Lost to the West
The Forgotten Byzantine Empire That Rescued Western Civilization
By Lars Brownworth
(Crown, Hardcover, 9780307407955, 352pp.)
Publication Date: September 15, 2009
Other Editions of This Title: Paperback
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In AD 476 the Roman Empire fell–or rather, its western half did. Its eastern half, which would come to be known as the Byzantine Empire, would endure and often flourish for another eleven centuries. Though its capital would move to Constantinople, its citizens referred to themselves as Roman for the entire duration of the empire’s existence. Indeed, so did its neighbors, allies, and enemies: When the Turkish Sultan Mehmet II conquered Constantinople in 1453, he took the title Caesar of Rome, placing himself in a direct line that led back to Augustus.
For far too many otherwise historically savvy people today, the story of the Byzantine civilization is something of a void. Yet for more than a millennium, Byzantium reigned as the glittering seat of Christian civilization. When Europe fell into the Dark Ages, Byzantium held fast against Muslim expansion, keeping Christianity alive. When literacy all but vanished in the West, Byzantium made primary education available to both sexes. Students debated the merits of Plato and Aristotle and commonly committed the entirety of Homer’s Iliad to memory. Streams of wealth flowed into Constantinople, making possible unprecedented wonders of art and architecture, from fabulous jeweled mosaics and other iconography to the great church known as the Hagia Sophia that was a vision of heaven on earth. The dome of the Great Palace stood nearly two hundred feet high and stretched over four acres, and the city’s population was more than twenty times that of London’s.
From Constantine, who founded his eponymous city in the year 330, to Constantine XI, who valiantly fought the empire’s final battle more than a thousand years later, the emperors who ruled Byzantium enacted a saga of political intrigue and conquest as astonishing as anything in recorded history. Lost to the West is replete with stories of assassination, mass mutilation and execution, sexual scheming, ruthless grasping for power, and clashing armies that soaked battlefields with the blood of slain warriors numbering in the tens of thousands.
Still, it was Byzantium that preserved for us today the great gifts of the classical world. Of the 55,000 ancient Greek texts in existence today, some 40,000 were transmitted to us by Byzantine scribes. And it was the Byzantine Empire that shielded Western Europe from invasion until it was ready to take its own place at the center of the world stage. Filled with unforgettable stories of emperors, generals, and religious patriarchs, as well as fascinating glimpses into the life of the ordinary citizen, Lost to the West reveals how much we owe to this empire that was the equal of any in its achievements, appetites, and enduring legacy.
LARS BROWNWORTH, a former high-school history teacher, is the creator of the podcast phenomenon “12 Byzantine Rulers” that iTunes named as one of the “podcasts that define the genre.” Brownworth and his podcast have been profiled in the New York Times, Wired, and USA Today, and were featured on NPR.
“Captivating…In Lost to the West Lars Brownworth shows a novelist’s eye for character, bringing to life some of the most fascinating — and yet little known -- figures of the Byzantine era. But it is as a researcher into the obscurities of palace intrigue, treachery, and battlefield carnage that Lars really shines. With dry humor and a palette of vivid images, he recounts the dizzying game of musical chairs that placed one usurper after another on the Byzantine throne, only to be pitched off in a gaudily macabre way. In the end, one is left agog by the irony that the upshot of this centuries-long scrum was the preservation of nearly all that the Greeks have bequeathed to us.”
—Steven Pressfield, author of Gates of Fire
“Rome never fell -- it simply moved five hundred miles East -- to Byzantium. For over a thousand years the Byzantines commanded one of the most visceral and vivid empires the world has ever known. And yet their achievements are consistently underplayed; written out of history. Lars Brownworth is a rare talent. His contagious passion brings murderous empresses, conniving eunuchs, lost Greek texts and Byzantine treasures of fairy-tale proportions blinking back into the light. Confidently striding through time and across the mountains and plains of the Eastern Mediterranean, Brownworth puts this theocratic superstate slap-bang in the center of mankind's global story; back where it should be. The Byzantines made our world what it is today. Lars Brownworth matches their verve and brio in his seductive and gripping account.”
—Bettany Hughes, PBS host and author of Helen of Troy
“This is history as it used to be, history as story-telling. In this fascinating account of the Byzantine empire, Lars Brownworth covers a thousand years of blood-letting, outrageous luxury, bitter religious disputes and vaulting ambition without giving the slightest impression of being rushed or crowded. The page turns unaided.”
—Anthony Everitt, bestselling author of Augustus, Cicero and The First Emperor
"A hugely entertaining and often moving portrait of a civilization to which the modern West owes an immense but neglected debt. Read it, and you will never use the word 'Byzantine' as a term of abuse again."
—Thomas Holland, author of Millennium, Persian Fire and Rubicon
“Lost to the West is the sort of history I wish I’d been offered in school — a fast-paced adventure story that covers over a thousand years of political intrigue, brilliant leaders, incompetent squabblers, mayhem, butchery and religious divides, and vividly pictures a bygone era that is still a vital part of our heritage.”
—Mark Pendergrast, author of Uncommon Grounds
"The Byzantines are back! Correcting centuries of neglect, Lars Brownworth guides us through a forgotten world and, with clarity and wit, brings it to vibrant life. Filled with a dazzling cast of ruthless Emperors, conniving generals and half-crazed scholars, Lost to the West is both entertaining and enlightening -- a great piece of popular history."
—Tony Perrottet, author of Pagan Holiday and The Naked Olympics