Book Review: Lost To The West (Brownworth, 2009)

Categories: Book Reviews
Comments: 2 Comments
Published on: 2014.02.23

Full Title: Lost To The West: The Forgotten Byzantine Empire That Rescued Western Civilization
Author: Lars Brownworth
Year: 2009
Publisher: Crown Publishers
ISBN 978-0-307-40795-5
View it on Amazon
View it on Google Books
Wikipedia page on Lars Brownworth

◊ Summary

Lost To The West covers the period of history from roughly AD 300 through 1453, centering in Constantinople but ranging as far west as Spain, north into the middle latitudes of Europe, east into Turkey and Iraq, and along the northern coast of Africa. The title was completely appropriate for me, since the words “Byzantine Empire” meant very little until I read this book.

Lars Brownworth attempts to give an overview (the book isn’t nearly long enough for a comprehensive history) of the most notable emperors and events in Byzantine history and culture, including both conquests and losses of great tracts of land.

Perhaps his main purpose in the book was accomplished in the introduction, alerting the reader that “Byzantine” is a relatively modern word.

“What we call the Byzantine Empire was in fact the eastern half of the Roman Empire, and its citizens referred to themselves as Roman from the founding of Constantinople in 323 to the fall of the city eleven centuries later… Only the scholars of the Enlightenment, preferring to find their roots in ancient Greece and classical Rome, denied the Eastern Empire the name “Roman”, branding it instead after Byzantium — the ancient name of Constantinople. The ‘real’ empire for them had ended in 476 with the abdication of the last western emperor, and the history of the ‘imposters’ in Constantinople was nothing more than a thousand-year slide into barbarism, corruption, and decay.”

◊ What I Liked Least About It

I know modern history books are often written with an underemphasis on dates because so many students over the years got hung up on learning the dates and missed the history itself. But for me, if you don’t say what year it is every few pages, I get lost. This book is like that in places, saying things like “six years earlier” but never saying from what year.

He also completely skips dozens of emperors, while devoting entire chapters to others. Of course, some emperors weren’t as notable as others, but I thought their names at least should have been included in the narrative (to be fair, there IS a list of them in the back). Even if they only ruled for hours before being deposed, it only takes a paragraph to run through several of their names and what happened to them.

◊ What I Liked Most About It

I did enjoy how the author pinpointed several moments in history that “changed the world forever”, including the introduction of the plague, the official division between the “catholic” and “orthodox” halves of the Church, the founding of Islam, and several others.

It was also the first time I’ve read of the Crusades from this perspective. Always before, I’d seen them portrayed from the Western European perspective, or from the Muslim perspective. This book showed them from the middle, since it was the Byzantium Empire that not only requested the troops from the west, but suffered some of the worst consequences of the Crusades.

For the most part, the rulers mentioned were portrayed as believable people, which sometimes just isn’t true in history.

Whether it was the author’s intention or merely my own proclivities, I saw many parallels between the government/culture in Constantinople and the government/culture in the U.S. today. The poor folk of the day lobbied for greater taxation of the rich (and sometimes succeeded), the rich often found loopholes and sometimes had far too much influence on those nominally in charge, the government vacillated between taxing too heavily while accomplishing much and not having enough money to get things done, and the church and state struggled over who had the most influence upon whom. While society was greatly stratified, there were still opportunities — even peasants and farmers occasionally rose to the throne.

Unlike many histories, this one was was smooth reading.

◊ Overall Impression

Like many Americans, I’ve been told repeatedly about the “Fall of the Roman Empire” which led to the Dark Ages, and I had no idea that the Roman Empire lasted until the mid-1400s, providing a thick (though often porous) buffer zone between a struggling Western Europe and the rapacious hordes to the east.

After reading Lost To The West, I no longer feel that Byzantium is a mystery to me.

  1. Shari says:

    Sounds interesting. That time period is my favorite for reading history, though I usually stick to Great Britain. I knew some of the facts you mentioned here, but it would be cool to fill in some of the (many) gaps in my knowledge.
    By the by, you might like a book I picked up on recommendation from a friend blogger, called “Mad dogs and Englishmen” as here I thought it was engaging and readable, but he’s not strictly chronological, which can be irritating. It’s possible Bob is related to the author.

    • Wil C. Fry says:

      That guy’s full name is hilarious. :-)

      “It’s possible Bob is related to the author.”

      From the description of the book, it sounds like *everyone* is related to the author. ;-)

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