Interview with Jonathan Harris on The Lost World of Byzantium

Interview by Ian Hughes

Ian Hughes for UNRV: Today we have the distinct pleasure to interview noted author and historian Professor Jonathan Harris about his latest book The Lost World of Byzantium.

UNRV: The first question to ask concerns your research interests. On the Royal Holloway website it states that these lie in “Byzantine History 900-1460; relations between Byzantium and the west, especially during the Crusades and the Italian Renaissance; the Greek diaspora after 1453”. What made you focus on the Byzantine Empire rather than on the Crusades which appear to have remained far more popular amongst Western historians?
Jonathan Harris: The Crusades did feature when I first studied history at university but for some reason they never grabbed me in quite the same way that Byzantium did. I only got involved with them seriously much later when I was asked to write a book on Byzantium and the Crusades for a small publisher called Hambledon. These days, I often find myself teaching and writing about Crusades but I always try to slip the Byzantines in somewhere.

UNRV: Was your interest in ancient history piqued from an early age, and if so was this due to a particular teacher or parent, or was there another reason?
Jonathan Harris: I blame a friend of my parents who one Christmas gave a book called ‘People of Long Ago’ to my sister and me. I pored over this for hours: it started with the Egyptians, then went onto the Greeks, then the Romans with lots of very evocative pictures. At the end of the chapter on the Romans, it described how the Roman empire fell, accompanied by a lurid drawing of a colonnaded temple going up in smoke surrounded by sinister sword-waving figures with horns on their helmets. Then came a sentence: ‘But in the East, in the city of Constantinople, the emperors reigned for another thousand years’. I was intrigued and wanted to know more about these thousand-year emperors but when I turned the page I found nothing, only a new chapter about peasants working the land in the Middle Ages. From that moment I was always curious about this mysterious bit of history that no one would talk about.

UNRV: The history of the Byzantine Empire remains second in popularity to that of the ‘Roman Empire’. How much of this do you think lies in the historians of earlier centuries and their disparaging dismissal of the Byzantines?
Jonathan Harris: Byzantinists are very fond of blaming Edward Gibbon for the marginalisation of their subject. The fact is that the man was a great historian and that is why we are still talking about him over two hundred years after his Decline and Fall was published. He had his views and he loathed the merging of Church and state that characterised the Byzantine empire. Instead of denouncing him, we need to present an alternative case for Byzantium, placing it in the context of the tumultuous times in which it survived against all the odds.

UNRV: Which aspect of the book do you think will be seen as most controversial by your fellow historians?
Jonathan Harris: Squeezing 1100 years into 250 pages was quite a tight fit so a great deal had to be left out. Doubtless some readers will have their own views on what can be dispensed with and what cannot. The overall theme of why the empire survived for so long in such adverse circumstances likewise might not appeal to everyone.

UNRV: From reading the book I have gained the impression that you consider Constantine V to be a greater emperor than Basil II, whereas earlier historians have held the opposite view due to Constantine’s religious policies and Basil’s dynamic military campaigns. Do you think that others will follow this trend in ‘revisionism’?
Jonathan Harris: In many ways, I am the one who is doing the following here. Leslie Brubaker and John Haldon have done much to reshape our understanding of the iconoclast period while both Michael Angold and Paul Stephenson have questioned the greatness of Basil II. Both emperors suffer from a dearth of contemporary records about their reigns but while posterity was kind to Basil, it was vicious to Constantine V. I think that was why I felt I had to stick up for him!

UNRV: The book obviously has a large number of important people. Apart from the two in the previous question, are there any you particularly admire or despise? If so, why?
Jonathan Harris: Emperor John VI Kantakouzenos exercised a particular fascination on me and he dominates chapter ten. I neither admire nor despise him: he was an ordinary, probably well intentioned, human being but his actions ultimately had the effect of bringing the Ottoman Turks into Europe and making the fall of Constantinople an inevitability.

UNRV: What sort of feedback or reaction have you had from the academic community to the book?
Jonathan Harris: University professors often look askance at this type of book because in order to make a topic accessible and interesting, corners have to be cut here and there and exact nuances blurred which would never be permitted in a PhD thesis or an academic monograph. That said, Peter Frankopan, Peter Heather and Doug Lee, all university teachers, have been extremely generous in their reviews and very understanding about some of the short cuts that I have taken.

UNRV: Are there any lessons that can be drawn from the Byzantines for politicians today?
Jonathan Harris: Doubtless many of them would love to be thought of as God’s representative on earth, as the Byzantine emperor was! Seriously though, as a pre-modern society that sought security through means other than war and violence, Byzantium ought to be studied very carefully by policy makers.

UNRV: There is an extremely large amount of scholarship and detail in this book - how long did it take to put it all together?
Jonathan Harris: On one level it has taken a lifetime, as just about everything that I have learned about Byzantium has gone into it. The real research was not done in libraries, though, but in the classroom. The need to explain this unusual and often perplexing society to students forced me to clarify in my own mind what I really thought about it. After all, as Einstein said, if you cannot explain it simply, you do not understand it well enough yourself.

UNRV: Finally, are you working on any further projects for publication in the near future?
Jonathan Harris: I have two projects on the go at present. One is a revised and expanded second edition of my 2007 book, Constantinople: Capital of Byzantium, to be published by Bloomsbury. The other is a translation of the Sylloge Tacticorum, a tenth-century Byzantine military manual, which I am preparing with Georgios Chatzelis and which will appear with Ashgate.

UNRV: Many thanks for sharing your thoughts with our readers: it is very much appreciated!

Ian Hughes specializes in Late Roman history and is the author of Belisarius, The Last Roman General (2008), Stilicho, the Vandal Who Saved Rome (2010); Aetius: Atilla's Nemesis (2012) and Imperial Brothers: Valentinian, Valens and the Disaster at Adrianople (2013).

Jonathan Harris is professor of the History of Byzantium at Royal Holloway, University of London. Harris's research is in the area of "Byzantine History 900-1460; relations between Byzantium and the west, especially during the Crusades and the Italian Renaissance; the Greek diaspora after 1453."

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