This is the second book in John Julius Norwich’s majestic Byzantium trilogy. Covering the roughly three centuries between 800AD and 1100AD, this is the Byzantine Empire at it’s height, culturally, civilly, and militarily. Norwich, as one would expect from this history master of the Mediterranean, expertly balances narrative, scrutiny of reported facts, and pace. While not an academic work – Norwich frequently allows himself moralising judgements a al Edward Gibbon – the strengths of his descriptions and gently criticism allows the reader far more access to this very different time and place.
Norwich draws upon the handful of historical sources from this period, more or less recounts the stories told in these sources, then relies on academic work to fill in the blanks with best-guesses or conjecture. His real talent is his rich descriptions and sympathetic portrayal of the wide cast of characters one encounters in medevial Byzantium.
There are so many stories to tell about the Byzantines. There is the story of Constantinople, for a thousand years, the greatest metropolis in the world. The story of iconoclasm, the great theological civil war which tore the Empire apart. The story of the long wars with the Arabs, a tale of major, epic campaigns, but also a “wild west” border land of raids and myth. Not to mention the art and architecture. It goes on and on. Fair warning, the Byzantines are my favourite historical entity.
Reading this book about an Empire that reaches its height and then is led into decline and destruction due in no small part to the incompetence and avarice of its emperors, I was struck by some interesting parallels to our situation today. The Byzantines reach their height because they have a run of about eight good-to-great emperors in a row; almost unheard of. But there was ongoing tension between the powerful landed aristocrats and small land holders who formed the backbone of the Byzantine army; the aristocrats had this way of swallowing the small landholders, turning citizens into effective slaves.
I couldn’t resist: sometimes the Emperors where on the sides of the aristocrats, and sometimes not. But part of the decline of the Byzantines is the triumph of the plantation/latifunda system over something a bit more equitable.
An awesome book that is the equal of you R.R. Martin/Tolkien thirst.