This book offers a 'short' history of Byzantium, one of the most famous and in my experience most unknown ancient cities of the world. We know a lot about Egypt, Greece and Rome but almost nothing about Byzantium and the Greek influenced Mediterranean area after the first couple of centuries A.D. The later Muslim takeover, the influence of the Roman church and self absorption within Europe probably accounts for this. We have all heard of this city, we roughly know where it lies, how the name changed to first Constantinople and then Istanbul, but apart from sunning ourselves in Bodrum and a passing visit heading for the airport very few bother much about Turkey or this major city.
So when I discovered this book selling for 50 pence in a Colchester charity shop I decided it was time to take advantage and learn something. Honestly the price was not the biggest mover here though it helped. I,.. er, must add that as they had a book sale on I only paid 20 pence and with almost 400 pages that sounds OK to me!
There are good things and bad things about this book. The author John Julius Norwich has been a renown voice on radio and television, and he has indeed an excellent voice for radio, a voice which can be heard as you plough through the book, and this is a good thing. The knowledge he imparts fills the empry space in my mind, covering an area unknown to many of us. The bad thing is that the need to cover the history stretching from the days of Diocletian in the year A.D. 284 all the way to Constantine XI Palaeologus in A.D.1453 by necessity leaves only room for the arrivals and departures of each Emperor. After a few hundred years this becomes a little wearing. The emperor is ageing, fading, useless, too powerful, so a son, cousin, general, rebel, distant claimant, arrives and disposes of the incumbent by deceit, knife, sword, poison, helped by wife, daughter, son, general or whatever and takes his place. He reigns successfully, badly, for a long or short time when he in turn is replaced in one way or another. The man in charge may or may not be a man of integrity, some indeed put the needs of the empire before their own, but this shortened version of the history can only pass quickly over the adventures which may have covered a term of many years. Not only can we only hear about the top people we cannot have much idea of the life of the man in the street. What we do learn is that the peasants, and many were just that, could make their voice heard, especially where their preferred religion was concerned. Riots could occur easily and if the bread and circuses which entertained them in between famine, war and plague ceased they could happily burn down the town. Happy days.
When Constantine decided to make use of the Christian religion he not only enabled Christians to walk freely in the land he also turned it from a loose collection of churches seeking God to a religious organisation, an ecclesiastical hierarchy in which power and ambition replaced worship. Theological argument ceased to be based on the Messiah's teaching and belonged to theologians spread across the Mediterranean. 'Elders,' were replaced by 'priests,' and celibacy for no good reason became standard practice, possibly influenced by pagan beliefs ensuring the 'priests' were seen as important and above the ordinary. Dress and ceremony became less about worship and more about presentation. Candles, widely used in Byzantine royal pomp appeared in the church, fashions changed but church leaders dress did not, all to emphasise their superiority and importance, not God. The great divide between Rome and the Greek based Orthodox churches arose more from ambition than God and has lasted until this day, yet the reformation is even yet ignored and indeed opposed by such! Other heresies brought division and danger, the Arian heresy bringing much conflict also, again from church theology and not scripture truth. Wars were fought, tortures aplenty applied, cities devastated and thousands perished all because such religion was used as a power base by various men. The people supporting whatever side they were born on at the time. How many ever read the scriptures, how many could read?
The Crusades come along also. Vast armies travel overland seeking to escape purgatory by fighting the Muslim. Forty thousand began the first and this motley collection of vagabonds, thieves, chancers and escapees raped and pillaged their way across Europe and Turkey, fighting with the Byzantine forces 'escorting' them. These ended their days in Cilicia, slaughtered by the first enemy army that they met. Byzantium suffered more from Crusaders than Mohammed ever did! Indeed many leaders of Muslim forces behaved in a more civil manner than any 'Christian' Knight ever did. The Knights were more intent for selfish glory and a parcel of land to rule over rather than removing the infidel from Jerusalem. Most just liked killing people, who they killed didn't really matter.
I avoid referring to any specific emperor bar Constantine, who was at York when he was declared emperor by the way, as there are hundreds of them, covering both the east and west sides of the empire, various patriarchs of the Greek church, popes aplenty, and far too many names to indulge any here. That in itself tells us something. The city of Byzantium stood for well over a thousand years and was not overthrown until Sultan Mehmet, then aged just 21, took the city in 1453. The walls were so strong, the position so strong that defence was comparitively easy, as long as food and water held out.
Visiting crusader armies, peasants living in stone built huts with turfed roofs, knights in grander houses and castles, gazed in wonder at the mighty buildings in this city. The splendour was to overpower many of them, indeed the Crusaders occupied the city and ruled, against the peoples wishes, for some time. The richly dressed leading citizens, the pomp of the Emperor, the bejeweled populace made Europe appear dingy and covetousness arose among the Crusaders. The majority of citizens in any empire live bleak lives, the wars that destroy their towns or farmlands, famine, the need to fight someones wars, the recurring plagues all tend to keep the people in need of leadership. Hmm sounds a bit like the UK today I hear you say! However when it came to pomp, art, and splendid architecture Byzantium possibly led the world. Tribute from all around filled the city, art flourished, Santa Sophia still stands as a tribute to this, and yet in the UK we know so little about this past.
I appear to have wandered around. My mind has done that a lot recently. However I found this book well worth a read simply because I knew nothing about this great city and while the somewhat crushed royal history can be wearing it does reveal why the Balkans turned out as they did, that life is a constant war and we ought to be thankful for the years of peace we have enjoyed, and now I have a slightly better understanding of this ancient and almost ignored empire that affected our civilisation so much without our noticing.