A review of The Lost World of Byzantium, by Jonathan Harris
In 330AD the emperor Constantine took two momentous decisions; introducing Christianity throughout the Roman empire and moving the capital city from Rome to the old Greek city of Byzantion, which he renamed Constantinople after himself. When the western half of the empire fell in the fifth century Byzantium emerged as the surviving eastern provinces, which continued until the Ottomans conquered Constantinople in 1453.
The title is well chosen because Byzantium truly is a lost world that remains mysterious and unknown to many. Harris begins by illustrating just how rapidly this came about through a visit to Constantinople in 1544 of the Frenchman Pierre Gilles. Despite arriving scarcely 100 years after its fall he found almost no trace of the Byzantine city, save for the great cathedral of Hagia Sofia and the massive defensive walls. Symptomatic of Byzantium’s fate was Gilles’ discovery of bits of a monumental bronze statue of Justinian I ‘which for a thousand years had stood on a tall column in the centre of Byzantine Constantinople’, protruding from under a pile of rubble.
Gilles and subsequent writers such as Edward Gibbon maligned an effete and corrupt Byzantine civilisation as being to blame for such an emphatic ending, handing down the dictionary definition of Byzantine we use today. Orthodox Christianity, Greek language, the existence of powerful court eunuchs and since being buried inside the Ottoman Empire have all contributed to the traditional western view of Byzantium as ‘other’.
More recently, historians have sought to rehabilitate Byzantium’s reputation. Harris counters the Gilles-Gibbon view by arguing that we should instead ask how Byzantium survived for so long in the face of constant pressures successively from gothic tribes, Sassanid Persians, Arabs, the new Balkan states, Vikings and even crusading Latin Christians, before finally succumbing in 1453.
The book ambitiously chronicles over 1000 years of Byzantine history in just 242 pages, with the narrative skipping along like a stone across water. Following a linear chronology, Harris highlights key moments and turning points that forced the empire to adapt to new challenges but does not cover any in detail. These generally involved deploying the great trade-derived wealth of Constantinople to variously fight, buy off or co-opt the empire’s enemies, or pay others to attack them. The Byzantines pacified others through conversion to Orthodox Christianity, such as the Viking Rus in Kiev who had first came to Constantinople as marauding pagan raiders.
A key turning point was the Arab conquests of the seventh century, which swiftly reversed many of Justinian I’s celebrated re-conquests of western provinces in the previous century, and permanently ended Byzantine rule in the east outside of Asia Minor, in North Africa and in southern Spain. Nevertheless, by reorganising their military into smaller, more mobile units, the Byzantines successfully prevented the Arabs from conquering Asia Minor and they were never able to breach the impregnable fortifications of Constantinople. The Byzantine’s ability to repeatedly bounce back from the brink of disasters such as the Arab conquests, or the debilitating fallout to a defeat by Seljuk Turks at Manzikert in 1071 was a significant factor in their longevity.
The Crusader sack of 1204, itself a consequence of the emperor’s much depleted treasury was, however, a disaster too far. Although the Byzantines retook Constantinople within 60 years the empire was much impoverished and limped on until 1453.
This book takes an overarching, macroscopic view such that emperors and events come thick and fast, and it can be difficult keep track of names and dates. However, the benefit of providing the full sweep of Byzantine history is to convey the immense changes taking place in and around the empire. This is a lucid, highly engaging and accessible account, and there is a useful chronology and list of emperors with dates of their reigns provided at the back. I was hooked from the prologue onwards.
I had only a few minor gripes. There are ample plates in the centre of the book (33 in total) illustrating coins, buildings, artwork etc. Unfortunately, these are all black and white, and it would have been nice to see at least some of the intensely beautiful icons and mosaic work in colour. Also, the plates are numbered but not referred to in the text, which I think would have greatly enhanced the reading experience. There are five excellent maps of the empire dealing with different points between 500 and 1050 but I would have benefited tremendously from a couple of later maps, and to bring the story full circle, one of the much-diminished empire as it stood in 1453.
Harris concludes with a brief discussion of Byzantium’s two great legacies; Orthodox Christianity, but also possibly less well appreciated, the preservation of a great portion of what we regard as the classical canon. Many complete works of ‘Plato, Aristotle, Aristophanes, Demosthenes and Lucian’ survive only due to their being copied in Constantinople. Above all, this should give Gilles and Gibbon cause to recant.