152 of 158 people found the following review helpful
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.
65 of 68 people found the following review helpful
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. Furthermore, this is no dry history textbook - the story is replete with wars, charismatic leaders, assassinations, and sex scandals.
Brownworth takes a "big man" approach to history, which focuses on the emperors and leaders rather than ideologies or the common peasants in Byzantium. He chooses the most important emperors and focuses on their reigns (his podcast was appropriately titled "12 Byzantine Rulers"). I agree this probably the best way to present history for non-experts, especially for a place like Byzantium. Indeed, Brownworth does a great job showing how the tides of Byzantine history changed dramatically with changes in political leadership. Byzantium did remarkably well when capable military rulers took the reigns of power, but floundered when aristocrats and petty thugs ruled. By contrast, most of the ideological disputes centered around obscure Christian doctrine (e.g., Arians versus Orthodox), so wouldn't be as exciting to readers as the dramatic political movements of the 20th century. While it is certainly outside the scope of this book, it certainly would have been nice to learn a bit more about Byzantium's contributions to culture and the sciences. But alas, 1,000 years is a long time to cover.
Overall, I think Brownworth does a great job in this book and provides an important service in making Byzantium more accessible and, well, less byzantine. However, at times I think he becomes a bit too pithy and cliched in describing certain historical personages. For example, good emperors work hard in "service" to the empire, while bad leaders are "power-hungry" or fools. "Ominous clouds" threaten the empire far too many times in one book. While Brownworth is probably right in most of these assessments, it isn't necessary for him as the narrator to actually interject his commentary, but rather let the action of history speak for itself. I think the book does read easily and has good pacing, but these cliches do become a bit distracting - although certainly not fatal to the story.
By the way, Brownworth now has a new podcast out about the Normans, available on iTunes.
85 of 92 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. The Empire also kept alive the writings and learning of the Greeks and Romans which, ultimately, made their way to Western Europe as it shook off its lethargy.
While most of know the names of at least a few Roman Emperors, few of us know much, if anything at all, about the rulers of the Byzantine Empire, save perhaps for Constantine himself. Brownworth tells us of many8 of the 88 Byzantine emperors, a few of whom were worthy beyond measure and many who were incompetent and damaged the Empire and its citizens.
In fact, Brownworth focuses on the Emperors, their circumstances and actions. Relatively little detail is provided beyond this, about the people and their lives. He provides enough to give you the flavor of ordinary life here and there and in this way keeps his history brief. What he does say is enough to depict the cruelty of the invaders from the east and the vagaries of life in that age: brutal death or being sold into slavery. In our age of political correctness, we are rarely informed that the invading culture enslaved entire populations for more than a thousand years, well into the 20th Century.
One recurrent theme is the tension between the Roman and Orthodox Churches. It is fascinating to see how the Pope withheld aid from the Eastern Empire until an agreement to end the schism was reached - and then breached the agreement.
Brownworth devotes significant space to describing the repeated rebirths and flowering of Byzantine art and culture. In a way, the lack of photographs and illustrations of the art and architecture he describes is regrettable, but the truth is that much Byzantine art was destroyed or looted.
Ultimately Constantinople, shielded by its mighty walls for more than a millennia, succumbed to Muslim attackers and the Byzantine Empire was essentially extinct.
Brownworth successfully argues that the Byzantine Empire protected Western Europe until barbarism waned and the retrieved Greek and Roman masterworks opened the eyes of the Europeans and stoked the fires of the Renaissance. Without Byzantine to protect it, Europe would have been overrun by the Islam tide. It is a convincing argument.
Overall, Brownworth has written superb popular history. He makes the Byzantine Empire readily accessible. It is a journey well worth taking.
18 of 20 people found the following review helpful
Prospective readers of Lars Brownworth's "Lost to the West" should be aware what they are getting. For those unfamiliar with Brownworth, he was made famous in a uniquely 21st century way when he produced a podcast called "12 Byzantine Rulers" a narrative retelling of 1,000 years of Roman history through the lives of 12 emperors who reigned from Constantinople. The podcasts, which were told with a mix of passion, humor, facts, and a dollop of melodrama, were a runaway hit, downloaded by over 100,000 listeners. From this success, Brownworth earned a book contract.
"Lost to the West" continues very much in the vein of the podcast. It isn't an academic history by any stretch, but is instead what some might call with derision a "popular history." The story is told as narrative with the same melodrama as the podcast. No reader will have a moment of trouble telling Brownworth's anointed heroes from his villains in any of the chapters. His often shallow analysis would surely be read as laughable by serious historians, as he time and again points to decisions and battles which, if only they had gone differently, might have postponed the "Dark Ages" by "centuries" or even avoided them altogether. Likewise, as an apparently unabashed fan of the "great man" view of history, Brownworth sees the fate of the empire turning perpetually on the choices of individuals with little attention to the Empire's severe structural deficiencies as a highly centralized autocratic economic and political system unable to readily adapt to changing circumstances. Careful readers knowledgeable about the period will also detect quite a few errors of fact in the text.
And for all that I loved the book and happily give it five stars. Condemning Brownworth for not writing an academic history would be pedantic in the extreme; his goal was plainly to write an entertaining book which would invite those unfamiliar with the Byzantine history he loves to take a quick tour and maybe even get hooked. I cannot imagine he was trying to exhaustively cover more than 1,000 years of history but was seeking to write a page turner, much as his podcast (of which I was a devoted fan) made listeners eagerly await the next episode. While likely any student producing a paper on the subject would hopefully receive a less than satisfactory grade if they based it on "Lost to the West," readers will find endless entertainment in Brownworth's gift for supplying salacious details and crafting larger than life characters into heroes.
While good history is rarely the stuff of good vs. evil (and Brownworth's distaste for Persia and the Islamic east and outright distain for the Feudal west are both so plain that they drip from the page) they do make for the stuff of great reads. One can easily quibble with his method as a historian, but as a storyteller he delivers a tale that will leave many wanting to know when they can expect his next work and maybe even convince some to learn more about the subject he loves. Somehow, I expect that this is, in fact, his goal in writing "Lost to the West."
9 of 9 people found the following review helpful
If you start out reading about Byzantium, you are immediately lost.
You read "Sailing to Byzantium" and see an excellent short tour of the cultural influences of Byzantium on the West. An excellent book, you think, but I lack an overview of what this empire was, who these people were, why they withstood barbarians, Moslems, pillaging Crusaders, and in many ways preserved what it means to be of the West.
You buy a few books. I read a book once that described the Byzantine army in excruciating detail. Interesting, but dry. I read a decent biography of the Byzantine General Belisarius. I read Procopius's Secret History.
All good, but all episodes.
This book is a simple, cleanly written, and engaging one volume overview of Byzantine history. It is fascinating. It captures the sweep of the history of these people. It is suitable for a freshman college history course, but it is also a good read for a person interested in the Roman Empire, the perennial battle of West vs. East, or the underpinnings of the Renaissance.
There are great stories here, fascinating men and women, the exotic scope of Constantinople, standing on the crossroads of many worlds. This book is what I have been looking for, and it is an excellent overview that will incite much interest in any casual or serious student of history.
51 of 67 people found the following review helpful
Lars Brownworth's account of the Byzantine Empire begins with the reign of Diocletian at the end of the 3rd century and ends with the fall of Constantinople to the Turks in 1453. His narrative covers most of the main political and military events of those 1100 years. He writes in an engaging manner, and readers of this book will come away with a better understanding of Byzantine history.
I do not know of any other popular histories of the Byzantines, but even so, I would not recommend this book. Brownworth's narrative is written in a clear, conversational manner (the text is so conversational that some readers will be annoyed). However, the text contains too many factual inaccuracies and outmoded historical interpretations. As I read this book, I stumbled across some real howlers. I'll provide only one example: Brownworth claims that Constantine froze Roman society making occupations hereditary and that this decree created the feudal system of Medieval Europe. I wonder what bad book he read to come to this conclusion. First problem: It was Diocletian who attempted (emphasis on "attempted" because he was terribly unsuccessful) to freeze society. Second problem: Freezing society did not lead to feudalism. Third problem: The scholarly consensus today is that feudalism never existed. So, Brownworth takes a discredited theory and feebly attempts to find its origin in an unenforceable decree that he misattributes to the wrong emperor. A perfect storm of nonsense.
The average reader will gain a greater understanding of Byzantine history by reading this book. But, let the reader beware. The overall story is here, but do not trust any of the particulars without double checking with a reputable source.
5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
on March 9, 2012
Once upon a time, long long ago, the mighty city of Rome fell to invaders, and Roman Emperors were short-lived and followed each other in quick succession. As the Western Empire descended into the Dark Ages, the light of the Roman Empire began to shine ever more brightly from Byzantium. And even though they spoke Greek and had distinctly different religious rituals, the Byzantine Emperors thought of themselves as Roman through and through - they were, after all, the descendants of the original Roman Empire, the inhabitants of New Rome. And so Byzantium replaced Rome as the center of the universe, and grew mighty in power and influence, until the Crusades and the Ottomans led it gradually but inorexably to its final demise in 1453.
This book is the story of Byzantium. Lars Brownworth isn't a historian, but he is an excellent storyteller, and the pace of action is fast and he covers a thousand years with breakneck speed. His focus is on the leadership and the corridor of power (probably the best perspective for a book that compresses a thousand years in approximately 350 pages) as opposed that of of the common man. I do have some issues with how Brownworth seems to interject his own personal preferences for some Emperors over others, but that's a minor gripe and the bias does not detract from the book. Overall this is an excellent read for those who are interested, and a good first introduction to Byzantium, even though at times the pace feels a tad rushed.
My favorite work on Byzantium is John Julius Norwich's three-volume masterpiece, which is historically highly accurate, very detailed in its depiction, and a must-read for those who are seriously interested in Byzantium. For those who don't have the time, Norwich has also authored a single-volume précis of Byzantium, which is also excellent reading, but somewhat more "dry" than this book. Also, Norwich's book does not have the racy urgency of this book, and is somewhat more sedate and restrained in tone. Between Norwich and Brownworth, I think that those who want to know more about Byzantium will have an excellent start.
38 of 51 people found the following review helpful
The back cover of my review copy proclaims that "Lost to the West" is "no dry, scholarly work"; that the author "vividly evokes wars, bloody usurpations, and conspiricies"; that the book, which is intended to "popularze" history, is "entertaining." All these editorial assertions are true. With its dearth of citations, dates, indexes, and bibliography, "Lost to the West" has achieved, if not surpassed, its goal.
Although it begins slowly, the narrative becomes especially vivid and entertaining beginning with chapter seven, "The Rise of Peter Sabbatius," which focuses upon the rise of Justinian I, an era with which I have only a nodding acquaintance (other than Procopius' entertaining and tendentious "Secret History"--my interests being riveted on the late Republic and Empire through Septimius Severus--with occasional teaching forays into the 4th-5th centuries of our era).
As vivid and entertaining as I found the subsequent chapters--especially the adventures of Justinian's brilliant general Belisarius--doubts nevertheless lingered at the back of my mind, generated by some of the generalizations, simplifications, and, I fear, inaccuracies that caught my eye in chapters one to six, doubts that were exacerbated by the author's frequent forays into the thoughts of his historical protagonists.
To delve into the arguable over-simplifications here--e.g., "Crushed into hopelessness, more and more people took refuge in the different "mystery cults," the most popular of which was Christianity" --would take up too much space for a short review; instead, I shall give only four examples. 1) On Diocletian's monetary reforms: "With budget and borders in hand. . ." glosses over the fact that Diocletian had no means to enforce his edict of maximum prices or coinage reforms [See A. Cameron, "The Later Roman Empire," Cambridge, MA (1993) 39]. 2) Rumor presented as fact: "Captured by the enemy, [the Roman Emperor Valerian] was forced to endure the indignity of being used as a footstool by the gleeful Persian king " comes from the speculations of Lactantius, a Christian apologist who was not on hand to witness either Valerian's humiliation or Shapur's "glee". 3) The author's assessment of Constantine's reforms as resulting in the "feudal system, which would take deep root and not be overthrown for a thousand years"  fails to acknowledge the patron-client system in which, through a series of mutual obligations, the lower classes had been tied to the upper classes in the Roman world since before Romulus' adoptive mother was a pup. 4) Inaccuracies: "Without [a written constitution], every reign was reduced at its core to the principle of survival of the fittest--as Augustus, wrapped up in the cloak of the Republic had more eloquently put it, "carpe diem"--seize the day" . Although it is likely that Augustus quoted this memorable line of one of his pet poets, Horace, there is no written evidence that he ever actually uttered the words, which were written in the spirit of "Gather ye rosebuds while you may," and certainly not in context of hanging onto the imperial succession.
I realize that the goal of the publisher and Amazon is to sell books, which is why I debated so long on whether I should post this negative review. I think, however, that the entire concept of "popularizing" history in the form of straight narrative ought to be questioned. The ancient sources, which contain fascinating nuggets of information, are both sparse and full of holes--rather like a giant jigsaw puzzle. They have to be pieced together along with the evidence of inscriptions, archaeology, art, papyri, and other documents. They are therefore open to scholarly interpretation, which, admittedly, can be dreadfully dry, primarily because scholars are writing for other scholars (although the writings of many historians today are actually interesting--some even exciting). Arguably, a better way to "popularize" history (the actual events--or in the case of ancient history, the reports of events--are exciting in their own right) is through a good historical novel (examples: "Beacon at Alexandria," & "The Bearkeeper's Daughter," by Gillian Bradshaw, with degrees in Classics from U. of Michigan & U. of Cambridge; Mysteries about Rome by Steven Saylor, whose degree in Classics is from the University of Texas). My own fascination with history came via Alexandre Dumas; my journey back to ancient history is too tortuous to go into here. In a historical novel by an informed author, any reasonable scenario becomes plausible. In a straight narrative, however, unless the author has scrupulously checked all his facts, including those that are tangential to his narrative, he is left with a burden of proof, so that his reconstruction of events does not come tumbling down because of the missing pieces in his structural foundation.
4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
on November 10, 2009
To begin with, the title of this book seems a little misleading. Byzantium was never really "lost" to educated people in the West in the sense that, say, the Hittite Civilization or Pharaoh Akhenaten of Egypt were. It becomes obvious just by reading the book that even after the Western Roman Empire fell, connections and contacts between Byzantium and the West continued over the next ten centuries. In fact, those connections and contacts make up one of the most interesting themes in this book. We learn, for example, that during the first few centuries of its existence, Byzantium sought to "rescue" the West from the barbarian hordes, but by the end, the Byzantines were reduced to unsuccessfully begging for rescue from the West.
The overblown title is not the only sign of a hyperbolic approach. To keep the reader's interest, the author resorts regularly to superlatives. So much so, that reading the book sometimes feels almost like being in a boat tossed by an endless series of stormy waves. One minute, the worst possible disaster has befallen the Byzantines, it is the end, things will never be the same again. By the next chapter, they are undergoing a Renaissance under the brilliant leadership of a new line of the greatest Emperors they've ever had. I don't know; maybe it really was like that--maybe the Empire was in constant crisis. And the book certainly kept my interest with that approach. But readers looking for a calm, studied, academic approach based on analysis of long-standing trends--for Fernand Braudel or Jonathan Israel--had best look elsewhere.
Covering a thousand years of history in 300 pages, of course, doesn't leave much time for tracking the structures of daily life, for conducting economic statistical analysis, or for describing the intricacies of intellectual disputes. What we get here is mostly a lively tale of emperors and wars, succession crises and battles, murders and intrigue. For readers who enjoy that sort of thing (and I sure did), this is a great overview. The prose is highly readable and the ending in particular--describing the last stand of the Byzantine remnant against the murderous assault of their Muslim neighbors--is deeply moving. Everything seems to be here, and by the end, even the reader who knew nothing about Byzantium when he or she started the book will understand the importance and significance of its history.
4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
on October 26, 2009
I have long enjoyed learning about history but found most books on the subject either too dry or too narrowly defined. An option was historical fiction where I would learn about history but was always bothered wondering what was history and what was fiction. This book solves both problems by sticking to the facts while crafting a ripping good story.
The author makes Byzantine history come alive in a most compelling and readable manner. How the author manages to keep the pace and drama of the story moving is simply amazing when compared to other books on the subject.
It was the first history book that I would ever call a "page turned" and I hope to see more books from this author.
PS: The book could have been greatly enhanced with maps and other similar graphics to help the reader with place and time.