We are the clay, you are the potter; we are all the work of your hand. ~Isaiah 64:8

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Book Review: Lost to the West

Many years ago, my husband and I had a wonderful opportunity to travel to Istanbul.  We stayed at a small hotel just off the Hippodrome and with the "Little Hagia Sophia" (Kucuk Aya Sofya) in view.  How I wish I'd had a fuller understanding of the Byzantine Empire before that trip.  

What does the word Byzantine mean to you?  Does it bring to mind the idea of slothful beaurocracy?  Or perhaps tediously upheld tradition?  Perhaps it just means "old-fashioned", hopelessly so.  Reading Lost to the West  I gained a proper perspective on that word and a clearer understanding of the importance of Byzantium on western civilization: why and how the Renaissance came about, the difficult relationship between Eastern and Western churches, and how the Eastern mindset is decidedly different from the Western.

Lars Brownworth's book,  subtitled "The Forgotten Byzantine Empire That Rescued Western Civilization",  left me with better understanding, but also a deeper curiosity about the Byzantines.  I read the entire thing with a pencil in hand, busily scratching down slips of ideas, underlining curiousities, noting items I'd like to research further, and otherwise engaged in active reading.

Here are some of my favorite bits:

p. 14  "Gallons of scholarly ink have been spilled debating whether (Constantine's) conversion was genuine, but such speculation is beside the point.  The genius of Constantine was that he saw Christianity not as the treat that Diocletian did, but rather as a means to unify, and the result of his vision that fateful day . . .  was a great sea change for the empire and the church."

p. 37  "The future was with Christianity, but no on who considered himself Roman could completely reject the classical world.  Unlike their western counterparts, early Byzantine church fathers recognized the benefits of pagan philosophy, arguing that it contained valuable insights and that careful reading would separate the wheat of moral lessons from the chaff of pagan religion."

p. 96  " Given a proper army and a little trust, there was no telling what Belisarius would have been able to do...perhaps the Western Empire itself could be revived....Europe would have been spared the ravages of the Dark Ages, or at least the intensity of their destruction."

p. 115 " In Byzantium, primary education was available for both genders...virtually every level of society was literate. (...) The old western provinces under barbarian rule, by contrast, were quickly sinking into the brutish chaos of the Dark Ages...the struggle to scratch out an existence made it an unaffordable luxury, and it would have disappeared completely without the church."

p. 122 "...in the West...the distinction between sacred and secular power had become hopelessly blurred.  Forced to wear both the crown and the papal tiara, the pope entered the political arena, bringing the church into direct competition with the state. (...) The struggle between the two would become the defining tension of western history, and make the East - where the original roles hadn't broken down - appear impossibly alien."

On the coronation of Charlemagne as Holy Roman Emperor:
p. 153  "The church , Pope Leo was firmly declaring, was a higher authority than the state.  Such statements struck at the very heart of Byzantine authority. (...) At a stroke Leo had created a rival empire that not only dared to claim equality with the ancient line of Caesars, but also declared Constantinople's throne to be full of impostors, mere pretenders to the throne of Augustus. (...) to bolster his position he trotted out what was surely the most shameful forgery of the Middle Ages - the "Donation of Constantine."

p. 220 "Copies of the literature of ancient Greece and Rome became highly valued, and clergy and laymen alike began to dutifully reproduce the dazzling masterpieces.  This was among the finest gifts that the empire bequeathed to posterity.   ...most of the Greek classics that are extant today come down to us through Byzantine copies of the period."

p.278 -9 "After the events of the Fourth Crusade, the already deep divide between East and West stretched into a yawning chasm that was truly irreconcilable.  The crusading spirit, which has started out as a desire to help Christian brothers in the East, was revealed as a horrendous mockery.  In the name of God, they had come with hardened hearts and cruel swords to kill and main, to plunder and destroy - and in the work of a moment they had broken the altars and smashed the icons that generations of the faithful had venerated.  ...  Watching the crusaders walk their charred and blackened streets, the Byzantines knew that these men with the cross sewn brightly over their armor could no longer be considered Christians at all.  Let the powers of Islam come, they thought.  Better to be ruled by an infidel than these heretics who made a mockery of Christ."

p. 271  "As the empire edged toward extinction, a cultural flowering occurred, a brilliant explosion of art, architecture, and science as if the Byzantine world was rushing to express itself before its voice was forever silenced."

p. 302  "The fall of Constantinople may have extinguished the last vestige of the Roman Empire, but the immense light of its learning wasn't snuffed out.  Refugees streamed into western Europe, bringing with them the lost jewels of Greek and Roman civilization.   ...western Europe was reintroduced to its own roots."

p. 303  "The greatest heir of Byzantium, however, is undoubtedly the Orthodox Church."

p. 304 "...without Byzantium the history of the Middle East and Europe is at best incomplete at worst incomprehensible."

Have you read it?  What did you think?


Ranee @ Arabian Knits said...

I haven't read it, but it sounds fascinating and I just put it on hold at our library. My husband will probably be interested as well, as he spent some time in Turkey while in the military. Thank you for the review!

DebD said...

I have not read this book, but it sounds fascinating. My husband also loves this kind of history... hopefully I can find it in audio for him.

Thanks for the review.

Jody+ said...

I've not read this book, but I appreciate your review. Byzantine history has always been an interest of mine, as well as late antiquity ("It's always later than you think" as one prof used to say) and the crusades. If you're interested in Byzantine history, you should check out "The Alexiad of Anna Comnena," Anna was the daughter of Byzantine emperor Alexius I (1081-1118) and I got great enjoyment from her book during a crusades history course in college.

LuckyFindFabrics said...

Another one who's going to rush out to the library and check this one out! Thanks so much for finding it.

Sandy said...

Thank you for posting. I'll be looking for this one.

amy said...

This is my kind of book; thanks so much for sharing your insights! I plan to pick up a copy.

To answer your original question, when I think of Byzantium, I think of red and gold banners, of heavenly chanting, the glint of sunshine on colorful mosaics..and white. White marble altars holding candles, Holy Scripture and the chalice under the watch of rare and precious icons...

Todd Granger said...

Kerry, just read your post on this book. While I've had an amateur's interest in the Eastern Roman Empire for many years, I've not read that book. (My main sources are Lord Norwich's three-volume _Byzantium_, are more lately Judith Herrin's _Byzantium_, a book that she wrote when workmen working in the hallway outside her London college office asked her what the "Byzantine History" on her office door meant.)

I have emphasized the importance of the Eastern Roman Empire to my daughters in their (home school) World History course this year, from a discussion of the early, middle and waning days of the Empire itself to its influence (in death throes) on the explosion of intellectual inquiry in the late Middle Ages and Renaissance. Marvelous stuff.

And I can never talk about the fall of Constantinople (1453) without tearing up at least a little.

Ruben said...

Oh Byzantium! Just hearing its name makes me so nostalgic, if one can be nostalgic about something that disappeared more than half a millennium away. The last stronghold of a antiquity, it couldn't resist the push from all sides of barbarism. Now we, as descendants of the western barbaric tribes (disguised as kingdoms first and nation-states later) still battle the descendants of the eastern barbaric tribes (now in their role of Islamic fanatics and the regimes that support them). If only the city of Constantine had held out against the Crusaders first and Mehmed later, if only Belisarius had kept going.... We might be living in a more enlightened world....or in horrible autocracy and theocracy.