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Lost to the West: The Forgotten Byzantine Empire That Rescued Western Civilization [Hardcover]

by Lars Brownworth
4.3 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (174 customer reviews)

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Book Description

September 15, 2009 0307407950 978-0307407955 1st
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.

Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

The once common idea that the lights went out on classical and Western civilization when Rome fell in 476 C.E. has long since been debunked, but Brownsworth weighs in to illustrate that the Roman Empire's center of power simply shifted to Constantinople. In a narrative by turns spellbinding and prosaic, Brownsworth marches us through centuries of history, beginning long before the fall of Rome, and introduces the successive rulers of Byzantium, from Christian emperors to Muslim sultans, detailing a culture he describes as both familiar and exotic. He follows religious, political and cultural change up through the Islamic conquest of 1453. Christian refugees fled Byzantium into Europe, taking with them their longstanding love of ancient culture and introducing Western Europe to Plato, Demosthenes, Xenophon, Aeschylus and Homer, fanning the flames of the renaissance of Hellenistic culture that had already begun in various parts of Europe. Although Brownsworth admirably illustrates the ways that the Byzantine Empire lives on even today, Judith Herrin's Byzantium: The Surprising Life of a Medieval Empire offers a more compelling and thorough history of this empire. Maps. (Sept.)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.


“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

Product Details

  • Hardcover: 352 pages
  • Publisher: Crown; 1st edition (September 15, 2009)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0307407950
  • ISBN-13: 978-0307407955
  • Product Dimensions: 9.5 x 6.4 x 1.2 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.2 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.3 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (174 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #678,533 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

Lars Brownworth created the genre-defining "12 Byzantine Rulers" podcast, which prompted the New York Times to liken him to some of history's great popularizers. He is the author of "Lost to the West: The Forgotten Byzantine Empire That Rescued Western Civilization", and "The Normans: From Raiders to Kings". He speaks at various conferences and is currently working on a new book about the Vikings.

Lars Brownworth

Finding History Blog:


Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews
126 of 132 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The Forgotten History of the Roman Empire September 23, 2009
Format:Hardcover|Vine Customer Review of Free Product (What's this?)
The Roman Empire fell on Tuesday, May 29, 1453, when Mehmed II sacked Constantinople, and Constantine XI Dragases stripped off his imperial battle gear and died alone and unrecognized. If you dated the fall to September 5, 476, when Romulus Augustulus surrendered his crown and scepter to the Vandal Odoacer, you would be half right. That is indeed when the western half of the empire fell, setting off the so-called "Dark Ages" in earnest. But the eastern half lived on for another 1000 years, waxing and waning in influence from the Mediterranean to the Euphrates and from the Balkans to the Nile. It was finally eclipsed by the triumph of the Ottomans, never to rise again.

Lars Brownworth is not a professional historian, but he is a fantastic history-teller. "Lost to the West" is a portrait of the history of the eastern half of the empire from its founding by Constantine the Great to its demise under his namesake. The major "great men" (and women) as well as big events find a place in his fast-moving narrative: Constantine, Justinian, Belisarius, the Council of Nicea, the erection of Hagia Sophia, the Great Schism, and the centuries long battle with Islam.

Professional historians will probably find something to quibble with here and there. But if you know nothing about Byzantium (as the eastern empire came to be known), then Brownworth is the place to start. He includes a list of primary and secondary sources at the end of the book, as well as a chronological list of eastern emperors.

Highly recommended.
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54 of 56 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A good introduction, but very general September 27, 2009
Format:Hardcover|Vine Customer Review of Free Product (What's this?)
This book comes recommended by Anthony Everitt and Tom Holland, two of the best popularizers of ancient Western history. As such, I figured it had to be pretty good. Following his successful podcast, Lars Brownworth introduces the Byzantine empire to the modern world. Often overlooked, Byzantium was the heir to Rome and a major civilization that lasted 1,000 years after the "fall of Rome" in 476. As Brownworth points out, Western civilization owes a huge debt to Byzantium, from modern legal codes to defending Western Europe against Islam. Brownworth makes this thousand-year story accessible to the modern reader.

[Note: the book covers the same territory as the podcast, although the book is more detailed and worth reading if you liked the podcast.]

Brownworth's Lost to the West: The Forgotten Byzantine Empire That Rescued Western Civilization is literally the thousand-year history of Byzantium. It begins with Constantine and ends with the Muslim conquest in 1453. Sometimes this means the book reads too quickly, with emperors dying before the reader even gets to know them. Golden ages fade quickly into dark ages - and then back again to golden ages. However, Brownworth's goal is to introduce Byzantium to the 21st century public and, as he puts it, whet the reader's appetite for more. Doing so requires speeding past decades, or even centuries, of history, but this is often necessary to complete the story in one volume. The scope is ambitious, although I think by and large Brownworth succeeds in both providing enough detail to make Byzantium real and not getting too bogged down within a particular time period.
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73 of 80 people found the following review helpful
The Byzantine Empire - and by extension, the Roman Empire- existed for 1,123 years and 18 days. Yet most of us know little about it other than he word "byzantine" being vaguely synonymous for highly intricate, complex, murky or devious dealings. In fact, the story of the Byzantine Empire is the telling of what we now know as Western Civilization. Beginning as the capital for the Eastern part of the Roman Empire, its primary city Constantinople became the center of a very vibrant society the preserved Greek and Roman traditions while Western Europe slipped under the control of barbarians and into what we call the Dark Ages.

Lars Brownworth has written an absolutely stunning popular history of the Byzantine Empire. Remarkably, he covers in surprising detail more than a thousand years of growth, decline, war, peace, prosperity, poverty, devastation by plague, earthquakes, invading armies and internal sloth, corruption and incompetence in just over 300 pages. His writing style is relaxed and easy, yet packed with facts. There are occasions when things become confusing because he doesn't mention the years of certain event often enough and sometimes skips ahead by decades or even generation. By these are tiny criticisms to make in the context of his great achievement, making the history of the Byzantine Empire easily accessible.

I consider myself to be a history buff. Though my area of concentration is primarily 19th Century Europe and the United States, I consider myself well versed in global history. But I couldn't go more than a page or two in "Lost To The West" without learning something new to me. Without Byzantine standing in the way for centuries, the onslaught of Islam might not have been stopped.
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Most Recent Customer Reviews
5.0 out of 5 stars This book did what it set out to say.
Mr. Brownworth presented an insightful review of World history against the backdrop of the Byzantine Empire. Read more
Published 3 days ago by Chuck Davis
5.0 out of 5 stars How the Eastern Roman Empire preserved western civilizaiton
A very enjoyable and readable book on how the Byzantine empire preserved civilization during the dark ages. Our world wouldn't be as it is were it not for this empire. Read more
Published 10 days ago by Amazon Customer
5.0 out of 5 stars Filled a huge gap in my knowledge of world history.
Great book. Well written, entertaining, full of detail and sprinkled with irony and humor. Kept my attention and filled a huge gap in my knowledge of world history.
Published 22 days ago by B. Sears
4.0 out of 5 stars Recommendable
I really liked this book. Lars Brownworth has an exquisite language and I like the well told history-telling. Read more
Published 1 month ago by sylvester roepstorff
5.0 out of 5 stars Interesting Read
This book was awesome. The content is fascinating, and the author presents it in a really entertaining way that is often lacking in nonfiction.
Published 2 months ago by Bill Lumberton
5.0 out of 5 stars Eastern Roman Empire?
This is a very entertaining and informative read concerning the Byzantine Empire. This is the first book I've read specifically about the Byzantine empire. Read more
Published 3 months ago by 1
4.0 out of 5 stars Good overview
This is a good overview of the Byzantine Empire, of which we don't hear much in history circles. It covers a long period of history, and as such there is too much information to... Read more
Published 3 months ago by Jorge Martinez
4.0 out of 5 stars very engaging introduction Byzantium
The author is enthusiastic and the stories are remarkable, especially if it is your introduction to Byzantine history. I am glad I read it!
Published 3 months ago by joseph cox
5.0 out of 5 stars Gripping, entertaining, and enlightening read
I've listened to Lars Brownworth's podcasts about the Normans and 12 Byzantine Emperors, every single episode, multiple times. Read more
Published 3 months ago by Jim McDougle
5.0 out of 5 stars A very readable foundation to Western History
With a very good education in World history, there is still so much yet to learn. This book on Evolution of the Roman Empire after the Fall of Rome tells a story about a period in... Read more
Published 3 months ago by Walter W. Olson, Ph.D, P.E.
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Topic From this Discussion
This Author has a podcast series on iTunes called 12 Byzantine Rulers
I agree with niall. The podcasts are very easy listening, informative and lively. I'm looking forward to his book.

The podcasts are at: http://www.anders.com/lectures/lars_brownworth/12_byzantine_rulers/
May 16, 2009 by Kentucky Kurio |  See all 5 posts
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