Elizabeth Sulzby's Reviews > Lost to the West: The Forgotten Byzantine Empire That Rescued Western Civilization

Lost to the West by Lars Brownworth
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Sep 30, 2010

really liked it
bookshelves: nonfiction, source-material
Read in September, 2010

A very readable account of the Byzantine world and how it kept literacy, philosophy, art, etc., alive during the so called "Dark Ages."

I learned lots from this book and it certainly provides part of the puzzle of what was working in the world that wasn't ruled by Roman Christianity. I had wondered when and why the "church" formally broke into Roman and Orthodox branches (Brownworth dates it as 1054). It gets tiresome because he goes through the Byzantine Tsars/csars/rulers one by one. On the other hand, now I know where I can get that info.

Another strand that I appreciated: how empire builders kept or lost their conquests: Augustus, Julius Caesar, Alexander, and now the Byzantine rulers. Some like Augustus left rulers and "booty" to keep a conquest going; others went on, ignored, and lost their conquests, often after looting all their riches.

It's interesting to look at the history of the relationships Roman church and rulers and contrast that with the Byzantines who kept church and state far more separated.

Questions like "what really happened" that are hard to find sources for:
What happened during the first 250 years CE for followers of Jesus and the other forms of Christianity? What were the early Christian churches really like? How was it that the Nag Hammadi and Dead Sea scrolls also contained secular literature when the "church" had those sources burned, condemned, etc.? Brownworth credits the Byzantine Empire with keeping Greek and Roman philosophy, history, art, etc., alive so they became a source for Renaissance thinkers.

I am almost done and am in the middle of his account of the Crusades. It's far less colorful than the recent accounts of the Templars, etc., and he doesn't weave the Crusade events and groups back into the culture as does, for example, Karen Armstrong in Holy Wars.

This book has a good introduction. It can be used as a summary without reading the entire book. But because he uses a chronological ruler by ruler account it's not so useful to let a reader pick and choose topics. You're almost forced to read front to back to make sense of what he covers.
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message 1: by Ned (new)

Ned Looks good.
As far as early Christianity through the first few cent's CE, from what I can tell, there were far more 'sects' or groups contending with other sects, other locals, the state (local or Roman) than later churches were wanting to reveal. More contentious and divergent rather than homogenous let alone Catholic or mainly pastoral like later protestants would like early christians to be (seemingly). Big figures like Polycarp, Tertullian and St Antony that get next to no notice nowadays except among specialists reveal very different facets and understandings of what faith was for. The later Constantinian recension -- with the history of the church that Eusebius wrote and famously left out so much -- wanted to tell an 'inevitable' kind of story. What happened was God's will and history was there to show the invisible hand of God guiding it along. Things that might seem to contradict such a narrative would need to be left out. Sometimes due to politics but often negligence or simply lost information.
As comprehensive as Byzantine historians maintained history and culture, art and lit down thru millenia (!!!) they of course would have the same sort of problems and their own reactions, unique to locale and prestige and methods.
The different periods of Byzantium never cease to keep me enthralled. A great pity I feel that in the modern west more don't see it so compelling. Neat you like it too.


Elizabeth Sulzby I hadn't intended to get into Byzantine history because I didn't know how it fit, so this was a good start for me. I wanted to know about that 33 CE up till around 350 CE to know how the "Church" got started and what else was going on during that time.

It seemed as if one had to go around the church whether I wanted to or not, so I decided to read from Hellenistic, Christian, Judiasm, and secular viewpoints. And I wanted to get into the mystery religions and gnostic groups--I went to Knossos in Crete. I'm not getting the right stuff on Gnosticism, because the Christian literature treats Gnosticism as "the Essenes" as if it just began around the time of J the Baptist and JC.

I was also searching into what's called "Prehistory" to find the earliest excavations and that led me to want to go to Turkey, so I have been reading modern novels like Pamuk, and history and novels about Byzantium and the Ottoman Empire.

Ned, what do you do? I've retired from U of Michigan as a professor in literacy; my research area is the reading and writing development of very young children. But I had started grad school at Harvard Div. That's one of the ways your reviews and mine overlapped, with the Koester books. He's stressed the Hellenism as a rich mixture of all kinds of sects and religions around the time of Jesus.

I posted The Vatican Papers and The Dark Side of Christian History as "reading now" so my comments would show up for you and a few other of my friends to read. These are not harrangues; they're respectful history.

Eusebius is on my list to read; i've started dipping into him. I never wanted to read those old guys until recently. But I use a mix of novels and history to keep my interest up. I never knew that the Roman Church had all those books burned and that the Byzantines treasured the books and saved so many. The Western "story" seems to go: Jesus lived, died, resurrected; Paul; the "church" of the apostles with Peter as head; church grew but then there were the "Dark Ages," then the Renaissance. But during all the Roman and then Byzantine years, armies went to all these places and set up cities within the conquered lands. So, yep, I'm very interested and glad to have another reader to share with.


message 3: by Ned (last edited Oct 03, 2010 09:07PM) (new)

Ned I am neither professional student nor educator. Though I've done a little of both. Always a wide reader, college taught me enough of their research methods to find the resources to answer my own questions on my own. But questions beget more questions and so on. Never 'took the yoke' of a patron, whether academic in tenure-ship, say or been in the clergy or management in business, except for a four-year stay in the US Navy in the early '90's doing electrical engineering and a six-month stint as an instructor once in a welfare to work non-profit. Instead of a career in that field as a civilian I opted to live in a US college town and after awhile picked up the habit of learning classical latin and greek to supplement the history bug.
Even in high school I had made up a strategy for learning history as chronological as possible. That's probably failed but I've learned to watch for patterns - and like most things, when you go searching for something you end up finding lots more in ways you didn't expect.
I am always sceptical of even the best sources. I usually jump right in the deep end whatever it is and find the most recent superlative edition by the most expert yaddada, check out their sources, their method of argument, see if they can maintain their sense and then go read their sources. Later I come back if it's still relevant to what I'm after.
For instance, I own Karen Armstrong's Holy Wars but never finished it. Didn't like the style of her writing. I Applaud her search and efforts and publishing for that matter, respect what I've heard her say on the radio in those sorts of settings and see her as a great modern example of a free-thinking scholiast, historian, seeker. A great service she has made for female writers and historians as well, just by doing it. But I don't read her. JJ Norwich seems to have been for me to be not the kind of person I'd want to talk to. But I enjoy both his Byzantium trilogy and A History of Venice. The latter I would wish for more text and citation. It seems Venice and Byzantium are still good at keeping their secrets.
Elaine Pagels is acclaimed and written many books centering around the gospels, Nag Hammadi, recently The Gospel of Judas. I once saw her speak, maybe ten year


message 4: by Ned (new)

Ned WOOPS! there was more there on Ms Pagels. She's a real historian in this field. Heard her give a talk 10 years ago before she worked on one of the Gospels of Thomas. Very interesting talk. Even as a scholar she has had a very difficult life and still is very real and open in her approach and search to learn.
Another author/historian with the best credentials and readability is Peter Brown. I highly recommend his Society and the Holy in Late Antiquity. On hermits and society, on relics and adoration, the infusion of real world things (people, items, then the book) with spiritual understandings and how that changed human relations. Extremely clear in laying out what is for us abstract ideas into lay terms and giving them a touch of human detail. Still retains the best of reputations.


Elizabeth Sulzby Ned wrote: "WOOPS! there was more there on Ms Pagels. She's a real historian in this field. Heard her give a talk 10 years ago before she worked on one of the Gospels of Thomas. Very interesting talk. Even..."

Dear Ned, sorry for taking so long to answer. I'd already read a lot of Pagels because of my interest in hellenization and gnosticism. She was mentored by Helmut Koeter, whom you've already read. He was my mentor at Harvard when I was far too young and unschooled to appreciate him. I was his family's babysitter as well as his student and his wife urged me to take her seat at a Leonard Bernstein concert when she had to stay home with her sick baby. I didn't know until recently that he's still alive and I also didn't know he had been a war prisoner. I think I was around 20 and they seemed "old" to me then but clearly he wasn't.

I followed up on Armstrong but haven't found her other writings so helpful to me. I too had trouble with the compactedness (word?) of Holy War but it's the best I've found about balancing the 3 religions in their history before and after the crusades. My edition is after 9/11 so that helped too.

I am not a trained historian, but I haved used Koester's and Krister Stendal's work on oral and written traditions as an underpinning to some of my work.

Sounds as if we have pretty similar motivations and picked up skills. Amazing that you've studies ancient greek and latin! I have a minor in ancient greek but you probably are most proficient than I am now.

I have become ferociously interested in the Anatolia/Byzantine/Turkish histories and this made me double back on Roman history. I think I "kept" from college the, "first Mesopotamia, then Greek, Roman, Dark Ages, England/Norman/Celtic stuff, America and it's explorations and settlements." Wow! That's so weak. Venice has kept coming into my readings along the edges and i don't feel drawn to study it yet.

I am trying to move myself back to the prehistory strand so i'll try to post some on that. It's so good to have an internet friend who isn't bored to death but is interested in this stuff.

Thanks for the reference to Peter Brown, and your other refs and books I've seen on your page.
--Elizabeth


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