12 Byzantine Rulers

The History of The Byzantine Empire

By Lars Brownworth


Lars Brownworth answers questions from 12 Byzantine Rulers on his blog Finding History.

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 iTunes.

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 from the furthest reaches of the Byzantine Empire right into Constantinople (present day Istanbul), the very heart of Byzantium. He has studied Byzantine history extensively and produced this lecture series, giving us a concise overview of this ignored period.

You can purchase Mr. Brownworth's new book, Lost to the West, in stores or online in hardcover and audiobook forms. Please take a moment to add your email address to the list if you would like to get updates on Mr. Brownworth's projects.

  • 1 - Introduction

    Time: 14:26 (12.8 Meg MP3) download

    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

    Time: 20:06 (17.9 Meg MP3) download

    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

    Time: 17:23 (15.4 Meg MP3) download

    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

    • The Conversion of Constantine

      Time: 0:47 (744 K MP3) download

    • Constantine's Popularity

      Time: 0:51 (808 K MP3) download

    • Valens - Being a Co-Emperor

      Time: 0:31 (496 K MP3) download

  • 4 - Constantine - Part 2

    Time: 18:04 (16.1 Meg MP3) download

    Constantine has achieved supreme power and, by founding a new capital and rescuing a faith seemingly on the brink of schism, made some of the most momentous decisions in history. 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

    • Creeds

      Time: 1:49 (1.7 Meg MP3) download

    • Financing

      Time: 1:02 (984 K MP3) download

    • Serpent Column

      Time: 0:55 (876 K MP3) download

  • 5 - Julian

    Time: 17:46 (15.8 Meg MP3) download

    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

    • The crowning of Julian

      Time: 0:37 (592 K MP3) download

    • Paganism

      Time: 0:43 (692 K MP3) download

    • The Excommunication of Paul the Stammerer

      Time: 0:38 (608 K MP3) download

    • Julian the Author

      Time: 0:29 (472 K MP3) download

    • King Shapour is Crowned

      Time: 0:21 (344 K MP3) download

    • Who killed Julian?

      Time: 0:28 (448 K MP3) download

    • Jovian: Julian's Sucessor

      Time: 0:26 (428 K MP3) download

  • 6 - Zeno

    Time: 20:27 (19.0 Meg MP3) download

    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

    • Carthage and Rome

      Time: 1:07 (1.1 Meg MP3) download

    • Church and State: Power and the Popes

      Time: 0:55 (872 K MP3) download

    • Books: Lost Treasures

      Time: 0:25 (400 K MP3) download

    • Pope Leo: The Political Pope

      Time: 0:54 (852 K MP3) download

    • The Last Emperor of Rome

      Time: 0:29 (464 K MP3) download

  • 7 - Justinian - Part 1

    Time: 18:15 (16.2 Meg MP3) download

    As the 6th century dawned on the tottering Byzantine State, the future seemed to hold only decline and decay, and yet, 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. Though he came from poverty, he rose to shape 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

    Time: 25:42 (23.1 Meg MP3) download

    With the return of relative calm after the reign's turbulent beginnings, Justinian could turn to his most ambitious project- the re-conquest 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 re-conquest was to be a difficult and tragic one for both men. Join Lars Brownworth as the story of Justinian's re-conquest of Africa and Italy unfolds.

  • 9 - Justinian - Part 3

    Time: 25:47 (23.1 Meg MP3) download

    With the re-conquest 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 re-conquest, 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

    Time: 26:29 (23.8 Meg MP3) download

    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 but ended in such tragedy.

  • 11 - Irene

    Time: 24:00 (22.0 Meg MP3) download

    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 the terrible iconoclastic controversy, its most serious internal threat. 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

    • Why study Irene?

      Time: 1:10 (1.1 Meg MP3) download

  • 12 - Basil I

    Time: 23:02 (21.0 Meg MP3) download

    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 bloody Byzantine history has to offer. In spite of all of this, 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

    • The Origins of Cyrillic

      Time: 0:27 (436 K MP3) download

  • 13 - Basil II

    Time: 31:50 (29.0 Meg MP3) download

    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 his will. Join Lars Brownworth as he looks at the reign of Basil II, the last great conqueror Byzantium ever produced.

  • 14 - Alexius

    Time: 32:13 (30.0 Meg MP3) download

    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

    Time: 33:22 (30.1 Meg MP3) download

    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 and 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

    Time: 37:44 (34.1 Meg MP3) download

    The 14th century was not a kind one for Byzantium. The Fourth Crusade had left the Empire 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

    • Manuel II: Faith and Reason

      Time: 1:52 (1.7 Meg MP3) download

    • Vlad Tepesh: aka. Vlad the Impaler

      Time: 1:31 (1.4 Meg MP3) download

  • 17 - Conclusion

    Time: 14:55 (13.2 Meg MP3) download

    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, the spirit of the Empire has survived and offers enduring lessons for the modern world. Join Lars Brownworth as he looks at the Empire's immense legacy and reflects on why Byzantine History matters.

  • 18 - Reading Suggestions

    Time: 4:32 (3.8 Meg MP3) download

    Lars Brownworth gives some suggestions for further study of the Byzantine Empire.

  • 19 - Norman Centuries Teaser

    Time: 1:15 (1.4 Meg MP3) download

    Lars Brownworth's new podcast called Norman Centuries is also available.


Byzantium: The Rise of the Macedonians

eBooks by Lars Brownworth

Lars Brownworth is working on a series of eBooks that delve deeper into the Macedonian dynasty.

You can download and read these eBooks on a Kindle or via the free Kindle app available for PC, Mac, iPhone, iPad or Android.


Smithsonian Lecture: Byzantium - Rome's Lost Empire

Smithsonian Resident Associates Program

Lars Brownworth's lecture on Byzantine history given at the Smithsonian in Washington D.C.


The Founding of Constantinople

Istanbul, Turkey

The story of how Constantine picked Byzantium for his new capital to mirror Rome.


The Hagia Sofia

Istanbul, Turkey

Take a walk through Justinian's great church, the Hagia Sofia, and see some of its remaining treasures.


The Hippodrome

Istanbul, Turkey

The greatest sports complex in the city of Constantinople was the Hippodrome where chariots would race around and around. Mostly buried today, parts of the immense centerpiece remain visible today.


The Theodosian Land Walls

Istanbul, Turkey

The land and sea walls of Constantinople comprised the most formidable defense of the medieval world. It took the guns of the modern world to breach them.


Valen's Aqueduct

Istanbul, Turkey

Valen's Aqueduct is perhaps the longest serving aqueduct in the world.


The Galad Tower

Istanbul, Turkey

A look at the Galada Tower's pivotal role in the history of Constantinople and the Byzantine Empire at large.


The Studion Monastery

Istanbul, Turkey

The Monastery of St. John of Stoudios - one of the most important monasteries in Constantinople until the fall of the city.



Lars Brownworth has written a book on Byzantine History called Lost to the West: The Forgotten Byzantine Empire That Rescued Western Civilization which is available in stores and online in hardcover and audiobook form. 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.

Blog and Maps

Mr. Brownworth writes a blog on Byzantine History and updates a Google Map of the Byzantine sites around the world that you can go visit today.


The following are some pictures from Constantinople. While it takes some work to uncover ancient Constantinople beneath present day Istanbul, a trip to the heart of the Byzantine Empire can be very rewarding. Much of the Theodosian Land Walls that protected the city from foreign invasion for over 1,000 years still stand and make for a great day's walk. Justinian's spectacular Hagia Sofia Church with its immense suspended dome is not to be missed. One can peel back the shroud of over 1,000 years and glimpse Constantinople in all its glory. The upper galleries still with gold mosaics give you a hint to the glory that once marked the center of the world!


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Background Information

Mr. Lars Brownworth is an author currently residing in Maryland. He has written a book on Byzantine History for Crown Publishing due out September 15, 2009 called Lost to the West: The Forgotten Byzantine Empire That Rescued Western Civilization. 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 podcasts in iTunes and was cited at 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.

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