January 11, 2015

Lars Brownworth - Smithsonian Lecture - Byzantium: Rome's Lost Empire

Amazon Description of "Lost to the West":
In AD 476 the Roman Empire fell–or rather, its western half did. Its eastern half, which would come to be known as the Byzantine Empire, would endure and often flourish for another eleven centuries. Though its capital would move to Constantinople, its citizens referred to themselves as Roman for the entire duration of the empire’s existence. Indeed, so did its neighbors, allies, and enemies: When the Turkish Sultan Mehmet II conquered Constantinople in 1453, he took the title Caesar of Rome, placing himself in a direct line that led back to Augustus.

For far too many otherwise historically savvy people today, the story of the Byzantine civilization is something of a void. Yet for more than a millennium, Byzantium reigned as the glittering seat of Christian civilization. When Europe fell into the Dark Ages, Byzantium held fast against Muslim expansion, keeping Christianity alive. When literacy all but vanished in the West, Byzantium made primary education available to both sexes. Students debated the merits of Plato and Aristotle and commonly committed the entirety of Homer’s Iliad to memory. Streams of wealth flowed into Constantinople, making possible unprecedented wonders of art and architecture, from fabulous jeweled mosaics and other iconography to the great church known as the Hagia Sophia that was a vision of heaven on earth. The dome of the Great Palace stood nearly two hundred feet high and stretched over four acres, and the city’s population was more than twenty times that of London’s.

From Constantine, who founded his eponymous city in the year 330, to Constantine XI, who valiantly fought the empire’s final battle more than a thousand years later, the emperors who ruled Byzantium enacted a saga of political intrigue and conquest as astonishing as anything in recorded history. Lost to the West is replete with stories of assassination, mass mutilation and execution, sexual scheming, ruthless grasping for power, and clashing armies that soaked battlefields with the blood of slain warriors numbering in the tens of thousands.

Still, it was Byzantium that preserved for us today the great gifts of the classical world. Of the 55,000 ancient Greek texts in existence today, some 40,000 were transmitted to us by Byzantine scribes. And it was the Byzantine Empire that shielded Western Europe from invasion until it was ready to take its own place at the center of the world stage. Filled with unforgettable stories of emperors, generals, and religious patriarchs, as well as fascinating glimpses into the life of the ordinary citizen, Lost to the West reveals how much we owe to this empire that was the equal of any in its achievements, appetites, and enduring legacy.
An excerpt from, "Why Byzantine Civilization is Important" Byzantium Novum:
The Byzantine Empire was the Shield of the West, actively protecting all of Europe from both invasion and cultural destruction. Without Byzantium, Islam would almost certainly today be the only surviving religion in Europe. Without Byzantium even secular Greco-Roman history and culture would likely have been lost - just as the histories, cultural traditions and even the monuments of the Pre-Islamic civilizations of the Middle East were for centuries deliberately ignored and forgotten.
Byzantium did not simply preserve what was old; it also began what was new. Byzantine scholars and the "lost" knowledge they brought to Italy, Venice, France and England were a founding spark of the Renaissance Era, when sciences and rational enquiry began to lay the foundations of the modern world. Without this Renaissance process there would have been no Enlightenment - and no rise of science and technology. 
It is a tragedy that Byzantium, the Eastern Roman Empire, is today so little appreciated and poorly remembered. Never in the history of the world has a civilization provided so much to, and sacrificed so much for, the world around it. It is shameful that even the word "Byzantine" has come to have a derogatory meaning when its true legacy has always been one of honor.
An excerpt from, "George Gemistus Plethon" Encyclopædia Britannica:
George Gemistus Plethon, Plethon also spelled Pletho (born c. 1355, Constantinople—died 1450/52, Mistra, Morea), Byzantine philosopher and humanist scholar whose clarification of the distinction between Platonic and Aristotelian thought proved to be a seminal influence in determining the philosophic orientation of the Italian Renaissance. 
Most importantly, Plethon served as lay theologian with the Byzantine delegation to the 1438–45 general Council of Ferrara–Florence, which had been convened to reunite the Latin and Greek churches confronted by the rapid encroachment of the Ottoman Turks upon Constantinople. 
Concerned more with the advancement of Neoplatonic philosophy than with religious questions, Plethon delivered to the Florentine humanists at the Council of Ferrara–Florence his treatise “On the Difference Between Aristotle and Plato.” This work fired the humanists with a new interest in Plato (who had been ignored in the West during the Middle Ages because of the preoccupation with Aristotle) and inspired Cosimo de’ Medici with the project of founding the Platonic Academy of Florence. Plethon also introduced the Geography of Strabo to the West (where it had hitherto been unknown) and led the way to the overthrow of Ptolemy’s erroneous geographical theories. He thus greatly affected the Renaissance conception of the configuration of the Earth and so played an important, if indirect, role in the discovery of America by Christopher Columbus, who cited Strabo among his principal authorities.
Video Title: Lars Brownworth - Smithsonian Lecture - Byzantium: Rome's Lost Empire. Source: Anders Brownworth. Date Published: May 6, 2011. Description:
Lars Brownworth, author of "Lost to the West: The Forgotten Byzantine Empire that Rescued Western Civilization" discusses the East / West split in Byzantine history in a lecture given December 2, 2009 at the Smithsonian in Washington DC.
"You tend to think of empires as being hierarchical and restrictive, but the Eastern Roman Empire wasn't, at least not as much as we think. . . The bulk of the population of the empire were peasants, but you didn't necessarily have to stay that way. Also, interestingly enough, farming tended to be communal. . .There were more than one Emperor that started out life as a peasant and became an Emperor. There was one who started out life as a wrestler and became an Emperor. And that held true for women as well. There was one Empress in particular, Theodora, who started life as something like a prostitute, and she ended up becoming Empress and running the empire. . . It was also a highly educated place. At certain periods of the empire they were approaching a 100 percent literacy, and that included women. . . It didn't matter where you came from, you could be from Africa, you could be from Asia Minor, you could be from Greece, where you were from was no bar to social advancement. The cities were a nice place to be especially because there were excellent hospitals. . . What we have here on the right is the first ever surgical manuscript, it dates from roughly 900, so it was a pretty advanced place. . . Wherever you travelled in the empire, if you walked from what is modern Morocco all the way through North Africa, up Asia Minor, and into Eastern Europe, you would come across familiar things. All the cities would be laid out the same way, you'd see familiar arches, you'd see familiar structures. And there was a unity to the Mediterranean world that there really isn't now." - Lars Brownworth [8:00 - 12:35].

Check out: "12 Byzantine Rulers: The History of The Byzantine Empire."