Lost to the West

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  • Edition: 1st
  • Format: Trade Paper
  • Copyright: 2010-06-01
  • Publisher: Broadway Books

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"Originally published in hardcover in the United States by Crown Publishers in 2009"--T.p. verso.

Author Biography

Lars Brownworth, a former high-school history teacher, is the creator of the popular podcast"12 Byzantine Rulers." He has been profiled in the New York Times, Wired, and USA Today, and featured on NPR.LostToTheWest.com


Diocletian's Revolution
The long-suffering people of the third-century Roman Empire had the distinct misfortune to live in interesting times. For three centuries before Constantine's birth, Roman architects, engineers, and soldiers had crisscrossed the known world, bringing order and stability to the barbaric, diverse lands beyond the frontiers of Italy. In the wake of the mighty Pax Romana came more than fifty-thousand miles of arrow-straight, graded roads and towering aqueducts, impervious alike to the mountains and valleys that they spanned. These highways were the great secret of empire, providing access to markets, ease of travel, and an imperial mail system that could cover more than five hundred miles in a single day. Graceful cities sprang up along the major routes, complete with amphitheaters, public baths, and even indoor plumbing--a visible testament to the triumph of civilization. But by the third century, time had ravaged the empire's glory, and revolts had stained its streets with blood. Those impressive Roman roads that had so effectively exported the empire now became its greatest weakness as rebel armies and barbarian hordes came rushing in. No one--not even the ephemeral emperors--was safe in those uncertain times. In the first eight decades of the century, twenty-nine men sat on the imperial throne, but only one escaped murder or capture to die a natural death.
Apathy and enervation seemed to be everywhere, sapping the strength of once solid Roman foundations. The military, too busy playing kingmaker to maintain itself, fell victim like everything else to the sickness of the age. In 259, the proud Emperor Valerian led his soldiers against the Persians, and suffered one of the greatest humiliations in Roman history. Captured by the enemy, he was forced to endure the indignity of being used as a footstool by the gleeful Persian king. When the broken emperor at last expired, the Persians had him flayed, dyeing the skin a deep red color and stuffing it with hay. Hanging the gruesome trophy on a wall, they displayed it to visiting Roman ambassadors as a constant reminder of just how hollow the myth of the invincible legions had become.
Such public humiliation was galling, but Roman writers had been lamenting the decay of the national character for years. As early as the second century bc, Polybius blamed the politicians whose pandering had reduced the Republic to mob rule, Sallust railed against the viciousness of political parties, and Livy--the most celebrated writer of Rome's golden age--had written that "these days . . . we can bear neither our diseases nor their remedies."*
Now, however, a more ominous note crept in. The predictions of disaster gave way to glowing panegyrics celebrating the greatness and permanence of emperors who were plainly nothing of the sort. The men on the throne seemed like shadows flitting across the imperial stage, an awful confirmation that the gods had turned their backs on humanity. Barbarian enemies were gathering like wolves on the frontiers, but the generals sent against them more often than not used their swords to clear a path to the throne. The army, once a servant of the emperor, now became his master, and dynasties rose and fell with bewildering frequency.
The chaos of nearly continuous civil war made it hard to tell who the emperor actually was, but the tax collectors came anyway, with their unceasing demands for more money. The desperate shadow emperors tried to save money by reducing the silver content of their coins, but the resulting inflation crippled the economy, and most of the empire reverted to the barter system. Terrified by the mounting uncertainty, men took refuge in mystery religions that taught that the physical world was fleeting or evil, and put their hopes in magic, astrology, and alchemy. Life was full of pain, and the more extreme refused marriage or committed suicide to escape it. The very fabric of so-ciety was coming ap

Excerpted from Lost to the West: The Forgotten Byzantine Empire That Rescued Western Civilization by Lars Brownworth
All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.

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