Book Review: Lost to the West

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There are two kinds of history.

One is the dusty, desiccated version written by dusty, desiccated intellectuals and taught by dusty, desiccated professors. This is the history that teaches us empires rose or fell because a particular currency fluctuated by a particular percentage within a particular period, causing an already strapped and stressed middle class to be unable to purchase the grain that had been imported from overseas because trade tariffs had resulted in an embargo that made economic recovery impossible when it looks like Cindy Chapman isn’t wearing a bra and my God she’s got the best looking breasts of any girl I have ever seen, not to mention a tush that makes blue jeans the greatest invention since… What? Oh. I’m sorry, Sir. I didn’t hear the question.

The other is the version that teaches us that empires rose or fell because of the brilliance and daring, or the tragic flaws and weaknesses, of real people. Everyone knows the successes and failures of Robert E. Lee, but his refusal to fire on Ambrose Burnside’s headquarters at Chatham during the Battle of Fredericksburg because Lee had met his wife in that house, that makes Lee real and vulnerable. Everyone knows Richard the Lionhearted was the bloodiest and most violent soldier of a bloody and violent age, but the fact that he made a point of pardoning the archer who fired the arrow that ultimately killed him from gangrene, that makes Richard real and human. (Of course, the order to forgive was ignored as soon as Richard died, and the unfortunate archer was flayed alive.)

It’s the human factor that makes history come alive, and nowhere is that more brilliantly illustrated than in Lars Brownworth’s Lost to the West. The history of Byzantium, for most people, is a dimly known period that took place, uh, well, in the middle east somewhere. We know that for eleven hundred years an empire flourished (with concomitant ups and downs) from Spain to current-day Iran, and from north Africa to the Balkans, and that it lent its name to our synonym for “intricate” or “devious,” but beyond that, the center of Orthodox Christianity and the seat of some of the most spectacular art and architecture the world has ever known remains for most people an obscure afterthought to Roman history and a vague precursor to the Renaissance. Lost to the West brings those eleven hundred years into entertaining and colorful focus, and Brownworth achieves this by making use of the human factor.

Consider Justinian I, also referred to as Justinian the Great, known as the emperor who restored and expanded the empire, conquering vast swathes of land from the Atlantic to the Black Sea, the man who codified and modernized Roman law into a form that is still used in many places today, the man who inspired a cultural flowering and transformed Constantinople into an architectural gem, crowned by the renowned Hagia Sophia. All admirable stuff and well worth knowing, but how much more fascinating and human he becomes when we learn he married a lowly (and very young) performer named Theodora who, “…seems to have specialized in a particularly obscene form of pantomime involving geese…” Wow. The imagination reels. But just in case you think Justinian was just another dumb and randy male who allowed his judgment to play second fiddle to his hormones by marrying the child actress, give another thought to his judgment, because it was she who rallied her terrified husband and his senators and kept them from fleeing an angry mob:

“Every man who is born into the light of day must sooner or later die; and how can an Emperor ever allow himself to become a fugitive? If you, my Lord, wish to save your skin, you will have no difficulty in doing so. We are rich, there is the sea, and there too are our ships. But consider first whether, when you reach safety, you will not regret that you did not choose death in preference. As for me, I stand by the ancient saying: royalty makes the best shroud.”

Now that’s a wife to be proud of, never mind what she may have done for a living.

Consider this tidbit about the Persian king Chosroes II who was not noted for his tolerant understanding of failure on the part of his subjects. When his general, Shahin, was unable to destroy Constantinople and the Byzantine Emperor Heraclius, the general decided suicide was preferable to his king’s tender mercies, “…but Chosroes II had the body packed in salt and transported to the capital. When it arrived, he had it whipped until it was no longer recognizable.”

Okie, dokie. Little wonder that when Heraclius’s army closed in on Chosroes II, and that courageous worthy called for women and children to defend him, his subjects turned on him: “Chosroes II was flung into the ominously named Tower of Darkness, where he was given only enough food and water to prolong his agony. When he had suffered enough, he was dragged out and forced to watch as his children were executed in front of him. After the last of his offspring had expired, his torment was finally brought to an end when he was shot slowly to death with arrows.”

Golly. I do wish we could make Lost to the West required reading for our congress and the current administration. They might learn some valuable lessons. They would also be richly entertained by this wonderfully written history that transforms eleven hundred years of bloodshed and beauty, religion and opulence, triumph and despair, into something as entertaining as a damned good novel.

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