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12 Byzantine Rulers

The History of The Byzantine Empire

by Lars Brownworth

This history lecture podcast covers the little known Byzantine Empire through the study of twelve of its greatest rulers. Mr. Lars Brownworth presents this series for free through this website and the podcast section of the iTunes store.

Mr. Brownworth, author of Lost to the West: The Forgotten Byzantine Empire That Rescued Western Civilization, taught History at The Stony Brook School on Long Island, New York. His passion for Byzantine history has taken him on travels from the furthest reaches of the Byzantine Empire right into Constantinople, (present day Istanbul) the very heart of Byzantium. He has traveled and studied Byzantine history extensively and produced this lecture series giving us this concise overview.

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  • 1 - Introduction (12.8 Meg MP3 13:55)
    What is the Byzantine Empire? Why would a Byzantine citizen call himself Roman and not know what the Byzantine Empire was? In this introduction to Byzantine history, Lars Brownworth describes where Byzantium came from and why defining Byzantium is a murky and difficult task.

  • 2 - Diocletian (17.9 Meg MP3 19:34)
    The Emperor Diocletian was to erase civil war within Byzantium for the next thousand years but walked away from it all to become a cabbage farmer. Who was this military man and how could he just give it all up? Join Lars Brownworth as the story of Byzantium's first great emperor unfolds.

  • 3 - Constantine - Part 1 (15.4 Meg MP3 16:52)
    From the chaotic background of the tetrarchy, a vulnerable staff officer would navigate the treacherous waters of the empire and eventually emerge as Emperor. How could such an unlikely man unify the empire under one ruler? In this lecture, Lars Brownworth explores the rise to power of one of Western History's most pivotal figures: Constantine.

    Additional Commentary
  • 4 - Constantine - Part 2 (16.1 Meg MP3 17:33)
    Constantine has achieved supreme power and made one of the most momentous decisions in history, that of founding a new capital and rescuing a faith seemingly on the brink of schism. However, his megalomania undid most of his work unifying the church and threatened the very stability of the state. Does such a man truly deserve to be called great? Join Lars Brownworth as he looks at the apogee of Constantine's career and his impact on history.

    Additional Commentary
  • 5 - Julian (15.8 Meg MP3 17:14)
    A shy, awkward, Pagan philosopher with no ambitions and no experience is appointed Caesar. How could such an unlikely 23 year old become the head of a Christian empire? Join Lars Brownworth as he looks at Julian, the last of Constantine's dynasty.

    Additional Commentary
  • 6 - Zeno (19 Meg MP3 19:57)
    By the middle of the 5th Century the Roman Empire was on the verge of collapse. Its emperors were mere puppets, its armies were in chaos, and enemies were closing in on all sides. Unable to sustain itself, the West collapsed, plunging Europe into the Dark Ages. By all accounts, the East should have followed suit, and yet, unexpectedly, the Eastern emperor slipped free of his barbarian master and saved the tottering state. Join Lars Brownworth as he looks at Zeno, the unlikely savior of the Byzantine Empire.

    Additional Commentary
  • 7 - Justinian - Part 1 (16.2 Meg MP3 17:44)
    As the 6th Century dawned on the tottering Byzantine State, the future seemed to hold only decline and decay, and yet unexpectedly, it was to see a renaissance unmatched in the long history of the empire. On every front, it seemed, were gathered the towering giants of the age- poised and ready to take the empire to ever greater and more dizzying heights. All that was needed was a ruler with enough vision to unite and drive this vast collection of the best and the brightest- a ruler who could dream on a truly imperial scale. He came, surprisingly enough, from the ranks of the great, unwashed masses- risen from poverty to fire the empire with the force of his will. Join Lars Brownworth as he looks at the stunning rise of Justinian- from shadow ruler to emperor in his own right.

  • 8 - Justinian - Part 2 (23.1 Meg MP3 25:11)
    With the return of relative calm after the reign's turbulent beginnings, Justinian could turn to his most ambitious project, the reconquest of the Western Empire. For this, his most cherished goal, he looked to one man, the young, promising general, Belisarius. Justinian was rewarded with unswerving loyalty and unquestioned brilliance, and yet the road to reconquest was to be a difficult and tragic one for both men. Join Lars Brownworth as the story of Justinian's reconquest of Africa and Italy unfolds.

  • 9 - Justinian - Part 3 (23.1 Meg MP3 25:16)
    With the reconquest of Italy seemingly complete and the Persian threat momentarily neutralized by the plague, Justinian could at last afford to rest. But the empire's enemies were everywhere- the plague abated and a charismatic new Gothic king arose in Italy. The empire could ill afford to keep its greatest general in disgrace, and Justinian would once again turn to the man he could never quite bring himself to trust. The final decade of his life would see the fruition of his epic dreams of reconquest, as well as the restoration of the building that still stands as the greatest testament to his reign. It would be the final act of a cast of characters the likes of whom the empire would never see again. Join Lars Brownworth for the conclusion of the reign of Justinian, the last of the Roman Emperors.

  • 10 - Heraclius (23.8 Meg MP3 25:59)
    In the years following Justinian's death, the empire was rocked from within and without. Barbarians pushed in on every border and the empire's ancient enemy Persia ravaged the East unchecked. The empire met this challenge with a series of weak and foolish rulers who squandered what resources they had, and crumbled before the Persian onslaught. By the start of the 7th Century, the emperor was a virtual prisoner in his own palace, the Persians were beneath the walls of Constantinople, and the rest of the empire was in the hands of rebels. It looked as if the end had come at last, and yet, against all odds, an Armenian general was to defeat the Persians, sweep away the old Latin traditions and reform the empire on a Greek model. Join Lars Brownworth as he looks at Heraclius, whose reign saw this glittering triumph yet ended in such tragedy.

  • 11 - Irene (22 Meg MP3 23:29)
    When the weak, ineffectual emperor Leo IV died in 780, he left the empire divided and in the hands of an orphan from Athens; the beautiful and grasping Empress Irene. 17 years later she was crowned as sole ruler after murdering her own son to take his place. It was hardly an auspicious start, beset by enemies on every border, the empire was now facing its most serious internal threat; the terrible iconoclastic controversy. Successive emperors had neglected the frontiers to concentrate on the war against icons, and in the process had not only weakened the state, but had destroyed some of the finest works of art the Byzantine world ever produced. Even worse, an emperor had at last returned to the long vacant throne of the West, to challenge Byzantium's claim of universal temporal domination. If ever the empire had needed strong leadership, it was now. Join Lars Brownworth as he looks at the reign of Irene; the only woman to rule the empire, not as Queen or Regent, but as a King.

    Additional Commentary
  • 12 - Basil I (21 Meg MP3 22:32)
    Basil I was hardly a promising candidate to usher in a new golden age to the Byzantine Empire. A poor, illiterate Armenian peasant, he was kidnapped by raiding Bulgarians as a boy, and only managed to escape in his mid twenties. Renowned for his great strength and skill with horses, he found work as a stable hand and grew into a violent, ambitious man, whose thirst for power led him to commit two of the foulest murders that even Byzantine history has to offer. And yet, against the odds, his reign was the most successful of the century, and the Macedonian dynasty that he would found, would bring the empire to the height of its power and prestige. Join Lars Brownworth as he looks at the reign of the emperor Basil the Macedonian.

    Additional Commentary
  • 13 - Basil II (29 Meg MP3 31:19)
    By the time Basil II was crowned at age two, the Macedonian Dynasty had led the Byzantine Empire to seemingly endless military victories and unprecedented heights of glory. However it was not the emperors who had accomplished so much, but their powerful generals. In fact Basil's dynasty seemed to be in danger of becoming purely ceremonial or disappearing completely. The young emperor, dominated completely by his regents, seemed unlikely to change things. There was no trace of the heroic about him, no charisma or sparkling personality, and yet he was to emerge as the greatest emperor of his dynasty- bending the army, the empire, and foreign princes alike to the force of his will. Join Lars Brownworth as he looks at the reign of Basil II, the last great conqueror Byzantium ever produced.

  • 14 - Alexius (30 Meg MP3 31:42)
    When the 24 year old Alexius Comnenus came to the throne, the glories of the Empire seemed long gone. Its "invincible" army had been smashed at the battle of Manzikert, the frontiers were collapsing, and enemies on every side threatened to overwhelm what was left. It would take an extraordinary ruler to salvage something from the wreckage much less restore Byzantine prestige. Join Lars Brownworth as he takes a look at Alexius Comnenus, the man who did just that, even as the First Crusade erupted around him.

  • 15 - Isaac (30.1 Meg MP3 32:51)
    Isaac Angelus was never meant for the throne. He should have lived out his life in comfortable obscurity, but instead found imperial power thrust upon him as Alexius I's brilliant dynasty came to a bloody and decadent conclusion. Unfortunately he and his son were to prove completely unfit for the office, inviting one of the greatest calamities in history down upon their heads, fatally weakening the empire. Join Lars Brownworth as he looks at the reign of Isaac Angelus as it inexorably descended into the tragedy of the Fourth Crusade.

  • 16 - Constantine XI (34.1 Meg MP3 37:12)
    The 14th century was not a kind one for Byzantium. The Fourth Crusade had left it a hollow shell of itself, fatally crippled in the face of Turkish aggression. A series of forgettable rulers did what they could, but by the middle of the next century all hope was lost. Surrounded on all sides by the hostile Turks, the once vast empire had shrunk to little more than the city of Constantinople itself. Led by the indomitable Constantine XI, the Byzantines faced certain destruction and fearsome new weapons of war with dignity and courage, determined to go down fighting with heads held high. Join Lars Brownworth as he talks about the last of the Byzantine Emperors, Constantine XI whose heroic final defense of the city earned him recognition as the first Greek National Martyr.

    Additional Commentary
  • 17 - Conclusion (13.2 Meg MP3 14:25)
    With the death of Constantine XI, the Byzantine Empire drew to a close. But that was not the end of the story. From the Orthodox Church, to the Russian Empire, their spirit survived, and offers enduring lessons for the modern world. Join Lars Brownworth as he looks at their immense legacy, and reflects on why Byzantine History matters.

  • 18 - Reading Suggestions (3.8 Meg MP3 4:03)
    Lars Brownworth gives some suggestions for further study of the Byzantine Empire.

UPDATE July 24, 2008

This site is no longer updated!

Please visit us at our new home: instead.

UPDATE December 30, 2007
Lars Brownworth is currently gathering research in Constantinople. Some pictures including the Hagia Sofia, Justinian's Cisterns and the Theodosian land wall are available.

UPDATE September 26, 2007
Lars Brownworth has signed with Crown Publishing, a division of Random House, and is currently working on a book about the Byzantine Empire due out in 2009.

Complete Series
The content for this lecture is complete. Additionally, however, a reading list and an interview will also be released. Lars Brownworth will be doing a new podcasting project. To be notified when the project announcement goes out, please add your email address to the announcement list form at the bottom of this page.

Questions and Answers:

Mike asks:
I just wanted to say thanks for the site. I truly enjoy listening to the lectures. I was wondering if you could post a list of references so that I could do some independent learning on the subject.

Mr. Brownworth responds:
Unfortunately good books on Byzantine history are few and far between. There are several good general histories: History of the Byzantine Empire Vol 1-2 by Alexander Vasiliev; History of the Byzantine State by Georgije Ostrogorski; The massive A History of the Byzantine State and Society (tends to be a bit dry, but very informative- focuses on economic issues); but by far my favorite- the most accessible, and interesting account is John Julius Norwich's 3 volume Byzantium. Its also published as an abridged single volume. The single volume is good, but the 3 volumes are definately worth it! You are more likely to get a good book on certain periods of Byzantine history- For the 1st Crusade time period, for example, check out Steven Runciman's History of the First Crusade - my favorite author.

George writes:
Does Edward Gibbon's bias against Byzantine history make The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire an inaccurate source on the subject relative to other sources? What sorts of pit falls should one be on the look out for when reading Gibbon?

Mr. Brownworth responds:
Gibbon's Decline and Fall has often been heralded as the "most significant history ever written in the English language", and there is an elegance and scope to him that is immensely rewarding. It is also monumental - the unabridged version is well over 3,000 pages - historians simply don't write on this scale any more. As a scholar, Gibbon is above reproach. He wrote before there was a science of archaeology, and yet his careful attention to detail and use of primary sources wherever available remain remarkably accurate.

For all his attentiveness, however, Gibbon was very much a child of the Enlightenment - and as such took a rather dim view of religion. He viewed Christianity in particular as a dark, corrupting religion, the bitter enemy of progress and free-thinking, and a major contributor to the fall of the Western Empire. This inevitably colored his view of Byzantine history, and led him to dismiss the empire as a "degenerate race of princes" mired in constant intrigue and corruption. This is not to say, however, that Gibbon is not a worthwhile source. Once you are aware of this bias (it is most explicitly apparent in volume 2 and 3 which deal with the Byzantines), the work becomes much more rewarding. As you read, keep in mind that his general position on Rome and Byzantium was that the empire reached its peak during the reign of the Antonines, and then declined - a rather simplistic position that can be seriously challenged in any number of areas. Other more modern works are better balanced - certainly Runciman or Norwich are more accessible, but Gibbon remains a colossus. Vast, expensive, time consuming, and needing to be carefully considered - but indisputably one of the worlds great works.

Lars Brownworth has written a book on Byzantine History called Lost to the West: The Forgotten Byzantine Empire That Rescued Western Civilization. Other books Mr. Brownworth reccomends include A Short History of Byzantium by John Julius Norwich, Georgije Ostrogorski's History of the Byzantine State and Timothy Gregory's A History of Byzantium. But the grandfather of them all is Edward Gibbon's epic The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire: Volumes 1-3 and Volumes 4-6. You may also find books on particular parts of Byzantine History interesting such as Steven Runciman's The Fall of Constantinople 1453, Jonathan Harris' Byzantium And the Crusades or Donald M. Nicol's The Immortal Emperor: The Life and Legend of Constantine Palaiologos, Last Emperor of the Romans. There are also primary sources such as Procopius' History of the Wars, Books I and II: The Persian War, History of the Wars, Books III and IV: The Vandalic War and Procopius: On Buildings but it is his scandalous The Secret History for which he is most famous. Also see Anna Comnena's The Alexiad which details the Byzantine reaction to the Crusaders.

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Background Information
Mr. Lars Brownworth is a writer currently residing in North Carolina and working on a book on Byzantine history for Crown Publishing due out in 2009. He sarted the Top 50 podcast "12 Byzantine Rulers" while teaching history at The Stony Brook School, a private boarding High School on Long Island's North Shore. The podcast was released on iTunes the day Apple debuted podcast support and was cited on their 1 year Anniversary as a project that helped pave the way for podcasting to became mainstream. It was later featured in a New York Times article by Sammuel Freedman as well as other appearances in Wired magazine and National Public Radio. Mr. Brownworth is working on a new podcasting project that has yet to be announced. He can be reached through Anders Brownworth by sending an email to the address at the bottom-right of this page.

Lars Brownworth's Book on Byzantium

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Once to every man and nation,
comes the moment to decide,
In the strife of truth with falsehood,
for the good or evil side;
Some great cause,
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offering each the bloom or blight,
And the choice goes by forever,
'twixt that darkness and that light.
Once to Every Man and Nation.mp3
~ James R. Lowell - 1845

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