Lars Brownworth: A Soap Dish That Changed History

Roundup: Talking About History

[Lars Brownworth is the author of 'Lost to the West: The Forgotten Byzantine Empire That Rescued Western Civilization.']

This fall marks the 1,341st anniversary of a watershed moment in history—though not likely one you've heard about before. It began with an event that would have been comical if not for the fact that a murder was involved. Even to those living through it, it must have seemed more farcical than ground-breaking.

The unlikely instigator was a disgruntled chamberlain who was tired of paying outrageous taxes and had taken it into his head to address the situation in the most direct way possible. On the morning of Sept. 15, 668 he snuck into the imperial bathhouse in Sicily and brought a heavy soap dish crashing down on the head of the drowsy emperor Constans II. It was hardly a dignified way to die, but the Roman Empire had seen inglorious deaths before, and this one turned out to be a conclusive turning point for much of Mediterranean history.

As the royal head disappeared beneath the lukewarm water of the imperial bath, the emperor could have been forgiven for being slightly relieved—had he been conscious—at his release from the heavy cares of office. His service as emperor had been a largely thankless task, a desperate scramble to stop a bewilderingly powerful enemy from swallowing up North Africa and the Middle East. At the start of his reign those provinces had been thoroughly Roman, full of Greek and Latin cities of colonnaded streets, civic buildings and public monuments, but the last chance to preserve their common culture was already slipping away.

In 641, at the tender age of 11, Constans II had been handed the crown of an empire with its economy in shambles, its morale plummeting and a ruinous war that was quickly becoming the most severe crisis of its existence. That such a state of affairs had been allowed to happen was a source of deep embarrassment to most citizens, who naturally had a good deal of pride in their history. The Eastern Roman Empire (derisively nicknamed "Byzantine" by later historians) had been the most powerful state in the Mediterranean for centuries, and considered itself the guardian of civilization amidst its rather benighted neighbors. The various peoples existing beyond its frontiers were pitied as barbarians, and the idea that they could threaten the empire's very existence was somewhere between ridiculous and blasphemous.

But then in 636, without warning, an Islamic army had come surging out of the wastes of Arabia sweeping everything before it. Using the stars to navigate the featureless deserts, and slaughtering the camels they rode to consume the water, the Arabs would emerge behind imperial lines, inflicting humiliating defeats before melting back into the sands. Only once did an imperial army try to follow them. Pursuing their elusive foe to a tributary of the Jordan River, the unwieldy Roman army was cut to pieces, its survivors butchered as they tried to surrender...

... Had he lived, Constans II may not have succeeded in his great ambition, but his reign marked the last time it would have been possible to preserve Greco-Roman civilization along the southern and eastern coasts of the Mediterranean Sea. Had he triumphed—and had his successors held the line—the 'Middle Sea' would have remained a Roman lake, and North Africa and the Middle East might resemble something like Western Europe today. In antiquity they were among the most prosperous provinces of the empire and though there were regional differences, no great cultural divide existed between the lands to the north and the lands to the south.

Perhaps, if not for an annoyed servant and a derelict bodyguard it might still be so today.

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