Monday, March 14, 2016

Review: The World of Byzantium, on Audible

It's been a while since I listened to anything on audible, mostly just because I'd gotten so busy and distracted I didn't even think about it. But recently I decided to listen to Kenneth Harl's "The World of Byzantium," one of The Great Courses series. I chose it because while I've read a great deal about ancient Greece and Rome, I realized I knew very little about the latter part of the Roman empire and even less about Byzantium, the heir to the Roman empire that survived in its Eastern half for nearly a thousand years.

The history of the Eastern Empire, and its evolution from a classical Roman society to a Medieval Christian society (though one conspicuously lacking in the ignorance and feudalism of Western Europe), is a fascinating and engaging part of history that I'd never studied before. Yet without the Byzantine Empire, much of Greek and Roman history, philosophy, and culture would have been irretrievably lost. The lecture series begins by examining the divisions within the Roman Empire that lead to its split, and eventually to the loss of its Western half. Harl explores the career of the great Emperor Constantine I, who builds the great city of Constantinople in what is today modern Turkey. The wealthiest and greatest city in world for thousands of years, Constantine and his successors would use the city to spread Christianity throughout the empire and to rule the Eastern empire long after the fall of Rome.
Yet despite the vibrancy, strength, and wealth of the great city, called "New Rome" by Constantine himself, the rulers never quite have the ability to retake the rest of the former empire. Nonetheless, the power of Constantinople shapes the world as it transitions from late antiquity to the dark ages, through the crusades and the emergence of the Ottoman empire, Byzantium's successor. Much of Western culture, from the works of Plato and Aristotle, to the histories and law codes of Rome, survived in Byzantium and were only rediscovered in Western Europe during the crusades. Byzantine history is also full of fascinating characters, including the Emperor Justinian I, a brilliant man who fundamentally shaped the Byzantine state and its religious character, yet who ultimately could not reconcile the religious and cultural differences between the Eastern and Western halves of the former Roman Empire. 

I'd recommend this course to anyone who's interested in history. The Byzantine Empire and its demise had a profound influence on the modern world, and Harl depicts its wonders and its sophistication as well as its occasional savagery. As a narrator, Harl is clearly passionate and knowledgeable about his subject, which makes listening to him engaging.    


  1. I'll have to check that out. Byzantine and Rome are such interesting foundations to modern culture. Thanks for sharing this juicy tidbit.

    1. You're welcome! It's great to listen too.

  2. Great review, thanks for sharing. x