Lost to the West: The Forgotten Byzantine Empire That Rescued Western Civilization
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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.
From the Hardcover edition.
adorned its palaces and churches. From an imperial height of nearly half a million in Justinian’s day, the population had fallen to around fifty thousand. Deserted fields choked with weeds now covered vast stretches of the city, and half-ruined buildings still slumped in their sprawling decay. And yet, for all that, there was a strange vibrancy in the air. The newly painted frescoes were not as sumptuous as they had been in the past, silver and gold no longer encrusted the icons, and grand
children hostages. Anything that looked valuable was pried from the walls or smashed, and anywhere a cross could be found it was hacked out. By the end of the first day, there was virtually nothing left to plunder and the twenty-one-year-old sultan called a halt to the slaughter. The Hagia Sophia was converted to a mosque, its glorious mosaics were painted over with geometric designs, huge wooden shields were hung with verses from the Koran, and a mihrab was hacked into the wall at an
its first blow against paganism for the soul of the empire, but that war was by no means over. Despite his formidable reputation as a defender of the faith, the world Constantine left behind wasn’t by any means a Christian one. Strictly speaking, the Roman Empire was still officially pagan, and the government continued to pay for the upkeep of temples and priests of the old state religion. Constantine had done nothing more than legalize Christianity, but from the beginning it was clear that the
summer, Justin was dead of an old war wound, and Justinian and Theodora stood as the sole rulers of the Roman Empire. *Called Monophysitism (single nature), this heresy stemmed from several bishops who vigorously defended the church from the teachings of Arius. So intent were they on denying the claim of an inferior, human Christ that they went as far in the other direction. †Pope Felix III actually excommunicated the patriarch of Constantinople, but since no one was brave enough to deliver
older citizens might well have shaken their heads and muttered that there was indeed nothing new under the sun. It was hardly an auspicious start, but worse was yet to come. Within a month of Alexius’s coronation, word reached him that a terrible force of Normans had landed on the Dalmatian coast and was heading toward the port city of Durazzo. If they took the city, they would have direct access to the thousand-year-old Via Egnatia and with it a straight invasion route to Constantinople. The