The Lost World of Byzantium by Jonathan Harris
Book Review by Ian Hughes
If a member of the public was to be asked the question of when the Roman Empire fell, the usual answer would be centred on events in the fifth century, and some may even give the specific date of 476 – the year when the last emperor in Rome was overthrown. For many scholars this is an unacceptable situation, as they know that the Roman Empire in the East continued into the next millennium, never mind the next century.
Part of the reason for this state of affairs is a legacy of the historians of the eighteenth- and nineteenth-centuries. For them the Eastern Roman Empire – now known as the Byzantine Empire – was a degenerate, money-loving, corrupt entity dominated by court intrigue and eunuchs: a far cry from the majesty of Rome in the first century AD. In his new book Byzantine historian Jonathan Harris asks the question of why, if the inhabitants were as lazy, corrupt and inefficient as usually depicted, could their empire have lasted for nearly a thousand years longer than its Western counterpart.
To achieve this aim, the author has written a book which includes ten chapters, each focusing upon the circumstances surrounding major individuals, events or dynasties. The Chapters are listed here, along with the periods under discussion:
1 Twilight of the Gods (c.330)
2 Outpost of Empire (c.535)
3 The Deluge (c.620)
4 A World Transformed (c.720)
5 The Conquest of the North (c.850s)
6 Paths of Glory (c.950/960s)
7 The Long Shadow (c.11th Century)
8 The Enemy Within (The Crusades)
9 The New Constantine (The Overthrow of the Latin Empire)
10 An Old Man Remembers (The Fall of Constantinople)
Although many of the eras covered are relatively well-known, the author usually manages to give a novel viewpoint to at least one aspect of the story. This is demonstrated by just two of his analyses. The first is his portrait of Constantine V (741-775). Usually seen as being a poor emperor, despite his long reign, Harris clearly believes that Constantine was a capable emperor whose legacy has been severely damaged due to his religious stance, as a result of which contemporary sources wrote disparagingly of the emperor. This has then been relayed by later historians, who have accepted these writings almost at face value.
The second is Harris’ portrayal of the revered emperor Basil II (976-1025). Usually seen as a successful emperor due to his military activity, Harris instead suggests that many of Basils’ actions – both military and political – were detrimental to the long-term history of the Empire.
These reinterpretations are one of the main reasons for the value of this book. Not only does Harris describe how the Empire survived, and in many periods expanded, but he also puts into context the actions of individuals and dynasties who, when seen in isolation, may be interpreted in a specific, but not necessarily accurate, manner.
However, there are a few caveats to this praise. One is that, as with any ‘overview’, a few of the generalizations may not be as accurate as hoped. Although any such difficulty is almost certainly minimal in the period in which Harris specializes (mainly AD 900-1460), for other eras there may be minor difficulties.
For example, to any scholar of Late Antiquity the suggestion that after the reign of Honorius (d.423) the imperial court moved permanently from Rome to Ravenna is open to question (p.34). In addition, the implication that after the Gothic revolt the decision to invite Athanaric ‘leader of the Goths’ to Constantinople was aimed at pacifying the Goths is also of dubious accuracy, as Athanaric had lost his authority over the revolting Goths prior to their intrusion into the Empire.**
These observations highlight the fact that Harris’ specialization is ‘Byzantine History 900-1460; relations between Byzantium and the West, especially during the Crusades and the Italian Renaissance; and the Greek diaspora after 1453’ (Royal Holloway Profile). Doubtless when Harris approaches the period of his specialization there will be little to doubt about his information or conclusions.
A further small problem is probably beyond the control of the author. Given the fact that the book navigates almost one-thousand years of history, and during this time the Empire expanded and contracted many times, there are only five maps. Furthermore, the maps fail to include at least some of the places mentioned in the text as being of importance. Needless to say, it is sometimes difficult to trace events geographically, so in a small way inhibiting the full utility of the book.
Yet these qualifications should not deter the general reader: most, if not all, books of this nature have the same faults as this. The question then remains as to whether this book, simply one of many overviews of the Byzantine Empire that have been published in recent years, is a worthwhile addition to the corpus. The answer must remain specifically with the reader. For those without any knowledge of Byzantine history the speed at which the author covers widely disparate periods of times may be confusing. Alternatively, for those with a deep knowledge the book may be seen as superficial. But for those with only a nominal knowledge about one or two of the events described the book may be surprisingly informative, even if only by questioning their previously-held beliefs concerning individuals such as Constantine V and Basil II. In that case, this book is heartily recommended. Sadly for myself, I now have an urge to find out more about Constantine V, even though my main interests lie elsewhere and realistically I have a limited amount of time for the research.
As for how the lazy and corrupt Byzantines survived for so long, the answer is clear: the conclusions of earlier historians is more of a reflection of their own times than it is of the realities of Byzantine history. The final word should go to Harris: ‘Thus if Byzantium has one outstanding legacy it is not perhaps Orthodox Christianity or its preservation of classical Greek literature. Rather it is the lesson that the strength of a society lies in its ability to adapt and incorporate outsiders in even the most adverse circumstances (p.242).’
- ...more Book Reviews!
- Emperors of Byzantium by J. Carr
- Byzantium Triumphant by Romane
- History of Byzantium by Gregory
**In a private conversation the author has acknowledged these difficulties, noting that the first is the result of needing to condense a long period of time into a short chapter and that the second is a publishing decision. The large cost of producing accurate and useful maps is indeed one of the drawbacks of modern historical publishing.
Ian Hughes has a MA in Ancient History and Society from Cardiff University and is the author of Belisarius: The Last Roman General; Stilicho: The Vandal Who Saved Rome; Imperial Brothers: Valentinian, Valens and the Disaster at Adrianople; and Patricians and Emperors: The Last Rulers of the Western Roman Empire.