The book, incidentally, is far from impossible to read, despite its rather dry style. The issue is the breadth and sheer extent of its subject, an issue the writer confronts with both enthusiasm and endurance. And it’s often a problem of which we are unaware, precisely 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, because it can cut through what we clearly don’t understand. We need to face preconceptions, because the process is always enlightening. However, the process is often challenging too.
The challenge from 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, classical and correct, whereas Byzantium is often corrupt, degenerate, knavish and unsuccessful. And, as Jonathan Harris points out, we are always describing why the Byzantine Empire finally collapsed. What we rarely acknowledge is that at its height it was a more extensive empire than Rome’s and, importantly, it lasted longer than its precursor. Plus it was Christian from the start.
It’s this perception of Byzantium as eventual failure that Jonathan Harris dispels at the beginning. It is also essential that he does this, since then we can appreciate the detail of the empire’s history in its own context, instead of in another imposed by our own preconceptions about a future it never saw. The Ottoman expansion westwards and its eventual conquest of the empire functioned to supply 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 contain about 150,000 words, but it is trying to cover more than a century of European history, and of course swathes and eras of Middle Eastern, Central Asian and North African history as well. What becomes clearer, however, is an empire could wage war at its periphery, which war may result in contraction or expansion of its land. But if the empire wages war against itself at the centre, then the threat 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 the overall function of faith in these transfers of power, and specifically the ability of theology to make 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 may seem to have the significance of disagreements on the exact count of angels on a pinhead. But at the moment, 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 arose with similar consequences. It is an excellent accomplishment of Harris’s book that it manages to raise what we now might regard as arcane to the status of living political argument. If economic advantage granted by the accomplishment and tenure of power, as ever, remained the goal, the political and ideological battleground where that status was secured was often theological and only if we appreciate that role do we understand the background of the empire, and perhaps also the history of the first and much of the second 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 sometimes make the history a mere list of tenants, a procession of kings who only 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 every incumbent suffers his own conspiratorial fate, often remarkably like that of his predecessor. And also history appears to reproduce itself as yet another incumbent marries to secure peace and alliance, or pursues yet another catalogued military effort against north, south, east or west, as only partially successful. The muddle, it seems, tends to continue.
Overall, 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 picture of its complexity. There’s not much that conveys any sense of what it was to live even in Constantinople, itself, let alone the Byzantine Empire as a whole. But then, with a job of this size, any author needs to be selective. Jonathan Harris simply could not 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 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’s surely comprehensive. History is always about much more than our preconceptions and all fantastic writing on the subject should remind us of the fact. The Lost World of Byzantium provides a superb opportunity to learn much about this failed, but crucial age of history.