A review of The Lost World of Byzantium by Jonathan Harris is near impossible to write. The book, incidentally, is far from impossible to read, despite its rather dry style. The problem is the breadth and sheer extent of its subject, an issue the author confronts with both enthusiasm and competence. Often history presents the casual reader with a hard-to-negotiate problem, being the straightjacket of preconception. And it’s often a problem of which we are unaware, precisely because we are rarely conscious of the assumptions we bring to any experience. And this is precisely why we need books like this one by Jonathan Harris, because it can cut through what we clearly do not understand. We need to confront preconceptions, because the process is always enlightening. But the process is often challenging as well. Rest assured, however, because this challenge is rewarding throughout.
The challenge in the Lost World of Byzantium is met head on and early on. We talk a lot of Rome, and much less of Byzantium. We hail the achievements of the former, and generally list the shortcomings of the latter. We see Rome as somehow noble, correct and classical, whereas Byzantium is often corrupt, degenerate, knavish and unsuccessful. And, as Jonathan Harris points out, we are constantly explaining why the Byzantine Empire eventually failed. What we rarely acknowledge is that at its height it was a more extensive empire than Rome’s and, importantly, it actually lasted longer than its precursor. And it was Christian from the start.
It is this perception of Byzantium as eventual failure that Jonathan Harris dispels at the start. It is also essential that he does this, since then we can appreciate the detail of the empire’s history in its own context, rather than in another imposed by our own preconceptions about a future it never saw. In many ways, the history of the Byzantine Empire was the history of Europe from the fourth to the fifteenth century. The Ottoman expansion westwards and its eventual conquest of the empire served to provide a wake-up call for concerted action to defend Christianity. At least one previous attempt had dissolved into anarchy as the Crusaders sacked the very place they had set out to defend. The fall of Byzantium, however, rendered any future sectional gain irrelevant, for if the edifice fell, there would be nothing for anyone. And thus the continent changed a little after Lepanto.
Any reader of such a long and complex history as that of the Byzantine Empire, however, must bear in mind the size and scope of the author’s task. The Lost World of Byzantium may comprise about 150,000 words, but it is trying to cover more than a millennium of European history, not to mention swathes and eras of Middle Eastern, Central Asian and North African history as well. We soon learn not to regard the Byzantine Empire as a purely or even primarily European phenomenon, as regular conflicts are fought to the south and east as well as to the north and west. What becomes clearer, however, is that an empire may wage war at its periphery, and that war may result in expansion or contraction of its territory. But if the empire wages war against itself at the centre, then the threat to its security is existential. Jonathan Harris’s book relates several occasions when Byzantium survived such complete and wounding internecine transformations.
An enduring insight from The Lost World of Byzantium relates to the general role of religion in these transfers of power, and in particular the ability of theology to create empires, rulers, dynasties and perhaps states. Byzantium was founded on Constantine’s embracing of Christianity. But this was only the beginning of the story as we perceive it. The early church was riven by schisms and heresies, notably the Arian interpretation of the nature of Christ. From the perspective of our own age, these theological differences might appear to have the significance of disagreements on the exact count of angels on a pinhead. But at the time, theological disagreements could lead to persecution, exile and war. A long time after the early church had solved some of its self-generated conundrums, new theological differences emerged with similar consequences. It is a great achievement of Harris’s book that it manages to raise what we now might regard as arcane to the status of living political debate. If economic advantage granted by the achievement and tenure of power, as ever, remained the goal, the political and ideological battleground where that status was secured was often theological and only when we appreciate that role do we understand the history of this empire, and perhaps also the history of the first and much of the second millennium of the Christian era.
If there is a criticism of this monumental work, it is that the necessity of chronicling the incumbents of the throne sometimes make the history a mere list of tenants, a procession of kings who merely seem to come and go. The Johns, the Michaels and the Constantines keep coming, forever counting, and it seems sometimes that only the numbers change, as each incumbent suffers his own conspiratorial fate, often remarkably similar to that of his predecessor. There are numerous child emperors, all with their own nakedly ambitious protectors. And also history seems to reproduce itself as yet another incumbent marries to secure peace and alliance, or pursues yet another catalogued military campaign against north, south, east or west, as ever only partially successful. The muddle, it seems, tends to continue.
Overall, the book deserves some criticism for not including enough description of the social and economic conditions within the empire. Such diversity, both ethnic and religious, needs more detail to provide a picture of its complexity. There is little that conveys any feeling of what it was to live even in Constantinople, itself, let alone the Byzantine Empire as a whole. But then, with a task of this size, any author needs to be selective. Jonathan Harris simply could not have included material of this type without doubling the size of an already massive book. And, given the author’s commitment and dedication to his subject, this absence ought to provoke most readers to explore more of his output. This aspect surely has also been covered elsewhere.
What is included are descriptions of greens and blues, Pechenegs, Basils, various Phokases and numerous Theodoras, alongside Abbasids, Seljuks, Fatimids and hordes of Constantines. If even one of these hits a blind spot, then Jonathan Harris’s book will help provide the missing understanding. If anything, it is surely comprehensive. History is always about much more than our preconceptions and all good writing on the subject should remind us of this fact. The Lost World of Byzantium provides a superb opportunity to learn much about this neglected, but crucial era of history.