From humble beginnings, Lars Brownworth’s love for history would in my opinion revolutionize how we learn and in fact even teach history today. In a world gone mad in this digital age, one lonely night I was scrolling the internet looking for material to read about the Byzantine Empire when I discovered a link to an itunes podcast. Intrigued I listened to the introduction of 12 Byzantine Rulers and was immediately hooked. It was an absolutely refreshing way to introduce a long forgotten empire to a new audience. Young or old, whether you are a novice or an experienced historian, what Lars had created for us all was energetic and thrilling. It made me even dust of the cobwebs of my first Byzantine history books, that I had tucked away in my home library to rediscover more. While Lars didn’t invent podcasting, he had with the help of his brother Anders create a new way of throwing history out to the masses in an enjoyable format. It became instantly as Samuel G. Freedman from the New York Times pointed out a “phenomena of podcasting.” Further accolades would come to Lars, who first taught history to high school students, and like his favorite Byzantine Emperor, he would scale new heights and conquer the known world. Okay not quite the known world but at least the world of podcasting and popular history.
I began to follow Lars career closely and became excited when I discovered, he would do it all again, but this time with a Normans podcast. More books would follow, including a history blog, where readers could ask him questions. I even submitted my own curious question to Lars and was pleasantly surprised that he would feature it on his blog.
It is without further ado that I would like to introduce my next guest in my Great Writers series, Lars Brownworth. He has been very generous to give up his time to be interviewed by me.
It has been some 9 years since you first became a podcast sensation with 12 Byzantine Rulers. What has changed since then personally and/or professionally for you ? (Has it opened new doors for you ?) “In one sense it’s hard to believe that a decade has passed since I started work on that podcast – but in another it feels at least several lifetimes ago. When I began recording, I didn’t really know that much about Byzantine history; I had just fallen in love and was trying to sketch the outlines. In fact, if someone had asked me about the middle period of Byzantium I don’t think I could have had much of a conversation at all. But whatever flaws are there that my youthful enthusiasm couldn’t cover up, the podcast ended up opening all kinds of doors. It eventually led to my first book. My career as an author (I’m working on book 4) really began with 12 Byzantine Rulers.”
Do you think your body of work has inspired a whole new generation of history enthusiast ? “If a new generation of history enthusiasts have been inspired – and I hope they have – we can credit podcasting. I think my role in this was simply in being the first, but the explosion of really good history podcasters – Mike Duncan and Dan Carlin in particular – played a key role. I’ve always been fascinated by the story of the past, but history telling has gotten away from that and moved towards ‘lenses’, ‘isms’, the ‘common man’, etc. We lecture about general trends instead of individuals – and lose the forest for the trees. But I think podcasting plays an important role in combatting this. It has the potential to reach a vast, untapped group of ‘armchair’ historians – people who didn’t love history in school but find it really interesting as adults. In a way I have a really easy job. History is naturally fascinating – I just have to get out of the way.”
For those new listeners or reader out there would you be kind enough to name your five favourite Byzantine Emperors ? (Can you elaborate on one ?) “This list is a bit of a moving target, but right now I’d have to say Justinian, Romanus Lecapenus, Nicephorus Phocas, John Tzimiskes, and Constantine V Copronymus.
Justinian is the superstar of Byzantine history and (justifiably) gets most of the attention, but the others in their own way I find equally interesting. The one who gets overlooked the most – even by Byzantine standards – is Constantine V. He was one of the great Iconoclastic emperors who managed to turn the tide of Muslim / Bulgarian invasions and usher in a kind of golden age. But due to his support of Iconoclasm he is remembered as a heretic, a notorious emperor who supposedly pulled out the beards of monks with his own hands and tortured others to death. His nickname “Copronymus” literally means ‘name-of-dung’, and his reign was seen by later Byzantines as a dark time better off forgotten. Despite the blackened reputation, however, there are intriguing glimpses that he was not quite the demon-in-human-form that later writers made him out to be. One of his fiercest critics (the Patriarch Nicephorus) lets slip that the people called him a ‘New Midas’ for the prosperity he brought, and nearly forty years after his death a mob broke into his crypt and threw themselves at his tomb, begging the long-dead emperor to rise up and lead them again. This is a man I would like to know more about.”
I read a New York Times article written about you years ago, which said that it took a casual mention of a Byzantine empress in a book about Charlemagne that you read for your curiosity to be set alight. The reason why I bring this up is because so much is written about Byzantium’s male rulers and very little is written about its women, more often than not, who always seem to play a secondary role. Is that surprising or disappointing to you ? (BTW Empress Pulcheria and Zoe (1042) are my favourite.) “I suppose it’s not particularly surprising that the women get less attention – Byzantium (like all medieval societies) was male dominated, and generals, emperors, and patriarchs get most of the press. Women were mostly behind the scenes, which makes them more obscured and more difficult to study. And of course it doesn’t help when the few females who do reach the limelight end up more notorious than admired – like the empress Irene (who first caught my attention) who was supposedly toying with the idea of marrying Charlemagne and reuniting the two halves of the old Roman Empire. She was both shrewd and capable, but was overwhelmed by events and her gruesome murder of her own son – in the very room that he was born – sealed her reputation. But fortunately, this historical neglect is starting to be reversed. The past decade has seen some good work done in exploring female lives, particularly Judith Herrin and Lynda Garland. This, I think, is a gold mine waiting to be explored.”
Lost to the West was your first book on the Byzantine Empire that gave its reader, particularly me, an entertaining ride through a thousand years of history. One of the first books, in my opinion, to truly popularize the subject. If you could pinpoint one majestic moment in Byzantium’s long history, what would it be and why? “There are a few candidates that jump out – Heraclius’ address to his troops before the battle of Nineveh, the eulogy of Nikephorus Phocas, or Constantine XI’s last speech (what Gibbon called the ‘funeral oration of the Roman Empire’). But I don’t think anything can really match Theodora’s ‘Braveheart moment’. The reign of Byzantium’s greatest ruler held by a thread, the palace walls were shaking with the howls of the furious mob, and Justinian had made up his mind to flee. Into the breach stepped his wife Theodora, the former burlesque actress, now every inch an empress. “It may not be proper for a woman to give counsel to frightened men”, she began, “but in moments of extreme danger, conscience is the only guide. Every man born into the light of day must sooner or later die. If you wish to save your skin, you can easily do so. We are rich, and there is the sea… But as for me, I stand by the ancient saying: ‘Imperial purple makes the best shroud’.”
I imagine a sudden silence in the council chamber as she began speaking, with the men looking sheepishly around. But by the time she got to her grand finale – to either live as a King or die as a nothing – swords were being slammed against shields and the royal blood was up. Without that little speech, Justinian’s reign would have come to a crashing end and there would be no great reconquest, no recovery of Italy, and no Hagia Sophia – one of the greatest architectural triumphs in history.”
The Empress Theodora at the Colosseum by artist Jean-Joseph Benjamin-Constant (1845-1902). Her address to a frightened court was a watershed moment that saved the Byzantine Empire.
Lord John Julius Norwich and Roger Crowley are both historians, who I am greatly indebted to, and make up a small group of literary heroes I admire. Who are your literary ‘heroes’ and how have they influenced the way you view and write about history? “My favorite three historical writers are Sir Steven Runciman, John Julius Norwich, and William Dalrymple – in that order. They all write history as a story, and each has a knack for finding an enlightening anecdote which brings to life the period they are discussing. In their own way, they all played a part in introducing me to Byzantium. (Runcimans’ magisterial History of the Crusades, Dalrymple’s From the Holy Mountain, and of course John Julius Norwich’s unsurpassed three volume Byzantium.) Although we disagree on the relative qualities of some emperors (I admire Justinian more than he does) I think I’ve probably been influenced the most by Lord Norwich. He was my first proper introduction to the Eastern Roman Empire, and is my gold standard for writing popular history.”
Where did the inspiration for your Norman podcast come from ? “My interest in the Normans actually predates my knowledge of Byzantium. I’ve always been drawn to stories of doomed struggles – Hannibal fighting against the power of Rome, noble Hector battling Achilles, etc. There is nothing like knowing a cause is about to go down to defeat to add a little poignancy to its demise. The Battle of Hastings is a perfect example. King Harold seems like he would have made a good king – to my younger, romantic self, he was a latter-day Hector fighting against the brutish William. When he died, (or so it seemed) his kingdom and Anglo-Saxon civilization perished as well. I read every book I could find about Harold, and, in a kind of morbid fascination even deigned to read about the terrible William and his Normans too.
When I finished the Byzantine podcast in 2009, I really didn’t know what to do next. I was leaning towards the Normans because in many ways they seemed like a natural next step. Not only did they have many interactions with Byzantium, but I had begun to reevaluate their contributions to medieval society. The tipping point came during a discussion with my brother who asked how medieval Europe – backwards, poor, and surrounded by far more advanced neighbors (Byzantium and the Arab world) – had managed to dominate global culture. Everywhere I looked for an answer I found the Normans, they were at the epicenter of Western Europe’s shift from defensive and weak to confident and expansive. Before the Normans, Western Europe was being ripped apart. After them, it launched the Crusades. Hopefully the podcast – and to a greater extent the book – told the story of that transition.”
A detail from the Bayeux Tapestry depicting the Norman conquest of England.
The Normans influence throughout Europe and the Mediterranean is immense. From taking the throne of England in 1066 to its Kingdoms of Sicily, it seems that there was no stopping its expansion and growth. The remarkable Robert Guiscard stands out as arguably the greatest Norman. Do you agree or is there someone else we need to give more respect to ? (Could you please elaborate.) “It would be hard to compete with Guiscard in terms of sheer moxie – this is a man who literally started with nothing and ended up as the most powerful figure in Europe. Popes and Emperors bowed to his will. But I think Roger II also needs to be in the conversation. For all of Guiscard’s genius in war, he never built a lasting state. He was easily bored and moved from conquest to conquest, always looking for the next adventure. Roger II was far more subtle. He was the great builder who took Guiscard’s fragmented lands and transformed it into a stable, prosperous state. In Sicily, he created a golden age, without doubt the happiest, most glorious age in the long history of the island. Before Roger it had always been part of a larger empire – Athenian, Roman, Muslim – and after him it was again absorbed into a larger entity (most recently Italy in 1870). Roger’s kingdom was the first – and so far the last – time Sicily had its own king.”
The Normans, in so many ways, around about the turn of the first millennium were the new kids on the block. Many great kingdoms had come and gone, but one still endured in the east from Constantinople. How close did the Normans really come to being the masters of Europe ? How might have Europe faired against the Muslims with a Norman empire from Constantinople ? “Byzantium escaped the Norman threat by the skin of its teeth. Most of the emperors after Basil the Bulgar-Slayer (d. 1025) were hopeless incompetents and Niecphorus III – the emperor when Guiscard started out – was clearly incapable of sustained resistance. Fortunately for the empire, Alexius I, one of the most brilliant emperors Byzantium produced, overthrew Nicephorus just in time and outmaneuvered Guiscard.
But despite their vigor, I don’t think Europe would have faired better against the Muslims with a Norman empire in Constantinople. Byzantium’s roots were deep (the fact that they could have incompetent emperors and survive is proof of that), but the trauma of losing their capital – as they did during the Fourth Crusade – would prove crippling. There is a kind of slipperiness to the Normans; they were medieval chameleons, always a minority where they conquered, and difficult to pin down. Everywhere they went (including Normandy) they eventually blended in to the native populations, losing their energy and distinctiveness. In Sicily this only took three generations. Roger II still had some of the martial qualities of his father – but he combined them with the administrative genius of his Greek and Arab subjects. Between three wives (and a few mistresses) he produced at least fourteen children, the eldest of which, William the Bad, could occasionally show the old Norman spark, but was more prone to enjoying his harem in his pleasure domes. Roger’s grandson William the Good couldn’t even produce an heir, and made a miserable soldier.
Norman Constantinople would have been splendid for a few generations, but I’m afraid it would then have quickly faded to irrelevance.”
Forgive me Lars, I asked this same question of Roger Crowley too, but one I believe is relevant in understanding how to be an aspiring historian. As a teacher, where in the classroom, or a historian writing a book, how do you go about researching for a topic or subject? “The first step is to read everything I can on the subject. I happen to think that reading is one of the great pleasures in life, so this part of the process is my favorite. I start with the primary sources if they are available (this got tricky in Byzantium’s case since so much is still untranslated). The more I can immerse myself in the time period the better. I also find it’s helpful to follow whatever strands present themselves. For example, the Byzantine Varangian Guard was composed of Norse mercenaries, and the Icelandic Sagas (particularly Harald Hårdrada’s Saga) give a fascinating view of this influential group from the inside. If you’re willing to travel to the Norse world, you’ll find revealing tidbits about Medieval Constantinople.
In the classroom, I take the same approach. The more interaction a student can have with a primary source the better.”
What did Pope Leo actually say to Attila is a question that is often on the mind of many historians including Lars Brownworth. This is the great fresco of the meeting between Pope Leo and Attila by Raphael.
I think it is safe to say that we both share a love for history. You have taught for many years now and occasionally humour history enthusiasts, like myself, on your blog Finding History and answer questions. However, what questions would you like answered by someone you admire, whether a historian, a politician or a historical figure from the past ? “I’d like to find out the answers to some historical mysteries – what did Pope Leo say to Attila the Hun in their meeting? Did Belisarius even briefly consider taking the crown of the western Empire when the Goths offered it to him? What exactly did Constantine see at the Milvian Bridge? But I think most of my questions would be about motivations. What was Otto von Bismarck like in person? (Perhaps a dinner party where Machiavelli and Bismarck interview each other?) What made Napoleon III tick? What were Harold Godwinson or Hannibal really like?
As far as historians, I’d love Norwich or Dalrymple (Runciman unfortunately passed away) to tackle the so-called ‘Dark Ages’ of Byzantine history. Emperors like Leo V who threatened to kill his best friend Michael by tying him to an ape and throwing them into a furnace, or Nicephorus I whose head was made into a drinking cup, are just names and tantalizing tidbits. I’d love to see this period brought to life.”
Finally Lars, can you indulge the reader on anything you are working on at the moment (or forthcoming)? “I’ve just published a book called The Sea Wolves: A History of the Vikings. These are the ancestors of the Normans, a violent – but surprisingly innovative – people who left a lasting mark on world history. My next project is a history of the Crusades, which I’m currently in the preliminary stages of researching.”
A huge thank you to Lars Brownworth for his patience, time and contribution. You can visit or contact him via his website or you could read the many wonderful articles found on his blog page at Finding history. Don’t hesitate to ask him questions, you just might be pleasantly surprised by the answers he gives.
Photo Credit: The header image is the mosaic of Emperor Justinian and his court from the basilica of San Vitale in Ravenna. All other images are public domain except the images of Mr. Brownworth and his two books Lost to the West and The Sea Wolves which are courtesy of the author.