The Byzantine Empire
The issue is the breadth and sheer extent of its topic, an issue the writer confronts with both enthusiasm and endurance. And it is often a problem of which we’re unaware, just because we are rarely aware of the assumptions we bring to any expertise. And this is exactly why we need books like this one by Jonathan Harris, since it can cut through what we clearly don’t understand. We will need to face preconceptions, because the procedure is always enlightening. However, the process is often hard too.
We talk a whole lot of Rome, and even less of Byzantium. We hail the achievements of the former, and generally record the shortcomings of the latter. We see Rome as noble, classical and correct, whereas Byzantium is often corrupt, degenerate, knavish and unsuccessful. And, as Jonathan Harris points out, we’re always describing why the Byzantine Empire finally collapsed. What we rarely acknowledge is that at its height it was a broader empire than Rome’s and, importantly, it lasted more than its precursor. Plus it was Christian from the beginning.
It’s this perception of Byzantium as ultimate collapse that Jonathan Harris dispels at the beginning. Additionally it is essential that he does so, since then we could appreciate the detail of the empire’s history in its own context, instead of in a different imposed by our own preconceptions about a future it never watched. The Ottoman expansion westwards and its eventual conquest of the empire functioned to supply a wake-up call for concerted action to defend Christianity. The collapse of Byzantium, however, rendered any prospective sectional gain irrelevant, for if the edifice fell, there would be nothing for anybody. And therefore the continent changed a bit after Lepanto.
Any reader of such a long and complicated history as that of the Byzantine Empire, however, must keep in mind the size and scope of the writer’s task. The Lost World of Byzantium may contain about 150,000 words, but it’s hoping to pay more than a century of European history, and of course swathes and eras of Middle Eastern, Central Asian and North African history also. What’s clearer, however, is an empire could wage war in its periphery, which war might lead to contraction or expansion of its land. However, if the empire wages war against itself in the center, then the danger to its safety is existential. Jonathan Harris’s book relates several occasions when Byzantium endured such complete and wounding internecine transformations.
An enduring insight from The Lost World of Byzantium relates to this overall function of faith in these transfers of electricity, and specifically the capability of theology to make empires, rulers, dynasties and possibly states. Byzantium was based on Constantine’s embracing of Christianity. However, this was only the start of the narrative as we perceive it. The ancient church was riven by schisms and heresies, especially the Arian interpretation of the character of Christ. From the perspective of our own age, these theological differences may seem to have the importance of disagreements on the specific count of angels on a pinhead. But at the moment, theological disagreements could result in persecution, exile and war. A long time after the church had solved some of its self-generated conundrums, new theological differences arose with similar consequences. It’s an excellent accomplishment of Harris’s book that it manages to increase what we now might regard as arcane to the standing of living political argument. If economic benefit granted by the accomplishment and achievement of power, as ever, remained the target, the political and ideological battleground where that status was procured was frequently theological and only if we appreciate that job do we understand the background of the empire, and possibly also the history of the earliest and much of the next millennium of the Christian era.
If there’s a criticism of the monumental work, it’s that the requirement of chronicling the incumbents of the throne occasionally make the background a mere collection of tenants, a procession of kings who only appear to come and go. The Johns, the Michaels and the Constantines keep coming, eternally counting, and it seems sometimes that only the figures change, as every freshman suffers his own conspiratorial destiny, often remarkably like that of his predecessor. And also history appears to replicate itself as yet another incumbent marries to secure peace and cooperation, or pursues another catalogued military effort against north, south, east or west, as only partly successful. The muddle, it appears, tends to last.
In general, the book deserves some criticism for not including enough description of the economic and social conditions within the empire. Such diversity, both cultural and religious, needs more detail to supply a photo of its complexity. But then, with a job of this size, any writer has to be selective. Jonathan Harris simply couldn’t have included material of the kind without doubling the size of an already enormous book. And, given the writer’s commitment and dedication to his subject, this lack needs to provoke many readers to explore more of his output. This facet surely has been covered elsewhere.
What’s included are descriptions of blues and greens, Pechenegs, Basils, various Phokases and numerous Theodoras, alongside Abbasids, Seljuks, Fatimids and hordes of Constantines. If even one of those strikes a blind spot, then Jonathan Harris’s book will help provide the missing comprehension. If anything, it’s surely comprehensive. History is about much more than our preconceptions and all fantastic writing on the topic should remind us of the truth. The Lost World of Byzantium provides a superb opportunity to learn much about this failed, but crucial age of history.