For the general reader, ignorance and vagueness surrounds the history of the Byzantine Empire. Attempts to cover its thousand year history in one volume are largely unsuccessful. They are either inadequate in detail, difficult to read due to overwhelming facts or just plain boring. But now, John Julius Norwich has written an informative yet enjoyable account of the empire’s history.
Norwich’s love for the Eastern Mediterranean plays a large part in his life. He divides his time between lectures on Venice and historical documentaries on the Mediterranean. Despite his busy schedule, he has also written “A History of Venice” and “The Normans in Sicily.” As such, he is suited to tell the story of the Byzantine Empire.
Norwich divides the thousand year history of Byzantium into three books. The first book, “Byzantium: The Early Centuries,” covers the first five hundred years. Here, Norwich chronicles events beginning with the rise of Constantine the Great to the coronation of Charlemagne in 800. Despite a lack of contemporary sources, Norwich succeeds on two fronts. Firstly, he provides entertaining coverage of the Byzantine Empire for the general reader. Secondly, his book acknowledges the empire’s contribution in defending Western Europe from Eastern threats.
How Constantine the Great laid the foundations for the Byzantine Empire
Norwich begins by devoting the first two chapters to the life of Constantine the Great. In view of Constantine’s monumental decisions, this is amply justified. By adopting Christianity as his religion and making Byzantium the new capital of his empire, Constantine forever changed the course of history. Firstly, Christianity gave the empire renewed cohesion, focus and purpose. Secondly, Byzantium’s strategic and defensive position allowed the Byzantine Empire to exist for another thousand years after the death of Constantine.
Learn about important emperors and events during the early centuries of the Byzantine Empire
Norwich focuses on important events like Heraclius’s campaigns and Leo III’s Iconoclasm. He carefully explains how these events impacted the Byzantine Empire. His coverage is comprehensive without going into overwhelming detail. He also pays careful attention to emperors, like Theodosius I and Justinian, whose reigns shaped the empire significantly.
Insightful anecdotes provide a clearer picture of the Byzantine Empire
Littered throughout the book are Norwich’s carefully chosen footnotes and anecdotes. Although some are interesting, others are gruesome. But they all serve to give a better glimpse of life in the Byzantine Empire.
For example, after Heraclius won the Persian war, the Byzantines intercepted and cunningly altered the Persian king’s missive to his general. In fear for his life, the Persian general rebelled. By causing internal dissent amongst the Persians, the Byzantines crippled the ability of the Persians to attack.
On the other hand, blinding with a red hot poker was common in the empire. But the insane Emperor Justinian II used an ingenious method on the archbishop Felix. He forced the unfortunate man to stare into a heated silver dish of vinegar until his sight was gone.
How the Byzantine Empire defended Western Europe from the Eastern forces
Norwich shines in his narration of Byzantium’s struggles against the Persians and the Muslims during the 7th and 8th centuries. In both cases, the empire came close to the brink of extinction. During the Persian invasion, Byzantium lost much of its territories, while the armies of the Avars, Slavs and Persians threatened Constantinople itself. Salvation arrived in the person of the Emperor Heraclius. Through his audacity, prudence and military strategy, he saved Byzantium by striking deep into Persian domains.
Unfortunately, the war with Persia weakened Byzantium in the face of the Arab onslaught. Over the following decades, the Arabs conquered Byzantium’s eastern provinces. Some of these provinces included Syria, Damascus and Egypt. The Arabs also managed to lay siege to Constantinople twice. But on both occasions, they failed to capture the city. Norwich’s stirring account of these events acknowledges the contributions of the Byzantine Empire to the modern world. By successfully repelling the Persians and the Arabs, Byzantium saved the West from falling to the East.
How the coronation of Charlemagne impacted the Byzantine Empire
The author’s decision to end with the coronation of Charlemagne is fitting and significant. During these five hundred years, the Byzantine Empire went through a multitude of changes involving huge losses of territory. Constantine the Great would scarcely have recognized what the empire had become.
The strength and confidence of the Byzantines came from their belief that the Roman Empire was indivisible with only one Roman emperor. In a world where might was right, Charlemagne’s coronation as Holy Roman Emperor highlighted the fact that the old order had changed forever. From this point on, the Byzantines had to adapt to this new order or perish. Thankfully the Byzantines adapted.
How you will benefit from reading “Byzantium: the Early Centuries”
By reading this book, you will learn the following. Firstly, you will know how the Byzantine Empire came into being. Secondly, you will learn about the important events and emperors of this period. Lastly, Norwich’s colourful anecdotes and the memorable way he portrays his characters makes an enjoyable read.
You can also experience the early centuries of Byzantium for yourself. Click on the link below to purchase this book now.