Sunday, July 17, 2016


Jonathan Harris, The Lost World of Byzantium. New Haven; London: Yale University Press, 2015. Pp. xi, 264. ISBN 9780300178579. $38.00.

Reviewed by Diana Gilliland Wright, Washington, DC. (dianagwright

Version at BMCR home site


After the refugees from 1453 died, knowledge of Byzantium was essentially lost in the West. In Constantinople, evidence became more and more difficult to identify, had anyone wanted to do so. Then in 1544 Peter Gilles went to Constantinople to find old manuscripts. He found much more and his book, Antiquities of Constantinople, was published in 1561, a detailed account of the extant Byzantine buildings in Constantinople and many of the missing ones, ward by ward and hill by hill. He did this in part by his own meticulous explorations and in part by using the Greek sources he had found.

Harris brackets his book with Gilles, offering as a kind of homage his own personal re-finding of the world of Byzantium in a relaxed, often anecdotal, form. A thousand-plus years is a lot of material to cover in 234 pages of text but his writing is lively and thorough, the style reflecting the vigor of the Macedonian period and the increasing sadness of the Palaiologan.

Harris is interested in the question of why the empire survived for a thousand years, at times growing and flourishing despite the constant attacks on its borders. The empire which originally extended from the Danube to the Sahara and included all of Asia Minor and Egypt, shrank and swelled a number of times, and finally began a slow evaporation until the 15th century when it was concentrated in the cities of Constantinople and Thessaloniki and their surrounding territory, and the remote and under-populated Morea.

He attributes Byzantium's survival to the fact that the empire's administration, throughout much of history, demonstrated a remarkable ability to compromise with its antagonists, to absorb populations and cultures, to rehabilitate areas needing inhabitants, to shift military organization, and to maintain an empire-wide bureaucracy for military and tax purposes. Several of the populations brought under control then chose the Byzantine as the model for their courts and cultures. The administration sometimes paid various allies and kept them as tools against potential border threats. With stable borders, Constantinople's geographical location at the juncture of the Asian silk road and the Mediterranean sea route brought it great wealth from trade, and allowed the great flowering of mosaics and manuscripts inherited from this period.

Harris sees the destruction of the empire as driven by two groups who could not be absorbed into the Byzantine culture – both cultures reliant on expansion and conquest rather than defined borders. The first were Western Latins who started coming east in the 11th century, first in trade, then in positions in the palace, and then becoming a majority in the army. Ultimately conflicts with the people of Constantinople led to a massacre which became a major justification for the disasters of 1204 and that first great conquest of The City prepared the way for the end. The Byzantine reconquest struggled against the other centers that had developed in northern Greece and the eastern Mediterranean, potential income was drained by Western colonization, and many remaining Byzantine archons showed a disinclination to obedience. In addition, internal conflicts over issues of church union left a series of emperors without unified support for their efforts at defense. Many were so opposed to church union, even in the upper aristocracy and imperial family, that they gave support to the Turks.

The second group was the Turks who arrived in Asia Minor in the 10th century. Several emperors hired independent Turkish bands as soldiers to replace manpower lost as territory was taken, or as former fighting men lost their independence and became tied to the land, or to subdue rebellious Greeks. But the Turkish military successes against the empire ate away at territory so that by the 1390s Byzantine intellectuals were anticipating their ultimate success.

One of the most attractive aspects of The Lost World of Byzantium is Harris' reminders of the literary output of a number of emperors. There was Maurice (582-602) who had to reorganize the military after a series of disasters, and who was concerned about the avoidance of military service by the rich. In his Strategikon, he wrote: "We wish that every young Roman of free condition should learn the use of the bow, and be constantly provided with that weapon and two javelins . . . We therefore wish that who dwell in castle, countryside, or town, in short, every one of our subjects, should have a bow of his own. Or if this be impossible, let every household keep a bow and forty arrows."1

Harris gives particular attention to one of the most literary emperors, Constantine Porphyrogennetos (913-959), who wrote a book for his son Romanus, De administrando imperio which laid out in full how to protect the borders. His prize insurance was the Pechenegs, an early Turkish group that the Byzantines had already used for 200 years:

The Pechenegs are neighbours to and march with the Russians . . . The Russians also are much concerned to keep the peace with the Pechenegs for they buy of them horned cattle and horses and sheep . . . Moreover, the Russians are quite unable to set out forward beyond their borders unless they are at peace with the Pechenegs . . . The tribe of the Turks, too, trembles greatly at and fears the said Pechenegs, because they have often been defeated by them. . . . To the Bulgarians also the emperor of the Romans will appear more formidable, and can impose on them the need for tranquility, if he is at peace with the Pechenegs, because the said Pechenegs are neighbors to these Bulgarians also.2

It is easy enough to explain why the Byzantine Empire came to an end: it is another matter to account for its apparent stability and recuperative power, and Harris does this with passion. The Lost World of Byzantiumis an excellent presentation for the literate general reader who wants to know more about Byzantine history, or for students who would like more story with their history. I would also recommend it to classicists, many of whom need more exposure to this thousand-year Greek-speaking civilization.

The publishers have let Harris down badly by printing the 33 pictures in black-and-white. A great many of the images are of mosaics, and there is no point in a mosaic without color. There are no footnotes, although there are recommended readings, primarily secondary sources, for each chapter.


1.   Geanakoplos, D. 1984. Byzantium: Church, Society, and Civilization Seen through Contemporary Eyes. #68.
2.   Geanakoplos, 1984. #89.

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