Sunday, 13 May 2018

Review: ‘The Lost Word of Byzantium’ by Jonathan Harris


I spent much of my childhood watching television programs about ancient cities, fallen empires and imposing emperors. It instilled me with a lifelong love for and fascination with history and everything it encompasses. One empire that has always mystified me a little was the Byzantine Empire. Although I had learned about the Roman Empire in school, its Eastern part, which became Byzantium, was never truly covered. And yet, bridging East and West, it must have been a fascinating place. Thankfully Jonathan Harris’ The Lost World of Byzantium gave me a brilliant overview. Thanks to Yale University Press and Netgalley for providing me with a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Pub. Date: 15/08/2015
Publisher: Yale University Press
For more than a millennium, the Byzantine Empire presided over the juncture between East and West, as well as the transition from the classical to the modern world. Jonathan Harris, a leading scholar of Byzantium, eschews the usual run-through of emperors and battles and instead recounts the empire's extraordinary history by focusing each chronological chapter on an archetypal figure, family, place, or event. Harris's action-packed introduction presents a civilization rich in contrasts, combining orthodox Christianity with paganism, and classical Greek learning with Roman power. Frequently assailed by numerous armies-including those of Islam-Byzantium nonetheless survived and even flourished by dint of its somewhat unorthodox foreign policy and its sumptuous art and architecture, which helped to embed a deep sense of Byzantine identity in its people. Enormously engaging and utilizing a wealth of sources to cover all major aspects of the empire's social, political, military, religious, cultural, and artistic history, Harris's study illuminates the very heart of Byzantine civilization and explores its remarkable and lasting influence on its neighbors and on the modern world.
In The Lost Word of Byzantium Jonathan Harris has quite a challenge in front of him, trying to pack hundreds of years into not quite 300 pages. As such, Harris’ book isn’t a comprehensive, everything included, kind of history. As he described it, it is more of a ‘personal journey through the long history of Byzantium’. While some may prefer more factual ad “historical” history books, and I often do, I actually loved Harris’ take on writing Byzantium’s history. The Lost World of Byzantium is written with a lot of insight, Harris often interjecting the historical account to bring in his own thoughts or to consider how history has judged the person he is describing. In a sense, The Lost World of Byzantium feels quite intimate, despite describing over a 1000 years of history and countless emperors, empresses, heroes and saints.

The most important thing  a history book needs to do is give the reader a basic grounding in the history it’s describing, whether that is a single event or, as is the case with The Lost World of Byzantium, countless of events over hundreds of years. There has to be a sense of connection, allowing the reader to trace trends, philosophies and families across the pages and generations. On the one had The Lost World of Byzantium does provide the full picture, describing ruler after ruler, war following war, and victory following defeat. On the other hand, however, it might be beneficial to already have a basic understanding of Byzantine history before beginning The Lost World of Byzantium. Harris fills his book with a great amount of detail, occasionally jumping backwards or forwards to explain a certain event or decision. In a sense Harris is telling a story, which the title of his book kind of suggests. In a sense the whole of the book attempts to answer the question of why Byzantium managed to last so long and why, then, it did eventually, fall. Harris provides many suggestions throughout the book but a definite answer will, most likely, never be found.

History books can be hard to read. They are often dry and boring, or so highly academic that it’s a miracle even the author knew what he was talking about. The Lost World of Byzantium is neither of these. It is the perfect history book in that Harris’ writing makes the pages fly by. You get invested in the Byzantium he describes and his passion for the Byzantine Empire becomes infectious. Although he stays objective for most of the book, as he should as an academic, he can’t help but let a fondness for certain characters shine through. In The Lost World of Byzantium Harris is giving us both historical fact as well as one hell of a story. Despite Harris’ engrossing writing, however, it might still be best to take it easy with The Lost World of Byzantium. There are a lot of dates, a lot of stories, a lot of battles happening in the same place at different times; it is a lot and it can get confusing. History can be repetitive and as names and treaties and cities repeat themselves, it is best to occasionally take a break from The Lost World of Byzantium. The great thing is, you’ll definitely come back because Harris as you invested after the first chapter.

I give this book…
 
4 Universes!

I greatly enjoyed The Lost World of Byzantium. It’s the kind of history book that fills your head with images rather than dates, without losing its base in history and fact. Jonathan Harris is a great writer and I’m definitely keen to read more of his books on the Byzantine Empire.

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