The Byzantine Empire served for centuries as a global crossroad of civilizations, facilitating trade and cultural exchange between people from North Africa to Syria, from Armenia to England. The final half century of Byzantium’s existence is a story of intrigue, ambition, betrayal, desperation, and through it all, a sense of nobility and endurance. Jonathan Harris’ The End of Byzantium, breathes new life into the narrative in a thoroughly researched, smoothly written work that seeks to provide a more nuanced explanation to the pervading questions of how and why did Byzantium’s end finally come. For Harris, it boils down to the choices of individuals, whether noble, emperor or bishop, choices motivated he admits, at times by patriotism or idealism, but more often by the desire to secure their own future and that of their families. The running theme of the entire work is that the Byzantines of the last fifty or so years of the Empire’s existence sought consistently to hedge their bets, to negotiate with the Ottomans when necessary, and, at all costs, to always try to survive.
Within this framework, Harris does a masterful job of giving voice to a wide array of characters in Byzantium’s last days, many more than familiar to the student of Byzantine history. Harris, however, offers in their depictions more texture than others have succeeded in providing previously. He also endeavors to highlight, in the lives of men like grand duke Loukas Notaras, the core theme he seeks to weave through his entire work. That, in the end, individuals like Notaras made choices to secure their own survival and that of their families, choices that were sometimes successful and often not.
His depiction of Andreas Palaiologos, nephew of Constantine XI and, in theory at least, the heir to the throne of Constantinople, paints Andreas much as others have: as a sad, somewhat pathetic figure in the last years of his life. Andreas spent most of his life in exile in Rome living off a pension provided by the Papacy and whatever he could earn by essentially selling everything he had, including in the end, his self-proclaimed title of Emperor. Harris argues that Andreas was no different than Manuel II or John VIII; that he was willing to do whatever was necessary to survive just as his predecessors had been willing to do what was necessary to preserve the Byzantine Empire.
It is that ongoing struggle to survive which runs through Harris’ entire work, whether it be an individual’s desire to save his wealth, position and family, or an Emperor’s desire to preserve the Empire. In less capable hands, a narrative like this could become almost ‘Gibbonesque,’ allowing the Enlightenment view of the Byzantines, a perspective historians of the last century worked diligently to banish, to re-emerge in a new form. Harris skillfully avoids that trap; he does not make the men and women who populated the last decades of Byzantium’s existence any less noble, but simply makes them seem more human, that is, with one notable exception. His depiction of the final hours of the life of the last Byzantine Emperor, Constantine XI, seeks to discount the heroic words and actions traditionally attributed to the last Byzantine Emperor. However, as Donald Nicol has so clearly demonstrated in The Immortal Emperor: the Life and Legend of Constantine Palaiologos, the Last Emperor of the Romans, the fate of Constantine XI is too complex and too shrouded in the confusion of legend and fact, to be discussed briefly or without acknowledging more thoroughly the debate over the last Emperor’s fate and actions. In the end, Harris’ work is a welcome edition for both teacher and student to the discussion of Byzantium’s last days.
He does more than many to humanize the Byzantines and by doing so, makes their struggles and choices centuries ago perhaps more comprehensible to us today. As John Julius Norwich put it in the epilogue of his Byzantium: Decline and Fall, though “the outlook of the Byzantines was radically different from ours; at the bottom, however, they were human like the rest of us, victims of same weaknesses and subject to the same temptations, deserving of praise and blame as we are ourselves, and in roughly equal measure.”
The End of Byzantium
by Jonathan Harris
Yale University Press,2011. 336pp.
Reviewed by David J. Proctor