Interview with Lars Brownworth

Lars Brownworth became a podcasting sensation when he posted a series of short lectures called 12 Byzantine Rulers.  Now, the historian has come out with his book Lost to the West: The Forgotten Byzantine Empire That Rescued Western Civilization. This overview of Byzantine history runs all the way from the founding of Constantinople in the 4th century AD, to its fall to the Ottoman Turks in the 15th century.  We interviewed Lars Brownworth by email:

There have been other history books that give an overview of the Byzantine Empire, including recent ones by Judith Herrin and Timothy Gregory. What does your book offer people interested in Byzantium?

I’ve always been a fan of telling history as a story- not so much as a collection of dates or impersonal movements, but as a series of individual lives. Byzantine history in particular lends itself to this perspective because of the unique centrality of the emperor in everyday life. The person on the throne stood halfway to heaven, and the decisions they made shaped the lives of nearly every citizen. Seeing the story through their eyes puts in perspective how imperceptibly at first, with each seemingly small action the east and west drifted apart until the animosity on both sides permanently ruptured relations. This part of Byzantium’s ultimate legacy still deeply impacts the world today.

Having to cover over a thousand years of history in one volume means that you cannot include information about every emperor’s reign, or all historical events. How did you decide what to include in your book, and what you could leave out?

This was a much harder process than I originally had anticipated. (My first draft to my publisher approached a length that no one would possibly have wanted to read.) Some of the selections were easy- the reigns of Justinian, Heraclius, Irene, and Alexius, the founding of Constantinople, the battle of Manzikert, the Fourth Crusade, etc. Others, like the reign of Theophilus had to be included to set up the revival of learning and the religious dispute that erupted into a cold war between Byzantium and Rome. My main concern was to strike a balance between the significant moments that shaped imperial history while keeping the book to a readable length. Unfortunately that meant I had to cut out some very lively material (Justinian II overcoming exile and mutilation to seize the throne, or Constans II getting killed with a soap dish for example) but as I wrote in the introduction, the hope is that it will lead to further reading and part of the joy of Byzantium is in the discovery.

You are also known for your 12 Byzantine Rulers podcast series, which has generated hundreds of thousands of downloads. How did you come up with the idea of doing these podcasts and were you surprised about how popular they became?

The idea originally was to create something like a teaching company lecture. My brother and I had been listening to an excellent series about Egypt by Professor Bob Brier, and he suggested that I do something similar for Byzantine history. I recorded the first episode back in 2004 and promptly forgot about it, getting wrapped up in my teaching schedule. A year later Apple announced that they were accepting podcast submissions to iTunes and on a whim my brother posted it. The response took me completely by surprise. Within a month I was getting emails from all over the world asking when the next episode was going to be released, and I realized I’d actually have to follow through with this project. The release schedule was slow due to my teaching responsibilities, but I was pleasantly surprised that people were willing to follow it to the end.

Your book and podcasts, as well as works by other scholars and writers, have helped revitalized interest in Byzantine history. What do you think is so appealing about their history?

On the most basic level Byzantium is simply a fascinating story. It has the full range of human experience- a thousand years of bloodletting, outrageous luxury, bitter religious disputes, and vaulting ambition. But its impact goes deeper than that. Like the West, it was a Greco-Roman society with Judeo-Christian roots that struggled with- and came to unique conclusions about- questions of immigration, fair taxes, the separation of Church and State, and how to deal with a militant Islam. With its huge impact on both the Islamic and the Western world, it has seldom been more timely or relevant. As one historian has said, ‘Byzantium explains why we are as we are- and how we might be different’.

Finally, there are many primary sources about the Byzantines that are available in English translation. Is their any particular text that you would recommend that people could read after your book?

There are a wealth of sources available for those who want to read about the Byzantines in their own words, though which ones you chose depends on the time period you wish to concentrate on. For early Byzantine history, the best is Procopius- both his official “History of the Wars” and the scandalous ‘Secret History’. For the middle period which covers the Byzantine ‘dark ages’, sources become somewhat scarce, but the two major epochs- the Iconoclastic controversy and the rise of the Macedonian dynasty- are detailed in the wonderful “The History of Leo the Deacon” translated by Alice-Mary Talbot. Finally, for later Byzantine history there is no finer historian than Anna Comnena who was an eyewitness to the Crusades and left her lively account in the “Alexiad”.

We thank Lars Brownworth for answering our questions.

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