The Lost World of Byzantium

The Lost World of Byzantium
Jonathan Harris
Yale University Press  264pp  £25

In what sense is the world of Byzantium lost? Jonathan Harris initially answers that important question by reference to the 16th-century French ambassador, Pierre Gilles, who visited Constantinople a century after its capture by the Turks to find that many of the city’s Byzantine landmarks had already disappeared amid major Ottoman building projects – perhaps most vividly the bronze equestrian statue of the sixth-century emperor Justinian, whose dismembered parts he witnessed being taken off to be melted down and recast as cannon. However, the book’s title also reflects the author’s conviction that the Byzantine world is one which is too often lost sight of in writing about the medieval world, whether almost completely or in a haze of misconceived stereotypes about Byzantine weakness, religiosity and skulduggery. Harris’ aim is to present a more nuanced account of Byzantine history, which emphasises the vibrancy of the empire’s culture, the extent of its influence and, above all, the empire’s remarkable adaptability. His starting point is the sheer longevity across more than a millennium, during which it faced a forbidding range of challenges to its existence.

Doing justice to such a long and complex period of history within relatively modest compass is itself quite a challenge. Harris’ approach is to provide an analytical narrative, which divides Byzantine history, from the foundation of Constantinople in 324 to its capture by the Ottomans in 1453, into ten chapters, each of which focuses on a figure or family of central importance, contextualised in relation to the most important themes and developments of their period. The text, which is unencumbered by footnotes, but is supported by suggestions for further reading, 33 black and white illustrations and five helpful maps, generally strikes a good balance between succinct exposition of the essential narrative framework and elucidation of broader themes in political, military, social, religious and cultural history, thereby providing an excellent and engaging introduction to Byzantine history. 

In the later chapters the sometimes bewildering succession of usurpers in certain periods occasionally threatens to overwhelm the narrative’s momentum, but the regular inclusion of telling anecdotes helps to create a sense of immediacy. Periodic aperçus add depth to the narrative, as in the author’s persuasive qualifications to the idea that Heraclius’ Persian campaigns in the 620s were an early version of religious crusade and his alternative, non-religious explanations for aspects of Constantine V’s iconoclasm. The discussion is generally well informed by the latest scholarship, although the notion of Justin I as an illiterate under the thumb of his nephew Justinian has found less favour in recent assessments.

In explaining the longevity and influence of the Byzantine Empire, Harris directs attention to a range of factors, including its adept use of a potent mix of Hellenic and Christian cultural hegemony and, of course, skilful diplomacy. Above all, however, he emphasises the willingness of the Byzantine elite to incorporate outsiders, which is a particularly prescient observation in the context of current events in Europe.

Doug Lee teaches at the University of Nottingham and is the author of From Rome to Byzantium (Edinburgh, 2013).

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