Around the 3rd century AD, the Roman Emperor Constantine the Great – and if anyone deserves that honorific, it is he – founded Constantinople, perhaps the most beautiful city on Earth. Constantine fused in himself the idea that there was one God, one Religion, and one Emperor on Earth. Byzantium was born. It lasted until 1453, abandoned and betrayed by western/Catholic Europe and smashed by the arid tempest of the Turks.
The Byzantines are be far my favourite historical protagonists (honourable mention: the Venetian Republic and feudal Japan). Both an empire and a civilisation, the Byzantines are both the Roman Empire that never fell, the preservers of Greco-Roman civilisation, art, and knowledge, the Great Bulwark against Islam, and masters of art and architecture. The Hagia Sophia easily the most magnificent piece of architecture ever; it redeems any misdeeds the Byzantine Emperors may have gotten up to.
The Byzantines have a bad rap due to 19th century English historians: specifically Edward Gibbon and his Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. Gibbon was brilliant; but he lingers with voyeristic pleasure over the madness and incompetence of the emperors. For Gibbon -making an invisible argument about morality and the cultural reasons for the fall of the Romans – the Byzantines where a cesspool of regicide, incest, etc, name they got it.
The Byzantines have been ignored ever since. Even today, they are almost totally unknown. The exploits of Belisarius – the greatest general of his age – the architecture, the theological controversy, the opportunities gained and lost; the extreme heroism of some of the Emperors, like Justinian and Heraclius is unknown. The Byzantines saved Western Civilisation, both in the physical and intellectual senses. Without them, there is a good chance that we would all be Muslim today.
John Julius Norwich is one of my favourite historians. His work on the Mediterranean world, Venice in particular is brilliant. He is one of the best narrative historians out there. His epic Byzantine Trilogy is as far as I know the best and most complete account of the Empire. There are several academic works out there, as well as the work of Robert Byron, but his trilogy stands out. This is both a testament to the skill of his work, but also a grudging acknowledgement that there is not a whole lot out there about the Byzantines.
If it where up to me, Hollywood would make a film about the Fall of Constantinople.
I highly recommend this first instalment in the trilogy – I’ve been waiting years to start – as well as all of John Julius Norwich’s works.