I finished reading “Lost to the West: The Forgotten Byzantine Empire That Rescued Western Civilization” by Lars Brownworth. I’m sure that I studied some or perhaps even most of the major events covered in the book while I was in high school or in my History of Western European Civilization class in college, but I am still astounded at what I found in its pages. The nature of the response to obtaining knowledge about human activities depends upon the degree of empathy of the recipient of the information. In my case, I seem to have a more finely tuned empathy these days than when I was a young adult. Not only did I read about the tumultuous events occurring over a thousand years, but, to some extent, I participated in them. There’s nothing more satisfying than reading a book that so completely absorbs you that you feel as if you are living through the events depicted.
Here’s a brief description of the Byzantine Empire from Wikipedia:
The Byzantine Empire (or Byzantium) was the Greek-speaking Eastern Roman Empire of the Middle Ages, centered around its capital of Constantinople, and ruled by emperors in direct succession to the ancient Roman emperors. It was called the Roman Empire and also Romania (Greek: Ῥωμανία, Rhōmanía) by its inhabitants and neighbours. As the distinction between “Roman Empire” and “Byzantine Empire” is purely a modern convention, it is not possible to assign a date of separation, but an important point is Emperor Constantine I’s transfer in 324 of the capital from Nicomedia (in Anatolia) to Byzantium on the Bosphorus, which became Constantinople (alternatively “New Rome“).
The city once called Constantinople is the present Turkish city of Istanbul.
“Lost to the West” is rife with Machiavellian schemes, political intrigue, murder, suicide, rape, pillage and plunder, wartime atrocities, ethnic cleansing, incest, unimaginable cruelties of unbelievable variety, depravity, thievery, trickery, torture, slavery, debauchery, drunkenness, class warfare, disenfranchisement and subjugation of the poor, and, last but not least, religious zealotry. In short, Byzantine times were much like ours.
I was not surprised by the scope of the stuff mentioned in the paragraph above, but several things did give me pause. One of those “things” was the astonishing attack of Constantinople by the Fourth Crusade. The Crusades were organized and launched to regain control of the “Holy Land” by the Christian nations of Western Europe. How the participants in the Fourth Crusade came to attack, burn, pillage, and rape the city of Constantinople is almost incomprehensible, especially in light of the fact that the citizens of Constantinople were Christians like the crusaders. Well, not exactly like the crusaders, since the Byzantine Christians were of the “Orthodox” variety whereas the Western Christians were of the “Catholic” persuasion. The sacking of Constantinople by the crusaders completed the final schism between the Eastern Orthodox Church and the Roman Catholic Church.
The other main historical nugget I took from “Lost to the West” was the importance of religious doctrine and dogma in the conflict and warfare that took place during the centuries covered by the book. Differing interpretations of biblical and philosophical writings could cause all sorts of trouble. One major issue was that of religious icons, which were embraced by some and despised by others. The controversy over the use of religious paintings and sculpture during the days of the Byzantine Empire was much like the controversy that transpired centuries later during the Protestant Reformation in Europe.
Now I have to decide which book I’ll read next. I love having so many options, but making the final decision can be difficult.