome” (to the Germanic king Odoacer) in 476 A.D. to be the end the Roman Empire, after which the West went in the “dark ages” until the Renaissance. Others may acknowledge that an entity called the “Byzantine Empire” centered in Constantinople continued on for some time in slow decline until the fall of Constantinople to the Ottoman Turks. In fact the situation was more complex and more interesting. Lars Brownworth, in his book Lost to the West: The Forgotten Byzantine Empire That Rescued Western Civilization, tells an entertaining and highly readable account of this near-forgotten episode of the Roman Empire.
In reality the Roman Empire didn’t fall in 476. The capital of the Empire had been Constantinople since 330 A.D., and even before, in Diocletian’s reign, government of the Empire was divided into Eastern and Western spheres. The term “Byantine Empire” is a relatively modern invention; the people of the Empire, their allies, and their enemies continued to call them “Roman” until the end. Moreover, that the Empire existed for over a thousand years in the face of external threats from the east and the west, as well as internal threats and dissensions, belies the belief that its history was a simple long decline. Rather, the fortunes of the Empire ebbed and flowed over its long history, and was a world power even as late as the 11th century. In addition, the Empire continued to be a haven of learning and culture and a bulwark against expansion of Islam into the West. Without its preservation of culture and learning and the dissemination of such after the fall of the Empire, it is doubtful that the Renaissance would have happened at all.
Brownworth’s book is relatively short, barely more than 300 pages, and so by necessity it can hardly be a comprehensive treatment of more than 1000 years of dynamic history. Thus, serious students of history who want or need a detailed analysis of this period should look elsewhere. Nevertheless, he does give a highly entertaining account that reads more like a historical novel than a dry work of non-fiction. He does this principally by focusing on emperors and other major players in key periods of history in which the actions of such figures were important. I had never been a big fan of the “Great Man Theory” of history, but Brownworth’s accounts of men and women who made huge impacts in the history of the Empire may make me rethink this position.
I highly recommend this book to anyone with an interest in history who would like to learn about this important episode of western civilization, or even to those who may be well-versed in this history already but may want to revisit it with entertaining read.