“Byzantium: The Apogee” is the second part of John Julius Norwich’s trilogy about the Byzantine Empire. Aimed at the general reader, it gives a fascinating account of the Byzantine Empire’s history. As usual Norwich provides a general overview without going into excessive detail. The pace is fast and action packed due to the upheavals of this period. Many more characters appear to shape events in the Byzantine Empire.
As a popular author of history, Norwich is usually busy doing research for his books. Otherwise he devotes his time to hosting numerous documentaries from the “Knights of Malta” to the “Zulu War.” He is also a regular lecturer on Venice and other related subjects. Some of his other works include “Shakespeare’s Kings” and “A Short History of Byzantium.”
In “Byzantium: The Apogee,” Norwich covers a period of three hundred years. He begins with the coronation of Charlemagne and ends with the ascension of Alexius I. With a shorter time frame to work with, Norwich is able to provide a more detailed account of events during this period. His careful selection from the large amount of contemporary sources is evident. The end result is a vivid, lively and fascinating account of Byzantium during the middle ages.
How Byzantium struggled, rose and fell during the middle ages
The story opens with a recap of Charlemagne’s coronation and its consequences. Next, Norwich narrates the ascension of the Nicephorus I. This vigorous and dynamic emperor implemented financial reforms and far-sighted policies which strengthened the Byzantine Empire. Although he failed to end the Bulgar war, the empire survived. The Bulgar war would end with a peace treaty during the reign of Leo V.
After the Bulgar war followed a civil war and the usual struggle for power. But the Byzantine Empire endured. Under the rule of able emperors like Romanus I, Nicephorus II and John I, the empire flourished and triumphed. Although Basil II began his reign inauspiciously, he overcame his internal enemies and led the empire to the zenith of its power. Sadly, a whole succession of pathetic emperors undid Basil’s hard work, culminating in the Battle of Manzikert.
Learn about the Battle of Manzikert and its impact on the Byzantine Empire
Norwich’s detailed coverage of Manzikert depicts an empire that fell from the height of its power due to mismanagement. It is hard not to feel a sense of heaviness during this dark period. Although the Emperor Romanus IV had his faults, he did his best to remedy the ills he inherited with the throne. But in the end, the political intrigues of his enemies caused his death. This led to the loss of the vital Anatolian heartlands to the Turks. At this grave juncture, Byzantium faced the danger of extinction. Here, Norwich ends superbly with the appearance of future Emperor Alexius I who seemed best suited to restore the empire.
Interesting anecdotes provide a captivating portrait of the Byzantine Empire
Norwich’s carefully selected anecdotes provide a dazzling display of life in the Byzantine Empire. I marvelled at how skilfully the learned Patriarch Photius manipulated the papal commissioners to support his deposition of his predecessor Ignatius. Firstly, he loaded the commissioners with rich gifts. Then he impressed them with his charm and erudition. Finally he amazed them with endless ceremonies and entertainment. In the end, they supported the deposition of Ignatius much to the displeasure of the Pope.
There was also the unforgettable séance that Photius performed for the troubled Emperor Basil I. Basil was mourning the loss of his favourite son Christopher. To comfort the emperor, Photius’s ingenuity led Basil to believe that he actually met his son’s apparition. And so in more ways than one, Norwich succeeds admirably in his stated aim. He presents a captivating portrait of life in Byzantium during the early middle ages through his skilful use of contemporary sources.
Insightful and memorable character analysis of heroes and monsters
But the main strength of the book is Norwich’s interest in the characters that shaped the Byzantine Empire. His analysis and fine eye for detail bring his characters to life in a memorable fashion. This serves to enhance the richness of his tale.
One of the more unforgettable and complex characters that Norwich presents is the Emperor John Tzimisces. Contemporary sources were unstinting in their praises of him. He was able, charismatic, generous, heroic and a military genius. As an emperor and ruler, he was wise and just. But the brilliance of his reign could never obscure the fact that he assassinated his uncle and emperor in cold blood to obtain the throne.
How you will benefit from reading “Byzantium: The Apogee”
This book is worth reading for the following reasons. Firstly, you will learn about the struggle, rise and fall of Byzantium during these three hundred years. Secondly, the anecdotes provide lots of juicy details about the lives of the Byzantines. I thoroughly enjoyed the excitement of Byzantium from the safety of my home. Lastly, Norwich fleshes out his characters so completely that it is hard to feel indifferent to them. Well developed characters make a good story that is worth reading about.
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