July 1, 2013

12 Byzantine Rulers

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Available from iTunes and on the blog, 12 Byzantine Rulers

During one of the History of Rome podcasts, it is mentioned that the series was originally inspired by the 12 Byzantine Rulers series by the author Lars Brownworth. So I went back and listened to this series from 2005. It consists of 18 episodes detailing the lives of 12 rulers across the whole history of Byzantium. Some of the rulers are spread across multiple episodes (Justinian required 3 episodes). There is also an introduction, conclusion plus a suggested reading episode – something more podcasts should copy. Episodes are generally between between 20 & 30 minutes. The podcasts are audio only and are well produced, although Lars can sometimes be a little stilted as if he is consciously reading from a script, but this is a very minor issue. The text can also veer towards the grandiose on occasion, trying hard to establish poetic narratives and themes (“saving the west”). I find this grating, others may not.

This series starts with the Byzantine Empire’s roots in the Roman Empire. When Byzantium was still a relatively minor Roman town, the Emperor Diocletian first officially split the Roman Empire into East and West. Then Constantine founded the city New Rome upon Byzantium (called Constantinople in his honour) as capital of the East. So when the Western Roman Empire ended in 476 AD, the Eastern Emperor Zeno managed to keep his side going. The people of Byzantium would be baffled by the name now associated with them. The modern name only arose in the last few centuries to differentiate the empire from the Western Roman Empire. A distinction not made at the time. They called their capital Constaninople and considered themselves Romans, their rulers came from an unbroken line of emperors that could be traced back to Augustus. This caused friction (religious differences aside) with the later Holy Roman Empire.

Lars then drops in on other notable rulers as the empire waxes and wanes. Justinian, Heraclius, Irene, Basil I, Basil II, Alexius and Isaac are all detailed covering nearly a thousand years of history. The empire appears to have specialised in political manoeuvring as much as battlefield manoeuvers. Numerous enemies were often played off against each other. However, the Crusades proved crippling, with the Fourth Crusade particularly devastating (despite both Crusaders and Byzantines being Christian). Soon after the empire was reduced to little more than city-state. The Ottoman Empire provided the fatal blow in 1453 AD as the invention of cannons allows the great walls of Constantinople to be breached for the first (and last) time. The last episode on Constantine XI is the longest at 37 minutes and an interesting retelling of the last siege and the Emperor who fought until the very end.

Worth a listen for an overview of a period of history not often covered elsewhere.


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